Sunday, November 4, 2018

All Saints Sunday

November 4, 2018

Revelation21.1-6a

+ Today is, as you have probably realized, is All Saints Sunday. From the very earliest days of the Church, this has been one of the highpoints of the Church year. It’s an important feast. And it’s important not just because we honor saints like St. Stephen, or Mary the mother of Jesus, or St. Joseph or any of the other saints.
It’s an important days because it is a day in which honor also those loved ones in our own lives who have gone before us. It is a time for us to honor our departed loved ones, as well as those we might not know about. Honoring and praying for those who have departed this life has always been an important part of the Church.

But, there are some branches of the Church that do not honor saints in this manner. If you come from a Lutheran or Methodist or a Presbyterian background, there may be some way of honoring those who have gone before, but prayers are usually not prayed for them, for whatever theological reason those particular denominations might hold.

But, for us, as Anglicans and Episcopalians, it has always been a part of our tradition to actually remember the departed in our prayers and to specifically pray for them. 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 probably get a prayer request from me that begins, “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 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, and this is important: we don’t pray for people have died for the same reasons other branches of Christianity, like 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.

So, why do we Episcopalians pray for the departed? Well, let’s see what the Book of Common Prayer says.  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.

Now, 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.

But, if you’re still not convinced, here’s an answer from no greater person than one of the treasures of the Anglican Church—C.S. Lewis. Lewis wrote,
"Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden. At our age, the majority of those we love best are dead. What sort of intercourse with God could I have if what I love best were unmentionable to [God]?

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.
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 my mother this last year and with many of my own loved ones having died 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.

I do want us to think today 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 really does work 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. 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.

They are there, in that place we heard about in our reading today from Revelation.

That place in which God “will dwell with them as their God;
Where we will be God’s peoples

They are there were God wipes “every tear from their eyes.
Where “Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away."

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