To Be Blessed on All Saints

To Be Blessed on All Saints

November 2, 2014
Stina Pope

All Saints 2014

In the last two or three days, folks have celebrated Hallowe’en, All Saints’ Day, La Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, and maybe All Souls’ Day. These holidays all grapple with death; they provide us with various opportunities to examine our own responses to death; the death of others and the prospect of our own death as well.

In many parts of the early Church, Christians were accustomed to marking the anniversary of a martyr’s death for Christ at the place of martyrdom. Because of the persecution of Christians by several Roman emperors, the number of martyrs became so great that a separate day could not be assigned to each individual. The Church, feeling that every martyr should be venerated, appointed one specific day to honor them all. At first only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were honored by that special day. Over a long period of time, All Saints’ Day came to honor all those who have died. The evening before All Saints’ Day was referred to as All Hallows Eve, an evening focused on using humor and ridicule to confront the power of death. It doesn’t take much imagination to see All Hallows Eve evolving into Hallowe’en, an evening when we wear scary costumes, watch scary movies, and threaten our neighbors with tricks if we don’t get treats.

Because of their proximity to one another on the calendar, and the perception that both are focused on the macabre, many people associate La Dia de los Muertos with Halloween. This is far from accurate. La Dia de los Muertos is a celebration of the deceased and an honoring of change. The holiday is known internationally for its remarkable masks, extensive decorations, the ofrendas (offerings to those who have died) made by those who are still among the living, and the sheer magnitude of the turnout in some locations.

The Day of the Dead is an indigenous tradition more than 3000 years old, stemming from an Aztec celebration of the goddess Mictecacihuatl, whose role was to watch over the bones of the dead. Though that may sound grim, the sentiment of the festival, then and now, is one of respect and revelry, a time to come together as a community and honor our ancestors. This makes La Dia de los Muertos much more similar to All Saints than Hallowe’en!

It seems to me that La Dia de los Muertos offers us a healthy, well-rounded relationship with death. We are not to live in fear of death; we are not to take death lightly, we are not to live in fear of what comes next. It is highly unlikely that we will be martyred for our Christian faith. It is possible that if or when we are honest with others about the values by which we live and make decisions, we may startle someone or make them uncomfortable. Of course, that assumes you are honest with folks about those values!

From time immemorial, people have honored their dead. Different religions do it different ways, but the fundamental intention is the same. There are some differences though, and I think they have to do with whether we believe that there is something after this life. I wanted to say something “concrete” but that doesn’t quite work!

In Christianity, the ideas of what happens when you die go from here to there. In the Anglican Christian tradition, we believe that death in this life is only the beginning of life. I turn to C.S. Lewis for inspiration. In his book, The Great Divorce, he suggests that we all go to a sort of purgatory when we die, the gray town, where people go to endless meetings that never go anywhere, for example (which sounds like hell, not purgatory to me!), but once a day the technicolor bus comes to take people to heaven. Anyone is allowed to get on this bus, and there is enough room for everyone that wants to go. Up and up the bus goes, and lands with a small bump in a new place where the light itself looks different – because it is.

As the people get off the bus, they are met by someone who has come to help them. They need help, because they realize that in this “real” place, they are literally ghosts, having not very much substance. They are assured that they will learn how to be real, but the other thing that happens is that they must leave behind the things that will keep them from being real. There is quite a scene, when a lizard-like devil representing the addiction which the person has gets into a shouting match with the person who has come to help. The person with the addiction agrees that the lizard has to go, and the helper grabs hold and kills it. It is not a pretty scene, but dealing with an addiction is not pretty. There are other scenes which do not turn out as well. Most people cannot stand to let go of this thing that is keeping them from being real, and therefore keeping them from being in heaven, and they turn and go back to the bus to go back to the gray world. A few of the people start the long trip toward the mountain where the light is coming from, and most do not.

But it is their choice, and the point that C.S. Lewis makes is that it is always their choice. The people in the gray world can always choose to get on the bus. The problem is that after a while, they forget that the bus even exists. This is one of the big issues I have with conservative Christians who say that people have to “choose” Jesus in this life. They are very concerned that someone might die suddenly before having “accepted salvation.” This way of thinking, that the door is suddenly shut when you die, does not fit with my understanding of a God who loves us outrageously. I mean, really? I agree with Lewis, that the bus comes back for us, every day, God keeps trying to get us out of our ego-driven petty lives into real and abundant LIFE.

What makes much more sense to me is the issue of habits. What if our lives here are where we learn how to be in relationships? If our life here is essentially a test-drive for the real life to come, then it makes sense to build habits that teach us how to be real, instead of habits that lead us towards lives of falsehood. In that case, if our habits lead us towards the good, toward joy and hope and love, then we will look for that bus, and when we are offered the chance to become really real, we will gather up all of our courage and say yes! And if our habits lead us towards anger and fear and blame, then we will be quite content to stay in the gray world where nothing ever changes. And we get to choose.

A while back, Sue and I went to a retirement seminar, and instead of talking about money, he talked about habits. He asked everyone what they were going to do when they retired, and people called out all kinds of things, and they all were written up on big pieces of paper so we could look at them, and then he looked at them, and looked at us, and said, what are you waiting for? We all felt stunned, and totally challenged. He went on to say that if you wait until you retire to do the things that have meaning for you, it will be too late, and we knew that he was right. Start now, he said, get into the habit of doing something from your list now, so that when you retire, you simply have more time to devote to the things you love that you are already doing.

Get into the habit of living well now, get into the habit of being in right relationship now, get into the habit of being happy now, get into the habit of being in heaven now, maybe only a little bit at a time now, but learn now, so that when you are called to do it full time, you already have the habit going.

Jesus gives us guidance for this in today’s lessons. Last week, we heard the two great commandments: Love God with all of your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Everything else hangs on these two. Then he continues, being a rabbi, giving more direction. Look, it is not so hard, if someone needs a coat, and you have two, be generous and share. If you have more than enough food, share. If you have time to go visit the sick or the folks in prison, then go! And he gives his most famous sermon, which we call the Beatitudes. There are two rather versions of this sermon. What he says here would have been as shocking to his audience as it is now. It turns all of our values upside down. The word “beatitude” comes from the Latin beatus or blessing, because the first set of things that Jesus says are “blessed are” and then he names a group of people. However, there are two sets. The first one says who is blessed, and the second one, which is even more unsettling, says who is cursed. We only read the first one today.

Without going into specifics of the blessings and curses, what it lays out for us is that we are to love as God loves. We are to see the people in need as the ones blessed by God, and we are to see those who are regarded as “well-off” in our world as cursed by God. This is totally upside down to our thinking. Jesus says, blessed are those who mourn. We tend to think, if we are honest, that when someone is mourning, they have been cursed, that they have lost the love of God. We think that they are mourning because something has been taken away from them, and therefore, since God is the one who gives and takes, that obviously God has been mad at them for something they did, and therefore they are cursed. This kind of thinking is the basis for the Book of Job, and has been pretty standard throughout Western thought. But we forget the ending of the Book of Job, which denies this mentality entirely.

My Old Testament professor said that there is nothing new in the New Testament, and here is another example. This radical sermon by Jesus comes right out of the end of Job, where the status quo is overturned, along with the whole concept that people who are doing well are doing so because God loves them. Today we call this the prosperity gospel. Nonsense, says God. Nonsense, says Jesus. God loves, period. And if you think God loves you more because you have nice things, you are cursed, because this kind of thinking is going to get you into all kinds of trouble.

It is a very difficult concept for us to wrap our heads around, but here is one example: in the slums of South America, people started gathering and reading the Bible for themselves. What they read made them very excited, and they started feeling the love of God. These people had nothing by way of things, they were starving, living in shacks, no clean water, their children were dying of malnutrition and bad water, but they were blessed by the love of God. We are not hungry, we have clean water, most of our children live past the age of 5, and we have an epidemic of addiction in people who feel a great hole in the center of their being instead of the love of God. Who is blessed?

Does this mean it is a good idea to be in terrible poverty? Of course not! But it also does not mean that God is mad at you! Rather, it means that we, who have much, are not paying attention to the Great Commandments, remember, love God and love neighbor – as we love ourselves. If our neighbor needs something and we do not love them as we love ourselves, we do not love their children as we love our children, then we are not following the commandments. And so, we are not to consider ourselves as blessed. Ouch!

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints, the day of when we honor our dead. It is the day when we honor our loves, honoring the ancestors who stand behind us still. A friend of mine does something called Family Constellation therapy. In the first part of the exercise, and I invite you to try this right now, you imagine that you are sitting on the bottom row of a tall set of bleachers. Behind you sit your parents, and each of them puts a hand on your shoulders. Behind them sit their parents, with hands on the shoulders in front of them, and on up it goes, until the bleachers are packed at the top, in a V shape with you at the bottom of the V. Now imagine that, no matter what happened previously, and this is important, no matter what happened previously, imagine that now they are totally committed to your well-being. This is an amazing feeling! All of these people want you to do well. They send you their desire for your well-being. How does this feel? Does it delight you? Are you afraid of so much good-feeling?

Can you now imagine that God sends you at least this much love, at least this much desire for your well-being? And feeling all this love coming toward you, do you feel within yourself the desire to reach out with love? The desire to share that love that has been given to us is indeed a gift from God. God does love us this much. Will we share the love? Sometimes when I was growing up, we would have these great potlucks, and there was always food left over, too much sometimes for even a family with five kids to eat before it went bad. Off it went to another family with many mouths to feed. And it was so much fun to share – not because they needed it, although they certainly could use it – but simply because we needed to share it. We have been given love, so much love, it overflows our cups. Will we look at that love with delight, and think about where we can share it? There is more to come, each day God pours out the love. Each day, we need to share. What would it take for you to get into the habit of sharing? What would you do? What are you waiting for?