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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for November 4, 2012
All Saints’ Day
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9; Ps. 24; Rev. 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
In the name of the one who is, who was, and who is to come. Amen.
Here’s a question for you, all you cradle Episcopalians: what change did I make in the collect? Take a look, it’s in the first line. “…you have knit together your elect…” I know what they probably meant, but the word itself connotes something that is not helpful, especially at this time of year, as we are two days away from going to the polls to choose one person over another. The word “elect” can suggest that we occupy some pride of place in the divine realm. Or, perhaps for you the “elect” is someone else, someone too darn spiritual to be any earthly good. If we were raised Catholic, you may think that a saint is someone no longer living who demonstrated an exceptional degree of holiness and virtue, who was recognized either through official church canonization or by popular acclaim.
All these are reflections of what the word “saint” has come to mean in our vocabulary, probably because it makes them safe. We post these saints to a place where they are safely beyond our reach. But I’m sorry to tell you that we don’t get off that easy. The Christian understanding of a saint is more than this. The scriptures for today point to something that has very much to do with you and me. It has to do with death and life for all of us.
One of the things we do on All Saints’ Day is remember all those of our community who have died over the past year. In a few moments, at the end of the Prayers of the People, we will read those names in thanksgiving for their lives and in commemoration. It’s a long list. This has been a year. There have been lots of high points and celebrations. There have been plenty of times where our hands were engaged in the steady work in the community, in the food cupboard and the soup kitchen and Senior College and the reentry center, work for the diocese, ironing the altar linens and serving coffee between the services. We’re out there, people of St. Margaret’s, we’re out there a lot. It has also been a year of losses. More funerals than I like to count, beloved members of this community who are no longer with us, except in our hearts and memories.
We’re not the only ones. Our friends at First Church UCC have lost beloved members of their church this year. And it goes on. The death toll from Hurricane Sandy keeps mounting, and the losses are staggering. In many ways death and suffering may seem to be particularly present to us.
All Saints’ Day shines a spot light on the intercommunion between the living and the dead. All Saints’, officially on November 1st, stands in the middle of a trio of observances, flanked by All Hallow’s Eve, the day before, and All Souls’ day, the day after. All Hallow’s Eve has not always been about Sponge Bob Square Pants and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All Hallow’s Eve to our ancestors was a robust adult observance, one where they acknowledged the harshness of the winter to come, disguised themselves and used the power of humor and ridicule in hopes of outwitting death for another year. And then the next day, All Saints’, the church bells ring and they commemorate the lives of the faithful who embodied the Christian life. On All Souls’ day we pray for all of them. We stand here, on All Saints’ Day, in this intercommunion of the living and the dead in the Body of Christ.
One definition of “saint” that speaks to me in the midst of it all is this: a saint is one within whom Christ dwells. That’s not about the future. It’s not about after we die, but about life in the here and now: Christ dwelling within us. What does this mean?
The clue is found in the Gospel. There is Lazarus. Lazarus is dead. He is very, very dead. Dead for four days. Martha and Mary, his sisters, say to Jesus “if only you had been here.” If only. If only. How much grief and lament is carried in those two words. Jesus weeps. And then he performs his greatest miracle, but notice that he calls on the community. “Unbind him,” he says.
Our society tends to either deny death, on the one hand, or, on the other, to pitch a tent and dwell there for good, and we know what that looks like: cynicism, hopelessness, feeling victimized. We tend to be skewed either toward denial or wallowing in grief.
The christian life of today’s texts take death and grieving seriously. Jesus weeps. In John’s gospel, from the beginning, Jesus is identified with God. God weeps. God is with the people in their grieving. Maybe this, being truly present to each other in suffering, and knowing that out of it will come new life, is what we are called, especially now, to proclaim. Think of that for a minute. Think of how your non-Christian friends might describe a Christian. And now imagine they — the world — see this instead. That to be a Christian means you don’t deny the reality of death and suffering. That Christians know how to be present to one another. That Christians see the sacred in each other, and we see the particular holiness embodied in each person. The particular, utterly unique holiness of Truman. and Gary. and Yeaton. Preston. Louise, and Connie. We see the divine center. That Christians proclaim that the departed are not lost, but are now and forever safe in God’s keeping. And that Christians know that God is present, that God is always promising new life. A new heaven and a new earth. A new earth. Here. This earth.
There is a story from I-don’t know-where, but one in which I bet we all recognize ourselves. A man sees a couple walking down the street, and he knows they have recently lost their child. He avoids their eyes and starts to duck into a store. He pauses, catching himself. He turns and walks over to them. “You saw I started to walk away because I know your pain is so great, I just don’t know what to say to you.” They said “a lot of people do that. We understand, but thank you for speaking to us.”
Many of us have worked through similar experiences this year. I know I have. The instinct to avoid the pain, the awkwardness, not knowing what to say. Feeling emotionally exhausted. And maybe we too have learned to turn, to open the heart, to simply allow ourselves to be present to the suffering and the pain. And finding Jesus there, in our own hearts, in the hearts and hands of others. That great contemporary mystic Leonard Cohen has a phrase in one of his songs where he laments “the Christ who has not risen from the caverns of the heart.” Let me say this: it does us no good, no good whatsoever, to believe as a mattter of the head in the resurrection of Jesus 2000 years ago, if Christ has not risen from our hearts. When Christ is locked down in there, we are called to roll away the stone, and unbind each other.
Christ dwelling in us means we also know when to turn toward the promise of new life.
When Bishop Steve was here in September for his visitation it was an occasion for celebration, and we did. He got to partake what had to have been the best church supper of his entire episcopate. We had spirit-filled worship, baptisms, the choir sang the wonderful piece Suzie Haydorn composed. He also recognized when he met with us that it has been a tough year for us. But at one point he said to me “you have a lot of funeral leaflets lying around.” I heard it: it was time to put them away.
We stand in this intercommunion between the living and the dead in the Body of Christ. We grieve, we bear witness to a suffering world. We proclaim new life. As Ray Estabrook said to the teen Encounters group last week “we are called to be spirit-bearers to a broken world.” Spirit-bearers.
So the question for us going forward might be “what is the new life we are being called to”? Jesus performs perhaps his most significant miracle. He calls Lazarus out, and tells the community to unbind him. Jesus expects the crowd to participate in and actually complete his miracle. Jesus, who has “the power to heal, feed, restore, redeem, and bring new life,” Jesus seeks to involve us in these actions and even perhaps to complete them. (David Lose, www.workingpreacher.org commenting on the gospel for All Saints’ Day 2012).
Where is Jesus already at work and seeking our participation? Where are you called to be a spirit-bearer? Perhaps we are the elect after all. Perhaps we all are the elect, should we choose to accept it. One in mission, elected to proclaim a new heaven and a new earth, elected to participate in the work of God in the world.