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Connections

November 6, 2017

“Connections” Colossians 3:1-11 © 11.5.17 All Saints’/All Souls’ by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

It’s usual and customary to speak of the Presbyterian Church as “connectional.” Councils from sessions to the General Assembly, along with congregations, are linked by a common purpose and identity. We affirm a faith interpreted by a set of historic documents that make up our Book of Confessions, and we follow a form of government, a way to worship, and rules for discipline contained in our Book of Order, all built on a solid foundation of principles we are reminded of in the first pages of that book. The act of one session or presbytery is that of the whole church. The property of a congregation is held in trust for the benefit of the mission of the entire PC(USA). So, when this session ordains a ruling elder, he or she is an ordered minister anywhere and does not have to be ordained again when moving to another city or state. What’s done in California or Idaho is good in Mississippi or Florida and vice-versa. The same goes for church membership. We don’t require rebaptism or an initiation class, whether for Presbyterians coming from elsewhere or for any Christian. We accept all baptisms and affirm our connection to the broader Church; we are all the body of Christ, whatever our doctrine, our government, our sacraments. And Presbyterians welcome all to the Lord’s Table.

But if we celebrate such connections day by day, on this particular Sunday our attention turns to other sorts of linkages. All Saints’ and All Souls’ remind us of our bond with those who have gone before us, and as we will see, those who will come after us. Observed now back to back, on November 1 and 2, the origins of All Saints’ and All Souls’ are separated by centuries, and their purpose has evolved ever since they were added to the church calendar. The former originated during the tenure of Pope Gregory III, sometime between 731 and 741, when he dedicated a small chapel in St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. There, according to tradition, the bodies of the apostles and martyrs were buried. The feast originally, then, memorialized those who had died for the faith. Later, the remembrances were broadened to include all deceased believers.

All Souls’ was begun by Odilo, a Benedictine monk of the Cluny Abbey in France. This was in 988. Odilo established the day as a time of remembrance of all the faithful of his order who had died without suffering martyrdom. The observance was later expanded to include, like All Saints’, all departed Christians. Today if you look in a dictionary, you might see the day described as one on which to hold a service and say prayers for the dead or else to voice petitions for souls in Purgatory. I have my own unauthorized, personal take on its meaning, which I’ll share with you later.

What connections, then, do we celebrate on these days? First, we have a bond that stretches across the years. We’re part and parcel of the ancient Hebrews, delivered from bondage, given God’s law on Sinai, challenged and comforted by the prophets, waiting on a Messiah from the line of David. Our ancestors in faith are Abraham and Sarah and their descendants. We stand on the shoulders of the men and women who knew and walked with Jesus, and who told their story to others who shared theirs, and on and on. Sometimes they lived and taught in ways that honored their Lord; on other occasions, they distorted and changed his message. But their efforts brought us the Bible and a rich and varied treasury of early Christian writings, some of which were only discovered within our own time.

As the years rolled on, believers both mighty and lowly continued to bring honor to Jesus, as well as heap shame on his name. We are heirs to a legacy of cruelty and persecution in the Crusades and the Inquisition and yes, even the Reformation, but also of compassion, beauty, reason, and courage exemplified by Francis of Assisi, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Thomas Aquinas, Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Menno Simons. That same combination of cruelty and kindness has characterized the Christian church since their day up through and including our own. But each succeeding generation should have known better, tried to be better by God’s grace, given that both the mistakes and sins and the faithful practices of the forebears were well-known, better manuscripts and translations of the Bible were increasingly available, and more sophisticated theology engaged with the culture was being done. For those with greater knowledge comes greater responsibility, more accountability. On the 1000th anniversary of the Reformation in 2517 or even at the dawn of the 22nd century, what will historians and the person on the street say about us and our fellow believers of whatever stripe? Did we honor Jesus or did our actions and words betray him and turn people away?

But closer to home, where we live our daily lives, we recall and celebrate today our connection with those generations who have gone before us in this church, among our friends, and in our families. We’re linked with those whose names are listed on the very first page of the session book from 1904, men and women who had a vision for a Presbyterian church here. We’re connected by bonds of love and respect to all those since, down to this very year, who have made this congregation what it is today, who gave of their time and energy and funds, acted with intelligence, imagination, and love, to make sure God was worshipped, the needy of the community served, the building and grounds maintained, gifts stewarded faithfully, everyone cared for and made welcome. Our family and friends who have now passed on have influenced us, made us who we are, gave us the opportunity to love and be loved. The choices and sacrifices of our ancestors set in motion events that brought us to where you and I are today. The names we will hear called out just a bit later will bring to mind and heart a flood of memories.

But if we are connected to those who have gone before across time, so also are we linked to them and all humanity by our common mortality. The knowledge that we are all finite, fragile, vulnerable, and will one day die may shut us down emotionally and spiritually. It may lead us to strike out at others whom we see as a threat to our tenuous hold on existence. But the embrace of our mortality, instead of the fear of it, leads us to search for meaning. It gives rise to religion and spirituality. As a newspaper columnist once wrote about his faith: “Judaism regarded human mortality not as a reflection of the world’s meaninglessness, but as God’s greatest gift to the men and women he created in his image. A lifetime—that brief window between dust and dust—is the opportunity he grants them to become his partners in creation by making the world a better, kinder, more hopeful place. Our job is not to accept the world as it is, or to be ‘comfortable’’ with the idea that eventually we ‘will be no one and nowhere’ [as Marcus Aurelius said]. Judaism believes in life after death, but it is only in life before death that human achievement is possible” (Jeff Jacoby, “The Search for Meaning in Mortality,” https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2011/10/04/the-search-for-meaning-mortality/CETpfz5eEDabqvD8myqqjK/story.html).

And a psychologist observes: “Our fears of mortality can leave us with an urge to retreat from life, to live less fully as a means of reducing the pain of our demise or the scope of what we would lose…. Yet, [the knowledge that we will die] has the power to do just the opposite, to inspire us to live life full steam ahead, pursuing our most meaningful goals, staying close to our loved ones, and living with integrity, self-esteem, and purpose. As Ernest Becker, the famed author of Denial of Death wrote, ‘And this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel lost— he who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground’”(Lisa Firestone, “Creating Meaning by Facing Our Mortality,” https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/compassion-matters/201205/creating-meaning-facing-our-mortality).

So the acceptance of our mortality is and can be the source of art and poetry and song, of efforts to leave a legacy of good for our children and more broadly, for all future generations. We seize every opportunity to make a difference, not wanting to waste a moment when we know our lives in this uncertain world could be taken from us randomly and without warning. We love and accept love; we teach our children our values and traditions, hoping they will carry them on. We make common cause with all people of good will, who are as mortal and fragile as we are, so that when we die, there will be something of us left behind that has made the world better, more compassionate, peaceful, and just.

Finally, not only are we connected to the dead across time and to the dead and living by our mortality. We are connected with all souls, human and non-human, in Christ. He is the one, according to the author of Colossians, who holds all things together. The vision is a cosmic, comprehensive one, that includes all creation. Categories that we use to distinguish people from each other no longer apply. As the author says: “There is only Christ. And he is everything and in everything.”

So, in a very real sense, all people, whatever their faith, their nationality, their ethnicity, whoever they are, belong to Christ and in Christ. And so does every non-human creature. This goes beyond any talk of a specific religion, like Christianity. Our doctrines and our concepts of what God has done and is doing in Christ are only pale and sometimes idolatrous reflections of the wondrous reality of his work. Christ is all, in all. And, as Peter is quoted in Acts as observing: “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). And as the author of 1 John put it: “Everyone who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous” (1 John 3:7).

We live in a day (and this troubles me greatly) when some insist on emphasizing and demonizing differences. But, at a fundamental level, are human beings really so very different from each other? Can we not affirm what we have in common with everyone who has ever lived, with our neighbors now, and with generations yet to come? The Spirit of the Christ who holds everything together has implanted in us a yearning for meaning and community, and on a level deeper than we can imagine we belong to all creation. That to me is what we can and should celebrate on All Souls’ Day. As the Franciscan sister and scientist Ilia Delio has noted: “Every human person desires to love and to be loved, to belong to another, because we come from another. We are born social and relational. We yearn to belong, to be part of a larger whole that includes not only friends and family but neighbors, community, trees, flowers, sun, Earth, stars. We are born of nature and are part of nature; that is, we are born into a web of life and are part of a web of life. We cannot know what this means, however, without seeing ourselves within the story of the Big Bang universe. Human life must be traced back to the time when life was deeply one, a Singularity, whereby the intensity of mass-energy exploded into consciousness. Deep in our DNA we belong to the stars, the trees, and the galaxies” (https://cac.org/we-are-already-one-2017-10-30/).

And the noted author Barbara Brown Taylor observes: “‘God is all over the place. God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out. God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular, vast net of relationship that animates everything that is… At this point in my thinking, it is not enough for me to proclaim that God is responsible for all this unity. Instead, I want to proclaim that God is the unity—the very energy, the very intelligence, the very elegance and passion that make it all go…’” (quoted in https://cac.org/gods-heartbeat-2017-11-03/).

“God is all over the place.” Indeed. His plan and intention are so vast and comprehensive as to defy imagination. His gaze is on a galaxy 13 billion light years away, and his ear is attuned to your cry or mine in the night as we remember and mourn for a loved one now gone from our sight. His will is to bring all humanity—the dead, the living, the yet-to-be-born, back to that unity in Christ that was in the beginning, along with all creation.

In the meantime, we affirm with the old song, and act on its powerful words: “We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. And we pray that all unity will one day be restored. We will walk with each other, we will walk hand in hand. And together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land. We will work with each other, we will work side by side. And we’ll guard each one’s dignity and save each one’s pride. And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, and they’ll know we are Christians by our love.”

Connected. Making connections. One with those in heaven. One with those on Earth. May it be so.

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