All Saints’ Sunday – November 5, 2017
Today we are celebrating All Saints’ Sunday….the Feast of All Saints’ actually occurs on November 1 and is part of three holy days which begin with Halloween. Hallow means holy and Halloween is a contraction of All Hallow’s Eve. On Halloween, we are said to face our fears and laugh at them, knowing that nothing, not even death can separate us from the love of God.
November 1, is All Saints Day, a major feast of the church. The Book of Common Prayer calls saints “the lights of the world in every generation”–people whose lives and deeds have shone brightly and helped others more closely follow Jesus. There are saints who lived long ago and there are saints living and working in the world today, saints who are known by the church and saints who are known only to God. We say that we are part of the Communion of Saints, the company of all faithful people, connected through our baptism to those Christians who have died, those who are alive now, and those yet to be born. And saints tend to be quite colorful — being perfect is in no way a requirement.
November 2, All Souls Day, is the “commemoration of all faithful departed,” a day to remember our own family and friends who have died. It’s a good time to visit a cemetery, which really need not be a place of fear, but of respect.
So, on this All Saints’ Sunday in which we celebrate a combination of all three holy days, we are hearing the Beatitudes from Matthew’s gospel. Blessed are….
I wonder if when reading the Beatitudes, we see them as a kind of moral check list. In other words, that we are being called to live a “beatitudes-kind-of-life”. Rather than merely urging a distinct ethic, perhaps Jesus is inviting us to imagine what it’s like to live in the kingdom of God. And by inviting that imagination, drawing a sharp contrast between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world – challenging our often unconscious allegiance to the latter. Notice first that the people who Jesus is calling “blessed” are definitely not the people the larger culture viewed as blessed. Those who are mourning rather than happy? Those who are meek rather than strong? Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness rather than wealth? That kind of thinking was, and mostly still is, absurd. And that holds for pretty much everything on Jesus’ list.
So perhaps Jesus is playing for larger stakes than an improved ethic. Perhaps he’s challenging who we imagine being blessed in the first place. Who is worthy of God’s attention? Who deserves our attention, respect, and honor? And by doing that, he’s also challenging our very understanding of blessedness itself and, by extension, challenging our culture’s view of, pretty much everything. Blessing. Power. Success. The good life. Righteousness. What is noble and admirable. What is worth striving for and sacrificing for. You name it. Jesus seems to invite us to call into question our culturally-born and very much this-worldly view of all the categories with which we structure our life, navigate our decisions, and judge those around us.
And this includes our view of those we have loved and lost. We have not “lost” those who have died. Instead, they live now in the nearer presence of God, beyond our immediate reach, yet connected to us through memory, faith, and love. Part of what we do when we celebrate All Saints’ – and, at all memorial services – is to participate in the inversion of the kingdom of the world which believes that all we can see, hold, control, or buy is all that there is. When we commend those we have loved to God’s care, we proclaim that God’s kingdom is not some distant thing or place but exists now, exerts its influence on us now, transforms our reality now. All Saints’, along with all Christian funerals, is a repetition and rehearsal of the Easter promise that there is something more, something that transcends our immediate experience, and this proclamation is rooted in the confidence that God’s love and life are more powerful and enduring that the hate, disappointment, and death that seems at times to surround us.
Stu and I recently took a trip and visited parts of Germany. We toured ancient castles and very old Cathedrals. Our America is quite young in comparison to the history that oozes from the countries across the ocean. When we read the stories of how God was present in the lives of our ancestors long, long ago it seems a whispered voice. Becca Stevens talks about the whispered voice. When we read what’s on paper it’s a kind of whispered voice in our heads. It is the whispered voice we long to hear in the quiet of the night. Whispers are a means by which prayers rise seamlessly through the loud din of noise in our lives. They can be heard in the empty lots where houses once stood. They rise in memory from burial grounds and circle trees like an arctic stream. Whispers are the voices we use when we want to share something intimate and secretive. Whispers are the confessions between God and us.
You can hear the echos of prayers in the quiet spaces and places of our lives. I could hear the echos and whispers in ancient German cathedrals. Those prayers linger over us like ozone. In all our running around, in our struggle to find happiness in this world, there are sweet whispers that mark the path of our hearts the whole way.
When Israel was exiled and dust filled the mouths and thoughts of the captives, Isaiah had a vision that their voices could rise like a whisper out of that very dust. Isaiah’s vision is moving and wondrous. Beyond captivity, pain, or fear, we can still offer a whisper, as light as incense, to carry a hope to the highest mountain. Those prayers sometimes feel powerless and exhausting, but truly they are light and strong enough to take flight. We get to pray our hearts and we whisper our hearts to the heavens. We get to join with thousands of other prayer whisperers as our masses become a din of hope rising from the dust. May we be silent enough to hear those whispers as we walk through this world, as we turn the pages of history, and as we travel to the depths of our own hearts.
Becca Stevens tells the story of love rising from stones. She was in Ecuador and walked in the most beautifully steep woods she had ever seen. “Our ragged procession of twenty, bathed in sweat and dizzied by altitude and bright light, mounted hundreds of steps on the way to an outdoor chapel. The steps were marked by seven huge stones, each carved with an image representing a sorrowful mystery of Christ.
We walked in full silence, yearning to reach the top of the mountain, carrying fresh memories of love and joy like precious oils. I realized that as I took each step, I was saying the name of someone in prayer. I prayed for my family, my friends, people in the church, people I knew from the streets, people from my past, saints, and babies I have baptized. The circle of prayer got wider and wider as the endless steps continued. My eyes and heart were overflowing with gratitude for all the love I have known in the world.
Finally, forty-five minutes later, we reached the stone marking the last sorrowful mystery. I looked up to see that the stone had given way to green moss and was crumbling. It was no longer possible to see the carved image of Jesus being crucified. The stone was literally rolling away, and Jesus was rising from the rock, as on the very first Easter morning.
The Ecuadorian woods sang, “Before there were stones, there was God. Before there was death, there was life. Before there was doubt, there was faith. Before there was war, there was peace. Before there was sin, there was grace.”
Death doesn’t get the last word; love does. Before there was death, there was love. We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses both here and in the heavens. Praise the Lord. Amen.