May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
When I was younger my bedtime prayer was this one: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Recently I learned that many young people still say that prayer before bedtime, but with a very different ending: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Guide me safely through this night, and wake me with the morning light. I had a couple of thoughts about this; On the one hand, I had to agree that perhaps this was an appropriate change, for the old prayer was rather solemn, even ominous; It may even make sleep difficult for a little one who speaks of it before mom and dad turn off the lights and abandon them in their dark, lonely room. On the other hand, however, I questioned whether the change was made to protect children or merely to avoid offending their parents. To what degree, I wondered, does this newer prayer simply reflect the tenor of our times. I mean, have you noticed that while we seem to have a nearly insatiable appetite for graphic images of violence and death in our television, movies, video-games, and news, we simultaneously appear increasingly to be in denial of the common, everyday, garden variety of death which awaits each of us? Because of this fact hospitals, for instance, routinely refuse to refer to their patients expiring instead of dying. Similarly, the Air Force does not report the deaths of pilots who crash in combat or training but rather relates that some pilots experienced uncontrolled landings into terrain. Generals record the number of casualties and not deaths their units suffered. I've even counselled engaged couples to end their vows “as long as we both shall live” instead of, “until death parts us.”
In this light, the festival we celebrate this Sunday – All Saints' Day – appears such an odd affair. All Saints Day lifts up the stark reality of our mortality by celebrating all those who have died – not those who have expired, or passed away, or been lost like a favorite pair of gloves – but rather those who have died in the faith. And so we join many other congregations in reading off the names of our folks who died since the last All Saints Day. It is good and right to do just this.
But here take note: the color for All Saints Day is not the black of Good Friday and mourning, but rather the white and gold of Easter and celebration. For on this day we do not merely acknowledge death, but we also place it in its proper context. After all, we gather to worship the One who was given power over death; the One who raised Lazarus to life; the One who's own death and resurrection gives witness to the trustworthiness of the promise made in our first two readings that God will one day bring to an end the reign of death, cause mourning and suffering to cease, and wipe every tear from our eyes. It is from the light of Easter dawn that we confront the darkness of death. And it is from the other side of Christ's resurrection that we gain the courage, not to deny death, but to defy it, to defy its ability to overshadow and distort our lives, for the Risen Christ has promised that death does not have the last word.
What a difference this makes, not just in our attitude about death, but also about life. First, death no longer terrifies us. Promised a share of Christ's resurrection, we can look even death in the eye and not blink. For this reason, while we mourn the death of our loved ones, yet we also celebrate their triumph, their victory, as they now rest from their labors and live with Christ in glory. Second, and perhaps more importantly, life no longer terrifies us either. Our whole life is now made holy and given a purpose through God's promise to be with us and for us, to use us and all of our gifts to God's own glory. And it is here where the name of this day is understood far more clearly. Saints are not only those persons in the Bible or Church history who did great things. Nor are Saints only those who died for the faith. Saints are not even only those who are of such great moral courage, kindness or discipline that they set examples for the rest of us. Rather saints are all who have been baptized into Christ.
Our word “saint,” comes from a Greek word meaning “holy ones,” which itself stems from a Hebrew one meaning “set apart” for the Lord's use. In Holy Baptism each of us was set apart, by God to be God's children, partners in the world. Therefore, simply because God has set us apart and called us “saints” in baptism we have God's promise to use us – our talents, abilities, interests – our whole lives! – to further God's will. This not only gives our lives meaning but also conveys tremendous significance upon our daily routine, as all of our roles become the places we take our stand as God's co-workers and partners to do, literally, holy work. I can look over the sermons that I preached at each of the seven of these “saints” this year (because they are all saved on my computer) and remember how God had set them apart for being blessings to their families, churches, communities and the entire world!
This is the Good news of the Christian faith, the resurrection promise that is so real for us. Just as real as death is, so real is resurrection for us. And as you think about what you will do as a saint this coming week, remember how the saints who went before us served – not just the ones who get their own “day” but the ones who we knew and worked alongside for many years. What will you do this week that serves God? Will you vote in the election? Will you work at your employment or places of volunteering, around your house, at your studies and hobbies. Each of these are arenas in which we respond to God's call to live as one set apart for a purpose, cultivating the health of the world God loves so much. Moreover, it is also important for us to come and contribute to the life of our congregation precisely because here we are equipped to do God's work more capably in all the many and various roles they play throughout the week.
All Saints' Day, then, is our day; we are those persons who have been set apart to do God's work in the world, those whom God has promised to accompany through all of our living and our dying, unto new life, and those who are joined to all the faithful who have lived, labored, and died in the faith before us. And after both directing our gaze “vertically” to give thanks for those who have departed us for a time and live now with God and then directing our gaze “horizontally” to all our callings here and now, we will then be sent out into the world as God's beloved and capable saints, called and set apart to do God's work. And when we return home at night and climb into bed wearied by our labor, perhaps we'll call to mind an old and solemn prayer, a prayer of confidence and courage which God has promised to answer for all of God's saints, young and old alike: Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.