Sometimes I feel I am in a parallel universe. Why are many Christians so theologically illiterate?
“When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.”
(Archbishop Desmond Tutu)
Saturday, November 3, 2012
Sunday Sermon for All Souls Patronal Festival
When I was doing some reading around and hoping for inspiration, I noticed that many commentators seemed to confuse All Saint’s Day (1nd Nov) and All Soul’s Day (2st Nov) – which reassured me, because I had too. This is more than semantics: while we worship God in here (on the 4th because it is All Hallows patronal Sunday) we have memories of a couple of nights ago when children, some of them with their parents or older siblings, were out playing trick or treat. We might not immediately think so, but there is a very close connection between what they were doing and what we are doing. All Soul's Day and All Saints Day and the Eve of All Hallows (Halloween) are all part of a three-day celebration of commemorations of the dead which goes way back before the Christian era. The Church Christianized older Celtic festivals by giving new meanings to the customs of Halloween night, and by offering a vision of the Communion of Saints that is remembered on All Saints Day. Which leads us fairly neatly to a fundamental question: what is a saint?
If you look in the dictionary; there are four basic definitions of a saint: 1. A person officially recognized, especially by canonization, as being entitled to public veneration and capable of interceding for people on earth. 2. A person who has died and gone to heaven. 3. A member of any of various religious groups. 4. An extremely virtuous person.
That covers almost all of us, surely? None of us may be up for canonization and we’ve yet to die, but we do belong to a religious group, we do intercede on behalf of others and (some of us) may be extremely virtuous.
“Sir. What’s a saint?” Now I’ve become used, as a teacher of Religious Studies, to being the school’s resident expert on all things randomly religious. And I was about to launch into an explanation of those who have been perceived as particularly holy or inspirational throughout the history of the church, when my inner voice told me to stop and think. It isn’t enough to talk about Tertullian, Irenaus and Augustine, people who helped clarify the faith amidst confusion and controversy; people who laid the foundation of the church.
It isn’t enough to talk about Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Saint Teresa of Avila who challenged us to look at the faith differently and find a deeper relationship with God. It isn’t enough to talk about modern day saints, such as Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King and Desmond Tutu who struggled for the rights of all people. Neither is it enough to talk of those who have lived the Christian life and gone on ahead.
But are we not all saints? In the N.T. there are about sixty mentions of the word “saint” - mainly in the context of those who have died in the faith or who are disciples: followers of Jesus in his time. St. Paul used the term 44 times to refer to the Church on earth. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to apply that same idea to latter-day disciples: we are the saints.
So I tried this explanation on Darren.
“You Sir? A saint? As if!” (Said in terms of doubtful incredulity.) Rather harsh I felt. On the upside, though, that means our birthdays are saint’s days dedicated to us. (I think that may put a whole new perspective on my next birthday party.)
At this time of year we remember the faithful departed, the numerous ordinary people through the centuries who have lived and died trusting in God, faced life’s ups and downs with the same faith as the A List saints - but without the wider recognition. We must remember, too, that the saints were not perfect. That is something which our modern-day secular Halloween reminds us of: all of us have a darker side. The church at its best also recognises this. At its worst it sanitises the saints. The point is that even the greatest saints were also sinners. They run the gamut: they are extraordinary people and they are common folk like you and me. And that adds another side to our commemoration of the souls of the faithful departed. When we ask God to take care of these precious souls we might need to ask God to bring healing to any hurts which still exist between us and them; to any regrets we may have about things said or unsaid; things done or neglected between us and those who have gone before us, and ask for God to have mercy on us, to heal the wounds, to close the accounts, to put to bed any sense of guilt or failure. We remember so that in part we can stop, or change, what and how we remember in the light of God’s infinite concern for us.
Some of us have lived through gentle and good deaths, kind deaths where it was the right moment and in the right place and the tears shed were as much for relief and thankfulness as for any sense of loss.
For others, the deaths we carry are far more searing, bitter and angry: stupid or savage deaths which take an unkind toll on who we are and where the words of today’s reading from the Book of Revelation, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more,” may sound very hollow. Being who we are those sensations are kept mostly out of public view: people don’t need to see the sorrow I struggle with.Let’s bring our sorrows and the pain we carry with us today to our worship, because these acts of remembrance also confront us with our own mortality, the fact that each one of us will one day die. Death brings separation and thus sadness, and for some people here the memories are still raw and sharp. For others there is a long sadness which never quite goes but which time has softened and God’s grace has tempered with thanksgiving for all the good memories.
There’s a wide breadth of experience here today and I wonder how each of us is processing these passages from Revelation and John: whether they have a particular resonance for those of us who have dealt with the loss of a loved one - more of a resonance, perhaps, than for those of us who haven’t? Yet here in this moment we are offered the chance to let God in. He sees. He gives us grace each day to survive. And He offers us the promise of hope.
Which is another of the things we do together at this time: we hold on to a living hope: a living hope in the promise of Jesus that he has gone ahead of us to prepare the way for us. “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.”
And where do we get this confidence from? Well, if from nowhere else, all we need is in today’s Gospel.
When we read, or listen to, today’s passage - Jesus and Lazarus - our own personal histories of death and bereavement colour the way we react. As someone who has yet to lose someone I love, I find this passage quite difficult because it contains hints of the future for me. I have elderly parents and we’ve had some recent health scares and hospitalisations, so when I read this passage of a close knit family wracked by bereavement it feels a bit too close to home.
This is a story about an encounter with death but before we carry on, can I ask that you pretend that you don’t know the Easter story? It’s a difficult ask, I know, but do your best.
The beloved brother of Mary and Martha has contracted a lethal illness. Knowing Jesus, their friend, to be a healer, an urgent summons goes out to him. He, however, delays his arrival on the scene until after Lazarus is dead. Then Jesus has both bereaved sisters to contend with, as well as a veritable Greek chorus of friends and neighbours.
Martha, though gently, seems to be rebuking Jesus, blaming him for not arriving in time to save her brother. Perhaps she is in denial, a common response to sudden death - hoping against hope that, even now, if Jesus really wanted to he could do something to change the situation.
It is at this point in the story that it delivers its key message. Jesus said to Martha, "Your brother will rise again." Martha responds in much the same manner that bereaved believers have ever since, "I know that he will rise again in the resurrection of the last day." The unspoken implication then as now is: that's not good enough. Don't tell me that time will take care of my grief, I am in pain now. I can’t imagine living through today, or tomorrow, without this one I love, never mind waiting for reunion in the life to come. How can I endure this loss and go on? How can life have any meaning for me now? And Jesus said to her, "I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?" Those who believe in Jesus Christ, even though we die physically, will live spiritually, raised with him to eternal life.
Was Jesus’ question then only posed to Martha? Are we not also the implied audience for this question? If so, then every time this passage is read we are confronted with the same question as if it had just been asked of us: “Do you believe this?” Martha responded to the question in faith, even before she had the sign in her brother's raising from death, "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world."
But, there are more bereaved people to encounter.
Mary and her comforters now come to meet Jesus. From Mary there is the same hint of rebuke as from Martha, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." But there is none of the hope, even if unrealistic, that Martha exhibited. Mary is in tears. So devastating was Mary's grief that Jesus too, began to weep. The text tells us he was deeply troubled. But the Greek word underlying this says that Jesus shuddered with sadness; that his body shook with emotion. If this event is a parallel to the Christian life, the message is that Christians have to face a lot of death in the course of living. While death does not have the power, for a believer, to wipe out meaning, or to end spiritual life, it is, nevertheless excruciatingly painful to lose someone, or something, we love. It is appropriate to weep under such circumstances; it’s healthy to weep under such circumstances; and, rather than rebuke Mary for her tears, Jesus joins in with them - just as we can imagine Jesus weeping over every one of our losses, every one of our disappointments, every one of our failures; this is an acknowledgment of the reality of loss.
There is nothing pretty about death. No matter how much we try to dress it up with candles, flowers and poetry; no matter how ethereal we try to make things look, death is decay and putrification. In this story it is Martha who straightforwardly speaks the harsh truth, "Lord, already there is a stench because has been dead four days." Unlike many today there are no euphemisms for Martha, she says it like it is.
Standing at the site of the tomb, a cave with a stone lying against it, don’t you get a sense of déjà vu? Wait a minute, what story is this? Haven't we heard this story before, only with a different corpse and a different cast of characters? So, the underlying theme breaks through the surface of the story and we suddenly understand how it is that Jesus intends to indemnify his promise to Martha - and by extension, to all believers.
Describe it how you will but at the end of our mortal life our soul, our essence, our personhood, who we are departs this life. And in the faith of Jesus Christ who rose again, we attain the salvation of our souls and Jesus reveals this to us, not only through his own death and resurrection (which, remember, chronologically we’ve not got to yet) but through the death and resurrection of Lazarus and Jesus’ power to raise him.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away..”
Let’s close in the words of a Jewish Prayer:
This day in sacred convocation we remember those who gave us life. We remember those who enriched our lives with love and beauty, kindness and compassion, thoughtfulness and understanding. We renew our bonds to those who have gone the way of all earth. As we reflect upon those whose memory moves us this day, we seek consolation, and the strength and the insight born of faith. Tender as a parent with a child, the Lord is merciful. God knows how we are fashioned, remembers that we are dust. Our days are as grass; we flourish as a flower in a field. The wind passes over it and is gone, and no one can recognize where it grew. But the Lord's compassion for us, the Lord's righteousness to children's children, remain, age after age, unchanging.