October 30, 2022, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church
I’ve been wanting to share the story I’m about to tell you for a very long time—34 years in fact. I was planning to share it last year, but our interim rector arrived, so I’m grateful to have the opportunity today to tell you this story this year because it will have even greater meaning than it would have last year— you’ll understand in a moment. Another reason I’m grateful to be preaching today as this is possibly the last sermon I will ever preach. With every sermon I’ve preached over the past couple of years I’ve thought “surely this is my final sermon.” Last Sunday was probably the last time for me to preside at the eucharist. You get to this stage in life and think those things, which is not morbid, but rather a more full recognition of the seasons of life that has yielded in me not only a profound gratitude but an urgency to tell untold stories.
So, the story I’m going to tell you is fitting for next Sunday, All Saints Sunday, but of course our new rector the Rev. Paul Price will be standing in this place. And we will be grateful indeed to welcome him. I can justify telling you this story today because the communion of saints is a mystery of faith big enough that I’m sure it can handle two Sundays in a row.
In the summer of 1988, I made my first journey of foreign travel beyond the Western hemisphere, and more importantly, my first ever pilgrimage. I traveled with a small group of people I’d been studying with for 2 years in a spiritual formation program sponsored by the United Methodist Church. The pilgrimage was led by one of our teachers, the Rev. Bruce Rigdon, a Presbyterian minister who was the American Church’s liaison of the World Council of Churches to the Russian Orthodox Church. Bruce had introduced us to Orthodox Christianity in our studies the year before, and then invited us to take a deep dive into the heart of the Russian Orthodox Church during its celebration of 1000 years of Christianity in Russia.
In the year 988 Russian Prince Vladimir directed his people down to the Dnieper River which runs through Kyiv to be baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church, a move intended to bring harmony to the many warring factions of his people. We could wonder how effective this mass baptism to create a state religion really was, a wondering which might lead us, as it has me, to ponder the mysterious ways of God’s work in the world. What we can say is that 1000 years after that forced baptism of several hundred people a religion based in Christ has survived and expanded throughout a huge part of the Eastern hemisphere.
The Thousand Year Anniversary of Christianity in Russia in 1988 was a strange event for a communist atheistic country to host, for Russia was still the U.S.S.R, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The ending of the Cold War was three years away, and Ukraine was still officially a Russian republic. After landing in Moscow our three weeks of pilgrimage began with five days in Kiev. KEY-ev is the Russian pronunciation, which we know today by the Ukrainian language pronunciation as Kyiv (KEEVE), a change when Ukraine declared independence with the fall of the U.S.S.R in 1991. On Sunday, July 24, 1988, after attending a 3-hour service at St. Vladimir’s Cathedral, (now Volodymyr’s) I was in a group of pilgrims that visited the Cave Monastery in Kyiv.
The caves of the monastery are a tourist attraction because the monks of seven and eight centuries ago have been mummified by the natural conditions of the cave. Our group of pilgrims lined up outside the cave entrance along with a much larger group of Soviet citizens under an unusually hot July afternoon sun. As we fumbled with Russian coins to buy a candle for one kopeck a piece, we wondered what monks who had died seven hundred years ago would look like. There was a sudden temperature change to cold air as we entered the cave, and with no electricity our candles were our only light as we followed narrow stone corridors down into the earth. There— in niches in the walls and some in small rooms that had served as cells where monks had lived— were open stone coffins containing shrouded figures. There was a sense of wonder at seeing the physical remains of Christians who had lived there so long ago and served God in their strange calling in the caves.
I don’t know who started it, but spontaneously our group began to sing: “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who, Thee, by faith, before the world confessed thy Name, O Jesus! be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!” Our singing filled the caves, literal echo chambers, and rang out into the surrounding hills.
As our group left the caves and went into the courtyard, a tall man with a long black beard dressed in a black cassock and a priest’s hat approached us, gesturing toward the caves and speaking in Russian, demanding to know who we were. A crowd of presumably Soviet citizens surrounded our group while our ever present Russian Intourist guide and Bruce, in his fluent Russian, explained that we were American Christians on pilgrimage for the 1000-year anniversary. The imposing monk was the father abbot of the monastery, and as I was standing right next him, I could feel his formidable presence. Perhaps it was my imagination, but when he heard we were Christians on pilgrimage, he seemed to relax. And then he began to talk, at quite some length so the translators had trouble keeping up. He told us about the return of the monastery from the government only days before, an action by the government that was happening in churches throughout the country in an apparent conciliatory gesture of appearances for the 150,000 American pilgrims expected in the summer of 1988. He spoke of the persecution he had endured, how he had been there in 1960 when the monastery had been seized and closed by the government, how 28 years later he and one other monk were all that remained from that time of profound loss. All this seemed a remarkable witness in front of his fellow Soviet citizens. And then the father abbot wanted to know what we’d been singing “in his caves.” When the hymn was translated for him, he asked us to sing it again.
The memory of that moment thirty-four years later is still vivid. Standing in the summer sunshine in the courtyard of a monastery in Ukraine, a group of American Christians clustered around a Russian Orthodox monk, and surrounding us all were twenty or thirty people we did not know, presumably Russian tourists—— but who knows? So, we sang again: “For all the saints, who from their labors rest, who, Thee, by faith, before the world confessed thy Name, O Jesus! be forever blessed. Alleluia, Alleluia!”
Some of you may be thinking, “Well that’s a nice story but that was Mary’s experience and not mine. What does this have to do with me?” Well, in a mysterious way, by virtue of your baptism, it was your experience too.
The Apostles’ Creed, the ancient creed of Christian beliefs promised at our baptism includes the doctrine of the communion of saints, the concept that echoes Paul’s teachings that “we, who are 2 many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another,” (Romans12:5) that “we were all baptized into one body” (I Cor 12:13) regardless of nationality or race. We are united as one body in Christ by virtue of our baptism— that’s how powerful baptism is, whether we were baptized as infants or adults, whether we were marched down to the Dnieper River in Ukraine or the Jordan River or the Pacific Ocean or a swimming pool or a farm pond or in a church with only a sprinkling of water. The common ingredient of baptism is water, the most life-giving resource in all of creation. All water is holy regardless of its location. As for the designation of “saints”, the word saints is found throughout scripture, at least 60 times in the NT, and simply means “holy”, someone who is set apart and consecrated to God. The Anglican form of Christianity does not use a process of beautification like the Roman Catholic church, but emphasizes that we are all saints, set apart and consecrated to God by virtue of our baptism, not our level of personal piety.
Singing in the cave monastery in Ukraine 34 years ago was an experience of faith where language differences were silenced, where time differences of a thousand years or at least 7 centuries became inconsequential, where the distance of thousands of miles suddenly turned into inches and feet, where separate cultures with their histories, identities, and prejudices faded into thin air. It was an experience of universal truths uniting us in the presence of God for just a few moments. Even though you were not literally present in that monastery courtyard, you also have experienced such moments— when the thin veil that separates this world from the other side is lifted unexpectedly. In my experience that lifting always comes as a surprise— when we hear or see something that touches us deeply and causes us to sense the Holy is present.
The veil is lifted when we recognize in ourselves a deep compassion for the people of Ukraine, or anyone anywhere who suffers, whether we’ve been there or not, whether we know them or not, we experience the reality of the communion of saints, the mystery of being one body.
We are surrounded by those saints, the great cloud of witnesses as the book of Hebrews says, whether we have been conscious of them or not. Look for them today when you come to receive the other two uniting elements of bread and wine of Christ’s body. Look for them today, and next Sunday too. And maybe every Sunday after that. You might see your loved ones who have gone before. Maybe you’ll sense the heroes of the faith from scripture like Stephen or recent history like Martin Luther King. They’re all in the long line of saints, all in the great cloud of witnesses. Maybe you’ll see people who are still living, people you’ve been praying for— your neighbor with cancer, or a friend thousands of miles away who hurt you that you’ve never forgiven. Maybe you’ll see the suffering people of Ukraine or Somalia or Lebanon or Syria or South Korea. Who knows who you’ll see? But know they are there, surrounding us, and cheering us on to keep on running the race of faith that is set before us.
The Rev. Mary Green