All Saints Sunday since the third century has been an important celebration in the Church. Originally, it was set aside to remember the sacrifice of Christian martyrs. They were put to death by Roman authorities looking to pin the problems of their crumbling empire on anyone but themselves. In the early church on All Saints Day they read aloud these martyrs names so they and their sacrifice for the gospel would not be forgotten.
As Christianity spread and became the dominant religion of Rome, all Saints Sunday evolved to emphasize not just martyrs but more broadly all Christian superstars. The hope of the church was and has been that if we tell the story of these men and women who managed to live closer to Christ than most others, all of us will grow and trust Christ even more in our own life.
The Protestant reformation added a good wrinkle to this grand festival. With an emphasis on grace and forgiveness, reformers like Luther declared that we are all saints, made righteous by the declaration of God. This is a title not earned by works, but conferred by baptism. We are all saints, righteous and able to cast an image of God because we are made in the very image of God.
The celebration of All Saints Sunday became not just about Christian superstars, but the entire baptized in God’s church. Whether their contributions to the life of the church were big or small, by the power of baptism, they shined their light on us for a time. Now, they have joined God in the resurrection, waiting for us eagerly, and encouraging us in God’s presence as we live lives in Christ.
All Saints Sunday has become the day that we remember in our congregations those who died the year before. Some are long time members of Messiah who gave to us richly, like Lore Wilson, whose family populates serves and enriches our community. Some like Robb Armstrong were members just a short time here, but had given so much to other churches in such a rich way that we grieve that Messiah was never given the opportunity to be blessed by his gifts. Some, like Vickie May, while not a member, with her children had attended here and added her light of Christ with our own.
On All Saints Sunday we proclaim that all ten of these individuals, every single one of them, were Saints. All of them had rich gifts they shared and friends and family they inspired. All of them live on in the memories of the lives they impacted. All are Saints, not because of their good works, but because God conferred this title to them in their baptism.
They have joined God in the resurrection, rooting us on so to speak as we live our day to day lives. These ten who shared God’s presence with us by their life now luxuriate in that presence in their death. They are not alone. They are with millions, even billions of saints that have gone before them, whose lives claimed in baptism now reside with God in the resurrection. At the finish line of time, they wait for us, encouraging us in our journey of faith lived out faithfully today, in this time and in this space.
Like these ten when they walked among us, all of us struggle to live lives worthy of the title that God bestows on us, Saint. God is good and in the midst of our lives, sends us people of faith whose light of Christ encourages our own flickering light. On All Saints Sunday, we remember these Saints, too. Their witness of Christ’s love, their gift of undeserved grace, impacted us not just when they walked this earth, but in very real ways, from heaven where they still call us to righteousness today.
On All Saints Sunday, we remember not only ten Saints, but hundreds of other Saints, too. These are our Saints, whose life not just intersected our own, but changed our life, too. Every year, I light a candle and give thanks for Scott Fetterman, Paige’s brother who died almost two decades ago in his early thirties. A wonderful, thoughtful, faithful Christian whose loss to our family still cannot be understood and still sends powerful ripples of grief today.
I first met Scott in 1980, when he was home visiting from a college that will go unnamed in Ann Arbor. He came down to a dimly lit basement room to greet his beloved and special fifteen year old sister and found a bulky, awkward, pimply faced sixteen year old boy draped around her and not perceptive enough to know he should detach himself from her right away. It is a witness of Scott’s power to forgive that our relationship improved from this beginning.
God and God’s Church was the center of Scott and his family’s life. In my twenties, none of my peers was committed to raising their children in the church and living Christ centered lives of love daily in their careers. Scott alone showed me how I could do this, as I began a family with his sister. Scott’s witness was a good gift that I have always treasured. Every year on All Saints Sunday, I light a candle of thanks for Scott and say with it a prayer for those he left behind, who still miss his great humor, thoughtful words and his unflinching love.
I know many of you if not all of you have people like Scott in your life that you will want to light a candle for too. They impacted you. Their lives in some profound way shaped your life. You have stories that you long to tell about them, so that others will see the image of God they cast and that you bathed in while they were here. As the living and left behind, you have been charged with their memory and today is a wonderful day to light a candle, remember them, give thanks for their light of faith, even as your heart may still ache because of their absence.
On All Saints Sunday, we remember all people of faith who impacted God’s church by their trust of the gospel. We remember those whose names we read aloud, some who died just days ago. We remember those whose names we whisper to ourselves, some who have been gone from us now for decades. We remember those unnamed, some gone now for centuries, forgotten by us, but never by God. We give thanks for all these Saints who reside now in the very presence of God. We pray that from the resurrection, they continue to encourage us with their prayers and love. Amen