Service, Reconciliation, and Resistance

First motif

Last Sunday afternoon I sat around the table in the Stearns Room in the first of this year’s confirmation preparation classes with five people, three adults, and two teens, asking the question -who or what is God? Our discussion evolved over the course of our time together towards the hypothesis that the deepest insight of the Judaeo-Christian Tradition is that humanity is made in the image of God.

If we are made in the image of an unseen God, then we can come to learn something about God through taking a good hard look at ourselves. The tricky question then is, which image of humanity is God reflected in?

Like a double-edged sword, the mirroring of divine and human images cuts both ways. We can hypothesize that God is loving, relational, and collaborative because we also possess these qualities. Yet, we can equally propose that God is jealous, angry with a propensity for violence in pursuit of the ends of power and control because these are very typical human characteristics. The Bible records an image of God, shifting and changing as the projections like a pendulum swing back and forth between our conflicting images of ourselves.

Christ the King Sunday presents us with two images, likewise in tension. The more usual image is of Christ the King robed in the trappings of political culture, the paramount operative in the zero-sum-equation of dominion with domination. The other image is of Christ reigning not from a throne but nailed to a tree. One is an image of power, the other an image of vulnerability. One of our human propensities is to too easily equate displays of power with images of strength, while we mistake displays of vulnerability with helplessness and weakness.

I will return to the equation of power with strength and vulnerability with weakness because it takes us to the heart of the meaning of Christ as King.

Second motif

What an interesting moment in history we are currently living through. Our culture rocks and reels as the tectonic plates shift unpredictably. Newton’s Third Law of Motion states that counteracting forces always come in pairs. You have to be blind not to see in the #Me Too a response of resistance to the trends in our current political culture.

The flaunting of a shameless culture of male power and domination has paradoxically shone a spotlight on sexual predation as a mechanism for the abuse of power.  The shuttered doors kept locked by the threat of legal and personal retaliation have burst open to reveal the astonishing pervasiveness of men’s sexual predation of young women and in fewer instances younger men.

On the film set, in the boardroom, and especially in the corridors of political power, where sexual predation has been deliberately concealed, hidden at taxpayer expense, women’s vulnerability is finding a new voice of protest in the #Me Too.

The brazen displays of male dominance now begin to trigger a reaction principally among women and men who have experienced sexual and other forms of victimization. But more widely, we are experiencing first hand the phenomenon called a tipping point.  We are witnessing a rising protest from among the silent majority of folk who have simply had enough of the debasement of our political and civic culture.

There are instances of the gross abuses of power for which the criminal law is the appropriate forum for redress. What we are witnessing is a deep resistance to the pervasive culture of male narcissism that sees women as objects. Groping is not the same as rape, distinctions need to be made, but both are expressions for the enacting upon women of men’s unresolved adolescent desires.

Empowered by one of the more positive effects of social media, the intensity of female-led resistance finds a potent channel for a protest that has the power to bridge across the fractured texture of our civic life, bringing disparate individuals together in a wave movement for change.

That, men in powerful positions sexually prey upon women made vulnerable within a system of entrenched power imbalance, is nothing new. What seems to have catalyzed a new potency for protest is that it had come to seem that there was no longer a sense of shame in getting caught. This shift in our values reflects a new callousness in sections of public opinion. In the pursuance of political aims and objectives, the attitude of many has come to be- who cares, so what? As a section of the electorate revels in the displays of phallic showmanship, the evangelical right abandons traditional moral principles, making the cynical calculation that this is a price worth paying in pursuit of the creation of a Supreme Court through which to impose their vision of the theocratic state upon the fabric of the Republic.

Is this not a moment in time when we might hear again Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s call to resistance?

We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds: we have been drenched by many storms; we have learned the arts of equivocation and pretense; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. ……. Are we still of any use? What we shall need is not geniuses, or cynics, or misanthropes, or clever tacticians, but plain, honest, straightforward men [and women]. Will our inward power of resistance be strong enough, and our honesty with ourselves remorseless enough, for us to find our way back to simplicity and straightforwardness?  

Motifs blended

In 1925 Pius XI proclaimed the feast of Christ the King as an assertion of the Catholic Church’s protest against the rise of authoritarianism, asserting the equally authoritarian power of the Church as the only center of allegiance for Roman Catholics. At a considerable cost to liberty and freedom of thought within the Church, he marshaled the Catholic legions against those he perceived as the enemy.

The historical context for the origins of the commemoration of Christ the King sounds a tone today that is both timely yet also problematic. As an old story of one authoritarian system asserting itself against competing, equally authoritarian rivals, for those of us who do not subscribe to the notion of an authoritarian church or even an authoritarian state, Christ the King is a very necessary reminder of the dangers in mistaking power for strength and vulnerability for weakness. 

Matthew in his parable of the sheep and the goats challenges us to break the all too easy equation of power with strength and vulnerability with weakness. In Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, Matthew presents a picture of what social empathy looks like in the context of community life. For some weeks we have all puzzled at the way Matthew in particular, concludes each of Jesus’ parables of the kingdom with a proclamation of serious punishment for those who will be cast into outer darkness where there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. My suggestion is that putting hyperbole aside, like the drumbeat of the heart pulsing through Matthew’s gospel, we hear Jesus’ mantra: there is no charity without justice. – there is no charity without justice.

We embrace the image of Christ the King because at the heart of the gospels stands the iconic image of Jesus, not robed in kingly power, but nailed to a tree. It is not to Christ arrayed in worldly displays of sumptuous, designer splendor reeking of privilege and power, but to the crucified one that we must look. At its base, three huge stones wedge the cross in place: service, reconciliation, and resistance. 

An anonymous Franciscan blessing goes:

God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that we may live deep within our hearts. May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom, and peace. May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war so that we may reach out our hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. May God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world so that we can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen

The Long and Winding Road

imagesThe long and winding road 

How to begin? Well, maybe the best way to begin a reflection on the parable of the talents in Matthew 25 is to confess that I haven’t a very clear understanding of what this parable means, other than to note that it has some rather odd and disturbing messages buried within its narrative. Most disturbing is that it begins with the words: the kingdom of heaven is like.

To begin with, what’s a talent? Take note, we use this word in English to indicate either innate (naturally occurring without effort or design) or carefully cultivated (developed with intention through effort) abilities and qualities. Matthew uses the term to denote a monetary value. Apparently, it’s a huge value somewhere in the region of a million dollars. The parable envisages amounts of 6, 3, and 1 million dollars respectively.

This parable concerns a man preparing to set out on a long journey, where and for how long we don’t know. We will refer to him as the man. Who is the man? Is he God? If so, this parable presents a pretty problematic image of God. The first two slaves are commended for their financial acumen and their trustworthiness. They have clearly done what the man considers a good thing. But his response to the third slave is a little troubling. The third slave fears the man, believing him to be a harsh man who exploits the power his wealth accords him. The man does not argue with this slave’s assessment of him. In fact, he demonstrates why his slave has good reason to fear him.

I’ve seen that road before

Traditionally, this parable has been interpreted as a parable of commendation for trustworthiness. This interpretation hinges on understanding the talents entrusted to the slaves as referring to personal qualities rather than monetary amounts. The message lies in seeing the slaves as stand-ins for you and me. Here, the man is God who commends us when we develop our skills and abilities and put them to good use – good use defined as producing an increasing benefit to God.

As a story of commendation, the traditional interpretation plays on the Star Trek blessing Live long and prosper, paraphrasing it as Work hard and prosper.

The Protestant work ethic seems to be a value of the kingdom. Consequently, when we live in conformity with the Protestant work ethic we are to be commended by God for the fruitful increase that the effective development and employment of our talents produce. It’s very easy for us to see ourselves being commended for measuring up well against the standards of good, persevering, trustworthy producers. Well done good and faithful servants, we hear! The third slave in this parable represents a cautionary counterpoint, showing us what laziness and untrustworthiness look like.

Another time-honored interpretation understands this to be a parable about timeliness and the need to be ever watchful for the Lord’s return. In this way, it follows on from last week’s parable about the wise and foolish virgins. The man’s going away is probably a Matthean detail, referring to the early Christians’ experience of the interim time between the ascension and Jesus’ imminent return in the glory of his second coming. So the message is, be ready! And in the meantime, make hay while the sun shines. Are we not also those who through thoughtful prudence and careful preparation with an eye to the future will be found ready when the Lord returns?

Why leave me standing here?

Despite the traditional interpretations, aspects of this story remain troubling.

  1. If we look more deeply at the third slave, viewing his function in Jesus’ story as more than the counterpoint to the qualities of trustworthiness and hard work, what can we discern? He has a jaundiced view of the man but it’s made clear that even the man himself shares his slave’s assessment of himself as the very worst example of a first-century robber baron, who shamelessly confesses: I reap where I did not sow and gather where I did not scatter.
  2. What are we to make of the parable’s apparent endorsement of usury – the practice of lending at interest? Charging interest on a loan was strictly condemned in Jewish law. The Torah allowed the practice only when the loan was made to non-Jews. The Prophets prohibited the practice outright no matter the circumstance. Therefore it seems unlikely that Jesus, himself standing in the strict line of the Prophets would have endorsed the practice. The Church continued the thrust of prophetic teaching about usury, prohibiting it outright. This together with the Torah allowance of charging interest on loans to non-Jews paved the way for the Jews to become the lenders of choice in medieval Europe.
  3. What is the purpose of the line: For to all who have, more will be given, and they will have abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away? This line describes a very common experience for the poor in Jesus’ time. Needing to take loans for basic necessities, they incurring an exponential ballooning of debt, leaving them in the end with less than they began with. This practice led to the widespread indenturing of whole communities, something Jesus would have been intimately familiar with. The practice continues unmodified today throughout the Two-Thirds World, and a variation of this age-old practice of unscrupulous lending also describes the experience of many living on the economic margins in First World societies. Driven by necessity and hampered by poor creditworthiness the poor are forced to take payday loans only to find themselves in the same predicament of ballooning debt. Are we to take it that God commends such things?

Let me know the way

We hear this parable from within our culture where banking and financial investment are pillars of our economic system.

Lending at interest is normal and valued by most of us because we benefit hugely when we have enough financial resource to participate in the investment economy. We see nothing wrong when enterprises borrow the necessary capital to manufacture goods and services and in return guarantee a dividend to the lenders. So for us, the actions of the first two slaves are absolutely prudent. I wonder if they received a warning that because markets go up they also can come down?

If we read modern intentions into the attitude and action of the third slave, we note a very risk averse approach to investment. His fear of and loathing for the man causes him to take the safest route to ensure no loss of capital. It’s the equivalent to keeping it under the mattress or in a current savings account.

At one level it’s complex to read into Matthew and other pre-modern texts our modern and post-modern norms and assumptions. Yet, this is the very task that scholars call the hermeneutical (interpretive) process and which Judaism refers to as Midrash. We read our own contextual values into Matthew’s account of Jesus’s parable, how can we do otherwise?

We live in troubling times. Whether we fear the consequences of unrestricted global capitalism or we fear society’s regression to more tribal and insular nationalism, the fact remains that we are all living daily with unprecedented levels of fear heightened by the information chaos of social media created echo chambers.

The traditional interpretations of the parable of the talents as a story of divine commendation for hard work and prudent risk-taking no longer seem convincing to many today. More and more, contemporary interpretations view this parable with the interpretation of suspicion. The interpretation of suspicion interrogates the text. Can Jesus really be endorsing the practice of usury as the modus operandi in the kingdom of heaven? Is he really suggesting that the man is a suitable representation of God? It notes how elsewhere Jesus is very strong on the need to see the world as it is. Nearly all his parables that touch on money and economics, which are the majority, stress the importance of seeing the world as it is. A picture emerges of Jesus asking his hearers to open their eyes and confront in themselves their unwitting collusion in the maintenance of an unjust status quo.

The third slave recognizes with whom he is dealing. He recognizes how the man enriches himself, enjoying not simply reasonable wealth but an obscene level of wealth that can only result through his power to exploit others.

Now, a new interpretation is emerging in which the kingdom of heaven is likened to the third slave’s resistance to participating in a system that promotes inequalities in the balance of wealth and power in this world.

The tension between faith and culture shapes our engagement with Biblical texts. We regard Biblical texts as sacred, by which I mean that we approach these texts believing them to be vehicles through which God continues to speak to us. We also engage Biblical text as people shaped by living in a particular culture at a certain time and place.

It’s no help to us to stick with ways of interpreting texts that made sense to our fathers and grandmothers.

They lived in very different worlds from us. Each generation must come afresh to its own engagement with Tradition. We come to our engagement shaped by the lives we actually live.

And still, they lead me back

In our Anglican Tradition, although individuals are free to interpret a text from Scripture, authoritative interpretation – the generally accepted meaning of the text as currently understood – emerges only from the common mind of the community of believers listening together. So let me pose two questions:

  1. Who do we identify with in this parable? We easily see ourselves in the responses of the first two slaves whose actions of prudent risk-taking strike us as familiar, playing the equivalent of the ancient world’s stock market. Yet, can we see ourselves in relation to the third slave who challenges the socio-economic assumptions that result when one person – to use the agrarian images of the text itself – can reap where he did not sow and gather where he has not scattered with impunity – simply because they occupy a place of privilege as a member of what today we refer to as the 1%?
  2. If we believe this is a sacred text capable of speaking directly to us as a community, do we hear it commending or disturbing us?

So take your pick. As individuals while we hear different voices and messages in our engagement with a religious text the danger we all need to be aware of is hearing only that which suits us. When our engagement with a gospel text leaves us unchallenged, undisturbed, it’s an indication that we have only heard what fits within our set of prior assumptions.

God is a god of surprises, not a figure of predictability. We miss this quality of the divine when we find in sacred scripture only what we are already looking for. The parable of the talents is both a confirming and troubling text and as with all the parables of Jesus, it is carefully constructed to ambush us.

My takeaway on the parable of the talents is that the kingdom of heaven is a paradoxical place. At one level the kingdom’s values commend trustworthiness and hard work. At the same time, the kingdom’s values challenge us to see things as they are but seeing things as they are is not the same as naïvely accepting things as they are. In the parable of the talents, the kingdom of heaven commends trustworthiness while simultaneously challenging our collusion with the status quo of economic injustice.

So you see, it’s complicated!

Martin of Tour: a man for our time?

Here is the audio track from a reflection on Martin of Tour I gave at Choral Evensong on the occasion of their Patronal Festival at St Martin’s, Providence. The reflections are organized around the suggestion of an internal tension between love and duty that shaped the whole of Martin’s life. In a time of massive change, marked by population migrations, economic pressures, and decay of civic institutions, are all pressures that mark the similarity between 21st-century and 4th-century pressures.

A Different Kind of Other: Joshua 24: 1-3a, 14-25


A sermon from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs for Pentecost  25

“…but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

In last week’s lesson from the Hebrew Scriptures Joshua son of Nun, then a young man, led the Israelites miraculously across the Jordan—on dry land between two walls of water– a mirror image of Moses’ crossing of the Red Sea. God’s charge to Joshua was to enter the Land of Canaan and rid it of everyone who lived there, thus fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The list of targeted groups comes tumbling off the page; Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites—It was Joshua’s responsibility to clear them all out.

All of them.

If you’ve read the book of Joshua all the way through, you’ve seen that Joshua was not completely successful. As he gathered the people at Shechem at the end of his life, everyone knew that there were any number of Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites still living in the land. For example, the entire Canaanite family of Rahab was spared because she helped two Israelite spies. And the sneaky Canaanites of the city of Gibeon, terrified of being obliterated by Joshua’s army, managed to outsmart Joshua by disguising themselves as travelers from a faraway country seeking a peace treaty. And Joshua had to honor it once he realized their deception. So the Gibeonites stayed. And these weren’t the only ones.

So Joshua’s record as a total conqueror is, let us say, not so total. Why?

The only way to read Scripture really fruitfully is, as I have often said, to look deeper; to interrogate the text. In Joshua, we already struggle with episodes of apparently divinely sanctioned violence that are woven throughout the book. Now add to that the fact that this violence, even with God’s supposed blessing and aid, still hasn’t accomplished what it was supposed to do. The writer wants us to take a closer look.

So today’s story takes place at the end of Joshua’s life, with a farewell address. He begins by reminding the people of their story, going all the way back to Abraham. And right there, in his first words, is the key: “Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.” Let that sink in. In other words, the origins of the Israelites are outside of the land. The entire history of the people of God is peppered with the concept of Outsiders and Otherness: Jacob’s family lived—where? — in Canaan before going to Egypt to be with Joseph. So the Israelites—all twelve tribes— had their origins in the very land that Joshua was charged with cleansing. So you see, Otherness—who is insider and who is outsider, who is alien and who is native, this is the confusion that has been built into the very DNA of the people of God.

And the fact that Joshua had failed to eradicate the Other in the land is the writer’s way of telling us that Otherness is built inescapably into all of us. We are always in some kind of relationship—healthy, unhealthy, or somewhere in between—with Otherness. Culturally and socially we must co-exist with those who are different from us and who see things differently. Psychologically we must learn to identify and live with our shadow—the parts of us that we would rather hide from the outside world. And as much as we may wish to wall ourselves off, internally or externally, we just can’t. We’re stuck with each other and ourselves. This is a fundamental truth of our identity as the people of God. 

The issue was never really the Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites themselves. It was what they worshiped. God desired the people to worship only the one God who created them, and who liberated them from Egypt. God called the people to turn away from other gods and idols. And in doing so God was calling them to become a different kind of Other: the kind who didn’t fit in with the prevailing social norms of idol worship.

The kind of Other that was countercultural.

The beguiling thing about idols was that they were so…tactile. So comfortable. Made of wood and stone, they were created by human hands. And if they could be created and molded, then, whether people admitted it or not, the gods that they represented could be created and molded as well. The God of Israel couldn’t be molded or manipulated. The God of Israel could not be controlled.

To follow a God like that requires more than the motor skills to carve or sculpt. It requires trust. Trust in the love, provision, and presence of that which is unseeable, unknowable and uncontrollable. It requires the courage to go against the cultural grain; to be willing to face and endure the discomfort of others’ skepticism, disdain, or even anger. But mostly it involves letting go of something that has become an idol in itself: Fear.

To release fear and to embrace trust, that is to become Other.

“…Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

Joshua knew from previous experience with the people during Moses’ leadership that their newfound zeal for his call to forsake idols would ebb and flow, so he tested them by saying, in effect, “Are you SURE you want to do this? God is not amenable to domestication.” And with good intentions their response was enthusiastic as they declared their renunciation of idols and their desire to worship the one God.

They chose the way of Otherness.

I wonder. Could we do that? Could the Church really do that? Be Other?

In a way we are already. On a Sunday morning, when we can choose to be anywhere else, we choose to be here, and that in itself is a countercultural act these days. The fact that on this Ingathering Sunday we choose to offer back to God a portion of our treasure is an act of faith and gratitude that no one takes for granted.

Perhaps there is an even broader invitation for us, though; broader than Sunday and broader than pledging in order to keep the lights on. Can we also hear an invitation to ponder the competing idols that hold us back from fully embracing our Otherness?

In the Bishop’s address to Convention last weekend—the day before the latest gun violence in Texas—he expressed his concern for the spirit of division, anger and fear that has taken hold in our world. He worries that people have become so estranged from one another that our basic institutions can barely function. Even family relationships are suffering. And violence—violent words and violent actions—is claiming more victims by the day.

The god (little g god) of fear—of scarcity, change, difference; of failure, death, or loneliness; the fear of our corporate and individual shadow selves—this fear has caused us to mold and sculpt numerous idols; idols that we think we can control but that end up controlling us. I don’t need to make a list. You can find that in the headlines.

It seems to be the norm now. But isn’t the church called to a different normal? Doesn’t God (big G God) call us to be Other, and to show a world that fears Otherness a better way—a Gospel way of compassion and justice, a way of listening rather than walling ourselves off in (literally or figuratively) armed echo chambers? Can we let God transform the idols born of fear into a spirit of faith and trust in a God who loves us and nourishes us for the challenges of a wounded world?

The Church is Other. The Church keeps its lights on because it is called to be a beacon—a lighthouse in the darkness where the waves threaten to overwhelm and the rocks lurk beneath the surface. The Church—that’s us—can signal sanctuary for a world in fear. The church is not a luxury. We are a vital necessity, and we’re called, each and every one of us, to live into that, through trust and faith.

Walter Brueggemann says it best: “The prophetic tasks of the church are to tell the truth in a society that lives in illusion, grieve in a society that practices denial, and express hope in a society that lives in despair.”

Last week we baptized two babies and welcomed them into the Household of God. That’s one of my favorite descriptions of the Church because it expresses the bonds and the messiness of the family relationship that is the Body of Christ. Can we embrace that fully? Can this loving, chaotic, ridiculously hopeful bunch of God’s people show the world that being Other is the way of healing and wholeness for creation? Can we? Can we declare, “As for us, and our household, we will serve the Lord. Please join us.”?

With God’s help, may it be so.







Saints, Souls and Dark Matter



Everything in the universe is inter-connected and inter-dependent. Everything impacts upon everything else. The Medieval Church understood this only too well in the grand panorama of a three-tiered universe comprised of the Church Militant here in time and space, the Church Expectant – those having passed through death into a state of preparation for eventual entry into the third tier of the Church Triumphant – the Saints (with a capital S) who in the imagery of the Book of Revelation worship before the throne of the Lamb of God, night and day. This vision is a glorious medieval metaphor, a product of the enchanted mind. In this vision, prayer functions as communication flowing up and down along a two-lane highway connecting the tiers of the threefold universe. As in life, so in death, prayer forged a sense of relationship.

In an age shaped by the digital communication revolution, although we might imagine things differently, the central idea of prayer as a two-lane super-communication highway, connecting the living and dead takes on a new and vivid appropriateness.

Good theology always mirrors sound psychology. In the olden days of my youth, I remember how we celebrated All Saints – the Saints with a capital S – and All Souls – those whom we still love yet see no longer – as two separate events. Today, the utility of time and more rationed patterns of Church attendance have led us to merge Saints and Souls together as one celebration of the resurrection.

Good Theology always mirrors sound psychology. The division between saints and souls hints at the emotional complexity of our human experience of death. Although Christian funerals are celebrations of the resurrection with hopeful language, and white vestments, they are also rituals for the expression of personal and communal grief. Thus in the commemoration of the saints, we rejoice in the celebration of hope in eternal life while the commemoration of souls reminds us that our experience of death involves painful feelings of loss for those for whom our hearts still ache.

For many today, myself included, the medieval imaginary gives way to a quantum imaginary. As then, so now, our knowledge still fails us and it’s to the imagination that each generation must turn in the face of death as the ultimate mystery of life.

For none of us can know ahead of time what everlasting life is like. Contemporary metaphors of web and network, communication flow, particle and wave with the hypothesis of parallel dimensions alongside time and space now provide culturally compatible metaphors for interconnection and communication between the living and the dead.

I was recently reading about how physicists came to believe in the existence of dark matter. Belief is a kind of hypothesis and astrophysicists have since observed faintly detectable gravitational waves rippling across the seeming emptiness of space. Although it can’t easily be seen, physicists posited dark matter’s existence as the only explanation that accounts for the way light matter, i.e. the universe that’s visible to us, actually behaves. It’s interesting to speculate that the prior hypothesis of belief pointed them to look in the right place for the evidence.

The point I want to make here is that we comprehend dark matter indirectly through its effects. Likewise, no one can prove everlasting life in the communion of saints to you. It’s a hypothesis of faith. Like the hypothesis of dark matter, I believe in the communion of saints hypothesis because of its effects, its influence on my making sense of the bewildering and often nonsensible experiences of living.

The communion of saints conceives of the union of the living and departed within the love of God opens me to experience a wider purpose and deeper meaning in my life.

It shows me that life may be changed by the biological event of death but not ended with death.

This belief provides me with a compass setting, a direction of travel in life, and the support of an enduring set of values to guide the journey. Without these, so much of my life would otherwise seem limited to a trivial, yet overwhelming self-preoccupation.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews speaks of the communion of saints thus: 

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off every encumbrance and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with endurance the race set out for us. Hebrews 12:1

Belief in the communion of saints is a practical choice. It either makes sense to you, or it doesn’t and if it doesn’t then maybe this is only a matter of finding the right metaphor or image through which it can speak to you. Whether working through an enchanted medieval mindset or a contemporary quantum imaginary it’s imagination that provides us with what we need. Remember, that without physicists imagining dark matter as an explanatory hypothesis for what they already knew, they would not have begun to look for its detection.

The question is not: do you find the theology of the communion of saints credible? The question is: do the actions that flow from believing in the communion of saints support you in living your life more fruitfully?

The language of the letter to the Hebrews is helpful here – for living fruitfully requires an ability to throw off every encumbrance, and here I single out cynicism that compromises our capacity to live hope-filled lives. The great exemplars of Christian living, those whom the Church honors as Saints provide us with sources of encouragement, strengthening our resolve in the face of adversity. Belief in an ongoing relationship between the living and the dead opens us beyond the limits of our material self-preoccupation – clearing a pathway through the mire of easy entanglements that perpetually seek to ensnare us into settling for something less than the grandeur of our soul calling. Encouraged by a sense of continued relationship with those whose love in life has nurtured and shaped us – we run with endurance the race that is set before us.

It’s for all these reasons that on All Saints-All Souls Sunday, in Churches up and down the land we will baptize new human beings into the membership of the Christian people of God, wildly cheered on by the company of so great a crowd of witnesses.



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