Sunday, November 2, 2014

All Saints Sunday
Revelation 9:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12

Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are.

Death is a fact of life. Since the day that Adam and Eve chose to believe the word of the serpent and eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, we have been cast out into the world where there is suffering and death. Everyone will die, even those who do everything humanly possible to ward off illness and the end of life.

That it is a fact of life does not make death any easier. We suffer the ravages of old age, the sting of dis-ease and the danger of this imperfect world. Death comes in too many ways to list; it comes quickly in the night or lingers for years. Death is often the consequence of our own behavior, but too often it comes from others who by accident or choice have taken life into their own hands.

Most of us don’t celebrate death. Oh, there’s always a fascination with it. Death is the subject of so much of our media, in print, film or television. So many of the criminal and law programs show so many people being shot that it is a wonder our death rate isn’t much, much higher. I regularly say of one show, “There’s always a dead body.” After all, they need something to investigate, right? These shows make fascinating use of modern technology to solve the mystery of the crime. Of course, there are also those shows that deal with the paranormal. There are dozens of ‘ghost hunter’ programs both on television and the Internet. There are movies that recreate the experiences of people dealing with ghosts and other spirits from beyond the grave. There are stories that focus on the dead who aren’t dead, like zombies and vampires. Even National Geographic has zombies on the cover this month.

We do not celebrate when death comes knocking on our door; we experience grief and an incredible sense of loss when someone we love dies. We are exhausted by it, especially if death took a long time coming. We are shocked when it comes by an accident or by violence. We are often afraid of what will happen in our lives, especially if the dearly departed is someone who provided support for us. We do not celebrate these deaths, although we do find the strength and courage to celebrate their lives. When we die, we tell our loved ones not to cry for us, but to go on with their lives. No matter how much we insist on the joy, death will always bring sorrow.

That’s ok, because God never intended for death to be a fact of life. Adam and Eve made a choice, and that choice separated all humankind from the intimate relationship that they had with God in the Garden of Eden. But even while death became the problem, God was already working on the solution. He knew, even from the day of Adam and Eve’s banishment from the Garden that He would make it possible for mankind to have the eternal life He intended. He knew that the Christ would pay the price that would free God’s people from death, guaranteeing those who believe will have eternal life. As Christians we know there is a reason to celebrate the death of one of God’s people: they aren’t really dead. They live on in the Kingdom where they no longer have to rely on hope or faith because they now walk in the Garden again with their Father the Creator.

As Christians, each year we celebrate the lives of those saints who have moved from this world to the next on All Saints Day, November 1st. We don’t really think of this as a multiple day celebration, but it actually begins on October 31st and ends on November 2nd, a triduum honoring the dead which goes back to pre-Christian eras. October 31st we know as Halloween, a vigil service which can include a prayer for light and readings from the scriptures. The possible stories are interesting: the Witch of Endor (1 Sm 28:3-25), Why Christians Reject the Occult, the Vision of Eliphaz the Temanite (Jb 4:12-21), the Valley of Dry Bones (Ez 37;1-14) Living Skeletons, and the War in Heaven (Rev 12:[1-6]7-12). There are Christians who are bothered by the celebration of Halloween, and I have to admit that the focus on evil, death and the occult bothers me too.

And of course, we have to be aware of the pagan roots of these celebrations, after all All Hallow’s Eve did exist before Christianity. So did the pagan roots of other Christian celebrations like Saturnalia at Christmas and Eostre. Christians found ways to adapt those pagan festivals into Christian understanding, though many Christians choose to ignore or reject those celebrations because of it. That’s a debate for another day, but I agree that we must be careful about the choices we make, keeping God first in all our celebrations and avoiding those things which will lead us on a path away from light and life. That’s why the Halloween festivities, with houses covered in fake body parts covered in blood and teenagers dressed as zombies, are so disturbing.

Christianity is a religion of light. Jesus Christ is the light of the world. The All Hallows Eve vigil liturgy and scripture is meant to point us to the light that is Christ who overcame death and darkness. All Saints Day then commemorates the Saints known and unknown. In older times, the Saints honored were local martyrs with ties to specific places. As the Saints became known from parish to parish, the day began to focus on the body of Saints, all those who have been beatified. They are the ones, known and unknown, who have achieved that life that God intended, who have been restored to Him through grace and who lived as God intended. They give us an example of the Christian life, the willingness to follow Christ anywhere and the courage to face even the most difficult times for His sake.

The third day completed the triduum: All Souls Day was a day of prayer for the dead. Prayer for the dead has been practiced in the Jewish as well as Christian faiths for at least a millennium. Most Christians reject the idea of purgatory and question the practice of praying for the dead, and so the triduum of the dearly departed has been condensed into All Saints Day, a day to remember all the saints.

Now, those of us who live in the Southwestern part of the United States are familiar with a Mexican tradition that continues to celebration of All Souls. It is Dia de los Muertos, which translated literally means “the Day of the Dead.” It is a celebration on November 2nd during which families welcome back departed loved ones, sharing the joys of life with them as their memories live on. Creative and respectful altars are set up around town at galleries, cultural centers, cemeteries and restaurants to commemorate loved ones who have passed on. Dia de los Muertos is a combination of the ancient Aztec and conquering Spanish cultures. There are some rituals that cross the line for me, but I love some aspects of the celebration.

In particular I love the party atmosphere, even if they hold their picnics in the cemetery. The Day of the Dead altars are a beautiful reflection of the love that they have for those they have lost. It may seem to those outside the culture that it is a celebration of death, and that there are shadows of ancestor worship, but for most it is a time to share familial love, and to tell the stories of their past. It is a party, not much different than those family reunions that we all love. The biggest difference is that those dearly departed members of the family are invited to the Day of the Dead celebrations.

There is a lot of information in this devotion so far and no real focus on the faith on which our hope and faith are built. Though Sunday is November 2nd, the text for our lectionary is for All Saints Day. We have melded all the ideas of this triduum into the one day, we see the promise of the light overcoming darkness, death destroyed for the sake of God’s people and remembrance of those loved ones who have passed from this world into the next.

This melding of the three days also shows in our understanding of what our celebration on Sunday means. All Saints Sunday is not just a day to mourn our dead and to remember them, but it is a day to remember that we are children of God and that some day we will join those who have come before us to dwell in God’s presence forever. We have seen the light; we celebrate our future at the Lord’s Table, where we will feast forever on God’s grace without the muck of life in our earthly flesh. We remember the great cloud of witnesses that have passed before, but we will also look forward to the day when we will be with them again. We will receive the bread and wine of communion, knowing that it is only a foretaste of the feast which our loved ones already enjoy. We still live on earth still rely on the hope and faith that our beloved family and friends have set aside for the reality of life in God’s presence.

In the Gospel lesson for All Saints, Jesus tells us “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.

In our life of humble service we are given the greatest blessing which is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. It is hard for us to see the blessing in the Beatitudes. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to understand mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, “Blessed are they…” They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.

The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God’s presence. In verse three, Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” In verse ten He says, “Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present: theirs is the kingdom of heaven. This is not a promise for just the future. The kingdom of heaven IS theirs.

While it is good to remember the Saints (with a capital ‘S’) those men and women throughout Christian history that have lived extraordinary lives of faith, we are reminded on All Saints Sunday that we are all saints (with a small ‘s’), saved by the grace of God, dwelling in the Light which is Christ in the here and now even as we wait for the promise of eternity.

John writes, “Behold what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God; and such we are.” We are children of God, and that is exactly what a saint is. It is the love of God that gives us this grand and glorious title; by His mercy we are adopted into His family and we will inherit His kingdom one day, just as those we have loved and lost have already received their inheritance. We live in the hope of faith that one day we will join them to dwell forever in the presence of God. For now we have to deal with the reality that we are blessed though we are ravaged by the world. Sometimes the blessing is in the suffering, as with those martyrs of old who died at the hands of those who reject Christian faith; they were blessed because though they passed through death into the bosom of God for eternity.

In the passage from Revelation, John writes, "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun strike upon them, nor any heat: for the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes." This is the future hope. Yet even now we live in the kingdom of heaven.

Death does not only come to us when the physical body fails. We go through all sorts of deaths in our lives. We suffer the grief of unfulfilled dreams, the pain of loss when friends move, the sting of sin that touches all our lives. We live in a transient world, especially those who have jobs with mobility. It is not only true of military families, but many people find themselves moving regularly. This is true also of clergy. How many churches have suffered the loss of a favorite leader because it was time for him or her to move on? Congregations go through a mourning process, especially difficult when the move was related to conflict or hurt feelings. Even within the walls of the church we face the difficulties of this life.

People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on anyone to get ahead in this world. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life – and they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. Though I have not seen the face of God, I've known His presence and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will hunger, thirst and cry again before I pass into life eternal.

The place where we come closest to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this world is at the at the communion table when we share the Lord’s Supper. In some forms of the liturgy we hear words like these, “Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all.” Our worship is timeless and the fellowship numbers in the multitudes. On All Saints Sunday, we are reminded that the veil between life in this world and the next is very thin. While there aren’t ghosts kneeling with us as we receive the body and blood of Christ, they are there amongst us, sharing in the same feast and worshipping the same Lord.

The passage from Revelation gives us a glimpse of heaven, strange images unless we see them through the eyes of faith. John writes, “And all the angels were standing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.”

How odd it is that all they will do for all of eternity is fall on their faces in worship. We live in a world that demands entertainment. We fill our schedules with activities. Our calendars are full of appointments. We need something to do constantly, and if it isn’t interesting or exciting, we move on to something different. We can’t imagine spending more than an hour at one activity, let alone eternity.

Yet is it odd? When we are stuck in the confines of time and space, eternity seems like an awfully long time. The final verse of “Amazing Grace” speaks to this very idea. We sing, “When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun.” Eternity is timeless. We won’t get bored praising God because time will not pass and there will be nothing better waiting for us around the bend. It is for this very reason that we need not fear for those who have passed from our lives. They are already enjoying that for which we long: a life in Christ that knows no limits.

On Sunday we will remember those who have passed from this life to the next. We can’t help but mourn, because their lives meant something to us. Our parents, our family, our friends and our neighbors had an impact on the life we lived. They taught us, touched us, comforted us, fed us, showed us mercy and shined the light of Christ. They will be missed and it is good for us to take a moment to join together in this time and place to remember them, honor them and thank God for their witness in our lives.

We stop on this All Saints Day to thank God for their witness. For we were brought into the fellowship of believers as those we loved shared the Gospel with us by God’s grace. We are called to live as they lived, as witnesses so that those who are yet to come will have the opportunity to hear God’s Word and believe. We are saints and that means something. It means we are God’s children, called to a life of worship and praise, of service and justice, of love and peace and joy. Though the life that awaits us after death is greater than anything we can experience in this world, we have work to do.

The psalmist writes, “I will bless Jehovah at all times: His praise shall continually be in my mouth.” These words come from King David who experienced God’s answer to his prayers. He was saved from his enemy and knew that it was God’s hand that was his salvation. We have been saved from an even greater enemy: death. We have the promise of eternal life, of an inheritance beyond anything we can imagine. How much more should we praise God for His grace and mercy? We are called to live a daily life of thanksgiving and praise to God for everything. That’s what it means to be a saint and that is the focus for us all this triduum of the dearly departed or the one All Saints Sunday: remembering that God has given us the Light that overcomes darkness and the Life that overcomes death. Jesus Christ has made it possible for us to dwell now in the Kingdom of Heaven even as we wait longingly to join those who have already received their eternal inheritance.

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