In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All Saints Day is a day to celebrate the lives of Christians who have gone before us. In many cases, their lives are so remarkable that the very act remembering them can cause us to rediscover the potential of our own lives. This why this day has been set aside for centuries and churches like ours are named after it. All Saints Day is one of those few days a year we as Christians are expected to set aside whatever drama and worry we may have going on any particular day, in order to be happy together for something that we didn’t earn, but something that has been given us as a great gift. We remember and honor today, all the Saints.
What I like most about All Saints Day is that on this day the dead can still cast their vote in the holy democracy that is the church. Their aspirations and dreams and wisdom carry on and in no way are defeated by death, which–despite everything–does not win among us Christians. It is the day to remember those Christians who have gone before us, those who have touched our lives either when they were alive or dead. These people in many ways taught us what we know and gave shape to our world. Although we probably take it all for granted most of the time, our human world is populated with ideas and achievements that they thought up, fought for, and suffered for.
One that is close to our hearts here is the Rev. Theodore Edson (1793–1883). He was the rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in nearby Lowell for 59 consecutive years (that’s an unheard of amount of time to rector a church). With the help of Anna Eliza Hunt, in 1867 he established this church as a mission of St. Anne’s, Lowell. That is why our original name was St. Anne’s. Rev. Edson’s picture is the first one on the wall downstairs in the line of All Saints’ rectors. In its earliest years, Rev. Edson coordinated a whole stable of clergy to ensure that services were held here until All Saints’ could support its own rector. The cornerstone of this church was laid November 5, 1879 (142 years ago nearly to the day). Rev. Edson officiated at that service.
The mission of founding this church was not his only passion. He was famous at the time as a prominent advocate of public education of the children of the city of Lowell. He served 14 terms on the School Committee of Lowell and is largely the founder of Lowell public schools. Not coincidently, our Anna Eliza Hunt ran a church school here for children before we had the church (They met in that old one room red schoolhouse that still stands on the grounds of Founders Cemetery up the street). That we continue to be a church so committed to children fits perfectly with this founding legacy. In 1875, Rev. Edson established a children’s orphanage.
There was a cemetery in Lowell, still known as Lowell cemetery, that was reserved largely for the rich. Rev. Edson made a cemetery for the poor. There were lots of ways to be poor in greater Lowell in the 1800s, think millworkers and slaves. It is a large cemetery and still there. In fact, that cemetery was named after him in 1846. And he is buried there in Lowell’s Edson Cemetery. In 1888, five years after his death, Rev. Edson’s daughter donated our beautiful stone bell tower in his name. It was that same year that our St. Anne’s mission was renamed All Saints’ Church. The good deeds of the Saints are remarkably long lived. Their positive effects continue even when those enjoying the benefits of them no longer remember who was responsible for what.
I once knew a saintly Episcopal priest we called Fr. Allen. He once mentioned that when he when he was younger he was the rector of a large inner city parish. There was a drunk man that he often saw out on the street in front of the parish. He did his best to help the man, but the man’s problems continued. One night Fr. Allen had been working late and had to hurry off to go to an important meeting. He stepped outside in the rain and hurried by his wet friend on that busy night. As he passed him by, he heard him yelling out “Father, Pray for me!” ”Father, Pray for me!” As that voice faded off in the distance, Fr. Allen told himself that he had prayed for this man often, and he really did have more pressing things to do that moment.
Then the words of Jesus came into his head, and he realized that he was that moment the priest that Jesus was speaking about in the parable of the good Samaritan who passed by the wounded man on the road. So what did he do? He turned around in the rain and got on his knees in the gutter and said to his drunk friend, “No!,” “No!, you pray for me.”
I remember this story because it best describes the man I knew. What was most clear about knowing Father Allen was that it isn’t personal holiness that first all makes a saint (although it is part of the story). What the saints (like Fr. Allen or our Theodore Edson) all have in common isn’t that other people admire them, it is that they, somehow have within them the ability to admire everyone else. At coffee hour as Fr. Allen would walk around shaking hands, he would approach a group of us and try to enter the conversation picking up where we left off. He would usually say something like, “So you are talking about Jesus….” We never were, but he did not seem to notice.
Rev. Edson’s fifty-seven years of loving and caring for the poor of our community could not have come from pity. That is not enough of a motivator to explain that long of a sustained commitment. He, somehow, admired them and they knew it.
Fr. Allen and Rev. Edson takes their place in a long line of Christian saints that extend back two millennia. Like all the saints, they brought with them a spontaneous openness to the present that we all lose whenever our vision becomes darkened, and we cease to expect that the gospel might just break into our lives any moment and change them forever.
There is an unbroken chain filled with heroes in every generation that extends from those earliest centuries to our own time. In every era, in every place, Christians have always had to face hardships and temptations: whether it be poverty or prosperity, sickness or health, success or failure, persecution or complacency. Every generation has had its own difficulties. We have our own constraints as well. How easily we get boxed in by our circumstances, how easily we become discouraged. Our choices become more and more limited because we are unable to see the freedom God has for us in the moment. The glorious history of saints calls us to rise to meet the challenges of our day with the same verve as they did.
They ask each of us to trust the Christian faith, to address our situations creatively with Christ in our hearts and with his Scripture in our minds, to imagine ourselves and the world differently, and to be the best Christians we can be in our times. If we are faithful Christians, our names will be on the same roll as those who have gone before us. As future generations celebrate this day, they will remember us. What will our stories be? Will we be for them what our ancestors were for us?
Only you know what obstacles you are facing this day. Only you know what stands before you. The lives of the saints encourage us to remember what family we belong to and to pay attention to who we are. It is a great family with a much more magnificent history than we are often aware of. Even on this day there are a billion Christians living on this planet singing with us, “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord.” And when you add to these voices those of the dead, its one mighty chorus for God’s ears. It is and has been a faith to live for and it’s a cause to die for.
Rev. Edson and Fr. Allen are no longer present in quite the same way as they were in the last century or two. Near this altar, I hear Fr. Allen say once again, “so you are talking about Jesus.” This time I can truly say, “Yes I am,” but I can say I am also talking about him alongside all the saints that we know and the even more whose names we will never know but who shine just as bright. May the God who has been faithful to each generation give us a spontaneous openness to the present, expand our vision and imagination, and form in us the expectation that the good news of Christ can free us of every obstacle, both now and forever. Amen.