Princeton University Religious Life

All Saints Day

The Rev. Paul B. Raushenbush
Princeton University Chapel
November 1, 2009

On Thursday night I went to a haunted house in New York City.  Loser that I am, I couldn’t convince anyone to go with me, so I went on my own, determined to have an experience of the Halloween spirit. Well, it was exactly as you imagine – silly, not particularly scary, but with a lot of actors dressed as vampires and crazy people popping out from around corners to startle the patrons - but still, I was happy to have gone. 

To keep the Halloween spirit going I walked in the Halloween day parade in Greenwich Village last night as part of a puppet representation of Terra Incognita. The concept was taken from old maps of the wide unknown ocean. Over a hundred volunteers walked up Sixth Avenue to the soundtrack of Celtic rhythms carrying giant illuminated mythical sea creatures, old sailing ships, and adverse winds all circling amidst fifty yards of flowing blue fabric to represent the sea. I had the least glamorous role of carrying an illuminated three-foot wide sea shell representing the shore on the outer perimeter – but still it was beautiful and reminiscent of an earlier time when the sea represented the fearful unknown.

Halloween, when done right, can be a time when people are allowed to be creative, a bit wild, and put on a different personality than the one they have to show the world day in and day out.  With its pagan past, Halloween today provides a commercialized suggestion that there is a spiritual existence beyond the life we normally see - even if the way that is observed is by putting a sheet over your head and randomly cutting holes for eyes to resemble a ghost a la Charlie Brown. 

Halloween this year can be helpful as it provided a gentle springboard into today’s service of All Saint’s Day. While Halloween is a take it or leave it day for Christians– All Saint’s Day is an observance that Christians do well to take very seriously, even those of us, like myself, who did not grown up with the practice. Originally a Roman Catholic observance, All Saints Day is a celebration of the souls of all those who have died and who are now in God’s eternal embrace. In Latin cultures, All Saints Day is celebrated as Dia De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. On that day, which really does have some fantastic iconography of skeletons, families often go to cemeteries where their loved ones are buried. They bring gifts for the departed, care for the graves and have a picnic and party.    This might seem spooky or morbid to some, but I don’t believe it is experienced in that way. It is a time to be present with those who have died and demonstrate the continued love and commitment towards them, even in death.

All Saints Day has another important purpose, which is to remind each one of us of our own mortality. That someday it will be us in the grave with our relatives and friends remembering our names and praying for our souls. 

I may have told this story from this pulpit before but is worth repeating. An old preacher came to Chapel when I was at seminary. He started by asking us to take out a pencil and paper because he was about to ask us something important and he wanted us to write it down. We all hemmed and hawed until he repeated his demand that he was about to ask us something really important until we got out our pencils dutifully - and then he asked the question: Do you know you are going to die? and How are you preparing for your death? Obviously, these questions stayed with me as I think they are basic Christian questions that echo those words used on Ash Wednesday as we make the sign of the cross on people’s forehead – “Know that you are dust, and to dust you will return.” With that pronouncement comes the reminder -So care for your soul, which is eternal.  

So, on this All Saints Day we are confronted with the reality of death - our own, as well as the death of those whom we love. As most of you know from intimate experience, the death of a loved one is devastating to the individuals, families and communities left behind.    A piece of us is lost forever. A void is created in our hearts that cannot and should not be filled.   However, we continue to live, our hearts continue to pump, our lungs breath. The spirit of life remains within us even as part of us has died.   All Saints Day is, in part, a reminder of how those of us who remain living go on in the face of death.

The book of Ruth is a Biblical story of one who went on after experiencing death.    A woman named Naomi goes with her husband and two sons from Judah into a foreign land of Moab where her sons find wives.   In two short sentences in the text that underscore the brutality of her experience, her husband, and then both her sons die. In addition to the anguish of her loss, in that time the death of a husband and sons was close to a death sentence for the woman as well as she now has nobody to care for her.  She urges her daughters in law to remain in Moab as she has nothing to offer them anymore. When she returns to Judah one person calls her Naomi to which she replies: why do you call me Naomi? God has turned against me - my name is Mara, which means Bitter.

But that is not the end of the story. Because before returning to Judah one of her daughters in law, Ruth, decides to stay with her saying these now famous words:

 Do not press me to leave you

   or to turn back from following you!

Where you go, I will go;

   where you lodge, I will lodge;

your people shall be my people,

   and your God my God. 

17Where you die, I will die—

   there will I be buried.

May the Lord do thus and so to me,

   and more as well,

if even death parts me from you!’

Because of the persistence of Ruth and Naomi together and, to put it delicately, because of their cleverness they are able to survive.  Naomi is able to continue because she and Ruth clave to one another and formed a new bond and a new commitment. Naomi took the name of bitter, but we now know her as Naomi because the bitterness did not last.    This is not to say that Naomi ‘got over’ the loss of her husband and sons. It is assumed that neither she, nor anyone, could ever get over such a loss. But Naomi was able to continue on because a new community of support and love was created around her.  Eventually, Ruth remarries and bears a son who becomes the line of David, which is the line of Jesus. As the women of Judah place the child in Naomi’s bosom in a formal adoption process they say to her:

‘Blessed be the Lord, who has not left you this day without next-of-kin; * and may his name be renowned in Israel! 15This child shall be to you a restorer of life and a nourisher of your old age; for your daughter-in-law who loves you, who is more to you than seven sons, has borne him.’ 

Ruth is the heroine of this story. Remember, she also lost her husband to death but she continues on in faith that God still had work for her to do. And she was right – As Geoffrey Wood writes in the Jerome Bible Commentary (quote):  Ruth’s career parallels so clearly that of its Patriarch Abraham, who, with a barren woman at his side, left his home in Haran to follow Yahweh in Canaan. There his faith was rewarded – he fathered a nation. Ruth’s faith will be no less fruitful,. She will give that nation its line of kings. (unquote)

One of the lessons from scripture on this All Saints Day is that those of us who remain in this world must continue to be engaged in life until our last breath because we don’t know what God has in store for us. Even in the midst of death we are called to fully live in this world. If we are still alive it means that God needs us for something. 

By focusing our attention so precisely on death, on All Saints Day, the clear dividing line between this life and the life beyond life becomes permeable. This is not about communicating with the individual souls who have died, but rather remembering that all of time and space, all of life and death, is under the reign of God who is present both in heaven and on earth. For those who have experienced God’s loving presence on this earth and who have known the promise of God’s kingdom in the land of the living - to go from this life to the next is to go from God…to God. 

At the center of this new heaven and new earth, and at the center of All Saints Day is Jesus, who is our reconciler in this life, and reconciles us between this life - and the life beyond life.  I confess that I do not have a clear conception of what happens when we die. I am a willing agnostic in the particulars as I believe it is much more than any of us can conceptualize. But I believe that there is a life after life. I believe that our loved ones are there and that someday we will join with them and with God eternally. 

Today we will read the names of those whom we know who have died and whose souls are in heaven. We are also celebrating communion. Jesus, who is the alpha and omega, who traversed life - to death - and back to life again, came together with his friends and broke bread and drank from the cup saying do this and remember me. In the act of communion with one another and with God, heaven shines into our lives in this very moment in this place among us. As we remember Jesus, we also remember our loved ones, and the billions who have participated in communion before us. In the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation we come together as God’s community that transcends space and time, that overcomes the distinction of life and death.

Today’s service is an act of faith in the face of death. As a community of believers we proclaim life’s triumph over death. Today, on All Saints Day, as beautiful fall colors turn to brown and fall to the ground we turn our thoughts towards spring, towards Easter, towards the resurrection singing: Where o death is now your sting? Dying once, Christ lives to save, Where your victory o grave? Alleluia – Amen.

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