Sermon: All Saints Sunday 2015

butterfly_redAll Saints Day

November 1, 2015

Listen to this sermon (mp3)

Probably many of us learned some variation on this bedtime prayer when we were little:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

There’s a newer version now, I’ve noticed, on nightlights and plaques and other little tchotkes intended for children’s rooms. This is the slightly altered version of the prayer that I’ve seen:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
Guide me safely through this night, and wake me with the morning light.

On the one hand, I think this is an appropriate change; the old prayer was pretty ominous. Maybe the newer version of the prayer leads to fewer nightmares. On the other hand, I have to wonder if this change is being made for the benefit of the children, or for their gift-buying parents and relatives. After all, our culture has a weird relationship with death, especially the death of children. While increasingly horrible graphic images of violence and death on TV shows, movies, video-games, and the news seem prolific, somehow our culture also seems to be ever more in denial about the common, everyday, garden variety of death that awaits us all.

Hospitals, for instance, frequently refer to their patients not as dying but expiring. Similarly, military generals do not record how many of their soldiers died, but rather the number of casualties their units have suffered. Even worse, the civilians who die in such conflicts are called collateral damage. On a more mundane level, I can’t tell you the number of conversations I’ve had with people who speak about their loved ones having crossed over or passed on or any number of other euphamisms for what has actually happened: the person has died.

The more we avoid dealing with death, the harder we make it for people who are mourning. If we are supposed to act as if death is something that rarely happens, and that when it does, the survivors should quickly recover, then where can a person go to cry? Where is the proper forum to lament the heartache that losing someone you love can cause?

One reason I rejoice that I belong to a Christian community is that around the world today the church celebrates All Saints’ Day. All Saints Day is a reality check. The Church does not avoid talking about death, it actually lifts up human mortality. Today is a celebration of all those who have died in the faith. Though we also honor all newcomers to the faith who have been baptized since last All’s Saints Day, today is when we name aloud members of this congregation who have died in the past year and others whose lives and deaths have touched us. Today we proclaim in word and deed that this is a place where it is perfectly acceptable to cry as hard and as long as we need to. Here it is safe to say out loud, “I am not ok.”

But that doesn’t mean that today’s worship is a great big funeral service. Notice that the sanctuary is not decorated in black like it is for Good Friday, but in the white and gold colors of Easter! On this day we not only acknowledge death, we also place it in its proper context. We gather here in the name of the One who has power over death; the One who, as we heard in today’s Gospel reading from John, raised his friend Lazarus to life. Here we remember who’s own death and resurrection bears witness to the trustworthiness of God’s promises we heard in the first two readings: that God will one day bring to an end the reign of death, bring an end to mourning and suffering, and will wipe every tear from our eyes.

We are here this morning, not viewing the world from the darkness and hopelessness of the grave, but from the light of Easter dawn. We are seeing the world from the other side of the resurrection. Because Jesus has conquered death, we have the courage, not to deny death, but to defy it. Christ has promised us that life, not death, always has the last word, so we are able to defy death’s ability to overshadow and distort our lives.

What a difference this makes! This changes not only our attitude about death, but also our attitude about life. Because on this day—just as we do on Easter morning—we revel in the truth that we have been joined by Holy Baptism to Christ’s death and resurrection. As Paul writes to the church in Rome, “Do you not know that all those who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the power of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 5:3-4). According to Paul, then, we have been promised not only life eternal in the sweet bye and bye, but also abundant life here and now!

I always think about this release from fear when I read John’s story of Lazarus. Though we are told how miserable his sisters Martha and Mary felt, and we hear that there were other mourners at his tomb, including Jesus (who cries there!), what we never hear is what Lazarus thought about his second shot at life. When he heard Jesus call his name, was he happy to come out of that tomb, ready to do all the things he hadn’t done, say all the things he hadn’t said? Or was he nervous about it? Were there relationships and situation he’d really rather not have to deal with or encounter again? Did he hold back from re-entering a world where good people are hurt, innocent people treated unjustly, children are killed, and hearts break on a regular basis? Knowing how difficult life can be, did he wish Jesus had just left him to rest in peace?

I am grateful that Christians create a counter-cultural opportunity to look death in the eye and not blink, knowing that it is not the end of the story, but that is not always what I need. I rejoice that our loved ones now rest from their labors and live with Christ in glory. I am glad death has lost its sting. But sometimes what I really need to hear is that resurrection life begins now. That we not only need not dread death, but also that we have nothing to fear on this side of the grave either.

Baptized into Christ’s own life and death and resurrection, our lives are sanctified now —that is, made holy and given a purpose for THIS time and place. God has promised to be with us and for us not only in heaven, but now and forever. When Jesus calls us forth from the watery grave of baptism, he empowers us to live strong, deep, authentic lives. We are raised not only from darkness in the sweet bye and bye, but from all that would keep us down right here and now. All that we have and all that we are is given to us by God’s own glory for the purpose of being living saints.

Now don’t panic. The word saint doesn’t mean a person who lives a perfect life, making them perfectly insufferable to be around and impossible to imitate. You may only use that word to refer to your sainted grandmother or St. Francis of Assisi or whoever it is you think of as the highest level of human being, but our word saint comes from a Greek word meaning holy ones. And that word, in turn, stems from a Hebrew word meaning set apart for the Lord’s use. In Holy Baptism, each one of us is set apart, consecrated, named, called, and sent by God to be God’s beloved people, partners, and co-workers in the world. Saints are all the baptized Christians God uses to achieve God’s own will.

The good news for us saints is that we exist in a communion. We don’t have to make meaning alone. Notice that when Jesus calls Lazarus from the tomb, he doesn’t then abandon him to cope with all the complications and hazards of life. He doesn’t say, “Go on your way; live a deeply significant life.” No. When Lazarus comes back into the challenging, tear-stained, exasperating world we live in, Jesus turns to all the saints standing around Lazarus and commands them: “Unbind him and let him go!”

Jesus knows that the communion of saints is what makes living a resurrection life possible. Jesus knows that we do better when we have people who weep with us when we are sad and laugh with us when we are happy. That is why we gather as a congregation. We come to worship and contribute to the life of our congregation with others because being a saint is too daunting to do alone. What we do here, we do together. We are committed, as a collection of saints, to equip one another on Sundays to do God’s work more maturely and capably in all the many and various roles we play throughout the rest of the week. We gather together to face struggles side by side, to lean on and learn from one another and from the God who has promised to accompany us through all of our living and our dying, unto new life. All Saint’s Day is a day to delight in this gift, and to honor those who have lead the way for us, who live eternally.

So maybe, tonight, when you climb into bed, you might call to mind an old and solemn prayer, a prayer of confidence and courage in God who has promised to answer for all of God’s saints in every time and place:

Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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