Festival Sundays are always tricky. If you are a regular listener of Sermon Brainwave, you know that our usual take on these celebrations is to preach the text and not the festival. What do we mean by that? No one wants to hear a sermon on the why or the how of a festival Sunday. Boring. Boring. Boring. The rest of the worship service can cover that job. Your job as the preacher is to bring the texts to bear on that which is being remembered. That is, how do the biblical passages shape how we see or understand the festival? What insights do they provide that might allow for a unique perspective on an annual observance? Let the rituals, the music, the art, the hymns preach the experience of the festival. You do not have to do it all!
With that said, which text this week seems to ring true for your context on this All Saints’ Sunday? Only you can answer this question. I certainly can’t. I don’t know your people. I don’t know what is heavy on their hearts. I don’t know the losses they, and you as a community, have experienced this past year. A well-known, shall we say famous, preacher was once asked, “who do you think is the best preacher in the country right now?” The response? “You are,” said this popular preacher, “because you are the only one who knows what your people need to hear.” This is certainly true every Sunday. You ARE the best preacher in the country — IN THE WORLD! But I think this is even more true on days like these. This is not just any Sunday. More seems to be at stake on festival Sundays, to say the right thing and in the case of All Saints’ Sunday, to strike the right balance of comfort and hope.
I offered this suggestion on the podcast for this week but will expand more here — choose one text as the basis of your sermon and then let the other texts do what they are meant to do.
In other words, the benefit of a festival Sunday is also its challenge. There are typically four great texts from which to choose. How does a preacher decide? Sure, you could preach on all of them, but then I worry that the specificity of how a single text might speak into the meaning of the festival will lose its ground in generalizations. So, as I said, select one passage on which to preach and let the others do what they are supposed to do, especially on a day like today. No one really wants to be preached to. They want to feel the grace of God’s word that fits for that day. That is, festival Sundays seem to need lived experience and not a lesson. They need to sense the difference that the Gospel makes and not the demands of doctrine. They need to represent an integration of faith without a collapse into simplifications.
So, given the lessons we have for this week, preach the one with which you resonate the most, that your parishioners need to hear the most, and use the others in different places in the worship service. For me? — and this is me, not you — I would preach on Revelation. We so rarely preach on this book, yet that it is one of the readings for All Saints’ Sunday points to its true function — as a book of comfort and encouragement; hope and security; truth-telling and love-living. Many of your parishioners will have a moment of remembrance — where have I heard this passage before? That’s right, at the funeral of …
In the Lutheran Book of Worship, 78 hymns are attributed to Revelation. In the newest Lutheran hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, 91 hymns are based on this last book of the Bible. The hymn writers got it. They knew the true purpose of this book. We sing hymns because so much of our life of faith is a struggle to find the words to utter our worship, our doubt, our praise, our joy, our sorrow, our cries, our hope … Not that your sermon on All Saints’ Sunday needs to be a corrective to Nicholas Cage’s Left Behind, but still, to hear Revelation as it was meant to be heard on a day like this would do more, way more, than offering a Bible study on Revelation that few would attend.
What does this mean for the other three passages offered for this Sunday? Well, everything. Think about where and how these texts might embody their full potential, especially in a worship service that necessitates the acknowledgment, and not denial, of the spectrum of emotions. The 1 John passage might function as a greeting or invocation for the day. The Psalm would make a meaningful confession. The Beatitudes could certainly be the blessing or benediction. Imagine closing your worship service with Jesus’ words that open the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are you, the poor in spirit, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you who mourn. For you will be comforted.” You get the idea.
Then, could it be, that this festival Sunday, this All Saints’ Sunday, will be even more than remembrance? It could very well bring those we have lost into our present for the sake of confessing and knowing and feeling the grief of separation and the hope of resurrection in the very same moment.
God will indeed wipe every tear from your eyes.