Sunday, November 1, 2009

Remembering the dear departed: All Saints Sunday

Today's sermon is from Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44

“On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food.”

Topic A in Charlottesville this week was not the economy, nor any of the great issues of the day. Topic A was not church politics or any other kind of politics. Topic A was not even the fate of the University of Virginia football team.

No, none of that.

Topic A this past week was the leaves. Everywhere I went this week, people were talking about the leaves. I only had to go to my front porch to see a spectacular display that changed by the minute with every dancing sunbeam and every fleeting cloud.

Driving along the highways and byways, the yellow, red and orange autumn leaves made the surrounding mountains look like a textured quilt. I saw things I had never noticed before.

Yet, I was also mindful of what this autumn display means: the leaves are falling, the trees will soon be barren, and winter will come. The leaves are covering the ground, and in time, they will disappear – though not forever.

New life will spring from the mulch of these leaves, and the cycle will repeat itself again and again. Spring and summer will be back with us.

I don’t know if you noticed this, but our guest preacher a couple of weeks ago, the Rev. James Forbes, had autumn leaf motifs stitched to his vestments.

The leaves of autumn are symbols of resurrection.

Today is one of the great celebrations of resurrection on our calendar: All Saints Sunday, when we remember those saints – and sinners – who have gone before us, and who have made it possible for us to be here, to share this good earth, to enjoy the autumn leaves.

As we remember the saints today, we also remember the cycle of life and how we are part of that cycle.

New life comes from the old, and yet, the old is never gone; it is changed, as St. Paul says, “in the twinkling of an eye.”

On All Saints Sunday we stand in a place where the living of this world meet the living of the next. The Celtic mystics call it a “thin place.”

For modern, educated, overscheduled people, it is hard to see, hard to touch. We are too skeptical, too rushed to notice.

But for those who live close to the earth, it is not as hard to feel the thin places. I once met a Karuk Indian holy woman who told me the souls of her ancestors were in all the rocks around us. In Mexico, today is the Day of the Dead, and the cemeteries are filled with food and gifts for the dead.

One of the reasons we come together in a short while to celebrate Holy Communion is to connect not just with each other, but also with all those we love who are just over the horizon from where we can see.

The biblical authors give us images and metaphors hoping we will catch a glimpse of the thin places. The prophet Isaiah sees the thin place as a mountain with a feast for both the living and the dead: “On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.”

The writer of Revelation could only tell us about this with fantastical images, like this: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more… Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away."

And we have this gospel story today: Lazarus who dies.

Jesus comes, and as the Gospel of John tells us, he is “greatly disturbed in spirit.” In this moment, Jesus shares with us our own grief, and binds himself to the pain of all our losses.

Then, Jesus goes to the tomb where Lazarus lies, and shouts “Unbind him and let him go.”

Lazarus comes out of the tomb to live again for a time on this earth.

In this one grace-filled act for one human being, the Kingdom of God bursts through the thin place into the open, showing that God’s values are grace, mercy and life for all people, one at time.

Life may be cheap in our world, but for Jesus one life is worth the whole world. One act of mercy, one person at a time, is the way of Christ Jesus. It all adds up. Each act of grace and mercy leads to another and another.

Jesus will go into every tomb and unbind every one of us and let us go. That is the central meaning of the life of Christ.

In the end, death won’t win.

Love is more powerful, new life and resurrection will come to Lazarus and his sisters, and to all of us. Yes, we have wounds and tragedies in this life. Bad things do happen to good people.

Even Lazarus and his sisters will eventually pass beyond our horizon and into the next world. But that is not the end of the story, not for Lazarus, and not for us. Jesus comes to Lazarus, and comes to us in our holes, unbinds us, and shows us a way to live with hope. New life gets the last word.

Yet it is not just about the next world. It is also about this one. All of this should raise for us a challenge about how we live our life in this world.

What if you know inside that the promise of eternal life is not a reward for the few, but another way of living for the many? How will you live your life if you know – really know deep down inside– that you are unbound? You have eternity to answer.

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