Sermon — All Saints’ Sunday (and baby S’s baptism!)
Haggai 1:15 – 2:9; Psalm 145; Luke 20:27 – 38
St. Augustine’s Chapel, Nashville
6 November 2016
Today we enact the work of the creed that we say together each week, that“we believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church. We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We look for the resurrection of the dead…”
Today, on this Sunday after All Saint’s Day, we gather for Eucharist, worship, prayer, baptism of young saints, and the remembrance of those saints who have died—as the gospel reading calls them so beautifully, the children of God and children of resurrection.
Today we bear witness to the baptism of these young ones, stand with them as they receive the grace of the Holy Spirit, as we receive the grace of their new life and vitality in the community—also children of God and children of resurrection.
Do you hear? This is amazing—a day of God shaking things up, as the prophet said. We have death and new life and everything in between, caught up into our morning worship. This is a day of our hearts being split right open, broken in the best possible way, so that the Holy Spirit might illuminate what really matters.
Today we are in what the Celtic mystics called a thin place, where the distance between heaven and earth, between the dead and the living, is somehow a little bit smaller.
I recently learned about a community of people who know and practice the mysterious thin places of life and death in a particularly beautiful and horrible way, the residents of Otsuchi, a small coastal village in northern Japan. When the 2011 tsunami hit Japan, this coastal community was devastated. Over 400 people are still missing, presumed dead. Can you even imagine? Not one single household was untouched. Knowing that life and death are just a hairs width apart, the people of Otsuchi attend to the thin place through the Wind Telephone. What is the wind telephone? you ask. Well, the wind telephone is a strange outdoor art installation—an antique phone booth in a garden. After the death of his cousin, not long before the tsunami hit, Itaru Sasaki placed this old phone booth in his garden. on a windy hill overlooking the ocean. As he grieved the loss of his cousin, Itaru wanted a quiet, special place to speak with his dead loved one. He would go into this phone booth as a prayerful space, and speak to his cousin about life, about missing him. After the tsunami, though, Itaru was not the sole mourner in the village—his entire community was overwhelmed by grief, by sudden, unexplainable death.
Recall again the reading from Haggai, a prophet who spoke of hope and future to the people of Judah straggling home after being exiled under a brutal conqueror. The Lord said through the prophet to the people: “take courage!” But how could they even begin to take courage in the face of such a tragedy?
The people of Otsuchi began to take courage in a small and beautiful way. People from the village began to show up in Itaru’s garden, stepping into the phone booth to speak to their lost loves. In a beautiful recording of these phone calls, some of the speakers express ordinary care for their loved ones, asking “are you warm enough? do you have food?” Others dial the old rotary, turning numbers of phones that were washed away with their houses and homeowners. Some pick up the phone and listen in silence and tears. And in the private simple space of a phone booth in a garden, people are connected in a grace that defies our logic and control. This is the communion of saints.
Today we gather here as children of God, children of the resurrection, children of grace. We humans are notoriously poor at receiving this grace, which is why we have to make habits of prayer and asking for one another’s forgiveness, why we need to come to the Eucharist week after week, and will be encouraged to remember our baptisms later this morning. Whether in the sacraments or in our relationships, there is a vulnerability about giving and receiving grace, and my goodness we don’t like vulnerability.
In our gospel reading today, as Jesus was talking with the Saducees, we see the human struggle against vulnerability confronted with the challenging, mind-bending grace of God.
The Saducees were members of a Jewish sect in the time of Jesus. They didn’t believe in a spiritual realm or the resurrection of the dead. When they bring this question to Jesus, about marriage in heaven, they’re nit-picking. They are just looking to trick and trap the rabbi with a false question. They’re asking about a resurrection they don’t even believe in. How annoying is that? They foreclose on the possibility of any meaningful encounter with resurrection by focusing on the quotidian. They come to the conversation as an opportunity to show how right and clever they are.
Jesus starts by responding to the question in the terms it was offered—“no, in the age to come marriage isn’t like that…” And then—I can imagine him shaking his head, frustrated and sad, “You know what, you’re worrying about the wrong thing… In God, all are alive. They are children of the resurrection—how did you get hung up on these unimportant details!” He changes the question.
How many times have we shown up like the Sadducees? We spend so much time deflecting from grace we don’t understand, because it’s more comfortable to be certain. Who among us hasn’t found ourselves bickering with a partner just to be right? Who hasn’t defended a political party or an organization, even when we might not fully agree with its positions, to be justified to our neighbors? We don’t want our hearts split open! But when we come to life on the defensive, guarding our soft underbellies from attack, we might miss out on grace.
The resurrection relationships Jesus describes to them are a kind of belonging, a community, that is an expansive, inclusive grace. The fellowship of God’s people stretches the limits of our imaginations and challenges our assumptions about who is in, who is out. It challenges our assumptions about who gets to receive the grace of Jesus Christ that only comes to us, beautiful and faulty, through one sharing life with another.
On All Saints, though, we push our imaginations to remember that the communion of saints goes beyond what we can understand about the limits of life and death. Those of us who said goodbye to our everyday saints this year, or in years past, know that the experience of loss, suffering, and death pushes on the limits of our understanding, because in the mysterious ways of God, we stay connected to those who have gone. In the resurrection, we receive the grace of connection to one another that goes beyond death. With our prayers made of pictures, stories, and memory, we call our loved departed saints children of the resurrection, and we have communion with them today.
Today we also baptize young saints. Baptism is all about being a child of the resurrection, being profoundly alive in Christ. It is a sacrament of community belonging, a belonging that cannot be earned through the work and wisdom of age, but is given without merit. And as we bless these little ones and are blessed by them, they offer a reminder of our call to be resurrection people—for our own sake and theirs.
But listen, I don’t want to romanticize this shaking up of heaven and earth or pitch a vision of community and sainthood that’s all happy harps and halos. it’s all well and good to love the poetry of the prophet, but the lived reality looks a lot more like the frustrating conversation we read in the gospel. Even with resurrection hope, the death of beloved saints is deeply painful and confusing. Even with new life in Christ, these little saints are baptized into a community of struggle and a life full of questions.
That is precisely why this is the grace that means something. God invites us into a grace that is gritty enough for planning funeral visitations and flower arrangements and closing accounts. This is a grace for the moment when we think the next contraction or the next home study will be the one to break us. It is a vulnerable grace that will not be tidied up, a grace that refuses to toe a party line, create parameters for membership, or be defined, sold, controlled, doled out only to the deserving.
No. In this expansive resurrection grace, this astounding community and holy belonging, we remember, celebrate, and claim our place, all of us, as children of God, children of the resurrection.