Have you ever wondered why churches like this are so large? Why the ceilings are so high? Why there is so much space?
Let me explain.
In the 1970's and 1980's, Death Squads wreaked havoc and terror across Central and South America. Sponsored by government and business interests, these Death Squads acted with impunity. In El Salvador alone, they killed tens of thousands of peasants and activists, including nuns and priests who resisted the oppression.
In response, the Christian Church developed a dramatic means of expressing their faith, their hope and their resistance . During the liturgy, they would read aloud the names of those who had been murdered, or, in the euphemism of the time, those who had been "disappeared." When each name was read, the congregation would call out, "¡Presente!" (Here!)
They were affirming what the Church has believed from the beginning: that others may have the power to destroy our mortal flesh, but in Christ, God has destroyed death. . .that our dead are not dead. They are alive in Christ.
We claim that whenever and wherever Christians gather to break bread together in Christ's name the whole company of heaven and earth are gathered: the angels and archangels are here; the saints and martyrs are here.
All this space? We need it: every bit of it. It's crammed, filled, packed to rafters.
Peter, James and John, Simon and Andrew? ¡Presente! Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus? Paul, Martha and all the Marys? ¡Presente! (Here!) Augustine and Aquinas, Francis, and Theresa? John Huss and Micheleangelo, Calvin and Luther? ¡Presente! (Here!) J.S. Bach and Sojourner Truth? Harriet Beecher Stowe and Juliette Gordon Lowe? Dr. Schweitzer and Dr. King? Archbishop Romero and Rosa Parks? ¡Presente! (Here!)
The Death Squads in El Salvador wreaked their havoc to be sure. They caused terrible suffering and untold sorrow. But they were impotent against the Church's claim that death is swallowed up in victory! That the Communion of Saints is not bounded by time.
As we approach the communion table we need every inch of this space, and then some, to accommodate the great cloud of witnesses who are even now gathering to join us at this meal: the war dead from Afghanistan and Iraq, ¡Presente! (Here!) The one they called the Lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy, ¡Presente! (Here!) The children whose school collapsed over them in the Indonesian earthquake and those swept away by the tsunami in Samoa, ¡Presente! (Here!)
Not just those … not only those who make the news. Also with us today is the one for whom our Great Cross is named: Bob Christenson: ¡Presente! (Here!) Calvin Hampton, whose music ministers to us, of whose will and musical estate Harry is executor: ¡Presente! (Here!) Quinn's father and grandmother: ¡Presente! (Here!) My grandparents, Isabel and Emory, James and Aileen, and my father David, ¡Presente! (Here!) Duane's and Janice's two children who predeceased them: ¡Presente! Evan and Annamarie's third and fourth children, siblings to Nate and Amanda: Noah and Melanie, ¡Presente! Janet's Harvey, Lise's Paul, Jean's Philip, Jim's JoAnn, Diane's Marc, Don's Betsy, and my Peter: ¡Presente! Jean Jackson and Helen Jackson, Agnes, Gabino, Richard, Anna, Marion, Betty, John, Mary, Elsbeth, Florence, Earl, Barbara, Jennette, Jim … every one of them, ¡Presente! (Here!) And your loved ones, each of them, too numerous to name aloud, but which I trust you are naming in the privacy of your own hearts … all of them: ¡Presente! (Here!)
The Christians in El Salvador stared the Death Squads in the face and defied them. They were emboldened to do so because they believed the Gospel, the good news: death has been defeated. That is our claim. That is the faith we celebrate at this feast. We come to this table to stare death in the face and reject its power over us.
We do so in the best of company: in the company of the great cloud of witnesses. This house is packed, jammed. It is filled to the rafters with our kin, our sisters and brothers in Christ. Heaven and earth is here and the space between them is thin. Therefore, let us keep the feast. Amen!