The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
All Saints’ Sunday
November 4, 2018
It was Saturday, April 18, 1981. The night before Easter. I looked it up, it was a pleasant 69 degrees that evening in Houston. The people of Holy Comforter gathered for worship in this church, this building, for the very first time. And on that night, our parish family celebrated the first baptism in this, the “new” church. Since then, since that night, we have celebrated 452 baptisms. 452 souls presented before the Lord God Almighty, seeking a new life in Jesus through the waters of baptism.
And today, Sunday, November 4, 2018, we have our last baptism in this church. The “old” church. It’s fitting, I think, that it’s All Saints’ Sunday. Think of it – we read aloud the names of the dead and celebrate our ancestors in the faith on the same day we baptize a child. That is the beauty of All Saints’. This day reminds us that the faithful people of God labored and prayed and worshipped in ages long ago. This day gives us hope that the God will remain faithful long into the future. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Zoey Ford, who will be baptized this morning, is right smack dab in the middle of this great cloud of witnesses. Standing at the threshold of the past and the future.
I don’t know about you, but today I have joy mixed with sadness. I do have a sense of grief in leaving behind this space. I think of the beloved brothers and sisters I have buried from this church, some of whose names we read today. I think of the people I have married. Six years ago, I knelt right there in the middle of the floor and prayed a prayer of humility when I was installed as your rector. My own daughter was baptized where Zoey will be baptized. I have spent hours and hours and hours in prayer in this place. It’s hard saying good-bye. Yes, it’s a great time to be at Holy Comforter, we have gained so much, but we should acknowledge that we’re losing something, too.
From my perspective in this pulpit, that is what is going on in our society on a much grander, and much more intense scale. For some of us, these are the good times. Great wealth has been generated; some have gained much. But at the same time, as a society, have lost some things. We have lost our communal sense of safety and sanity. We seem to have lost decency and respect.
But even that description seems frightfully inadequate in light of what we saw in Pittsburgh last week. Words like evil, despicable, horrific, tragic do not carry enough weight. The notes of love and support I sent to my rabbi friend down the road have seemed hollow, as if the words were simply going into the void. What do you say when words are not enough? What do you do when confronted with such unmitigated hate and anger? What do you do when confronted with unfounded fears and outright lies? What do you do when there are so many good things happening in your own life, but there is also so much evil in the world? What do you do when your words seem hollow and empty?
Again, from my perspective in this pulpit, I sense growing fear, angst, and worst of all, complacency. Worn and beaten down by the nastiness of this world, we are tempted to give in. We lament over ourselves, “the Church is dying. Our culture has gone mad. I don’t feel safe anymore. It’s all going in a hand basket.” And then we say, “I can’t do anything about it. The problems are too big. I don’t have the time. I don’t have the money.” We wring our hands and shake our heads, and then we keep on doing the things we’ve always done to the same negligible, and more often than not, negative effect. Like we’ve decided to preside over our own funeral. Because it just would be easier to roll over and die in the face of such evil we see in the world.
And that is precisely why the Church needs to hear the good news again. The good news that God will not abandon us. The good news that God has been with the saints before in hard times and God will be with us again. I think that, more than ever, what you and I need to do, is to hope. That’s what Christians have always done, it is our very life-blood, it’s what sustains us. Hope is what we should walk away with on All Saints’ Day. That is what St. John the Divine is expressing in this beautiful vision from Revelation. I’ll let you in on a little secret – this my favorite vision from the holy scriptures.
See, the first heaven and the first earth have passed away. It says the sea was no more, because for the ancient Jews and Christians, the sea represented chaos. There are all sorts of sea creatures and waves and storms. So in the end, the sea is no more because there will be no more chaos raging against God. Imagine how beautiful that is for a moment – God promises a world without chaos.
And then comes the best part. The old world has passed away with its murderous hatred and violence and horror. Death is no more; mourning and crying and pain is no more. No more prayer vigils for the slain. No more unnecessary funerals that have come all too early. No more grieving families asking why we keep doing this to ourselves. All that will be done away with. Heaven has come to earth and God says, “See, I am making all things new.”
Those are the eternal words of hope that the saints cling to, that God will make all things new. Yes, the powers of evil and chaos are working against us, but in the end, God will not allow evil to win. We must hope.
We must hope that the present evil age – with its murderous hatred and violence and horror – will one day be abolished. We have this hope in the future precisely because of what God has already done in the past. Pinned up against the Red Sea, God opened up the waters so that the Israelites might pass through; they hoped that God would be on their side. Jesus Christ opened wide his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross; he didn’t fight back, he hoped that God would raise him from the dead. Or think back to all the saints. Perpetua the martyr was given to the lions in a Roman Coliseum; she didn’t hide our faith. No, she trusted in God, even though it cost her life. Thomas Cranmer was burned alive for compiling our Book of Common Prayer; he died hoping that the words we still use today would glorify God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in a Nazi concentration camp; he died hoping that Christians would not cave in to the cancer of nationalism. Jonathan Daniels, a seminarian in the Episcopal Church was gunned down in Alabama for protecting an innocent black girl; he died hoping that God would one day overcome the racism that still lives so powerfully within us. We hope that the way things are now isn’t how they will always be. We hope.
I tell you, the powers of darkness in this world want nothing more than for us than to lose hope. They want us to wallow in grief and believe that things can only get worse. They want us to live in fear. Or worse, they lie to us, manipulating us to fantasize some fictional past. We have to be careful here. We take our courage from the future because we know the past. We do not try to return to the past – that is a form of atheism. Trying to return to the past is a form of atheism, because it means that we do not hope in God’s promise for the future, for a better future. The saints have always believed in the God who makes all things new.
It all comes back to Zoey. Sure, Zoey is the last person to be baptized in this church. And if chose to, we could wallow in that grief. But God is making something new among us. And you know what’s cool? I’ve got the first baptism lined up for the new church. That is the promise we see in little Zoey. We believe, we hope, that her baptism is a sign to all of us that God is not done with us yet. And though we’ll move out of this church, though we’ll leave this place behind, we are not afraid. We are not afraid of the future that God has in store for us, because God is already there. In the midst of your fears, your loss, your pain, do not lose hope. Take your courage from the saints who have gone before you; just as God was faithful to them, God will be faithful to you. And even if it costs you everything, even if it costs you your life, do not lose hope. Because God will make you new again.