Today’s sermon comes out of my experience a week or so ago in Woodhaven, Queens. I was at the installation of Norman Whitmire (former parishioner of All Souls) as rector of a parish that is named “All Saints.” It’s an appropriate church to talk about today, All Saints’ Sunday. It’s appropriate not so much for its name, but more because of how it got its name.
You see, it didn’t used to be called All Saints.
The church was previously known as St. Matthew’s parish and its large, beautiful, gothic revival building dates from 1926. The cemetery there has graves from 1793. But as the neighborhood changed and grew, new people didn’t come to St. Matthew’s. Some of the older members died and others moved out to other neighborhoods. Finally, a beloved rector died, and with him died a lot of hope. So a few years ago, the little handful of people made a difficult decision. In talking and praying with the Diocese, they decided to close St. Matthews. On a sad day in 2011, the bishop came and said prayers. Memories were shared. Tears were shed, but people felt like they had done all they could, and so they said good bye—to each other and to their church.
Meanwhile, not too far away, the Holy Spirit was busy. The parish of All Saints, Richmond Hill, had an old building, but a building that was not especially important architecturally or historically. They couldn’t afford to keep up their church, but they had energy and spirit, and a lot of faith. The bishop’s office began talking with the folks at All Saints. They also were without a rector, and so it provided an interesting opportunity. Might the people of All Saints be willing to be a part of a brand new vision, a new ministry and mission? Might they be willing to move into the historic building of St. Matthews, and make it their church home, welcoming back the former St. Matthew’s people and also especially trying to open the doors, the window, their hearts, to the bustling neighborhood outside?
I don’t know how long the conversations and prayers went on, but the answer of that bunch was YES. The diocese threw in some money, a lot of energy, and helped them call a great new rector, our own Norman Whitmire. For those of you who don’t know Norman, he was a parishioner at All Souls and worked as a physician. Called to seminary, he went to Virginia Seminary and became a priest. He served a brief cure in Sterling, VA, but now is in Woodhaven, putting to good use his fluency in French, Spanish, and English, and helping build a new/old, ancient/modern Episcopal Church.
The other Friday night, there were a lot of saints. Since the liturgy involved both a re-consecration of the worship space and the installation of Norman as the rector, we began outside the church, several blocks down at Jamaica Avenue. The subway is above ground there, so it roars overhead. Every possible ethnicity of restaurant is along the avenue. Food traffic and automobile traffic clogs everything, but in the middle of it are several hundred saints ready to thank God. We were white, black, Afro-caribbean, African, Latino, South Indian, Asian, and every possible mixture God’s children can make. As we moved through the neighborhood, cars beeped their horn and wanted to know where we were going. Latecomers yelled, “don’t start yet, we’re looking for parking.” Church ladies in hats and heels encouraged others to follow us and come inside to see God was doing. It was truly a time for all saints.
There were the saints who were us—Christians of all kinds. We were saints not because we were especially good or holy, but in the New Testament sense of saint. In the scriptures the word “saint” normally just refers to someone who puts her faith in Jesus Christ. In the New Testament sense one does not have to be a martyr or even a particularly holy person to be called a saint. The Apostle Paul addresses his Letter to the Romans, “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints.” In another place, in helping the Corinthian church to sort out its squabbles, Paul suggests that the aggrieved parties not go to secular courts, but go “before the saints,” the local gathering of Christians.
There were saints-to-be in the neighborhood. Who knows who God might call next. In Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, he says that he has heard of their faith. Maybe he had seen evidence or maybe he had heard of their doings. That’s what those folks in the cars on the street and in the neighborhood of Woodhaven are going to be saying about that newly energized parish.
There were the saints from the former St. Matthews. They had done their grieving. They had made it through death and loss. But now, they were being pulled to the other side, the side of new life.
There were those from the former All Saints parish—displaced, confused, not too sure about what they had done. These folks are like a lot of us who weather a storm. We move, we change jobs, we uproot, and try to figure out—“Ok, now that I’m here, now that I’m this age, now that I’m in this relationship… what is God calling me to do here?”
There were saints from other churches—near and far. We were there to remind the folks of former St. Matthew and the All Saints that whenever they feel a little down or wonder if they’ll make it—they can remember us, who are praying for them, pulling for them, and offering all our support.
And then there were those saints whose bodies had been buried outside over the last two hundred years. There were the saints who had ever attended or prayed, gotten baptized, married, or buried from St. Matthews or All Saints—all of them were there, too. And that is a grand and glorious company, as John puts it in Revelation, “. . . [A] great multitude which no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits upon the throne, and to the Lamb!”
I wanted to tell you about the newly reconfigured parish where Norman Whitmire is because none of it would have been possible without all the saints.
We have our own version of the saints stirring up things in our church. The saints founded this place and got it going. The saints endured world wars, the losses and celebrations of life. More recently saints have inspired us and urged us on with our building project (and maybe they can help us now with the snag in our city permits!).
And we have our own version of the Communion of Saints at work in our own families and lives. Resurrection. Renewal, new energy because of those who have gone before us. We can feel the wisdom of a grandparent. We can perceive the presence of a love done showing us the right way, assuring us that it will be all right.
Since last year’s All Saint’s, a few of our own saints have died. Bishop Jane Holmes Dixon, Father Jack Owens, Nancy Charlton, Tom Speight, William Barnes, Lowell Doud, Courtney Stevenson, Sandy Sempliner, Harriet Curry, and Mary Beth McCutcheon. Many of you have lost mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, and other loved ones.
As you think of someone you have known who has died, I invite you to recall some characteristic they had that in some way pointed you toward God’s love. What did that look like? What did that feel like? Is there some way in which you might take on that characteristic in a new or meaningful way? Is there some way that the saints—both famous and intimate, might be inviting you closer into the presence and love of God?
May we be strengthened and inspired by all the saints, until we see them with God, face to face.