All Saints: Take off your Grave Clothes

On this feast of All Saints, I want to ask: which saints do we remember? Whose lives point us to God? Who counts?

It is an interesting year for the theology of “all saints.” In the Episcopal Church, and the wider western Catholic tradition, we teach that when we gather around this table, when we celebrate holy Eucharist, we are united with the “Communion of Saints.” This year we have a different sort of image. This year more people have attended church online than in person. Yes, some people now are making their way through our great red doors, but still more are participating through the portal of their web browser, or the glowing rectangle of a phone held in their hand. Today this intangible idea of the “communion of saints” might feel a little closer. We can imagine the Saints peering through their portals in heaven. One can hope that, for the Saints, Internet bandwidth doesn’t cause hiccups. The connection stays clear. Those great humans who went before us, our ancestors in following Jesus and loving God, those who handed on the tradition to us, they are united with us each week as we gather to break bread, as we gather to pray. The great “cloud of witnesses” as the book of Hebrews calls them, they are with us always. This is the best theology around All Saints, if you ask me.

But, as we encounter All Saints, there is another not so subtle theology at play. There are certain saints we remember more than others. I would say my suspicion around the saints makes me a bit more of a Protestant, but the way the Lutherans revere Luther, the Presbyterians revere Calvin and so on, it borders on the cult of the saints. Historically there has been a division between All Saints Day on November 1, and All Souls day on November 2. There are lives that have counted more than others. I don’t know where in the Bible we get this sort of theology, I suspect it’s not biblical. I’m sure Jesus would roll his eyes.

So today, I want to ask, who do who do we count among the Saints?

Today’s Gospel is an interesting choice for All Saints Day. Lazarus is an interesting saint to choose for All Saints. “Lazarus, come out!” As an openly gay man, that idea of Lazarus “coming out” has another level of meaning. As if the Gospel writer knew I would find “come out” distracting. At the end of the Gospel Jesus asks in the Greek, “unbind him and let him go.” Our translation has rendered Jesus a bit poetically: “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” Take off the grave clothes.

I could go a lot of directions with that image. Our Presiding Bishop likes to say the most important sermon that gets preached is the sermon the people preach to themselves in the pew. So, if you take nothing else, see where that image “take off the grave clothes” takes you this week.

Pauli Murray, one of the saints

A few weeks ago I watched the new documentary on Pauli Murray. We’re going to screen it here early next year I hope. Murray has been celebrated as the first Black woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest. But in recent years she’s been celebrated more and more. A college has been named for her at Yale, a dormitory at my seminiary. Just nine years ago she was added to one of our calendars of saints. Before Pauli was a priest, she had a career as an attorney and a professor of law. Saint Pauli was one of the first women to graduate Howard Law School. She was a top student, and her graduate thesis ended up being used by her professor and Thurgood Marshall as the bases for their argument to desegregate Schools, when they won the Brown v. Board of Education case in the Supreme Court. Murray was a friend of both Eleanor Roosevelt and Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She helped to found the National Organization of Women. She catalogued the racist laws of Jim Crow across the South. 15 years before Rosa Parks, Murray was arrested for refusing to go to the back of the bus.

This week, hearing Jesus say, “take off the grave clothes” I’ve thought about Pauli. Pauli helped tear out the seams of so many of the grave clothes. Pauli broke open barriers. Saint Pauli laid the legal groundwork for so many of the freedoms so many of us enjoy, but Pauli was never entirely free.

The documentary talks about Murray as ahead of her time. In some ways, yes, in others her time was hard on her. Pauli was married to a man for the length of one weekend. The deep romances of her life were with women. I have chosen to use the pronouns she/her for Pauli, because they were the pronouns Pauli had, but she spent years frustrated with the constraints of her gender. Many in the trans community now claim Pauli as their own. I think about Pauli as I think about the grave clothes.

Practice Resurrection

The poet Wendell Barry once told his reader to “practice resurrection.” It’s another way of saying, “take off those grave clothes. Set them free.” I wonder if the saints are with us who were born into slavery, who were forced to worship in the balcony or in the back pews of Episcopal Churches. I wonder about the saints of the Muskogee Creek who composed that Heleluyan we just sang, who learned it from their grandparents, the Muskogee were Christians and developed a hymn tradition before the civil war. I wonder about the saints that sang that Heleluyan on the Trail of Tears as they were marched from ancestral lands, through Missouri, to Oklahoma. I wonder about the saints who sat on the organ bench and didn’t talk about their private lives. I wonder about the saints who were called to the priesthood, but who had to live out their calls as Sunday School teachers, altar guild captains, as pastor’s wives because the ordination process wasn’t open to people of their gender. This All Saints day, I hope the saints are here with us. I hope they are helping us to practice resurrection in our own lives. I hope we strive to do them proud.

Bob the Drag Queen and your Ancestors in Faith

Ellis and I have been watching the HBO series “We’re here.” It follows three drag performers who make their way to small towns in rural America. They mentor young queer folks and put on drag shows. The show is magic, really. You’ll learn more about America and have more hope after an hour. It’s worth your time.

In this week’s episode my favorite drag performer, Bob the Drag Queen, yes that’s the name, finds himself in a learning circle in Selma. A group of women, some of whom were on the Edmund Pettus Bridge on Bloody Sunday, tell their stories. They talk about facing down the racism of police with Dr. King.

Bob breaks down in tears, as he talks about “survivors remorse.” Bob says, “I can sit here on this couch because my grandmother’s grandmother was enslaved. I don’t know how to deal with that.” One of the women says to him, “you are who you are because of them. I need you to take that strength.” Another of the leaders tells him, and I quote. “You are the product of some strong-ass people.” Another woman says, “there’s something about when you know who you are and you decide show up in all of your glory, and your grace, and your greatness. It changes people.” And I thought, “that’s All Saints Day.”

You are the product of some strong-ass people. Some of them are in stained glass sure. Many more haven’t been counted. Many more had their stories silenced or erased. Many have gone uncelebrated. If I went around the room and asked, who are your examples of faith? Who taught you about Jesus? Who told you to go to church? I guarantee the overwhelming response would talk about mothers, and grandmothers, and Sunday school teachers. We ought to take down the wall with the pictures of all the rectors and put up pictures of Sunday school teachers instead.

Canonize your own saints. Just a few from Holy Communion: Saint Punchie, patron of parties. Saint Emery, patron of antiracism. Saint Ernie, patron of laughter. Saint Woberta, patron of music. Tell their stories. Declare a feast day to remember them. Most importantly, follow their example. Volunteer. Act up. Spend time mentoring the next generation. Teach Sunday School (Julie is signing folks up). And, exercise the freedoms that were hard won by those saints.

Your faith isn’t just yours. Your faith was passed on to you. Your strength was passed down to you. Never forget that, and know, know, when you come down the aisle of this church. When you sing the song of the saints of God, when we stand around this table, we are not alone. The communion of the saints, all the saints, is here too. So take off your grave clothes. Be free. Practice resurrection and get out there and get about the work of setting others free. That’s what Jesus asks of us. Amen.

Published by Mike Angell

The Rev. Mike Angell is rector of The Episcopal Church of the Holy Communion in St. Louis.

One thought on “All Saints: Take off your Grave Clothes

  1. Thank you, Mike, for the story of St. Pauli. I heard/read about her several years ago, probably in Lent Madness, so I was glad to hear more about her. Good Sam celebrated All Saints Day today, too, including that great hymn, “For all the saints.”
    I will confess to humming, earlier this week, “I sing a song of the saints of God.” My favorite verse in that hymn is the last one, about how saints are still around, you can find them anywhere, because “the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” I know that many people nowadays think this hymn is a bit old-fashioned (Brits might even use the word “twee”), but having learned it as a very young child, I still love it.
    Blessings, Verdery

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