For All the Saints
In Albert Camus’ book The Plague, a conversation takes place between two atheists, one of them a journalist, and the other a doctor who has been trying to stop the deadly disease that has struck the North African city in which they live.
“It comes to this,” one of them says. “What interests me is learning to become a saint.”
Learning how to become a saint is what interests us this day as we celebrate the great festival of All Saints” Day, designated in the Book of Common Prayer as one of the principal feasts of the church.
In his book, Making Saints, former Newsweek religion writer Kenneth Woodward spends 400 pages examining how the Catholic Church officially recognizes a saint.
In that lengthy process, a prospective saint’s life is investigated by the church authorities, his or her writings and conduct are scrutinized, witnesses testify to the person’s heroic virtues, and posthumous miracles attributed to the person must be proved.
The church calendar is filled with days dedicated to these official saints of the church, women and men of extraordinary faith and goodness, who remained faithful even in times of extreme persecution and hardship.
Our reading today from the Book of Ecclesiasticus affirms that image of saintliness. “Let us now sing the praises of famous men,” it begins.
And although today we also would include famous women in our songs of praise, the things that constitute fame have not changed that much.
The writer of Ecclesiasticus notes that those who have fame are the rulers of nations, people of great courage and intelligence, great orators, musicians and writers, and people of great wealth.
These are the traits that insure one will be remembered in the history books and maybe even on the church calendar of saints.
But these are not the people who we remember on this great festival day. Perhaps this day should be more properly called “All the Other Saints’ Day.”
All the other saints. Those of whom there is no memory. Those whom scripture notes “have perished as though they had never existed.”
We are reminded today that these forgotten souls were also godly people, who have not been forgotten by God. Although we may not remember them all by name, we acknowledge today their faithfulness, their place in the communion of saints, and the debt that we owe them.
George Eliot writes in her novel Middlemarch that “the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so will with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
The Book of Revelation tells us a little bit about that body of saints. It is a multitude so numerous it cannot be counted, made up of people of every nation, every race, every language.
The saints no longer hunger or thirst or suffer because God has forgiven all their sins, and wiped away every tear from their eyes.
The barriers that divide us on earth, the numerous ways we have contrived to separate ourselves from one another, the ways we have tried to make ourselves superior to others, have no place in the communion of saints.
God knows no boundaries, and God’s kingdom, peopled by all the saints, is place where those sinful division no longer exist.
One of my favorite films from years ago, Places in the Heart, captures the essence of this day. It is a movie about people who are not famous by earthly standards, people who live ordinary lives marked by sin and division and goodness and faithfulness.
Edna, the main character, struggles to keep her family together during the Depression in the Texas panhandle.
In the opening scenes, Edna’s husband, the sheriff, is accidentally shot and killed by a drunk black man named Wiley. Wiley is lynched for killing the sheriff, even though it was an accident.
Edna is left with two small children, a mortgage, and $124 in the bank. The day after her husband’s death the banker suggests she sell her home and send her children to live with relatives.
But Edna is determined to make it. God sends some angels to help her. A black man named Moses appears at her door looking for food and work. And she takes in a blind man named Will as a boarder.
Together this unlikely crew – a white widow, her two children, a black man and a blind man – do the impossible. Through sheer grit and determination they farm the land and make enough money to save Edna’s home and keep the family together.
Their success does not go unnoticed. One night the Klan pays a visit to Edna’s farm and hooded cowards beat and kick Moses repeatedly as blind Will stands helplessly by. If Moses does not leave, they warn, they will be back to kill him.
This little Texas town is not a place where one would ordinarily go to seek the kingdom of God, to find the communion of saints. This is a town full of people who will one day lie in unvisited graves, forgotten as if they had never existed.
The last scene in Places in the Heart takes place in a small, country church. The camera pans the congregation, showing the faces there, as the people pass communion to one another.
There is Edna’s brother-in-law, who is having an affair with his wife’s best friend; there is the banker who tried to foreclose on Edna; there is the cotton dealer who tried to cheat her on her crop; there is one of the Klansmen who attacked Moses the night before.
Watching this scene, one is acutely aware that the church is a community of hypocrites, liars, racists, cheaters, and violent people. Where is the communion of saints in this place?
But then the scene continues. And the Klansman, now dressed in his Sunday best, turns and offers the bread and wine to the man sitting next to him, saying, “The peace of God.” And that man is Moses, the very person the Klan attacked so viciously the night before.
And Moses, whose bruises and wound are now healed, turns and gives the bread and wine to Will, the blind man, who suddenly can see. And the body and blood of Christ passes on to the children, and then to Edna.
And Edna turns to give the bread and wine to the man next to her – her husband, the sheriff, who had been killed. He, with a radiant smile, eats and drinks, and then turns and places the body and blood of Christ into the outstretched arms of Wylie, the man who killed him, and looks into his eyes and says, “The peace of God.”
The movie ends with that frame. The white sheriff and the black man who was lynched for killing him – joined together in the body and blood of Christ and the peace of God.
That final scene in the church is the best theological statement I can think of about the meaning of All Saints’ Day – a day when we remember that we are all numbered among God’s children.
This is a day to remember that our lot is among the saints, enemies becoming friends, those who have died coming to new life.
In a few moments at the altar we will remember by name those people whom we love who now stand among the saints in that place where there are no divisions and where God has wiped away every tear and healed every wound.
As we come to the altar to share in the body and blood of Christ, we know that we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, joined together with them in a holy communion of saints.