Sermon from the Rev. Joseph H. Hensley, Jr., Rector, St. George’s Episcopal Church
Fredericksburg, VA | All Saints’ Sunday Year B: November 4, 2018
Today we celebrate All Saints Sunday. It is one of the major feasts of the church year, right up there with Christmas and Easter. In some places the celebration begins on the night before, on the eve of the feast. You may be familiar with the name for the night before All Saints Day…All Hallows Eve. I will say that Halloween is one of my favorite nights of the year, because it is the one night when neighbors go knocking on each others doors and are greeted with grins and sweets. The dead come to life. People walk the streets and can be whoever they want to be. It’s a beautiful thing. All Hallows Eve, the eve of the feast of all the hallowed ones, all the holy ones, all the saints of God.
Last night, on the eve of this All Saints Sunday, the Fredericksburg community had a different kind of All Hallows Eve as we gathered in the Beth Sholom Synagogue for an interfaith vigil to remember the victims of the Tree of Life massacre a week ago in Pittsburgh. It was a gathering of the holy ones of God, the saints of many faiths, not only to remember victims but to share hope for the future. Rabbi Jennifer Weiner, the new rabbi at the synagogue, asked ministers of the wider community to light eleven candles, one for each of the slain at Tree of Life. She wanted our presence there to be a sign of unity. I was asked to say a few words on behalf of the interfaith community. Since the summer of 2015, I have been helping to organize a monthly gathering of interfaith leaders where we discuss and respond to the concerns of the community. Because that group has been meeting for over three years now, when the call came from the new rabbi to come and support her congregation in their time of grief and vulnerability, we were ready. Last night we filled the synagogue almost to its capacity. The president of the synagogue said he had never seen that many people in that space before, not even for their high and holy celebrations. It was a beautiful thing for all of us. I wanted to share with you what I said last night, on your behalf.
I began by saying: “I recently heard a wise minister say this: ‘You have to do the work in the good times to be prepared for the bad times.’
The fact that so many of us are gathered here tonight is a testimony to the work we have done in the good times to prepare us for a time such as this where we must come together. We must come together to mourn the dead. We must come together to lament the loss. We must come together to reassure each other that we are still here. We do not crumble and dis-integrate when crisis strikes. We re-integrate. We further integrate.
Rabbi Weiner asked me to say a few words tonight, as a representative of many Fredericksburg area faith communities. We are here tonight to stand in grief and support, to stand also in hope with our Jewish sisters and brothers. I use family terms intentionally. We stand with our neighbors to whom we are related by virtue of being children of one God. We may have our theologically nuanced ways of understanding our relationship, but we ARE related. And as kin, we share many values in common including the affirmation of love and the renunciation of evil which corrupts and destroys the creatures of God. Although some in our various faiths at times have targeted and in some places still do target Jewish people and communities, we come here tonight firmly opposed to anyone who would use faith of any kind as a reason to kill. We come here tonight firmly in favor of a clear position – that love wins. Hatred in any form is not a path to the peace which we seek. The word, “peace,” in Hebrew, “Shalom” and in Arabic, “Salaam” can also be expressed as “wholeness,” “completeness.” We come here tonight, because we believe that it is only by being together, being the whole community, that we will overcome the haters and seek the peace and wholeness of the city in which we dwell. May God bless us all as we do this work together in a difficult time with the hope of better times and with the hope that in time, we will be better.”
At the end of the vigil, the congregation was invited to join in what is called, in Jewish tradition, the kaddish prayer. It is a prayer recited by mourners during the bereavement period. But is not a prayer to remember the dead. It is a prayer of praise to God. The word, “kaddish” means holy. And it struck me that we also say a kaddish each and every Sunday, and we invite our kaddish with these words: “Now let us join with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn to proclaim the glory of your name: “Holy Holy Holy.”
This is the song of the communion of saints, Holy Holy Holy, because God is holy and so are we. And whether we gather in good times or in bad times, we sing our song. At the beginning of my remarks last night, I referenced a wise minister who said, “You have to do the work in the good times to be prepared for the bad times.” That minister is an Episcopal priest named Cass Bailey. He’s the rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Charlottesville. I heard him speak those words last Friday at our Diocesan convention in Richmond. He was reflecting on how the community in Charlottesville had been able to come together recently around their Jewish neighbors, because they had been in the practice of coming together since the white supremacist rally in August 2017. They had already done the work to build relationships. We saints have to do the work in good times to be prepared for the bad times. We nurture relationship with God and with our neighbors in the good times so that when hard times come, we can sing together by heart. We can receive God’s grace so abundantly provided. We are here today, celebrating all the saints, in this good time, and we baptize a new saint into the household of God this morning. We celebrate the holy women and men of God who knew and lived out this truth. We celebrate them today so that when we need their support, we will remember that we are joined with all the company of heaven.
Today’s scripture lessons are all readings that remind us both of death and the possibility of new life. They are often read at funerals. We the saints know that death and tragedy are real. Today we will read the necrology of those who have died in the last year. And we will keep in our hearts those who died at Tree of Life in Fredericksburg, those who were killed at a grocery story by racist violence in Louisville, Kentucky, as well as those who were killed at a yoga studio in Tallahassee just a couple of days ago. Tomorrow, who knows what horrible news may come. We grieve. We mourn. But even at the grave we make our song, holy holy holy, alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. We recite our kaddish, gathered as God’s holy people, and in so doing we are reminded that death is not the end. Hatred, bitterness, and enmity are not the last words. They are not the last work, because we are still here, with all the saints. May God bless all the saints as we work together in difficult times with the hope of better times and with the hope that in God’s good time and by God’s good grace, we will be better.