John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, was very fond of preaching on All Saints' Day. Wesley's Journals are filled with references to his sermons on All Saints' Day as a day of triumphant joy. In one of his many references, this one in 1756, he remarks: "November 1st was a day of triumphant joy, as All Saints' Day generally is. How superstitious are they who scruple giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints."
In a real sense, this Memorial Service of Light and Life, and appropriately with Communion and the Great Thanksgiving Prayer, is a service of remembrance so that we can render thanks to God for the lives and deaths of those who have labored here with us as colleagues and family in the church on earth -- reminding us of our connection with the church triumphant in God's love. And so this is a service of triumphant joy as we remember and celebrate those "of whom the world was not worthy" and "who surround us as a great cloud of witnesses."
In a sense they are "invisible onlookers," as we continue the noble traditions that they have bequeathed to us. We gather here today because of their faith. We who are gathered here in this place are here because they have gone before us and believed, preached, taught and lived the Gospel. We who are gathered here today have faith because those who have gone before us were faithful. We who are gathered here to answer the roll call and to have our "character passed" are here because they gathered together across the years -- and many of them tough years of hardships, low salaries, sacrifices, self-denial.
Some of those years had seasons when the crops didn't bear, and the rain was scarce and the harvest was scant, the apportionments were hard to meet, and the budget was meager. Some of those whom we remember today and whose lives and deaths we render thanks to God for, lived through the depression and the lean years of soup and bread lines and the WPA and the CC Camps. Some of them lived through the years of a broken and splintered church, a church who struggled and continues to struggle with the compelling and critically important issues of race, ethnicity, gender and justice.
Some of them lived through and survived a period of a hostile and divided nation, and yet they kept faith, and labored toward the day when their faith would be sight, not even "receiving what was promised," and yet, they "obtained a good report through faith," answered the roll call and had their character passed, and stood and joyfully and thankfully joined in with other Methodists from across the fields, the farms, the rivers and creek, the highways and byways in singing:
And are we yet alive,
And see each other's face?
Glory and thanks to Jesus give,
For His almighty grace.
What troubles have we seen,
What mighty conflicts past,
Fighting without and fears within,
Since we assembled last!
Yet out of all the Lord
Hath brought us by His love;
And still He doth His help afford
And hides our life above.