A Great Cloud of Witnesses

Text of the sermon preached on All Saints Day (November 1, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Cornelius Episcopal Church in Dodge City, KS.

Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 24
Revelation 21:1-6a
John 11:32-44

Outside the little town of Chartres in France, you drive on ordinary country roads past ordinary little farm houses until you see something so extraordinary that your eyes almost disbelieve. For there, shimmering in the morning mist, is a church so supernaturally beautiful that it appears to be descending to earth. At the first sight of it, you catch your breath and say something dumb like “Now that’s what I call a beautiful churchchurch.” Of course, what you mean is, “that’s a church!” That’s the church as it is portrayed in the reading from the Book of Revelation today — “descending from heaven, adorned as a bride.” Triumphant. Beautiful. Transcendent.

One of my favorite drives to make in Sewanee, was taking the backroad down the mountain out by my house. Once you got down the mountain there was this little Episcopal Church. It too is located on an ordinary road in an ordinary cornfield. However, it does not appear to be descending from heaven but its worn red bricks seem to grow up out of the soil. There are no tour buses in its parking lot, and it definitely does not shimmer in the morning mist. It is capped of not by a majestic tower, but by a peeling steeple with a cross that sits there crooked.

These two churches are a parable of All Saints Day. Yet they are not two churches but two dimensions of one church — the church above that lives by sight, and the church below that struggles by faith. In the church above — there is no suffering, mourning, or grief. no disease, no addiction, violence, no heart monitors or infusion bags. In the church below — well, you know. These two sibling congregations almost never meet except on All Saints Day, the day the church sets aside to remember the suffering and to imagine the glory.

There are two ways of getting to know the saints, just as there are two ways of learning about Impressionistic painting. You can take a course on Impressionism and listen to hours upon hours of lectures for a semester, OR you can walk into the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and stand in awe in front of a 42-foot-wide Monet and let it explain what Impressionism is all about. For some of us, we are grateful for the saints because we’ve read the book of Revelation or have studied church history. Others of us are grateful for the saints because we’ve lived in the presence of one person in whom the goodness of God was condensed and focused, and in whom the glory was visible, and that is enough. Your entire education in sainthood may have to come to you through the prism of one “for instance.”

It might have been the grandmother who prayed you through a difficult childhood

They even make statues of grandmothers!

They even make statues of grandmothers!

(grandmothers tend to be really good at that). Or the person who believed in you when you didn’t believe in yourself. Or perhaps it is the college chaplain who brought you to Christ just when you were sure you had outgrown God. Or perhaps it was the parents who sacrificed everything in order to give you the opportunities that they never had. The funny thing is — these people don’t know they are saints. They never filled out or turned in an application for the job and they would be embarrassed by the title.

Sainthood never really caught on among most Protestants, unlike the Catholic church. We said the veneration of the saints might detract from salvation through Christ alone, but the real reason today has more to do with radical arrogance than radical faith. The fact is, we don’t want anybody to form or shape us in anything. That work is so important that we choose to do it for ourselves. Mentors are for people who need mentoring — not us. Big Brother/Big Sister programs are for kids at risk — not our kids. We once celebrated the self-made men, the captains of industry who helped to build the American empires. Today we’re more likely to admire those who have reinvented themselves. There was once a presidential debate in which one candidate asserted that his opponent had reinvented himself. It was not received as a compliment. Yet today, it’s considered a mark of genius. Yesterday, you were an insurance executive; today you’re a holistic healer. Yesterday, you were a disgraced politician; today you’re Dancing with the Stars. You will be successful in proportion to the chutzpah with which you thumb your nose at your former identity.

And when you stop and think about it, that’s what many of the saints did too — they made 180 degree detours from one life into another. But instead of reinventing themselves, they seem to have been reinvented by God.

The saints are our teachers. They are God’s faculty. And here is what they teach: They teach the hardest subjects. The kind that, when you’re honest with yourself you say, “I could us a tutor,” — subjects that even the world has not yet mastered and

Saints teach us something a little different than math!

Saints teach us something a little different than math!

perhaps never will. They teach us how to forgive. They teach us how to say no to power. They teach us how to forget our own problems and to serve others. But most of all, the saints teach us how to die.

As you might or might not know, the church doesn’t observe the birthdays of the saints and martyrs, but we observe their death days. The story of a saint always begins with a rollicking good death. It’s as if the church is asking, “What is it about this life and this set of commitments that make this death so precious in God’s sight?” When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was finally summoned from his cell to be hanged, there was someone there to record his final witness — to tell us how he refused to go to God in his prison clothes, threw them off, knelt on that hard, cold concrete floor, and how he said to the prison doctor, “For me this is the end, but also the beginning of life.” It was his last lecture.

I believe that we should also include in our list of teachers those who are not otherwise commemorated. They are the ones who quietly incorporate the routines and the indignities of dying into their walk with Jesus and thereby turn their walk into a witness. And what would we do without them? Just imagine a world where we only have victims and no witnesses.

Some years ago there was a movie with a little boy in it whose signature line was, “I see dead people.” And that freaked everybody out. For death is the ultimate taboo. It is the unmentionable subject in polite conversation. Better not to talk about it, because you might say the wrong thing. Those who grieve are often stunned by the silence that surrounds their loss. Our culture teaches us: That death is a private matter between you and your hospice nurse. Grief is a private matter between you and your therapist. Even hope is a private matter between you and your priest. Despair is a private matter between you and your broken heart.

There is a website that you can go to and anonymously confess your sins. On the site there is a little box where you type in your sins: “I lie. I cheated. I stole.” —Whatever. And then —I’m not making this up — you just click on the forgive button. Only imagine, you’ve opened a vein in your soul by confessing your sins, but no absolution. No table brimming with bread and wine. And no saints to throw their arms around you and to welcome you home. Faith is a private matter. Shhh.

But look up! Look up to the heavens and see all of the saints. Look around and see our sisters and brothers contending to be faithful. And realize that you don’t have to be so lonely. In fact, through our baptismal vows we are made part of a great cloud of witnesses. Which we will renew our baptismal vows in just a minute. We are not alone.

In the Roman world the dead were buried outside of the walls of the city in a necropolis of their own. It’s the oldest form of segregation. Not a “separate but equal” but a “dead therefore separate.” Then the church began doing something unthinkable in a pagan society. Effectively it said, “We see dead people and behold

These haven't always been next to the churches or in towns!

These haven’t always been next to the churches or in towns!

they are good.” Christians began taking their bread and wine and holy books out into the cemeteries where they faithful were buried and began worshipping with them. Then they began doing something even more radical. They began moving the dead inside the walls and onto sacred ground where they could be nestled around the church. And then they even moved some of them inside of the church. They began treating the dead saints as friends, invisible companions, and teachers.

And just think of what they have to teach! They are present to the living God night and day in a realm where there is no night and there is no day. For poor time-kept, time-worn, mutable, anxious, suffering creatures like us they offer the eternal perspective. They offer little tutorials on how to live for eternity amidst the responsibilities of time. They make it easier for us to live as though Jesus Christ really is risen from the dead, which he is. These faithful people are not figures painted on canvas or plaster, or carved into pulpits like the one I’m standing in. They are friends, companions, and teachers. And in teaching us how to die, they show us what real life is all about.

Alleluia!

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