Sunday, November 6, 2011

Sermon for Sunday in the Octave of All Saints

St Paul's, Pekin & All Saints, Morton

Those of you who have traveled around the country some bit, or even just around our own diocese, and visited other Episcopal churches, have discovered that there is a tremendous amount of diversity in our services—diversity in liturgical style, diversity in music, diversity in preaching. But you may also have discovered that there is one element of our Episcopalian culture that cuts right across these dividing lines as if they weren’t there. I’m talking about the Coffee Hour—known in some quarters as the “eighth sacrament.” It’s in the parish hall, after church, over coffee and lemonade and cookies or donut holes or whatever, that new relationships are formed, visitors looking for a church community try one out to find out what it’s like, and old relationships are nurtured and sustained, week by week, month by month, year by year.

Parish social events of various sorts are a vital link in the chain of relationship building and relationship maintenance within the Body of Christ. The same can be said of  “working” groups—ushers, Altar Guild, choir, acolytes, and the like.  And at the watershed moments of our lives—birth, marriage, sickness, and grief—the support of the church community a life-giving source of strength, the medium of God’s peace, which passes human understanding. Certainly, when we come to the altar rail, we experience “holy communion,” not only with the Risen Christ in his glory, but with the person on either side of us, and, if we are spiritually attentive, we also feel a bond of communion with Christian brothers and sisters whom we have never met, especially in Eucharistic Communities that follow the Anglican Cycle of Prayer. 

But what then? We’ve taken our experience of communion, our sense of kinship and familial bond, and extended it beyond the merely local and made it global. We know that even Christians in South America and Africa and Asia represent people whose “lives are closely linked with ours.” But what then? It sometimes feels as though we hit a spiritual brick wall at that point. What about “holy communion” with those who have “crossed over,” those to whom we no longer have access through the ordinary means of human communication—those whose faces we can no longer see, those whose hands we can no longer touch, those whose voices of wisdom and words of love we can no longer hear. These members of the Body of Christ are no longer likely to show up at Coffee Hour, or a parish supper, or kneel next to us at the altar rail. They seem therefore in a category unto themselves, cut off from the rest of us. This feeling serves to minimize the bond that connects us; it causes us to no longer think of them as among those whose lives are closely linked with ours.

But listen to the affirmation we make in our opening prayer in the liturgy for the feast of All Saints. We declare to God our belief that “…[He has] knit together [His] elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [His] Son Christ our Lord…” One communion, we say. Not two communions—one for the living and one for the dead—but one communion and fellowship.  Our fundamental affirmation as Christians—that Jesus is Lord and that he’s risen from the dead—leads us to the understanding that we are alive to God in Christ. Christ has died and Christ has risen. We who have been buried with Christ in the waters of baptism have died with him and been raised with him. Death no longer has dominion over him, and death no longer has dominion over us. At that moment—a moment we all face—when we will seem to have been swallowed up by death, death itself will, instead, choke on the risen Christ, even as it did on that holy night which was transfigured by the light of God’s glory as Jesus burst forth from his tomb. Since, therefore, we are “knit” together, as our collect says, knit together with that same risen Christ, and with one another, in one communion and fellowship, we are alive to one another. That is the astounding affirmation of All Saints Day—we who are “in Christ” are alive to one another, as we are alive to him, no matter on what side of the grave we pitch our tent.

Most of us are familiar with the popular piety of Roman Catholicism, which pays a great deal of attention to the saints, and even speaks freely of  “praying” to particular saints in view of their reputation for being able to meet specialized needs. When I lived in Louisiana, there was a curious custom of burying a statue of St Joseph upside down in your front yard when you put your house on the market; doing so was thought by some to make your house sell faster. A lot of this popular piety strikes most Anglicans as just a little too intense, at least, and strikes most Protestants as a veritable threat to the uniqueness of Christ. But I would invite you to consider whether, even though we may not care for the piety, the theology behind the piety is something we ought to pay some more direct attention to, that those who “pray” to saints are in fact “on to” something very important, something that springs directly from the creedal affirmation that we are all about to make to the effect that we believe in “the communion of saints,” the fellowship of saints, that we are as intimately connected to St Mary and St John and St Ignatius and St Agnes and St Perpetua and St Augustine and St Teresa and St Thomas Becket and all the saints…as we are to the person we will sip coffee with in the parish hall after church today. I would invite you to consider the fact that the veil that separates us from “all saints” is exquisitely thin, the barrier that seems to divide us from those who have “crossed the Jordan” is wonderfully porous, and that there is traffic across that border, because our God has knit us together with them in one communion and fellowship.

Scripture assures us that those who have gone before us indeed pray for us. The epistle to the Hebrews speaks of a celestial cheering section consisting of those who have finished the race, and are urging us on as we labor to join them. And there is nothing either in scripture or tradition that would keep us from the notion that we may ask them to do so, that we may invoke the prayers of the saints. How much richer our spiritual imaginations would be if they were “populated” with heroes of the faith—those whom the Christian community knows as saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs. And how much richer our spiritual imaginations would be if they were also populated not only with such “public” heroes, but with our own private heroes—those who have been examples—parents, teachers, other “elders” and mentors whom we have known.

And, of course, there is also nothing to keep us from praying for them, which we do at every celebration of the Eucharist, no matter how formal or how casual, because the Prayer Book rubrics require us to do so. In our catechism, the question is posed, “Why do we pray for the dead?” and the answer is given, “We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.”  The motto to keep in mind here is, “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.” We are all works in progress. Most of us will still be works in progress when the moment of death arrives. So we need to support one another in prayer—those of us who have been knit together in one communion and fellowship—we need to support one another in prayer no matter what side of the grave we are on, so that we may grow in God’s love until we see Him as He is.

What an expanded spiritual universe we enjoy when we cultivate an awareness of the communion of saints, when we realize that our lives are “closely linked” not only with the family and friends and neighbors we may have coffee with today and later this week, but with the saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs whose heroic witness for Christ and the gospel we honor on this feast day. All holy men and women of God, pray for us. Amen.

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