Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
Sunday 2 November 2014: Year A, All Saints Sunday
So much love!
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
I did a primary school assembly on Hallowe’en, and since they’d just had a Hallowe’en disco during the week and I knew it would be on their minds, I thought I may as well talk about it. When I asked them if they would be going out on Hallowe’en, it turned out that the vast majority were planning to- even if nowadays they refer it is as ‘trick or treating’, instead of guising and they lamps of pumpkins rather than turnips. Hallowe’en has changed since I was a lad- too commercialised for me now. But for most children, it’s still a lot of fun, probably because dressing up is such fun.
The custom of dressing up in scary costumes for Hallowe’en- ‘guising’, to use the good old Scots word- goes back to the old pagan beliefs about keeping evil spirits out of our way. Indeed, experts tell us that many of the traditions of Hallowe’en predate Christian influence on our culture. Some boring Christians are killjoys who want to abolish Hallowe’en, but for most children it brings harmless enjoyment. What child doesn’t enjoy dressing up, and being given sweets just for telling a few bad jokes?
When I spoke to the school assembly, I reminded them, as I always do when speaking to children about these things, that there is, of course, no such thing as ghosts. We might enjoy a wee scare sometimes, but there is nothing supernatural for us to be frightened of. I say this with great confidence, for one of my favourite passages of scripture- it was the sermon text at my confirmation- comes from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, where he writes, ‘I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8.38-39). In other words, there is nothing we need to be afraid of. There are no ghosts and ghouls which can hurt us. When it comes to the supernatural, we have, as someone said in another context, nothing to fear but fear itself.
I suspect that many people mark Hallowe’en nowadays without knowing where the word comes from. But no doubt you all know that Hallowe’en is, of course, All Hallow’s Eve, the day before All Saints Day. All Saints is the date when, in many parts of the Christian church, Christians remembered those who had gone before us, and who are now in God’s presence.
Both Hallowe’en and All Saints are, in different ways, about the dead. Hallowe’en reminds us of an age when people believed that the spirits of the dead could come back to haunt us. The costumes at Hallowe’en- the dis-guises- are an attempt to ward off malevolent spirits. At Hallowe’en, death is associated with fear, the supernatural, and darkness.
But the Christian conception of death is quite different from the pagan conception. We believe that God loves us- even into eternity. Nothing- not even death nor life- cannot separate us from God’s love. Our first scripture reading today urges us to, ‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God’. In God’s love, we are as secure as children of our loving creator God.
So perhaps that’s why Jesus speaks, in the sermon on the mount, of even those who mourn being blessed. ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted’, he says. Jesus is not saying that we should never mourn. Of course we do. There are many things which make us mourn, which are often to do with change. Even if a change seems positive- for example, retirement- still we will often feel a loss- no more job to go to every day, we will miss seeing our colleagues every day. Parents might be delighted that their child gets into university, but the day of leaving home is tinged with sadness. For many of us, even changes within the life of the church make us mourn. It’s hard to have change without loss.
And death, of course, is the greatest change of all, and the source of our deepest mourning. For the loss of someone close to us can leave us in deep despair, at least for a time. And yet, in the sermon on the mount, Jesus says that those who mourn are blessed, and will be comforted. Blessed by God, and comforted by God.
This is also Crossreach Sunday, when congregations across the nation will be learning and thinking about the work of the Church of Scotland’s social care department. We’re fortunate to have Mike Casey, a support worker at Cameron House, with us today. Cameron House is the Crossreach facility which is in our parish. A number of our members help to support it- and, indeed, we have one or two members who are resident there. At Cameron House Mike and his colleagues look after people who suffer from dementia. A few days ago it was reported that dementia is now the leading cause of death for women in England and Wales. There are few of us here, I suspect, whose lives have not been touched by this terrible disease.
Those who watch a family member suffer from dementia often suffer go through a strange kind of mourning. The loss of memory in the patient is often experienced as a kind of loss of personality by those closest to her. Families and friends have to watch a loss of memory, a loss of awareness, and experience their loved one seem to disappear down a long tunnel, until, even although they are physically there, they are no longer present psychologically. It’s a state which can continue for months or even years, so that when a dementia patients dies, there is often a feeling among families and friends that they lost her long ago, and that long before the funeral they had already been mourning her.
And yet here is Jesus saying that, even in these terrible circumstances, God blesses us as we mourn, God bring us comfort. For Christian people, some of that comfort comes from knowing that there is a God, and that the God who created us in love never lets us go. Neither death nor life can separate us from the love of God who calls us his children.
We forget- most dramatically if our brain is affected by Alzheimer’s or some other disease which takes away our memory. But even healthy people forget. As time goes on, we don’t remember the details of everything we did, every experience we had- our brains would burst otherwise! It’s hard, however, when we forget the wrong things- a face we ought to have recognised, an important birthday, the knowledge we need for an exam- or, as I did the other day, leaving my reading glasses in a cafe (I was sure I’d picked them up!). We have a limited capacity for remembering- it’s natural for us to forget.
God, however, is not limited in any way. God, I am sure, remembers all his children. Not just during their life on planet earth, but also when they leave this mortal life. Once or twice I have had to do funeral services for people so lonely, nobody or hardly anybody turned up for their funeral. Perhaps one or two family members, if we were lucky, who hadn’t seen him for years. I had a name, but I didn’t at all know who he was. But in those circumstances, my faith tells me that God knew this person. I might not have known their story, but God did. It was, I believe, Rudyard Kipling who composed the inscription which was carved on thousands of gravestones after the Great War, the victims who could not be identified: ‘Known unto God‘. We might not know their names, but God does.
And if God cares for us, remembers us, during this life, then surely God does not forget us when we leave this life? Maybe that’s another way of thinking about what life after death might mean. We may pass from the face of the earth, eventually even passing from the memories of those whom we have known, but in the mind of God, we are always present. ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places’.
All Saints Day is one of those days which Protestant Christians in this country often ignore. Perhaps we worry about celebrating saints, and forgetting to worship God. But I think All Saints is really about God. Yes, we can use this day to we can remember, and celebrate the saints who came before us. But we do so best by thanking God for them. And if there is an afterlife, it’s God we have to thank for that as well- because all these saints are held in life by God’s memory, even when they pass from our sight.
Hallowe’en reminds us of old pagan fears of death, and the dead- things to be feared, things to avoid, things to give you the creeps. But if we believe that we are children of God, if we believe that we are each of us loved by God, and if we believe that God’s love for us is not defeated by death, then we can say, with St Paul, ‘Death, where is thy sting?’ All Saints becomes a celebration of life- life in this dimension, the continuing life of the saints in God’s presence, and our own hope of eternal life because we are God’s children.
It’s sometimes thought that those who believe in a life hereafter are not very interested in this life. But if we truly believe that death can’t defeat God’s love, then there is comfort for us, and the strength to pass through our mourning and to continue with our life with even more vigour. And if we believe that God cares for all people, even those forgotten by other people, then we will be motivated, surely to care for and love others. And even if we find ourselves having to care for someone who has forgotten who we are, and even forgotten who they are themselves, we can blessed and comforted by the knowledge that God has not forgotten them- or us.
‘See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God’, says the letter of John. It’s through Jesus and his resurrection that we have been made children of God; it’s all because of God’s love. And John goes on to say, ‘we are God’s children now; [yet] what we will be has not yet been revealed’. There is a promise of even greater things in store for us. Today, we give thanks for the saints who loved others because they were loved by God- and we look forward to a future better than we can even conceive of. So much love to celebrate! So we can give thanks to God, not just for the past, but for the future- a future which we cannot know, but in which we will all still be known by our loving Father God.
Ascription of Praise
Praised be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
who by his great mercy
in raising Jesus Christ from the dead
has given us new birth into a living hope:
the hope of an inheritance reserved in heaven for us
which nothing can destroy or spoil or wither! Amen!
From 1 Peter 1.3-4
Scripture references from the New Revised Standard Version
© 2014 Peter W Nimmo