Sunday, November 05, 2006

All Saint's Day (Observed)

One of the ironies of the calendar is that Hallowe'en, which has no relationship to Christianity except in the roots of its name, is always, like Christmas, always observed on a fixed date, no matter what day of the week that date falls. But All Saint's Day, which gives Hallowe'en it's name and arguably preserved it in Christian Europe, is more commonly observed on the Sunday following than on the assigned date of November 1. Today, through a fluke from last week, I gave the sermon again at the 8:00 a.m. service. This service is always "short and sweet," so the sermon follows that restriction.

The lectionary texts were Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10. 13-14; Ephesians 1:15-23; and Matthew 5:1-12 (yes, I know they cross-pollinated services I and II from the lectionary; don't ask me why).

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.


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