Saints and Death … A Conversation

     Traditional Sermon        All Saints Sunday

You have been here before.  Saints … tears … the first Sunday in November … a litany naming those we have lost … the Beatitudes serving as our Gospel Lesson … All Saints Sunday.  It is a day when we remember … formally through the liturgy of this festival Sunday of All the Saints.  Informally through our grief and our pain … and through our healing and hope.  On a day when my own words seem inadequate, I thought I would invite you into an inner conversation I have had with a variety of voices recently … mostly partners who have written things I have read.

My first partner is Professor Mark Berkson, of Hamlin University.  This morning in our Crosspoints class, we will view and discuss a small part of his lecture titled, “Death’s Place in Our Lives.”  Berkson says this:

Death is not simply an event that ends life; it is the horizon against which our entire existence unfolds. 

His point is that we cannot live our lives effectively, unless we are honest about the reality of death in our world.  If you are here today, you acknowledge that truth.  If you are here today remembering a loved one who died this past year, then you are living this truth.  Unfortunately, the culture in which we live, rarely treats death with honesty.  Instead we are invited to live in denial of death.  We are told that we can pro-biotic ourselves to eternal life … and when we realize that we can’t, we are invited to use cosmetics and Grecian Formula for Men to cover up that truth.  As Christians, we strive to believe something different.  We proclaim every day we rise from our sleep, that death is a part of our life journey … but not the final step in that journey.  It is why we choose to read the Beatitudes on this day every year … year after year … because they present a counter-cultural message.  They suggest to us that even in those places where the world seems to disappoint us, or life mistreats us, or people reject us … that there is still blessing in the world.  Because God chooses to determine the value of our lives by the spirit with which we have been blessed.

That spirit with which God blesses us, is most faithfully described as love.  It is modeled (imperfectly in human life, of course) after the love God has for us … agape love … self-giving love.  And “love” is the conversation I have with my second partner today … Robert Fulghum … an old friend, that I have never actually met other than through his words.  He offers this statement as the “Credo” on his personal website:

I believe that imagination is stronger than knowledge. That myth is more potent than history. That dreams are more powerful than facts. That hope always triumphs over experience. That laughter is the only cure for grief. And I believe that love is stronger than death.

It is why God characterizes our lives as blessed even when the world disappoints us and deserts us.  Because the power our world holds which allows it to take away earthly pleasures and freedoms and even health and life itself, pales in comparison to the love with which God blesses us in all circumstances of days on earth.  That is the reality of blessedness which the Beatitudes bring to us.  We get it wrong when we think that God brings suffering to us for some higher purpose.  God has no use for the suffering of God’s children.  But what God does remind us of is that suffering never has the final say over our lives … it can never erase the flame of life and love God gifts to us.  If our spirit fails us … the kingdom of heaven does not.  If our grief overwhelms us … comfort breaks through that shroud.  When we feel meek and weak … there is still undoubtedly a kingdom of strength and potency waiting for us.  And when death stands at our door … love stands at its side yearning to fill the void left by our loss.  Fulghum is right … love is indeed stronger than death

As I think about that love which God showers upon us in every circumstance in life, whether we recognize it in the moment or not, I find myself drawn to the words of my next partner in conversation, Martin Leckenbusch, the author of the words of the hymn we will sing in a few minutes as our Hymn of the Day.

Give thanks for those whose love is pure, a sparkling precious stone:  they show by what they say and do an inward beauty, warm and true, for God’s concerns they own—God’s love through them is known.

Our saints are those who have understood these words as true … but have also found the courage to take a next step forward and put those words into action in their lives.  In our litany of the saints today, we have persons who have been loving grandparents into the fullness of their years — and those who were just as loving as grandchildren who have left this world far earlier than we hoped.  We remember persons who offered medical care — or spiritual sustenance — or faithful counsel to those entrusted into their care.  We will name individuals who served in the business sector — in the classroom — and in community service groups. And those who put their lives on the line in the armed services — or in police forces.  We honor those who grew grapes — or nurtured flower gardens — or who raised vegetables.  Each of them, in his or her own way, lived to share with others around them the love with which God had blessed them.  They understood that gifts of the heart live beyond our earthly deaths … because they reside in the lives of those we leave behind.

Which leads me to my final partner in conversation this past week.  Another old friend that I know only through his words … Rainer Marie Rilke … he himself a saint for 90 years now, having died in 1926.  But he lives to me through his poems which I regularly find in the Panhala poetry blog to which I subscribe.  He is alive for me in his quotes and snippets of writing that are used regularly by Richard Rohr in his Daily Meditations blog, and by all sorts of other writers trying to tap into the deep well of spiritual wisdom and mysticism that was Rilke’s life and work.  This week, his words came to me through the Crosspoints video I mentioned at the start of this sermon.  Rilke says this about death:

Whoever rightly understands and celebrates death, at the same time magnifies life.

It seems fitting place to close my inner conversation … our conversation … for the moment at least.  Because the proclamation we make, which stands side-by-side with of our hope in the resurrection to new life, is that our love of those we have lost is an act in which we magnify their lives … today we choose to honor them for what they have left to us by their model of faith, and to the worlds in which they lived.  Our world may not completely understand this perspective on life and death … but you and I can dare to believe it.  Our world may see this as something of least importance, while we may honor it as something of great importance.  So that at the end of the day, we may rejoice and be glad … and not only anticipate a reward in heaven, but the rewards of life in this world as children of God, and future saints in God’s Kingdom.  Amen.

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Rev. Craig Ross

Senior Pastor

The vibrancy of life here at St. Peter’s makes my service on our staff a joy and privilege. Visitation, teaching and preaching are the ministries that feed my pastoral identity, as together our staff and lay members share in our missional calling … Building a community of faith by God’s grace.

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