ALL SOULS Romans 13.8-10 and Luke 14.25-33
This is a strange time of year, isn't it? With the feasts of All Saints, All Souls and Remembrance all coming so close together, it can feel just a little bit sad. Through these feasts, we are encouraged to think about the difficult topic of death.
First, inevitably, we think about the death of those we have loved. Through these services, we re-member them...that is, we re-connect them, in our minds. We put their 'members' - their arms, legs, and faces, - back together in our minds. We re-member them. And that is good. It is an opportunity to thank God for all that our loved ones meant to us, and still mean to us. We might think about what they contributed to our lives. We might thank God for the love that they shared with us...love that is itself a sign, and a mirror, of the love of God itself.
For some of us, of course, some of the memories we have might be more complicated. All human beings are complicated, and human relationships are the most complicated of all. Some people even feel relieved when certain relationships are ended by death...let's be honest, not every relationship is positive and life-giving. But that's ok too. We give those relationships to God, just as we give all our loved ones to God. We trust that in God, and through God, there is healing of past hurts, as well as hope for the future.
Interestingly, however, today's lectionary readings have little to say about the death of those we have known. Instead, the lectionary encourages us to think about our own lives, and ultimately, of course, our own deaths. For as the old saying goes, "nothing is certain in life, except death and taxes".
St Augustine of Hippo enlarged on this idea, when he wrote this:
"It is necessary to die, but nobody wants to; you don't want to, but you are going to, whether you like it or not. It is hard not to want something which cannot be avoided. If it could be managed, we would much rather not die; we would like to become like the angels by some other means than death. We want to reach the Kingdom of God, but we don't want to travel by way of death. And yet, there stands Mr Necessity saying 'This way, please!' "
CS Lewis, writer of the Narnia books, was even more blunt. He said this:
"It is hard to have patience with people who say 'there is no death,' or 'Death doesn't matter'. There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn't matter."
But let's get back to the Lectionary. What are these two readings saying to us? First, St Paul, writing to the Romans, seems to speak right into the economic crisis that we who are still alive find ourselves faced with. He reminds us of what philosophers have called 'the Golden Rule' - "Love your neighbour as you love yourself". But he does so in a very interesting context. In the previous few lines, Paul has been talking about faithfulness in financial matters. "Pay your taxes", he says, "because the authorities are God's servants". Then, "Give everyone what you owe him". Then finally, "Let no debt remain outstanding".
If only this was the basis on which our financial system was built! If only we had not built our entire system on debt, then perhaps it would not have come crashing round our ears as it has done in the last few years. Paul says "Let no debt remain outstanding....except....the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellow-man has fulfilled the law"
Just imagine what a different world this would be if the law of loving compassion was the basis of our system of finances and banking! Just imagine how different life would be for billions, if 20% of the world's population did not control 80% of the world's resources. Just think how 'loving your neighbour' would truly transform the world!
It is possible to state the so-called Golden Rule in an opposite way. There is a story about a Jewish Rabbi, a contemporary of Jesus, called Rabbi Hillel. He was once challenged to stand on one leg, to recite the law of Moses. The old fellow was clearly up for a challenge, because he immediately stood on one leg and said (and I paraphrase)
"Don't do to others what you would not like them to do to you. That is the entire Law of God...the rest of the Scriptures are just commentary"
Do you see the difference? "Love your neighbour" is a positive action, and potentially a rather passive one. Its relatively simple to go around just loving everybody. But "don't treat your neighbour badly" is a way of inviting us to really challenge our behaviour. "Don't grab selfishly at stuff if you wouldn't like people grabbing at your stuff. Don't wage war if you would not like war waged on you. Don't judge other people's opinions, lifestyles, choices, if you would not like other people judging yours"
So here is Paul saying "wake up, people!" In fact, if we read on a few verses from the small selection of the lectionary, we find Paul saying this:
"The hour has come for you to wake up from your present slumber, because our salvation is nearer than when we first believed."
In other words....death is coming. Our salvation, through death into the Kingdom of God, is coming. Are we content to sleep our way through this 'present slumber' or are we perhaps interested in living Kingdom lives now? Because, let us not forget, the Departed whom we commemorate today, are living in the Kingdom of heaven - or so we pray. Our lives are but dull slumber compared to the true life that awaits all those who are transformed by the love of God.
D.L.Moody, a famous preacher, once said this:
"Some day you will read in the papers that D.L.Moody of Northfield is dead. Don't you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now: I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this clay tenement into a house that is immortal - a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto his glorious body"
And that is of course the thrust of the Gospel reading we just heard. Jesus uses a clearly exaggerated phrase to emphasise how unimportant our present priorities are, compared to the priorities of the Kingdom. He says, effectively,
"There is a cost to being a disciple".
"Any of you who does not give up everything for my sake cannot be my disciple. If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters - yes even his own life - he cannot be my disciple"
Jesus, and the Kingdom of loving compassion that he preaches, has a claim on our lives. Eternal life is not something which is only given to the departed. Jesus preached that "the Kingdom of Heaven is 'among you' or 'within you' " depending on the translation (cf Luke 17.21). In other words, eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven is something which is offered to us now. Eternal life is life which doesn't stop, even through death, and which can begin today. It is literally 'life which goes on for ever'.
There is an irony that as we pray for the souls of the departed today, Christian tradition has always taught that of much more importance is the knowledge that those who are in the very presence of God, now, are also praying for us. Our loved ones, who are themselves caught up in the love of God, are praying for us now, as we pray for them. By their prayers and ours, a great unending circle of prayer is initiated...a circle of compassionate love, in which we, like them, can be caught up. A great powerhouse of prayer which can give us the strength, the commitment, the drive, to live as Jesus and Paul his Apostle call us to live.
In most Orthodox churches around the world, over the Altar, there is an image of Christ celebrating the Eucharist with the 'faithful departed' - those who are in his presence now. Within Orthodoxy, there is a lovely idea that as we celebrate the Eucharist on earth, with the Priest standing 'vicariously' (as a Vicar) in the place of Christ, Christ himself celebrates the very same feast, eternally in heaven with all those he has welcomed into his kingdom. It's a lovely image...one which I encourage you to hold in your mind as we pray later 'with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven'.
So today, we pray for our loved ones, who we re-member in this act of worship...but we also pray for the strength to live our own eternal lives by the Golden Rule, and for the strength to make the compassionate priorities of the Kingdom our priorities...for ever and ever.