When I was studying in Oxford this past summer I had so much fun visiting all beautiful and meaningful religious sites in that great city. I spent hours every day going from college chapel to college chapel, church to church, monument to monument breathing in the history and significance of each place.
I sat for what felt like hours in the hall known as the Divinity School built in 1427. I sat and thought about all the priests who had gone before me in that place – all their struggles, all their triumphs, all their strivings to serve God. It is a popular tourist attraction these days not because of its historical significance or its architectural beauty but because it is the site of the infirmary for Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the Harry Potter movies. I stood and prayed on the spot in St. Mary the Virgin where three bishops: Thomas Cranmer (the author of our first Prayer Book) Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, all fathers of the English Reformation, were condemned to death by Bloody Mary in 1554. I sat against the wall of the beautiful 12th century Norman church in Iffley where beginning, in 1232 Anora, the Anchoress, a recluse, mystic and holy woman lived in a wooden cell for more than a decade trying to teach people how to pray. I stood for a long time running my hands over the stones of the tower of St. Michael ’s Church, built around 1000 AD. It is one of the oldest surviving structures in Oxford . I found it ironic that most people shuffled past this ancient tower without ever taking notice as they hurried across the street to eat at Oxford ’s own Kentucky Fried Chicken.
For me these weren’t just tourist attractions or historical sites. They weren’t just museums or interesting old buildings. For me seeing these places was much more personal. It was if I was a part of the Christian men and women who had lived and died for 10’s of centuries in that place – praying, learning, building, struggling – and they were a part of me. The church I serve was built on their backs, on their legacies. I realized that in some way I am who I am as a priest because of them. It was like going home, going back to the place of my roots as an Episcopal priest and I needed to take stock of my life and my ministry in the reflection of their lives and their ministries.
On this Sunday, as we celebrate All Saints Day we lift up the memory and the legacy of all who have gone before us and called themselves Christians. Today we will pray for all who are near and dear to us who have died in the past year. We will give God thanks for their lives in the hope that wherever heaven is they wait for us and one day we will be together again. At the same time, we celebrate those who will carry on after we are gone, the newly baptized, the infants brought into the body of Christ this year who will carry our faith into the future. In essence this morning we celebrate the family of Jesus that spans two thousand years of our past and God only knows how many years into our future.
Usually on All Saints Sunday we tend to think about the exceptional Christians who by their example and influence have won places on our church calendar – the doctors of doctrine, the apostolic martyrs, the architects of reform who have formed the faith. Aquinas, Augustine, Ambrose, Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, Clare of Assisi, James, John, Julian of Norwich, Mary Magdelene, Monica, Martin Luther King and many more. We remember that our faith is alive because of their gifts, their sacrifices, their devotion.
But there are others we need to lift up to God this morning those who names are not well known – the Jacks and Jills, the unheralded and mostly unknown Christians who lived by faith in Jesus Christ and practiced love toward their neighbors in their own time, in their own place, in their own way. These are our own personal saints. The women and men known only to us whose gifts of wisdom, insight, love and patience made us who we are. You know who I am talking about. Can you see them in your mind’s eye? The grandmother, godfather, aunt, uncle, mother, father, teacher or friend who believed in us, encouraged us and picked us up when life knocked us down. The people who modeled for us in their own peculiar way what it means to be a faithful, loving human being. Who are the people who have most affected your life in positive ways? Who are the people who gave you something of themselves and made you a better person as a result? We owe a great debt of gratitude to these saints; some of us may even owe them our lives. Remember them, name them this morning, give God thanks for their lives.
Finally, as we look at these baptismal banners, at these beautiful children who are about to be baptized, we need to ask ourselves – am I a saint for someone else? What mark have I made, what life have I touched, for whom have I been a positive Christian role model that made a difference? How do I take my place in this pantheon of the faithful? To the godparents here for today’s baptisms – your job is to be saints for these children. Your job is to do everything possible to be that person they give thanks for years from now as someone who believed in them, spoke truth to them, shared the faith with them and loved them unconditionally. Your job is to model a faith for them that has been modeled from one generation to another for over 2,000 years. Being a godparent is an honor but it is also a huge responsibility.
There is a sign over the main doors of Winchester Cathedral in England that says, “You are entering a conversation that began long before you were born and will continue long after you are dead.” Today is the day when we show our gratitude for that conversation – for all who have shared in it, for all who will share in it, and for our small place within it. Let us pray.
For all your saints, we give thanks O Christ. For those who brought us into this world and taught us how to live here. For those who told us the gospel story and lived that story before us as our examples. For wise folk in the church who embodied for us the shape of this faith. For those foolish folk in the church who showed us how easy it is to wander from the paths of righteousness. For those dear, departed souls for whom we still grieve, those whom we hope to meet another day, on another shore. For all the saints we thank you. Amen.   H. King Oehmig. William Willimon.