Rev. Rainey Dankel | 11.1.2020
SAINTS ROBED IN WHITE
Several years ago I traveled to Ghana, in West Africa, as the guest of St. Nicholas Anglican Seminary in the town of Cape Coast. Each day I was privileged to worship with the seminarians and the faculty. Both students and faculty wear white cassocks every day, for worship and for class. The black cassocks we are familiar with, worn by clergy at Morning Prayer, are too hot for the equatorial climate with temperatures that hover in the ’90s every day, all year round.
Worshiping with these men and women seminarians (yes, there are women being ordained in West African provinces) came to my mind as I read the passage from Revelation we heard today. Ghanaian liturgy is drawn from the prayer book of the Church of England, including the hymns. But the accompaniment and rhythms were definitely West African. Drums and other percussion gave out a strong beat, and familiar hymns were transformed into a call to respond with feet and hands keeping time to the music. The procession to the altar was a sort of dance as we expressed the joy of sharing the Eucharist. For me, it was a mixture of the familiar and the new that reflects the variety of peoples drawn together in God’s praise.
The passage from Revelation depicts a glorious scene of a multitude of people, too many to count, who are perpetually gathered for worship around the throne of the Lamb. They are a diverse group, from all national, racial, and linguistic groups, robed in white and carrying palm branches. It’s a vivid picture of the Kingdom of God, the company of glorified and victorious faithful, those who have come through “a great ordeal” and have remained loyal despite persecution and threats of death. They are now sheltered by the Lamb, who has become the Shepherd, who protects them from hunger, thirst, and scorching heat. For the writer of the Apocalypse, this picture is a source of encouragement to those early Christians who are experiencing persecution as they follow Jesus Christ.
As we read this passage today, in celebration of the Feast of All Saints’, we think of faithful witnesses to God’s love, both living and departed. The classic saints of our faith are often people who have been martyred because they refused to renounce their Christian faith. We think of people who are being persecuted today in many parts of the world. Christian worshipers and a priest murdered in France in the last few days. In the Holy Land and other parts of the Middle East, the number of Christians being reduced daily as people flee from deadly attacks, persecution, and other forms of oppression.
Perhaps you do not know anyone who is experiencing such persecution for their faith. But stories of oppression because of race, gender identity, poverty, or class—and suffering from physical and mental diseases–are not far from us, possibly very personal experiences. Today I am thinking of Martin Luther King, Jr., who underwent constant attacks because of his work on behalf of people of color and poor people. Ultimately he lost his life because he refused to back down. He believed that the church’s involvement in relief of human suffering and oppression was central to our understanding of the Gospel, the liberating message of God in Christ. He was an inspiration for people like seminarian Jonathan Daniels and the young John Lewis. We pray for the courage to follow them as people who give themselves to relieve oppression and to make the world better. Truly they have joined the white-robed chorus around the throne of God.
As is the custom of many churches, today we will remember those members of the St. Paul’s family who have died since the last All Saints Day. We have entrusted them to God’s care and we pray for their eternal rest. We also remember all those whom we love but see no longer. We believe that they have joined the vast company of saints, robed in white, who are forever surrounding God’s throne.
This scene of triumph is especially precious to us during these challenging times. When we cannot gather for worship together, we need this expanded vision of God’s care for us to sustain us in a time of pandemic. The church teaching of the Communion of Saints offers us the comfort of knowing that Christ’s love brings together all of God’s beloved children, across time and space, into God’s eternal present and presence. The distances between us, the living and the dead, the close and the isolated, melt away as we join our hearts with those of every generation and geography.
We read that the saints robed in white are those who have “come through the great ordeal.” Surely our present-day could be called a great ordeal. A global pandemic continues to infect and kill thousands of people across the world, with especially high numbers right now in our own country. The economic havoc brought on by this disease has exacerbated the divisions of race and class within our country, leading to violent protests and repressive responses.
At St. Paul’s we have continued our own ordeal of reckoning with our past. We are seeing in detail how our forebears have established and led this church, with good intentions and inevitable blind spots. We learn about times when the light of Christ has burned brightly in this place. And we see how St. Paul’s has participated in white supremacy. It is humbling to acknowledge the systemic oppression of Black people. It is painful to realize how we distort the Gospel to suit our own interests and prejudices. And it is encouraging to know that God is always ready to help us work through our dismay and find hope.
Jesus has promised that knowing the truth will make us free. Poet Maya Angelou says, “The more you know your history, the more you are liberated from it.” We begin our next 175 years, absorbing the larger narratives of our history, praying for forgiveness, and working to find our place in building God’s beloved community in this time and place. Together we are learning to listen to each other, to honor differences, and to find ways to model the peace and justice that God wants for us. We trust that when we are aligned with God’s purposes, God’s love will bear us up.
The saints are robed in white as a sign of baptism. When we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we believe we are washed and made clean through the power of God’s reconciling love in Christ. The white robe of baptism is a symbol of the white robe that we trust we will one day wear as we stand before the throne of the Lamb, who has become the Shepherd of our salvation. Together we are welcomed as the Good Shepherd gathers all of the sheep, from all of the folds, so that we may be together in the sheltering love of Christ.
As we see ourselves in the glorious company of the white-robed chorus singing around God’s throne, we know that we are still in our earthly pilgrimage. We are ever in need of God’s salvation. Even as we rejoice in bringing all of God’s children into the communion of faith through baptism, we are confronted with our failures to love as God loves us. And we are also buoyed up by the memories and experiences of faithful disciples, perhaps members of your family or fellow church members, people with whom you work, or someone you have read about—people whose lives bear the light of Christ’s love through dark days.
I think back to my experience worshiping with the white-robed seminarians of Ghana. St. Nicholas Seminary is located in the city of Cape Coast, also home to the remains of a seventeenth-century fortress built by European colonizers and containing dungeons in which enslaved peoples were crowded together until they were loaded onto ships bound for the Western Hemisphere—to Brazil, the Caribbean, and the east coast of North America. What a “great ordeal” these enslaved peoples would endure. And yet, as I visited with present-day Ghanaians, I experienced their joy in the Gospel that had been brought to them during that colonial era. They looked beyond the oppression of the colonizers, to the promise of God’s love and liberation, on which they and we base our lives. What a privilege to join these fellow Anglicans in the worship of God.
My friends, all our worship is offered within the context of our brokenness. We struggle to understand each other as fellow humans, beloved of God. We try to follow the teachings of the Beatitudes, as we pray to be merciful and humble, to offer comfort, and to be peacemakers. As we remember the faithful departed, we confess our need of Christ’s redeeming love, and we praise God for the gift of new life promised to all of us through Jesus Christ.
It is in this spirit of humility that we come to God’s altar. It is here that we acknowledge all the suffering of which we are part. And it is here that we hear Jesus say, “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens…” In the security provided by the Good Shepherd we raise our voices to praise the source of our hope. We gather around the throne with all of the faithful departed, knowing ourselves to be beloved of God. And we hear the good news of God’s unending love for us and for all people.
“O blest communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle, they in glory shine;
Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.