All Saints Sunday is one of my favorite Sunday’s of the church year. The power of Naming those who have gone before us in faith always moves me to depths I do not anticipate. Though I know how significant All Saints worship is for me, I am still surprised each time at the power of Naming. This morning, we began worship singing that beloved hymn “For All the Saints” while members of the congregation came forward to light candles. We had arranged about 15 pillar candles of differing heights and colors around the Christ Candle on the communion table. The beauty of the light of all these candles was a lovely symbol throughout the service of the light of Christ and the light of that great company of saints.
In the sermon I talked about the power of naming; that when we stop speaking the names, we stop telling the stories. I described my experience earlier in the week of writing the names of the saints who have touched my life — both those I have known personally and those I have known through the witness of others, through history. Then I invited the congregation to begin writing their own lists of names. After a few moments, we began speaking the names aloud. Voices throughout the congregation spoke the names of the saints of the church and the world. Name upon name they came, rolling, at times speaking on top of one another. They continued to come. I don’t know how long it was; only that the names filled the sanctuary and God’s Spirit was in that place. (A gift of God was that my watch stopped this morning toward the beginning of the service. God has a way of curbing my control needs at just the right times!)
Following a prayer of thanksgiving for those who have gone before us in faith, in struggle, and in hope, we extended the Invitation to Discipleship and sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I had never before chosen this hymn for All Saints; for other Sundays, yes, but not for All Saints. Now I wonder why! I first saw the smile on the face of an African American Elder on the front row and then looked into the face of an African American man two rows behind her, who had just named several of those who had gone before him and now he sang with his whole being, never opening his hymnal — never needing to. (We who are European American and Asian needed our hymnals.) But his entire body and soul seemed to move with the words. As he sang them in this All Saints celebration, I heard them anew:
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty; let our rejoicing rise
high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our people sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
we have come, treading our path thru the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of the weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
true to our God, true to our native land.
(Words: James Weldon Johnson, 1921 Music: J. Rosamond Johnson, 1921)
All Saints indeed! Thanks be to God.