Sunday November 1, 2009
St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Preacher: Rev. Christopher McLaren
Theme: Finding Hope in the Fall Triduum
More than any other Sunday in the Church Year, All Saints Sunday is a kind of designated family reunion day. It is a time to take out the family photo albums and scrapbooks and perhaps a home movie or two – remembering where we came from and hopefully to get some perspective on where we are going.
Turning the pages of one of the old family photo albums, you might see some odd sights, strange predicaments and surprising events. You might find St. Francis standing barefoot, wearing a mud colored robe tied around with a piece or rope, rebuilding a church by hand or find him hands outstretched surrounded by animals communing with God’s creation and preaching to the birds. You will find the agonizing integrity of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, locked away in a German prison camp for resisting Nazi Germany’s regime and genocide by leading the confessing church in its underground activities.
Or perhaps you will find Dame Julian of Norwich living in her cell attached to a church, one window looking onto the world and street and the other looking into the altar of the church. What a wonderful double vision a view into the sacred mysteries of the church and out onto the sacrament of the everyday with a purposeful blending of the two. You might encounter Jonathan Daniels, gunned down outside an Alabama grocery store as an Episcopal seminarian working for civil rights during God’s long summer of 1965.
Here at St. Michael’s I have learned to celebrate All Saints alongside El Dia De los Muertos in a way that has moved me. Looking at the Ofrenda today reminds me that after 3 ½ years I too have a history at St. Michael’s. I have known loved members of this congregation that are not longer with us. I have known the power of disease and the pain of death in the faces of friends and parishioners whether by cancer or AIDS or some other ailment of the body. Having kept company with disease and death, anger and absence of endearing and enduring friends, I have come to suspect that the commemoration of All Saints might be a problem for we American Christians, who live in such a death-denying culture. We Americans have an uncanny knack for dealing with our most transformative and challenging theology in incredibly predictable ways.
We have lost the power of All Saints in the increased trivialization of Halloween. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I love Halloween. I love its laughter, the crazy laughter that comes from surprise and fear. I love its creativity and costumes and sweetness even as it desperately attempts to stiff-arm the destructive forces at work around us in death, fear and evil. This is not some sort of diatribe about the evils of the Halloween with its acknowledgement of the darkness of the world or a condemnation of its commercialization into one of the biggest holidays of the year. Commercialization is only the symptom of which trivialization is the disease. The problem with All Saints is much deeper. We have disregarded this important adult commemoration so thoroughly that it has made it possible to push it into the realm of children almost entirely so that we can conveniently distance ourselves from the spiritual power behind All Saints. We in the church need to reclaim All Saints for the robust celebration that it is, instead of infantilizing it in a way that is an insult to thoughtful Christian Theology and quite frankly to children as well.
All Saint’s Day is the centerpiece of what we should understand as a sacred three days in autumn, a Fall Triduum if you will. In the carnival celebrations of All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween our ancestors used the most powerful weapon in the human arsenal, the power of humor and ridicule to confront the powers of death. We dress up as ghosts and goblins, grim reapers and zombies, like death itself, to make fun of it, to mock it, and to take some of its hold and power over us away. To be sure making fun of our fears is one way to deal with them but our story goes even deeper facing into fear and finding within it the face of God. At times it is through our fears that we become vulnerable enough that God can reach us and touch us.
On All Saint’s Day, the following day, we give witness to the victory of incarnate goodness embodied in the remarkable friends of God who through word and deed triumphed in some way over the powers of darkness. We celebrate those who are part of our family photo album and heritage who lived in such a way that the world was better for their having been God’s person in their time and place. Mind you these were not perfect people by any stretch of the imagination, but what distinguished them principally was their dogged love of God above all else.
On All Souls’ Day Nov. 2, we proclaim the Christian hope of our common mortality expressed through our expectation of a shared eternity with God. All Souls reminds us that in death life is changed not ended. It also stubbornly asserts that everything and everyone belongs to God always.
Yes, this powerful Christian Feast, this three day celebration of the depth of Christian understanding is not meant to be reduced to toddlers dressed up as Ninjas or Superheroes extorting candy from responsible citizens and yards full of spooky decorations as fun and festive as all of that is.
What is at the root of the trivialization of these incredibly important days in the Church? What do the plastic masks and fake blood and orange cupcakes hide? What are we afraid of? What are we embarrassed about? Could it be that we are embarrassed to admit of the hope that is within us? Sam Portaro, a fellow Episcopal priest writes, “To be fearful of death is natural and ageless. But we have gone beyond that fear; that we shall die we cannot deny. That we shall live, however, is a matter of faith we indulge at tremendous peril. Death shall not disappoint us; we can be sure of its coming, but of life we are less sure.”
We want to believe that human flesh and human being is blessed, but we are not sure of incarnation, so Christmas is a thing of material gifts and Santa Claus and nostalgia. We want to believe that the power of life and love will triumph over the power of death and evil in the end, but we are unsure of resurrection, so Easter is a thing of pastel colored eggs, fashion and fuzzy bunnies. We want so much to believe that life is eternal, but we are not sure of eternity, so this autumn season of spooks and saints and souls is traded off for a time of candy collecting and grinning pumpkins.
But what is it we truly fear. We do not after all fear incarnation, or resurrection or eternity. What we really fear is disappointment. We do not want to believe and hope in vain. This desire to have a true and abiding hope is what makes this autumn commemoration of spooky death, amazing saints, and all souls so special. We Christians dare to hope. We dare to hope beyond the constraints of our mortality. For many hope is hedged, hope is where many if not most draw-up short. Some constrain life to this earthly existence by hoping for reincarnations dependent upon time-bound existence and endless recurrence. Others perceive an end to life entirely trusting in a kind of everlasting nothingness for the soul after death. But we Christians hope, we hope unashamedly in life beyond the grave. Our hope is embodied in the lives of the saints and souls, who have lived in the hope that this life was not the end but only the beginning of an ongoing romance with the divine. We hope in a vast company and communion of faithful people dwelling beyond time and forever.
Is this an embarrassement? To be sure it is. We have no evidence to produce that it is so beyond our defining stories at the center of our faith. We cannot prove that there is life beyond the grave. In order to do that one would have to have gone there and returned to tell about it. But that is precisely what the Christian story is all about. For that beautiful piece of Christian hope is founded on the resurrected one, who demonstrated to the early Christians that there is indeed life beyond the grave, the one who called Lazarus out of the tomb, and awed the disciples by going ahead of them to Galilee.
So in a world that seems to value the present and avoid the ultimate questions like the plague, we Christians are a unique and recklessly hopeful people. In a culture that seeks its own gratification at any cost, and uses up its resources and people as if there is no tomorrow, we Christians dare to believe that there is a tomorrow. A tomorrow that can be shared with a people called the saints that have entered into that tomorrow through their faithful lives and are now enjoying the nearer presence of God.
That is why we need these precious three days of All Hallows Eve, All Saints, and All Souls. These three sacred days work together to remind us of the vitality and hope at the center of our Christian life. They move us out of our natural fear of death, into the victory and oddness of the saints who have led lives of heroic virtue, stubborn love, and uncanny faith showing us the way of life and love and goodness. This in turn leads us into the Christian hope that our companionship with them will become even more tangible and real when we share in the communion of the saints and all the other souls that have joined them in the heavenly throng. The Feast of All Saints, cradled between Halloween and All Souls is meant to move us from fear toward the shores of hope. More than ever, we need these powerful three days to reorient our lives. We know that it is hard to look death in the face and say, “I shall see you again.” It is harder yet to look into the flickering eyes of a dying friend and say, “I know that I shall see you again.”
Yet this is the Christian hope, that is the power at work in the waters of baptism, the waters of death are not the end but the entrance into newness of life by the power of God. That is the Christian Hope that we will see each other again, that the future belongs to us through the power of God. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Weight of Glory, “you have never met a mere mortal, we are all of us immortals, meant for eternity.” And we are each one of us either helping or hindering those we meet on the streets or at work or around our dining room tables toward a particular kind of eternity. And that is why All Saints includes you, because you too are intended to be part of that vast company of faithful folks that are gently and lovingly leading the way from fear and death toward life and hope in God. You are called to be a saint, you are called to be a person of deep hope in life eternal, and with God’s help you will become one of God’s saints. You will share in a communion that is ages deep and continent wide with all the faithful who have come before you and with whom you belong for eternity.
With the eyes of faith you can perhaps catch a glimpse of the communion of the saints around the baptismal font this day as we welcome our newest members into the family of faith and into this life of hope. It is a communion for which you are destined and to which you are called to belong. If we could for a moment see the reality that surrounds us, if the veil of time and space could but shift for a moment you would see that all around us this day tier upon tier and rank upon rank are the saints of God surrounding our worship as if we are in a packed stadium that would make the NFL games today look like child’s play. We are far from alone. We are in the company of innumerable friends, faithful people who have gone before us. And so with the apostle Paul we can pray: “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” (Ephesians 1). May the joy and hope of All Saints be yours this day.
The concept for this sermon comes from Sam Portaro’s writing on the subject in Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts. I am deeply indebted to him for these reflections from which I have borrowed liberally. May it serve to enrich our understanding of this sacred time in the autumn of the church year.