A Sermon for 6 November 2016 – All Saints’ Sunday
A reading from the gospel of Luke 20:27-38. We’re in a portion of the gospel where Jesus has been busy teaching in the Temple. According to the text, he’s actually been challenged by one group after another. Likely confronted by those threatened by the authority with which Jesus speaks and to which the crowds seem drawn. . . . In what happens next, listen for God’s word to us.
“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to (Jesus) and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.””
This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!
Early in the Seventh Century on the 13th of May, Pope Boniface IV “consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs” (www.catholic.org/saints/allsaints/). Thus, a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation was born. Meaning that all Catholics must attend Mass on that very day. As a way to honor those who had persevered in the faith, every Christian was under obligation to be present and reminded of the sacrifices made by ones such as the Mother Mary, the rock of the church Peter, the zealous apostle Paul, and all the others who risked their lives in the pursuit of following the Way of Christ. Boniface was tricky in his placement of the day – he made it coincide with an ancient Roman festival aimed at placating the restless spirits of the dead. The Pope usurped the pagan day with a focus not on the restlessness of the spirits who already had passed, but on a celebration of the saints who now enjoyed the fruits of heavenly life. All Souls’ Day, the day after, would remain a day to focus on any who may have died but not yet found eternal rest. But the Holy Day of All the Saints would be a way to honor the kind of faith the church wanted everyone to emulate. Later in the Eighth Century, Pope Gregory III would move the high Holy Day from May to November. Thus, the current practice of All Saints’ Day found its way to the first day of November (Ibid.).
Most of us likely spent more time and energy this week on the night before: All Hallows’ Eve – also known as Halloween, the secular holiday that seems to be taking second place right behind Christmas in the United States. If you participated Monday night, I’m betting you opened your door more to Super Man or a Princess or maybe even a tortured-looking goon than to the Blessed Mother Mary, Stephen who’s first Christian martyrdom is recorded in Acts, or our brand of Christianity’s hero Martin Luther who wisely posted his protests on the sanctuary door the night before All Saints’ so that everyone in Wittenberg would know the ways he believed the church needed to change. Unless you grew up Roman Catholic, you may be boggled about this talk of All the Saints. And by the way, we Presbyterian’s don’t do All Souls’ Day on November 2. We don’t buy that theology of the restless dead needing release. . . . Nevertheless, in the mid-Twentieth Century, when mainline Protestant denominations began to see the value of the cyclical seasons of the liturgical year; Presbyterians began to sing songs like For All the Saints who from their Labors Rest. The Book of Common Worship pointed us on November 1, or the first Sunday after it, to scriptures like Hebrews 12 that remind us that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also . . . run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Prayers for this Day assure us: “neither death nor life can separate us from your love,” Eternal God. So “grant that we may serve you faithfully here on earth, and in heaven rejoice with all your saints who ceaselessly proclaim your glory” (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 385). Many faith communities now look forward to this day when the names of those from the congregation who have died since last year’s All Saints’ Day reverently are spoken aloud when we come to gather around the table. Incidentally, our prayers around the table remind us every month that the veil between the living and the dead is not as solid as many often think. Every time we gather around the table of our Lord, we welcome the presence of all those of the Church and of our lives with whom we remain connected. Our minds may tell us death brings physical distance, which of course it does. Yet our spirits know we all always are and ever will be held together mysteriously in the binding love of God.
It’s the good news according to the gospel of Luke that Jesus proclaims to the Sadducees and any others who will listen. Here come these men who do not believe anything much takes place after one physically dies. Jesus is so incredibly patient as they concoct this crazy story about a family following the laws from Moses when one after another brother marries the sister-in-law who is left childless by each one. Seven times a wedding takes place; but still no heir is born. Perhaps because she’s heartbroken from burying seven husbands childless, the woman finally dies too. And all the Sadducees want to know is will she be Mrs. Jacob in the resurrection, or perhaps Mrs. Isaac. Will she spend eternity with brother number one, or maybe brother number five who she seemed to like a little bit more? . . . So much is so far beyond our grasp, isn’t it? I mean can we imagine an existence that’s not quite like anything we’ve experienced in our earthly bodies? Can we make sense of being eternally in God’s Presence instead of feeling so separate as we tend to most of the moments of our lives? Though our minds cannot figure it out – if others will know us as Mr. so-in-so who did such-and-such all our days here on earth; or if we’ll hang out forever at God’s eternal feast with our parents or children or favorite friends. We like such re-assurances that what lies ahead will be much like what we’ve known already. And then the words of Jesus strip away every social construct that’s defined who we have been and how we have lived our lives. Children of the resurrection are beyond such human boundaries, Jesus explains. And just in case you doubt such a thing as resurrected life, Jesus throws Moses back at the dis-believing Sadducees. He quotes the very name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. This is YHWH – the Holy One of Israel who IS God of all the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God of the living; for in God, those who have gone before are not dead. They still are alive to God.
That is the great Mystery we may never fully understand. How it is that those whose hands we held at what we believed to be their end, still are alive to God. It is as if death does not exist to God. Or at least does not hinder the connection God has and always will with each one of us. It’s like God doesn’t see the casket. Doesn’t let the last breath mean one thing. Though our own eyes cannot see what lies beyond a physical death; at least according to the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Luke’s 20th chapter, God sees us only alive. Alive. Alive “for to God, all of us are alive” forevermore (Luke 20:38).
A few years ago I learned a song I may have told some of you about. It’s from a rendition of Singing the Hours and is based on words from the Song of Solomon. It goes like this: “Arise, my darling, beautiful one; my beautiful one, come with me. Arise. See the rains are over and done, my beautiful one, winter is passed; come with me. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Arise, my darling, beautiful one; my beautiful one, come with me. Arise. See the rains are over and done, my beautiful one, winter is passed; come with me. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one; come with me. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one; come with me. My beautiful one, come with me” (“Arise, My Darling – Lauds [Morning Prayer],” Joy Yee, Singing the Hours, 2011). It’s a song for Lauds, the earliest of morning prayer. And something about the tune is this elixir of fresh morning dew when first the birds begin to sing. It’s easy to imagine these words to and from Solomon and his lover in the backdrop of an abundant garden. But often when I hear it, I imagine what I suspect the composer had in mind: The Great Lover singing to us all. When each one of us exhales our last, there at our side is the Holy One. God waiting to whisper into our ear: “Arise, my darling, beautiful one. My beautiful one, come with me. See, the rains of this life are over and done; my beautiful one, winter is passed – the strife of your life is behind. Come with me.” Those seem to me the words of the One in whose eyes we never die. The Voice of our God calling us out of the slumber of our death to awaken to a whole new life. “Beautiful ones, darlings: arise and come with Me.” It’s the next great adventure – one we cannot fully anticipate, that moment when we pass from life as we’ve known it into God’s everlasting embrace. And for each one we will name here today – though sadness may remain in our hearts at what of them we have lost – ahh! What a gift. What a miracle. What an incredible adventure of an eternity in which they remain forever alive to God! . . . In this is our hope. Our comfort. Our peace.
In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2016 (All rights reserved.)