The Communion of Saints on the Camino

Preached at the 8 am service on 6 November 2016 at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Snohomish, Washington
All Saints Sunday, Year C

All Saints Day always brings to my mind the Communion of Saints, the Great cloud of Witnesses.

I saw a wonderful image of this a few days ago.  In Chicago, people are writing names on the wall of Wrigley Field.  It’s filled with names – all different sizes and colors.  They’re the names of faithful Cubs fans who died, never having seen them win the World Series.  It seems particularly fitting that the they won it in the final game on November 2nd – the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed.  What a great image!

On All Saints, I think about all those who have come before and worshiped within these walls or others like them and all those who will come after us – to worship, to serve the world, to be God’s blessing to the poor, the hungry, the sorrowful, the hated and scorned.

I am reminded of a lay reader who served every week at the 8 am service.  And sometimes 8 o’clock would come and there would be no one in the pews and she would say, “I guess it’s just you and me and the saints today.”

While I was on the Camino the sense of the communion of saints and the great cloud of witnesses was almost palpable.
I went into a lot of churches; churches with hundreds and in some cases over a thousand years of history.  It seemed like every little town had a big, stone church – built to last.  They were from different eras and represented different styles of art and architecture.  Some were fortified – reminders that the history of the church and of Spain is not entirely peaceful.  Those walls have witnessed a lot of war.

I marveled at the beautiful, intricate, floor-to-ceiling altarpieces, often encased in gold leaf.  I thought about all the people – the master craftsmen and common laborers – who devoted their whole lives to building a church or a cathedral and creating the art within, all for the glory of God.  That beauty is and always was available to all – believers or not, rich or poor.  Think of the millions of people who have seen and marveled at their work.  Here we were, pilgrims from every corner of the globe from South Africa to Northern Europe, Brazil to Toronto, the US, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, Japan, the Philippines – drawn together along with the local people, to these holy places to behold the beauty of the ages and offer our own prayers and praises and thanksgivings to the Glory of God.

At the same time, we recognized and talked about the other side of what such extravagant beauty represented.  The gold was likely the fruit of colonization and came from the labor of conquered and enslaved people – many of whom lost their lives.  Those people are part of the great cloud of witnesses, too. It came at the expense of the land – the gold and silver mines and stone quarries.

We struggled with the idea of the church pouring its wealth into erecting structures while people starved.  On the other hand, the church employed an awful lot of people – jobs for life – working on those buildings.

Within those walls, we could feel the holiness – not because of the beautiful objects, but because of all the people who have come there in faith over the centuries – to worship, to praise, to plead, to repent – expecting to find God and receive God’s grace.  The communion of saints; the great cloud of witnesses.

And it wasn’t just in the churches, but all along the way.  People drawn together to walk to Santiago, to visit the tomb of St. James the Apostle.  And although many are from other faith traditions or no tradition or walk for a whole host of other reasons, I can’t help but believe that it is God who draws them there.

This year, they expect 300,000 people to walk the Camino.  While more and more people go every year, think of the millions of people who have made that journey over the centuries.  That great cloud of witnesses again.

At various places along the way, there are make-shift shrines with prayers or crosses, little mementos or pictures, and lots of boots.
There are memorials to people who have died, sometimes while walking the Camino; pilgrims, loved ones, or who knows.  And then there are the memorials to those who died in war, or defending their city, or taking a stand against injustice.  It is all these people who have journeyed in faith who make the whole way holy.

Finally, we arrive at the Cathedral of St. James who is known in Spain as the Moor slayer even though he died centuries before there even were “moors.”  Legends abound.  For some people, it is important to them that the legends are true – or at least the one they hold dear.  But whatever the “truth” is and whether or not the silver sarcophagus actually holds the remains of Jesus’ disciple, it is a holy place.

The communion of saints is real and we are part of it.  They carry us along the way whether it’s on the path to Santiago or down the streets of Snohomish.  They are with us always.

And so, on this All Saints Sunday, we also remember our own baptism the day when we became numbered among the saints, as we renew our baptismal vows.