All Saints Sunday – Why We Need to Remember

This is my Sermon for All Saints Sunday and was preached this morning at St Peter’s Lutheran Church in Cochrane. My home church in my home town! This was a great privilege but also a bit of a risk with not knowing many of the new people (lovely to see this amazing church growing). There are also a number of people with cancer diagnosis and other health issues as well as some newly bereaved people. Could only pray that it would land in the right place!

St Peter’s Lutheran – All Saints                                                                         November 5, 2017 

Revelation 7:2-17                                                                                                 1 John 3:1-3                                                                                                         Matthew 5:1-12

God of holiness, your glory is proclaimed in every age: as we rejoice in the faith of your saints, inspire us to follow their example with boldness and joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Today we are celebrating the festival of All Saints; and I am delighted that Pastor Bart invited me to deliver the sermon this morning. I was supposed to give the All Saints’ sermon at my church in England this evening. The Church of England – by my observation makes a bigger event of All Saints than the Lutherans do.

My church is holding a special service tonight where we invite church members and the friends and families of the people whose funerals we have officiated in the last 2-3 years to come to church. There is special music, readings, a sermon, we leave time for silent reflection, the names of those who have died are read, prayers of thanksgiving are offered and candles are lit.

This might seem weird or unnatural – or even un-Lutheran! Pastor Bart & Pastor Paul have been educating us these last few weeks about the Reformation and Luther’s issues with the Catholic church of his day. Praying to the Saints is definitely out! However, the festival of All Saints was retained by Luther after the Reformation and assumed the role of general commemoration to the dead in the Lutheran church. This has been extended to include living saints as well.

I want to be clear from the outset – we are not praying to the dead. To pray to the dead goes along the lines of ‘Dear Aunt Betty – thank you for this snowy day. Please do x, y or z. Could you ask Jesus to do… Amen.

Praying for the dead – again – might be troublesome for some. I like how Methodist theology puts it ‘All Saints Day resolves around giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints, including those who are famous or obscure.’

A Saint is a person of great holiness, or likeness or closeness to God who remains this way through life and into death. The lives of the Saints are set to be examples to the rest of us on the graciousness of God and what virtuous living can look like. Not all saints are famous. Most are everyday people.

My attempt this morning is to talk about why it is important to mark All Saints Day.

Firstly – The dead sit at the dinner table long after their gone.

All Saints stems from a belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the Church triumphant) and the living (the Church militant).

We don’t tend to forget people once they have died – whether we loved or liked them – or not. The impact of our relationship with them, their life, the love, the moments that were shared do not cease to be important once they have bodily departed. This is true regardless if the relationship was positive or negative.

Does God shut his ears to prayers for them? If I am concerned about the soul of a person who has died – will God not hear that prayer? He knows far more than I do about them and their situation. Can I not seek his peace and reassurance? We have biblical evidence that indicates God cares about the dead. He created them, he loves them more than we do.

1 Thessalonians tells us that the dead in Christ will rise first and we will all meet together. The Apostles’ Creed – which we will say in a few minutes – ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead.’

The Revelation reading tells us of the great gathering. This is a tricky chapter for some – the numbers of who is in or out can be a real hang-up. A total of 144,000 is for the 12 tribes of Israel (the Jewish people). This doesn’t have anything to do with us non-Jewish people. It makes the point that a faithful remnant of Israel will be saved; the number 144,000 should be regarded as symbolic.

Alongside the faithful remnant is the countless multitude from every nation, tribe, people and language – these are the Christians – whose sins have been purged by the saving death of Christ. This countless multitude will be taken care of – no more hunger, thirst, scorching heat – the Lamb (that being Jesus) will be their shepherd who guides them to the springs of the water of life, tears will be wiped away. Jesus will do for them in death what he did for them and does for us in life now.

Saints are with us and around us. We don’t forget the ones who have died, neither does God.

Secondly – we have limited experience of death in contemporary society.

It has been said that a 100 years ago people talked about death and avoided talking about sex. But today we talk way more about sex than death.

There are many reasons why we don’t talk about death. In the 20th & 21st centuries the advancement of medicine and hospitals took sickness and death out of the home. People now live much longer than they use to which means that some people don’t experience the death of a loved one until much later in life. Infant mortality and childhood deaths in the western world are lower too.

I would also argue that the rise of the professionalized funeral industry has taken death out of the church and community. Gone are the days of dying at home where the minister was more likely to be called than a doctor, being laid out in the parlour, taken to the church for a funeral and then buried in the cemetery. Usually in a very short period of time.

Today death is handled by paid professional (usually very nice) strangers (for the most part) to take us from the institution where death occurred to the funeral home for preparation. It is clean, no muss, no fuss. The advent of embalming and refrigeration has meant that body disposal isn’t as urgent as it once was.

Death still comes to us all but largely out of sight. As a result, we have lost some of the vocabulary to talk or write about death. Think of the language we use – we don’t even like to say that someone has died. They passed away. Hmmm– no I think they stopped. You pass an exam or a driving test. You prove your competency and carry on at a higher level.

Or how about ‘they slipped away’ – you slip out of a meeting or maybe out of this sermon – in a way that does not interrupt or interfere.

But the nature of death is just that – it interferes, it upsets, it destroys. Death is not subtle or considerate! Our person may have been unconscious or unaware when they died. But we weren’t. Many of the deaths I’ve experienced have struck like lightening. Even the ones that ‘were expected’ still have an element of shock to them.

Consider to how we write about death – a person ‘succumbed to…’ or ‘lost the battle’. This phrasing implies that maybe if they had just put a bit more effort in they wouldn’t have died. Battle is the language of war – battles are lost because of bad strategy, lack of preparedness, an enemy that overpowers. If someone ‘loses their battle to cancer’ – was it down to bad planning? What do we do with those who are diagnosed late and never get a chance to fight? Or those who choose not to?

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to attend the National Funeral Directors Exhibition for England as part of a conference I attended. What a fascinating event that was! It had everything you would expect – hearses and body removal vans with all the latest in comfort & technology, urns and caskets, headstones, embalming fluids, make-up, flowers and lots of digital options too – all on show.

What surprised me most was the company who – for a fee (of course) – would text your family and friends to notify them of your death! Yup – you provided the phone numbers, then your next of kin would contact them when you died and then they sent the mass group text! This company would also text the obituary and details of your service. And they would text reminders!

Really?! Have we become so removed from death that our thumbs now do the talking for us? What a shocking thought that I could become so busy that a death of someone I loved would require text reminders!

Have we lost that much vocabulary?

Jesus talked about death a lot. He spoke openly about his own death and what was to come for the disciples. John 14 – ‘In my Father’s House there are many dwelling-places’. God’s House has places prepared for us – this is clearly a God who loves his people! He was waiting for them. For us. We are not to be afraid.

Jesus also responds to the death. Jesus wept at the mouth of Lazarus’ tomb. Jesus was not afraid to confront death. In Jewish culture touching a dead body made one ritually unclean and it was quite a process to made clean again. But time and again we see Jesus cut through the rules to reach out to people.

Jesus cares for the dying, the dead and their families – Lazarus, the Widow of Nain, the daughter of Jairus. Jesus was firmly in control in these situations – he was the only one that did.

As we have been distanced from death and have lost some of the vocabulary and experience – we have also lost control (if we ever really had any) over death. Western culture would like to tell us we can control our lives and do what we like, when we want to. All we have to do is figure out how to get what we want. Death is the most uncomfortable reminder that we have so little control over what happens.

Back to the Funeral Exhibition – I reflected after that a lot of the products and services went some way to trying to restore some form of control – but not to the dead – this control is for the living. The distance that death brings could be reduced through the distraction of arranging the personalization of stuff.

Caskets could be personalised – Harley-Davidson logos, majestic mountain scapes, clouds, kittens, The Last Supper, wood, stainless steel, willow baskets – whatever you want! For a few thousand dollars you can be buried or burned in a customized box – made just for you.

Urns came in every shape and size to ‘reflect ones’ personality and design taste. I particularly liked the 6 or 8 pack mini urns that could be purchased! No kidding – handy if you hadn’t quite decided or told anyone where you would like you final resting place to be. Or maybe you have a family prone to fighting – now everyone can have a piece!

What is a Christian response to this? The Beatitudes are a good place to start as we are reminded that the world is not always going to be as it is. They speak of the past, the present and the future all at once.

The Beatitudes are the opening lines of Jesus’ The Sermon on the Mount – probably the most famous words that Jesus ever spoke. Jesus is setting out the main themes of his Good News.

Jesus is not simply telling people to behave properly and then all will be right with the world. This isn’t about trying harder to be better. Neither is Jesus suggesting the Beatitudes are some kind of timeless truths – because they are not. Mourners often go uncomforted, the meek don’t inherit the earth, and those who long for justice don’t often see it in their lifetimes.

In our world, most people think that wonderful news consists of success, wealth, long life and victory in battle. Jesus is offering wonderful news for the humble, poor in spirit and the peacemakers.

The world the Jesus is offering is upside down! Jesus is saying that with his work it’s starting to come true. Those who mourn will be comforted, the meek will inherit and the persecuted will get the kingdom.

So when do these promises come true? The great Christian temptation is to say in heaven, after death. And it can seem like that with the references to the ‘kingdom of heaven.’

Heaven is God’s space – where full reality exists, close by our ordinary ‘earthly’ reality and interlocking with it. It is not a place of fat babies playing harps on clouds. One-day heaven and earth will be unified forever and the true state of affairs, which are at present out of sight, will be unveiled. The life of heaven, the life of the realm where God is already king – is to become the life of the world. And those who follow Jesus are to begin to live by this rule here and now.

It may seem upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring and imagination, that it is in fact the right way up.

Thirdly – All Saints is ultimately a celebration of Christ’s victory over death.

I used the words festival and celebration at the beginning – the festival of All Saints. We do well to remember that the Christian faith is built on the death and resurrection of Jesus. Let’s not forget that death came first – Good Friday before Easter Sunday. For those who die in Christ their physical death is not the end of the story. This is Good News!

I also appreciate that this can be cold comfort to those who live with grief. Christian or not. Grief can overwhelm and when allowed to can rob life from the living. The only solace I can offer is that those who mourn will be comforted. Jesus is the great comforter and friend to those who mourn. Go to Him with it. People, friends, family can be helpful but they can’t fix it.

One of my favourite saints is John. He lived a life and death closer to Jesus than anyone. John stood at the foot of the cross and watched Jesus die; his brother James and most of his closest friends were crucified. He was an old man when he wrote Revelation and the letters of John.

John – I believe – has distilled down a lifetime of experience to ‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.’ As he is coming to the end of his life, John writes about the love of God – because that is all there is at the end of the day. It is the only thing that will sustain us. The love of God is the only thing that stands up to the heart-breaking, interrupting, destruction of death.

God’s love will carry through the experience of death and give us our vocabulary back. It is through God’s love that we are even able to love and be loved. He first loved us!

I would encourage you this morning and in the coming days or weeks to remember and give thanks for the Saints in your life – both the living and the dead. They are around. Have a conversation about them. See what comes up – compare memories. They still sit at the dinner table!  If it’s hard or brings up any feelings of grief or love or guilt or joy – pray about them. Ask God for his peace and input. He is in this with you. He loves and cares for all his Saints. That means you to.

Amen.

Author: Sue Lepp

Newly appointed Priest-in-Charge of the Hambleden Valley Group of Churches and will start later in January 2021. Time for a new start at the beginning of a new year. I served my curacy in the Parish of Langley Marish and trained at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. Former Nurse in both Canada and the UK. Specialised in Palliative Care, Gynaecology-Oncology and a bit of Orthopaedics (just to keep me travelling). Worked as a MacMillan Nurse Specialist in a few specialities in London.

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