Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Festival of All Saints - 2 November 2014

MT 5.1-12 
JoAnn A. Post 

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 
3"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
4"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 
5"Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 
6"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, 
for they will be filled. 
7"Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 
8"Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 
9"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 
10"Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, 
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 
11"Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. 

This morning one billion people engaged in a grand global ruse. We set our clocks back one hour. All summer we said we had been “saving daylight,” and now it is time to set the clocks straight. But we’re only fooling ourselves, pretending that we can control time, stave off the darkness, coax the light to last a little longer. Because regardless of what our clocks might say, the sun rises when it will, and the winter dark hems our days ever shorter. 

The only ones not fooled by our chicanery? Children. Dogs. Dairy cattle. 

They don’t care what the bedside alarm clock reads. They wake at the same time they did before, ready to start the day. Good friends tell of a morning years ago when their youngest was five years old. They had told him, the night before the clocks changed, that he could sleep in, that they didn’t have to get up so early to go to church, that it would be fun. But sure enough, my friends woke at o’dark thirty the next morning to find their little footy-pajama clad boy at their bedside. “Mommy, I tried, but I’m all out of sleep.” He wasn’t fooled. 

The Day-We-Turn-the-Clocks-Back and All Saints Day always share a calendar day. The first Sunday of November. It’s an odd pairing. While our clocks tell us a lie, the church tells us the truth. The truth, not only about time, but about our lives. 

That truth? All our lives end. And before they do, they are burdened with hunger and thirst, scorching heat, and tears in every eye. (Revelation 21) We live the lives of orphans—isolated and alone, unknown and afraid. (1 John 3) We experience all the curses Jesus names: poverty, grief, humility, persecution. (Matthew 5) Surely, those hardships are not the sum of our lives, especially in this country. But for each of us at some point, and for most of the world’s poor every day, those hardships are real. 

Is it any wonder we work so hard to fool ourselves, to stave off the darkness, to pretend death won’t knock on our door? We prefer the game to the truth. 

I put a name in the list of saints for whom we pray today, the name of a man whose life and death witnessed, not to the game-playing and denial in which most of us engage, but to the truth of God’s light, God’s life, God’s promises. The blessedness of the life of faith. 

It was Easter afternoon. We had just finished our Paschal Feast at home, when the phone rang. It was his wife, the tears in her voice making it difficult to understand. But I was able to catch words here and there: “took a turn,” “hospice,” “come.” I was out the door faster than Peter Cottontail hopping down the Bunny Trail. When I arrived at their home, it was full of people. Children and grandchildren, home for Easter, milled around the house and yard, unable to settle, even to speak. Their Dad had been ill for some time, but about noon it was as though somebody pulled the plug on a drain, and his life started to seep away. 

I found him and his wife in their bedroom. She hugged me at the door; he acknowledged me with his eyes. We talked for a time, prayed and sang; I asked him if he was okay about what was happening. He nodded. It was Easter, after all, the day when Life overcomes Death, and he was ready to be raised from the pain and sorrow he had known for too long. The room was quiet. He dozed. His wife held his hand. We waited. 

Suddenly the bedroom door burst open. One of their adult children shouted, “It’s too quiet in here!” And she fell on her father, “Dad, you’re not dying! Talk to me! You’ll be fine!” And to me, “Get out and leave him alone. He was fine until you got here.” 

He died ten days later, lingering longer than we expected. But in those ten days he prepared us for his death, especially his daughter, so angry and afraid. His mourners were blessed, for having witnessed such a faithful life, a faithful death. 

Somehow we imagine we are immune to death and suffering, that we will be spared what is, in fact, inevitable. It’s a game we play with ourselves, like moving the hands of the clock to pretend it’s not so dark outside. 

“Blessed are you,” Jesus said. His audience was ill-prepared for his words. The poor among them had come to Jesus for a meal, perhaps a miracle. The rich among them had come to introduce themselves, to hand Jesus a business card, to say to this rising religious star, “Let’s do lunch.” But Jesus knew them all, and he knew that whether they were clothed in rags or Ralph Lauren, their lives were the same. And he named them, all of them, “Blessed.” 

How is that? How can it be that those life circumstances from which we run, are marks of blessing? 
In the next few weeks, we will be inviting you into conversation about our congregation’s life: our dreams and plans, our needs and expectations. Part of our conversation will be about wealth—about sharing our abundance, through this church, with the world. After all, as my mother, herself a generous steward and faithful Bible reader, has reminded me about my own life, “To those whom much has been given, much will be expected.” (Luke 12.48) 

But we will also be telling you stories, stories about God’s blessed and living saints who rely on us for a truth they will hear nowhere else. How will they hear of God’s love in a hate-filled world, if not from us? How will they know God’s forgiveness in a spiteful world, if not from us? How will they experience God’s abundance in a stingy, clawing world, if not from us? How will they come to believe that death is not to be feared, if not from us? 

All the world plays the game, and so do we sometimes. We pretend that trouble happens to other people, that our lives are good because we work so hard, that death is an enemy against whom we must wage war. 

But today we tell the truth. Remember the words in the marriage vows: in joy and in sorrow, in health and in sickness, for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse, in life and in death. Those mixed life experiences become blessings because we face them together, because we see them coming, because we know they are opportunities for God to work in us and through us. Speaking truth to a self-deceiving world. 

Right about now your stomachs are growling because, though the clock says it is not yet noon, your body knows otherwise. 

But we will not be fooled—not about time, not about life, not about death. Because we belong to God, we are, in all these things, most blessed. 

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