11/5/17 – ABOUT DEATH by Samantha Crossley+

All Saint’s Sunday, A
Matthew 5:1-12

When my youngest was little…littler…we took an airplane down to Texas to see my brother. At the time Linnaea was old enough that we needed to buy her her own seat on the plane, and young enough that she spent very little time in it. I’m sure the pilot had everything under control for the entire flight. That seemed less obvious from the perspective of the passengers. Turbulence they call it. Perfectly normal. Part of air travel. Still, when that overgrown tin can hurtling around the heavens at unbelievable speeds starts jumping and dropping and lurching at unpredictable intervals, everybody gets a little..nervous. A mite touchy. Necks and shoulders stiffen and you keep hearing sudden intakes of breath. Not my husband’s. He sleeps through it. And not Linnaea’s.

Either my strong, unconcerned Mumma act worked, or she thought it was all part of the fun, but she played and sang and read and colored and observed. One gentleman a couple rows up had it bad. His hands whitened gripping the arm rests as if they would somehow save him if we went into free fall. His head kept darting around like he expected the angel of death to sneak up on him from behind and tap him on the shoulder. On one of those furtive glances over his shoulder, Linnaea caught his glance from the vantage point of my lap. She held his gaze and sang, loud and clear enough for the entire cabin to hear: “We’re gonna die. We’re gonna die.” We didn’t die, but the tension did – everyone close enough to hear burst into laughter.

As I was preparing to write this sermon, babbling (as I am wont to do) about tidbits I find interesting or useful in my research, Gavia apparently caught a theme to my musings and piped up, “Is this going to be a sermon about death, Mumma?” Yes. Well, no. Well. We’ll see.

In the great Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Huck tells of the Widow Douglas and her campaign to civilize him. “…after supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers, and I was in a sweat to find out all about him; but by and by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable long time; so then I didn’t care no more about him, because I don’t take no stock in dead people.”

We don’t “take no stock in dead people”. We don’t take no stock in death. Culturally, emotionally, those are no fly zones. Except sometimes. Except when your plane is threatening to fall out of the sky. Except when somebody close dies or hovers near death. Except on All Saint’s Sunday when we thoughtfully, mindfully remember the faithful dead. Then the dead and the past and and the living and the now get all jumbled up and mixed together, vying for primacy of the moment.

In his novel “Requiem for a Nun” William Faulkner wrote, “The past is not dead. It is not even past.” Chapel Hill New Testament professor, Bernard Boyd taught, “Christianity and Judaism acknowledge the is-ness of the was.”

Recognized saints are, by definition, dead people. At some point in its early history, the church began to recognize and celebrate those who had lived for the faith, most often had died for it as well. The days of the Christian calendar filled with the names of the recognized saints – over the centuries too many to count, too many to be sure they all were recognized. All Saints Day sought to rectify that, remedy any omissions, celebrate the communion of all the saints, past, present and future, recognized and anonymous.

It’s an opportunity to celebrate the is-ness of what was. We celebrate what made the saints, saints: the is of the kingdom not when they died, not as they waited for heaven, not when they had time or resources, but the is of the kingdom in their right now real time lives. They led, for the most part, crazy mixed up difficult lives. Blessed lives. Blessed by God.

When we remember the saints, when we commend those we have loved to God’s care, we (as one commentator says) “proclaim that God’s kingdom is not some distant thing or place but rather exists now, exerts its influence on us now, transforms our reality now. All Saints’, along with all Christian funerals, is a repetition and rehearsal of the Easter promise that there is something more, something that transcends our immediate experience, and this proclamation is rooted in the confidence that God’s love and life are more powerful and enduring than the hate, disappointment, and death that seems at times to surround us.” (David Lose, In the Meantime, 2017)

Eugene Peterson’s idiomatic translation of our gospel in The Message Bible is helpful –

“You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you there is more of God and his rule.

“You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is most dear to you. Only then can you be (fully) embraced by the One most dear to you.

“You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are-no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.

“You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.

“You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.

“You’re blessed when you get your inside world-your mind and heart-put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.

“You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.

“You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.

“Not only that-count yourself blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you to discredit you. What it means is that the truth is too close for comfort and they are uncomfortable. You can be glad when that happens-give a cheer, even!-for though they don’t like it, I do! And all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

So yes, Linnaea, we’re going to die, like all people do – sinners and saints alike. But, Gavia, this is a sermon about life, about Kingdom, about blessing.

One writer expresses it thus, “My blessing is this. I know a God who gives hope to the hopeless. I know a God who loves the unlovable. I know a God who comforts the sorrowful. And I know a God who has planted this same power within me. Within all of us. And for this blessing, may our response always be, “Use me.” (Scott Dannemiller)

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