[Sarah is putting on a white alb as she begins preaching.]
When Roots Revival was in the planning stages, one of the questions we asked ourselves was, what will the worship leaders wear?
You may or may not know that the Sunday morning crowd at Centenary is for the most part a well-dressed bunch—certainly there is no dress code, and all are welcome, but many of our members could have their picture in the dictionary next to the word “dapper.” In our two traditional services, the pastors wear black robes.
But we decided to try something a little different at Roots—and the band and I were thrilled when Mark said, yes, we could wear jeans.
In fact, some of you may have never seen me wearing a robe. (To any first-timers, this is not normal for a Wednesday night.) You saw me in a robe if you came to our Ash Wednesday service last year—I can’t remember if it was Steve or Dwight, but someone told me I looked like I was wearing a toga.
So why am I wearing my toga-robe tonight? If you were listening to our Scripture lesson, you might have guessed. My aim tonight is to answer the question that John hears in his revelation: “Who are these, robed in white?”
Whether we think about it consciously or not, colors have deep symbolism in many cultures, including our own. What are some of the things you associate with the color white?
There are some pretty obvious things that come to mine—white symbolizes purity or innocence; we might think of weddings or baptisms or the color pants you’re apparently not allowed to wear after Labor Day (is that still a thing?). We’ve covered the toga, and if any of you grew up in the church, you might associate the color white with Christmas and Easter.
But in researching for this sermon, I learned ways that other religions use the color white.
In Judaism, it is the custom to wear white on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, white symbolizes purity and reminds worshippers of the promise in Isaiah that our sins will be made white like snow.
In Islam, simple white garments are to be worn on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. This again symbolizes purity, but it is also a sign of shedding wealth, social distinctions, and vanity for the sake of the pilgrim’s devotion.
Perhaps the most interesting one I found was in Asian cultures, including Hinduism and Buddhism. In our world, what is the color we associate with mourning? Black, right? But in Asian tradition, the color of mourning is white. White is associated with death and is used most often at funerals.
I am terrible at coming up with Halloween costumes, and so I usually don’t dress up as anything. I’m not sure why it’s never occurred to me to make the easiest Halloween costume ever. All you need is a white sheet and a pair of scissors, and voila—you’re a ghost!
There’s a whole different answer to the question, “Who are these, robed in white?” Who are they? Wait—are they ghosts?!
Well…yes and no. No, these white-robed characters are not relatives of Casper the friendly ghost or some ghouls from Scooby-Doo. They are not specters roaming the earth with unfinished business. They are the communion of the saints.
In 1943, Pope Pius XII released an encyclical called Mystici Corporis Christi, or the Mystical Body of Christ. I first encountered the mystical body of Christ as a huge wad of yarn.
Allow me to explain.
In college, I got involved with the Catholic group on campus, which ran a retreat called Awakening each semester. At each retreat, there were experienced staff members and new retreaters, and they were all assigned to different groups, called families.
One of the retreat activities involved each family getting a different colored ball of yarn. We would all stand up, and holding the end of the string, each group would launch their ball across the room. When another family caught it, they would hold on to the yarn and send it flying off in another direction. By the end, the room was a giant spiderweb of multi-colored yarn. The more tangled up we got, the more the point was made: we are all connected to one another.
What we didn’t know at the time was that a white ball of yarn had been snuck in to represent an invisible group that they called angels. The angels were students and others who had been praying for the retreaters from afar for many months, perhaps even longer. When the existence of the angels was revealed to the retreaters at the end of the weekend, they brought the ball of yarn back out and showed them that white thread running through the whole mess. And so the MBOC—the Mystical Body of Christ—was made up not only of those of us physically gathered together, but also of those spiritually connected through prayer.
The Apostle’s Creed is one of the traditional affirmations of faith used by the church. In it we say this: “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
One at a time.
We believe in the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God. The Holy Spirit is the person of the Trinity who is present and active among us today. The Spirit is the gift that God gave the church at Pentecost, where both unity and diversity were confirmed and celebrated. The Holy Spirit connects us across time and space and binds us together as that mystical body of Christ.
We believe in the holy catholic church. Mind you, this is “catholic” with a small “c.” We aren’t talking about “Catholic” with a big “C,” the institutional Catholic Church with the pope, although they are a part of what this refers to. In this context, “catholic” means “universal.” The church universal is open to all.
We believe in the communion of saints. Now we’re getting back to those white-robed people. But we are a part of the communion of saints too. The communion of saints, like the work of the Holy Spirit, crosses over time and space to bind us together. Even when our loved ones pass away, they continue to be linked to us through the Spirit.
I’m going to save the rest of that part of the creed for later—next week we’ll hit “the resurrection of the body” when we talk about zombies. Yes, zombies. You won’t want to miss it.
But let’s go back to that wad of yarn. In the body of Christ, we are all tied together, our lives tangled up in one another. And in the midst of that, those who have gone before us remain with us as that white thread that weaves through what might seem like chaos but which is the messily beautiful design of human community.
We are bound to one another in life and in death. Remember that the papal encyclical on the Mystical Body of Christ came out in 1943. Although the church has much to answer for in relation to Nazi Germany and World War II, it is worth noting that this encyclical explicitly lamented and forbade the euthanasia of the mentally disabled and handicapped, as well as the discrimination of anyone of a different race or nationality. It also forbade forced conversions.
We are not bound together because we are all alike. We are bound together because we are all different. It is not our sameness that ties us—it is God’s Spirit. The saints around the throne might all be wearing white, but in another sense they are, I suspect, a colorful bunch. Just look at the assortment we have on the altar—black and white, male and female, gay and straight. Saints come in all shapes and sizes.
Harvey Milk, Mother Jones, MLK Jr., Thomas Merton, St. Francis, Henri Nouwen, and Cesar Chavez. www.trinitystores.com
This Sunday at our 11:00 service, we will remember a particular group of saints. During worship, we will read 69 names, all of members who have died in the past year. These are they, robed in white—our friends, our teachers, our grandparents, our neighbors. Saints do not have to be perfect, nor do they have to be formally recognized by the church. A saint is anyone who shows God to others.
Let’s all pause a moment to remember our own saints. Call to mind those who have died this year, or 2 years ago, or decades ago. Think of all of those who have had an impact on your faith, whether they are still living or not. Give thanks to God for their witness, and take comfort in knowing that in this moment, they are with us. I invite you to lift up any names either silently or aloud.
Let us pray.
We bless your holy name, O God, for all your servants who, having finished their course, now rest from their labors. Give us grace to follow the example of their steadfastness and faithfulness, to your honor and glory; through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen. (The United Methodist Book of Worship)
Sarah S. Howell