I love the Feast of All Saints. After 26 weeks of green vestments, we switch to white for this beautiful festival. We light the paschal candle. We sing the song with the “fierce wild beast.” And there are baptisms. I love baptisms. I love gathering the families and children around the font, pouring the water, holding the babies or drenching the older children and adults.
I love the prayer over the water and how it reminds us of the connection we have through water to creation, freedom, forgiveness and Jesus. The very water in our bowl may once have fallen as rain into the river Jordan or as snow on the top of the highest mountain. It may have been the life-saving liquid for a thirsty cheetah or the home for an inquisitive octopus.
When we all affirm our baptismal vows with energy and enthusiasm, I love to really drench the entire congregation, reminding us thereby of the command to “walk wet” into the world, remembering who we are and how we are called to live as lovers of God and our neighbor. I always laugh when I remember the suited ushers of my first parish who stood in the back, with mops ready to dry up the linoleum floor once I had finished with baptisms and asperges (Latin for sprinkling).
Today we will do that while we worship apart from one another. Be sure to say your “I will with God’s help” response out loud to each of the promises. Don’t be afraid to get yourself or your companions at home wet. Put your hands in the water and make the sign of the cross as a blessing. Make the same sign on your own body as a reminder that you are a child of God, free, beloved, forgiven, renewed.
The blessed water is not magic, but it is an outward and visible sign of an inward spiritual grace. And although Episcopalians are technically Protestant, there are some of you who like to have holy water on hand in your home as a reminder of your identity in Christ.
Someone for whom that was important was Katryn. She came to the Christian faith as an adult through the Roman Catholic church. She loved Mary, the saints, the rites and rituals, the rosary and holy water. When she could no longer remain Roman Catholic because of her commitment to equal acceptance of women and LGBTQIA folks, she sought out her local Episcopal Church – St. Luke’s.
Some of you knew Katryn. She served as a greeter and reader on Sunday mornings. She was recognizable by her vibrantly dyed black hair, her tattoos and later, her walker. She was a beautiful person with a beautiful soul and spirit. And she suffered. She struggled with disabilities caused when she was hit by a city bus, suffing a brain injury and a shattered body. She could no longer work or drive. Her health deteriorated with an undiagnosed disorder that caused brain fog and terrible weakness. She mourned the loss of her quick mind and her strong body. She faced depression and anxiety. She was poor in spirit.
When she suicided just before Christmas last year, it was a shock. She had managed to plan it in great detail without alerting any of us who cared for her. We were all so very sad. On a sunny day in January her roommate and I scattered her ashes off the bow of the Bainbridge Island ferry with Mt. Rainier in the background and a long, sorrowful note from the ship’s horn as we came to a standstill in the middle of Puget Sound.
Afterwards, I went to her familiar apartment to pick up the religious books and artifacts she had left behind. I was able to find good homes for all of them, but there were two things I kept. One is the framed certificate from her baptism in 2003. The other is the beautiful baptismal candle she was given on that date. They rest in my office next to Brother Isaac’s ashes and the cross that was singed when my office nearly burned down. These outward and visible signs are holy and dear to me.
The other tradition on the Feast of All Saints is to name out loud those who have died since the previous All Saints Day. We’ll be doing that today and Katryn’s will be one of the names we read. While I usually focus on the energy and life around baptism that is an important aspect of this day, this year is different. This year I am more aware than ever of those who have died.
On Friday I participated in two communal rituals for those who have died. The first was the “Say Their Names” memorial organized by my dear friend and her colleague. They worked with St. John’s Episcopal in Kirkland and 5 other churches to put up the photos of 240 Black Americans who have been killed, including the Emmett Till, the Mother Emmanuel 9, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Dozens of volunteers made 240 beautiful bouquets which were fixed next to each photo. On a beautiful fall afternoon, we walked the fence line reading and saying all the names, filled with mourning and anger at the ways they were reviled, persecuted and killed. This All Saint’s Day, we remember and honor them.
The second ritual is one I haven’t missed since it began in mid-April on the PBS News Hour. Every Friday (after Shield and Brooks) the host introduces a piece featuring the lives of five individuals who died from the coronavirus. There are photos, stories and tributes from family members. It is almost too difficult to watch and I cry every week. These are not just numbers in a political argument, but beloved children of God who died in isolation, without family physically present from a horrible contagion that we couldn’t even imagine a year ago. They are a small sample of the over one million people who have died worldwide.
And that doesn’t include those who have died from other causes, but because of COVID have been unable to have visitors or physical contact with the ones who love and care for them. One of those was my beloved mother-in-law Jean. We will say their names today as well.
Friends, we are the ones Jesus described in the Beatitudes. We are those who mourn, those who are poor in spirit, those who wish so much to bring peace and mercy. We don’t have to set out on a plan or program to develop these characteristics. If we are called by Christ and choose to walk his way, this is who we will be and these are the people we will love and be associated with. If we are the Body of Christ, we will experience what he experienced in his own life, sacrificial love, purity of heart, persecution, sorrow, forgiveness and peace in the midst of strife and discord.
One of my favorite biblical scholars, Stanley Hauerwas has said that the Sermon on the Mount is the constitution of a people and the Beatitudes the source of their life, liberty and happiness. When we love God and our neighbor we will find ourselves living among those who exhibit these characteristics. We’re not being asked to go out and try to mourn or be persecuted or poor in spirit, but we are guaranteed to be described in these ways when we follow the way of Jesus.
It shouldn’t surprise us when we find our church called a “demon church” because of our care for those who are in utter poverty. We share the strength of the meek when we refuse to return evil for evil and stand with those who have been unjustly devalued. Our righteousness isn’t based in personal perfection but rather in a willingness to have our lives guided and inspired by the life of Jesus. His life is reflected, even if only dimly, in ours.
That reflection has been perfectly realized in the saints who have gone before us. Their full communion with God and one another is the realization of the kingdom of heaven where God has brought them to the very springs of the water of life and where every tear has been wiped away.
And so we come full circle, from the waters of life at baptism to the fullness and wholeness of eternal life at death. “What we will be has not yet been revealed.” And yet, the more we walk wet, living into our identity as God’s beloved children, the closer we come to being like him. That fullness is not of one completely realized human being, but rather of the communion of all the saints, past, present and future in complete harmony with all the created order. It is a vision more glorious than we can possibly comprehend and yet one we instinctively long and hope for.
On this Feast of All Saints, 2020 in the midst of the challenges of our lives, look for the signs of the Kingdom. You are sure to find them in births and pregnancies, in love and grief at the time of death, in the fight for justice, in those who pursue peace and in the daily acts of kindness and comfort that transcend hatred and evil.