November 1, 2011

"Choir" - An All Saints Sermon

OCTOBER 30, 2011
MATTHEW 5:1-12

Week after week, we implore God to remember those who have died.
We do this in spite of knowing that it is already true, before we can even ask,
  That “the souls of the departed are in the hands of God.”
We make our prayers for the dead even though we know very well
  That they are heirs to the promise
  That God will never abandon us. Will never abandon us.
Yet, as if to somehow reassure ourselves, we actively remember those gone before –
  The great jumble of meaning they left in our lives,
      The many impressions and memories and contradictions –
    The good, and the not-so-good, all mixed in together at once –
  Even in that way that memory can sometimes turn people into what they were not –
  And we offer up our humble, fallible, beautifully well-intentioned human prayers.
We pray, God, may your will for them be fulfilled.

Week after week, we remember the dead. Remember them by name.
I hear their names murmured in this sanctuary, whispered like secrets.
I add my own to the list – each one bundled tight at the bosom,
  Each whispered name a parcel of privately-held memories.

Why do we do this? …
I can see someone with hard edges and bitter eyes,
  Cold from the years, standing at a distance and judging all this:
  Looking at us as we pray from the corner of his eye, and laughing a little, saying,
    It’s useless, Christian: the dead are dead, leave them be:
    Why do you prattle on so,
      And stir at the ashes of a fire long extinguished?

It’s as good a challenge to the faith as you’re likely to find: a faithful question, really.
After all, Why can’t we leave the dead to just be, to rest in peace?
Isn’t the fact of their lives sufficient?
Did not Jesus himself advise his followers to let the dead bury their own?
Why this urge, especially this time each year at All Saints,
  To not allow bygones to be bygones?
Do we exhume the dead with our prayers and place them on trial again,
    For what they did or didn’t do;
  Or do we simply honor and remember them?

Why do we possess this primal urge to pray for them?... why ever on earth must we pray,
  When all we dream and more has already been accomplished
    For those we love who have gone before us in death,
  And it’s just a matter of our own inability to believe it?
Isn’t that our problem and not God’s task?

Could it be that we pray for the dead
  Because the memories of those gone before are like a mirror to our lives,
  And we imagine them longing for us to have better for ourselves and to do better –
  To optimize the minutes and days remaining in our lives,
    So that they will be lived as well and as faithfully as possible?

When we pray for the repose of the souls of the dead,
  Is that the same moment that we’re being beckoned by those same souls
  To live, work, pray, study, think, act, give, and love
    With all we’ve got, for as long as we’ve got it?
      With all the energy and will we possess, leaving out nothing?

One of my favorite quotes –
  One that I’ve thought about for more than a decade –
  Is from George Bernard Shaw, from 1907.
I heard it this past summer, again, on our mission trip to Colorado;
  It came at the end of a particularly hard day.
Shaw says,
  “My life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live,
      It is a privilege to do it for whatsoever I can.
    I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,
      For the harder I work, the more I live.
    I rejoice in life for its own sake.
    Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me.
    It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment;
      And I want to make it burn as brightly as possible
      Before handing it on to future generations.”

I heard Shaw’s words and went outside and sat down and breathed warm air
  And looked up at that bright blue, almost overly happy, imposing Colorado sky.

“I want to be thoroughly used up when I die,
  For the harder I work, the more I live.”

I thought of all the saints who have so far gone before me,
  Whose names I often recall when we pray for the dead:
    Johnny and Nick and Lois and Leland;
    C.J. and Christy and Julia and Floydia;
    Glenn and Charles and a special case (to me) named Paul;
      People known over coffee and the slow news crawl of life unfolding;
      People I sat near in the pew or said last rites over.

I could hear them, chorusing off in great echo of Shaw’s words:
  Be thoroughly used up when you die, Torey;
  Heaven is like the counter of a rental car agency, only the policies are reversed:
  So that when you return the vehicle of your body
    There will be an upcharge if you do so
    Without any wear-and-tear on it, or with any gas left in the tank.
St. Peter kicks your tires,
  And if they are still properly inflated, you pay a fine.
Don’t expect a big party if you don’t show up with a fender half dragging behind you.
Be thoroughly used up.
Take every chance you get to brighten up the world in the small way we all have,
  To do some simple thing to help make things right for a little while;
    Love everyone recklessly;
    Preach, and live, the unfailing providence of God;
  And when you mess up, apologize to those you’ve hurt and get on with it.

And there it was:
  A simple set of instructions for life, flung from on high.

I didn’t need Joel Osteen to tell me to live my “best life now.”
It just took a few friends and relatives getting together
  In that heavenly place and time that Karl Barth called “provisionally inaccessible,”
  And reminding me, and now you, of the great responsibility
  And unfolding daily joy that life is.

Today, my brothers and sisters, is Sunday, the day of resurrection.
Light has broken in on our lives again, and why should we want to stop it.
The weekly cycle of life has repeated itself.

I am sure that you had many chances to become “thoroughly used up” this week
  For the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven come on earth as Jesus preached it.
After all, this is your work :: your life :: your Christly vocation.
I am sure that you had many chances to live our your baptismal vows:
  Those promises we make in the Baptismal Covenant
  That just seem impossible to keep, so wide in scope they are,
    But that are our work nevertheless,
    And that thoroughly use us up.

To exercise poverty of spirit, meekness, purity of heart and vision;
  To hunger and thirst for righteousness and be taken to task for righteousness’ sake;
  To stand in solidarity with those who mourn
    Or those who are reviled or persecuted or slandered
    Or are otherwise misunderstood.
To remember that the “reward” may be great, but it’s not the focus,
  That in a sense it’s merely incidental to the Christian life.

I know you had those chances, and I pray you took them.
Heed the chorus of your own saintly choir and whatever advice they give,
  And do not neglect to pray for them.
For theirs, too, is the kingdom –
  God’s kingdom and God’s power and God’s glory, for ever and ever. Amen.

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