Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 4, 2012

2011.11.04 “The Sunday That Knocks Us Down and Picks Us Up” – All Saints Sunday

Central United Methodist Church

“The Sunday That Knocks Us Down and Picks Us Up”

Pastor David L. Haley

Isaiah 25: 6 – 9; Revelation 21: 1 – 6; John 11: 29 – 44

All Saints Sunday

 November 4th, 2012

        Each year, if there is one Sunday that knocks us down, then picks us up, puts its arm around our shoulder, and helps us to go on, it is today, All Saints Sunday.  Here’s why.

On the Christian calendar, All Saints Day is November 1st, and All Souls Day is November 2nd, both of which have associations with earlier pagan festivals. It is from these days that we got the lesser day of Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve), which, in our culture, has now become the greater day of the three. Because we are usually not at church on November 1st or 2nd, we designate the first Sunday in November as All Saints Sunday, which we celebrate today.

What all of those days – Halloween, All Saints, All Souls – have in common is that they acknowledge those who have gone before, those who have lived and died. If Halloween, the night before, remembered the evil dead, who on that night roamed the earth, it was the following two days that remembered the honored dead, particularly those near and dear.

It seems to me you don’t have to live that long before you feel obligated to do this, to remember and honor those who have lived before.  I certainly do, don’t you? In fact, the older I get, the more I appreciate it, and not just because I now know way too many people in cemeteries.

Most cultures, in most places, have always been very aware of those who lived before, and have many ways and days to remember. In most places the world of spirits and ghosts is part of life, and is acknowledged and even made fun of. I think of Asian cultures and the many ways they honor ancestors, burning Bank of Hell money on New Years, and visiting ancestral tombs at least once a year. I think of Mexico and the celebration of the Day of the Dead where people dress up skeletons, families go out to picnic in the cemetery, and puts out huge spreads of food for those who have died, who fortunately don’t mind if we share a few bites. I think of Africa, where evil spirits are feared and ancestors hold places of honor, as you will know if you have seen the Lion King. I’m certain, from all the places we have come, that we could name many more examples of how it is not only proper but disrespectful not to honor our ancestors.

Even in Europe, you are never far from being reminded of those who lived before. In Trim, Ireland, I stayed in a hostel which was 800 years old, (which by the way was owned by the Healy Family). In Uppsala, Sweden, I ate in a restaurant which was 600 years old, and enclosed the old town jail. (Would you like incarceration with those chips?) In Paris, I’ve visited the catacombs and seen the bones of those who lived centuries before, who like me, once walked the earth, and did all the things I do. Except now, here are their skulls and thigh bones. How could one live in such a place and not be aware of the past, and those who lived before?

So why do we have such a hard time acknowledging this, here in America? Is it because our American culture is so recent, historically speaking? So we ban the celebration of Halloween at school (as District 69 just did) and we barely acknowledge All Saints, other than here in church. Is it a form of generational narcissism? Do we really think that we who are alive now, in this brief shining moment, are the first and only ones ever to live?  The truth is, in our culture, we need more – not less rituals – to acknowledge and honor the dead.

So today, in church, just after the leaves fall from the trees and the temperature dips, just after trick-or-treaters roam to the streets and when daylight savings time ends, we celebrate All Saints, and remember those dear to us, who now live only with God.

When we talk about such people, we are not necessarily talking about people with “St.” in front of their name, or those portrayed in stained glass windows.  Our communion of saints is a more familiar crowd, people whose names we know and whose faces we remember – like our parents and grandparents – people we have known and loved, who have died over the years.

Rev. John Buchanan, former pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, compares those who are our saints to “our balcony.” In the past – as some of us remember – many gymnasiums, theaters, and churches had balconies. When, as children or youth we did something, such as play basketball or a role in the high school play or read Scripture in church, our parents may have sat in the balcony, cheering us on.

So, says Buchanan, our saints are “our balcony,” the people who influenced and inspired us and now, in heaven, cheer us on. All Saints Sunday is our day to look up to our balcony, acknowledge and wave to our saints.

If – as I said at the beginning – it sometimes knocks us down, it is because their memory is still dear to us. Because whether they died decades ago, or just this year, we still miss them, and often discover in unexpected ways and times that our grief is still raw. That’s the thing about grief: you can go about your life, thinking you are doing OK, when suddenly a sight, a sound, a song, an old photograph, almost anything, can trigger a flood of memory and grief and the feeling of loss.

Such that, at one time or another, almost all of us have an experience like this:  As most of you know, my dad died back in March. It was tender for a while, and then I thought I was doing OK.  But I was out running just a few weeks ago, listening to Pandora, the internet radio service, and Enya, the Irish singer, sang, “If I Could Be Where You Are,” which brought me to a stop in the middle of the street, with lines such as this:

“Winter lies before me, now you’re so far away

In the darkness of my dreaming, the light of you will stay.”

It is exactly because remembering our dead loved ones can be so painful, that on All Saints, we draw upon some of our most cherished and comforting resources. Don’t you love the colors, and the candles, symbolizing to us the lives of those we remember, like stars, twinkling in the night sky?

Don’t you love the music of All Saints? As someone once said, from the moment the low G sounds on the organ, announcing William How’s great hymn “For All The Saints”, we are filled with gratitude and hope.  I had a friend in seminary who said that if they weren’t singing this when he marched into heaven, he was going to be very disappointed.

Best of all, how can we not love the Scriptures for All Saints?  Although they are different in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle, they are always some of our favorites, and speak of consolation and hope. While some Biblical texts need to analyzed and examined, others need to flow over us with their images, appealing more to the heart than to the head, as these texts do.

The prophet Isaiah, for example, speaking of that day when:

“the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, of well-aged wines . . .  And God will destroy . . . the shroud cast over all peoples . . . will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.”

Who would have known (especially us Methodists) that God is a wine connoisseur? What a wonderful image as we gather around God’s table, saints below united with saints above!

Or that passage from the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, one of our favorites:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . And I saw the    holy city . . . coming down out of heaven from God . . . And I heard a       loud voice from the throne, saying, ”See, the home of God is among       mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s         peoples, and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will    be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

None of that stuff about being raptured up to heaven; in Revelation, God comes down to earth, as indeed God did in Jesus.

Or that heartrending and hopeful story from the Gospel of John, the story of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus. It contains what may be the shortest and most treasured verse in the Bible, when it tells us that at the tomb of his dead friend Lazarus, “Jesus wept.”  Just like we weep over the death of our loved ones.

If you listen carefully to this story, soon the images begin to intermingle, and the faces we see are not those of Martha and Mary, but people we have known. The face of Lazarus becomes the face of someone dear to us, someone we have loved, someone over whom we may still weep. Only one face stays the same, that of Jesus calling them, and us, forth from the tomb: “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?”

This is why, though All Saints may knock us down by rehearsing our loss, it then picks us up and puts its arm around our shoulder, reminding us of the promises of faith and encouraging us to go on, to live lives which will one day might as encouraging to others, as the lives and memories of people we loved, now are to us.

This is why, on All Saints Sunday, as we remember those who have lived and died and now live only with God, more than one person has found tears in their eyes as we sing:

“And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,

steals on the ear the distant triumph song,

and hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.

Al–le–lu-ia, Al–le–lu–ia!”

Amen.

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