November 1, 2018
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|Isaiah 25:6-9||Psalm 24||Revelation 21:1-6a||John 11:32-44|
by Bruce Epperly
Early yesterday morning, I received a call informing me that one of the “saints” of the congregation I pastor had died suddenly and unexpectedly. In twenty-four hours that have followed, I’ve had several conversations in which members noted how close he and his wife were and how they would now be joined together for eternity. All Hallows Eve, All Saints Day, and All Souls Day reflect on the relationship between the living and the dead, the meaning of faithfulness and a holy/whole life, and the reality of life everlasting. Dated to coincide with the pagan/earth-based holiday of Samhain, All Saints also reminds us of the ever-evolving circle of life and death and the faithfulness of God through all the seasons of life, seedtime and harvest. Indeed, it is appropriate to affirm the wisdom of earth-based spiritualities during All Saints celebrations. Each moment is a potential “thin place,” as the Celts affirmed, where heaven and earth and the living and dead are transparent to one another. Process theologians can appropriately affirm everlasting life along with the importance of this lifetime, recognizing that any vision of the afterlife involves relatedness, growth, wholeness, and adventure.
All Saints also challenges us to reflect on the meaning of saintliness, or – in the words of Simone Weil – images of saintliness for our time. Today, we must envisage saints that are both heavenly minded and earthly good, persons who rejoice in the earth while looking toward the horizons of everlasting adventure.
Isaiah imagines a world in which death has been vanquished. Although Whitehead suggested that perpetual perishing may be the greatest existential evil, I believe that beyond the loss of this moment’s immediacy is the ultimate loss of our lives and the lives of those whom we love. Beyond the loss of freshness of this moment is the threat of cessation of experience altogether. The end of experience, connection, relationship, and growth. While Isaiah may not have had a vision of immortality or everlasting life, he looks toward God’s realm of Shalom in which there will be no more tears and the streets will be filled with the laughter of children.
The praise hymn of Psalm 24 connects saintliness or righteousness with the recognition that the “Earth is God’s.” We are God’s beloved – and perpetually in God’s care – but our awareness of our divine environment is connected with our personal and relational purity. Most of the time, we forget the heavenly nature of earthy life. With Jacob, awakening from his dream of a ladder of angels, we exclaim “God was in this place – and I did not know it.” Our ladder to heaven, in the spirit of Jacob’s dream, begins here on earth with our sense of the holiness of all creation and our responsibility to be God’s partners in healing the earth.
The eschatological vision of Revelation speaks of a “new heaven and a new earth,” where God dwells with us, drying every tear, and ending the sting of death. Revelation’s vision, neglected by the world-denying “left behind” crowd, is universal and embodied. God is with us now and forevermore, treasuring both this life and any future immortality. God’s place is in this Holy Here and Holy Now as well as in the Sweet By and By. There is no flight from earth to heaven, no hope for catastrophic destruction; there is the profound transfiguration of this world to reflect God’s holistic vision. Today, as global climate change seems almost irreversible and the leaders of the USA have turned their back on the planet in favor of short-term profits, it is hard to imagine a new earth. It is easier to visualize a planet no longer hospitable to humankind and its creaturely companions. Still, though we may be “at a minute of midnight” in terms of turning around the fate of the earth, we can still act locally and globally, personally and politically, to heal the world.
The Gospel of John tells the story of Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. Frankly, we don’t know quite what to do with this story. When he heard this story read, my eight -year-old grandson asked, “If Jesus rose from the dead and could raise Lazarus, why would he raise everyone else?” Out of the mouths of babes comes some of the most serious theological questioning. At the very least, we must ask, “What is the relevance of this story to a community that has lost one of its saints, who will not be raised in this lifetime? What does this story mean to those of us who grieve and who must face our own mortality?” At the very least, the raising of Lazarus describes Jesus’ love for a friend. As the reflection of God in human life, Jesus is embedded in a world of relationships and reveals God’s own stake in our well-being. Jesus shows us that God is, as Whitehead avers, “the fellow sufferer who understands.” While this story cannot be reduced to the “unbinding” of all that imprisons us or the “coming out” of all our hidden gifts, Jesus’ healing is liberating, bringing new life and new possibility to our world. Where do we need to be liberated? Where do institutions need to be unbound? What important gifts need to come out from the tomb of fear and anxiety, of self-imposed limitation? If, as Iranaeus asserts, the glory of God is a fully alive human, how do we unlock God’s glory in ourselves, our loved ones, our congregants, and our nation? We are far from being fully alive and need contemporary visions of mysticism and sainthood to awaken us to God’s dream in our world of tragic beauty.
On All Saints, whether celebrated on November 1 or November 4, we are challenged to give thanks for the saints in our midst and the persons whose lives have given us meaning and direction. We are also invited to imagine the interplay of heaven and earth, this world and the next, and the meaning of everlasting life. All Saints challenges us to explore our own “saintliness” as twenty-first century persons, committed to earth care and social justice as essential to our vocation as God’s companions in a never-ending adventure. Honoring the images of the saints of our lives and the world religions, we can grow into planetary sainthood one act, one word, one phone call, and one protest at a time.
John Cobb, Jesus’ Abba: The God who Has Not Failed. Fortress, 2016.
Bruce Epperly, Angels, Mysteries and Miracles: A Progressive Vision. Energion, 2017.
Bruce Epperly, From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure. Energion, 2016.
Bruce Epperly, The Mystic in You: Discovering a God-Filled World. Upper Room, 2018.
Bruce Epperly, Praying with Process Theology: Spiritual Practices for Personal and Global Transformation, River Lane, 2016.
Patricia Adams Farmer, Embracing a Beautiful God. Create Space, 2013.
Ron Farmer, Beyond the Impasse: The Promise of a Process Hermeneutic. Mercer University Press, 1998.
Catherine Keller, Apocalypse Now and Then. Augsburg Fortress, 2005.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, UCC, Centerville, on Cape Cod, MA, and professor in the D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of over 40 books, including Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God, Process Spirituality: Practicing Holy Adventure with God, and The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh.