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.
What incredible loyalty to a cause! What enduring faith in trying times! What an amazing price to pay! What a wonderful heritage of dedication to responsibility they left us! We are here today with faith because they were faithful. By the record of their lives they reassure us that endurance is possible. Because of their faithfulness and their devotion to the spread of the Gospel, and their belief in the power of a Triune God who draws straight with crooked lines, and their utter resolve that Calvary’s Hill is higher than Capitol Hill, we are here as “stewards of this divine mystery.”
By their perseverance and their sustaining trust, we can have confidence that “sorrow may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning,” when we will understand it better. They show us “from afar” how to run with perseverance the race that is set before us by locking to Jesus, the Pioneer and the Perfecter of their faith. In us, and through us, they can be perfected (Hebrews 11:40).
We can fulfill their faith, or we can cast aside, bargain away, ideologize away, fragment away, corrupt and bankrupt the priceless heritage, the rich and abiding tradition and the Paul would remind those saints who were receiving his letters that they were not the whole church, that there is a wider church, a larger fellowship — a universal church, by adding the salutation: “All the saints greet you” or as the old King James Version of the Bible translates it: “All the saints salute you!”
There was probably a small motley group of the followers of Jesus who gathered together to hear read the letter from their spiritual leader, the apostle Paul. Probably a few dozen people gathered in somebody’s large living room: among them were slaves, servants and common working people. A tiny group of people who felt insignificant in these huge, cosmopolitan, commercial cities of the Roman Empire. They felt disconnected, isolated — a minority for certain, unimportant — until they hear the words in Paul’s letter: “All the saints greet you!” Ah, there’s the connection! For them and there’s the connection for us: “All the saints salute you!”
And that’s the word for the followers of Jesus gathered in Washington in the District of Columbia at the close of this annual conference this very morning: “All the saints salute you!” For there comes to us out of every century and from all over the globe and from the mysterious regions beyond the grave, the voices of our comrades in Christ who have finished their course in faith and who now rest from their labors, the greeting: “All the Saints greet you!” Paul, Philemon and Phillip; Augustine, Athanasious and Agnes; Luther, Calvin and Melanchthon; Charles and John and Sussanah; Asbury, Allbright and Otterbein; Abraham, Martin, John and Mary McLeod Bethune; Charles Albert Tindley, Matthew Wesley Clair, G. Bromely Oxnham, William Alfred Carroll Hughes, George Outen, and those listed on the roll the conference secretary shall call today: “All the saints salute you!”
For although they are dead and rest from their labors, they still live and move within us, and fight at our side with “holy boldness” as concealed comrades of Christ — as we struggle now even in the precincts of despair — against Pilate and the Good Friday forces that would try to delay Easter, and defeat the cause of Christ, and try to make God look ridiculous!
They fight with us, and at our sides, as we fight for justice and liberation and equality; as we struggle with God to build a world where there is peace with equality; a world where people can have bread with dignity; freedom with liberation; love with power and justice; and where a society is in face and not merely in empty promises: a kinder, gentler nation, a nation that cares about its children and youth and will take the guns out of their hands, and help them to have love in their hearts, and knowledge in their heads; a nation that will take care of its elderly, its widows and orphans and homeless, the unemployed, and the poor, and where no one will be denied health care, and allow them to die in and with dignity, crossing over standing up!
Those who have gone on before are part of the tie that binds, a part of the fellowship of kindred minds. They are one with our hopes, our aims, our fears, our cares. Though they be dead, they still live and move within us.
But without us their aims are thwarted; their dreams go unrealized; their ambitions are unfulfilled; their sacrifices become futile and of no account, and their faith bartered away to the whims of the world, and right-wing or left-wing political ideologies that pose under the guise of fundamental faith and pretend to be the heart of the church.
But these bygone generations are the makeup of the clouds of witnesses. They are the invisible onlookers. They are the ones who died in the faith still hoping for the promise. We dare not fail them by losing faith and allowing our zeal to flag. We dare not fail them by giving up the fight and shrinking from the struggle and tossing in the towel. We dare not compromise the imperatives of the gospel that accompany grace. We dare not sell “cheap grace” and neglect the cost of a suffering God on a cross, and make our God’s gracious and costly act at Cal-vary come to look ridiculous.
And so we fight on, faithful, true, bold, energized by the salutes from all the saints, encouraged and enabled by the grace of God, the love of Jesus Christ, and the blessings and fellowship of the Holy Spirit.
And so we fight on, with all of the courage we can muster knowing that the race is not given to the swift or to the strong but to those who endureth to the end.
And so we fight on, laying aside the weights and sin that so easily cling so closely.
And so we fight on, and we run with perseverance the race that is set before us looking unto Jesus, the author and the perfecter of our faith.
We run this race with the spirit expressed in the song of my forebears: “Lord, we don’t feel no ways tired; we’ve come too far from where we started from. Nobody told us the road would be easy, but we don’t believe that He brought us this far to leave us.”
No wonder we are bold to stand and proclaim, and audacious to forthrightly declare the words of the ancient and historic creed: “I believe in God … I believe in the communion of the saints.” The saints in your life and in your balcony and in your attic. And the saints in my life: my Aunt Minnie serving 45 years as the communion steward preparing the elements for the Lord’s Supper with grapes from her arbor, and unleavened bread baked on her wood stove, attending and waiting the tables in Sweet Home Methodist Church in Gadsden, Alabama and shouting the joy she felt when we sang: “The blood done signed my name!”
And my Cousin Cathaleen faithfully playing the organ and the piano, superintending and teaching Sunday School and organizing Vacation Bible Schools for more than 50 years all across the old Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church. And your Uncle John and your Cousin Peter, and your grandmother, Eunice and your mother, Lois; your teachers and mentors, pastors and colleagues — your saints — who led you to find God in your darkest hour and in the moments of your deepest need.
Remember the saints in your lives who have given your life meaning and purpose, and given you the ability to believe in yourself and to believe in God. Yes, I believe in the communion of saints who gather with us at the Lord’s table this day and are joined with us, for “all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.”
And what is more, there is the promise from Jesus: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I will be among them.” What blest communion! What fellowship, divine! Because of their faith! Name your saints, those who have died in the faith without receiving the promise, and yet remained faithful. Name your saints, those “who punctuated their dignity” with their faithful presence at Divine worship. Name your saints, who kept their vows and upheld their church with their church with their presence, their gifts, and their service. Name your saints, and be in holy communion with them. Name your saints, and render to God thanksgiving for their faith, their lives, and their death, and may we all be joined together “as one, and one with the Holy Spirit,” as we gather at the Lord’s Table to break bread and to drink wine together on our knees.

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