Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Friday, November 01, 2013

All Saint's Day 2013


Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death

The last sermon I gave was at a funeral, a few months ago.  Funeral sermons are not to be repeated; not ever.  All Saint's Day is an almost funereal occasion; it is useful to use it that way, to remind ourselves this time of year should be about death as a part of life, not death as something we have to confront cataclysmically, or only in looking away.  Halloween is about costumes and candy and may demons; All Saint's Day is about....?

It should be funereal, in the best sense of the word:  the living acknowledging their connection to the dead, the dear departed.  What follows is a sermon I apparently actually gave, 7 years ago.  I can't remember the occasion or the reason why I'd be preaching, but it was for All Saint's Day, so it's appropriate for today.

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10, 13-14

Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
   our ancestors in their generations.
2 The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
   his majesty from the beginning.
3 There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
   and made a name for themselves by their valour;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
   those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
4 those who led the people by their counsels
   and by their knowledge of the people’s lore;
   they were wise in their words of instruction;
5 those who composed musical tunes,
   or put verses in writing;
6 rich men endowed with resources,
   living peacefully in their homes—
7 all these were honoured in their generations,
   and were the pride of their times.
 8 Some of them have left behind a name,
   so that others declare their praise.
9 But of others there is no memory;
   they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
   they and their children after them.
10 But these also were godly men,
   whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten;
13 Their offspring will continue for ever,
   and their glory will never be blotted out.
14 Their bodies are buried in peace,
   but their name lives on generation after generation. 

Ephesians 1:15-23

15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love towards all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I 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, 18so 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, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

Matthew 5:1-12

5:1 When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him.

5:2 Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

5:3 "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:4 "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

5:5 "Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

5:6 "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

5:7 "Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

5:8 "Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

5:9 "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

5:10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

5:11 "Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Here's the sermon:

How they came to be performing in that little town in East Texas I’ll never quite know: members of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stephen F. Austin University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where I was a student, performing scenes from various plays, reciting poetry and prose. I doubt I will ever forget it. “Come, let us sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of kings….,” they said, they invited us. It would be another few years before I would hear the invitation of Ecclesiasticus: “Let us now praise famous men.” And many years after that before I would realize that those words praised non-famous people, too.

No matter where; of comfort no man speak:
Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills:
And yet not so, for what can we bequeath
Save our deposed bodies to the ground?
Our lands, our lives and all are Bolingbroke's,
And nothing can we call our own but death
And that small model of the barren earth
Which serves as paste and cover to our bones.
For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings;
How some have been deposed; some slain in war,
Some haunted by the ghosts they have deposed;
Some poison'd by their wives: some sleeping kill'd;
All murder'd: for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king

The speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II, that I recalled. “The Hollow Crown” was the name of the performance. I only remember the power of the words, and of their sorrow. No one else can make us feel as mournful as Shakespeare, can make us as aware of loss and death and our own mortality. Funny thing, there is no sorrow in the scriptures this morning; almost no mention of death at all. Odd thing for All Saint’s Day, it would seem; for a day precisely set aside to remember the dead and those gone before. But Christians don’t celebrate death, and we certainly have no reason to fear it. We worship the God of the living, and take in even death as a part of life. It is life Ecclesiasticus recalls us to, and life that Jesus is talking about in the gospel of Matthew. Life and the living are always foremost in our worship and our faith. Our God has conquered death; there is nothing else so powerful in our world, and yet our God has conquered it. It is the repeated lesson of Christianity that we have conquered death, too; and on All Saint’s Day we place that teaching front and center in our worship, and our hearts.

All the Beatitudes can be understood as reversing our view, and seeing how we overcome death by submitting to death. The Beatitudes are about reversing our expectations, our understanding, our knowledge of what is good: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus starts off. Blessed? Really? One translation I know replaces that word with a more contemporary one: “Congratulations!” It catches the flavor of the original Greek, because the blessing is present in this life, here and now, not in the sweet bye and bye. Blessed are you, congratulations to you, if you are poor in spirit; you have the kingdom of heaven, and that is right here, and right now, too. God, after all, is the God of the living, not the dead. So it isn’t a promise for the life beyond, if you are only faithful now. It is given to you here, in this life, in this time. And if you mourn, blessed are you, because in this life, in this time, you will be comforted. If you are meek, don’t struggle to overcome it; the meek, not the bold and the powerful, will inherit the earth. The first will be last, the last first, because when you are No. 1, the only way to go is down. When you are meek, you have the earth already, it cannot be taken away from you. Do you hunger and thirst for righteousness? Congratulations, you will see it done! If you are merciful, mercy will be given to you; if your heart is pure, God will be visible to you, in this life, in this time. You see how it goes on and on, a cascade of blessings and congratulations to those the world thinks dead already: the meek; the poor in spirit; the mourners; the ones who want justice done; the mercy givers, the pure of heart. The world thinks it preys upon such people; but God says congratulations to them. And who are you going to trust? The world? Or God?

That immeasurable richness Paul writes of, is given to us in this life; and all the saints, the whole cloud of witness which surrounds us, gives evidence of that blessing. Ecclesiasticus tells us that the Lord has apportioned great glory to famous men; but even those who did not leave behind a name, those of whom there is no memory, were godly men; and their righteous deeds have not been forgotten. We remember them, too, on this day. Their names may be lost to us, but their church and their faith and their lessons live on for us. Even Ecclesiasticus knows that what is important is life, not death, and that death cannot conquer God or God’s glory, that though we die we are still part of the living, and the dead who have gone before us are still part of us. Blessed are we, that we can live in the world they made, and make the world more like a place where people want to live. Blessed are we when we live, and mourn, and hunger for justice, and show mercy, and are poor in our spirits; blessed are we because the Lord of the living is with us, and brings us the clouds of witness to remind us of what has been done and needs to be done, and what can be done. Blessed are we for all the saints who from their labors rest, and who pass those labours on to us, so we can carry on their legacy while we are living, and pass it on to the living who come after us. Congratulations! Congratulations to us all! We do not have to sit upon the ground and tell sad tales of kings. The Lord is with us, and with his saints; and in God’s spirit, and the witness of the ancestors, we are all blessed.

Amen.


In the German E&R church calendar, this prayer would come not the day after Hallowe'en, but the Last Sunday of Pentecost, and they would observe it as Tötenfest.

Almighty and everlasting God, before whom stand the spirits of the living and the dead; Light of lights, Fountain of wisdom and goodness, who livest in all pure and humble and gracious souls.

For all who witnessed a good confession for thy glory and the welfare of the world; for patriarchs, prophets, and apostles; for the wise of every land and nation, and all teachers of mankind,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For the martyrs of our holy faith, the faithful witnesses of Christ of whome the world was not worthy, and for all who have resisted falsehood and wrong unto suffering or death,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For all who have labored and suffered for freedom, good government, just laws, and they sanctity of the home; and for all who have given their lives for their country,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For all who have sought to bless men by their service and life, and to lighten the dark places of the earth,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For those who have been tender and true and brave in all times and places, and for all who have been one with thee in the communion of Christ's spirit and in the strength of his love,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For the dear friends and kindred, ministering in the spiritual world, whose faces we see no more, but whose love is with us for ever,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For the teachers and companions of our childhood and yough, and for the members of our household of faith who worship thee in heaven,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

For the grace which was given to all these, and for the trust and hope in which they lived and died,

WE PRAISE THEE, O GOD, AND BLESS THY NAME.

And that we may hold them in continual remembrance, that the sanctity of their wisdom and goodness may rest upon our earthly days, and that we may prepare ourselves to follow them in their upward way,

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, O GOD.

That we may ever think of them as with thee, and be sure that where they are, there we may be also,

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, O GOD.

That we may have a hope beyond this world for all they children, even for wanderers who must be sought and brought home; that we may be comforted and sustained by the promise of a time when none shall be a stranger and an exile from thy kingdom and household;

WE BESEECH THEE TO HEAR US, O GOD.

In the communion of the Holy Spirit, with the faithful and the saints in heaven, with the redeemed in all ages, with our beloved who dwell in thy presence and peace, we, who still serve and suffer on earth, unite in ascribing:

THANKSGIVING, GLORY, HONOR, AND POWER UNTO THEE, O LORD OUR GOD.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,

AS IT WAS IN THE BEGINNING, IS NOW, AND EVER SHALL BE, WORLD WITHOUT END. AMEN.

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