Sermon for All Saints, November 4, 2018
In 1984, Robert Benton released, Places in the Heart, his film that takes place during the Great Depression in a small Texan town, a town segregated by race and economic class. The story begins with the accidental shooting and death of Roy, the town’s white sheriff, by a young black man named Wylie. Members of the Ku Klux Klan grab Wylie, drag him through town, and then lynch him. They do this with impunity. At the same time, Roy’s widow, Edna, finds herself responsible for their farm, a property set for foreclosure. In her attempts to save the farm, she is joined by a black man named Moses who offers to direct her farming efforts. In order to delay foreclosure on the farm by the bank, the conniving banker makes a deal with Edna: if you house my blind brother, he says, the bank will extend the foreclosure date. Edna now works with a motley crew to plant and harvest cotton: Moses – who the Klan views with great suspicion; the blind brother, Will; her two young children; and her sister whose husband is having an affair with another woman. And yet this odd mix of people work doggedly to bring in the harvest and win a competition for the first bail of cotton to be created in the county, thus saving the farm. What surprises the viewer is the closing scene that takes place in a Baptist church. As the minister reads the story of the Last Supper, a plate of cubed bread and a tray of small glasses filled with juice are passed from person to person in the pews. It’s hard to tell: is this reality or fantasy? For we see Edna’s sister kindly passing the communion bread to the woman having an affair with her husband. We see the white and blind man, Will, and the black man, Moses, seated next to each other at a time when almost every church was segregated. We see Edna passing the bread tray to her dead husband and, then, we see Wylie, the young and dead black boy, sharing communion with Roy, the sheriff he accidently shot and killed. It would seem that in this communion there is no wall, no border between the poor and the slightly less poor, between two women who love the same man, between black and white, between the living and the dead.
But, then, none of this should surprise us – for Christians have claimed for millennia that the communion, the Holy Eucharist, the Mass is where heaven and earth are joined, where the terrible divisions of society can dissolve, where bread and wine, where Body and Blood nourish the sinner and the saint, the pious and the skeptical, the joyful and the desolate. Indeed, it is here – here – where you and I encounter a world larger than our imagination: a world where bigotry and hatred, envy and conniving, betrayals and tragic mistakes, loss and death do not have the final word; a world in which our beloved dead and the many dead we do not know are with us because they are in God and the presence of God is as close to us as the air we breathe. Thus, our beloved Book of Common Prayer teaches us that life does not end at death but rather is transformed by the mercy and love of God in ways we cannot fully imagine (BCP 382); that in the Holy Eucharist, in our communion with the risen Christ, we also encounter the saints and our beloved dead who join us in the banquet of heaven celebrated here on earth at this altar (BCP 498); that we are encouraged to pray for our beloved dead because “we still hold them in our love and trust that they will grow in God’s love, until they see their Creator as he is” (BCP 393; 862); and that we may ask for the prayers of the saints who dwell in the light of Christ just as we pray for each other and this suffering world at every Eucharist and in the Daily Prayer of the church.
Just over a week ago, the Episcopal Cathedral of the Diocese of Washington – the National Cathedral as it is commonly called – witnessed the memorial service for Matthew Shephard, a gay Episcopalian who was brutally murdered twenty years ago by two homophobic men. During his sermon at the service, Bishop Gene Robinson noted that Christians throughout the world would soon be celebrating All Saints and All Souls. He then said this: in many Latin American parishes, the names of the dead are called out by members of the assembly and that after each name is called out, the entire assembly says, présente, that is, “present, present here among us now” – that is, the beloved and not so beloved dead are present here with us – for the veil between this world and the one suffused with the love and justice, the life and light of God is remarkably thin.
And so I wonder: who is the beloved friend or spouse or child or grandparent or colleague or group of people you carry in your heart this day? Who has brought you to this liturgy? And who waits to hear you whisper or pray this word, présente, as you come to the altar of God? At this table the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food and well-aged wines. The Lord of hosts will destroy the shroud that is cast over all people and will swallow up death forever. Amen.