“All the Saints and the Worldwide Web” —A Sermon by Phillip Bennett, Philadelphia Episcopal Cathedral, November 4, 2018

All Saints cloth for my blog

Today’s collect—our opening prayer–sets the tone for our celebration of All Saints: “Almighty God, you have knit together your elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of your Son Jesus Christ”. We are all knit together, woven together in love. The bonds of love are stitched upon our hearts, woven into the fabric of our being. We are wrapped up with all those who have gone before, are still alive, and are yet to be born. Here at the cathedral, we symbolize this in a wonderfully physical way: we stand together in a circle around the font and envelop ourselves in a prayer cloth on which are stitched the names and the symbols of those we have loved and lost. As we hold the cloth together, we are reminded that we are surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses”—that we and all those who have come before us and will come after us, form the living fabric of the Body of Christ—that Mystical Body which stretches across all time and space. We cannot understand this Mystical Body with our intellects, but we can use our imaginations; we can use what scientists are telling us of our mysterious and ever-expanding cosmos: that there are connections across time and space which defy our ordinary understanding. We don’t know for sure how we are all connected over time and space, but the symbols of our faith give us clues about the enduring bond of love across seemingly separate dimensions.

If love is what knits together the Mystical Body, it is evil which tears it apart. Evil rips up the fabric of interconnections; it shreds the ties of civility and respect that bind us together in our common life. As I watched the awful footage of bodies being taken out of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I felt an eerie resonance with my recent visit to Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam. Walking through the dim, cramped rooms where Anne and her family hid from the Nazis, the reality of such evil was hard to take in. Pictures of Anne and her siblings—hopeful young faces, peered out through family photos. Most gut-wrenching to me were the pictures of movie stars that Anne had cut out of magazines and pasted to her bedroom wall; a heartbreaking reminder of the typical fantasies of a young teenage girl who was soon to be captured, wrenched from her family, and thrown into the unspeakable horror of the death camps. The diabolic delusion of Hitler and his followers was that you could cut out a whole piece of the fabric of humanity and destroy it forever. It was a preposterous, delusional fantasy, but one that lives on in every attempt to pull the stitches out of the rich, complex and often challenging tapestry of human civilization.

God is a mystery beyond all images, symbols, and metaphors. God is always “more than”. And yet, we need words and images to convey something of our experience of the Sacred, both individually and collectively. Although all images are partial and even sometimes misleading, let me make a try at yet another image; one I think may speak to our time: it is the image of the Net or Web. We use these words constantly: we “surf the internet”; we “look on the web”. We are all wrapped up in the worldwide web, whether we like it or not. This net is the growing fabric of technology that binds us together, but also sometimes tangles and strangles the goodness of our common humanity. We can create great good through our technological interconnectedness, but also great evil. There is the web that helps us reach out, to create, to work together; and there is the “Dark Web” of hatred and fragmentation that aids terrorism, espionage, and human trafficking.

We are living in a deeply disturbing time; it is a frightening and perilous time in which hatred and fear of the Other are emboldening neo-fascist leaders throughout the world to whip up their followers into hatred, fear, and frenzy. It is frightening. Innocent people are being scape-goated. Fear-mongering and lies abound. Perhaps we have been naive in thinking “it couldn’t happen here”. It may be that these alarming development are an inevitable backlash against the challenging reality of globalization. The world has changed radically. Cultures are interpenetrating at a rapidly increasing rate. Old boundaries are breaking down; familiar moorings are giving way to a new fluidity that can be both exciting and destabilizing. In such a time of momentous and rapid change, political and religious intolerance are ways of trying to revert to a previous, often idealized time. Current attempts to retreat into imagined national and ethnic purity—the very platform on which Hitler came to power—will ultimately prove futile, but in the meantime, much damage is being done to our common national and international life. It seems sometimes that the very fabric of our common life is being ripped apart and shredded. But the clock cannot be turned back. We can’t get rid of each other, for we are all knit together. This is most inescapably evident in the reality of climate change. We can’t erect walls to keep out harmful greenhouse gases. The earth’s ecosystem, once robust and self-replenishing, is now being frayed, and torn, perhaps irreparably.

I think the Web and Net images may help us access some of the power of the image of the Body of Christ. Jesus himself used the image of the net to describe the kingdom in which all is gathered up– the good and the bad. He commanded the disciples to cast their nets into the deep and, to their great astonishment, they caught an overflowing abundance of fish. The Net and Web, like all god-images have their limitations. They may not be as personal as many images, but they are a way of using analogy—a tool used by many theologians over many centuries. They are ways of using contemporary experience to envision the pervasive connection in which we are all embedded. The net and web as well as “link” describe relationship as communication and communion–words which come from the same root. In our age of instant communication, the threads of our lives, our cultures, our religions, are woven so closely together that we cannot unweave them except through violence, and even that will not undo or reverse the reality of global pluralism. We can try to tear the fabric, cut out parts of it, try to unweave and reweave it, but the fabric remains. It is the fabric of our shared humanity, and the fabric of our planet.

In such a turbulent time, is easy to feel helpless and despairing. But every act of justice, courage, and love is a way of stitching together our  common web. In the face of the fascism of World War II there many heroic people who helped make connections that saved many lives. There are dark forces at work in the world but there are also many people of good will. This does make a tremendous difference, although it may sometimes be hard to see in the face of the attention-getting, preoccupying discord that surrounds us.  History continue to reveal human evil but also great human goodness. As the Letter to the Galatians says, “ Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up”.

When we stand in a circle with the cloth of all the departed enfolding us, we are enveloped in the presence of those who have gone before. We remind ourselves that we are all knit together in a Mystical Body, a Holy Web, a Sacred Net. Today’s collect ends with this petition: “Give us grace to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you”. It is not only love but joy–unspeakable joy—which binds all the saints together. It is a joy that comes out of the depths of sorrow and loss. The joy and sorrow are woven together; the loss and love are woven together; the past, present, and future are woven together. May we take our place in the circle, where the threads of our lives are interwoven with all the saints—both the famous and the ordinary; those past, present, and yet to come. Let us celebrate our place in the ever-expanding web of life; the widening net of the kingdom where there is room for all and where there is unending love and ineffable joy.


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