I’ve learned, as a preacher, to let sermons go when they’re done. I learned that from Dallas Willard in a book, and I’ve been practicing it for years. But a message I preached is still, in a way, with me. I was thinking a lot about a Colossians text (3:1-17) that says that Christians live in both heaven and earth at the same time. “In glory” is the language in most translations. That passage, among other things, evokes the truth that we have neighbors in both places, people we see and know in both places, expectations and conversations in both places.
I have been thinking about my father who died more than a year ago. His birthday last week was the same day Maya Angelou died. It was the same week my city was visited again by the clutch of violence as a teacher and real estate agent was killed sitting in her office on 79th street. My brother talked with me about that corner; he works that area as a security officer. These good people, all of them dying sooner than anyone who loves them wanted, have joined the community in another place.
The Colossians passage comes up again as I read this quote from a Catholic thinker, Ronald Rolheiser. His book, Forgotten Among the Lilies, is a full gift of reflections, meditations, and challenges for the soul. In this reflection, he is discussing the Christian belief of the communion of saints. While he’s from a decidedly Catholic practice, this teaching extends beyond those doctrinal borders to the older understanding of the word, catholic, i.e., universal.
To believe in the communion of saints is to believe that those who have died are still linked to us in such a way that we can continue to communicate, to talk, with them. It is to believe that our relationship with them can continue to grow and that the reconciliation which, for many human reasons, was not possible in this life can now take place.
Why? Because not only is there communication between us and those who have died before us (this is the stuff of Christian doctrine, not that of seance) but because this communication is now privileged. Death washes clean. Not only does the church teach us that, we simply experience it.
How often in a family, in a friendship, in a community, in any human network, is there tension, misunderstanding, anger, frustration, irreconcilable difference, selfishness that divides, hurt which can no longer be undone, and then–someone dies. The death brings with it a peace, a clarity and a charity which, prior to it, were not possible.
Why is this so? It is not because the death has changed the chemistry of the family or the office or the circle, nor because, as may sometimes seem the case, the source of the tension or headache or heartache or bitterness has died. It happens because, as Luke teaches us, when, on the cross Christ forgives the good thief, death washes things clean.
I think of the unfinished business of these good people–my father, Maya Angelou, Betty Howard. I think of the ways they are now in that cloud of witnesses, that communion of saints, and how they hope for us and pull for us and, as my Catholic friends would say, intercede for us. I hope their deaths bring us clarity and love and motivation to live beyond ourselves, for others, and for world-making justice.