Katharine Jefferts Schori

The 26th Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church

All Saints Sermon

November 4, 2014
Katharine Jefferts Schori

There’s a beautiful place in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada called Angels Camp.  It’s an old gold rush town Mark Twain wrote about, in a story that made him famous.[1]  Angels Camp is the site of exquisite scenery in Calaveras County and home of Twain’s jumping frogs.  Miners and prospectors built the town, and named it after Henry Angel, who started the first trading post.  For eons before that, Native Americans gathered in awe to commune with the creator of all that is, in stately groves of giant sequoias.[2]  Many have called those groves natural cathedrals, and they are a New World vision of what the psalmist speaks of, that the angel of the Lord camps around those who fear him.  Can you imagine angels in the midst of the redwoods?  The thousands of gold seekers who came out of greed more than awe probably could have used a little more of the fear of God.

We tend to get hung up on that phrase, “fear of God.”  We’re not supposed to be afraid of God (that was Adam and Eve’s problem after they ate the apple), yet the reality is that if God is God, God must be a whole lot more than we can understand or take in.  Remember God telling Moses that he couldn’t meet God face to face and still live?  It would be too overwhelming – Moses would simply be “undone” by encounter with the fullness of God’s reality.  Places like Angels Camp bring awe and awareness of the creative force behind them – they make us aware of God if we’re open to it.

This season of the year reminds us that fear and awe are pretty closely tied – it’s what makes Hallowe’en so delicious!  Kids and adults alike play with the frisson of fear that comes with being startled by the ghouls and ghosts abroad in the streets, only to be revealed as our familiars when they come into the light.  We get opportunities to play with the mysteries of death and life in the guise of fun – and the disguise of assuming other identities.  All of it has roots in the remembrance of saints – those who awe us by living in holy ways that offer a glimpse of eternity.

The great vision of Revelation includes a great host of those who live in eternal awe.  The book of Revelation can be either aw(e)ful or awesome, depending on your perspective.  It’s a strange kind of literature called apocalyptic, about what happens at the end of time as we know it, yet it offers plenty to learn about living in the meantime.  Those great multitudes represent a world that has come into right relationship with the creator of all that is.  They have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and persecution and the evil of the world, but they’ve come through, into another state of being.  It’s a vision of what God intended in creation – no one’s hungry or thirsty, suffering or grieving.  God has brought them all back to the source of life.  It’s hard to imagine anyone who wouldn’t be in awe at experiencing a world like that.

Awe is where saints begin – an almost overwhelming sense of otherness, of creative possibility beyond imagining, of vulnerable respect for something beyond mere mortal capacity.  It is the root of all spirituality and religious instinct, and it is where saints are born.  That great cloud of witnesses gathered around the throne in Revelation have come closer to the origin of awe, yet are not undone by it.

Where do you experience awe?  The wonder of a baseball team who hangs in there to win, by being more than anyone expected?  Do you find awe in the luminous painted clouds of sunrise – or the birth of a child?  What about the sheer grit of a woman who leaves the streets or an abusive relationship to look for a truly loving way of life?  I am in awe at the ability of combatants to put down their arms and pursue peace.  Is there awe in the quiet stillness of your own heart, confirming the deeper graciousness of reality, in spite of what the world throws at you?

Awe can evoke greater awareness of the presence and work of God around us, among us, within and beyond us.  That has something to do with what Bishop Paret envisioned when he began to think of building this cathedral.  He wanted it built near the poor, he wanted it to welcome all comers, without regard for their ability to pay for a place to rest.  He said, “The ushers should be instructed to give the best seats to the plainer people, and to put those in gay clothing further off.” [3]  We would use different language today, but you get the point – poor and rich, gay and straight, people of all colors and languages and nations, gathered here together around the throne of God. 

You’re still expanding on that vision, gathering immigrants and refugees,[4] an Igbo congregation, and your leadership that’s pushing and cajoling this city toward excellent schools for all its children.  This place is a local version of Revelation’s vision.  Awe becomes the right relationships of justice as it takes on flesh in human encounter and response.

That response to awe is what Jesus speaks of as blessing.  Blessed are those who respond to their fellow human beings with mercy, blessed are those who work toward peace and those who respond in humility, and blessed is every one who yearns for that vision of a whole and holy community.  Those who know themselves blessed become a blessing to the world, and the world begins to gather around the throne of God. 

We’ve gathered around that throne today, and we’re going to invite another person into awe and awareness.  These parents have experienced something of that awe, and now bring their child into the possibility of a growing encounter with the source of all that is.  Every baptism is an opportunity for the rest of us to reawaken to the awe that underlies all relationship with the Holy One – awe that leads to loving God with all we are, heart and mind, soul and strength. 

When we pray for Madeline Ann, and all who are renewing their baptismal vows, listen for the awe – it’s in almost every phrase:  open our hearts to your grace and truth; fill us with life-giving Spirit; keep us in the communion of this body of Christ; teach us to love others with the Spirit’s power; send us into the world to share the awesome love we know in you; bring us to the fullness of your peace and glory.  And after she is baptized, we’ll thank God for a new life of grace, and pray for a heart that can be awestruck, filled with courage and love, and the “gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.”  May this and every child of God find that awe growing within, throughout life’s journey, and learn to respond with love. 

We’re making a saint today, and as the song puts it, may each one of us yearn to be one, too.  Be a vehicle of awe to the world, blessed and a source of blessing, in ways both concrete and eternal.  Pope Francis put it this way a few days ago, and it’s more poetic  in Spanish, “los pobres necesitan ‘terrenos, un techo y trabajo.’[5]  That’s the living work of saints, recognizing the awe-inspiring image of God in every neighbor, respecting the dignity of each one, and working for justice everywhere.  That is what comes of loving God with all our strength and soul and mind and strength. 

Catch a little awe, and let it wonders work in you.  Don’t be afraid – the angels are camped all around.  Fear not, oh saints, you are a resurrected people, blessed to be a blessi


[1] “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” (1865) brought his first major public recognition.

[2] Now protected in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park

[3] http://www.incarnationbaltimore.org/

[4] Through ERICA – Episcopal Refugee and Immigrant Center Alliance

[5] http://voces.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/28/papa-francisco-defensa-pobres_n_6063492.html  The poor need land, a roof, and work.



Bishop Jefferts Schori


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