Sermon for All Saints Day (observed), November 3, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18+Psalm 149+Ephesians 1:1-11+Luke 6:20-31

Several years ago, there was a seminar taught at Yale with the provocative title Christian Theology and Harry Potter. This was at a time when plenty of people were sounding the alarm that Harry Potter, the young sorcerer, only encouraged youngsters to risk their souls by exploring the dark arts and magic. I suppose there are some still who are trying to ban the wildly successful J.K. Rowling series. But this Yale class, taught by my friend Danielle Tumminio Hansen, argued for a different perspective. Harry Potter is about the eternal themes of good and evil, about sacrificing ourselves for our friends, as we see in the characters of Dumbledore, Harry, his mother Lily, and even Snape.

There is another theme that permeates the Potter books, and that is the desire to know, to communicate, with those we love who have died. For Harry, it’s his parents, and the veil between the living and the dead for them is parted in the fourth book in the series, as Harry’s parents are able to speak words of encouragement to him in his battle with the evil Voldemort.

And it’s not just Harry Potter. Popular culture is filled with tales of our longing to know what lies beyond, what happens when we die, from the Life Force of the Star Wars series that allows Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda and Anakin Skywalker to communicate with the living; to Clarence, the inept angel in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life.  We humans can’t seem to help ourselves! We dream of our loved ones and try to find a message from them; we seek signs in the appearance of a bird or a butterfly or a rainbow. 68% of Americans hold paranormal beliefs, including the belief in ghosts, and that’s more than identify as Christian![1] We want to know the unknowable, to see the un-seeable.

Yet we need not look to the occult or to the paranormal or to fictional characters in books to satisfy our need to connect with loved ones and others who have died. The three days that are known in the Church as Allhallowtide demonstrate the unconquerable connection between the living and the dead, affirming that death does not have the final word.

In the Eastern Orthodox tradition, it is understood that Holy Eucharist, which they call the Divine Liturgy, is quite literally the stepping into a heavenly banquet that has gone on from the beginning of time and stretches forward into all eternity. A veil is opened, and we are participants at the table with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. These are words we hear every week, so often that they likely fail to surprise or shock us. This company of heaven includes all who have gone before us, those who have slipped this mortal coil and who now dwell in the nearer presence of God.

Our celebration of All Saints Day, a day in which the veil between the dead and the living, heaven and earth, is pulled aside, gives us an opportunity to stand in the presence of this mystery we call faith, of a God who becomes incarnate, just like us, and yet who continues to move in the world and in each of us by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Nowhere is Jesus more real, in the flesh, incarnate, than in the scene we just read from Luke. He does not go up on the mountain to gather his followers around him like some great sage. No, after calling the twelve disciples, he brings them down to a level place and the crowds gather around. Jesus is with them. And then, “he looked up at his disciples…”(Luke 6:20). This is no position of authority, a superior looking down on his underlings. This is a man who is one of them.

When Jesus tells the poor and the hungry and the weeping that they are blessed, it doesn’t mean that he thinks poverty and hunger and sorrow are good things. No, he means that he is right there with them in it. Their blessedness is not about their hardship; it is about Jesus’s preferential option for the poor, as liberation theology puts it. In two years out of three in our three-year lectionary cycle we read these beatitudes (either Matthew or Luke), and it is impossible to miss the connection between Jesus’s presence with the poor, the sick, the suffering, and the persecuted, without also realized that the saints we remember, that named host of people whom the Church has designated as somehow set apart, these people, too, suffered and sacrificed and endured hardship, all in the name of the Gospel. And Jesus was, and is, with them, too.

In our baptism, we are brought into this holy fellowship that has no beginning and no end. The seven children receiving this sacrament today join that great cloud of witnesses, uniting themselves with Christ and all who have professed that Holy Name. It is an astonishing act of courage and faith on the part of their parents and their families and their godparents to say “yes” to this invitation. We may say that, in the waters of baptism, they have died and risen to new life, but we do so in the assurance “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).

What a privilege it is to stand in this community of faith, a congregation known as All Saints, and proclaim this Good News.

[1] According to Daniel Wise’s Facebook post of 10.31.2019. His PhD studies are in the paranormal.

ASEPSermon for All Saints Day (observed), November 3, 2019 – The Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas