Memories are made of this

Sermon, All Saints Day, 2011
Ordination of Frances Hlavacek and Charles Warwick to the Sacred Order of Deacons.
The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall, Bishop of Bethlehem

Dean Leander Keck used to say that a sermon is biblical if it has the same function of the text. How, then, might we duplicate what St. John saw in his vision for our new deacons?

Let’s try this. When you visit Rome today, on its rush to St Peter’s Basilica, the tour bus passes a much smaller church with a disproportionately large dome. If you make your way back to it, you find yourself in a former Roman temple, the Pantheon, the building once dedicated to all the gods.

When Christians took over the Pantheon they re-dedicated it to St. Mary and all the martyrs. What had been the temple of all the gods had become the shrine of Christ’s holy ones.

The Pantheon is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, and the dome makes the building. The dome is constructed with molded coffers, indentations, and the rays of the sun play with them as it moves through the sky. But when the light entering from the top is just right, the dome shimmers. The statues of the gods must have seemed alive and present to visitors at such moments, a bit of heaven. Out of all the recycled temples, this is the room Christians took over to remember their heroes of faith, bathed in heavenly light and still with them, holy ones always praying for them as they worked to be faithful disciples.

Since I first saw it, I have often imagined what it was like to live in a world before electricity and to go into the Pantheon, to be stopped still in one’s tracks by the light, aware of the holiness that is always all around us and now concentrated so that we can see it better. The builder’s intent was that you would be transfixed, and it works. I also wonder what it was like to enter that space a little tired, a little discouraged perhaps, and just stand there. Stand there letting the light do the evangelizing as it changed the room and bathed the images of the saints in the light. On such an occasion the unspoken words might be “you are not in this alone; many have walked the path; many garments have been cleansed in the blood of the lamb; they dwell in light—and they pray for you, they cheer you on. How God is glorified in them!”

All Saints Day has fallen onto hard times of late, and currently exists for many people as a kind of memorial day for remembering everyone they ever knew and loved. It seems that the skinny cow of All Souls Day has swallowed up the fat cow of All Saints Day. I cannot do anything about that latest victory of sentimentality except regret it. Let me nonetheless remind our ordinands that for most of our history, this day was a celebration for those martyrs and other believers who struggled very intentionally to make Jesus Christ real in this world at considerable cost to themselves. The Church gratefully cherishes their memory and humbly invokes their prayers.

Of course they of the skinny cows are right when they remind us that everybody has her or his own little pantheon of more contemporary people who have touched them, and those memories are vital to the shape of their own souls. I have my list of people who shaped me, and am profoundly grateful for them as I pray for them on All Souls Day. All Saints day is about corporate memory, however, a concept it took about four centuries for the Church to develop under a number of influences. The result is that on All Saints Day we remember those lives in which Christ’s people together have seen God at work, mightily, subtly, beautifully and for the sake of Jesus. At all times, and in all places, nations, languages and people. Sentimentality and individualism are only overcome by great common stories, myth in the best sense. Myth provides the common story into which individuals grow. A people without a common mythology fragments into solipsism and hedonism, and this is a point any newspaper illustrates every day. It is why there will always be a price to pay for the Reformation’s necessary emphasis on the individual. People with a common story have common will and are very effective. That is why we tell the stories of the saints as our story, not my story. The saints show us how the wheel came to be invented, so that task need not delay us.

Fran and Charlie, this great feast day speaks to the occasion of your ordination.

Memory is a pretty flexible thing, if I recall, so let that fact work for you and install a memory with me now. Whenever our common ministry seems challenging or heavy, “remember” how you and I stood together in Rome under the shimmering dome of the Pantheon on that bright summer day not too long ago. Especially remember the light. We are always walking in and toward the light, doing our best to assist God’s people on that very same journey to the central flame of the Light of Christ. Remember the light.

Remember how many saints we saw there that day. As deacons you will interpret the needs of the world to the Church. This is why corporate memory and corporate awareness are so important. You will indeed spend much of your ministries attending to the needs of individuals. That is necessary and saintly, but even more is asked of you. Because you deacons are on the front lines, so to speak, you are in the very best position to reflect on what you see and hear, and get us to see and hear it too. When you have a reverence for who we are together, your ability to speak gracefully and in proportion can only grow in effectiveness. When you are aware of the great company in which you stand, you have so much more to offer to people whose defining quality may be crushing aloneness. Invite those lonely or hurting souls to meet the family.

The saints of the undivided church are the heroes of the Bible, the apostolic era, and the centuries following. Martyrs, teachers, servants, they are none of them perfect—even Jesus’ mother had to be corrected by him on at least three occasions. They were, however, all willing to use the particular gifts God gave them in service to the kingdom. It is vital that you internalize this truth. Our heroes did not get everything right, and it is a tragedy when those invested in the work of the church grow despondent over their own imperfections. There are certain basic competencies ordinands must have, and you two have demonstrated them in order to be here tonight. Beyond that, God and the Church ask that you use the gifts you actually have, to hone the skills that are uniquely yours. Leave it to others to perfect cold fusion.

There are shadows in the Pantheon; that is how the building works. In tonight’s gospel Jesus promises all of his followers that if they follow him intentionally they may expect to be reviled and they may expect to be persecuted. The Barnabas Fund says that 160,000 people were murdered by Muslims in 2010 just for being Christian. The grand total of Christian deaths for the year is over half a million by their count. Let’s say the Barnabas Fund is exaggerating, and it is only a quarter of a million slaughtered. I understand that it is not this or any other administration’s state interest to make these deaths a cause, but why are Christians so silent in the west? Where are the deacons?

Persecution in our own culture is usually more polite, if not benign, unless you start meddling, and meddling is, alas, the deacon’s duty, so be ready. Historically, quite a few people on our calendar of saints died at the hands of fellow Christians, and we who preach remember our patron John Chrysostom in just that regard.

So it happens, it can happen to you. Along with the reminder to stand up for all victims of persecution, Jesus says do not be discouraged or even particularly surprised if your devotion to serving him in the person of the poor, the troubled, or the dishonored gets you into difficulty. Do not be surprised if even conventionally religious people push back when you speak for the voiceless.

Science tells us that being immensely powerful and hugely successful does indeed create a chemical rush that changes brain functioning. That rush does not excuse, but does explain how family values politicians can also be molesters and not think it odd. In our vocabulary, it is one of the expected consequences of superbia, malignant pride. The lesson for deacons is that it is hard to speak truth to power because power doesn’t think you have anything to say because it is too busy being drenched in serotonin. I do not say this to aggravate your defiance circuits, but as a reminder. I want to evoke that part of you that is wiser than a serpent—and deacons must be very wise. What are the means of persuasion left to you when shouting does not work? Well, for just one example, Jesus exposed evil by naming it, submitting to it, showing it up for what it is. He is the one whom God vindicated, and in him we all are vindicated as we strive to be faithful.

When the push-back comes in big or little ways, Jesus asks you to remember that you are in good company. One of the marks of being a prophet is being persecuted. But how will you remember that if you haven’t been studying their stories?

When the push-back comes, remember how you and I visited the Pantheon that summer day and marveled at how many, more than anyone could count, had come through all manner of tribulation and now praise God eternally.  Remember how our hearts were brave again and how our arms grew strong—and back to the work we will go, remembering, aware of the light that is and remains around us.

May God bless many through your ministry as deacons.