Sunday, November 3, 2013

All Saints Sunday

November 3, 2013
Ephesians 1.11-23

+ There are sometimes, in my job, when all I seem to do to is field questions from people. Normally, as some of you might know firsthand, I can handle so many in a certain period of times. Nothing makes me more impatient at times.

But, for the most part, I really don’t mind questions, as long as they are well-intended questions. In fact, as long as they’re valid questions, I actually enjoy answering questions.

Well, yesterday I got one of those questions I actually enjoy getting. But the person asking was very apprehensive. A regular parishioner here  very apprehensively asked this question,

Why pray for the dead, as they have lived their lives in this world and will reap due payment in the afterlife? How will my prayers help them after the fact?

It was a great and, dare I say, a very timely question, certainly at this time in the Church Year in which we commemorate both the saints of God, and pray and remember all those who have died.

Yes, like the Roman Catholic Church, we do pray for our dead as Episcopalians.  You will hear us as Episcopalians make a petition when someone dies that you won’t hear in the Lutheran Church, or the Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church. When someone dies, you will hear me say, “I ask your prayers for the repose of the soul of…”

Praying in such a way for people who have passed has always been a part of our Anglican tradition, and will, no doubt, continue to be a part of our tradition.  And I can tell you, I  like that idea of praying for those who have died.

But we don’t pray for people have died for the same reasons Roman Catholics do. In other words, we don’t pray to free them from purgatory, as though our prayers could somehow change God’s mind.  Rather, we pray for our deceased loved ones in the same way we pray for our living loved ones. We pray for them to connect, through God, with them.

Actually, that answer falls a bit flat. Let’s hear what the Book of Common Prayer says about it. And, yes, the Book of Common Prayer addresses this issue directly.  I am going to have you pick up your Prayer Books and look in the back, to the Catechism. There, on page 862 you get the very important question:

Why do we pray for the dead?

The answer (and it’s very good answer): We pray for them, because we still hold them in our love, and because we trust that in God's presence those who have chosen to serve him will grow in his love, until they see him as he is.

That is a great answer. We pray that those who have chosen God will grow in God’s love.  So, essentially, just because we die, It does not seem to mean that we stop growing in God’s love and presence.  I think that is wonderful and beautiful. And certainly worthy of our prayers.

But even more so than this definition, I think that, because we are uncertain of exactly what happens to us when we die, there is nothing wrong with praying for those who have crossed into that mystery we call “the nearer Presence of God.” After all, they are still our family and friends. They are still part of who we are.

Now, I know that this idea of praying for those who have died  makes some of us very uncomfortable. And I understand why. I understand that it flies in the face of our more Protestant upbringings. This is exactly what the other Reformers rebelled against and freed us from. But, even they never did away with this wonderful All Saints Feast we are celebrating this morning.

This morning we are commemorating and remembering those people in our lives who have helped us, in various way, to know God. As you probably have guessed from the week-long commemoration we have made here at St. Stephen’s regarding the Feast of All Saints, I really do love this feast.  With the death of many of my own loved ones in these last few years, this Feast has taken on particular significance for me. What this feast shows me is what you have heard me preach in many funeral sermons again and again.

I truly, without a doubt, believe that what separates those of us who are alive here on earth, from those who are now in the “nearer presence of God” is truly a very thin one. And to commemorate them and to remember them is a good thing for all us.

Now, I do understand, as I said before, that all this talk of saints makes some of us more “Protestant minded” a bit uncomfortable.  But…I do want us to think long and hard about the saints we have known in our lives. And we have all known saints in our lives.

We have known those people who have shown us, by their example, by their good, that God works through us.  And I want us to at least realize that God still works through us even after we have departed from this mortal coil. Ministry in one form or the other, can continue, even following our deaths.

Hopefully, we can still, even after our deaths, do good and work toward furthering the Kingdom of God by the example we have left behind. For me, the saints—those people who have gone before us—aren’t gone. They haven’t just disappeared. They haven’t just floated away and dissipated like clouds out of our midst. No, rather they are here with us, still.  They join with us, just as the angels do, when we celebrate the Eucharist.

For, especially in the Eucharist, we find that “veil” lifted for a moment. In this Eucharist that we celebrate together at this altar, we find the divisions that separate us are gone. We see how thin that veil truly is.  We see that death truly does not have ultimate power over us.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I have heard stories from one priest or layperson or the other who have said they have experienced, especially during the Eucharist, the presence, in a sometimes nearly empty church, of the multitude of saints, gathered together to worship. That is the way Holy Communion should be.  It’s not just us, gathered here at the altar.  It’s the Communion of all the saints.

In fact, before we sing that glorious hymn, “Holy, Holy Holy” during the Eucharistic rite, you hear me say, “with angels and saints and all the company of heaven we sing this hymn of praise.” That isn’t just sweet, poetic language. It’s what we believe and hope in.

In these last few years, after losing so many people in my family and among close friends, I think I have felt their presence most keenly, at times, here at this altar when we are gathered together for the Eucharist then at any other time.  I have felt them here with us.  And in those moments when I have, I know in ways I never have before, how thin that veil is between us and “them.”

You can see why I love this feast. It not only gives us consolation in this moment, separated as we are from our loved ones, but it also gives us hope.  We know, in moments like this, where we are headed.  We know what awaits us.

No, we don’t know it in detail.  We’re not saying there are streets paved in gold or puffy white clouds with chubby little baby angels floating around. We don’t have a clear vision of that place.

But we do sense it. We do feel it. We know it’s there, just beyond our vision, just out of reach and out of focus. And “they” are all there, waiting for us. They—all the angels, all the saints, all our departed loved ones.

So, this morning—and always—we should rejoice in this fellowship we have with them. We should rejoice as the saints we are and we should rejoice with the saints that have gone before us.

In our collect this morning, we prayed that “we may come to those ineffably joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.”

Those ineffably joys await us.  They are there, just on the other side of that thin veil.  And if we are only patient, we too, as Paul tells us in his letter to the Ephesians this morning, will obtain that inheritance that they have gained and we will live with them in that place of unimaginable joy and light.


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