My sermon for the Sunday after All Saints, at a joint service of the Church of the Epiphany and Saint Peter's Lutheran Church.
“Today is Randy Giles’ birthday!” Facebook cheerily told me on July 22 this year.
Except Randy is dead. He died over a year ago in India, where he had spent the last decades of his life as a missionary and musician.
But his Facebook page lives on. There is no death on Facebook, it seems. And on his birthday, as I was reminded of him, I looked at his page: hundreds of messages from other friends wishing him a happy birthday—and these were not people who were unaware that he had died, mind you—these were people who missed him, and who, through their comments, expressed their love, their longing, their sadness, and their prayers that he was enjoying the heavenly banquet.
It struck me that this is an interesting—and odd—example of the modern communion of saints. You die on earth, but you live on online. Randy didn’t have children or close family members to take down his page. There was no one to close that door. And in the absence of such a person, his page goes on, and is a place where friends still post remembrances, good wishes, and commune with him in an odd sort of way. It seems a blessing. Sort of like visiting someone’s grave, or saying a prayer remembering them, except in this case each person who reaches out to him on his wall is joined in a community of other people who loved Randy, linked through his life to hundreds of other lives. A cybercommunion of saints.
When faced with death, the church has always tried to straddle the divide between grief and hope. We grieve, because we miss those who have died. We miss seeing their face, hearing their voice, encountering them in myriad ways, and they are gone from our daily lives in the way we are accustomed to finding them. Death is real. And—not but—AND, we hope for resurrection, and even when we grieve, we do not grieve as those without hope. We do believe in reunion, we do believe that in the resurrected life, that we and all the saints in light will be sitting around a heavenly banquet table with Jesus at the center someday. We believe in the communion of saints—the real one, not the cyber one.
So it’s a full church today. Lots of living people, from two earthly communions of the Episcopal church and the Lutheran church; and lots of people who have died, present here in spirit, in their names being read aloud, in our memories of them, and in our recalling with John of Patmos his vision of the great multitude of those who have passed through the great ordeal of life and gone on into greater glory and greater closeness with Jesus.
During Lent, I preached a sermon about the communion of saints gathering around the Eucharistic table, and was expecting to be conscious of the presence at that table of those who I’ve buried at Epiphany over the last eight years. But the presence I felt, ever so palpably and surprisingly, was Lot Jones, and Uriah Tracey, and all the old rectors of Epiphany whose photos are on the walls, and whose names we are reading today. I stood at the altar, and I felt their hands on my shoulders in this line of ministry all the way back to 1833. Maybe Pastor Derr will experience something similar today. They were at the table and I felt both the weight of their hands and the support of their hands.
One key to fully embracing the communion of saints, for me, is to make sure that isn’t just a once-a-year experience. Yes, when we are celebrating this merging of All Saints day and All Souls Day, we have a particular focus on those who have died, but if we truly believe that with death life is changed and not ended, then the communion of saints is a constant thing, not a special event. Every time we worship, every time we gather at this table, the saints surround us. And they do that both to give us their weight—our inheritance of traditions and theology and liturgy and story—and to give us their support: they have passed through the great ordeal, and now we are going through the great ordeal and they are rooting for us. The saints want to encourage our faithfulness, to inspire our lives so that we might move ever closer to a world in which the “blessed” of the beatitudes are a reality and not just a hope for the future.
Some churches have art that reminds us of that. Not here—St. Peter’s walls are pretty bare, and so are Epiphany’s. But other churches have art. The new Roman Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles, where I’m from, is a beautiful and simple building of sand colored stone. The main adornment is a set of tapestries hanging along the sides of the nave of 135 “saints and blesseds” and a few people in modern dress, all with very realistic faces modeled on people who lived in LA in the 1990s. St. Peter, St. Augustine, St. Katharine—all faces you could pass on the street every day. They worship with the assembly every week, a visual reminder that our altar is not just an altar for the people physically present, but for the wider church as well.
St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco takes it a step further—they have an incredible painting of icons of dancing saints around the inside of the dome that tops their altar. That congregation dances every Sunday around the table, I think I remember that it’s two steps forward and one step back, while holding the shoulder of the person in front of you, in a spiral around the altar as the congregation moves from where they have the service of the word to the table. And the saints are dancing, too—but at Gregory of Nyssa, they understand saints in a rather loose form, including both Hebrew Bible figures like Moses’ sister Miriam, and more modern, less overtly Christian figures like Caesar Chavez, and Charles Darwin, and John Muir; also Anne Hutchinson, and Mahatma Ghandi and Sojourner Truth. But they are all people whose lives point us towards the Beatitudes today: they were all people who are blessed. They were the poor in Spirit, they were those who hungered and thirsted for righteousness, they were peacemakers, they were persecuted for righteousness’ sake.
Martin Luther is one of the dancers on the wall at Gregory of Nyssa. Picture Martin dancing around the altar today. My husband Jonathan and I have disagreed about whether Martin Luther on earth had it in him to dance; Jonathan as a devoted follower of Luther believing that he knew what it was to dance around after a few cups of ale; I as an Anglican who knows more of Luther’s theology than hagiography seeing him as a rather sterner personage; when he says, “Here I stand, I can do no other” I believe him—dancing doesn't seem to follow that.
But isn’t that what the communion of saints is about—we are liberated in Christ from our faults, from our inhibitions, and from our place in time, and set free to dance in an endless celebration. If the Holy Trinity dances in an endless circle of perichoresis, then surely we will dance as well. Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer and you and I and all those whose names we are reading today dancing and singing and praising with Christ at our center. It’s the vision we’re about to sing about in the final verse of “For all the Saints”… “From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Alleluia, Alleluia!”