For All Saints’: A Sermon

“To be or not to be, that is the question.”

A lot of people think it’s that simple: one moment you exist and the next moment you don’t.

Yet Christians make a startling claim: that death is not the end of anyone.

Oh, lots of people imagine that there’s life after death, and many hope there is, but very few of us live as though death is not the end of anyone.

In the Apostles’ Creed we say that we trust in the Communion of Saints, and when we say this we are saying we trust that death is not the end of anyone who is in Christ.

We trust that death no longer has the power to separate us from those we love or to isolate those who love us from our company.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus tells us that our God names himself by the persons he loves, that our God identifies himself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Then Jesus says something that astonishes everyone who hears him: he says that Israel’s God is the God of the living and not the dead; he says that the Israelites long-dead ancestors are not dead after all. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are somehow alive.

Life goes on. Our fellowship with the dead is real, is ongoing, because Jesus Christ is resurrection and life. If you believe in him, if you die, you live. If you believe in him, you never really die.

In Hebrews there’s a litany of our ancestors in Jesus — some really shady characters among them — whose lives our recounted with all of the shadows of their actual lives in the world now gone.

We are told that they surround us in our lives. We cannot see them but they are nevertheless really and truly still here.

And every week, the Eucharist takes us on a journey to a place where the visible world meets the invisible one. In Orthodox churches this is not left to the imagination.

When you walk into an Orthodox church, like Saint John the Baptist on Metro Parkway in Sterling Heights, everywhere you look, on almost every surface, you see the saints.

These icons cover every inch of the walls. They are windows by which the uncreated light of the world that is coming to this world shines on us from their faces.

In the church, at the Eucharist, as part of the mystery that we trust, the line between this world and the world that is coming to this world is all but erased.

To quote my friend Jason Micheli at length (why try to say something on your own if someone else says it better?):

“When we baptize someone, we baptize them into Christ and we declare that he or she will forever be a son or daughter in heaven [which is this world redeemed]. And so in death we never cease to be in Christ. The Christian community is one that blurs the line between this world and the next. That’s why Christians use the word ‘veil’ to describe death, something so thin you can nearly see through it.

“It’s a fellowship that cannot be broken by time or death because it’s a communion in the Living Christ. What we name by the word ‘Church’ is a single communion of living and departed saints.

“Therefore, the Church, rightly understood, is one People in heaven and on earth.

“The dead don’t disappear into the ether. They don’t walk around as vaporous ghosts. They don’t dissolve into the fibers and cells of the natural world. They’re gathered around the throne, worshipping God. They’re in Christ, the very same communion they were baptized into, the same communion to which we belong.

“And so:

“Death does not destroy or fundamentally change our relationship to the dead.

“We pray and, according to the Book of Revelation, so do they. We praise God and, according to [their Eucharistic prayer, which we are about to join], so do they. We try to love God and one another and, according to the Book of Hebrews, they do so completely.” [End quotation.]

Since Stephanie and Scott’s wedding back in May I keep repeating these lines from Father Alexander Schmemann because they are so vivid: “the marriage vow, in the perspective of the eternal Kingdom, is not taken ‘until death parts,’ but until death unites us completely.”

Until death unites us completely…unites us in life, for no one who is in Jesus Christ can ever die.

“I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life. I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that truly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread — living Bread! — who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live — and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self” (John ‭6:47–51).‬

Sometimes we need art to help us get a grip on mysteries like the Communion of Saints.

The 1984 film Places in the Heart begins on a Sunday in a small town in depression-era Texas. After church, we see families sitting down for meals.

The sheriff of the town sits down with his wife and children and prays. We hear gunshots in the distance. It seems a young black child is drunk on whiskey and shooting a gun down by the railroad tracks.

The sheriff goes to investigate and the boy accidently shoots him dead. The townspeople tie the boy to a car and drag him through the town until he is dead and then hang his lifeless body in a tree, as the sheriff’s widow and sister wash and prepare the sheriff’s body for burial on the table where Sunday supper was served.

The local banker begins to take advantage of the widow, making her board his blind brother, threatening to foreclose on her house and farm, implying that sexual favors might help her cause.

She hears about a contest for bringing in the first cotton harvest of the season and realizes she could save her house and farm if she combines the prize with a good price for her cotton.

A black man she’s boarding, along with her children and caring neighbors, helps her win the prize money and negotiate a good price, through terrific trials, including the local KKK, who harass and severely beat the black man, and despite a violent tornado that kills several of the townsfolk.

The film ends on a Sunday, everyone gathered at the church. As the congregation sings, “I Come to the Garden Alone,” a plate of communion crackers and a tray bearing thimble-sized glasses of grape juice is passed from person to person, from pew to pew.

It eventually becomes clear that all the folks who’ve died in the film are right there in the pews with those who are still living, taking Communion together as the Communion of Saints.

The final pair to share the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, are the sheriff and the young black boy, who says to the sheriff after they eat and drink, “Peace of God.” This scene makes me weep every time.

Though some saints are invisible, they are not dead. We see them with what Scripture calls “the eyes of the heart.”

Other saints are saints we can see, the ones sitting next to us in the pew. Here, at the Eucharist, Moses and Elijah are present as are Mary Magdelene and Priscilla, John and Paul, Irenaeus and Origin, Athanasius and Macrina, Francis and Clare. We are saints together with them.

C.S. Lewis says we can ask these invisible ones that surround us to pray for us, just as we might ask Zulma or Bill or Ted or Virginia to pray for us.

How is that possible? Because we serve the God of the living and not the dead. They are with us as part of the Communion of Saints; they are not dead but alive.

So we ask for Jacob and Uncle Al and Donnie and Robert and Carol and Melody and Eric and Ashley, and all who have died but who are not dead, who are alive in Jesus Christ and can never die again, to pray for us as we join their prayers.

I suppose it’s clear enough that this sermon is getting at something most American Christians, and far too many churches, neither know nor practice, and we are impoverished because of it.

It’s the absence of a truth like this, of living a truth like this one, that makes gathering on Sunday morning seems so optional in a world where the Eucharist is put into competition by Christians with almost every conceivable human activity, and the list of distractions grows and grows with each passing year.

Here we are striving to be a community that resists the cooption of Sunday morning with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And we have the Communion of Saints in our corner, praying for us, and the gates of hell will not prevail against her.

All Saints 2019, a sermon

And a practice for All Saints:

Today, we continue our annual tradition of having everyone who’s lost loved ones this year, or who are in grief about any departed loved one or friend from any moment of their life, join us behind the altar for the Eucharistic Prayers.

Christ tells us that he’s the God of the living and not the dead after naming persons — Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob — who are by all accounts dead.

Jesus tells us that this not the way it is in the church. Life goes on. And if the transfiguration is any indication, and if Paul is right in 1 Corinthians 15, this ongoing life is an embodied life.

It is at the Eucharist where our communion with the saints is most poignant, for at the end of the weekly Eucharistic journey we are standing in the very precincts of heaven.

We are surrounded at the altar every Sunday by “all those who rejoice with us, but upon another shore and in a greater light, that multitude which no one can number, whose hope was in the Word made flesh, and with whom, in this Lord Jesus, we for evermore are one.”

As we recite the Creed and join in the Prayers of the People, if you are in grief, please ponder joining me behind the altar for the Eucharistic Prayers.

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Kenneth Tanner

Pastor | Contributor: Mockingbird, Sojourners, Huffington Post, Clarion Journal | Theologian l Author “Vulnerable God” (forthcoming, Baker Books)