This sermon was originally preached at First Congregational Church in Kalamazoo on November 4, 2018. You can listen here.
Yesterday would have been my grandfather’s 90th birthday. He died almost 14 years ago—a few months after my wedding, which was the last time I saw him. Bob Ingram was the child of two first-generation immigrants, both of whom came to this country for economic opportunities, and then found each other and built a life right as the economy collapsed into the Great Depression. My grandfather loved geology, he loved his family, and he loved feeding people—especially big breakfasts with bacon and eggs and toast and jam.
In the years since his death, there have been a handful of times when my grandfather felt very close. Certain hymns remind me of standing next to him at Parkway Presbyterian Church, and I can almost smell the Old Spice aftershave he used. But the closest he has felt was the first night I got to visit my new born son in the Neonatal ICU.
Adam was delivered 6 and half weeks early by emergency c-section, and because of my own health complications, I could not leave my room to visit him for a little over 24 hours. When I did, I still couldn’t hold him. I sat next to his incubator in the dimly lit NICU, pumping colostrum and reviewing the nurse’s updates about how they would try to give him a bottle the next day. It was a big deal. For the first day they had him on an IV that was supplying fluids and nutrients, but if he could not suck a bottle the next day, they would have to use a feeding tube. Which would very likely mean occupational therapy down the road.
As I sat in a chair next to my tiny child and dozed in and out of consciousness, I sensed the presence of others with me around that incubator. In particular, I sensed my grandfather, Bob, and my spouse’s grandmother, Juanita Gonzalez Lee, who he called Abuelita. She also loved serving food to her family, and always greeted my husband with the admonition—“You’re too skinny! Come. Eat.”
That night, on the eve of my son’s first opportunity to eat, I believe he had cheerleaders—beloved great-grandparents who loved their families by feeding them, and who extended their love to Adam by inspiring him to eat well. And he did. He never needed those feeding tubes.
Pastors are frequently asked questions about the afterlife, perhaps in the hopes that we have answers—that we have the key to unlock what the Bible really says about life after death. But we don’t. The mysteries of life are just as mysterious to us—we are simply privy to more people’s stories than the average person. All I have to go on are my own experiences, and those entrusted to me, and all I can say definitively is that we are connected. We human beings are connected to one another and connected to those who lived before us and connected to the life of this planet in ways that are beyond my comprehension.
That’s what the communion of saints means. We are not alone. We are never entirely independent. We do not exist in isolation. We are connected to one another and everything we do and everything we choose not to do has an impact, even when we cannot see it.
The communion of saints, or the great cloud of witnesses, or the hosts of heaven—all these phrases that speak of the lives of those who came before us are phrases that can be unhelpfully churchy. They conjure up images of puffy white clouds and angels with white feathered wings. Which, I’ll be honest, seems pretty disconnected from my daily concerns.
And I know I’m not the only one who is carrying a burden of daily concerns. Concerns for my children and spouse. Concerns for my own health. Concerns for the well-being of friends who feel like their rights are being stripped away and their existence is being denied. Concerns for strangers who are incarcerated or trying to re-enter society after incarceration. Concern for refugees on the move all over the world, seeking shelter and safety. Concern for species on the brink of extinction and governments that seem too slow to respond to the threats of climate change.
What relevance does All Saints Day have in the midst of the cacophony of daily concerns?
Our passage from John’s Revelation offers us one path toward answering that question, and it is in the image of God making a home for themself among mortals. Contrary to much modern theology and centuries of classic Western religious art, the Bible rarely depicts heaven as a realm that is distant and cloud-laden. Rather, heaven is God’s realm—God’s values—God’s desire for the well-being of humankind—made fully manifest on earth.
The Christian story is not a story of escape from this world—it is not a story about God rescuing and collecting faithful people and putting them somewhere else—some place safe from the troubles of the world.
That is sometimes how this passage from Revelation is read—that God has taken people out of the bad world and put them in a new one where nothing will ever trouble them again. But this image from Revelation is not about people going up to heaven—it’s about heaven coming down to earth–God’s intentions for the world becoming reality.
Every moment of the Christian story is about God being here. God born in a stable. God made known to a band of smelly shepherds. God growing up among working people. God eating with all kinds of unsavory folks. God experiencing rejection and persecution and oppression right alongside centuries of humanity. God entering so fully into human experience that they do not shirk away even from death. The home of God is among mortals.
Which means, beloved church, that our every mortal moment matters. We cannot treat our planet as something disposable—something God will helicopter us out of when the waters get too high. God is here, slogging through the flood waters.
It means we cannot look at a child in distress, separated from their parents or wounded in warfare or exhausted from forced migration, and say “I don’t know them. They don’t belong here.” God is here, face strewn with tears.
It means we cannot approach politics as a spectator sport, hoping our ideological team wins out at the polls. God is here, in a prison with a mother who was caught with a few ounces of pot, and at a dinner table with no food because the jobs were outsourced to another country, and in an underfunded school with outdated books and teachers who have to run active shooter drills with their kindergarteners.
The Christian story is that God is with us. And so are those who have gone before us. They teach us. They haunt us. They guide us. This is the communion of saints. Those whose lives inspire us or teach us or warn us have not left us. They are here. They are present at this table, knit into the Body of Christ with us in this sacrament. And as we journey through our own lives—as we discern what is the next right step, and how to live with faithfulness and courage, they are with us. This world matters, because this is the realm in which God is at work. And we have the chance to participate.
I mentioned that the last time I saw my grandfather alive was at my wedding, and on that day, the scripture Barrett and I chose to include in our service was this morning’s passage from Revelation 21. We chose it because we want our marriage to be about something bigger than ourselves—we believe our marriage is connected to God’s larger work of building just and loving community on earth. We know that by joining our lives together, we are able to be more faithful and do more justice than either of us would alone, and we understand our marriage covenant to be one way of participating in God’s work together.
When we welcome new members in this congregation we make covenants, because we understand that we are connected to one another—that in our faithfulness to each other we are growing in faithfulness to God, and that through our relationships in this church, and by standing in the lineage of saints set before us we can forge more good in the world than we would be able to alone.
And in this nation, one of the ways we live out our connection to one another is by voting. When we stand in that ballot box, we can choose to vote with our sights set on only our own needs and interests, or we can vote with an awareness of how connected we are to one another. How much our own well-being is tied to that of people who seem different from us. How our vote in 2018 will impact the lives of our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Vote this week, friends. Vote because this world matters. Vote because God is here. And maybe, as you vote you’ll encounter the specter of a beloved cheering you on at the ballot box.