Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
All Saints Sunday
“Unbind him, and let him go.” (John 11)
Our nation passed another milestone this week: 750,000 dead from Covid, three-quarters of a million people.
Strangely enough, it doesn’t seem to me we hear much about the level of emotional trauma our society has undergone by that much death. In fact, I’ve been wondering if some of the social dysfunction we see around us isn’t in some way trying to deny death, and especially its all too great a familiarity in the current pandemic.
In his classic study from 1973, The Denial of Death, the philosopher Ernest Becker argued that we human beings have two typical ways of trying to conceal from ourselves the fact of our own ultimate demise. In the first instance, we focus on asserting rather heroically our own sense of importance and invulnerability. This assertion relies on the myth of self-creation, the idea that we are beyond all dependence and any real human interaction.
The second way we have of denying death is to lapse into feeling so anchored and supported by a reality larger than ourselves, that we are led to a false sense of security by placing our confidence in purveyors of false hopes such as political demagogues or religious zealots.
The outcome of both these death-denying patterns is to become untethered from the recognition that we human beings are in fact limited creatures. Limited in our abilities, limited in our strength, limited in our number of days. And so to continue to deny our mortality, we act as if death is, well, “fake news.”
Think of the speeding drivers on our streets and highways, intent on demonstrating their own invulnerability. Or those who refuse to take life-saving precautions, as if determined to prove their imperviousness to illness. Cloaking these behaviors as a “defense of freedom” sounds pious enough, but the freedom it defends is really grounded in a form of self-delusion about the true limitations imposed on us by our mortal nature. We can be free to say what we want, but we are not free from dying. So if you think about it, getting a vaccine is actually an act of great spiritual humility: it acknowledges that our flesh if fragile, that our freedom is bounded, and that something as microscopic and not even fully alive as a virus can overwhelm and destroy us.
Which is why observances such as All Saints and All Souls, in which we are engaged today, are so important. Religion, when it is doing its job, places our human nature within an arc that is a trajectory from birth to death. “Life” (with a capital L), includes the whole of it. Our birth and our death have in common that we have not chosen them for ourselves. We are born through no volition of our own, and we will die despite any desire to the contrary.
And so, as the Prayer Book burial service puts it, “in the midst of life we are in death.” The one includes the other, and we might even go so far as to say that death is life’s way of clearing room for itself to regenerate. Death is a handing back to God of the gift of life that God gave to us, a return not of like for like—for our life now contains all that we have added to it, for good or for ill. But the exchange is nonetheless reciprocal, for it is an exchange of a gift between us and the divine. This intertwining is echoed in our reading from Revelation: Christ is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end, and our own life is similarly marked by points of origin and of completion that point both backward and forward in time beyond the span of our years.
Such a narrative sense of the meaning of life and death is what is most lacking in the current day. We are so pre-occupied with the immediate—what I need now, what I want now, what I refuse to do now, what’s on my feed now—that we are unable to place those demands within the larger context of finiteness and limitation. Such denial is really a form of lying: telling untruths to ourselves about our mortality as a way of justifying our community-defying behaviors. But of course, we are in an age when lying itself has been validated as an acceptable form of discourse. What the sower sows, the winnower reaps.
The antidote suggested by religious faith is to allow ourselves to be drawn outside of our own denials by coming into contact with a world that is of value, depth and beauty not of our own making. You might read the story of Lazarus in that light. I’ve never been sure exactly what to make of it. It’s not entirely clear to me what the difference is between the raising of Lazarus, and the resurrection of Jesus—except that Lazarus fades back into the shadows while Jesus ignites the world.
But the line that always grabs my attention most is after Lazarus has come out of the tomb, still in his burial shroud. Jesus looks at those standing by and commands them to, “Unbind him, and let him go.” We have a shared responsibility for unbinding one another from the patterns of self-deceit and denial that come from our self-absorbed detachment from life as it really is. To be unbound, is to get real.
All Saints and All Souls Days allow us to recall the value of those who have died, but also to affirm that their deaths do not leave our lives worthless. They lead us into contact with a world beyond our own limitations. So today is as much a celebration of the life in which we continue, as it is an acknowledgement of the death into which so many have been called away. And in that, there is an invitation for us: to attend, to be absorbed by a divine reality in which we receive the gift of both life and death fully and honestly, as the true shape of the existence we are given to have. Yes, in the midst of life we are in death, and it is equally true that in the midst of death, we are in life. They are intertwined irrevocably within one another. Amen.