Sunday, November 04, 2007

Sermon for All Saints's Day, Year C, November 4, 2007

All Saints’ Day (tr)

Year C

November 4, 2007

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18 Psalm 149

Ephesians 1:11-23 St. Luke 6:20-31

Passed away. Resting peacefully. Expired. Fatality. Demise. Release. Went home. Lost someone. All these are terms for death. That is the one word that neatly sums up what All Saints’ Day is about. It is about death.

Death is something all of us must face. Some people fear death. They fear the unknown. It is this fear that leads so many to use less stark terms to discuss death. It does not seem as terminal if you go home or are released or have passed away. We want to make death a peaceful experience so as we face our own we can have greater courage and strength. However as Christians we know that death is not the end of a journey, but the beginning. We do not face death as the great unknown. Like the children today, we know that we are the saints of the Church and that our place as saints of the church will continue secure beyond our life here on earth.

Some are able to face death with an inner strength I can only imagine. I’m reminded of a teenager I knew many years ago in a parish in southern California. After many years of fighting cancer, with victories along the way, the battle was finally lost for him. At age 17 he again had cancer which was terminal. The only thing left was to wait for death to come. He was hospitalized for many months before his death and I had the very great privledge of visiting him and bringing him communion on most Sundays. It was a responsibility that I didn’t want and quite frankly had I not known him and his family I suspect I would have begged off the assignment. But I could not. What was amazing was his spirit and attitude. In fact, after every visit I left felt that I was the one being ministered to rather than this young man. He died never waivering in his faith, surrounded by his family and high school friends.

For many death is the great unknowing. Death is that place just beyond our knowing. I think that explains the great interest in our society surrounding near death experiences. People want to figure out what is beyond this life. You see, most people, no matter how hardened or lacking in faith they might be, still believe that there is something beyond life. Something they cannot understand or know completely, but at the same time something they years to have knowledge of. It was the unknowning that Daniel experienced in his visions that lift him troubled and terrified. Daniel experienced fear mixed with faith. Daniel’s visions troubled his spirit. The visions of the four great beasts terrified him. Yet in the midst of this terror God’s promised kingdom, a kingdom that will conquer all, even death, remained.

Even with our faith there can be those moments of questioning or being unsure. What really follows when our life here is done? Is there really a heaven, or a hell.

As I was reflecting on our attitudes towards death, it occurred to me that for some, life can be death. People who live in fear, or pain, or hatred, are experiencing a type of death even as their bodies take breath and their hearts continue to beat. They are experiencing the death of their own spirit. This is the most terrible death of all. Kierkegaard used the expression “sickness unto death.” This sickness was a product of despair, which is to be without hope.

There is good news in the midst of our focus on death today. We are not hopeless. We are the hope-filled. Paul speaks of the hope that lies within us. As Christians we are to be filled with hope, not despair. “Sickness until death” is something the non-believer experiences, not the Christian. The Letter to the Ephesians tells us that we have obtained an inheritance in Christ. That inheritance is everlasting life. We need not fear death, because Christ has conquered death for us.

So we have a paradox. Life leads to death and death leads to life. Kierkegaard believed that Christianity as a way of faith was not logical and that Christianity is absurd at heart. This seemingly contradictory belief that life leads to death and death leads to life makes it easy to understand why a person could come to the same conclusion as Kierkegaard. And yet, faith is at the very heart of the Christian tradition. But as the lesson from Ephesians further states, we are a people who have “set our hope on Christ.”

It is on this paradox and this same hope that our faith lies.

There is another paradox to be found in the Gospel passage today. Now you might have been saying to yourself as the passage was read, “hey, the words today from the Gospel just do not seem quite right” this morning. Most of us are more used to hearing the words known as “The Beatitudes” from the Gospel of Matthew. There is a significant and important difference between Matthew and Luke in reporting this sermon of Jesus. Today in Luke we hear “blessed are you who are poor” while Matthew records “blessed are the poor in spirit”. Luke says “blessed are you how are hungry now” and Matthew says “blessed are you who hunger and thirst after righteousness.” Quite a difference!

Because Matthew spiritualizes the message, it is easier to accept. If we are talking about spiritual hunger then being blessed by it is not quite so hard a concept to swallow. However, Luke’s stark message forces us to confront ourselves and our ideas. It is one thing to say the poor in spirit are blessed, we can all live with that. But to say that the poor are blessed is tough to accept or believe. We look at the poor and wonder how it can be a blessing to not have enough food for meals.

Death leads to life. The poor and the hungry are blessed. Any outside observer might be inclined to see the same absurdity which Kierkegaard observed. And without Jesus I would be agreeing with them. But Christians do not look at things the same way as others. We look through the eyes of Jesus and through the experience of our faith.

This is why we celebrate All Saints’ Day. We share the same hope and confidence of the sisters and brothers in Christ who have gone before us. Let us not be afraid to share that hope and that faith with others.

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