Last Thursday, Ben and I worked with Professor Bob Hughes of Sewanee to celebrate a Eucharist for the Feast of All Saints. All Saints Day is on the liturgical calendar in the Anglican Church of Tanzania, but the seminary had not had a service scheduled. We decided to organize a Eucharist and invite any members of the community who were interested in joining us in commemorating the saints of the Church and singing “For all the saints” – Ben’s favorite hymn. We expected a handful of people to come, and hoped for more than a dozen, but were thrilled to find that about 60 students and staff came to join us in the celebration! It was also my first opportunity to preach for the seminary community, and here is the sermon I delivered:
It has been my joy and my privilege this term to teach Church history for the first time. I have a great love for Church history because I have a great love of stories, and the story of the Church and of the spread of the Gospel to every corner of the earth is one of the great stories of this world.
But what has really been touching me as I teach this term about the big story of the Church, is all the small stories that are pieces of the Church’s history. Even if you have not studied Church history, many of these stories are known to you from Scripture – Jesus’ call to Simon Peter – “Come, follow me.” The conversion of Paul, who had once been an enemy of the Church. The death of Stephen, the first of Christ’s followers to die for his faith, whose own death followed the pattern of our Lord Jesus’ death. When Stephen was dying, he said, “Lord, receive my Spirit” and then prayed for God to forgive the people who were killing him, as Jesus did.
On this day, the feast of All Saints, we give thanks and praise to God for these holy Christians, these friends of God. We give thanks that their stories can help us find the courage and the strength to try to follow God as faithfully as they did. We give thanks because these faithful and holy people can be like windows – so that we can look through them and see the light, and glory, and holiness of God that shines through their lives and their stories. And I think we can even give thanks to God for the sinful and dark parts of their stories, like Peter denying Jesus 3 times, or Paul encouraging the crowd to kill Stephen, because these parts of the stories teach us that even when we find ourselves caught in our own darkness and sin, there is always hope for forgiveness, and redemption, and friendship with God again for us.
And also we can give thanks, on this Feast of All Saints, that no person’s story is too small to be part of the story of the Church. In the book of Ecclesiasticus today we heard how “there are some who have no memorial” – who have died without us knowing the story of how they lived. “But,” Scripture tells us, “these were merciful people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” They have not been forgotten by God. They have not been forgotten by those Christians and others who knew and loved them and saw in them some of the love and holiness we find in Jesus Christ, who claims them as his friends.
And we can learn from these holy people – these saints who are well known and the saints whom almost no one living remembers, that each one of our stories is known to God, and we are not too sinful, or too small, or too unknown to be God’s friends, or to serve Him and love Him. And we are not too sinful, or too small, or too unknown to help other people – to show the holiness of God in our own lives. We too can help our families, our friends, or our neighbours to also become friends of God.