First Congregational Church
November 3, 2019
All Saints Sunday
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Saint Peter is at the gates of Heaven. He's been standing all morning and needed a lunch break. He sees Jesus walking by and stops him. "Jesus, thank goodness you're here. I have a favor to ask. Can you watch the gate while I have lunch?” Jesus, ecstatic at the chance to help says, "Of course! What do you want me to do?” "Its simple, as people come up you check their names to see if they are in this book I have. If they are, then welcome them in. If not, turn them away." And with that Saint Peter leaves for lunch.
Jesus waits for some time and eventually an elderly man walks up to him. Jesus greets him energetically and asks his name. The old man looks dismayed. "I was hit on the head when I died... I don't remember it.” "Well sir," says Jesus, "tell me about yourself. Perhaps I can help you figure it out.” "Oh boy," the old man thought out loud, "all I can remember is that I was a carpenter and my son was beloved by millions of people. Now Jesus begins to choke up. "Dad... Dad?” The old man looks hard at Jesus and says “Pinocchio!?"
For those who don’t spend hours steeped in church doctrine and definitions, there are three important dates in the life of the Church - all of which fall into the second level of infamy and importance and all of which were brought about due to the Catholic Church’s influence.
October 31st is All Hallows Eve - what we now know as Halloween - the day to ask for God's blessing and protection from the evil in the world. The source of modern celebrations stemmed from the donning of saintly and evil spirit costumes to act out the battle between good and evil. All Hallows is an old English term that means "the feast of the saints.” In its original sense, it is ”a celebration of the communion of saints, those people believed to be in heaven, through good works and God's grace.”
November 1st is All Saints Day and was originally the day to offer prayers to those in purgatory - those stuck between heaven and hell. While that is more of an historic understanding, the modern version of All Saints is that it’s a call to live as saints, to remind us how we're supposed to live.
On All Souls' Day, November 2nd, we’re talking about all souls and asking God's mercy for them. I don’t know if it is still done, but traditionally, All Souls was the day that the Book of the Dead is opened to allow parishioners to write the names of relatives to be remembered.
For a long time, Americans have had an uncomfortable relationship with All Saints, All Souls, and some still struggle with Halloween. I was listening to some radio program the other day that said that very same thing, noting that much of the rest of the world is far more comfortable with this part of life. As our world has grown smaller through the aid of technology, we are coming to hear more about other cultural celebrations such as the Mexican Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos, or the Chinese Ghost Festival.
The traditions of honoring and even loving the deceased is called the veneration of the dead. Some people wash the bones of dead family members while picnicking in the cemetery, some build tombs. Some Native Americans “buried” the dead on poles - closer to the Great Spirit, while Vikings sent great leaders on to the after life in Valhalla in a burning ship. In Vietnamese culture, birthdays aren’t celebrated, but death anniversaries are. As vast as our cultural differences might be, what connects so many of us in great and minute ways is how we understand Christ and the life of following his leading.
Zacchaeus the Tax Collector
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Dead to Sin, Alive in Christ
6 What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? 2 By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? 3 Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin.
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God.
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.
Thank you, Hugh and Naomi. These might seem like rather odd passages for a day in which we honor those who have reminded us of the circle of life - at least that passage from Luke. And yet, how do we all remember Zacheaus? That he was short, a tree-hugger, and that he wasn’t well liked? How often do we remember him as Jesus called him - a Son of Abraham - which is code for a man of faith? And how often do we think of him as a man of restoration, a man who tried to make right of perceived wrongs?
On this day of lifting up the circle of life, we have the opportunity to remember the good that was done by those on the Necrology list and the good that will be done by those on the Cradle Roll list. All the names read today - with all their potential - are not complete without their struggles - opportunities that gave and give way to being people of Abraham - people of faith - however that faith may look or be revealed.
For whatever reason, I got to thinking about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier this week. Whether we pay more attention to it on Memorial Day or Veteran’s Day, it still is a stunning tribute to one, unidentified individual. Incidentally, in just two years, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier will be 100 years old. Since 1937, regardless of whether or any other event, an unknown individual’s remains have been guarded 24/7 by the third least awarded qualifications of the United States Army, following Military Horsemen and Astronaut badges.
For 82 years, 21 steps are followed by a 90 degree turn, waiting for 21 seconds, another 90 degree turn, change of gun to other shoulder and waiting another 21 seconds, continually repeated over a shift of a half hour that the Cemetery is open in the summer and every hour in the winter. And during the night, the guard is changed every two hours, regardless of weather or any other event. At any time during a particular shift, the sentinels will confront people who cross the barriers at the tomb or whom they perceive to be disrespectful or excessively loud.
It might sound like a relatively easy gig, with such short shifts, but it takes six hours to ready the year-round heavy wool uniform for the next day, plus physical training, tomb guard training, field exercises, cutting their hair before the next work day, and the odd regimental functions. We don’t treat every soldier that way, much less every person that has died. And yet, the symbolism demonstrates the high degree of honor and respect that is to (hoped) to be given to every soldier - and by extension - every other person - plain or particular. The intention is that “just as” it is for this one unknown, so would it be for each and every other - unknown or known.
The extrapolation is that “just as” Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of God, we too may live a new life - being raised from the dead. Just as Christ cannot die again, neither can those who have gone before us. “Just as” the death that Christ died was the death of sin once and for all; so, too, the life we live to God is the life Christ lives to God. Which is the Good News worthy of sharing with those who will follow in our footsteps.
A man stood at the pearly gates, waiting his turn to talk to St. Peter. He noticed a sign that said you can bring one briefcase full of anything you want from Earth. He noticed a stack of empty briefcases to the side and picked one up.
When the rich man got to Peter, the saint acknowledged him and told him that all he had to do was imagine what he wanted and it would show up in the briefcase. The man already knew what he wanted, so it only took a second for the briefcase to be filled to the brim with gold bars, all stamped with 24k on them. Peter looked at the rich man and raised an eyebrow. "That's fine if that's what you want, but I gotta ask. Why are you bringing pavement?”
The Bible gives us teasers of what eternal life will be like, but the truth is is that none of us know. At least for now. Those names read today, as with all those lifted up this day, came to this earthly life from the eternal life in which they lived when God created all of creation, intended to return to that life when we’re done here. In so many different ways, the Bible tells us that we are spiritual beings having a human experience, so our birth and death are but small parts of our entire circles of life. Just as that was and is true for Christ, so is it for each and everyone one of us and our loved ones - however that works out in practical terms - which is God’s business. So let us enter into part of our business on this side of heaven as we pray.
Holy and Eternal God, thank you for life - all of it. Thank you for the hard parts as well as the good parts - because otherwise we would be far more shallow and even more fickle than we actually are - at least at times. Thank you for those who came before us, all the two steps forward and one step back, dancing to the music of a life so much more than what we are cognizant of here on earth. Thank you for all those who will come after us - continuing the circle that connects us and completes us - as individuals and as your people. For the blessings that connect us to your most Beloved, and all that faith in such a Savior means, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.