All Saints Day: Love, salvation, fear of death

[Sermon title TOTALLY ripped off from the Sixpence None the Richer song, "Love, Salvation, the Fear of Death"]

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken. It will be said on that day, "Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation."
(Isaiah 25:6-9)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." Also he said, "Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true." Then he said to me, "It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. (Revelation 21:1-6)

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, "Where have you laid him?" They said to him, "Lord, come and see." Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, "See how he loved him!" But some of them said, "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, "Take away the stone." Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, "Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days." Jesus said to her, "Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?" So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, "Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me." When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, "Lazarus, come out!" The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go." (John 11:32-44)

There have been a number of stories recently that have captured media attention about people seeing to the far side of death. Newsweek recently featured the testimony of Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon whose brain was attacked by a rare illness, sending him into deep a coma where the parts of his brain that controlled thought and emotion completely shut down. During this essentially dead state, Dr. Alexander reports catching a dazzling glimpse of a life beyond life, an existence beyond body and brain, something that he could only describe in terms of heaven and afterlife.

And then there is the book, Heaven is for Real, the account of a young boy’s near-death experience, where he came to and described a world beyond anything he would have had the power to imagine on his own. He described an experience of being with family members who had passed away and sitting on the lap of Jesus. He talked about angels singing to him, and seeing the Virgin Mary standing next to Jesus in heaven.

These stories are so attractive and intriguing to us because they seem to lift the veil on life’s greatest mystery: death. Nestled in there between public speaking, snakes, spiders, and heights, fear of death ranks among humanity’s most common anxieties, precisely because death is something that we cannot truly understand, something that will remain a mystery until we ourselves experience it, something so final and haunting and mysterious.

Fear of death is part of the history and origins of All Hallows Eve, or Halloween, which we celebrated earlier this week. A medieval understanding of All Hallows Eve, the night before All Saints Day, was that all those souls who had died would not be released until All Saints Day, and that these restless souls viewed All Hallows Eve as their last chance for vengeance or retribution against the living. And so people wore masks and costumes and disguises so that they would not be recognized by any restless soul seeking them harm.

We fear death because we do not understand it. We work so hard to prolong our lives, through diet and exercise and medical interventions and anti-aging face creams. We each put up our own masks and put on our own disguises, hoping that death might not recognize us, fearful because we do not know what it will be like to breathe our last breath.

On this All Saints weekend, we praise God for all of the saints who have gone before us, those who have crossed to the far side of death, those who see beyond the veil, whom we remember, and grieve, and bless, and lift up to God.

And on this and every All Saints Day, we are reminded that because of Christ, we no longer need to fear death, because Christ has defeated the power of death once and for all. Now let me be clear about something. When I say that Christ’s death and resurrection destroyed the power of death, I do not mean that he destroyed the inevitability of dying, at least not until he comes again. But I mean that Christ has destroyed the power that death has over us, that is, the paralyzing fear of death that can imprison our living.

Today’s readings assure us that because of Christ, we can already see beyond the veil, and that we already know what stands on the far side of death, and that we have no need to fear the unknown, because God has made the far side of death known to us already, even as we stand on this side of life.

Isaiah gives us an image of a heavenly banquet on the far side of all tears and all anguish. God promises to destroy the shroud that is cast over all peoples and to swallow up death forever. And so, on the far side of death, do we have a vision of nourishment, fulfillment, peace, and joy; a banquet of life and love in the presence of God, along with a multitude of all of the saints, past and future.

Our reading from Revelation builds on this image from Isaiah, describing a time when weeping and crying will be no more, when all creation will live in the eternal presence of God. Peeking beneath the veil, this passage shows us a vision of a new creation, where we no longer have any hunger or thirst – physical or emotional or spiritual – and the assurance that God chooses us for all eternity.

And then we look at John’s gospel, and the story of the raising of Lazarus. Martha weeps, Mary weeps, the crowds weep, and Jesus weeps. This story begins on the near side of death, the grief and longing that each of us knows so well, as we have grieved loved ones at the time of their death, and as the news tells us of tragedies in our own backyard and across the world.

But then Jesus stands at the mouth of the tomb and opens the cave. He moves the stone, lifts the veil, opens the door separating humans from the mystery of death, and calls forth, “Lazarus, come out!”

And out of real death, real grief, and real tears, comes real resurrection.

Images of holy banquets and new creation are beautiful, true, and sustaining. But the raising of Lazarus tells us the ultimate truth of what we need to know about death: that God has the power and the desire to raise each of us up from the grave, that death is not final, that it is not only Jesus who gets to rise from the dead, but that this promise is given to each and every one of us who belongs to Christ.

And this, my friends, is why we no longer need to fear death. Because there is no longer any mystery to it. God has lifted the veil, and the truth about what happens when we die is that we live again, in the eternal presence of God, in whom we already live and move and have our being.

Because wholeness, restoration of life, feasting with the saints – these are things that do not only come to us on the far side of death. We already have access to these things here and now, even incompletely, on this side of life, because Jesus has already broken down the power of death.

Every time we join together at this table, we are nourished with a heavenly feast that strengthens us and brings us life. It is a meal that offers real grace and real forgiveness. We break bread with people very like us and very different from us, even as others break bread around this same table all across the world. In this meal, we eat and drink with the whole communion of saints, past, present, and future. This meal is truly our foretaste of the feast to come.

And every time we eat this meal, we lift the veil. We see God’s hope for us and promise to us. We see a vision of eternal life won for us by Jesus Christ. We stomp down the power of death as we eat and drink Christ’s blood. This meal reminds us that there is nothing left to fear, for God will be in all and through all, the alpha and omega, the beginning, the end.

As you come to this table today, eat and drink and let go of your fears. Eat and drink and let God fill the places in your soul that are empty with grief. Remember that gathered around this very table are all of God’s saints, lights in this world, courageous and confident witnesses to the faith. This table is a thin space, always, and especially today. So receive the bread and wine, and touch through to the other side. There is only life to be found. And there is nothing left to fear.

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