Mother Katherine’s sermon preached Nov. 1, 2020

Posted by on Sun, Nov 1, 2020 in Feast Days, Season after Pentecost, Sermons

All Saints’ Day

November 1, 2020

Scholar John O’Donohue recalls a story his father told about a neighbor friendly with the local priest.

There is a whole mythology in Ireland about druids and priests having special power. But this man and the priest used to go for long walks. One day the man said to the priest, where are the dead? The priest told him not to ask him questions like that. But the man persisted and finally, the priest said, ‘I will show you; but you are never to tell anyone.’ Needless to say, the man did not keep his word. The priest raised his right hand; the man looked out under the raised right hand, and saw the souls of the departed everywhere all around as thick as the dew on blades of grass. Often our loneliness and isolation is due to a failure of spiritual imagination. We forget that there is no such thing as empty space. All space is full of presence, particularly the presence of those who are now in eternal, invisible form.

Our Christian year is imaged as an eternal circle, not a line, so today we can remember last year’s All Saints Day which was so very different from today’s, and we can wonder what next year’s trip around this great circle of seasons will bring. As in years past and yet to come we again set aside this day to honor those who have died and celebrate that they are still with us in spirit. No matter what the transitory obstacles. These ribbons carry their names, from just last month and from many years ago. They are a visible reminder of what is now their invisible presence. Make no mistake, that presence is quite real.

This is who John speaks of in the Revelation reading today, he’s already written of these same people as the church on earth before the last day, here he’s showing the church at worship after ‘the last day,’ also called the Church triumphant. The whole passage is about the “Victory to our God,” literally the salvation or deliverance from strife and “the great tribulation.” Now, a vast worshipping congregation around us, they shall hunger and thirst no more but be shepherded to “the springs of the water of eternal life; and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” It makes the life to come sound rather grand and attractive, joyful and glad. Since the only way there is through death, and we who grieve their loss are offered in an evocative image; they “have washed their robes  and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Paradox evinces truth here; they have come into that new life by having suffered death – not by fighting their way in or saving up good deeds for it. The Lamb is Christ who died and conquered death in rising. Now washed in him, they enter into new life, and the Lamb has become their shepherd, the shepherd of all the “vast throng.” And are present with us in spirit.

We still experience them as separate from us now, though perhaps it is not because they have passed into the next life, but because we are still confined to this one. That ‘spiritual imagination’ is what helps us to bridge that distance, or at least narrow it. As O’Donahue said, “there is no such thing as empty space. All space is full of presence, particularly the presence of those who are now in eternal… form.” At death that separation is broken and one is no longer confined to a single body or a single time and place—it is a kind of magnificent freedom, even though we tend to fear it, avoid it, fight it. I find great blessing in that much of how we pray and live and love each other are about transcending that separation, to feel closer with Christ, closer to others, as if to reach through that veil to touch those whom we miss. All Saints Day is remembering those with us now in spirit only; as a way of deeper understanding I invite you to also think about the time when someone will write our names on these ribbons. When we will join the throng of invisible saints. How else could it be? Can you imagine the God of love saying after we die our loving stops? We pray to One we cannot literally see, and yet God is no less real, merciful, or powerful. So too we continue to love through that veil with a love no less meaningful.

Matthew’s gospel tells us Jesus went up the mountain to teach; this is code for ‘where the great leaders hear from God so they can relay it to the people of God.’ But Jesus doesn’t ‘receive’ the teaching from God, as Moses did, instead, “He began to speak and taught them…” From the start, Jesus’ authority and identity is revealed. These ‘beatitudes’ or blessings Jesus offers are not original, they’re largely drawn from the Wisdom writings of the Hebrew Scriptures. What is original is the time when these ‘rewards’ are said to come. The Old Testament assumption was that virtue or faithfulness is rewarded in the present life. (This unfortunately led some to deduce that those doing well must be righteous people, and those with much trial and grief must surely be bad or have sinned the worst.) Jesus changes this teaching by giving these blessings as a promise of the fulness of life in God’s kingdom. Sure, blessing also occur in present day, though what’s new and most powerful is Jesus teaching the ultimate reward is when the kingdom of heaven comes. Those who possess and act on the virtues in the Beatitudes will then know these grace-filled blessings. They aren’t an ‘entrance ticket,’ they will see no windfall, rather Jesus is describing characteristics and actions of those who will receive the promises of God’s kingdom; comfort, mercy, being filled, seeing God, named as Children of God, and more.

Jesus concludes the Beatitudes saying, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” and reminds us of other ‘saints’ who have gone this way before. This is a full circle gift of the scriptures; the strange description of eternal life’s grandeur from the book of Revelation is revealing the same new life from the more relatable characteristics and rewards promised in Jesus’ Beatitudes. A loving and merciful Christ came and revealed himself to the world, and there’s no reason to doubt the Christ who is with us is also the One who awaits us. As our renewal of baptismal vows begins; “Through the Paschal mystery we are buried with Christ by Baptism into his death, and raised with him to newness of life.” We may know this in spirit before we grasp it by mind.

In spite of much well-intended advice, there is no single way or right way or schedule for grieving. It simply is. We can control it about as well as we can stop the tides of Puget Sound. One of our insightful members who lost someone very dear described to me a feeling of discomfort or inappropriateness at finding herself glad for this person who died—glad she was free of what had made so very hard, glad she lived anew. Far, far from being inappropriate, her feeling was the most loving faithful response possible for one with faith in Christ’s resurrection and his promise of salvation. Of course we should be happy for those who die and now live in Christ! Even alongside, rightly grieving our own loss and pain. Those ‘saints’ whose love we’ve known, they are here! They continue to love us, and perhaps look out for us, comfort us, even grieve with us —and celebrate with us this holy day.

In the spirit of the Beatitudes I’d like to close with a blessing from Anam Ċara (which means Soul Friend).

I pray that you will have the blessing of being consoled and sure about your death.
May you know in your soul there is no need to be afraid.
When your time comes, may you have every blessing and strength you need.
May there be a beautiful welcome for you in the home you are going to.
You are not going somewhere strange, you are going back to the home that you never left.
May you have a wonderful urgency to live your life to the full.
May you live compassionately and creatively and transfigure
everything that is negative within you and about you.
When you come to die, may it be after a long life.
May you be peaceful and happy  and in the presence of those who really care for you.
May your going be sheltered and your welcome assured.
May your soul smile in the embrace of your anam ċara.

—Anam Ċara, John O’Donohue, Harper & Row’s Cliff Street Books, New York, NY, 1997.

© 2020 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.

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