Sunday, November 6, 2016

All Saints Sunday

November 6, 2016

Ephesians 1.11-23

+ This past Tuesday was a very important day in the Church. Capital C. The wider, universal Church. It was one of the really important feast days. November 1 was All Saints Day. It is the day in which we commemorate all the saints who now dwell with Christ in heaven. It is a beautiful feast.
And we, here at St. Stephen’s, celebrated the day appropriately. We celebrated All Saints Day by celebrating a new saint—our own dear Betty De La Garza. We celebrated her life with a Requiem Mass that morning. And it was beautiful and sad and bittersweet all at once.
We Episcopalians do these things well. We do funerals well, we do commemorating our deceased loved ones well. We celebrate the saints—those who are both well-known saints and those saints who might only be known to a few—very well as Episcopalians.  
And when anyone from St. Stephen’s dies, or when anyone close to someone at St. Stephen’s dies, you will always receive an email with a request for prayer. And the request for prayer will usually begin with these words:
“The prayers of St. Stephen’s are requested for the repose of the soul of …so-and-so.”
Occasionally, someone will ask me about that prayer request. Someone will ask,
Why do we pray for the dead? We do we pray for the repose of their souls? After all, they’ve lived their lives in this world and wherever they’re going, they’re there long before a prayer request goes out.
The fact is, we DO pray for our dead.
We always have—as Anglicans and as Episcopalians. You will hear us as Episcopalians make their petition for prayer when someone dies that you won’t hear in the Lutheran Church, or the Methodist Church or the Presbyterian Church. Praying in such a way for people who have passed has always been a part of our Anglican tradition, and will 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, I want to stress, that although we and Roman Catholics both pray for our dead,  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. We pray to remember them and to wish them peace. 
Still, that might not be good enough answer for some (and that’s all right). So…let’s hear what the Book of Common Prayer says about it. And, yes, the Book of Common Prayer does address this very 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 [God] will grow in [God’s] love, until they see [God] as [God] 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 some 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 goodness, 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. And there have been moments during our own liturgies here, even fairly recently, when I have felt the presence of our departed members. Every time we worship, we worship with those who are worshipping in the Presence of Christ. And so, when we worship here, it does feel sometimes like people we loved and worshipped with are here with us still.
It is like Harriet Blow, and Betty Spur and Betty De La Garza and so many others are still with us, still here, in that one holy, thin moment when the veil between here and there is parted for a moment.  And I am very grateful for that holy moment. I am grateful to know they are still with us in some holy and beautiful way.
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. We too will live with them in that place of unimaginable joy and light. And that is a reason to rejoice this morning.
 

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