Nov. 4th “Seeking Aliveness” Isaiah 25:6-9 * Psalm 24 * Revelation 21:1-6a * John 11:32-44
Did every one enjoy Halloween this year? I can easily picture you all in your costumes going door to door. I did my usual thing, turning off the lights and ignoring the trick or treaters, and then raided our kids’ candy hoard the next day while they were at school. Like most holidays, at one point the Christian Church appropriated a pagan holiday and gave it Christian significance. If you want more details, talk to Gordon, for he has a better memory for such things than I do. It is believed that the Christian Church changed the Celtic harvest festival of Samhain or some other event into what we now call All Saints’ Day or All Souls’ Day. You probably also all know that “Samhain” was the name of an amazing rock band that formed after The Misfits broke up, but they had to change their name to Danzig when they moved to a new record label. Or maybe you don’t. Just a little trivia to keep you riveted.
Anyway, according to that most reliable of sources, Wikipedia:
The Christian celebration of All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day stems from a belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the "Church triumphant"), and the living (the "Church militant"). In Catholic theology, the day commemorates all those who have attained the beatific vision in Heaven. In Methodist theology, All Saints Day revolves around "giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints", including those who are "famous or obscure". As such, individuals throughout the Church Universal are honored, such as Paul the Apostle, Augustine of Hippo and John Wesley, in addition to individuals who have personally led one to faith in Jesus, such as one's grandmother or friend.
Different denominations celebrate it differently, but the United Methodist Church officially remembers it today, on Sunday, although we also tend to do the same kind of thing at the end of the year, as we look forward to the New Year. And so the main purpose of All Saints’ Day is to give thanks for those who have passed into blessed memory, acknowledging their contributions to our lives. But it is not just a time to look back, but also forward, as we seek to build on the foundation of faith given to us from those who came first, as we try to leave a legacy as we prepare to enter into eternity beyond this life. We now reside in this in-between-time where eternal life has been achieved, we have taken the first steps into it with Jesus, but we are not quite all of the way there yet.
We are up to theme #3 in the book Growing Young, the title of this chapter being “Take Jesus’ Message Seriously.” All that we do must be Christ-centered. We not only proclaim and study the stories about Jesus, we seek to act appropriately, carrying Jesus’ message of love and forgiveness to those who need to hear it. We talk less about abstract ideas and more about Jesus himself, especially on the narrative of redemption through following him. Instead of talking about heaven later, we talk about abundant life here and now. The Jesus we proclaim is not the one who came to condemn but to set free, the one who takes what seems broken and restores it to wholeness, and invites us into a life of discipleship and service that requires sacrifice from us, too. The Christ-centered church that takes its mission seriously is a church family that inspires participation and challenges its members, both here and as we go out into our community. In Christ is the New Creation, not just someday in the future, but right now, alive in us and in our acts of service to our neighbors. We go out into a world that is often dark and cold, where words of death and destruction are everywhere, taking the Good News of new life and wholeness in Christ wherever we go.
Our Gospel lesson today tells the familiar story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This is the Jesus we proclaim: the one who takes what we think is dead and brings it back to life. He is the one that gives us the power to go into the dead zones of our world and create new life, as we feed the hungry, care for the sick and lonely, and clothe and shelter those who have nothing. As we read this story, do you imagine yourself as one of the characters? Are you Lazarus, who Jesus brought back from the dead, perhaps metaphorically speaking, and do you look forward to eternal life in Christ? Can we see ourselves as Jesus, bringing new life into our world? There’s nothing wrong in that, we seek to follow his example. We can only pray to be so successful! Or do we identify with Mary or one of those present, having seen death, and needing a renewed hope in Jesus bring new life? Are we seeking to make our lives and our world more alive?
The insert today comes from our Bishop, Elaine Stanovsky. She has named the coming year a “cross-over year” as we head into the global General Conference of the United Methodist Church in February of 2019. The major issue currently being ironed out deals with homosexuality, and hopefully we can come to some agreement that will keep us united and avoid a split within our denomination. If this is a subject we want to talk about, we certainly can; I just haven’t really seen any interest in doing so. In many ways, our denomination is floundering, as our culture has changed so much and we seek to keep up. We are going through a time when we have to let go of what no longer works, and find new ways to breathe life back into our churches and our world. And so she will be blogging about this, and has assigned us to go through a book called We Make Our Way through Walking by Brian McLaren. The book is designed to be used by small groups, divided into 52 small chapters, so it would also be good for individuals to use as a devotional also. There seems to be many used copies available on the internet. The goal of the book is to take us from a state of lethargy or darkness into a state of new life and hope. The Introduction to the book says:
WHAT WE ALL WANT is pretty simple, really. We want to be alive. To feel alive. Not just to exist but to thrive, to live out loud, walk tall, breathe free. We want to be less lonely, less exhausted, less conflicted or afraid… more awake, more grateful, more energized and purposeful. We capture this kind of mindful, overbrimming life in terms like well-being, shalom, blessedness, wholeness, harmony, life to the full, and aliveness.1
The quest for aliveness explains so much of what we do. It’s why readers read and travelers travel. It’s why lovers love and thinkers think, why dancers dance and moviegoers watch. In the quest for aliveness, chefs cook, foodies eat, farmers till, drummers riff, fly fishers cast, runners run, and photographers shoot.
The quest for aliveness is the best thing about religion, I think. It’s what we’re hoping for when we pray. It’s why we gather, celebrate, eat, abstain, attend, practice, sing, and contemplate. When people say, “I’m spiritual,” what they mean, I think, is simple: “I’m seeking aliveness.”
McLaren, Brian D. We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation (Kindle Locations 81-90). FaithWords. Kindle Edition.
After a week of rainy, gloomy weather, we had a good spell of sunshine on Friday. I felt almost giddy, and even found the gumption to go rake up some half-soggy leaves. Like many people, I really struggle at this time of year, when the days are getting shorter and the sun is hiding behind the clouds. My energy level plummets and I get even grumpier than usual. I came to Bible Study on Tuesday evening, and struggled just to stay awake, not feeling the two cups of coffee Eileen provided. I sat down by Diane and was too tired to even talk. It seems like every year I get a little more tired, and I am already getting this argument I run in my head, which starts earlier every year, which I mean to present to God someday, on why he should have created us so we could hibernate through the winter, like bears. But we just don’t have that option. We have to keep busy, even when we are getting old and tired. But for that 45 minutes or so of sunshine on Friday, I was made alive again, my hope renewed for the return of sunny weather and the promise of a more vibrant life.
You have probably all heard that during times of Roman persecution, the early Christian Church had to hide in catacombs and tunnels below ground to avoid the authorities, holding worship services amidst the buried remains of the dead. However, it was a place that they were already quite familiar with. From the earliest days of the Christian faith, a primary task of the church was to care for the dying and the dead and prepare their bodies for burial. In doing so, we honor their lives, and with gratefulness help them on their way into blessed memory. This is not an easy task, as we mix our tears with our thanks, but it remains one of the most sacred things that we do, knowing that someday soon it will be our turn to go. But with death comes the promise of new life, and in burial for our loved ones, we seek our own rebirth to greater faithfulness and activity with what time we have left.
Whenever I mention that I will be presiding at an upcoming funeral to a non-church-going friend, the usual response I get is “Oh, I’m sorry”. Although they are indeed sad occasions that I don’t exactly look forward to, I certainly am not sorry to be there, just sorry for those who are mourning. Providing such services is one of our most sacred responsibilities as a church, and performing them is one of the greatest honors I have ever had. Not only do we celebrate a life, it is also a time when we are at our most vulnerable, and we are connected in a deep way that we usually don’t approach in daily life. As we say goodbye to someone, we appreciate more those who are still here. As we are touched by death, at the same time we are filled with the sacredness and beauty of life, inspired to live it more fully. We leave a funeral service with a greater sense of connectedness to others, and are inspired to do more with our lives. May we always proclaim the message of new life in Christ to our world, and seek more aliveness in all that we do.