All Saints Sunday – John Conway, Provost – 3rd November 2019

Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18; Ephesians 1.11-23; Luke 6.20-31

Paul Robeson, the African-American singer, who amongst other things, introduced the songs of his forebears, the African American Spirituals, to a wider audience, was famous also for his political activism. He lived for a time in the late 1920s and early 30s in London, and struck up a perhaps unlikely friendship with Welsh mining communities.

Later, after the war he was investigated during the era of McCarthyism for un-American activities, and for a number of years had his passport removed so that he was unable to travel and meet with the friends he had made across the world. In defiance of this ban, Canadian Labour Unions organised, several times across a few years in the early 1950s, a concert at the border of the USA and Canada – at the Peace Arch, as it’s known no less, north of Seattle. Paul Robeson, unable to leave the USA, stood on that side of the border, as he sang, his deep bass voice carried across to his audience sat on the other. It is not recorded what the border crossing officials made of it. I discovered this little moment of history through a poem, by Naomi Shibab Nye, which reflects on the event. It’s called Cross That Line.

Paul Robeson stood
on the northern border
of the USA
and sang into Canada
where a vast audience
sat on folding chairs
waiting to hear him.
 
He sang into Canada.
His voice left the USA
when his body was
not allowed to cross
that line.
 
Remind us again,
brave friend.
What countries may we
sing into?
What lines should we all
be crossing?
What songs travel toward us
from far away
to deepen our days?

That last line provided the link for me with this All Saints Sunday, when we celebrate, open ourselves, to those whose songs travel towards us from far away to deepen our days.

That song that travels toward us is not a straightforward melody: God’s company is a strange and wonderful collection of people – if you’re in any doubt of that, then just take a look around you! God’s company, those who, in their following of Christ, have helped the Church to be Christ: offer to the world Christ’s continuing transforming presence. In our Gospel reading today, we heard Jesus offer the blessings of God in surprising places. In blessing, Jesus crosses the lines of poverty, hunger, grief, and persecution: blesses those who find themselves cut off, excluded. Jesus names God as present with those thought to be bereft. To the self-satisfied, those who see no need to cross any border, he offers only woe. Jesus comes in Luke’s beatitudes with both blessing and judgement.

And the saints, rooted in that desire to follow Christ, to be Christ, sing that same surprising, irreligious, compassionate, unafraid, trusting song that crosses our lines.

I was struck, however, by an earlier line in the poem too: His voice left the USA when his body was not allowed to cross that line. His breath, his spirit, left, when his body was not allowed to cross that line. Today we also celebrate All Souls, remember those we have known and loved, whose spirit has crossed that line, that line of death, even as their bodies have not. And we celebrate their song. To remember and celebrate All Souls today is to affirm that God is stronger than death. We are surrounded by and celebrate that great company of saints, whose music, in George Eliot’s wonderful phrase, is the gladness of the world. What songs travel toward us from far away to deepen our days?

But the resonances of the poem go deeper. For the coming weeks will see us facing a number of lines, and the question of whether we have the spirit, the breath, the song to cross those lines, will I suggest become urgent; as well as the question the poem asks us – are we open to the songs that travel toward us, across the lines that might otherwise define us?

Next week, on Remembrance Sunday we mark a line, a chasm rent in our common fabric by the conflicts, the world wars of the last century. I say to you that listen, says Jesus, in our Gospel, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. Our prayer for peace has to take up that challenge, that insistence that we be not be trapped by the line drawn between friend and enemy, that we may find the ways to cross that line, and make peace.

And through all the coming month, we will be caught up in the most potentially divisive and bitter election for a generation. Elections are there to provide clarity, to help us all work out what the way forward for our country might be. Conflict is part and parcel of them. But in a world where it is all too easy to stay in our own bubble of received opinion, where clarity is so often lost in a blizzard of untruths and half-truths, who will help us cross that line into truth and a way forward for our common life?

On this All Saints Sunday, as every Sunday, we gather around a table, to meet Christ, in broken bread shared out for all; in wine poured out. We gather with the great company of all who have longed to meet with Christ; the Christ, who, in the words of our epistle, is the fulness of all in all. The Christ who in our Gospel this morning comes with words both of blessing and judgement. The poor, and the hungry, those who weep, and the reviled who gather round this table hear words of blessing; the rich, the self-satisfied, those who simply laugh and bask in the adulation of others, hear words of judgement and woe. That great company, the invisible and the visible, us and all who gather through us are brought to words of blessing and judgement. And as we are, we realise the lines of blessing and judgement run right through each one of us. For we need both – to be blessed and broken. Blessed because we come in our need and carrying with us the needs of our world; and broken because we are not perfect, and our life is found in connecting more fully with others, in the courage to cross the lines that divide us one from another. Amen.

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