Communing with the Saints
November 1, 2020
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen
Isaiah 25:6-9; I John 3:1-3
What a strange and anxious time in our land.
We’ve been here before. I can remember the political and cultural divisions tearing apart the U.S. during the 1960s and early 70s – an era defined by opposing views on the Vietnam War, the struggle for Civil Rights, and social upheaval in our lives and cities and nation. Animosity was evident everywhere among us then.
But in those years, we were not living with a raging pandemic on top of everything else. Today’s social isolation due to Covid only adds to the toll on us and our communities and the whole nation, as we grapple with deep disparities, long-simmering injustice, economic despair, and widening polarization.
The election on Tuesday will not suddenly resolve our national angst or alleviate much of what the CDC has warned is a countrywide mental health crisis. To be clear, that’s no reason not to exercise our responsibility as citizens and as followers of Jesus to vote – but it is a reality check on the state of the nation. No matter who wins, the ruptures among us will not be reconciled easily. And until we develop a national plan to contain its spread, the coronavirus will continue to take its awful toll – now, more than 230,000 dead.
We are a divided people, whether it has to do with racial justice or pandemic response or political party.
When he was confronted by division or hostility, Jesus often spoke in disarming ways to reframe the situation. When opponents accused him of healing demon-possessed people in the name of and by the power of the very demon himself, Jesus rejected that charge by dismissing the logic of it. “A house divided against itself,” he said, “Will not stand.”
Abraham Lincoln quoted that line in referring to a nation standing for “liberty and justice for all” at the same time it was permitting the enslavement of some. Propping up such a policy was not only unjust; by the weight of its own dissonance it was destined eventually to fail.
We could apply that same wisdom to our time. A nation committed to equity cannot forever justify policies and systems that support vast inequalities among its people. A nation that thinks of itself as honoring all religious traditions cannot with integrity favor one tradition over another. A nation wanting desperately to relieve the economic impact of a pandemic cannot expect that to happen if it works against measures that limit its spread.
A house divided against itself cannot stand. We must find a way to bridge the gulfs that separate us. Democracy does that naturally, when permitted to be practiced freely and well, but these days even democracy is under assault.
It is a strange and anxious time – a time in which people of faith have something to say.
There’s a great sweep of trust in the promise of God across history. It commences early in the biblical story and then gains traction in the prophets. It continues through the Gospel in the life of Jesus, then moves into the Church. And we – you and I – bear that same faith, that trust in God’s promise.
Our scriptures speak of a time when justice will break forth and peace will prevail. Such images of hope have always encouraged people and helped them find resilience they didn’t know they had. The night may seem never-ending, but the dawn will come. As Pastor Mitri Raheb says –while living in occupied Palestine, in an utterly discouraging situation – hope is what we do.
The prophet Isaiah describes God’s promise as a mountaintop feast that refuses to concede anything to forces that would divide human community.
“On this mountain,” the ancient seer writes,
“The LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.” (Isaiah 25:6)
All peoples, Isaiah says, are invited to sit at that table and enjoy the banquet feast – all peoples, not only those who think or believe or act in certain ways. As John says in his epistle, “See what love God has given us, that we all should be called children of God; and that is what we are.” All of us. (I John 1:3)
Our faith in this image proposes a radical re-working of human community and offers a liberating idea of what we might actually be capable of on this earth. In spite of efforts to rip the family asunder, leaving us trapped by injustice and fear, the divine will calls us together and makes us whole.
God does not give up on us; neither should we.
The downtown interfaith senior clergy have submitted a letter to the Star Tribune, that says, in part:
“We are a diverse group: we…vary in our religious practice…we disagree on issues facing the public. But we are bound by the ethical imperatives of our traditions…We believe our ethical report card is determined by how we care for the most vulnerable in our society…Our common mission has allowed us to keep our commitment to one another, despite historical divides….”
Every faith tradition understands this: we are created for community; designed to live with one another in peace; called to treat others as we would have them treat us.
But community is formed by being with one another, by communing. That’s the profound challenge of nearly eight months of not communing, not eating together, not being in fellowship with one another, not touching one another, not even seeing one another in person. This is so hard. How can we maintain our sense of being community, of being in communion with one another, in this anxious and separated and troubled time?
Lisa Jenkins is a pastor in Harlem who has lost several church members to Covid. Her parents grew up in the Jim Crow South, “In a world that made no sense,” as she says, likening it to our world today – a world that can seem to make no sense at all.
Along the way, from her parents and from her parishioners, Jenkins has learned to persevere. She published a collection of sermons titled The Other Side of Through.
“There is always another side,” she says.
“Setting our sights on the other side is what keeps us going. It’s what gives us hope…You can still believe that good will outweigh the bad, that love will overshadow hate, and that evil will be destroyed. The way to the other side is to never dismiss the hard disciplines of a crisis but stay the course and embrace the rigors of the journey.” (McCormick Seminary 2020 Annual Report)
There’s always another side beyond the challenges before us. We look, as people of faith, to the other side, as any challenge arises, including the final challenge.
One of the great gifts of religious tradition is that we who are people of faith are not afraid to face the mystery of death, what the ancient Celts called “the river hard to see.” I had a recent conversation with a beloved church member who will get there fairly soon, and is ready. When we come to the river and step into it, we expect to be carried by it to the other side.
Our theology of death and resurrection trusts that when we die we enter eternal life. The epistle of John is right when it says that we don’t know precisely what that means. As Paul says, “Now we see in a glass dimly; then we shall see face to face.”
In his prophetic vision, Isaiah addresses this, the ultimate mystery, and hear, in the prophet’s words, how it extends to all peoples again:
“And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of God’s people God will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. (Isaiah 25:7-8)
God has undone the power of death for all peoples. We take that assurance, that confidence, that same promise, into every struggle for the fullness of life here on earth.
There may be a learning for us on All Saints Day – the one day when Protestants allow ourselves to speak of saints, with a small “s.” The followers of Jesus described the company of those who were part of God’s people as saints. Scripture speaks of, “The saints in Ephesus…The saints in Jerusalem…The saints in Corinth…” when referring, simply, to the people in the churches in those cities.
Protestants seized upon this biblical language as a way to desacralize saints. The saints in Minneapolis. The saints in Bloomington or the saints in Richfield – and, of course, the Saints in St. Paul. We practice the democratization of sainthood: the lives of the people of God, of all people, no matter how ordinary, are made holy. All of them.
Once we have brought saints out of some distant, untouchable heavenly realm and made them as real as we are, it changes how we think of them after they’re gone from this earth. They enter the communion of saints. All of us know people in that great company – parents, grandparents, children, siblings, friends.
Perhaps one of the benefits of this pandemic – if we can speak of such a thing – is that we’ve learned to be together with those with whom we cannot literally be together. Those gathering today via livestream at the table may not be in the same room, but we are still together – just as those at rest in life beyond life are here, as well.
We heard the names of those in this community who joined that great company this past year. Remember some of them: Margaret, William, Sally, Victor, Carolyn, Bryce. They’re all here. Tom, Whitney, Dorothy, Judith, Bob, Nancy. As we gather today around the Lord’s table, we’re communing with them, with the saints.
And there are others, as well. Remember that all peoples are included in that great mountaintop feast. Breonna, George, Ahmaud, Philando, Jacob, Rayshard. They’re all here, too. Jamar, Alatianna, Stephon, Botham, Freddie, Tamir. The communion of saints.
These are strange and anxious times, fraught with peril and promise. When we gather at the table, as we will do in a moment, we catch a glimpse of God’s plan for human community, for all people, not only in heaven, but here on earth.
In that Beloved Community, justice reigns, love triumphs, justice reigns, and hope abounds.
Thanks be to God.