And lo a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb…
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. The Feast has come to focus upon the aggregate of all the saints of God, of unnamed saints, rather than the well known heroes. “That great multitude” includes people we have never heard of and never will till we meet them in heaven. But it also includes people you know that I don’t know; people who have touched your life with the love of Christ. These are they whose very real lives made the claims of the Church of Christ plausible, believable, and even thrilling. I’ll bet you have someone in mind right now.
I think of my Grandmother Spencer. Her name is Alethia, which means “truth.” My dad had recently bought her a house close to us and I used to stay with her after school when I was in the first grade. I’ll never forget the day I came home and I couldn’t find her anywhere. I walked all around the house. I called out for her, but she didn’t answer. I walked down the hallway, calling her and I opened the door to her room. And there she was! Kneeling down at her bed deep in prayer. I had never seen anyone praying like that before. Her Bible was on her bed. Her walking cane by her side. I froze in my steps. That was my first experience of what I would later call “the numinous.” I felt like I was intruding upon her, so back out of the room and quietly shut the door.
I was about six-years-old when that happened. Around that same time I started worrying over things. Like – What if I get a terrible disease like polio! What if I die? Or worse, what if my mom or dad or even my grandmother should die?
Something else happened around that time of my worries. My mother saw trouble on my face and one Sunday, in our kitchen, she tried to talk to me. It was hard for me, but I finally told her I was afraid to die. Then I got right down to the matter. “Mom if I die I want to go to heaven. How can I know that I will go to heaven?” I have no idea how I came up with that question. It doesn’t matter really because what my mother then said to me opened up my life’s destiny. She said, “Well, honey you can’t know that. And you can’t do one thing about it. That’s up to God. What is to be will be.”
That scared me to death! And it broke my heart because it sounded like God was mean. My mother was raised a Primitive Baptist which means she was a hyper-Calvinist. When it came to these issues, my mother and her mother could have made John Calvin break into a cold sweat. You see why I studied philosophy and theology? Beginning with that mother-son chat in our kitchen, I was destined (if not pre-destined) for the priesthood.
But the story doesn’t end there. Over the next few months, in her kitchen and her garden and out on the front porch, my Grandmother Spencer talked to me about Jesus. It was as though they were best friends. He loved me, she said. She was so clear, so simple, and so modest. You might have thought they had just hung up the phone after having a long discussion about me. My grandmother showed me how to pray. She prayed for me, in front of me. And I believe that even after her departure from this life, she has continued to pray for me. I am a priest because my mother scared me with her fatalism. But it was my grandmother’s plausible, authentic Christian life and her personal friendship with Jesus that made me want to be a Christian. I am sure that you all have a similar story to tell. Not one of you came to Christ on your own.
Few people if any have come to Christ by staring up into the starry sky, or contemplating a dazzling mathematical formulas. We came to Christ through another Christian. Its as though Jesus first gave us character references — a parent or grandparent, a Sunday school teacher, someone at work or at school. In each case someone, flawed and human as you and I first made the claims of Christ a plausibility by their life. Saints. We didn’t begin alone and we will not end up alone. We are saved, we are being saved, and we shall be saved as a group, a body, a family, a parish, praying together, correcting one another, forgiving one another, stumbling along after Jesus.
This is a big family we have been born again into: our friends in the faith, our fellow members of the Body, extend beyond those who are sitting and praying among us at this present moment. The greater company of our friends, the “mystical body of Christ,” has gone on before us and are with the Lord today. And they have not stopped loving us and praying for us. Our parish is named for and is dedicated to these Unknown Saints, Christ’s faithful soldiers, the uncelebrated who name us in person before the Throne of the Heavenly Grace.