Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Life!" All Saints, November 4, 2012




Romans 6:1-11
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us 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 glory of the Eternal One, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.

John 6:35-51
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. Everything that God gives me will come to me, and anyone who comes to me I will never drive away; for I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of the One who sent me. And this is the will of the One who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that God has given me, but raise it up on the last day.  This is indeed the will of God, that all who see the Human One and believe in him may have eternal life; and I will raise them up on the last day.” Then the religious leaders began to complain about Jesus because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the One who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Holy One comes to me. Not that anyone has seen God except the one who is from God; he has seen the Eternal One. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

***

Will you pray with me? God of all times and all places, we turn to you in our grief, seeking comfort and peace. We long for the presence of those we loved, even though we know they were in pain or distress. Their wisdom, their love, their laughter are missed; there are so many things we wish we had said, or done, or been, and now we cannot do any of those things. Today we remember you are the author of life and that in spite of that, you experienced death too—the loss of friends, your earthly father, and others. Give us the wisdom to remember our loved ones with love and peace, to fold them into our hearts and face the future with courage; keeping their examples of love, humour, encouragement, and strength always in front of us. In all your many names, amen.

Today we are observing All Saints Day. Technically this falls on November 1, but we remember it today, as the Sunday closest to the 1st. All Saints is the occasion to remember the saints in our lives—the friends and family members and mentors and heroes—who have died. “Saints,” not in the sense of officially recognised for miracles performed, but saints in that they lived lives of love and grace, they made a difference in our lives and in the lives of others. All Saints is an opportunity to remember those who have gone before, to give thanks for their lives, and then to rededicate ourselves to all that they worked for and represent.

I remember two people in particular: my stepfather, Ken, and a mentor, Dan. Ken married my mother when my sisters and I were grown—he had no part in actually raising us. There were more grandchildren than children at their wedding! And yet he treated the five of us—my four sisters and myself—as if we were his own children. Whether it was a family event, or Christmas gifts, or celebrating good news, or offering support—Ken saw no difference between us and his biological children. He loved Mom, he loved her daughters—he was proud of our achievements and supported us when life was difficult. Ken was not perfect—he was still mired in the 1950s in some ways, expecting Mom to do things for him that he could have done himself, or helped her with, such as housework and cooking. Their life tended to revolve around his plans and wishes. But he also offered Mom love and care and emotional support in many other ways; and he was kind and generous. Ken taught me a great deal about love.

Dan—Dan was a member of the congregation where I trained. He lived with a couple of chronic illnesses, but it took me a long time to realise that—he didn’t mention them. Dan was dedicated to the denomination, and especially to that congregation. He felt he owed the church a great deal, and was determined to support the church in any way possible. One of those ways that was dear to his heart was the encouragement and lifting up of leadership. I think it is safe to say that most if not all the pastors trained there while he was alive were affected by his guidance, suggestions, support and encouragement. He was no plaster saint either, however—he did not hesitate to call things as he saw him, and would stand up to the church hierarchy without hesitation. When Dan believed in you, he was your champion to the death. It was my honour that he believed in me. Dan did not know me when I first was associated with the training church.  A friend who had been through the ordination process there suggested I ask Dan to be on my advisory committee. The first time I preached there, I was approached after the service by a smiling gentleman with an unusual walking stick and told, “I was impressed by that sermon. I would like to be on your advisory committee.” It was Dan, of course—and my friend was right. Dan and I clicked and were friends immediately and for the rest of his too-short life—another five years. From Dan, I learned the power of standing up to even those you love and support when you feel they are wrong and of supporting those who are new but have potential—the power of mentoring.

And so I remember them—their love, their support, and the lessons they taught me about generosity, mentoring, courage, and caring.

I know all of us have had saints in our lives—not in the sense of perfect or near-perfect people, but in the sense of friends and family whom we loved, who taught us, or guided us, or simply loved us. And that is what today is about—the memories.

I don’t want us to be in the depths of grief. That is exactly what today is not about. It is not a time of continued grief, but of happy memories of those who have gone before—remembering my sister teaching me to read, my niece’s love of animals, my stepfather’s delight in my son—his grandson—and Dan’s wisdom and laughter.

Those are the memories to have—not to cling to, but to hold lightly. They are what makes us smile at a found photograph or try again when we think we can’t—the example of those we loved gives us the courage and hope and strength to try again.

The poet Henry Scott Holland said it well when he spoke of death as being like another room.

He said:

“Death is nothing at all,
I have only slipped away
into the next room.
I am I,
and you are you;
whatever we were to each other,
that, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name,
speak to me in the easy way
which you always used,
put no difference in your tone,
wear no forced air
of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we shared together.
Let my name ever be
the household word that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect,
without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all
that it ever meant.
It is the same as it ever was.
There is unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am waiting for you,
for an interval,
somewhere very near,
just around the corner.
All is well.”

Death as a room. Death, according to some people, is a new existence, a new way of being that we cannot comprehend, as a caterpillar cannot comprehend the life of a butterfly. Some will tell you death is the end; that death is nothingness. That I cannot believe—because we are more than our bodies, we are more than our skin and bones and breath. We humans are spirit and mind as well, and while the body may be gone, the spirit is not; the love and wisdom and courage are not gone. They are still here, in our memories.
Christians believe that the spirit does not die—that there is another life, another kind of life, beyond what we call death. There is more than this life we see and know—and it was Jesus who showed us the way. Because he lived and lives beyond death, we can too. 

I can’t describe that to you. Anything I might say about pearly gates and meadows of flowers—or of clouds or crystal fountains or circles of angels—would be equally false, Because no matter how excellent my imagination—or anyone else’s—we simply cannot begin to know what that new life is like.
Because we cannot know, it seems to me that we should focus on this life that we do know, rather than a new life that we will know nothing about until we enter it. We can and should be making this life the best life that we can, following the example of our saints. Did they have causes they believed in and worked for? Take up that cause or another one dear to your heart. Were they strong and courageous? Take heart and inspiration from their example. Were they loving and supportive? Remember that love and carry it forward to those you love. 

That is eternal life—to be remembered as someone who loved and cared and worked for the good of the world, through whatever means were available, whose example led you and others to be like them. 

So now you know, my friends, that you too can be saints. Your example of love and support and courage—or teaching someone to read or speaking out for truth and justice or just holding someone’s hand when they need it—can be that cherished memory for someone else. You may not think what you do makes much difference, but it does. People sometimes say to me, “The sermon on Easter (or Pride or three months ago) really spoke to me,” or “I was moved by the prayer at the flag raising,” or, “Your remarks at X event were really good.” I don’t necessarily remember what I said, and I usually don’t know why—unless the person tells me—why they were moved or touched by what I said. And I rarely hear it right afterwards—sometimes things take a while to sink in. But it did make a difference to someone, and so do the things that you do. You might not hear about it right away, but know that you do make a difference—people know when you are good to them, when you are working for change in the world, when you are a saint. 

Remember your saints—and go be a saint. In all God’s names, amen.