Monday, November 3, 2008

Homily: All Saints Day [November 3, 2008]

One of my favorite movies, even though it’s almost unwatchable in parts, is Elaine May’s 1987 comedy, "Ishtar". In this hilarious but misfired epic, Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman play a couple of loser songwriters who team up to compose some memorably horrible tunes, including my favorite, “Dangerous Business”. Here is a sample of their lyrical songwriting magic:

Telling the truth can be dangerous business.
Honest and popular don't go hand in hand.
If you admit that you can play the accordion,
No one'll hire you in a rock 'n' roll band.

Then, during the bridge, they go on:

Because life is the way we audition for God;
Let us pray that we all get the job. [“Dangerous Business” words and music by Paul Williams]

As I thought about preaching on All Saints Day, the lyrics to “Dangerous Business” suddenly popped into my mind. As any preacher can tell you, telling the truth is dangerous business; and if any preaching is dangerous, then telling the truth about All Saints Day can be particularly so. Like all great Christian feasts, All Saints Day carries the burden of multiple meanings. We in the church tend to think of All Saints Day as a celebration of the ongoing life and witness of the whole church, extensive in time and space. That’s why we baptize people and renew our own baptismal covenant on this day. For us churchly types, All Saints Day is a festival honoring the “cloud of witnesses”—here, there, past, present, yet to come—who step into and out of the font and by so doing are claimed and called as followers of Jesus and members of his body.
But we all know that All Saints Day has another cultural valence, and that has to do with death. Our celebration of the universal church and all its members has gotten recast by the culture as a remembrance of the faithful departed. Like Christmas modulating from a festival of the Incarnation into a celebration of the solstice, or Easter from what Jurgen Moltmann called a “feast of freedom” to a springtime paean to “new life”, All Saints Day has elided into both Halloween and el dia de los muertos. Again, it’s not hard to understand how this happened. But how do you and I—followers of Jesus who live in this actual culture—deal with this tension? I’ve been in churches which gave themselves over to an All Saints requiem of lugubrious mourning. I’ve been in churches where they’ve structured it as a catechumenal fantasy. Neither approach seems, to me, appropriate. All Saints is about the church. It’s also about death. And putting it that way is (or can be) a dangerous business.
Let’s start with the observation that we live in a culture decreasingly able to deal with death. One of my favorite current writers, the poet, essayist, and real-life mortician Thomas Lynch, wrote this last Saturday in "The New York Times":

In the United States . . . we whistle past our graveyards and keep our dead at greater distance, consigned to oblivions we seldom visit, estrangedand denatured, tidy and Disney-fied memorial parks with names like those of golf courses or megachurches.

Lynch continues:

The dead get buried but we seldom see a grave. Or they are burned, but few folks ever see the fire. Photographs of coffins returned from wars are forbidden, and news coverage of soldiers’ burials is discouraged. Where sex was once private and funerals were public, now sex is everywhere and the dead go to their graves often as not without witness or ritual. [“A Date With the Departed”, NY Times, 11/1/08]

While it’s essential that we in the church keep our eyes focused on All Saints Day as a celebration of the communion of saints and not just a necrology of the departed, it’s also vital that we pay attention to cultural expressions of grief like Halloween and el dia de los muertos. At this time of year, with autumn morphing into winter, we can’t help thinking about our own mortality and the frailty of human life. As Thomas Lynch reminds us, “The seasonal metaphors of reaping and rotting, harvest and darkness, leaf-fall and killing frost supply us with plentiful memento mori. Whatever is or isn’t there when we die, death both frightens and excites us.” Whether it fits with our liturgical orthodoxy or not, people come into our churches at this time of year with death and not Baptism on their minds. Unless we can find a way to talk about All Saints Day in terms that honor both death and Baptsim, then we will be doing justice to neither our missional nor our pastoral task.
Thankfully, the lyrics to “Dangerous Business” are helpful to us here:

Because life is the way we audition for God;
Let us pray that we all get the job.

The truth, the “dangerous business” truth, about Baptism of course is that it is all tied up with death. If Baptism is the sacrament by which all of us saints have entered the church, then we’ve all made that entry through what the Burial Office calls “the grave and gate of death.” In Baptism we are not only washed; we are drowned to our old life so that we can come up out of the water and be raised into the new. Even and especially at the point of entry into the Christian community, our tradition is unsentimentally honest about how it understands the facts of human existence. To become a Christian, you must start by coming to terms with the fact that you are mortal, that you will die. This is true because the One in whose name we gather, the One whose body we constitute in the world, Jesus Christ, this One came to terms with that realization himself. And more than that: the One Jesus calls his Father, the One whom we know in Jesus and the fellowship that gathers in his name, that One also had to come to understand what human finitude felt like as part of the divine process of being connected with us. Death is not an ugly problem to be swept under the rug. As Thomas Lynch says, “Whatever is or isn’t there when we die, death both frightens and excites us.” It is, in one sense, what makes us human. It is, in another, what connects us to the divine. It is the end, in the sense both of finish and of purpose, of life. As the song says, it’s our “audition for God.”
Jesus understood that, of course, certainly when he set his face to go to Jerusalem, and not the least when he was preaching the Beatitudes to the crowds on the mountain. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” [Matthew 5] In grounding his teaching in a vision which linked human finitude with divine blessing, Jesus gave us a way both to celebrate the breadth and depth and fullness of the communion of saints and also to acknowledge our solidarity with one another in our poverty, our sorrow, and our fear. In his terms, we are blessed, we are happy, when we realize that we’re smaller than the forces that control and define us, and we find strength to live freely in the face of them only in community and solidarity with one another. The way forward in the face of death is to live life in compassion and witness, in service to “the poor” in all their incarnations, in concert with the community which gathers in Jesus’s name.
Telling this truth can be dangerous business because it means that, as Christians, we will not try to preach a cultural success story but will rather ground our testimony in an acknowledgment of our own finitude, anxiety, and weakness. As Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor”, and so forth. When we name the blessed we are not naming the needy unfortunates whom we stoop to serve; we’re naming ourselves. Not everybody can take hearing that, and so it’s not surprise that we want to turn All Saints Day into either a death watch or a church extravaganza; but it’s the Gospel truth. And if we are faithful in telling it, then we will be honoring all the wonderful and complex aspects of this glorious but perplexing holiday. We are finite; and we find our purpose in life standing with others who know themselves to be finite, too. And we defeat death as Jesus did, by living lives that face into that finitude and find joy and blessing and peace even in times of scarcity and enmity and fear. Or as the song has it,

Because life is the way we audition for God;
Let us pray that we all get the job.


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