By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 5:1-12
Tuesday evening as my husband was driving home from teaching at Manchester College, a deer struck the side of our car. I’m glad my husband was driving; he keeps a cooler head than I do. There was minimal damage to the car: a small dent where a hoof likely struck; a broken piece of plastic molding where an antler may have struck; and a couple pretty significant scratches in the paint where antlers or hooves may have dragged across the side doors. I love my little car. It’s a 2015 Honda Fit. Britt and I purchase new vehicles about once every decade. Initially, I stood in the garage and looked at my little car. I was sad; its perfection was gone. It took me a little time to put things into healthier perspective. As already mentioned, had I been driving when the deer was struck, I may not have handled the car as well as my quick-thinking husband did. Aside from needing to address the scratches to prevent vehicle rust, I don’t really need to worry about repairs and their associated costs. Most importantly, no windows were broken out; no kicking hooves or piercing antlers entered the vehicle; my husband was safe and sound. We all know; if you drive a vehicle on the roadway, eventually it will get its share of dings and scratches. That’s how life rolls along. Yet I felt frustrated; life had brought change to my car and it wasn’t change I liked.
As human creatures, we don’t like to have change imposed upon us or our little corner of the world. The only people who really like change are the people who initiate it. The rest of us get drug along kicking and screaming. As human creatures, we become attached to things as they are: our houses, our cars, our relationships, even our physical bodies.
But in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus speaks from atop a mountain to proclaim an alternative way of living that helps us reorient our hearts and minds. Jesus proclaims the good news of the kingdom of God (though in Matthew, he refers to it as the Kingdom of Heaven). And, like an in-depth documentary that explores what life is like in a particular country and culture, Jesus reveals what we can expect it to be like should we choose to live, to dwell, in this kingdom or realm established and governed by God.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount begins with what we know as the Beatitudes; pronouncements of blessing. A Beatitude amounted to more than mere words. They are performative speech. The very speaking of the beatitude forged a new reality in place of the old one. Through these beatitudes, Jesus – with the authority of the heavenly Father – speaks these promises of blessing into existence. Jesus is proclaiming a new reality because these beatitudes don’t fit the standards or values of this earthly life or realm. In this world, people strive to secure themselves – to protect or insulate themselves from loss and suffering – by accumulating stuff: money, power, property, influence, control. But, in actuality, those things are ineffective. The market is fickle; one natural disaster can wipe out anyone’s dream home; and if we’ve ridden on the coattails of the person at the top of the food chain… well, their reign can end in any number of ways: resignation, retirement, failure, scandal, a vote of “no confidence,” even an indictment. Some manage to delude themselves longer than others; but, if we have any grasp on reality at all, eventually we will discover through personal experience and observation that there is really no “thing” in this world that is reliable in times of trouble and suffering and loss.
But life is different in that kingdom over which God reigns. Jesus proclaims the good news that life in the kingdom of God reveals that poverty of spirit and sorrow and gentleness and mercy and being peaceable are the way to ultimate and enduring security.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday and we will soon read the names of those saints who have passed on to their eternal reward. They are no longer subject to the fickle and unreliable terms of life in this world. We will celebrate their heavenly status, not with silly extra-biblical portraits of harps and fluffy clouds. Rather, heaven, the kingdom of God, or whatever name we choose to use describes what it means for their lives to now and forever be held firm by the one who governs not by intimidation or oppression; but by our heavenly Father, who assures us that we are at our safest and most secure when we stop striving and rest fully in his grace. In the kingdom of heaven, our Almighty God always has his way and gets his say about everything and that is a beautiful thing because when God gets God’s way, we have nothing to fear and nothing to lose. Being vulnerable before God is the very best and safest position to be in.
You might notice that all of these beatitudes describe states of vulnerability: being in a position of grieving, being in a position of poverty, being gentle toward others; seeking peace not retaliation or retribution. Sociologist and researcher Brene Brown describes the phenomenological reality of our struggle in this world and this life, saying: “The more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are; the more vulnerable we are.”[i] If we live according to the values of this world, this life, it is a terrible vicious cycle; a cycle of moving erratically between fearful withdrawal and anxious vulnerability; humiliation and aggression. But, if we live within the kingdom of God – if we learn to place our trust fully and completely in the goodness of God, then we are set free from that burdensome cycle. We can embrace vulnerability as an experience of enduring security as we entrust ourselves to the faithful care of God. Life grounded in this world is a frantic scramble to get ahead. Life in the kingdom is one of security because we place our trust not in the obsolete stuff of this world but in God’s enduring providence and faithful care.
Today is All Saints Sunday and, together, we remember and celebrate the lives of those who have passed from death to eternal life. Death is the ultimate experience of vulnerability; eventually we will all succumb to it despite our best efforts to avoid it. But death is not the end when we live within the kingdom of God; when the foundation of our lives are built on those kingdom values that endure: mercy, gentleness, peace; when we have placed our trust in the God whose care for us is reliable and trustworthy and more than sufficient in every circumstance. Today we celebrate that we do not belong to this world and its value system. We belong to the eternal kingdom of God and, in that kingdom, we too are eternal. That is why in our funeral liturgy we affirm this truth for each saint when we pray the prayer of commendation: “Eternal God, you have shared with us the life of Ken and Lillian and Fred and Rosemary and Grace and Letha and Buford and Wendell and Philip. Before he or she was ours, he or she is yours… [So] for their life that in your love will never end, we give you thanks.”[ii]
Friends, when we live from a place of vulnerability and trust in Christ Jesus, we can live with continual peace and security. And what we value most will endure unto eternity.
[ii] The United Methodist Book of Worship; The United Methodist Publishing House; 1992; P. 157
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: John 11:32-44
Today is a special day: All Saints Day. Over this past week, as I have prepared for this day, I have been calling to my mind the saints that have touched my life through the years. Many, including my father, mother and brother have already entered into glory. And so on this morning, more so than any other Sunday out of the year, when we speak those words during communion:
And so, with your people on earth and all the company of heaven,
we praise your name and join their unending hymn…”[i]
Well, on this morning, we are mindful that the Church is larger than those of us in this room. We are mindful that the Church is even larger than all the disciples across the globe. This morning, on All Saints Sunday, we acknowledge that the Church is comprised of believers who not only span the globe; they span the centuries and we are never far removed from those saints who have attained their glory ahead of us.
That knowledge, however, does not make us immune to the pain that sometimes accompanies this day. Although we believe, still we grieve. I remember my family gathered around the table in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. I remember my mother’s beautiful smile, my father’s heartfelt prayers of thanksgiving, and my brother’s quick-wit and sarcasm, accompanied by a laugh to rival Santa’s; I should add his belly would have rivaled Santa’s also. And so, in some ways, this day is bittersweet for many of us… just as it is for Mary and Martha in this morning’s bible story. This is a story that tugs at our heartstrings. Few here this morning lack the experience to identify with Mary and Martha as they weep at the grave of their brother, their loved one. In that, we share a common humanity that is not to be denied or suppressed for, although we believe, still we grieve.
Sorrow and grieving are part of what it means for us to be human in this world. When death lays claim to someone we love, it brings us tremendous sorrow. Even Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. There is a word in this passage that bible experts struggle with translating because in many writings in this time period, the word referred to anger. Here at the grave of Lazarus, the one who could and would resurrect him is crying and angry and agitated all at once. And that is what death does to us human creatures. Of all our gospels, none more powerfully communicates the message that Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. And here, within this story of Lazarus – perhaps the most important story in the gospel, second only to the resurrection of Jesus – here, the divine Son of God, who will call Lazarus back from the grave, is also the flesh and blood friend who often visits this family and breaks bread with them and shares a special intimacy with them. Within this story, Jesus, the divine son of God with power over life and death, can still express the same emotions all of us feel when faced with the death of someone we love: anger, agitation, and deep sorrow. And so, even with our Lord and Savior, we share a common humanity that is not to be denied or suppressed for, although we believe, still we grieve.
Our gospel writer paints a portrait of this graveside moment: a picture of anger and sorrow and frustration. But that is not the end of the story because, while we share this experience of identifying with Mary and Martha as they weep at the grave of their brother, our very presence here this morning is a testimony that we also identify with Mary’s and Martha’s experience of new life made possible through Jesus. Together, we share not only a common humanity; we share a common eternity. And although we grieve, we still believe.
As powerful as the story of the raising of Lazarus is on its own, it’s important that we understand it within the context of John’s gospel. You see, this miracle plays a pivotal role. In a certain sense, the entire gospel has been preparing us for this very moment. As far back as chapter five in the gospel, Jesus heals a lame man at the pool of Bethsaida. It is the Sabbath and so the Jewish authorities confront Jesus and call him out. Jesus explains to them that he is doing the work of his Father. Now, they are offended by his words even more than by his actions as Jesus gives a very extensive explanation of who he is and what he’s all about. Jesus says these words:
Just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life,
so also the Son gives life to whomever he wishes.
Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes…
has [already] passed from death to life… the hour is coming,
and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice
of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
For just as the Father has life in himself,
so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself…
the hour is coming when all who are in their graves
will hear his voice and will come out…[ii]
Wow, talk about a spoiler alert. No one who had been paying attention should have been surprised when Lazarus, already dead four days, heard Jesus shout “Come out” and did. When Jesus calls Lazarus out from his tomb, Jesus authenticates that claim he made in chapter five; that he embodies life itself and is superior to the forces of death and destruction.
Jesus is the source of life and, even though we grieve, we believe. Just one chapter before this morning’s story, in John chapter 10, Jesus proclaims he is the Good Shepherd. He says that his sheep follow him because they know his voice. Once again, the religious authorities take offense and Jesus elaborates, saying:
My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish.[iii]
And so, friends, on this All Saints Sunday we celebrate the lives of those who have not really perished for they heard the voice of the Good Shepherd and they responded to his call. They followed him and so, although their bodies may have succumbed to the effects of cancer or heart disease or Alzheimer’s or any other form of bodily decay, nevertheless, they live eternally. And just as importantly, all of us who have responded to the call of Jesus live eternally with them. Although we grieve, that is what we believe.
Do you remember what I said just a few moments ago? Together, we share a common humanity that cannot help but acknowledge the pain and anger and frustration we feel in the face of death. But, even more importantly, together we share a common eternity because the good news of John’s gospel is that our eternal life in Christ does not await our physical death. Our eternal life in Christ begins the moment we respond to his call and place our trust in him. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes…has [already] passed from death to life.” Brothers and sisters, the saints we celebrate this day are not lost to us. We already are joined together with the company of heaven, those saints who now live in glory because, through Jesus, we share a common life, an eternal life. We do not need to wait until our bodies perish to receive the gift of Jesus’ eternal life. We need only to hear his voice and respond to the call of our Good Shepherd; to place our trust in him as the giver of a life that is stronger than death. Jesus was once subject to death and placed in the grave, but his power as the Resurrection and the Life, defeated the power of the grave for him and for us. The resurrection of Lazarus was not only a blessing to Mary and Martha. It is a blessing for us as well for Lazarus becomes the walking, talking, clearly visible sign that Jesus is the source of life for all people in all times and places who place their trust in him.
Jesus sets us free from death that we might truly live: here and now and into eternity. That day when Jesus raised Lazarus, death and life were forever changed; nothing would ever be the same. Death would never again be what it once was – a final, decisive ending. Now, it is more like, I don’t know… transferring from the bus to the train. It marks a change, most certainly. But it does not mark the ending and that is why, although we grieve, still we believe.
It is hard for us sometimes to understand what makes someone a saint. It is a word overused, and sloppily used. Saints aren’t people who are perfect and never make mistakes. Saints aren’t people who always look on the bright side of life, even in the most dismal circumstances. Saints certainly aren’t people who keep their mouths shut and tolerate whatever life sends their way. Saints are those who believe; and through that believing see and experience (like Mary and Martha) the eternal glory of God. We may grieve. But we do not grieve as those who have no hope. We grieve as those who believe.
If we have heard the call of Christ, if we have committed to following him and trusting in him, then we have already passed from death to life eternal. So on this All Saints Day let us, as God’s people on earth, give thanks that we are already united with all the company of heaven. Together, let us praise his name and forever join their unending hymn.
[i] The United Methodist Hymnal; The United Methodist Publishing House; 1989; p. 9
[ii] Portions of John, chapter 5, beginning at verse 21 and ending with verse 29. NRSV.
[iii] John 10:27-28. NRSV.
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