In Life and In Death

Luke 20:20-27
© Stacey Steck

Those of you who have spent time in the more liturgical, or, as they say, “high” church traditions may have more experience than others with All Saints’ Day, the day the church pauses to celebrate the fullness of the body of Christ, past, present, and future. Technically, All Saints’ Day falls each year on November 1, the day after All Hallow’s Eve, or Halloween, but it is appropriate to celebrate it on the Sunday following and so we are today. Presbyterians, and other Protestant denominations have tended to ignore All Saints’ Day partly out of historical enmity with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, but also because we are generally afraid of anything connected with the word saint, as if we might be contaminated by Catholic cooties if we overhear the word. Of course, the word “saint” has a much longer history and a much wider usage than that connected with the church naming specific persons as saints in recognition of miraculous acts attributed to them. In the Biblical view, that is, the perspective of St. Paul, the word “saint” is merely a synonym for a believer, a Christian. You and I are as much saints as Francis, Bonaventure or one of my personal favorites, Gerard Majellan, the patron saint of pregnant women.

The other reason I believe Presbyterians do not often “do” All Saints’ Day is that it necessarily deals with death, since those we remember this day are those who have passed on into the more mysterious parts of the realm. The idea of death makes us uncomfortable, with good reason, and tends to remind us of our own mortality, something we would rather avoid. We are accustomed to thinking about our faith in categories like “abundant life” and joy and love, words we do not typically associate with the undeniable and inscrutable fact of death. In many churches on All Saints’ Day, the names of persons who have died are read aloud, as they will be here in a little while, and this can bring back the kind of raw emotions we’d prefer to leave privately at home, thank you very much.

But All Saints’ Day is an important part of the church year and ought not be overlooked because we have become squeamish about talking publically about death. Indeed, the very things we celebrate this day are those we celebrate every time we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, for in case you haven’t noticed, the conclusion to every Great Prayer of Thanksgiving offered before the breaking of the bread recalls the communion of saints. Listen for it this morning. Today is simply a day to bring into sharper focus that which is already in view, that we are all part of the body of Christ whom God remembers and whom we are called to remember. A church without a well-developed theology of remembering is a church destined for spiritual poverty.

H.G. Wells’ book, The Time Machine, makes an interesting commentary on what might lie ahead for us without an adequate theology of remembering. If you recall that story, the protagonist builds a machine that can travel through time and decides to travel into the future to see what it will be like. He stops in a year far into the future but in exactly the same place since he has merely traveled through the fourth dimension. In that future, he encounters a people called the Eloi, none of whom seem to be over the age of thirty. It turns out that the reason for this is that as the members of this community reach a certain age, they become the slaves or food of the evil and underground dwelling Morlocks. The finality of this arrangement has so thoroughly saturated this people that even when one of their own falls into the river, no one lifts a hand to save him, and he is swept downstream to the horror of the story’s 19th century hero. These are people who do not mourn, nor remember, nor commemorate their dead. They are a people yet unknown in our own time, at least according to anthropologist Margaret Mead who observed, “I know of no people for whom the fact of death is not critical, and who leave no ritual by which to deal with it.” These Eloi have proven her wrong and seem to be at peace with it though they have paid a terrible, if unknown, price for having no grief: they have no life either, no joy, no art, no literature, no culture beyond waiting for the age of thirty to roll around so they can disappear without a trace. Denial is a great thief of life.

A different scenario awaits those who have overdeveloped their capacity for remembrance or who cannot control it. These are people whose lives are limited by remembering too much, living in the past, being unable to move on with one’s own life because of the grief created by the death or loss of someone we love. I have yet to see it myself but funeral directors tell stories of distraught family members literally throwing themselves on the casket as it is lowered into the grave. We all know of people who appear to have “died of a broken heart,” not long after a loved one has passed away and others who suffer years of depression following a loss. By no means am I trying to trivialize how we feel when faced with a loss, but simply to point out that for some, letting go is an extremely significant challenge with grave consequences for failing to do so. And of course our holding on to the past to our own detriment is not limited to grief. Guilt, shame, and anger are just a few of the emotions which we human beings are adept at gripping too tightly. Anyone who has held a grudge or been on the receiving end of one knows of what I speak.

And so it is that our ways of remembrance must lie somewhere between denial and death grip, balancing our emotions with our hope, our sanity with our sense of mystery. Christians have found this spiritual middle ground in the idea of the communion of saints, that strange phrase found near the end of the Apostle’s Creed that understands the community created by God in Jesus Christ to have no boundaries whatsoever, not by geography, language, time, or other arbitrary human construction. Our own denomination’s confession, “A Brief Statement of Faith,” offers a commentary on the doctrine when it begins by saying: “In life and in death we belong to God. Through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, we trust in the one triune God, the Holy One of Israel, whom alone we worship and serve,” and when it concludes by recalling the words of St. Paul in Romans 8 that: “With believers in every time and place, we rejoice that nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In the Gospel reading this morning, once you wade through all of the muck of the Sadducees’ question of Jesus, you get to the point, that our God is the God of the living. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob may be dead, but they are most certainly living. That they stopped breathing, and eating, and sleeping doesn’t mean very much to God, because what matters is not whether we are alive or dead, but whether God is alive or dead. Because as long as God is alive, there is hope for the dead. What matters is not such much that we remember those who have gone before us, but that God remembers them, because God is the one with the power of resurrection and life eternal and life abundant, the one who can take the death we experience even while we are alive and resurrect us again and again, maybe even seven times; because God is the one who helps us hold on to the memories of those with whom we have loved and worship and walked the fields. When we read the names of the saints on All Saints’ Day, we are celebrating the God who has given them to us, and the God that holds on to them, and us, until that mysterious moment when it finally all makes sense, and we understand fully all the promises we’ve believed God keeps.

But until that day when we’ll really understand the meaning of the faith we proclaim, we must keep on speaking aloud the names of our loved ones and the words of our creeds, remembering the people who belong to the God of the living, and the words of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism, that 16th century masterpiece which lays it all out there right in the beginning, and allows everything else to fall in place behind it. Let us stand and ask and answer that most wondrous question: “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?” “That we belong--body and soul, in life and in death--not to ourselves but to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ, who at the cost of his own blood has fully paid for all our sins and has completely freed us from the dominion of the devil; that he protects us so well that without the will of our Father in heaven not a hair can fall from our heads; indeed, that everything must fit his purpose for our salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit, he also assures us of eternal life, and makes us wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.” And all of God’s people said, “Amen.”