All Saints’ Sunday
November 4, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Paul Moore
How many of you have seen the animated film, “Coco?” If you’ve seen it, this is review, if you haven’t, here’s the briefest of summaries. The hero in the story is young Miguel who finds that music is in his blood, but his grandmother won’t have any music in the house, and won’t say why. On the night before the Day of the Dead, November 2nd, he gets whisked away to the land of the dead, and there he finds the answers to both his own yearnings and his grandmother’s opposition. It demonstrates a commonly held belief that one dies three times: One dies when the body dies, one dies when one’s body is put into the ground, but most significantly, one dies when one is no longer remembered among the living.
You could say it’s the “back story” for Día de los Muertos. Like all such mythic stories, it encapsulates a culture’s view of profound truths. As a Christian and something of a theologian, I found that it resonated with so much of my own faith’s view of what it means to be dead and what it means to be alive, and what kind of relationship there might be between the two. That the dead are important in the lives of the living is universal in the human experience. But whether you believe in reincarnation or multiple deaths or mere memory, one cannot escape the continued influence of the dead on the living. Recently someone posted a question on Facebook about what you most remember your father for. I posted, “A steely integrity.” Though I often fall short of it, that ideal is still an ideal of mine. My late father’s presence is still with me.
The idea was not lost on the early Church. In the Roman era Christians often escaped the noise of the cities to fight “the real fight,” against evil, the evil within. They lived in caves and in meager shacks in the deserts of Egypt and Syria, living very austere lives and providing for themselves by weaving and selling baskets and other handiwork. These “monks,” as they were known, (from the Latin root, “mon,” meaning 1) became renowned for their holiness of life and wisdom of soul. Various passages of the Bible, especially John 11 at the resurrection of Lazarus, and Hebrews 11 and 12, gave rise to the idea that these souls, after their deaths, had special standing with God in heaven and could intercede for us if we asked. Sometimes their burial places became destinations for pilgrimages, and miraculous healings and other phenomena were experienced there, in testimony to the saint’s sway with the Almighty. From this we get the tradition of saints in the Church.
Ultimately, the doctrine of the Communion of Saints is rooted in the Resurrection. The idea that we just disappear when we die flies in the face of the final victory of Christ over death. St. Paul in his first letter to the Thessalonians, writes that at Christ’s return, “the dead shall rise and we will be caught up with them in the air, and so shall we ever be with the Lord.” In the meantime, they are in the grandstands of heaven, as Hebrews 12 puts it, cheering us on as we finish our race. So, when Paul urges us to “pray for the saints,” in Ephesians 6, why should that not include those who have graduated to the Larger Life. The final idea is not unlike the Land of the Dead to which Miguel goes in “Coco,” where we remember them and they remember us, and we are one community, extending back into the recesses of time to include all those whose faith resonates with the life of Christ, and, from God’s point of view, into the future to include all those who will do so. And that’s what we remember today.
So, what does it mean for us? What difference does it make that our community extends beyond time back into the past and forward into the future? Are we a church of spooks from the past and shadows from the future and nothing more? Do we pad the seats with the departed to make us feel like there are more of us? Hardly. There are real practical reasons why this is important.
First, it breaks the tyranny of the clock. Clocks really are about the past and the future, but not the present, and yet the present is all we really have. Tracy Cochran, a Buddhist teacher, woke up on the morning of a class to find that her vocal chords had locked up reducing her to a raspy wheeze. Fearing rejection and all manner of evils, she went to the class anyway. Her students were enormously generous and the class went off with a renewed sense of the power of vulnerability. She writes in an article for the recent issue of Parabola Magazine, “When it’s hard to be heard, you need to mean what you say. Words need to be rooted in presence, in the real time experience of how it feels to be here.” She includes a quote she attributes to a paraphrase from Kierkegaard: “I would have died if I had not died.”
I have often wondered what words of wisdom Lazarus would have given us about living after being raised from the dead.
Second, it broadens our view of community. Today it is common to baptize babies. The Church has had it as relatively standard procedure since the 5th century or so, but it was not always that way. In the early church it was believed that baptism forgave the sins committed up to that point, but not future ones. The emperor Constantine delayed baptism until his deathbed. Then there are the protestant churches that do not practice infant baptism, but require a conversion experience by the candidate, much like what was common in the very early church. Yes, these are members of the Saints in Light.
Celibacy arose very early in the life of the Church as a more holy manner of living than marriage. It was understood as part of the discipline of the ascetic life of a monk, and sometimes it went to extremes, like the un-named monk who had a reputation of tying a chain around his neck to his waistband to keep his head tilted down, lest he look upon a woman and lust after her and commit sin. Thank God we’ve got a very different idea of celibacy now, but these, too, are members of the Saints in Light.
I could go on about the role of women, the role of the Bible, the way people understood the Eucharist, and many other things. Throughout the centuries the Christian faith practice is not one stream, but more like channels in a very broad river that weave hither and yon, split and join up again, all within the larger banks of the essential doctrines of the faith, but finding a multitude of ways of understanding and expressing them. And all of them are members of the Saints in Light!
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote, “We are never so unchristian as when we think we have to defend God.” So many of the tears we shed are over loved ones we’ve lost or differences that frighten us, but in the Community of the Saints in Light God wipes away all tears. The Saints in Light call us to humility and openness to the broad community of faith.
Finally, it gives us a different understanding of ourselves. One time on our way to Honduras there was a VERY tall oriental man at the check-in desk in front of us. An older oriental man stood beside him looking like a midget in comparison. A couple of teen girls who was going with us came bouncing over to me and said, “That’s got to be Yao Ming!” Naively I asked, “And who is Yao Ming?” “The tallest basketball player in the world!” they almost shouted. “We want a picture with him but we’re embarrassed to ask him! You go, please, please, please!”
So, being the social clod that I can be, I sauntered over to him and asked him. He shyly responded that yes, he was, and this was his father (who stands 6 ft. 7 inches.) Would he allow his picture taken with the girls? Of course,…and it made the girl’s whole trip.
When I think of that, and I think of standing next to such theological and spiritual greats as St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and some of my personal heroes, Benedict, Cuthbert, and the un-named monk who built his cell on the isle of Iona whose foundation is still there and that meant so much to me, I am reminded on whose giant shoulders I stand. Like the girls next to Yao Ming, I feel pretty small, and yes, maybe I am small compared to them, but I’m part of the same great flow of the Spirit that gave them a home and a place to shine. I have my place, too, and you, and you, and you. We’re not in the Center, that’s Jesus’ place, and maybe we don’t shine quite as brightly as other lights as far as we can see, but our own candles in the wind are part of the whole.
We’re broken, tarnished, incomplete and sometimes downright obnoxious, but that’s somehow not a deal breaker. They say Martin Luther could drink anybody under the table! These greats had their flaws, too, and yet they shone. The Jewish wise man, Kotzker Rebbe, said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” Humility, the willingness to admit our creatureliness, our brokenness and our pain, as well as our glory and our strength, and to be willing to live out of that pain and glory, honestly and genuinely, to the glory of God and the good of the world, and finally, to be drawn back to the great Source from whence we came, this is what it means to be human, this is what it means to be a Christian. This is what it means to be a member of the Saints in Light, one of the ones who is still running the course. Can you hear the echo of the celestial cheering squad, millions strong, cheering us on?
Sisters and brothers in Christ, we stand in a great cloud of witnesses, the Communion of the Saints in Light, right here, right now, and forever in the eternal Now of God. Amen.