The Warmth of God’s Saints

33c93-img_2784All Saints is one of my very, very favorite liturgical celebrations. It is a ritual that was introduced to me in the liturgical laboratory of my seminary. Sitting in James Memorial Chapel, I experienced for the very first time what it means to call upon such a great cloud of witnesses. Tears rolled down my cheeks each and every time in this holy celebration when we were invited this mystical union. Because there just isn’t another time or place in the Christian calendar that we make a space for grief. We reserve that sweet communion for funerals and memorial services but neglect to include it in the rest of our preaching and proclamation.

It is the day I want to sit in the back of the church. I want to light candles and sing and quietly mourn for the loss of such amazing saints of God like my mother and my grandmother. I want to sit in awe and wonder that there is something that connects us — all of us — to the divine and to each other. No one is left out. We all share in this great heritage. But, I am called to to the front of the sanctuary. I’m called to lead the prayers. It’s my task to stand in the pulpit and share the good news. Except that grief doesn’t feel like good news.

So more often than not, when All Saints Day rolls around, I spend hours upon hours preparing liturgies that allow for that sacred space. I do not preach but I find readings and poetry that will say what I can’t find the words to say to intermingle with chanted prayers from Iona and Taize. But, not this year.

This year I’m serving a small little country church in Pennsylvania. I am the interim pastor in this church that believes this might just be a title to begin many years of ministry. They’ve had pastors that have stayed and an interim music director who had been there for forty years. Theirs is a church that claims tradition as if it is just one thing. Their worship reflects this so that I didn’t feel I could play too much. I had written no more than a call to worship as I tried as hard as I could to stick with what is familiar for this congregation. Still, I was restless and uncomfortable.

I was restless and uncomfortable until we came to the table. I stepped before that holy ground and invited the congregation to take a deep breath before we shared in reciting the Statement of Faith. We took a deep breath because these are bold words. These are important words and we need to recognize how much power these words hold. But, more than that, I need to catch my breath. I had just preached a hard sermon and I could see the tears rolling down each face. I could feel them about to come from my own eyes. I needed to catch my breath before sharing in this proclamation of who we are as God’s saints.

And then, before the invitation, I did something I wasn’t planning on doing. I invited the congregation to call out the names of those saints — alive or dead — that we wanted to invite to the table. I invited everyone to call out the names of those that they would like to dine with us. My own mind raced with people who know more about faith than I do and the people I miss so very much. I thought of famous people and the many, many people who don’t have a seminary degree but have taught me more about faith than my seminary professors because it would be so amazing to have all of those people in one place seated at one table. That was the image in my head as names were being called out from the congregation. For all of the liturgy that I have so carefully planned, there was this work of people that came with a simple invitation. Call out the names of those you wish to be here and the names kept coming — name after name after name. All of the saints were gathered in that sanctuary. All of them were there. We felt the warmth in the room as we broke bread together. We felt so much warmth.

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For All the Saints

There are two days on the church calendar when I simply cannot preach. There are two days when I know that my emotions will get the better of me — and I will likely not be able to proclaim the resurrection that I so need to hear. One of these days is not liturgical. It’s Groundhog Day and the day my mother died. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed since she died. I still need this day to be honest with myself and my God that it still hurts. So I do not preach. The celebration of All Saints is no different.

I did not grow up with this tradition but discovered its lush wonder in James Chapel at Union Theological Seminary. Seated upon those green chairs, I was permitted a sacred space for my grief — and I claimed that space with my tears. And it’s that sacred space that I want for everyone.

So, every year, I attempt to create that space where others can feel what I have found so healing and so affirming. In a church culture that insists on an effusive joy all of the time, I long for a place where I can be honest about how heartbroken I still am. This year, this space was centered upon these words from the Gospel of Matthew with familiar words to those that have been attending church for years and years. For those saints, the wisdom that Jesus has never quite felt like good news. Or so I heard it discussed in our study earlier this week. This doesn’t feel quite so good: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” So I used it as a way to talk about ourselves as saints, including this prayer of confession that truly seemed to say it all as we prayed together:

Good God, we have heard you say so many times:all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.But, we are so humble that we hesitate to call ourselves your saints.Forgive us. Exalt us a little. So that we might see ourselvesso honored, so respected and so loved that we might be called your saint.In your mercy, we pray.

But, I did not preach. I could not. I choked up even mentioning my mother in the prayers of the people so instead I told a series of stories of the saints of God. I told the story of an old saint (one that is actually canonized), a child of color (who you might not expect) and one of the pillars of this church (who just deserves it). We shared these stories amid our prayers, those wonderful hymns that mark this day and sharing in the feast of God. It was a truly wonderful time of worship.