In Memphis National Cemetery, very near my hometown, ten thousand American servicemen are buried, including one of my own great uncles. Within the cemetery, one finds row upon row of white markers engraved with “Unknown U.S. Soldier” on the marble. There are more unidentified troops buried at Memphis than anywhere else in the country except Arlington National Cemetery. That seems an odd fact for a military graveyard in a mid-sized Southern city, and I always wondered why it was so.
Today is All Saints Sunday. But for Easter, it is my favorite Sunday in the church year. Today we remember all those who have graced our lives, living and dead. We celebrate the champions of the faith, the martyrs and the prophets, those who have moved us with words and music, who lift our spirits to God. Today’s first reading, from the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus, gets at the heart of All Saints Day perhaps better than any other:
Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction;
those who composed musical tunes,
or put verses in writing;
all these were honored in their generations,
and were the pride of their times.
Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.
Yes, indeed. On All Saints Day we celebrate those larger-than-life saints whose names we will praise until the end of time.
It was April 24, 1865. Just down the Mississippi River from Memphis at Vicksburg, Mississippi, a long line of weary soldiers waited to board the 260-foot paddlewheel steamboat Sultana. These were Union soldiers, many of whom recently had been released from the Cahaba and Andersonville Confederate POW camps. The Sultana had left New Orleans three days earlier with ninety passengers on board. She’d been built to carry 376 people, but even so, one of her boilers almost immediately began leaking. By the time the Sultana reached Vicksburg, her captain determined that the boiler was a safety hazard and needed to be replaced.
There was, however, the competing problem of a schedule. The Sultana had been hired to carry all those POWs back north to their homes. The Army insisted that she make good time, so the captain allowed two thousand additional troops to board the Sultana at Vicksburg–the boat creaked and groaned under their weight–and he noted that he’d replace the boiler when they reached St. Louis.
On April 26, the Sultana docked in Memphis and amazingly took on another three hundred passengers. A boat designed for the weight of less than four hundred people now carried twenty-five hundred. Every square foot was covered with human beings, packed tightly indoors and on deck. And at 2 o’clock in the morning, as the weary soldiers slept, the cracked boiler exploded in a ball of deadly metal and flame. The boat’s wreckage quickly sank into the muddy waters of the Mississippi. Men already weakened by war and imprisonment were burned, drowned, and died of hypothermia. The carnage was massive. The official death toll was 1,547. That’s thirty more people than died on the Titanic.
And so it was that many of the soldiers arrived in the North for burial rather than a homecoming. Many more, though, were slated to be buried at the new Memphis National Cemetery, with full military honors. Their bodies were placed in wooden coffins and lined up on a railroad depot platform to await the short train to the cemetery. Their names were carefully written in chalk on the caskets to ensure that their permanent grave markers would be correct. Then it began to rain. Water poured down, immersing the caskets, running in torrents over the chalk. The soldiers’ names—their identities—were washed away. And now they reside in row upon neatly manicured row at Memphis National, one after the other an “Unknown U.S. Soldier.”[i]
This morning’s reading from Ecclesiasticus goes on. After we’ve praised the larger-than-life heroes of the faith, we read:
But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.
At first this seems melancholy, wistfully sad that the mass of the faithful die, ultimately nameless. It hits us hard: the realization that it will someday be as if we had never been born. But then we remember that All Saints is also a baptismal day. Between the 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Eucharists, we will baptize a total of ten new saints today. And in baptism, we already wash away our old identity. We are washed clean of the world entirely, and we emerge somehow new. Anne Lamott describes baptism this way:
“Most of what we do in worldly life is geared toward our staying dry, looking good, not going under. But in baptism, in lakes and rain and tanks and fonts, you agree to do something that’s a little sloppy because at the same time it’s also holy, and absurd. It’s about surrender, giving in to all those things we can’t control; it’s a willingness to let go of balance and decorum and get drenched…And in the Christian experience of baptism, the hope is that when you go under and you come out, maybe a little disoriented, you haven’t dragged the old day along behind you. The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now.”[ii]
The hope, the belief, is that a new day is upon you now. The hope, the belief, is also that a new identity is upon you now. It is indeed true that the day will come when our names—my name, Barkley Stuart Thompson—will be washed from human memory just as the chalk was washed from all those caskets on a Memphis train platform. But then again, Barkley Stuart Thompson is not my true name after all, not ultimately. I have been baptized, sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever. My name, your name, and very soon the names of ten new children is Christian, a named washed onto us indelibly through the waters of baptism. For those on the Sultana, the waters of the Mississippi were waters of death unto death. For those in the church, the waters of baptism are waters of death unto new life.
That is what All Saints Day is all about. The Ecclesiasticus reading ends:
But these also were godly men,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
Their offspring will continue forever,
and their glory will never be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace,
but their name lives on generation after generation.
You see, in the heart and mind of God, no saint is ever lost or forgotten, not those young men in Memphis National Cemetery, not those we’ve loved and lost, not you, and not me. And even in this world, our name—Christian—will live on so long as those with a steady commitment to the Gospel sow row upon row of grace in this world; so long as we are willing to live as saints during our days and pass on this precious charge to our children and our children’s children.
That is worth celebrating this day, as we remember all the saints who have gone before, in your life and in mine, and we honor them.
[i] The story of the Sultana comes from Andrew Carroll’s book, Here is Where: Discovering America’s Great Forgotten History, 34-40.
[ii] Lamott, Anne. Traveling Mercies, 231-232.