Saints, Ancestors, & Mentors – What it Means to be Surrounded
Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 107, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-20, Matthew 23:1-12
Sunday, November 5, 2017 – The 22nd Sunday After Pentecost – All Saints Sunday
Knox-Metropolitan United Church – Regina, SK – Treaty 4 Territory
We are not alone.
These words bookend A New Creed of the United Church of Canada.
They are words with which I end almost every sermon or reflection that I speak.
We are not alone.
Creeds are about affirming something believed to be true —and that operates on so many levels, and it’s worth observing that affirm as true is not the same as affirm as the only truth, or as scientifically, mechanically verifiable.
I’ve been thinking this week about what we are invited to affirm, to claim for ourselves when we speak these words:
We are not alone.
This week in particular it has been interesting to ponder this as we prepare to mark All Saints’ Sunday.
In the Protestant Reformed Traditions from which the United Church of Canada emerged, there is less emphasis placed on this observance – less resources and rituals.
And I wonder, if we are perhaps poorer for it.
In some Traditions within Christianity, this time of year is marked with a triduum or a three day observance – All Saint’s Eve, also known as All Hallow’s Eve or more commonly, Halloween – followed by All Saints Day, and then All Souls Day – we like many, mark All Saints Day on the Sunday after.
In the West, these tend to fall as the seasons turn, which itself is a profound symbol.
I fell asleep on Halloween as the first flakes began to dust our front steps, and awoke in the middle of night to see that I now dwelt in a world shrouded in white, bathed in an ethereal glow.
In traditions that mark these days more fully, one is invited to imagine that there is a thinness in the veil between the living and the dead. Special liturgies invite awareness of those who have died, candles are lit, names are spoken aloud, a bell is rung.
The dead accompany the living on these days.
A friend of mine, an Anglican priest, shared his set up for a service on Thursday evening, where in the middle of the aisle of the church a Black Cloth (called a Pall) is draped over a catafalque (a platform which would support a casket or coffin) surrounded by 6 candles, and it is around this focal point that he and the congregation would gather.
As traditions evolved, Protestant Reformed movements within Christianity, generally moved away from these sorts of things. The focus of much theology became the individual —and death came to occupy this funny place in religious thinking. Death becomes at once enemy and also the doorway into eternity with God.
And feels, to me at least, that in the official religious rituals and language within Reformed Traditions that the living and the dead are much more separated than in a sacramental imagination – and there is not much of a role played by the dead in such traditions.
Today traditions intertwine much more than throughout history, both technology and ecumenical dialogue have increased contact, so there are of course exceptions to what I have shared – and if we were sitting around cups of coffee rather in a worship service we’d have space to engage this more.
Michael Stone, Zen Buddhist teacher who himself passed away this August, wrote that all we are is relationships, and so a tradition that asks us to be only individual before God, in our relation to the sacred, doesn’t feel like it embraces or honours this reality.
And our relationships don’t end when someone dies —but do we allow that to be embodied, in our rituals and our words?
I wonder if you have ever participated in communion, in a church that has a rail?
If so, was the rail straight, or curved?
In my reading this week I found an interesting reflection that in many small town North American Prairie churches, particular with Scandinavian roots, one finds 1/2 moon shaped communion rails – the symbolism being, that as the current congregation gathers around the visible part of the circle, those who have died and those who are yet to be born gather around the other 1/2 of the circle.
We are not alone – takes on a different meaning.
In a few moments we will be invited to come and receive cup and bread —and if you’ll indulge my inner English student and word geek for a moment, to accompany and companion, quite literally come from joining the Latin for with to the Latin for bread.
I know we have only scratched the surface of complex ideas here, but I think that ritual is meant to open a conversation, not fill in all the blanks.
I wonder who you’ll to the table walk with today, whether in this very room, or whether absent from you by distance (perhaps distance of geography or even distance of the heart) or even the separation of life and death —and I wonder if there is a way that we might bring them to our awareness —into our company —our sharing of bread.
As we eat bread, as we accompany one another on whatever journeys we find ourselves, may we be invited to extend our imagination (even without the 1/2 moon rail) to the past and future.
In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.
We are not alone.
Thanks be to God.