All Saints’ Sunday 2010 / Norman B. Bendroth

Today is a bittersweet day, isn’t it? It is bitter because this is the day we remember those who have died this past year and are no longer among us. It is a lot easier to hug a flesh and blood human being than just a memory. And those memories are strong, aren’t they? I can still remember the smell of my grandmother’s perfume (or “toilet water” as she called it) or of my grandfather’s Swisher Sweet cigars. The aromas from many Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners held there rush upon me whenever I get the hint of turkey or butternut squash. I still remember pretend wrestling with my dad or watching the Red Sox next to him on the bolster pillow on the living room floor in front of our black and white TV.

There many ways we remember and honor our dead: flowers, special collections, monuments, naming the deceased out loud, conversations, and visits to the grave side. In the Fall of 2004 after the Red Sox won the World Series, I recall that many monuments had Red Sox banners and memorabilia on them including notes that said: “They finally did it dad!” Here is another way to remember our dead.

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, Death Squads wreaked havoc and terror across Central and South America. Sponsored by government and business interests, these Death Squads acted with impunity. In El Salvador alone, they killed tens of thousands of peasants and activists, including nuns and priests who resisted the oppression. In the early ‘90s I went to El Salvador with Peace Commission from Cambridge, MA. We had a sister-city relationship with a village called San Jose los Flores. The village had been destroyed by government forces and the people chose to go back and start a cooperative rural community. We regularly sent down teachers to help them rebuild their schools, doctors to help set up a clinic, dentists to help set up a center for dental health, builders to help with construction, and so on.

Whenever Americans were present in the village, the army would stay away. A Catholic priest and I brought Bibles and medicine. In addition we had lawyers and teachers and we were to visit human rights groups, labor unions, churches and religious organizations to bear witness to human rights violations and report back to our congressional delegation.

While there we heard the agonizing stories of how old men and women and children were hiding in bunkers when the soldiers came through the village (the young and healthy ran to the hills) and when they were discovered, the soldiers would throw in hand grenades and shut the door. We heard how one woman lost nine children. We saw children in wheel chairs due to injuries suffered during the raids and men with acid burns all over them for trying to organize workers. The priest of the village told us how he had read in the newspaper that he had died when the government raided the University of Central America. There in the cloak of darkness and anonymity, soldiers murdered priests in cold blood who taught there as well as their housekeepers for their criticism of government brutality. They thought he was among the dead and hadn’t realized that he had been transferred to be a parish priest. In addition, thousands of protesters were “disappeared.” They would just vanish coming home from work or church or walking to school never to be seen again, likely tortured and killed.

In response, the Christian Church developed a dramatic means of expressing their faith, their hope, their defiance and their resistance[i]. During the liturgy, they would read aloud the names of those who had been murdered or “disappeared.” When each name was read, someone from the congregation would call out, “¡Presente!” (Present! Here!)[1]

They were affirming what the Church has believed from the beginning: that others may have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, but God in Jesus Christ has destroyed death. Our dead are not dead. This is what makes All Saints’ Day sweet.

Christians claim that whenever and wherever the Church is gathered the whole company of heaven and earth are gathered: the angels and archangels are here, the saints and martyrs are here. Our beloved dead, all of them: ¡Presente! (Here!) The vision that Isaiah and John the Revelator revealed in scripture this morning is coming to pass. God will be all in all. Every tear will be wiped away. People from every nation, every walk of life, every ethnicity, and every broken heart that ever yearned for or cried out to God for mercy will be there.

My colleague and friend Nancy Taylor, pastor of Old South Church in Boston, asks, “Do you ever wonder why Christians build their churches so large? Why are our ceilings so high? We really don’t need this much space even during the best of times when attendance is booming.”

She notes, “In so many churches we have this generosity of space because we need it, every bit of it.  It is crammed-full, packed to rafters.”  Peter, James and John, Paul, Martha and all the Marys? ¡Presente! (Here!) Augustine and Aquinas, Francis, and Theresa? Michelangelo and Martin Luther? Tolstoy and Dostoevsky? ¡Presente! (Here!) J.S. Bach and Sojourner Truth? Harriet Beecher Stowe and Antoinette Brown? Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. King?  Archbishop Romero and Rosa Parks? ¡Presente! (Here!) C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Phyllis Wheatley and Fanny Crosby? ¡Presente! (Here!)

The Death Squads in El Salvador wreaked their havoc to be sure. They caused terrible suffering and untold sorrow. But they were impotent against the Church’s claim that death is swallowed up in victory! That the Communion of Saints is not bounded by time.

We need every inch of this space, and then some, to accommodate the great cloud of witnesses who are, even now, gathering to join us in this sanctuary: First Parish’s first pastor Rev. William Leverich, then Revolutionary War pastor Rev. Jeremy Belknap, then Rev. Alonzo H. Quint who helped organize NH congregational churches into associations, and all the parishioners that ever sat in these pews.  ¡Presente! (Here!)

Not just those … not only those whose names are known to the world. Also with us today are the 21 year old mother and her two year old shot in cold blood last month in Dorchester when a drug deal went bad; with us are the brutalized and butchered men, women and children in Dafur; with us is the young woman found dead on a mattress in slum apartment after an overdose and the childless widower with Alzheimer’s; with us today is the thief crucified alongside Jesus; and with us today are the ones whose names we will hear during our pastoral prayer, your loved ones … every one of them: ¡Presente! (Here!)

We take our turn on this All Saints’ Sunday to remember our dead. Whether we do so with the whimsy of putting a Red Sox 2004 World Series banner on a gravestone, or with the defiance and courage of Christians in El Salvador, we do so in the best of company: in the company of the great cloud of witnesses.

This sanctuary is packed, jammed. It is filled to the rafters with our kin, our friends, our old classmates, our beloved dead. Heaven is here on earth and the space between them is very thin.

[1] From Rowan Williams’ Easter Sermon, April 11, 2004, preached in Canterbury Cathedral:

“Think back for a moment to the days when death squads operated in countries like Argentina or El Salvador: the Christians there developed a very dramatic way of celebrating their faith, their hope and their resistance. At the liturgy, someone would read out the names of those killed or ‘disappeared’, and for each name someone would call out from the congregation, Presente, ‘Here’. When the assembly is gathered before God, the lost are indeed presente; when we pray at this eucharist ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’, we say presente of all those the world (including us) would forget and God remembers. With angels and archangels; with the butchered Rwandans of ten years ago and the butchered or brutalised Ugandan children of last week or yesterday; with the young woman dead on a mattress in King’s Cross after an overdose and the childless widower with Alzheimer’s; with the thief crucified alongside Jesus and all the thousands of other anonymous thieves crucified in Judaea by an efficient imperial administration; with the whole company of heaven, those whom God receives in his mercy. And with Christ our Lord, the firstborn from the dead, by whose death our sinful forgetfulness and lukewarm love can be forgiven and kindled to life, who leaves no human soul in anonymity and oblivion, but gives to all the dignity of a name and a presence. He is risen; he is not here; he is present everywhere and to all. He is risen: presente.”


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