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All Saints Sunday, November 4, 2018 by The Rev. Peter Elvin

Have you noticed that Barbara Kingsolver has a new novel to add to our stack of winter reading?  She was featured in last Sunday’s New York Times Book Review, interviewed for the page that asks the author, “And what book might people be surprised to find on your to-read shelf?” Her answer let me smile on a weekend when there was painfully little else to smile about.

She answered, “A couple of gaudy pink-and-blue “name your baby” books… have provoked double-takes from visitors over the years, and a few surreptitious glances at my belly.  I’m expecting characters, and they’ll all need names.  Multiple, multiple births.”

Names.  Unique identity.  Precious personhood.  All Saints (in the New Testament,   the word “saints” describes the entire membership of the Christian community).  All Souls, an even roomier way to affirm precious personhood 

Enjoying Kingsolver’s little story of multiple births in fiction was a momentary respite from the all-too-real heartbreak deepening hour by hour at the Tree of Life synagogue, where multiple deaths were laying claim to our own hearts as countless Americans, and all nationalities around the globe, watched and listened as ancient hatred gripped us by the neck with icy fingers that will let go only when we expect character of ourselves and our leaders.

But first, I wanted to know who these innocent victims are, that their names may give substance to our grieving, direction to our comprehending of loss, shaping of our anger in proportion to our pain.  But as all these are part of the character of disaster and tragedy, so is the element of patience as the world waits, respecting the privacy of families being told first, honoring each victim’s own precious world as the word was received and passed, the word that by morning light would have been unthinkable, but by gathering night was now unavoidable.

And so by the next morning we knew their names:

Joyce

Rich

Rose

Jerry

Cecil

David

Bernice

Sylvan

Daniel

Melvin

Irving

With the focus on these deaths, and on the unfolding crisis of pipe bombs being sent to critics and opponents of President Donald Trump, there was a third hate crime committed: a suspected white nationalist shot and killed two African Americans at a supermarket in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, after the shooter tried but failed to enter the First Baptist Church nearby, on the 24th.  We need to hear their names today: Maurice

Vickie

Having named these victims of ancient hatred so freshly re-kindled, I invite you to stand as you are able, to show that we choose to stand with these victims and their loved ones.  Let us pray.

Compassionate God, Spirit of the universe,

grant perfect peace in Your sheltering presence, among the holy and the pure

who shine with the splendor of the heavens, to the souls of (these) dear ones

who have gone to their reward, may the Garden of Eden be their rest.

O God of mercy, guard them forever in the shadow of Your wings.

May their souls be bound up in the bond of life.  May they rest in peace.

And let us say: Amen.

Please be seated.

That prayer was used in a community vigil on Monday night at Congregation Beth Israel in North Adams.  So many people came that the movable partitions that expand their seating at the high holy days had to be opened.  Rabbi Rachel Barenblat opened and closed the service with the request that everyone look around to simply see, in a mindful way, the solidarity of interfaith support.  Such is the unity that will stand for support, but will not stand for religious hatred and racial prejudice.

It is not just Christians who know that in the beginning was the Word.  All the  world’s religions that are religions of the book understand the potent influence of what is announced in the public square, ranted at political rallies, or preached in sacred precincts.   This past week, three heinous hate crimes gave evidence that our public and private discourse in this country is opening the floodgates and giving to people with unstable minds and damaged souls license to kill.  To kill individuals who, through distorted lenses, represent otherness by their religion, their skin color, their sexual expression or gender expression, individuals with precious names, life-long achievements, gracious relationships and unique giftedness. 

The mounting frequency of these hate crimes and their evident connection to white nationalism and current partisan spirit give license also to kill our open democracy and its proud traditions of open-minded, open-hearted world leadership.

If ever we have needed a feast of All Saints, we need it now.  The appointed reading from Revelation announces God’s campaign to make all things new.  The collect we prayed at the start of this service declares what God has set in motion to make all things new:  God has knit together all whose hearts and minds and wills are pledged to godly living, uniting us in one communion and fellowship.  Those who have only political power at their disposal may wring their hands and claim it’s time to unite the nation, but they don’t know how.  It’s more up their alley to divide than to unite.

On the feast of All Saints we are stirred to reclaim our unity with one another, and together rededicate ourselves as unifiers who notice and celebrate common ground wherever we see it expressed in virtuous and godly living, and an appetite for ineffable  joys (which my dictionary tells me means unutterable joys).

Surely among those joys today is Janet’s return to this altar, where she belongs, and where she breaks the bread and raises the cup which stir in us our belonging to one another, to God, and to our wider community.   Janet, whether we utter our joy or find it unutterable (but evident in a whole lot of smiling), know that we stand with you today.

The story of the raising of Lazarus is a stunning sequel to the past week, and perhaps to your recent leave of absence.  There are so many tears flowing in this story.  Mary is weeping, Jesus is weeping, their neighbors and friends are all weeping.  No one tries to talk them out of all this crying: they just make space and time for it to happen in. No one, least of all Jesus, tries to persuade them that they don’t need to cry; they do need to cry, that is, they need to deal with the inner pain and the communal loss and the just- plain-change in their lives that Lazarus’s death presents.

Then Jesus goes to his dear friend’s tomb.  What he is about to do is to make all things new, starting right there and then.  “Take away the stone,”  Jesus orders.  The first word of opposition is from Martha, Lazarus’s sister, she of the never-quiet pots and pans.  She, the practical sister, has used these intervening days to organize her thoughts and feelings and may be getting close to having a plan for navigating all this change– but she doesn’t imagine Lazarus’s return.

I wonder if all those tears tell Jesus that people are doing their inner work, facing into the headwind of their grief, and that now is the time for him to empower them to take their part in this new creation, removing the stone, taking away the next to last impediment, clearing the path for Lazarus’s return.  But not until the word is made flesh; and this will not happen until the shroud is pierced by the Word: “Lazarus, come out!”  and until Lazarus hears and obeys.

At Monday’s vigil we sang a song written by Rabbi Rami Shapiro:

We are loved by unending love.

We are embraced by arms that find us even when we are hidden from ourselves.

We are touched by fingers that soothe us even when we are too proud for soothing.

We are counseled by voices that guide us even when we are too embittered to hear.

We are loved by unending love.

We are supported by hands that uplift even in the midst of a fall.

We are urged on by eyes that meet us even when we are too weak for meeting.

We are loved by unending love.

Embraced, touched, soothed, and counseled, ours are the arms, the fingers, the voices;

ours are the hands, the eyes, the smiles;

We are loved by unending love.

The raising of Lazarus can be thought of as Jesus’s signature miracle.  What Jesus  does for and through Lazarus is what God will do for and through Jesus, and for and through his people.  But what is this raising that Jesus does?  Is this a story of miracle, or   one of mystery?  Is this about resuscitation, or is it about enlightenment?  The hope engendered by this story cannot be that our loved ones will physically return to us after they die– so what is the hope?

Is it that when we hit bottom there will be a next breath to be taken, and that breath is God’s breath?  Is it that when we fall confounded by death or loss or defeat, the God who is closer to us than breath itself invites and empowers us to find a new way of being, either in this world or the next?

The meaning of both the wonder that Jesus performs with Lazarus and the resurrection on Easter Day is the mystery deeper than miracle: that we are loved by unending love.  Unending love is the character of God.  Unending love is the deepest gift God bestows on us freely and without regard for religion, race, and all the otherness that impedes grace and peace.  “Take it away,” Jesus orders; “and step out in faith, in hope, and love.”  Unending love is the character saints expect of themselves and their community.

A prayer known as the Mourner’s Kaddish ends this sermon, as it ended Monday’s vigil.

The Great Essence will flower in our lives and expand throughout the world.

May we learn to let it shine through so we can augment its glory.

We praise, we continue to praise, and yet, whatever it is we praise, is quite beyond 

the grasp of all the words and symbols that point us toward it.

We know, yet we do not know.

May great peace pour forth from the heavens for us, for all Israel, and for all who struggle toward truth.  May that which makes harmony in the cosmos above, bring peace within and between us, and to all who dwell on this earth.  May the Source of peace send peace to all who mourn and comfort all who are bereaved.

And let us say: Amen.

Translation: Rabbi Burt Jacobson

 

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