Sermon by Jennifer Davis Sensenig on Ephesians 1:11-23
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In Christ & the Communion of Saints
Sometimes as I’m writing a note, I end with the phrase–in Christ–and then sign my name. ‘In Christ’ is a reminder of scriptures, like this one from Ephesians, that reconcile diverse believers and unite us in Christ. Because we are in Christ, there is a great power at work among us. In Christ the church–Jewish and Gentile–receives an inheritance of wisdom and revelation which comes from the present work of the Holy Spirit, and through the glorious Jesus tradition as lived by the saints who, though they have died, are also with us in Christ. Today we remember and celebrate the saints in Christ.
Our Anabaptist theology emerged in Europe during a reformation of the Western church. One of the early Christians creeds, also affirmed by Anabaptists was the Apostle’s Creed, which refers to the communion of saints. The Creed concludes:
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body
and the life everlasting.
Catholic, in this context, means the universal church. Today Mennonite don’t recite this creed much, though it’s in our hymnal as an affirmation of faith #712. The early Anabaptists didn’t recite the Apostles Creed much either, but they affirmed it in order to clarify that their faith–though distinctive –was nevertheless in Christ and part of a much larger and longer tradition.
The communion of saints is distinct from ancestor worship that many traditional cultures practice, but there are continuities as well. Rather than cutting deals on the other side–counseling us or harassing us–the Christian view of saints is that time bends. Saints today are together in Christ with those who have gone before us. We participate with all the saints in Christ’s death and resurrection. Together we share in the glory of a kingdom that is not yet, but already emerging and visible in the light of lives lived for Christ in the past or today.
St. Francis and our Mortality
One beloved Christian saint who preceded the Anabaptist movement was St. Francis. In our age of rampant materialism and environmental degradation, many contemporary Christians are inspired by what we know of Francis’ life in the 13th century. An early 20th century poet wrote:
Would I might wake St. Francis in you all,
Brother of birds and trees, God’s Troubadour,
Blinded with weeping for the sad and poor;
Our wealth undone, all strict Franciscan men,
Come, let us chant the canticle again
Of mother earth and the enduring sun
God make each soul the lonely leper’s slave;
God make us saints, and brave.
(Vachel Lindsay 1879-1931)
Surely today we’re lighting candles in memory of some who were brave–perhaps even brave in facing their own death. One of my poet friends has pondered personal mortality with a poem called The life I owe. She brings some humor to a sober topic, yet I’m taken with her weaving together her Mennonite faith tradition, a Franciscan-inspired concern for the planet and the glorious unknown beyond our own death. Here’s her poem:
The Life I Owe
I hope it’s raining when I die
And that the waves are crashing high
And lightening flashing in the sky.
I’d like to go out with a roar
Of thunder and a good downpour
The kind that makes me feel secure
All cozy huddled in my bed
All tucked about the neck and head
Even though tomorrow I’ll be dead.
Or maybe I should hope for snow.
Yes, snow might be the way to go.
An inch, a blizzard… I don’t know.
For feeling cozy and secure
There’s nothing better, that’s for sure;
And snow does something even more.
Not only does it make no sound
Caressing every inch of ground,
It makes the whole thing feel profound.
It’s natural to imagine death
How one might draw one’s final breath
And what one might surround it with,
What metaphor or simile
Hyperbole or subtlety
Might turn it into poetry
Wherelast lines often are the best
Illuminating all the rest
And everyone is so impressed!
And yet I know one can’t foresee
Much less control mortality
One has to let what will be be.
The where and when if I’d decide
Would mean the how of how I’d died
Would be determined suicide
Which still, though not, you may agree,
The sin it maybe used to be
Is not my kind of poetry.
No, when I die the weather may
Be nothing but a tired cliché
And I won’t have a thing to say.
If there’s to be precipitation
With interesting interpretation
It will be none of my creation.
I may die murdered in my sleep
Or so demented I just keep
On sinking till I’m six feet deep.
Whatever weather passes through
Or happens by will have to do.
No pressure, but it will be you,
You who survive me, looking back…
The system, if there’s one to track
Much less a meaning to unpack.
Yours to interpret or invent
Or trace if you can find the scent,
The pattern, what the whole thing meant,
As if the weather ever stood
For anything, as if it could
Mean something meaningful or should.
But meaning comes when it is sought
The same way poetry is wrought
With mother lodes of afterthought,
Afterthought and reverie
Not pro- but retro-actively
Supplied by anyone but me
Since I, as I’ve already said,
Can’t help this time since I’ll be dead
No longer lying here in bed
Thinking back and back until
Things coalesce and there’s that thrill
That aha moment, if you will,
When everything all comes together,
The sound, the meaning and the weather,
And you could be felled by a feather
When everything you thought you knew
Turns out to be not only true
But different somehow, simpler too.
But you…it will be you not me
Who has the last epiphany
About my life if one’s to be.
Me, I’ll be dead as I keep saying.
And rain or shine
I won’t be weighing
The pros and cons. I’ll be decaying.
Not gasping famous last words though
Just giving back the life I owe
To the love that would not let me go.
Yielding up the flickering days
I borrowed from the fairer rays
Of the light that followed all my ways.
Those are stanzas from a song I knew
When I was young and thought them true.
The crazy thing is, I still do.
It matters how you say a thing
And to what truths you choose to cling
From all those songs we used to sing.
It’s not just fun, though. There’s a cost.
For every truth you claim, one’s lost.
I learned that truth from Robert Frost.
If you claim love, you must discard
Some walls, for starters, which is hard.
But he said, ‘Trust me. I’m a bard.’
And I could name a braver one
Who never even wrote words down
Yet with them crumbled laws of stone.
And he said, ‘Trust me. I’m God’s son!’
Or rather, he called God our father
Who loves us something like a mother
Which makes him something like a brother…
You choose your favorite metaphor.
I’ve got to end this one before
The climate changes even more
And weather is no more the leaven
That lifts so easily to heaven
We who don’t know what we’ve been given.
Whatever metaphor you ride
Or melody on which you glide
To safety on the other side,
Let’s promise now (however wide
We land from where we aimed our pride
And whether we land dignified
Or mystified or terrified)
We’ll seek each other bleary-eyed
And share our sagas once we’ve died.
(Christine Longenecker 2018)
Ephesians as a Candle
The early church had to face death. They had to face the death of Jesus, a violent and literally terrorizing death. The early church had to face the death of those who knew Jesus in the flesh–women and mean who had met him in Galilee and were witnesses to the resurrection. The early church had to face the death of apostles whose leadership and letters had introduced them to Jesus and sustained their churches. And of course, they had to face the death of beloved family and friends, as we all do. Ephesians is probably late among the New Testament letters, from a time when the Christian movement had been sobered by many losses. The Apostle Paul himself may have been dead by this time, lost to the empire’s violence. So Ephesians, many scholars believe, was attributed to the Apostle Paul in order to extend his influence. Whether written by an elderly Apostle Paul or one of his companions who knew and loved him well, Ephesians is candle flame of love–an interpretation of Paul’s theology and ethics with light for the new generation in Christ.
The Violence of Climate Change, O’Brien
In his recent book Kevin J. O’Brien a white North American Lutheran addresses privileged church folks who are concerned about climate change. His looks to the lives of five American Christian saints who, though they have died, bless today’s church with the wisdom, revelation and enlightened action that we need to lament and resist the structural violence of climate change. These saints of the past knew nothing of climate change, but resisted structural violence in its other American forms. The Quaker John Woolman, resisted the American institution of slavery in the 18th century. As a young merchant’s clerk, Woolman found himself writing a bill of sale for a person–an enslaved African. Recognizing his moral failure and entanglement in a violent institution harming fellow human beings, Woolman later refused to draw up papers that would have bequeathed one slaveholder’s human property to the next generation. Purifying his own life–by refusing to wear clothes whose dyes were a product of slave labor–Woolman became an abolitionist both here and in Europe. Because of his light and love many Quakers ceased to hold Africans in servitude and their stream of the church became a force for change in this country. In 1865, 93 years after Woolman’s death, the US abolished slavery.
O’Brien also celebrates Jane Addams who developed alternatives to poverty and war through Hull House in Chicago in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Addams referred to her work as “civic housekeeping,” as if with a wink and stretch her public and political engagements could be accepted by as fittingly women’s work. Addams worked at multiple scales–as a sanitation inspector in her neighborhood, to founding the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, to counseling President Wilson regarding the peace treaty to end WWI. Though she travelled and published, she remained among the poor at Hull House her whole life. Addams expressed her Christian faith through democratic ideals, believing that all God’s children deserved to be well fed and educated, in order to contribute to the common good.
O’Brien includes chapters on Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King Jr. clarifying how their Christian faith informed their lives of justice, love and peace. The final American saint in the book is Cesar Chavez, who aligned the struggle for agricultural workers’ rights in California with the voluntary sacrifices of Roman Catholic piety. I was moved by understanding Chavez’ fasts and union organizing for ag workers and grape pickers as voluntary sacrifice countering the involuntary sacrifice of workers harmed by poverty wages, pesticide exposure and indignity. In the lives of saints who have gone before, we see a willingness to give life, love, money and energy for the struggle to be a faithful church of justice and peace in Jesus’ name. These voluntary sacrifices are Christlike. These were extraordinary Americans who belonged to non-violent social movements because they were Christians. Much of the light that we have for being Community Mennonite Church comes from these saints in Christ.
The Ordinary Dead
In Christian tradition there are separate holidays for remembering the saints duly canonized and the ordinary dead. Our All Saints Day ritual collapses those distinctions because the ordinary dead have been so very influential in our lives of faith. Frances Bellerby, a 20th century English poet wrote for All Souls’ Day, the day for remembering ordinary folks. Her poem focuses on the personal loss of a sibling or companion whose presence is still deeply felt on seeing the color of fall leaves and butterfly wings. Without trying to pursue things none of us understands, her poem blesses all of us who have been enchanted by the mysterious presence of someone we’ve loved and lost.
Let's go our old way
by the stream, and kick the leaves
as we always did, to make
the rhythm of breaking waves.
This day draws no breath –
shows no colour anywhere
except for the leaves – in their death
brilliant as never before.
Yellow of Brimstone Butterfly,
brown of Oak Eggar Moth –
you'd say. And I'd be wondering why
a summer never seems lost
if two have been together
witnessing the variousness of light,
and the same two in lustreless November
enter the year's night…
The slow-worm stream – how still!
Above that spider's unguarded door,
look – dull pearls…Time's full,
brimming, can hold no more.
Next moment (we well know,
my darling, you and I)
what the small day cannot hold
must spill into eternity.
So perhaps we should move cat-soft
meanwhile, and leave everything unsaid,
until no shadow of risk can be left
of disturbing the scatheless dead.
Ah, but you were always leaf-light.
And you so seldom talk
as we go. But there at my side
for it seems as if a mist descends,
through the bright leaves you walk.
And yet – touch my hand
that I may be quite without fear,
and the leaves where you walk do not stir.
As we remember the shimmer of saintly lives and the ordinary persons we’ve loved, another Christian poet, Malcom Guite pushes the church to be more inclusive as we light candles in memory of saints and all souls. Guite’s sonnet sonnet for All Souls Day includes a word I didn’t know when I first read the poem. A gibbet is a gallows, and here it’s a reference to the cross of suffering.
Sonnet for All Souls Day, Malcom Guite
Though Satan breaks our dark glass into shards
Each shard still shines with Christ’s reflected light,
It glances from the eyes, kindles the words
Of all his unknown saints. The dark is bright
With quiet lives and steady lights undimmed,
The witness of the ones we shunned and shamed.
The lone and left behind whom no one claimed,
Plain in our sight and far beyond our seeing
They stand beside us even as we grieve,
He weaves them with us in the web of being
Unnumbered multitudes, he lifts above
The shadow of the gibbet and the grave,
To triumph where all saints are known and named;
The gathered glories of His wounded love.
The candle flames and the faces here, are persons in Christ, who is fully God, who is fully love, who embraces and blesses us with an inheritance of faith. May the Christlike love in your life persist, so that we will remember one another as flames of love, justice and peace.
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