A sermon for the Sunday after All Saints, 2019, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
My parents moved, while I was at college, to a small Welsh village with one pub, one primary school, and one Norman church, built by actual Normans about 1000 years ago: St Michael and All Angels. We were married there, Gareth and I, even though I had never lived in the village, because we hadn’t quiet got around to living anywhere yet. On the night before our wedding, the bare stone structure was filled with daddy-long-legs, presumably at prayer, which kind village women vacuumed up by the dozen.
Over the years, it became a home from home base when we visited from Singapore, or Reading, or from here. The priest at St Michael’s (not the one who married us – long story) buried my grandmother, who also never lived in the village, and then my mother, who did. The priest and my father together dug my mother’s ashes into the church graveyard. The marker that she said she didn’t want is just to the right of the porch door as you approach down the gravel path.
It is not the church where I grew up, found Jesus, heard the whisper of the Spirit, scary and exciting. That one was called All Saints.
One Sunday, long after we’d moved here, after my mother had died, after too many other beloveds were lost to me, I went to the churchyard at six o’clock in the evening, because my father swore that’s when the service would be (the small village shared its priest with a couple other small villages, and services were movable feasts).
There was no one else there, but the door, normally locked, was open to the empty church. I took that as an invitation anyway, stepped inside, took a front pew and a Book of Common Prayer.
In the silence, watching the dust motes dance through the air like angels, I read the service silently. I felt that prickling – like a woollen sleeve responding to static electricity – of all the people behind me: the people at our wedding; the people at my mother’s funeral; the few, the handful of faithful parishioners who knew the proper service times and had been there earlier that day, sharing in the breaking of bread and in the prayers. Between them sang the ghosts of the Normans and their descendants, centuries of invaders, settlers, and local shepherds. Behind them were the travellers, spreading the stories through the countries and the counties, and behind them, sending them out as evangelists to the world, the truth of the story, Jesus.
I knew, in that slanted summer afternoon, its light filtered through stone, the solidity, the subtle but strong presence of the Communion of Saints.
On Tuesday evenings since the summer we have been gathering in the Choir for Centering Prayer, and a couple of you have commented on the apprehendable presence at those moments of the Communion of Saints that populate the pews where you now sit. We are connected, through life, through death, through the Resurrection promised by Christ’s death and Resurrection, beyond our imagination.
Those of us who have stayed on those Tuesday evenings recognize some of the language we heard from the book of Daniel a few minutes ago, from reading the Revelation to John which borrows from and expands upon Daniel’s visions of the apocalypse, the uncovering of the hidden realms of hope in which the saints of God worship day and night before the throne, and the powers of evil are defeated.
The four beasts of the sea, aficionados of our Revelation Bible study know, as well as actual kingdoms represent the created order in all of its chaos and disobedience, its separation from the Eden that God created us to live in, and that we, unfortunately, polluted with our pride and our gullibility. But the four beasts, the four kings, the empires that govern the earth with corrupt power and impure motives, they are no match, in the end, for the justice of God. It is made clear from the start of creation that victory over the chaos of the dark seas, the kingdom, the power, and the glory belong to God.
Daniel and John each write out of their own experience of a difficult and morally compromised, powerfully corrupted world. They each address their own times, centuries apart, and is it not telling that even so, they have so much in common? There is nothing new, another visionary writes elsewhere in the Bible, under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). The trials that Jesus describes to his disciples as conduits of God’s blessings – hunger, grief, worry – are common to all people, in all times and places, even when they come in different clothes, different fashions, different disguises.
Daniel and his fellow apocalyptics have this, too, in common, that they practise their religion under persecution by a foreign power; that they are exiled from their homeland and from their religious community; and that they have nevertheless a fierce and slightly scary faith in the ultimate justice and victory of God. The holy ones of the Most High, the saints and the elders gathered around the throne of God, will not be denied their reward. So it is that Jesus can bless those who mourn, and who are persecuted, who grieve and are lonely, who are starved of righteousness and justice, because the victory of God has already been won.
Keep the faith, then, Jesus encourages his disciples. Do good even when evil seems to have the upper hand. Be generous even when it seems foolish. Be gentle, even when the world is ungentle. You are blessed as you do so: you are holy, for so were the prophets and the saints who went before you. Do not deny the righteousness, the merciful justice of God.
Even your tears are formed from living water. Even your hunger is a sign of God’s blessing, a sign that you know, deep in your belly, that God has more for you, that God intends you for greater satisfaction. That is the faith of the apocalyptic visionaries: that already, God is making all things new, that death’s days are numbered.
When we pray in an empty church, we are not alone. When we miss those who used to sit between us, behind us, even through our grief for those who have gone before, even though we know we are no saints, and neither were some of them, the Communion of Saints surrounds us, their echoes lifting our hymns to heaven. And we are a community, a communion of saints within ourselves. When one is away, or sick, or in heaven we know them by their spirit still stirring among us. It is with them, and with the angels and archangels, that we continue to sing Holy, holy, holy.
Blessed, you are blessed, says Jesus, whether surrounded by saints and angels or alone amongst the cold stone, because Jesus has been there, too, and layered beneath him the history of creation and the repeated and unrepeatable, revelatory and irrevocable covenants of God’s grace; and he has seen Resurrection dawning.