The Communion of the Saints

Sermon for November  4, 2012
All Saints Sunday, Year B
Isaiah 25:6-9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
The Rev. Margot D Critchfield

A new feature on our webpage thanks to the new sound system at church. Here’s audio of Margot’s sermon as preached at the 10am service. The text is below.

Jesus wept.

I’d like to invite you to really think about that for a minute or two: Our Lord cried very real, very human tears of heartbreak, loss, and anguish. The kind that taste salty when they reach your lips, the kind that leave your eyes burning, your heart aching, and your body exhausted.  The kind that some of us still cry for those we miss.

Jesus wept!  Even though he knew that in just a few minutes his friend Lazarus would walk right out of that rock-hewn tomb as alive as you or me, Jesus wept.  Even though he knew that after dying a second and final time, Lazarus would rise at last to the eternal glory of resurrection life in that new heaven and new earth where death would be no more, mourning and crying and pain would be no more, and God’s own self would wipe every tear from each and every eye—even knowing all of this–Jesus wept.

It’s astonishing, really.  That even knowing  unlike anyone alive how much better the next life is than anything in this life could ever be—Jesus wept.

Why?  Because death is heart breaking.  Because death was not part of God’s original plan for us.  And because mourning the death of someone we love in this life– and celebrating the promise of their new and better life in the next– are not mutually exclusive.

And so on this All Saints Celebration Sunday—when we remember in particular  eight remarkable saints from our own parish family that we’ve buried just since All Saints Sunday last year—our grief is palpable. And it needs to be named and honored. There are broken hearts among us.  Hearts that loved Audrey, Jane, Helen, Barbara, Lester, Priscilla, Betty, and Margaret…Hearts that still hurt.  Hearts that we all love.

So it is good to remember that Jesus wept.  It is good to remember that even with his insider’s certainty of resurrection life—a certainty beyond anything you or I could ever begin to hope for—Jesus nonetheless wept.  He wept for Lazarus, he wept for himself, he wept for a world in which death was still a part of life—but more than anything he wept for Mary and Martha.  He wept for Mary and Martha because it so totally broke his heart to see their hearts break so totally.  And he weeps with us no less.

You know, the liturgy we use at funerals and memorial services is fundamentally what our Prayer Book refers to as “an Easter liturgy.” It’s an Easter liturgy, the Prayer Book explains, because, “It finds all its meaning in the resurrection,” and because it assures us that, “because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.”

But the Prayer Book doesn’t stop there. I’d like everyone to get a Prayer Book from the rack in front of you right now and open it to page 507, then put your finger on the beginning of the second paragraph. Because this is so important I want us to read these last two paragraphs out loud, together.  It may have been written about the Liturgy of the Dead, but it couldn’t be more appropriate for today’s Liturgy of All the Saints:

“The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, in the certainty that ‘neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’

This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the grave of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.”

Did you hear that?   “…while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.”

We rejoice and we sorrow!  The celebration of All Saints Day invites us to a place of “both/and”.  We “sing a song of the saints of God” while we mourn that they’re no longer with us; we offer our thanks while we weep with sadness, ask forgiveness while we weep with joy; we remember what was, treasure what is, and look forward to what will be– and we do it all with such divinely human doubt and hope, fear and faith, cowardice and courage!

All Saints Sunday is God’s Church at her best.  Never are we as aware as we are today that as alone as we may sometimes feel, that aloneness is an illusion.  Because we are deeply, permanently, and profoundly connected in the communion of the saints…all the saints: Those saints with a capital “S” like our patron saint, Stephen; those saints we love so dearly who have gone before us into new life in Christ; and those ordinary saints who sit next to us, in front of us, and behind us in these pews. We are not alone; as Christians we will never be alone in Christ’s church: We are bound together in the Communion of the Saints.

And we are surrounded by what the apostle Paul calls that, “great cloud of witnesses”— those saints in our lives whose names we read at the beginning of our service, and those saints in the life of this church whose own prayers began saturating the walls of this church long before any of us were even bor—but without whom we wouldn’t be here.

You see, we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves.  Something mysterious and powerful and gloriously inexplicable and life-giving—and that something is the Communion of the Saints, the Body of Christ, God’s one holy and apostolic church.  So we laugh even as we cry; we hope even as we despair; and we celebrate even as we mourn.

This, my friends, is what it means to be a saint.

A couple of weeks ago, I invited you each to keep a running list for one week, in writing, of all the things for which you were grateful as you went about your daily lives.  Today I invite you to make a list of all the saints in your life for whom you are grateful—both living and dead—and to include next to their names at least one reason why you are grateful for them.  What gift have they given you?  How have they inspired you or made you a better person?  What have they taught you about living a life of love and compassion?  Be sure to thank God for each of theses saints individually by name, and ask God to bless them.

Then take a look at the reasons you listed for being grateful for these saints living and dead–and recognize that you and I are the next generation. As one writer I stumbled upon this week reminded her readers, sooner or later we’ll all have our names read on All Saints Day. So as our days get shorter and Advent approaches, it’s worth considering what gift we’ll be leaving to those who come after us… worth reflecting a little about how we’ll be remembered…worth asking ourselves how our lives will be celebrated when we join that great cloud of witnesses.

But finally, remember always, that we are all saints of God—deeply, permanently, and profoundly connected—both living and dead, in this life and in the next.  Remember that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves, something mysterious and powerful, gloriously inexplicable and life-giving.

Because  on this All Saints Sunday in the year 2012, at St Stephen’s Church in Cohasset, Massachusetts, that is the good news of the gospel.  That is the  good news that’s well worth celebrating.  And it is mighty good news indeed!  Amen.

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