Year B, All Saints’ November 1, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God…”
Four years ago, All Saints’ Day 2011 was my first day as your priest here at Resurrection. I just want to say thank you. This has been a profound time in my life and the life of my family, and being in relationship with all of you, falling in love with all of you in this community has been one of the very best things that has happened in my life. Together we are worshiping, glorifying God with our presence at this altar, with the words we say, the prayers we make and the service we render unto our neighbors and each other. We have undergone a lot of changes in how we do things and say things, a lot of faces aren’t here anymore and a lot of new ones are, and this place smells a bit more like incense on occasion. It hasn’t been a rose garden the whole time, and I deeply appreciate how forgiving you all have been as I have learned how to be a priest, let alone how to be your priest. Windy, the girls and I look forward to many All Saints’ Days here with you all here.
In a very good natured kind of way, my priest colleagues in town gave me the honor of preaching at the All Saints’ service that very first night of my ministry here. And in that sermon, I spoke about one of the most remarkable pieces of religious art I have ever experienced. Has anyone here been to the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the cathedral of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles? It is a fabulous church. It is in sort of mission style, but is starkly modern in poured concrete. And most spectacular about the whole building is that the starting point of the design process for the building and all major building systems and furnishings is that it would be designed to last 500 years. Only the church can start a project and say it must last for at least 500 years. That gladdens my soul.
One of the furnishings designed to last 500 years is an array of tapestries by artist John Nava that line the walls of the nave. It is a cycle of 25 tapestries, all 7 feet wide by up to 21 feet tall. And depicted on them are the images of 135 saints of the church. The title of the piece is “The Communion of Saints.” And the way it is done is brilliant. The images are of saints. The name is below each image, Sts. Augustine, Mary Magdalene, Dominic, from across the history of the church, and above is the image of a person. They are in the dress of the saint’s period, or what we know them to look like, for some, like St. John the XXIII are quite modern. And the faces and postures are all from photographs taken by the artist of friends of his, and they are taken in the posture that each of them uses when they pray. Some are like this, some like this… All of this was digitized, then programmed for a very special loom in Bruges, Belgium, that took two months to weave them. And another tapestry hangs behind the altar, framing things much like our window, and it is very abstract, and the background is actually a schematic of the highway system of LA. The whole thing is beautiful, brilliant.
The effect is spectacular. The tapestries line each side of the nave, and all of the figures are facing very precisely, right in line with the congregation, right at the altar. One hundred thirty five giant saints, seven of them unnamed representing the anonymous saints in every generation, and all facing, in a posture of prayer and adoration, towards the holy altar of God. I had the good fortune to pray there maybe ten years ago. It was amazing, but it was also a Tuesday afternoon and it was part of a conference of academic theologians, not particularly ecstatic. I can only imagine what it would be like to pray there on a Sunday, or a festival day like maybe today, the Feast of All Saints’. Being there in that space, with that crowd… it could really help you to feel that you are in fact in the company of the communion of saints; that you are in fact in relationship with the saints of the church in every age. It is art doing its very best, bringing us places, or bringing places and people and feelings and presence to us and transforming us into something different, something better.
Today is the feast of All Saints’. It is one of our principle feasts of the year, a Solemnity. And it is part of a three day cycle of feast and fast, All Hallows Eve yesterday, today All Saints’ and tomorrow, the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed, or All Souls’. This is the Christian season of death, the days of the dead as celebrated so colorfully by our Mexican brothers and sisters. Informed by our pagan ancestors, this cycle is observed in the natural season of death, too. It is Autumn. The leaves are down. The fields are slipping into dormancy. The cold and wet are culling the herds of deer and elk of the weak and sick, as are the hunters, human and otherwise. And in the pre-industrial, pre-refrigeration northern hemisphere, about now would be the time we slaughter pigs and cows, using the cold to preserve part of that harvest. We are doing our formation series on death because this is the season of death, creeping up to the darkest days of the year.
We’ve been having just fantastic conversations in this forum. Death is one of those things that all of us face, and all of us have feelings about it. It has been marvelous to hear the hopes and dreams and wonderings and concerns and fears and encounters that our brothers and sisters here have had with death. We have heard of violence and tragedy. Fear and trembling. Sickness unto death. Lack of resolution. And we have heard of resolution. Of peace. Rest. Well deserved rest. Of going gently into that good night. Infinity. God. Resurrection. That is what we have been talking about and sharing about. Our relationship with death, our own and the death of those we love… it is desperately important to have a good relationship with death if we are to have a good relationship with life.
Our readings for today, the Propers of All Saints’ are amongst the very best our Holy Scripture has to teach us about death. St. John the Evangelist tells us about Lazarus. Lazarus died. This was Jesus’ friend, brother of Mary and Martha. This family was very important to Him. He was a regular guest in their home. How many meals they must have shared? How many late night conversations as they lay under the stars on the roof of the home where folks in those days slept to escape the heat. Lazarus died and Jesus wept. “See how much he loved him!” they said.
And St. John the Divine, in one of the towering moments in the New Testament writes, “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away… I am making all things new… It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.”
And the even more ancient wisdom of Solomon. “In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality.”
“…their hope…” That has been something that has struck me in all of my ministry, confirmed again in the conversations we’ve been having; how much hope people find at the time of death. For the dying and for the left behind there is great sadness and loss in death. Mourning and grieving are necessary, and we are not that good at it as a people, we Americans, we idolize life and youth in an unhealthy and unnatural way. Mourning and grieving are not hopeless acts. They are acts of great hope, actually. Mourning and grieving are signs of the value of life, they are ways that we move from an encounter with the thin space of death and that we carry the dead not only forward with us into our lives in the wake of their death, but they we carry them also forward into death, sending them off into a new life into God. As we commend the dead in Burial Rite II: “For so did you say when you created me, saying, ‘You are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.”
Christianity teaches that there is a beginning and there is an end, an Alpha and Omega. There is a progression of time, and that in the end, there will be a new heaven, and a new earth and a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. Is this in cosmic time, when red shift turns to blue and it all collapses back into itself? We can’t know, just ask Job. We do not know what happens when we die. But what we do know, what we do teach, what we do hold in faith is that it is going to be just fine. In the end, with hope, in and with the hope of the resurrection, all will be well. Much more is going on in the world then our senses or our ponderings or imaginations reveal to us. Don’t worry.
It is all about relationship. Our relationship with God. Our relationship with our loved ones. With the world around us. And here, church, it is all about relationship. We are talking about stewardship after mass. About the place this place has in our hearts, and what good our presence here does, and why it matters and why we make sacrifices to support it. It is hard to be at church. It takes a lot of work. It takes sharing. It takes knowing that you don’t get your own way all the time. It means sharing time and space with folks who might annoy you to distraction. That is the practice of community. And that is what church is, a site of practice. We learn to get along better with God and our selves by practicing the holy patience that it takes to maintain community. The heart of our faith, even the root of our primary metaphor for God, the Trinity, is that it is all about relationship. That is what we need to have faith in, relationship. “See how he loved him!” Jesus Christ’s relationship with Lazarus was stronger then death. His relationship with us can be, too, though maybe not as obviously.
That is what All Saints’ is all about, relationship. It is a moment to remember that there are many who have who have gone before, but they are not gone. They are not gone, they are not destroyed, they have not descended into the pit, hidden from God and us forever. No, we die in hope. Hope of the resurrection. Hope that “…they will shine forth, they will run like sparks through the stubble.” Hope that your relationship will span the division between the living and the dead. Hope that the communion of saints, that mystical cloud of witnesses from across the ages is gathered here with us and in us, lining these aisles, facing this altar just like they feel like they do at the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels. God bless you all on this All Saints’ Day. AMEN.