Dr. Steve Lindsley
(Ephesians 1: 11-23)
Saints. Tell me, Trinity, what do you think of when you hear the word “saints”? Is it select heroes and heroines of the Catholic tradition? Is it a football team in New Orleans that none of us here want to lose to? On this All Saints Day, I imagine the word “saints” means for us those in our family of faith who’ve gone from this life to the next and, in particular, those who’ve died in the past year, whose names we will recite in just a little bit.
Now Trinity has a lot of traditions we hold near and dear, and I for one have always loved the care and compassion that our congregation places on this particular day. Remembering, refusing to forget those who have left us but are also still very much with us. We do that in more ways than a worship service held the first Sunday of November, of course. More than once a week, when I need a break, I’ll take a little stroll through our memorial garden and columbarium right outside these walls. I’ll look at the names on the Memorial garden wall and columbarium niches – most of whom I know, some that I do not; but all are “known” in the sense of continuing to be part of this family of faith.
And so because it is All Saints Day, it might be good for us to dig in a bit into what the word “saints” actually means. It is not, as is often assumed, people of faith who have died. The Greek word used in our passage today for “saints” – hagioi – literally means “holy ones.” It essentially functioned as a synonym for what we would later come to call a Christian, and it has nothing to do with whether one is alive or dead. In fact, the fact that the same term can refer to both speaks to just how deep and wide this family of faith goes.
Let me tell you what I mean by that: the Canadian preacher John Gladstone tells the story of a young English minister who was serving a small congregation. It had become his custom over the years after the church’s evening service to offer the sacrament of communion to anyone wishing to receive it. One night after service, so few people stayed that he seriously considered not doing it, but at the last minute changed his mind. And so when he got to the point in the regular communion liturgy when he spoke the familiar words:
Therefore we praise you,
joining our voices with the choirs of heaven
and with all the faithful of every time and place…..
….when he spoke those words, he stopped. Not intentionally. It’s just that, for the first time ever, really, those words hit him. Joining our voices with the choirs of heaven and with all the faithful of every time and place. It was never just about how many people were sitting in the pews, was it? Deviating from his well-planned communion liturgy, the pastor offered up a heartfelt prayer, he said: God, forgive me. I had no idea I was in the midst of such great company.”
Don’t you see? It may be the dead in Christ we take special occasion to lift up on this day. But that’s not the whole of it. We call it “All Saints Day” because we all are saints, holy ones. The living and the dead. And what an amazing family of faith it is.
This profound truth lies at the center of our Christian belief, and we read about it first-hand in our passage today. The book of Ephesians, unlike many of our New Testament letters attributed to the apostle Paul, is not a very personal letter. Meaning, it doesn’t cite specific instances or people in the congregation that’s being written to. Ephesians talks in more broad, applicable terms, which has led some scholars over the years to surmise that it operated as a kind of “circular,” a communication intentionally written to be passed around to a number of churches.
And three times in our passage today we come upon a word: inheritance. In Christ we have obtained an inheritance, we are told. Also: You were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit, the pledge of inheritance toward redemption. And finally: the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints….
Anytime a word appears that many times in a single passage, it is practically begging for us to take notice. So what exactly is this inheritance, we wonder? The word itself means what we might expect it: a portion or a share of something that once belonged to someone else. We encountered this sort of thing a couple of weeks ago with the parable of the rich fool and the man who asked Jesus to convince his older brother to give him more of his inheritance than he should. That kind of inheritance – land, money, possessions, things of value and worth – that makes sense to us.
But the inheritance the writer of Ephesians is lifting up is something different. It does not appear to be tangible, tactile, quantifiable, something that can have a value placed on it. No, this inheritance – one that we are told we’ve already obtained – this inheritance is invaluable. It’s in our possession whether we realize it or not. This inheritance the writer of Ephesians speaks of can be boiled down to a single word: hope. More specifically, resurrection hope.
And what exactly is resurrection hope?
Susan was near death. She was in the hospital laying in her hospital bed, waiting for the inevitable. As was a host of family and friends who over the past few days had made their way to that bedside to be with her. Susan’s sister was sitting there, on a cell phone talking with another family member, quietly whispering: You better come soon. She might not last much longer.
She was apparently not thinking of the fact that, when approaching death and lying in a hospital bed, people’s sense of hearing tends to be amplified. And she certainly wasn’t expecting her sister to respond – something she hadn’t done in days – in a faint but steady voice saying, I’m not ready to go yet! Susan’s declaration broke through the silence of the room and made everyone there uncomfortable, so they did what well-meaning people tend to do when a loved one is on death’s bed: they quickly changed the subject.
But Susan would have none of it. Did you hear me? I’m not ready to go yet! And to emphasize her resolve she sat up in her bed – also something she had not done in days. Turning to the hospital chaplain sitting on the other side of the bed, she said in a clear and even voice, Let’s dance. How about Patsy Cline’s “Crazy?” The young chaplain, whose seminary training did not include a class on dance music requests from the dying, nevertheless rose from his seat and left the room on his mission. Minutes later he returned with a bluetooth speaker and Patsy Cline’s greatest hits cued up on his phone.
Susan decreed that all hospital room furniture be pushed aside, and it was so. And with her frail body and an even stronger resolve, Susan stood up. The chaplain pressed play and the soft brush strokes and familiar piano bit filled the room, and Susan and the chaplain began to dance. All the family members stared at them in disbelief at first, but eventually each grabbed a partner and joined in. They even played the song twice.
Susan crawled back into bed and died later that night. But she went out dancing!
Acoustic folk band Delta Rae sings this in one of their well-known songs:
When I die
I don’t want to rest in peace
I want to dance in joy
I want to dance in the graveyards, the graveyards
And while I’m alive
I don’t want to be alone
Mourning the ones who came before
I want to dance with them some more
Let’s dance in the graveyards
That, beloved, is resurrection hope. It reminds us that the line between life and death is not as iron-clad as we have been led think. Resurrection hope is the belief that those who have died are never truly separated from us. It readily acknowledges that there is hope in the grief and promise in the pain, even though it may be hard for us to see both in the moment. Resurrection hope is like dancing, dancing in the graveyards, a joyous act of defiance.
Resurrection hope dares to proclaim the truth – the scandalous truth, really – that death does not get the last word. Even though everything about death feels final. A person no longer there. An empty chair at the kitchen table. A phone contact that will never again pop up on your screen.
And it’s not just about the physical death of a person, either. Resurrection hope dares to stand in defiance of the culture of death that pervades so much of the society we’re living in right now, the nihilistic outlook on life, the brazen refusal of that which is right and true, the hurtful words that tear down and destroy and have become normalized in our polarized and polarizing world. All of that is death, a different kind of death but death all the same.
Have you ever thought about the fact, friends, that so much of what you and I are experiencing these days is a kind of grieving? Not just in regard to the people whose names we’re going to read in a moment, but in life in general? So much loss in our world, so much weighing us down, so much that seems to be out of sorts and upside down. That numbness you feel inside; that rage lying just beneath the surface. That is grief.
And in our better moments we bring that grief before God, and all the emotions that come with it, all the questions. And we lay it at God’s feet and we say to God, “Do something with this!” And while God cannot make that grief magically go away, God can do something even better – and that is to join us in our grief. To hunker down with us in the swirl of the storm. I’m reminded of the story of the death of Lazarus, where, as Jesus is told of his death, he begins to weep. I’ve always been touched by the fact that Jesus himself, the son of God, mourned right alongside his family and friends. There is something powerful, isn’t there, in knowing that Jesus is right there with us, crying as we cry, hurting as we hurt, grieving as we grieve.
That is where we find resurrection hope, friends. And resurrection hope dares to tell us that that death will not get the last word because it cannot get the last word. At the root of all of that death is fear. And fear cannot hold a candle to love, and love is always what lies at the heart of hope. Of resurrection hope.
In a minute we will pray together to “join our voices with the choirs of heaven and with all the faithful of every time and place…..” I want us to pay special attention to those words when we pray them and think about all of us – all of us – who are gathered here today. I want us to remember this resurrection hope as we leave this place and go out into the world God has called us to. Remember it as prices rise, as election results come in, as illness makes it way around. Remember it as we gather around hospital beds both literal and figurative:
Remember that death will never get the last word. Remember that resurrection hope is an inheritance we’ve already received. And most of all, most of all, people of God, remember to dance. Always to dance!
In the name of the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 Feasting On The Word, Year C., Vol. 4, pg. 231