Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday 2018

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

On Friday, All Souls’ Day, I was reminded again about the degree to which, for the Christian, life and death are held in an uncomfortably close tension, a tension which I’ve said before from this pulpit that our culture tries to defuse by simply, and dishonestly ignoring the latter. I took a trip down to Marion, Ohio to act as the bishop’s deputy, consecrating a new columbarium where those formerly interred at St. Paul’s Church in that town are now committed. Sadly that parish will be declared extinct at diocesan convention next weekend. So we were not only doing fulfilling our obligation to the departed on Friday, but mourning the death of a congregation. Yet even in the grief over that death, we were called to celebrate the truth of Christ’s promise of new life.

It is that same tension with which we wrestle today, which is why the Church, in its wisdom, observes All Souls’ Day (the commemoration of all the faithful departed) the day after All Saints’. The miracle of the Resurrection doesn’t mean anything unless we appreciate its counterpoint- the reality and tragedy of death.

To return to a theme which I try to bring to light at least to some extent every Easter (much to the consternation of our natural impulse to focus exclusively on the bonnets and lilies and other happy things that accompany that joyous day), the Resurrection is only an amazing, life-transforming thing because death is so hard and inscrutable. Because death was not God’s original plan . It never was. Creation was perfect and deathless until sin entered the world. Death is an aberration. It is a tool of the enemy, and has only by the Grace of God been transformed into something greater and more mysterious and more hopeful.

I wonder sometimes if the real distinction between the capital “S” Saints whom we commemorate today and the lower-case “s” saints whom we commemorate tomorrow has less to do with the Church’s process of canonizing particularly special people, and more to do with what the former have to teach us about death. Specifically, I think it has something to do with how they held on to their own lives (their own plans and desires) loosely, while holding on tightly to life in others.

The apostles and martyrs did not give up their lives because life was meaningless or temporary or tenuous. They gave up their lives because they cared so much for the lives of others. Ascetics and virgins did not avoid attachment to the pleasures of this world as some sort of denial of ordinary life. They took on that lifestyle to work and pray for others, that they might enjoy all the good gifts which God had bestowed on the earth.

In this way the Saints serve as examples, but Christ Jesus himself is, of course, the greatest example. Notice in this morning’s Gospel, Jesus did not tell Mary and Martha that it was going to be okay. Jesus didn’t say some fool thing about God needing another angel when he took Lazarus. Jesus wept. Even when he presumably knew how things were to unfold, we are told that he was still “greatly disturbed” when he approached the tomb.

Christ gave life to the dead man, but he did not treat his death as if it were a minor inconvenience. He treated it as the tragedy it was, as the affront to God’s final plan that every death is- whether shocking or expected; whether tragic or a bittersweet relief from suffering. God is not a murderer.

Jesus cared deeply about the death of Lazarus, but he held on to his own life loosely. This is not to say that he treated his life as if it meant nothing. He knew it was a precious gift from the Father, and that’s why he asked if the cup might be passed from him. But he also knew that his life, though precious, was not his own, but belonged to God and could be poured out for the life of the world. So it was with the Saints, who did not give their lives because their lives were worthless, but because they were precious, because they knew they had come from God and were going to God and were willing to spend what time they had in service to their master.

So it should be for us. We can do certain things to help us have a good death. We can plan and pray and have the hard conversations with those we love before the practical matters surrounding death become urgent. Even more importantly, we can live, as Christ did, as the Saints dis, in self-giving service to others. That, my sisters and brothers, is what it’s all about: loving each other as Christ loved us. Caring more for others than ourselves, not because any of us is worthless, but precisely because each of us is infinitely valuable to God.

God did not put us on earth because heaven needed a waiting room. Only a very silly, capricious God would waste time creating such a world. God did not put us on earth to test us, to see if we were good enough to get into heaven or lucky enough to have the right beliefs or say the right prayer or use the right theological language to “be saved.” Only an evil God would leave our ultimate fate to moral luck, to some sort of cosmic roll of the dice. God put us here because this life is worth something. God put us here because we have an opportunity to become Saints ourselves- to recreate and share the love He has for us with each other, not just as a preparation for eternity, but because this life itself, this contingent, temporary life provides us with something even heaven cannot. We have a chance to be God for each other. We have a chance to learn more about love in preparation for the life of the world to come, so that we can appreciate perfect love when we finally experience it.

So, I think maybe this life is less a waiting room and more a classroom. We have an opportunity to learn and grow and live in love, just as Christ loved us, an offering and sacrifice to God. Be Christ for those around you who mourn. Allow others to be Christ for you. Feed on the Grace of our Lord and Savior at this altar, and then go forth to be bread broken and wine poured out to bring nourishment and joy, life and peace, to a community and a world that needs you, Christ’s own body, now and until Christ’s return.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.