Texts: Colossians 1: 9-14; Matthew 5: 14-16

When Thomas Merton first visited the Abbey of Gethsemani in the State of Kentucky, he was overwhelmed by this incredible aha! “I had wondered,” he writes, “what was holding the country together, what had been keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart?” Here it was … this community knit together by the Spirit’s call to live in the presence of God, to love as God loves, and to pray for the world that God so loves. It wasn’t long before Merton himself came to join the community, lending his life, along with the others, to this work, this life, that somehow keeps the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart.

There’s something about that picture that I think gives us an eye into the mystery of the Communion of Saints that we celebrate today … this immense community of people, those alive and those who have gone before, living together in the presence of God, holding the world in love, being present to and praying for the world God so loves … and in all of that, somehow, keeping the universe from cracking in pieces and falling apart.

And just as Thomas Merton came to join that community in the rolling hills of Kentucky, taking his place among the others, lending his strength to them and they to him, so I believe that’s the invitation that is extended to us through this celebration of the communion of saints: to wake up to and live within this great fellowship of people who are giving themselves to this vocation of blessing the Earth and healing the world. It’s a day for snapshots … for leafing through the album of this fellowship, reminding us that we are not alone -- so not alone -- in this life of loving what God so loves.

When Daniel and I met this past week, I wondered with him, given our All Saints celebration this year falls within this Season for Creation, who in particular might we remember this Sunday? She came to him right off the top … August Peltier … that young indigenous woman from Manitoulin Island, who’s already been doing this work for years, now 15 years old, who has come to be known as a Water Protector. Her mother would say she was born into the world ready for this work … even as a tiny infant there was such intensity in her eyes, her mother almost couldn’t look at her. It was her Auntie Josephine who ignited this particular vocation in August, taking August from a young age on her “water walks,” on which she walks around a body of water attentive to it, praying for it … as though it has personhood, with a right to live, a right to be protected. It was through her Auntie Josephine that August realized the sacredness of water … not just that we need water to live, but that water is alive, has spirit …how it is that we come from our mother’s water, who comes from her mother’s water and on it goes. All life is connected to water. It was in discovering that so many First Nations communities here in Canada do not have safe drinking water that August became compelled to raise the alarm about the need to heal and protect the water all over the world.

“I speak for the water,” she says, “because she hurts every day because of what people are doing to her today in the world … polluting, dumping toxic waste. I do what I do because water is sick,” she announced to UN officials last March on World Water Day. “Mother earth has been in existence for billions of years and she doesn’t need us. We need her. …For the children that want to speak up but maybe be they’re too afraid, I’m speaking for them. Maybe the work I’m doing will encourage them to do the work I’m doing, and we can all try to make a change.”
“Our ancestors prayers are still protecting this land,” she says, “and we are our ancestors hope. One day I’ll be an ancestor, and I want my descendents to know I used my voice so they could have a future.” [1]
Today we give thanks for the bold and honest witness of August Peltier, and her vision of clean drinking water for people all over the world that will keep her speaking out for the rest of her life.

Another person Daniel called to mind … it took a little searching to find the documentary he had seen about the Elwha River across the way here on the Olympic Peninsula and a man named Dick Goin. The film called The Memory of Fish [2] is truly beautiful … the way it introduces us to this ordinary man for whom this river became an integral part of his being. He moved to a place along the river as young boy when his parents up and left their dust bowl farm in Iowa in the dirty 30’s. It was the salmon in the river that kept his family alive. He became an avid fisherman … and in the 1950’s when Dick was in his 20’s, he began meticulously recording the details … water levels, where the fish were, how many he caught, how many he released, what stocks there were at what times of the year. 200 days a year he wrote down his observations … which in time helped scientists look back and see what could possibly be again. For in time what he realized was that the fish in this river that were once giants and plentiful beyond belief were becoming extinct.

It wasn’t just the canneries that were established that gobbled up the abundance. In the early part of the 20th century 2 dams had been built along river. The hydro electricity was used to power industry and homes in the vicinity, including the mill where Dick himself was employed as a machinist. He could see the deadly impact of toxic waste; and you see him struggling with this dilemma … his concern for the health of the river and the fishery on the one hand and his own livelihood on the other.
In time mill closed when the timber was gone … and even though the dams were no longer relied upon, since other power sources were developed, the dams remained. And as Dick says, “dams and fish can’t work together” … for the fish aren’t able to get past these giant walls to return to their rich spawning grounds above the dams. It wasn’t just the fish that were endangered. It was the entire Elwha River ecosystem.

In 1983 Dick was a key spokesperson for the removal of the dams … a completely ridiculous and unheard of proposition. “I’m hear to make a plea for the Elwha River,” he would say at community and government meetings, and roadside protests for years. 10 years later a federal bill was signed that should have brought the dams down. But the cost was prohibitive and no action was taken … and what was the point? By now 90% of the fish were gone. Except that Dick was convinced that it was still possible to save the Elwha … and the fish who have waited 70 years to go home.

Another 10 years later we see Dick now in his 80’s at the dam removal ceremony. There he is lending a hand releasing some spawning salmon upstream of the dams. And then we see him a few years later, scrambling down a steep bank of river, barely making it safely and then standing in the stream. And you hear his excitement: “what we see here are survivors!” he says, as he spots a number large spawning salmon at his feet. “Their mission is almost over … this one is seeking quieter water where there’s less current. Her energy is spent and she’ll die, and return to the system. But she has done what she is here for.”
And before the credits begin to roll we read: “every year more and more salmon swim up the river. By 2014 with every decade that passes, the Elwha is expected to sustain salmon closer to the number and sizes Dick documented.”

Today we give thanks for the witness of Dick’s life … his attentiveness to and advocacy for the life of the river … Dick who died in 2015 … his energy spent … having done what he was here for.

Here’s the invitation our celebration of All Saints extends to us:
who ever we are, whatever our place and stage in life, will you come, will you go, and make room in your being, with your life, for God’s unquenchable love to reach the ground, to bless the earth, to heal the world?

The invitation is to join that great procession … to find ourselves upheld, urged on, by that great host of witnesses … as in that beautiful image we’re given in the Letter to the Hebrews: “since we are surrounded by such a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight and sin that clings so closely, and run with perseverance the race that is set before us … looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.

[1] Autumn Peltier's fight to protect Canada's water | The National Documentary

[2] The Memory of Fish, A Reelblue Production, directed by Jennifer Galvin and Sachi Cunningham, 2017