All Saints’ / Resurrection Lutheran Church / Text: Revelation 7: 9 – 17; Matthew 5: 1 – 12 Message by Rev. Carol Kniseley / Title: The Communion of Saints Revisited
I once heard it said, that to remember the past is…in some measure... to “encounter ourselves” …at other times…in other people. For the life of me, I cannot imagine a more perfect time to reflect on such a unique encounter…than on All Saints’ Sunday. The day in which we in the church remember all the blessed saints who have gone before us…that Great Cloud of Witnesses…who show up at every family reunion. Not to be confused with those who are considered “living saints” in our present time…reminding us that one doesn’t have to be deceased…in order to be considered a saint! Keeping that important thought in mind…it’s time to take a road trip to California!
The last time Pastor Jim and I visited southern California, we made a visit to the city of Los Angeles and treated ourselves to what has to be one of the most spectacular cathedrals ever built in the United States: the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. It is there that we were introduced to the work of one artist named John Nova. Turns out that the artist had been commissioned to create for the cathedral itself…25 fresco-like tapestries…depicting 136 “saints”. The entire body of work…which is both stunning as well as breath-taking…is called ‘The Communion…of Saints’. Each tapestry rising some 30 feet into the air…with each saint being depicted over 10 feet in height. Needless to say, we all felt quite small amongst saints SO MUCH LARGER than real life.
What was so memorable, aside from the sheer size of each piece…along with the incredible mastery of the techniques used to create the images themselves…was the vast array of humanity being put on display. People…from all walks of life…with different nationalities, ages, occupations, vocations…both from past ages as well as the present…were all there for the viewing. Some were recognizable right away: Peter…and Paul…..Joseph….Joan of Arc….Mary Magdalene….Saint Francis….even Mother Teresa (who stood next to the children and was among the shortest!) For many of the others…I didn’t have a clue. It wasn’t until much later that I discovered that twelve of the 136 figures were included by the artist…as “anonymous and future saints”…many of whom were depicted as children.
The thing about each of the saints was, well….they looked so normal. As if they could have walked right off of the street in downtown Fredericksburg. Come to find out that many of the folks pictured were members of the artist’s own family…while others were neighbors, friends, even some of the homeless people he had literally taken right off of the street. Most were dressed in the clothes that they were accustomed to wearing during their lifetime, and yet, the most striking feature was not in what they were wearing. It was the realization that every single person was turned in the same direction…and looking straight toward the light. The natural light, that was flooding in through the cross-shaped window high above the altar. Sound familiar?
Every single person appeared to be drawn to the light in such a way that there was no mistaking their love for Jesus. Every single one of the saints “radiated” with the love of Christ in their hearts…which brings us to a really good question for us today: “So how does one become a Saint?” Well, the answer depends on who you ask. According to the Roman Catholic tradition, there are exactly two things necessary for sainthood: proof of a good and pious life; confirmed by the evidence of at least 3 miracles after the person’s death.
Then there are the Be-attitudes. It is no mistake that they are read every year on All Saints’ Day. Like the Ten Commandments, the Be-attitudes confront us with an ideal vision (meaning God’s vision) of who we can be…if we embrace them as our guiding principles throughout every aspect of our life. As good as all of that sounds, it’s not exactly what God had in mind when it comes to this business of becoming “a saint”. It is not a matter of “doing” good things or even providing miracles that can be documented by the Vatican. It is simply a matter of remembering who and whose we are…and that in the waters of Baptism, we each were sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever. Just like every single “saint” who has ever gone before. And who is yet to come.
As I stood there in that magnificent cathedral…it began to dawn on me what the tapestries were meant to convey. Generally speaking, those whom we call ‘saints’….were just ordinary people like us. They undoubtedly had their really good days…and they had their bad…but by in large, what distinguished them as ‘saints’ among us was not their goodness. What “marked them” as ‘saints’ was their undeniable, extravagant, all-encompassing love of God. Everything about them radiated with the love of Christ himself. Which also means….that none of us can ever shrug our shoulders and say that ‘sainthood’ is far beyond our reach.
And speaking of someone with a long reach, if there was ever a true ‘saint’ among us…I would personally vouch for Tom Howard, who was laid to rest on _________________ of this year. I have it on good authority that Tom’s trust in God never wavered once. And that by virtue of his baptism into the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus…he, too, is among those saints being lifted up to God here today. Like our brother Tom, we are called to follow wherever Christ and the saints before us lead, knowing full well that we will fall and we will stumble.
Affirming once again, that all saints…are forgiven sinners…just like us. The saints for whom we lit these candles serve even now…to remind us of what God is capable of doing. A God who turns our world upside down…and dares us to follow suit. And when we do, may it be that we find ourselves in good company…with all the saints who have gone before…and those still waiting here on earth. Thanks be to God. Amen