Sermon for All Saint's Day.
If you are one who likes celebrations, than the next few days offer a whole plethora of sacred and secular holidays in which to indulge. Of course our society’s consumerist cash cow of a holiday will come tonight when oodles and oodles of cowboys and princesses and batmans and pumpkins and puppies show up at your door, with already heavy-laden bags in hand brimming with M&M’s and Smarties for the time honored tradition of trick or treating. As many of you already know, Halloween’s roots lie in the pagan tradition of Samhain, which was essentially the time of year when the fields were fallow and the inedible parts and bones of the cattle were burned after they rest of their meat was cured. Samhain was considered the “new year” as the earth’s seasonal cycle came full circle again. The early church, however, in an effort at conversion of the country dwellers who had their own folk traditions, agreed that if the pagans were going to have a party, that it made sense for Christians to one up them with a bigger celebration, with a more elaborate feast, call it an early evangelism effort. An almost “Annie Get Your Gun-esque” version of anything you can do we can do better. And so, November 1st was declared by the church as “All Saint’s Day.” And just to be sure we made our point, November 2nd was declared “All Soul’s Day.” All bases were covered. The pagans may be celebrating the death of the harvest, the earth, the fallow time before winter, but we Christians could still one-up them by celebrating the death of our saints, those who have carried forward their faith. And if that wasn’t enough. We’d celebrate the saints in our midst. Take that, pagans. Church 1, or wait with All-Soul’s Day let’s make that 2, Pagans 0. However, time unfolded a different tale and both traditions survived, although Samhain’s name was changed to “All Hallow’s Eve” or just “Halloween.” Both the secular and the sacred are part of our cultural heritage and just as we live between the tensions in December of Santa and the Baby Jesus story, and the cultural tug of war in spring between little easter bunnies and a risen savior, this Sunday as well places the church betwixt and between. Between culture and religion. Between society and spirituality. Between the dominant paradigm and the subculture of the sacred. A thin place of sorts.
This brokenness, this living between, is something which can be perplexing. Especially for children. My parents have told the story before of how I used to enjoy playing with the plastic crèche that was set up each Christmas in our family home, how I would often make parades with the animals, the donkey, the camels, the sheep, and a few reindeer ornaments thrown in for diversity and then I’d have the wise men and shepherds tagging behind, and Mary and Joseph holding their baby and finally, at the back of the line like the grand poobah of the parade, Santa Claus, with the angel flying over the whole event doing loop de loops and giving color commentary from the air. It was the only way my four-year-old head could live in these tensions. I knew there was a baby Jesus, but I also had heard of this Santa. And somehow I had to make him fit into the story. And so, even though he seemed to be a dwarf, coming from a Fisher Price set, and even though he towered a good three inches lower than the smallest Shepherd, he was tacked onto the story as well.
But this dualism, this push and pull of story hasn’t always been there, and doesn’t need to divide us I don’t believe. There were others in our Christian tradition, renegades of sorts, who I believe offer us a different perspective, a more holistic vision of history, and I’d like us to turn our attention there this morning. Let us fix our eyes back to a different time, to the sixth and seventh century in Ireland when Christianity was slowly immersing itself in the Celtic culture. Because Ireland was off the beaten path, and came to be at a time before the Christian church began to rationalize and centralize in Rome, there was a different feel to it. There was a more mystical bent, a more tolerant acceptance of other religions, a more softened orthodoxy. Because of their geographical separation their faith developed differently. The Celts learned to find the spirit of Christ in a way very different than the centralized church in Rome. And this freedom allowed them to incorporate the divine in the midst of nature, in the midst of the people, in the midst of the land. For Celtic Christianity there was a more organic unity. God was among God’s people, and the sacred was all around even in the most common and ordinary of experiences. And while there may have been two different cultures in Ireland, their own tension between the secular and sacred—the Celts believed that there had to be a way to incorporate them into the unity of Christ’s vision for all. And so the spirituality and Christianity which was part of that time was unlike any we know now.
The Celtic Christians spoke freely of thin places. Those were the places where the earth seemed more holy, were the veil between heaven and earth seemed more transparent. But thin places referred to time as well as space. When one stumbled into the holy as they sat at the bedside of one who was dying, or where a woman was struggling with the birth pangs so that a baby might be born, one was in a thin place. When one realized in the midst of ordinary conversation that the person they were talking with was listening with a compassion bordering on heavenly, when one looked into the eyes of another and saw empathy and grace pooling forth, one was in a thin place. When one heard the truth spoken to power even when there may be repercussions and when forgiveness was offered even in the face of unimaginable sin, one was in a thin place. A place where the veil between God’s world and the human world was near, and the holy was afoot.
The writer of the book of Revelation knew a bit about those thin places, and on this celebration of All Saint’s Day, it seems an obvious place to turn. Tradition maintains that it was the apostle John who wrote the book of Revelation, but truth be told we really have no way of knowing. The visions and dreams we see in the book offer complex testimonies and even some uncomfortable scenes. And deciphering Revelation is complex. But, there are these snippets of grace found there as well, these offerings of what life in God’s realm may be and John walks right into these thin places in his dreams. There is in the author’s revelation a promise for the faithful, and a glimpse of what may come. It is a vision of unity where those from every nation, and every tribe, all people and all languages, all colors and all shapes are welcomed. A vision of praise where God’s power and love are acknowledged and where the canopy of grace of wide. Those who reside with God there will be sheltered, and will know no hunger or thirst. Those who find home with God will be guided to springs of the water of life where God will wipe away every tear from every eye.
I believe that on this day, on this day when we remember the faithfulness of those who have served God, and who must reside now in God’s realm of love, we feel a little bittersweet. While part of us honors the legacies of these servants and swells with pride to see their names read in the rollcall of the faithful, another part of us mourns afresh the veil that separates us from them and misses the very real human embraces they could give. While part of us smile in fond remembrance at the quicks and curiosities of our loved ones and carry with us a suitcase full of happy memories to share with our children, another part of us grieves the pain of unresolved relationships and questions left unanswered and truths unspoken. All-Saint’s Day is a bittersweet day in the life of the church, when we both celebrate and offer poignant pause. The bells toll, the candles lit, the names read, and we realize that we are ushered into a thin place.
The late Carlyle Marney a great Southern Baptist preacher from North Carolina once shared a story about what All Saint’s Day is. He believed that each of us is like a house. There are different rooms in the house that is you, he said. A parlor to welcome guests, a kitchen and dining room for eating, a bedroom where you sleep, a basement where you store your trash. The house also has a balcony, he said, and on that balcony are all the people who have exerted good and positive and gracious influences in your life. They are your balcony people. “Walk outside and look up and see who’s up there on our balcony looking down at you,” he would suggest. “Wave to them. They are your saints.” I believe that this is our job on All Saint’s Day, to turn and wave to the saints on our balcony. [John M. Buchanan editorial in Christian Century, November 15, 2003]
And so this morning I invite you to consider your balcony-sitters. Consider those to whom you turn and wave on this holy day as we dwell in the land where the veil is thin between heaven and earth. Who sits in your balcony and watches down on you with eyes gleaming with love? Who hovers above you ready to cheer you on? Who quietly lingers, aching to offer you some wisdom? To whom must we turn and wave this morning?
There is a poignant song by the group Kindling, a little known folk group comprised mostly of members of the Church of the Brethren, called “All that Remains is the Love” and the words have echoed in my mind all week as I’ve considered this Sunday. It is the song written by my friend, Lee Krahenbuhl, after visiting a family graveyard and realizing the legacy of those balcony-sitters in his own time. Hear his as blessing and benediction as we linger in the thin places this morning:
I hope I am returning all the best you gave the world
And thank you for the gift of your mistakes
I’m trying not to live my life in anger or in fear
And power isn’t worth the hate it takes
And since everything I build will turn to dust in time
And riches disappear like morning mist
Family and friends and lovers now will be my only song
Until I come to join you and they visit me like this..
And All that remains is the love
All that remains is the love bravely expressed.
On this All-Saints Day as we remember, and as we celebrate those who have gone before, may we live in the reality of the thin place, where all is sacred, and bound together by God’s inclusive love.