Looking Down, Around, and Up

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 28, November 15, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

Last weekend, Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, died on the Jewish Sabbath before the sun rose. He was someone easy to listen to, someone who could explain complex things in ways that are both meaningful and understandable. And he had a spirit of generosity, a willingness to see what is honorable in religious “others.”

Rabbi Sacks was once invited to a meal at the house of the President of Yale University. There he was asked to offer a blessing for the food, but first he told the other guests and their host a story.[1] He said once he was about to have dinner with a group of Christians, and they asked him to give a blessing before anything had been served and placed on the table.

That left him in a difficult spot. He hesitated, because in Judaism one prays over the food — food already there on the table, not food on its way from the kitchen. So he looked around and focused on the flower arrangement. And in the beauty of that which God had created, what one of God’s own children had carefully tended, Rabbi Sacks saw something that evoked food. With that in mind, he offered a blessing. Then he said to everyone:

You Christians have more faith than we do; we want to see the food.

I love that story. And, quite frankly, this Christian wants to see the food too. Thou shalt not bless proleptically. The strange word prolepsis means a representation of something that’s going to happen in the future as if it’s a present reality, as if it’s already here, as if it’s achieved its certain goal.

And while we do every Sunday, if not every day of the week, say the Lord’s Prayer, asking for our share of fresh daily bread to sustain us, to give us life, most of us don’t give thanks for it until it’s in our hands, placed there like the Bread of Heaven itself in Holy Communion.

Sometimes what we as human beings need is, in reality, close by, but we’re just looking in the wrong direction, focusing on the wrong things. Or maybe that’s just me, not you! Rabbi Sacks described this when he was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to address an occasional gathering of Anglican bishops from around the world called the Lambeth Conference.

He began by imagining a story that he said could have easily begun in Westminster, a place where he and these Anglican bishops had participated in a march several days earlier.[2] He imagined going on a walk with his granddaughter, starting there, in order to show her some of the sights.

Outside the buildings of Parliament, he imagined his granddaughter asking him what happens there. He’d say, politics. She’d ask what that’s about, and he’d say it’s about the creation and distribution of power.

From Westminster, they’d walk into the City of London, into the heart of the financial district, and see the Bank of England. He imagined her asking him what happens there. He’d say, economics. She’d ask what that’s about, and he’d say, the creation and distribution of wealth.

On their way back, they’d pass St. Paul’s Cathedral. Again, he imagined his granddaughter asking him what happens there. He’d say, worship. She’d ask what that’s about, what does it create and distribute?

And he would say to her, that’s a good question.

Rabbi Sacks went on to talk about how much our lives have been dominated by politics and economics. We can make people act in certain ways, either forcing them with power or paying them with wealth. We can even share widely both power and wealth. When we do that, we end up with less power or wealth than we started with, maybe a lot less. (Sometimes that’s o.k.)

“But now suppose,” said Rabbi Sacks:

. . . that you decide to share, not power or wealth, but love, or friendship, or influence, or even knowledge, with nine others. How much do I have left? Do I have less?

“No,” he said:

. . . I have more, perhaps even 10 times as much.

Why? Because love, friendship and influence are things that only exist by virtue of sharing. . . . the more I share, the more I have. . . .

Where do we find covenantal goods like love, friendship, influence and trust? [3]

“They are born,” he said:

. . . not in the state, and not in the market, but in marriages, families, congregations, fellowships, and communities.[4]

In other words, they’re found in places like Palmer, in this gathering for worship, in our Bible studies and our youth group, in our mission and outreach together, in focusing on Jesus and seeing how the Holy Spirit works through us so that strangers become friends, so that others can set down their burdens and find rest here, so that we can do that too.

Worship helps us to focus on God, raising us up to orient ourselves in a confusing world, so that we don’t have to roll around like lost balls in high weeds. And doesn’t it feel that way right now?

I mean, would someone please press the fast forward button so that we can get to the other side of the pandemic, the political chaos, and the end of this school year, and the disconnection that we feel not only from our extended families but also from a lot of our friends, people just as overwhelmed as we are? God, could you go ahead and press that fast forward button now?

That’s it. That’s it. That’s another place we can look — not just at what’s right in front of our nose, not just scanning the horizon for something, anything, to remind us to keep the main thing the main thing. We can also look up, as we were reminded in the words of today’s psalm:

To you I lift up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.[5]

It encourages us to keep looking “to the Lord our God, until he show us his mercy.”[6] Sometimes our hands are empty and tears obscure our sight as we look for help in every direction across a landscape stripped of grace, whether that’s a strained friendship, a stressed marriage, worries about your job, or fears about the state of the world.

Sometimes there’s no other place to look but up.

And it’s o.k. to face God in that way, even shaking your fist if you feel like it, and saying to God, as the psalmist does, that:

. . . [you] have had more than enough of contempt, too much of the scorn of the indolent rich, and of the derision of the proud.

Wall Street and Washington, as it were, economics and power, or whatever it is in your life, your real life, that seems to draw a circle around itself while leaving you helpless on the outside.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.[7]

I’m going to keep my eyes on you until you show us your mercy. And I’m doing this because I know that you’re merciful. You’ve shown that to your people in every generation. You’ve shown that to everyone in Jesus, the Lamb, who takes away the sin of the whole world and has destroyed death.

I just need to see a little of that mercy with my own eyes, here and now.

Lord, I need to see it.

It’s important to be able to say that, to be able to be honest with God. But I want you to notice something about this short prayer known as Psalm 123. It starts personally. It starts wherever you are at this moment, with the word “I.” Then it immediately moves from the singular to the plural, from the individual to the community. Its words bring you back home, back here to Palmer, back to the Lord’s Table and the Lord’s people.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy.[8]

And we’ll keep saying those words together, and watching expectantly, side by side, for God to act until we see God’s mercy with our own eyes, not only in the world to come, but also in this world, the world as it is.

This I believe. . . . This we believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST This story, including the quote that follows, was shared by Greg Sterling, Dean of Yale Divinity School, in a post on the Facebook page of Yale Divinity School, New Haven, Connecticut, November 9, 2020.

BACK TO POST This story, as it is retold here, is partly paraphrased and partly quoted from Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Jonathan Sacks, “The Relationship between the People and God,” The Lambeth Conference, July 28, 2008.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:1.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:3.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:4.

BACK TO POST Psalm 123:4.

For All Saints: Where Are the Dead Now?

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020

Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.

My Daddy’s mother died when he was 16 years old, so I never knew her. But I did know, at least a little, my other grandmother. I have memories of riding in the car with my parents to visit her in a nursing home. But mostly I remember things from when she died, when I was seven years old. I remember vividly details from the funeral home — the metal casket, the smell of the flowers, even the chill in the room. But I wasn’t afraid.

I grew up in a time, a culture, and a Christian tradition in which my family would attend the funeral of church members just because they were church members. It didn’t mean we were necessarily close to the person who had died. We were part of the same church family, so that’s why we were there. But my grandmother’s death was different. It was the first time death came close enough to feel that the world had changed, that my world had changed, and to wonder what had happened and what was happening.

Two months before my grandmother died, in another part of the world, the philosopher Ernst Bloch died in Tübingen, Germany. He lived in the same neighborhood as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who walked over to visit Bloch’s wife as soon as he heard about his friend’s death. Carola Bloch came toward Moltmann and simply asked him, “Where is he now?”[1] And she asked that question, a heart-wrenching question from any human being who’s ever felt left behind, while her husband’s body was still lying there.

Where are they now? Where are the dead?

Some say no where beyond what will return to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Early Christians, however, believed there was something more than that. They were known for having torn down the wall between the living and the dead, so to speak, unafraid to approach the places of the dead because of their belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the hope that they, too, would share in his resurrection. It gave them courage to experience life before death, amid struggles here.

I’ve always loved seeing on some older Moravian headstones the simple declaration, “Asleep in Jesus.” That’s not meant to be a euphemism to avoid speaking of the awful reality of death. No, it’s claiming this isn’t the end.

This person rests in Jesus, awaiting something, the General Resurrection. The implication, of course, is that the resurrection to eternal life, the resurrection of the body, is a future event. I mean, it has to be, right? That grave isn’t empty. As the words of the Prayer Book put it so beautifully:

Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness . . .[2]

As a priest in Williamsburg, Virginia, I would often read on Sundays before the opening procession into Bruton Parish Church an unusually long and dramatic inscription on a particular chest tomb. It was just outside the church, proclaiming to those who passed by these sad but hopeful words:

Here sleeps in Jesus united to Him
by Faith and the Graces of a christian
life, all that was Mortal of Mrs. Ann Burges
once the tender and affectionate Wife
of the Rev’d HENRY JOHN BURGES,
of the ISLE OF WIGHT: She died 25th
December 1771 in giving Birth to an
Infant Daughter, who rests in her Arms.
She here waits the transporting Moment
when the Trump of God shall call her
Forth to Glory, Honour & Immortality.

Oh DEATH were is thy Sting?
Oh GRAVE where is thy Victory?

The confidence of those words near the end is inspirational, although most of us don’t really talk that way. We love it when listening to Handel’s Messiah, as a bass voice sings the words of Saint Paul, words to the Corinthian Christians about how “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”[3]

However, in contrast to that, a lot of us have gotten used to talking about life after death using the language of immediacy. Loved ones are with God right now, which is a comforting thought. But we’re not sure how that connects with the resurrection of the body, words we recite in the creed. So we don’t know what to do with their bodies, our bodies, or any body for that matter. “Some bright morning when this life is o’er,” we’ll just fly away.

It’s not that the language of immediacy isn’t found in the New Testament. We hear it on the lips of Jesus himself, from the cross, as he answers the thief beside him, who is also being executed and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Jesus famously says to him,

Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.[4]

And on this All Saints’ Day we heard in the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, a stunningly beautiful and glorious description of those standing before the throne of God, not in the future but now. Did you notice, by the way, that they’re all Palmers, said to be holding palm branches in their hands? And they’re “a great multitude that no one could count . . . from all tribes and peoples and languages.”[5] Their past suffering, all of it, has come to an end; and because of Jesus who also suffered, the Lamb who was slain, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[6] That last part always reminds me of Jürgen Moltmann saying,

God weeps with us, so that we may someday laugh with him.[7]

So what are we to make of this tension within the Bible itself between the present and the future? Where are the dead?

Some believe, together with the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther and 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, that it’s about the difference between our experience of time and God’s perspective.[8] So here in this life, it appears as if those who have died are waiting for the resurrection. But at our own death, our experience of the resurrection will seem immediate and as if everyone is experiencing it at the same time.

Luther says as soon as our eyes have closed in death, we’ll be awakened. And it will be like those moments when we wake up in the middle of the night, with no idea how long we’ve been asleep. Whether a half hour or a thousand years, it will seem sudden, happening in the twinkling of an eye.[9]

That weird thing about time is why we can think of resurrection as a future event but also have a very real sense of the communion of saints gathered around the throne now, cheering us on as we walk through the sufferings they’ve already been through, praising God together as we say “holy, holy, holy” at the Lord’s Table, knowing that a crown of glory awaits us through the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we shall see face to face.

The truth is that it’s a mystery. And there are other ways many faithful Christians have described that mystery because, as a friend of mine said a few days ago, “We’re always peering into hidden things when it comes to death.”[10] Even so, in this election year, I’m voting with Martin Luther.

I’d say we’ll find out who won, who got most details right, when the Day of Days arrives not only for us and but also for the whole world. But here’s the thing: It won’t matter at that point because we’ll be in the presence of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars,” the same Love that’s already taken us by the hand now and will have raised us to new life then.[11]

What I know with certainty is that All Saints’ is one of my favorite festivals of the church year. It’s when Carrie and I had both of our children baptized. Rowan, our oldest son, was bathed in the font the same year my Daddy died. All of that came together in that moment — the waters of baptism, death and resurrection, the communion of saints. But that All Saints’ celebration also enfolded my grandparents, the two I knew and the two I never met.

Those circles of love ripple out from there. They encompass people you’ve known, who showed you when they were alive what Jesus is like through small acts of love. They draw a line around a great multitude of human beings around the world who have died as a result of COVID-19.[12] How is it not possible to remember them on All Saints’ this year, to pray for them, to pray for those staring at an empty seat around a kitchen table?[13]

My friends, those whom we love are not lost in death. They are not.

Where are the dead?

They are held in the love of Jesus, which surrounds them and us, always.

This I believe.

AMEN

BACK TO POST Carola Bloch, quoted by Jürgen Moltmann in In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 109.

BACK TO POST From the additional prayers at the end of the liturgy for the Burial of the Dead, Rite II, in the Book of Common Prayer (1979).

BACK TO POST 1 Corinthians 15:52 (KJV).

BACK TO POST Luke 23:43.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9.

BACK TO POST Revelation 7:17.

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, quoted by Philip Yancey in “God Behind Barbed Wire,” Christianity Today, posted online August 29, 2005.

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, on page 112 in his book In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), states that other Catholic theologians joined Karl Rahner in discussing the idea of “the resurrection at death” but that “in 1979 Joseph Ratzinger, in his first declaration as cardinal, had these ideas rejected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, because they make indulgences and Masses for the dead superfluous, and are therefore contrary to the [Roman Catholic] Church’s practice.” (That would have strengthened Martin Luther’s belief in it.)

BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 111-112.

10 BACK TO POST Jacob Smith, Rector of the Episcopal Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in New York, New York, on the Mockingbird podcast Same Old Song, “All Saints’ (A): Grandpa Joe, Supervillain,” October 26, 2020.

11 BACK TO POST Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 145.

12 BACK TO POST As of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020, according to the the COVID-19 Dashboard of Johns Hopkins University, more than 1.1 million people have died globally as a result of COVID-19.

13 BACK TO POST Although not the subject of this sermon, the Feast of All Saints is an appropriate time to ask why Anglican Christians around the world and through the centuries have offered prayers for the dead. The best answer I’ve heard in response to that question comes from an unlikely source, an evangelical New Testament scholar and bishop in the Church of England quoting an evangelical lay member of the Church of England.

N.T. Wright, on pages 74-75 in his book For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (New York: Morehouse, 2003), writes this:

Many years ago, the General Synod of the Church of England was debating the question of prayers for the dead. Professor Sir Norman Anderson, one of the most senior and respected laymen in the church of his day, and known as a leading evangelical and Protestant, rose to speak. You might have supposed that he would take the traditional line and denounce prayers for the dead as irrelevant nonsense, indicating a lack of assurance or a belief in purgatory. But Sir Norman and his wife had had three lovely children, a boy (of exceptional brilliance) and two girls; and all three had died in early adult life. And he had come, in his own experience, to realize that it was perfectly in order to continue to hold those beloved children before God in prayer, not to get them out of purgatory, nor because he was unsure about their final salvation, but because he wanted to talk to God about them, to share as it were his love for them with the God who had given them and had inexplicably allowed them to be taken away again. When I read his speech I realized not only how much I respected his nobility of mind and heart, but how much theological sense it made. Once you get rid of the abuses which have pulled prayer out of shape, there is no reason why prayer should not stop just because the person you are praying for happens now to be ‘with Christ, which is far better’. Why not simply celebrate the fact?