All Saints Sunday: The Sermon I Need to Hear

Dear Partner in Preaching,

You’ll know what to say to your congregation on this Sunday. I know that and trust that. But for what it’s worth, I’m going to share with you in this letter what I want, even need, to hear on All Saints’ Sunday this year.

Our custom, of course, is to remember those who have died in the last year. And I believe that practice is, to borrow the old words, “meet, right, and salutary.” It gives us a moment to grieve those we have lost but also to move to thanksgiving for their life and, even more, for their place now among the saints gathered in the nearer presence of God. And so by all means, read the names of those who have passed since the last time we observed this day; do it with solemnity and dignity and reverence and joy.

But then, if you will, expand your vision of who might be touched by this day and these texts. Because here’s the thing: loss that deserves notice and demands comfort comes from many places, not only death. It comes in leave-takings, as we depart for a new job and home and leave beloved friends and colleagues behind. It comes as you slowly lose a loved one to Alzheimer’s. It comes in the loss of employment or dignity. It comes from struggles with illness both of body and mind. It comes from the exhaustion of caring for a special needs child and the occasional recognition of all the things given up in order to offer that care. It comes from disappointment at home or work or school, of dreams deferred or hopes dashed. Such loss comes at us from so many sources, and I think there may be value to wondering together how this day could address them as well.

So as you prepare to compose your sermon, take a few moments to think of some of the losses you have experienced and seen others experience over the past year and imagine how the passages appointed for this day might speak to them. Take Revelation, for instance, that letter written as a word of encouragement, hope, and comfort to Christians who were struggling with enormous loss of identity and the threat of losing their independence and even their lives. In preaching this passage, might we imagine that the “saints” are not only those who are robed in white or gathered into the church triumphant but also each of us, as we too have come, or perhaps are still coming, through ordeals great and small? To those who are struggling to find hope or healing, Christ’s promise to “wipe away every tear” is a word they may appreciate hearing on this day.

Promises are amazing in that they don’t just describe things, they have the capacity actually to create the reality they name. I promise my kids that we’ll play a board game after I get home from work and the pieces are out ready to play after supper. Promises come as a word beyond us and set things in motion. Which is why they’re so important. When struck in grief or loss, there is little capacity to imagine, let alone move toward, a future not dominated by these difficult realities. But as you, Dear Partner, speak Christ’s words of promise, they may create hope that enables your hearers to take their first steps toward a future not defined by their past.

Similarly, we might preach this portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount not as a record of what Jesus said long ago, but rather as words spoken to us now. Notice not only that Jesus blesses all kinds of people, but especially the kinds of people who aren’t normally blessed – the poor in spirit, the meek, those who mourn, and so on. The world typically gives these folk little regard, just as few notice many of our silent losses and grief, and yet Jesus calls them blessed. He doesn’t say, “one day you will be blessed,” but  “blessed are…,” even now, even here. Why? Because blessing isn’t like the flu shot. Blessing doesn’t immunization you from pain or loss, and it’s not a guarantee of safe passage through this life unscathed. Rather, it’s a sense of fullness, of contentment, of joy that is like, but also transcends, ordinary happiness. And like love and hope and so many other things, it can’t simply be mustered into existence but rather is responsive, springing forth in response to the love and promises of another.

And so make some promises this week, Dear Partner. Tell your people that God sees them, that God knows the grief that weighs down their hearts, the depression or addiction that oppresses them, the challenges they are facing and uphill struggles they are contemplating. Tell them that God sees them, honors them, blesses them, and accompanies them.

Even more, remind them that when they struggle they are not being faithless. This is a concern I’ve heard countless times across my pastoral ministry: that when we struggle or doubt or fear we are letting God down. But that’s just not true. Martin Luther, in the middle of his reforms, once took up the matter of the “marks of the church” – preaching, sacraments, and all that. He left it pretty much unchanged, but added one “mark” – struggle. He figured that where there is faith there is also always struggle. And that’s helped me remind people that struggle, doubt, feeling overwhelmed, wondering if God is out there – these aren’t signs of failure or lack of faith, but are actually a testament to profound faith as we wrestle with such deep questions and thereby take God seriously. (If this weren’t true, we wouldn’t have so many lament Psalms in the Bible!) And so when we feel at our most low, and wonder if we have lost our faith, God names us among the most faithful. Blessed are those who struggle.

And so promise your folks that Jesus will indeed wipe every tear from our eyes one day, and in the meantime remind them that Jesus sees our struggles and knows our grief. Indeed, he has borne them in his cross and bears them with us even now.

Thank you for your fidelity to your call, Dear Partner. Whether you move in this direction or not, I know you’ll find the right words for your people this week. And for that I am most grateful. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,
David

 

Post image: “The Sermon on the Mount,” Cosimo Rosselli, Sistine Chapel, 1481-82.