November 1, 2009
SERMON OF NOVEMBER 1, 2009
ALL SAINTS SUNDAY
M. Bruce McKay
Pilgrim - St. Luke’s United Church of Christ
“The Communion of Saints”
Isaiah 25:6-9, Revelation 21:1-6a
Preparing for today’s service I found myself thinking about someone who played a critical role in my being called as your pastor 20 years ago.
Linda LaFlair was the chair of the search committee. Her energy, openness and passion for the church and its ministry helped me hear our Still Speaking God call me from the Church of the Living Hope in New York City to Pilgrim-St. Luke’s in Buffalo.
I’ve found myself thinking this week about Linda LaFlair not so much because of how she lived, but because of how she died. Linda had a particularly aggressive form of cancer. As it took its toll on her body she withdrew more and more into herself. She stopped worshipping regularly and became more reclusive, often resisting our attempts to be present with her at the end.
One of the saddest, more heart-wrenching calls I’ve ever received came well before dawn on November 13, 2009. It was Marianne, Linda’s best friend, crying into the phone, “She’s dead! She’s dead! Linda is dead!”
In addition to being at the heart of our church family, Linda had an important place in our family as well. Our boys were just 4 and 6 at the time of her death and she had shown great interest in them throughout the 2 years we’d been in Buffalo.
When Phoebe and I told Micah and Luke about Linda’s death, we began by saying, “We have some sad news for you.” After we told them what had happened, Micah, the 4 year old, said, “OK, now what’s the happy news?”
Luke didn’t say anything. He instead went to get some paper and crayons and drew a picture that in some ways answered his brother’s question.
In the top left corner of the picture was a woman crying. In the opposite corner at the top was a large cross. In the center was a man crying, with two hearts on either side of him. At the bottom was a grey tomb with flowers on either side. Linda’s name was on the tomb, and her smiling face was floating just above it.
When I asked Luke about the woman crying at the top of the picture he said it was Marianne. The man crying in the center was Jesus.
The happy news – the news that perhaps put the smile on Linda’s face – the Good News that comes to us in our family of faith on this All Saints Sunday - is the promise revealed to the Seer in the 21st Chapter of the Book of Revelation – the promise that assures us that:
“…the home of God is among mortals…and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more , mourning and crying and pain will be no more…” (Rev. 21:3-4)
On this All Saints Sunday we remember the preciousness of loved ones who have died - we celebrate the heavenly hope that sustained them and sustains us on this side of death’s door - and we celebrate what the church has called through the ages “the Communion of Saints.”
This early understanding of the church, included from the second century in what later became The Apostles Creed (8th century) affirmed the mystical union of those in this life and those in the life to come.
Using Paul’s understanding of the church as the Body of Christ, the Communion of Saints extends this mystical body to include the souls of those who have, as the song says, “Gone home to be with God.”
To fully explore this notion of the Communion of Saints would take far more time than we have this morning and far more understanding than I have today or any other day for that matter.
So rather than try to preach about what I don’t know - taking more time than any of us want to give, I’ll simply tell you what I know, which won’t take too much time at all.
I know that we don’t have to wait until we die to be at home with God – for as today’s text reminds us, “the home of God is among mortals.” (Rev. 21:3)
That’s the message embodied in the birth of Jesus, when God’s Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
God is as present in this life as in the life to come as the One who was and is and always shall be, world without end.
I also know that God is the eternal ground of our being (Tillich) who is as present at the end of our lives as God was present at our beginning.
I know that this God whose home is with us is the God, in whose Spirit we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) from the time we were knit together in our mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13) until the moment when our last breath leaves our lungs and beyond that moment.
I know that this God, whose home is with us, is the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end – the creator of our physical lives and the presence of eternal life both here and now and then and there, in our heavenly home.
Death is not the moment when God says, “It’s been nice knowing you, so long,” but rather, “Gotcha!” ((Pulpit Resource, William Willimon, Oct.-Dec. 2009, p.22)
“C.S. Lewis said that he was confident, on the basis of his experience of God in this life, that the same God who had so sought him, and hounded him, and found him in life would do the same in death.” (Pulpit Resource, W. Willimon, Oct.-Dec. 2009, p.22)
I know that this God, whose home is with us is the God who seeks us and finds us in ways that break down the barriers between the physical and spiritual dimension of our lives creating a sense of connectedness that is devilishly difficult to describe.
The best description I’ve found is that of a pastor in the novel Driftless by David Rhodes. Pastor Winnie was standing on a small wooden bridge when she heard her name spoken:
“Accompanying the sound,” Rhodes writes, “came the sense of someone beside her, behind her, before her, around her, someone she couldn’t see and couldn’t touch, someone whose presence was intensified through the absence of anything to attribute it to…
She felt light enough to float. It seemed as if the breeze moving across the marsh could carry her with it. She held this feeling for a moment then realized something very uncommon was happening. The grasses in the ditch appeared to be glowing. The red, cone-shaped sumac tops burned like incandescent lamps in a bluish light unlike any she had ever seen yet instinctively recognized.
And the pleasure of recognition – discovering the familiar within the unknown – comforted her with its stillness. She looked at her hands and they seemed to be lit from inside, her fingers almost transparent. The light glowing within the grasses and the sumac glowed within her, within everything. They sang with her through the light, jubilantly, compassionately, timelessly connecting to her past, present and future. Boundaries did not exist. Where she left off and something else began could not be established. Everything breathed…otherness had been obliterated.
She participated in being looked at as much as looking. She was not simply having a vision of something; she was something in a larger vision…
The solitary miracle of Pure Grace held everything (else) inside it, wonder and peace. Death stood before her and she recognized it – a mere shadow cast by life, not a separation; the breathing of life bound it up as shape binds substance…
As her sense of herself as an autonomous individual migrated into everything around her, her sense of isolation and loneliness merged into belonging. She found her true home and her true home found her.” (p. 108-109)
Pastor Winnie’s powerful sense of communion with God in this life suggests the time envisioned by the prophet Isaiah when God will destroy “the shroud that is cast over all peoples , the sheet that is spread over all nations, and (he) will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces…” (Isaiah 25:7-8a)
I know that this God, whose home is with us, enters our lives as Pure Grace, creating the generosity of Spirit found in the lives of those whom we have remembered this morning and those whom you have remembered in your heart.
I heard about a bumper sticker this week that says, “God prefers spiritual fruits to religious nuts.” (Christian Century, Nov. 3, 2009, p. 9).
There are some who might say that the experience of Pastor Winnie is more that of a “religious nut” than evidence of “spiritual fruit.”
In the same way, there are some who might say that death brings oblivion rather than communion and to think otherwise is to be a “religious nut.”
And yet, here we are on this All Saints Sunday offering our thanks and praise to God with the conviction that death is not the end of our communion with God and with one another – the conviction that the ties that bind us together with those we love and those whom God would have us love - are more powerful even than death.
I know that this God whose home is with us was present in a carpenter’s son from Nazareth who wept outside the tomb of Lazarus and who weeps at each and every death, including the death of Linda LaFlair – and the deaths of all those whom we’ve remembered on this day.
In the picture Luke drew for Marianne Jesus was at the center weeping.
The tomb had Linda’s name written on it. Just as there’s a tomb for each of us – with our name written on it.
And yet, we too can live and die with a smile on our face, like the smile on Linda’s face in Luke’s picture, because the tomb with Jesus’ name written on it was empty – meaning our lives can be full – full of the compassion and courage we need to live the life we were created to live as the saints of God!
After Linda LaFlair’s death, Micah continued to include her in the long litany of people whom he asked God to bless each night in his prayers.
When I told him that he didn’t have to do that because Linda had died. He said , “Don’t you want God to still bless her?”
“Yes,” I said, “Of course I want God to still bless her.”
May we all continue to seek the blessing of the God we seeks us - in this life and in the life to come!
And may we all give thanks for all the saints - for our communion with them and with the God who was “their rock, their refuge and their might!”
To God be the glory this day and forever more!