02 November 2014

We're Never Alone

Hebrews 12: 1-3, 13-14

All Saints’ Sunday, 2nd November 2014

“…since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,
looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,
who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross,
disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat
at the right hand of the throne of God.”  

“We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1).  We often turn to these verses every year around this time, on All Saints’ Sunday, this day when we remember the saints in light who have gone on to be with the Lord.  And soon in this service, during Communion, we’ll do just that. We will invoke the names of loved ones we said good-bye to this year.

For some, this service might be too much.  Some, I know, stay away from this service because it’s too painful, the feelings are still too raw. The service might feel “heavy.”  It’s certainly “holding” or “carrying” a lot of grief.  It’s real and honest, authentic.  Whether or not you will hear the name of a loved one this morning—I contributed four names to this year’s list—today we remember and give thanks for all the saints whom we loved and loved us and changed our lives and the world.  The loss is real—very real, all-too-real—but so is the presence, their presence, perhaps more profound in their absence.

We have an astonishing text here in Hebrews, particularly these verses.  There aren’t many places scripture where we hear this claim: that the saints in light are near to us.  Perhaps you imagine your loved ones now with God in some other realm.  However, this text suggests that that other “heavenly” realm is close to this one.  We are “surrounded [now] by so great a cloud of witnesses.”  They’re all around us, all the time, hovering over us like clouds.  We are surrounded by witnesses who have “fought the good fight” (1 Tim. 6:12), known beauty, love, and grace, sacrificed, suffered, witnesses who now know the faithfulness of God, the redeeming life of Christ.

All of this is a neglected dimension of the Christian life.  We’re never alone.  We don’t walk the walk of faith alone. We don’t struggle to be faithful on our own.  We’re all in this Kingdom-life together, a life that spans the ages. We need one another, especially those looking on at us, surrounding us, right now. 

It might feel that I’m bordering on folk religion here or calling for ancestor worship.  That’s not what this is about.

It is about, however, cultivating an awareness that we have lost in our hyper-rationalized, so-called sophisticated world: that there is more going on around us and through us than meets the eye.  The seventeenth century priest and metaphysical poet George Herbert (1493-1633) is right and says it best: “Man is one world and hath Another to attend him.”[1] There is this world and another that exists beside or above or under, which permeates through this world—and sometimes, not always, sometimes we’re blessed to know it or see it or feel it. 

Celtic Christians often talked about “thin places,” where the veil separating this world from that other world is so “thin” you can almost reach out, touch it, and grab it.  Personally, I’m grateful for those critical moments in my own life when I stumbled upon those “thin” places and felt that other world nearby.

I think I grew up with this sensibility.  As a boy, I felt haunted by the past.  I could feel the presence of loved ones lost; there was a connection to what came before me.  (Perhaps that’s why I love history and originally wanted to be a historian.)  As a boy, I was surrounded by gravestones.  North Arlington, New Jersey, where I was raised, has one of the largest Roman Catholic cemeteries in North America. The buried outnumber the living in North Arlington. With a population of 15,500, it’s the resting place for close to 300,000. Holy Cross Cemetery is situated right beside the high school.  I can remember sitting in the cafeteria looking out the window watching funeral processions, sometimes three or four a day, making their way along Ridge Road, driving past the school on their way to the cemetery.  I also grew up in a family that went to the cemetery most Sunday afternoons.  Church in the morning followed by Sunday dinner, then off to East Ridgelawn Cemetery to visit the graves of my grandparents, great-grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins. My brother Craig and I helped water the plants, put on grave blankets at Christmastime, and sometimes even played hide-n-seek among the graves. It was a familiar place, not a depressing place.  It was a place of connection. My mother’s grave is there too.

We are surrounded by those who've gone before us.  They are near and, significantly, they are urging us on, encouraging us in the “race that is set before us.”  Runners in a race often feed off the energy of the spectators towering about them in the stadium.  So, too, the saints above are cheering us on as we tear up our portion of the track.  Sometimes we can even sense their presence.  They’re saying, “Run! Run! You can do this!”

And knowing that we’re not in this race alone, drawing strength from their witness, we’re free to “lay aside every weight, and the sin that clings so closely” to us: all those things that weigh us down, that hinder us from being swift on our feet, especially sin and sorrow, trauma and tragedy from the past that keep us stuck in the past; the things that block and hinder and hamper and thwart our ability to set our faces forward toward the goal, into the future.  We can set them all aside.

The poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) once said, “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.”[2]  He’s right.  There are other “powers” at work in us and through us that enable us to be faithful to God in the respective callings of our lives, even as Jesus was faithful in his, who, “for the sake of the joy that was before him endured the cross.”  That’s why Jesus is called both the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  He goes before us, sets the pattern for the life of faith, shows us what is possible, and then gives us the means to achieve it and experience it. And I can imagine that Jesus is in the crowd with all the other witnesses cheering us on as we run the race that is set before us.

We’re never alone. This becomes clear when we share in this Communion meal.  When we “lift up our hearts to the Lord,” as we say in the Eucharistic prayer, we are lifted up into the presence of God, sharing in the mystical meal, participating in the real presence of the Lord, sharing the meal with all those who are found in him.  It’s a profound image that we have here.

Related to this image, I was reminded recently of the closing scene in the movie Places in the Heart (1984), which starred Sally Field.  All the characters from the movie are in worship in a small country church in the South.  There are plenty of places to sit in the pews; it’s not packed.  After the sermon, they share the Lord’s Supper.  The choir begins to sing “In the Garden.”[3]  Then the camera begins to follow the Communion trays, one filled with bread, the other with tiny cups of juice, like ours most Sundays.  The bread and the wine are passed from one person to the next along the pews. In the camera frame we see the tray offered, a hand takes a little cup, he or she pauses, whispers, “Peace of God,” drinks, and the tray moves along.  Finally, the tray is offered to characters brutally killed at the beginning of the movie, including the young black boy, Wylie, who accidentally shot Sheriff Royce Spalding, whose death unraveled the lives of the entire family. The dead are now alive and there in that place!  Pews that were empty are now full. And suddenly you realize—they’re all there. They’re all there!  There, together, in the peace and communion of the Lord, relationships restored, reconciled in Christ and with one another. The peace of God.  Those empty places were really full.  The empty places are really full.  They’re all here.

“O blest communion, fellowship divine, we feebly struggle, they in glory shine, yet all are one in Thee for all are Thine.”  This, my friends, pretty much says it all. “Yet all are one in Thee for all are Thine, Alleluia.  Alleluia!”[4]

[1] George Herbert, The Temple (1633).
[2] W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Ernst Toller” (1940).
[3] “In the Garden” was written in 1912 by C. Austin Miles (1868-1946).
[4]  From the hymn “For All the Saints,” written by William Walsham How in 1864. The tune SINE NOMINE (meaning, “without name”) most often associated with the hymn was written by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1954).

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