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All Saints' Sunday November 5, 2017 - The Rev. Samuel Torvend
Sermon for All Saints, November 5, 2017
Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12
The 1997 film entitled Amistad narrates the true story of a group of African men and women who, in 1839, were kidnapped in West Africa and transported to Cuba for sale into slavery. While crammed into the hold of a Spanish ship called La Amistad, a Mende tribesman named Sengbhe Pieh led a successful revolt against the ship’s crew. Shortly afterward, as the ship floated toward the U.S. coastline, an American navy cutter seized La Amistad and brought it to New Haven, Connecticut, where the Africans were jailed, awaiting the disposition of their case. As you might imagine, northern abolitionists championed their release as persons unjustly deprived of their freedom while their opponents, both Spaniards and leaders of American slave states, demanded their return to those who intended to sell them into slavery. Eventually their case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court where the former U.S. president, John Quincy Adams, served as the lawyer for the Africans, pleading for their freedom. On the night before the court hearing, John Adams asked for a meeting with Sengbhe Pieh and extended to him his sympathy. You are alone in this foreign country, said Adams, unfamiliar with the language as well as American law and legal proceedings, and facing fierce opposition from Spain and the slave-owning south. And, then, in one of the most arresting moments of the film, Pieh turns to Adams and says: “You are a white man with a faith of limited vision. You see only me -- but what I know and what I see is this: I am surrounded by my ancestors of many generations; my ancestors who listen to my voice and speak with me, offering me strength and guidance. You may think you are alone with your law and your god, but this is not so for me, for a great multitude is as close to me as you are right now. I have no fear,” he continued, “for they are with me.”
If you are a child of the Enlightenment and thus hold that only what is material and can be analyzed through scientific means is real and worthy of one’s attention, the claim of this incarcerated African may sound more like wishful thinking than anything else. Or this: that while sincere, this young man is simply engaging in the psychological projection of his deepest need on to a reality that is only an illusion. Of course, the skeptical view of this young man’s claim makes good sense in a society such as ours that would quickly deny any reality beyond that which can be analyzed materially. Indeed, Adams was a Deist who held that once the great creator set the world in motion, he departed the cosmic stage, never to be heard from again. In that view, it’s all up to us alone.
But we are neither Deists nor so arrogant as to claim that the scientific paradigm is the only one worthy of our total allegiance. “You may think you are alone with your law and your god, but this is not so for me, for a great multitude is as close to me as you are right now.” It should not surprise us, then, that The Book of Common Prayer, our tutor in the faith, recognizes that life does not end at death but rather is transformed in ways we cannot fully imagine by the love and mercy of God (BCP 382); that in death we are not lost to nothingness but rather “gathered to our ancestors” (BCP 504); that in the Holy Eucharist, in our communion with the risen Christ, we also encounter the saints and our beloved dead who surround the Author of our Salvation and join us in the banquet of heaven celebrated here on earth at this altar (BCP 498); that we are encouraged to pray for our beloved dead because “we still hold them in our love and because we trust that in God’s presence they … will grow in God’s love, until they see their Creator as he is” (BCP 393; 862); that we may ask for the prayers of the saints who inhabit the light of Christ just as we pray for each other and this suffering world at every Eucharist and in the Daily Prayer of the church.
Oh what a struggle it can be, all of us Americans saturated with an individualism that fails to recognize the social nature of Christian faith and life, one that extends beyond the little me, the little you, into the creation and its many creatures, indeed, into the life of the world to come, that world which is ever present to you and me and will reveal itself to you and me if we but ask. For in that world, as close to us as the air we breathe, the saints of God and our beloved dead, transformed by grace and love, are eager to help us as we engage this world with the compassion and justice that flow, that flow freely, from the throne of God.