Remembering the Saints—and Being Re-membered
All Saints’ Liturgy—November 2, 2005
- Revelations 7: 9-17
- Psalm 34: 1-10, 22
- 1 John 3: 1-3
- Matthew 5: 1-12
After my husband died, I received an extraordinary letter of consolation. It went like this: “My mother died of brain cancer, and I know the pain. I hope you have also had some funny and holy moments. I know that in heaven all the tears will be wiped away. Still, I’d like some answers.” I had not known about her mother, but she was right about the whole thing: the pain, the funny moments, the holy ones—and especially she was right about the need for some answers.
But what are the questions? At this point I’d settle for some clarity on that score, because I spend a lot of time wondering about the saints. I’m not sure being newly widowed qualifies me to preach at an All Saints’ liturgy, but it gives me a stake in this sermon. And it gives me a vested interest in the questions that drive the solemn celebration of All Saints’. The question I find myself asking most often is surprising. It’s not the “why me?” Or “why him?” Or “how could a gracious God let this kind of thing happen?” All of which are questions which people have posed to me in the last months—as if I have any answers. But then it seems we too easily take credit for all the good stuff that happens to us—and blame God for the bad. So those are not the questions I ask, and that’s a kind of relief. But the question that keeps me awake at night is this one: “What do they do all the time? The saints, I mean?”
Because when Bill was alive, I knew what he was doing every minute of every day. As his caregiver, I had to know; and as his wife, I loved to know. So now I want an answer to the question: “What do the saints do all the time?”
If we take the lessons for All Saints’ seriously, we get some answers to this surprising question, or at least some surprising hints—and those hints are deeply consoling. There are at least three hints we get about how the saints pass their days—allowing, of course, for the fact that celestial time does not conform to any Greenwich Mean, nor does it fit neatly into Eastern, Central, Mountain, or Pacific time zones. The saints spend their days in the following ways: they bless; they remember; and they comfort. More about each of these saintly pastimes.
First, the blessing: If the Revelation of John is truly the consummation toward which the whole biblical message of redemption points, then we get some great snapshots of the daily schedule of the saints: they abandon themselves to blessing. “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!” Praise flows effortlessly from their lips, because the saints are unbound, liberated from e-mail and PalmPilots, from deadlines and committee meetings, from papers and exams.
I think of Martin Luther’s description of Adam in the garden from his commentaries on Genesis:
Adam, before the apple incident,
before the “Fall,” before the first dress code, Adam, oblivious that he was naked or mortal,
Adam, unaware of the knowledge of good and evil
—or the difference between. Adam, as God intended him.
Luther imagines him “intoxicated with rejoicing toward God and … delighted with all the other creatures… ” (Lectures on Genesis 2:9, 1535, LW 1:94). It’s a great description. Call Adam drunk on God, if you wish: that’s what Adam was up to in the Garden. By extension, that’s what the saints are up to: they are “intoxicated with rejoicing.” If I had a soundtrack for this part of the sermon, it would be that great chorus from Handel’s Messiah: “Blessing and honour, glory and power be unto Him, be unto Him… ” Put simply, the saints abandon themselves to blessing – and let the people say: “Rock on!”
For in truth, we rock with them. When we gather to worship, when we assemble to praise, the veil between these two worlds lifts. If only for a moment, we worship with the communion of saints. The architects of medieval cathedrals had this down. They designed their churches so the nave was big enough to accommodate the crowd of the living. The priest stood at an altar in the chancel, his back to the people. Nobody worried that they were looking at the back of the priest, and that was partly because his vestments were so beautiful to look at, especially from the rear! But also because it wasn’t really about the priest at all: it was about the rest of the crowd. For you see, the priest and the people filled only half of a circle of blessing. In front of them completing the circle were the saints. They were buried in the crypt which ran in a semi-circle behind the altar; they loomed above the altar in vibrant stained glass windows. They were everywhere, and they completed the circle. As the worship continued, the living joined the dead in a song of ceaseless praise. The veil was ripped open—if only for a moment. Through that tear in that fabric between this world and the next, blessings pour through.
Blessings are, well, leaky. As far as the book of Revelation is concerned, the saints pour praise before the throne or the Lamb—and it simply spills over. Blessing is wonderfully, deliberately messy that way. Bless God—and you wind up getting it all over yourself, all over everyone else as well. Blessing is like intense blue dye dropped into a vat a clear water: it suffuses the whole container, staining everything with luminous color. Or like the neighbor who showed up on my doorstep with a bucket of roses—a bucket! I was dumfounded, and when she saw the expression on my face, she just laughed: “I have too many to enjoy them all by myself,” she said. She left before I could protest. And for the next week, everyone I saw anywhere for whatever—and for no reason at all—got roses. Her gift kept on giving. It was a wonderfully leaky blessing.
But blessings runneth over—or as poet John Berryman puts it, “blessings swarm” (“Eleven Addresses to the Lord: 4,” in Love & Fame rev. ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972, p. 83). How do the saints spend their time? They bless—and they bless us!
Second favorite pastime of the saints: they remember. This sounds odd, because All Saints’ is the festival on which we are supposed to be remembering them. But when we call them to mind, we discover instead that they were there first. We find them remembering us. And I mean remembering in both senses of that word. Remember in the sense that the saints think about us – you’d better believe they do! But re-member in the sense of re-making. The saints re-fashion us. Their leaky blessings re-organize the world and human community. We are literally put together differently.
Look at the Beatitudes, and you see the radical map of a world turned upside down: “Blessed are the poor… Blessed are those who mourn… Blessed are the meek… Blessed are you, when people persecute and revile you… ” On the face of it, these are not groups of people who would come to mind as “blessed”: the meek and the weak, the poor and the persecuted, those who had suffered tragic loss, even the relentless zealot running around with a bee under the bonnet. These conditions would all seem to be good candidates for cursing the day you were born—or occasion for others to curse the day you were born. Yet, Jesus shows people in these situations are—and will be!—suffused with blessing. The mourner will be comforted; the meek will inherit the earth; the poor will be awash in the riches of the kingdom—even the persecuted will find refuge. All of these “curses” will be turned to blessing. The promise we have that all this will happen is Jesus himself, the blessing of God in our midst. These leaky blessings of the saints re-member us: they literally re-constitute our world, turning it inside out and upside down.
But the blessings of the saints also re-member each of us, literally re-making us into a new creation. I am not quite ready to call all that I’ve experienced in the last fifteen months a “blessing,” but I certainly don’t feel accursed. I know that I’ve been pulled apart—and that was no fun. But I’ve also been knit back together, bone on bone, flesh on flesh, sinew on sinew into a new—well, not quite new—but at the very least a different creation. And that re-membering has had its funny and holy moments as well. For example, since my husband’s death, the voice of the television has been silent in our land. You can watch “Law and Order” re-runs 24/7, something we found out in those long nights when steroids and chemo kept us going late into the night. We should both qualify for honorary law degrees, for the time put in trying to out-guess the detectives and out-argue the prosecutors. That’s not the case any more: I’m back into music, writing, nightwalking, things that do not engage the media pundits nor the great gods of network TV – and it’s a blessing. Death re-membered me, for sure. But I pass on this insight on a day when we’re supposed to be remembering the saints. Be certain that they remember—and they remember us.
Finally, the saints comfort—and they comfort us. I discover that the dead share in two divine attributes: omnipresence and ubiquity. They are present everywhere; and they are intensely present everywhere. The week after Bill died I told his siblings to pay attention: he was going to manifest himself somehow, letting us know he was OK. And so it was: I was walking along the beach on the other side of the country, watching for dolphins—and I saw one leap completely out of the water, nose to tailfin, unfettered by air, water, even gravity. On the other side of the country, my sister-in-law Catherine was musing on a meadow in the high Sierras—and a stag bolted across a stream, clearing it in a single leap before it shot into the forest again. As we compared notes at a first-month anniversary wake, there had been grasshoppers-sightings, rabbits bounding, all these lovely leaping things. And we thought: Bill unbound! We get it; we’ll take it. We all laughed at all these leaping epiphanies—but they also comforted us deeply.
In those funny and holy moments, we all discovered the truth of Jesus’ s blessing: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” The very ones we mourn are the ones who comfort us, for they alone can offer the comfort we crave and the consolation we most need. The good news is that it’s there for us. All we have to do is say yes.
At this point in the sermon, you’re probably asking: how does she know all this stuff? I’m just reading my own experience through the lens of scripture, texts like we had today. It’s the invitation issued to all of us: read your own life in that first language of faith.
For you see, death is not the last word. The last word is one of blessing, and blessing comes to us in such concrete ways. Look at the trajectory of the psalms, which cover the full emotional spectrum from rage and fear, to consolation and joy. God evokes and embraces every feeling we can muster. But the psalter ends in blessing. Read those final psalms, and they are paeans of praise. It’s the psalmist unbound, unfettered from everything that gripped him, the good feelings and the bad. The only words left are those of blessing: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in all the heights! Praise him, all his angels, praise him, all his host!” (Ps. 148:1-2)
And the blessings bounce off the walls of heaven to wash back over us, signaling to us something of God’s designs for us. We are destined not for death, but for family, and we are welcomed back into that family from which we came, our First Family, the family of the children of God (1 John 3:1), as the second reading tell us, brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus.
No, death is not the last word. Remember those wonderful post-Resurrection appearances of Jesus, who bounds from the grave to bless, to remember, and to comfort his disciples. The resurrected Jesus reassures us that God’s blessings indeed do “swarm.” And he comes back, glory streaming from him, to cook the disciples breakfast (John 21).
All we have to do is grab a plate—and say yes.