Communion of Saints | Sermon for The Garden Church from 11/1/2015


Communion of Saints

Rev. Anna Woofenden


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Isaiah 25:6-9

25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

 John 11:32-44

11:32 When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
11:33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.
11:34 He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.”
11:35 Jesus began to weep
11:36 So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”
11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”
11:38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it.
11:39 Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
11:40 Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
11:41 So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me.
11:42 I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.”
11:43 When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus come out!”
11:44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him and let him go.”

“No one becomes an angel, that is, comes into heaven, unless we carry with us from the world something of the angelic character; and in this there is present a knowledge of the way from walking in it, and a walking in the way through a knowledge of it.” Divine Providence 60 Emanuel Swedenborg

A few Thursdays ago, at a very long stoplight on Oceanside Blvd, I received sad and shocking news. A friend and colleague of mine that I know from seminary had died suddenly and unexpectedly.

I pulled my car over and parked in a lot next to the beach—frozen in disbelief and needing to know more. Through texts and Facebook messages, this impossible truth was confirmed—my young vibrant, full-of-spirit and life friend had died that morning, from very unexpected complications while recovering from surgery.

When something like this happens, it seems like the light is suddenly different. The filter on life sharpens and feels so precious and so precarious. The line between life and death—the physical and the spiritual—thins. It feels like the world should stop turning and we should be allowed to just sit and stare and not understand.

How can someone so full of life, be gone?

Today we honor the Feast of All Saints, also known as All Saints’ Day, All Hallows, Day of All the Saints, among other names. This is a feast day; a religious holiday that has been celebrated in various forms across traditions throughout the ages. A day to pause and remember those who have lived and died and gone before us.

It’s a day to celebrate those Saints who have been officially sainted, the great leaders of the faith. To celebrate the stories of Mother Theresa and Saint Francis, Hildegard of Bingen and Joan of Ark. It’s a time to think of other saints in the world and in our lives of faith, ones that may not be recognized by the church per se, but are influential in our lives of faith. Some of mine are Dr. King and Helen Keller, Gandhi and Dorothy Day. And then, it is a time to remember those ordinary saints, those saints that we knew and loved who have died, the ones we called Grandpa, Great Aunt Gertrude, or Tracy.

It’s a day to remember. It’s a day to honor those lives. It’s a day when we allow ourselves to stop, to pause the world, if but for a few moments and feel. Feel the loss. Feel the preciousness of life. Feel the inspiration and wisdom of the amazing humans who have walked the earth. Feel ourselves here and now. Feel the connection with that communion of saints, the angels that surround us. Feel God holding all of it, the death and the promise of resurrection.

In our gospel today, we get a glimpse of how God, incarnate in Jesus, responds to life and death

We have the story of Lazarus, this good friend of Jesus’, who, with his sisters, are part of Jesus’ inner circle, and who died while he was out of town.

Jesus arrives on the scene and is immediately met with, “Lord, if you had been here, our brother wouldn’t have died.”

Jesus saw her <who?> weeping and the friends who were with her also weeping, and he was deeply moved and disturbed and began to weep with them.

So often our response to death, be it of a loved one, another school shooting on the news, or even the death of a part of ourselves that needs to die and change, is to go straight to trying to fix it, to make it better. To explain it away, to figure it out. We try to figure out how we and the people we love can never have to go through that kind of pain again. We have all sorts of ways that this happens within our religious conversation and communities. Phrases like, “she’s in a better place now” or “that was part of God’s plan” make me generally want to shake the person saying them and cry out, “don’t try to make it all better; death sucks and is sad and painful and that’s all there is to it!”

Jesus grieves. Jesus weeps. Jesus stops and takes the time to feel all the feelings, to acknowledge the loss, the pain, the life lived.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there—because while death is hard and sad and real and painful—the proclamation of God is that death is not the final word.

Christ says, “I am the resurrection and the life.” The expansive God of the universe, the incarnate God in Christ, is the resurrection and the life. God creates and animates our physical bodies yes, but more than that. The physicality of body and this world is indeed infused with a spiritual reality, spirit that goes beyond the physical, life that goes beyond death.

As Jesus calls out “unbind him” and Lazarus is raised from the dead, I believe Jesus is showing us that there is a larger principle at play here. That death and loss are intrinsic in life, and in our processes of faith, as are being unbound and brought back to life, death is followed by resurrection. That physical death is not the end, that loss is held within a bigger story, an eternal whole.

In the Swedenborgian tradition, we have a rich, extensive, and textured collection of theology of the afterlife and the nature of the natural and spiritual worlds.

In his mystical and theological writings, Emanuel Swedenborg describes the afterlife as a vibrant real place—“real” not in terms of its physicality, but “real” in terms of the spirit. That there is something about our spirit that goes beyond this physical life, this flesh and blood. That our loved ones live on in this realm. That there is something beyond death.

Even coming from a tradition that has rich ideas about the afterlife, I can’t tell you for sure what comes next. And I’m not here to try to prove heaven or a specific view of the afterlife to you.

But I can tell you what I have experienced and what I believe in my bones to be true: That there is a loving God holding all of us, our bodies and our spirits, life and death, all of it. And that this God is a God of continual resurrection.

It’s this resurrection that I see all around us, in the cycles of human lives and spiritual connection and in the wisdom of the earth. It’s the resurrection I see in these bulbs we planted today.

These withered, dark little things that look like they are dead. That we put under the ground, in the tomb, where they are going to stay for the cool winter months. With really no indication that there is any life, whatsoever. And then, we’re promised, come spring, beautiful daffodils and gladiolus will come up out of them, as God’s promise of resurrection. The reminder that death is not the final word.

That’s why we have spaces like All Saints Day, to pause and remember that death happens and that resurrection happens. Death and resurrection in this story of Lazarus. Death and resurrection in each of us as we have to die and let go of things on a daily basis. Death of our bodies and resurrection of our spirits in afterlife where we return to God, from whom we came.

Our tradition describes the afterlife as a place where the truest parts of our inner natures show themselves, where we continue to learn and grow in being the people we were created to be. And that heaven is place where all different kinds of people are together, from different faith paths and ideologies, different loves and ideas. That the way of heaven is the beauty of variety and expressions of the vastness of humanity. And that yes, heaven is a realm for our spirits after we physically die here on this earth, but that heaven is also right here, and right now. Wherever we engage in loving God and loving our neighbor, wherever we allow the death of our egos and the resurrection and new life of God’s love.

Maybe heaven is something like that feast described in Isaiah; this feast that the Lord prepares for us on the mountain, a feast of rich food, and well-aged wines, this table where God will destroy the shroud that is cast over all people, and will swallow up death forever. That the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all the faces and call us to rejoice.

As we come to the table today, and share in Holy Communion, we take this sacrament with all that have gone before, and all that God continues to prepare the feast for, all of our interconnected community of humanity, in body and in spirit.

On that Thursday a few weeks ago, I got out of my car and took off my shoes and started walking on the beach. And I kept walking and walking and walking. As if I could walk off the reality of this loss if I just kept going.


The sun was setting and there was a family with a few dark curly headed little ones playing in the waves. Gulls called out overhead. I looked out over the smog in the distance, tinged with golden rays. And you know, it’s just so absolutely obvious to me that there must be something beyond this physical reality. Not because I need to “prove” heaven or “make it all okay” by assuring myself or others about what might come next. No, in that moment there didn’t have to be heaven to make it all better, but I knew and felt that there must be something beyond this physical life because my friend’s spirit is so much brighter and lasting and shining than this earthy body can contain. And I know her spirit must live on, and that from God she came and to God she returns. I felt one of those “we’re all one/eternity is now” moments that sounds corny as soon as I share it out loud, but it was the most peaceful, beautiful, achingly true thing in the moment.

I walked down to the water and took the water, as is my ritual, and made the sign on the cross on my forehead, tracing the sign and words of my baptism. But this time, the words that came were “from dust you have come and to dust you shall return.” The ashes of Ash Wednesday mixed with the salt of the ocean and the light of the setting sun

Dear ones, the Communion of Saints are with us. Showing up, in the butterfly, the flash of a memory, the feeling of closeness, the tinge of sadness, the love of loss. And dear ones, God is a God of resurrection, a God who created us, who is with us, who grieves with us, and who is always making all things new. This is the God who holds us all and who holds all things within Her huge embrace. Amen.

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