[Sermon] All Saints' Day
I re-recorded this sermon that I gave on All Saints’ Sunday at Christ Lutheran Church in Aptos, CA. Listen above and/or read below. Enjoy!
Another note: People were invited to bring a photo of their loved ones and we put them on a large table in front of the sanctuary (see the photo above). This table is referenced in the sermon.
Happy All Saints. According to the Celtic tradition, this is the ‘thinnest’ time of the year. November 1st marks the start of the season of Samhain, the end of the harvest season, and the beginning of winter, the "darker half" of the year.
Samhain is the season when the veil between the physical and the spiritual becomes transparent. Jesuit priest and theologian Karl Rahner said, “Be still, O heart, and let all whom you have loved rise from the grave of your breast.” (Isn’t that beautiful?)
I really love how the rhythms of our liturgical calendar go with the rhythms of our natural seasons. In much of our Northern Hemisphere, November heralds the dying of the landscape as the sun retreats into our southern sky and the darkness expands on both margins of our shorter days.
As they say in Game of Thrones, “Winter is coming.” (But does it really come to Aptos? I’m skeptical:)) In ancient Celtic days, this was real. Herds of cattle were thinned out and feasted on while the inedible parts were burned in the giant bonfires (bone fires) that the pagan celebration of Samhain is known for. The ancient Celts believed that evil spirits lurked closely, and angry gods needed to be appeased to ensure a safe passage through the brutal winter months. They believed that spirits could easily cross between realms and enter our world.
Things have changed a lot since then, especially in our culture. Technology has grown exponentially more complex. We’ve gone from clubs to whack things with and torches to burn things with to superconductors and artificial intelligence. We have moved from a culture of transcendence and superstition to one of knowledge and rationalism. If we haven’t figured it out yet, well, it seems it’s merely a matter of time. It seems like we can control the world from the little glowing screens we stare into all day. If you’re like me, you’re frantically running around with your face buried in your phone and have mostly lived unaware of these other-worldly phenomena.
But I want to invite us today to take a breath... Sink into the darkening of days... Shut off the frenzy of our rational brains (just for a little while)... And see if we can feel the presence of the communion of saints who have gone before us. The veil is still thin, friends.
This might make you uneasy. I know it does for me. Because when you stop the mental chatter, busyness, and distractions, certain things might arise. It might strike you that perhaps the evil forces that our ancestors feared thousands of years ago are actually very real in our seemingly modern and figure-out-able world today. Maybe you and I are far more susceptible to these forces than we like to think.
Thomas Chalmers, a scholar in Celtic spirituality, writes, “This good world is in bondage in the manner of a good land under occupation by malevolent forces. However much the contemporary mind may feel like resisting the traditional Celtic personification of such forces, there can be no doubt that malevolent forces operate in our world and through our own spirits and that we need saving from them.”
This is a frightening thought. And I’m not here to scare anyone. But amid what our global human family is going through right now, it behooves us to take advantage of the thin time of Samhain and shine a light on the shadows that fall around us, literally, figuratively, and spiritually.
I want to turn to our reading from Revelation. I know what you might be thinking... It may seem that I’m just amplifying the fear by turning to Revelation. But I need to say that Revelation has gotten such a bad reputation in our North American culture. I don’t have time to present a lesson on the beauty of apocalyptic literature here, so I’ll have to save it for another time. Suffice it to say that Revelation is a beautiful and hopeful work of art that was meant to bring comfort and wholeness to a community of people who were living under the same fear and devastation as our brothers and sisters in Palestine and Israel right now.
For them, the only way out of their suffering
was divine intervention.
There’s such beautiful imagery in this passage... A vast multitude (yep, this is global, not just ‘Mericans) joyously sang in loud voices, wore white garments, waved palm branches, and worshipped day and night. They do this not in a slavish or compulsory way. Think of a parallel reality where pain has been eradicated, and you are plugged directly into the Source of Existence itself - God, who sits on the throne in the middle of this vast multitude of angels. This elated worship is just the normal response when you are in the fullness of God’s loving presence. I’ve been to some ragers in my day, but they never ended well. This party is a heavenly one.
I think about the photos on our table. How they are, right now, dancing with their fellow angels around God’s throne, having the best time ever.
When we talk about apocalyptic texts, time gets skewed. We enter the alternate space-time reality of “already-but-not-yet.”
This fullness of time beyond linear time when we’ll all be dancing with our dearly departed saints is a future promise (we’re not there yet).
And it has already happened. It is a present reality.
Again, this requires us to let go of our linear and rational thinking. As Christians, we live in the tension of this already-but-not-yet reality. We must look beyond the suffering of the current moment without ignoring it. We must find hope when there is no hope before us. The heavenly feast is now... But not yet.
This leads us to the part of the Revelation reading that refers to the angels being washed (and I know this sounds weird to us today) in the blood of the lamb. This divine purification is one of the most fundamental imageries of Holy Scripture. In the ancient temple rite, they would sacrifice animals on the altar. The priest was as much of a butcher as a worship leader. He would slaughter the animal and sprinkle the assembly with blood to signify what Moses did. In Hebrews 9, it is written:
For when every commandment of the law had been declared by Moses to all the people, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water and scarlet wool and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, saying, “This is the blood of the covenant that God commanded for you.” And in the same way, he sprinkled with the blood both the tent and all the vessels used in worship. Indeed, under the law, almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins.
In this ancient temple rite, the sacrificed animal was a scapegoat. Everyone’s sins were transferred to the animal, which was slaughtered and offered to God to obtain forgiveness. The sprinkling of the blood signified this cleansing.
But in Jesus, something scandalous happens... God hops down from the sky, puts on flesh, and becomes the final sacrifice on the cross - God, Godself, absorbs our Sin and cleanses you, me, and ALL OF CREATION, once and for all. Every planet and galaxy, and every molecule and quark.
This is the apocalypse. The great cleansing that leads to dancing and singing joyfully with God. It is a brutal process - as brutal as the deepest love (you know) - and none of us escape it. Fundamentalists seem to think that because they believe a certain way or because they’ve signed their name on the dotted line of a certain dogmatic stance, they’ll get off scot-free. Nope. We’re all in this together. We are all going through the smelter where the base metals of our selfishness and separation are being burned away, and the gold of Christ is brought forth in all of us. God is the great alchemist, and you are his treasure. You and all of our dearly departed on that table.
I don’t know all of your stories yet. I didn’t meet your loved ones whose photos sit on our table today. But I do know that human life is messy. With all of our good comes just as much not-so-good. We are sinner and saint. When we talk about our friends and family going to this grand angelic feast in heaven, an existential question that arises naturally is this:
How can you be so sure?
Maybe this doesn’t occur to you. And that’s great if not. But I have to put it out there because, if no one else is asking this question about their dearly departed, I surely am about some of my deceased relatives who were compulsive liars, gamblers, addicts, thieves, and many of them literal convicts whom I disowned when I was young. How can they, who made my life hell, be in heaven? And if they are there, is heaven really a place I want to go?
We’ve come to the foot of the cross, friends. It is here that God cleanses us entirely. None will be left out of the banquet. And none of us will remain the same. Every tear, every wound, every trauma will be, has been, and is being healed and redeemed.
The already-but-not-yet promise is summarized beautifully in our reading from the first letter from John...
Beloved, we are God’s children now;
what we will be has not yet been revealed.
And all who have this hope in him purify themselves,
just as he is pure.
The language here leaves little room for doubt. It is a promise and a divine one at that. We are already and truly children of God, but we do not yet fully know the glorious experience of that reality. And neither did the folks on the table when they were with us. But now they do.
So as the days grow shorter and as the shadows lengthen, proverbially and literally... Make sacred space in your own home to rest in this promise. Turn off the distraction, light some candles, and, in the spirit of Samhain and the safety of Christ, allow yourself to commune with the numinous knowing that all is being redeemed in ways you and I will never understand. This is the mystery of faith. A blessed Samhain and All Saints’ Day to you and yours. Amen.
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