This is the sermon preached by the Rev. Maurice Charles on the Feast of All Saints 2009 at Brent House. Maurice is a PhD candidate at the Div School and a former member of the Brent House board.
One of the most important things that religion offers us is the space and the time to remember. There is a reason it is so hard to change a ritual here, a hymn tune there. Religions are inherently conservative in the best sense of that word—even the most “liberal,” or “progressive” of them. They conserve the past. People in every age need to be reminded that they are not the first Christians who ever lived. We are not the first to pose the hard questions, to try to make sense of theology in our own context, or to find creative, meaningful, and authentic ways to apply the Gospel to situations that we hadn’t accounted for. We are not the first and we won’t be the last. And this is very good news.
Today, the Feast of All Saints takes remembering a step further. We remember, the few of us gathered in the quiet of this basement chapel, that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses to the presence and power of God revealed in Jesus Christ, and in the lives of Christ’s followers.
Though the date and the emphasis has shifted over time, a feast day to celebrate all those whose lives and especially whose deaths manifested the love of Christ can be traced at least as far back as the Fourth Century. The Feast of All Souls came into being about the 10th century as the way of remembering the rest of the faithful departed, the junior varsity Christians who still needed tidying up a bit in the fires of purgatory before they could see God face to face. But, let’s not say much more about that here since, after all, one person’s cherished dogma is another person’s “fond thing, vainly invented and plainly repugnant to Scripture.” Rather let me suggest that we remember, on this day, not only the “official” saints, but all those whose lives manifest to us, personally, the love of God revealed in Christ—especially those whose deeds may be thankless and whose names will never appear on the calendar of Saints. Then tomorrow, we remember those whom we have lost, for a little while, to the greater embrace of God.
Today we remember.
Especially since this is a university, I remember a professor. His name is Herbert Strainge Long. Classical languages and literature had begun to fall out of favor in universities in the 70s and 80s, so Mr. Long usually found himself with less than a handful of students after their first year of Greek. But I remember how this man, no matter how large or small the class, taught his subject with unqualified enthusiasm.
On one particularly frigid winter day, when the North wind crossed lake Erie, gathering the moisture and then blowing the snow outside the window of Mather Hall, I sat alone in a classroom except for Mr. Long, an anxious nineteen year old lumbering through the elegant Greek of Luke’s Gospel. The only sound in the room, besides my halting voice, and the hissing and banging of the radiators, was an occasional “um hmm” from the professor.
I also remember the sneeze.
Now there was noting extraordinary about a sneeze on a winter day in Ohio–except that it echoed in the nearly empty classroom and I was unprepared for what happened next. I excusing myself. Mr. Long put down the magnifying glass that he used to read the fine print of his New Testament and turned to me with a quizzical look and said, “Mr. Charles, are you keeping warm enough for the winter?”
Now you have to understand that to a nineteen year old black kid from East Cleveland who grew up with too much drama and too little money, the very idea that someone old enough to be my granddaddy, a white man, a full professor, with more degrees than I had siblings would take the time to care about my well-being was beyond my imagination.
He was too important to care. So when he did care, a flood of stories gushed out, of Miss Fannie Moore’s attic where I lived in the hope of finding a little peace of mind; of the gas space heater that only warmed the place to 55 degrees; of the trips to the stove to soothe hands that stiffened whenever papers were typed on the cold steel of that gunmetal gray Royal Standard typewriter that I had purchased for $33 dollars earned from my high school paper route; of working late nights earning barely enough money to buy books and eat in the same week; of the…
“No, Professor Long, I am not keeping warm enough for the winter. Thank you for asking.”
Mr. Long nodded, scribbled something on his note pad, retrieved his magnifying glass again and replied, “Verse number four, Mr. Charles. Please continue.”
I soon learned that the although the aging professor strained to read the apparatus in his Greek New testament he had a keen eye for the people around him. I also learned that he was the beloved treasurer of the tiny Presbyterian church where he was a dedicated member because he had a keen eye for finding long forgotten funds in the darndest places. Mr. Long found the scholarship, long forgotten, that paid for my final two years of college. I bought a new heater and finished my degree.
When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, the most important words he said were to his friends—and to us—unbind him and let him go. I am resurrection, I am life, yes, and you have a share in the work. Set the dead free, make my love concrete, be the Good News.
This homily is unfinished. It is unfinished because I have decided to take remembering a step further and contact Mr. Long who is, by now, 90 years old and living in Ohio if my Googling hasn’t failed me. It doesn’t matter whether he remembers me. I remember him, his kindness, the matter of fact way that he made his faith real to me. If I am too late in my quest and I find that he has already passed to that distant shore where he rejoices in an even greater light, so be it. I remember him. And God will remember long after I am a memory.
This homily is incomplete because there are still more saints to be made, more deeds to be done that witness to the presence, the power, the love of God revealed to us in Christ Jesus.
This homily is unfinished because I need you to finish it. Share your saints with one another. Tell the stories of those who called you out of the darkness, untied you, and loved you back to life again. Offer up a name. If there is silence, then fill in the blanks with your memories so that when we stand and proclaim our faith, then gather to keep this Feast of all the Saints we will remember who we are, whose we are, and who Christ is inviting us all to become…