This is the sermon I preached for All Saint's Sunday at the Apache Junction/Epiphany Campus. I chose to use the 'other' texts because I felt they were more appropriate to the themes that would be in the minds of this congregation on All Saint's Sunday.
Gospel Text: Luke 20:27-38
“To be, or not to be– that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them. To die, to sleep
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to – ‘tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come...”
I trust that you have heard these words before, certainly the first line anyway. This just might be the most famous single line of any of Shakespeare’s plays (excepting maybe Romeo and Juliet), it might even be the most famous single line in all of the history of Theater. It ranks right up there with some of those famous lines of literature: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....,” “Call me Ishmael,” and of film: “I’ve got a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore...,” “What we’ve got here is a failure to communicate...,” “If you build it, they will come...,” “Here’s looking at you, kid.” There are hundreds of other lines that I could quote here that at least some, if not all, of you would recognize. Even if you couldn’t tell me where they were from, you’d at least have heard them before, they would sound familiar to you. And this one line of Shakespeare’s, “To be or not to be,” is at least as famous as all of these. Aside from the Bible, what other written words have so well withstood the passage of time? I certainly can’t think of any. And why does this one remain so clearly? Well it might be because it is part of a literary masterpiece, but while that certainly may help it pop up in discussion with frequency it doesn’t explain why any other line of that entire play is not so well remembered. It might be that it is such a simple phrase, an entire quote that is made without any words longer than 3 letters, but I think that while this line’s simplicity adds to its allure and power, it doesn’t necessarily define it. Well... what is it then? Why do we continue to recite this line and its fellows so long after its creation? Well we’ve already covered its context and its format... what about it’s subject? Ok, so what is this “To be or not to be” all about? Okay now I think we might be on to something... and now we start to get into the meat of what today is all about.
Some of you, maybe all of you, probably know that today is All Saint’s Day in the church. Today we celebrate and honor the memory of all our blessed saints, our friends and family, our companions on the journey that have gone before us, especially those that have departed since the last time we recognized this day. We are grateful today for the lives of those saints who have made this journey of ours that much more joyous, and fulfilling, and peaceful. But also today our minds wander to that ever present and ever elusive theme of death. We certainly are mindful of the gift that these saints have been in our lives but we cannot remember their lives without remembering that they are no longer here with us and that it is death that has come between them and us. Certainly we do not need the memory of those close to us to make us think about Death. We may think about it when we watch the news, or read the paper, and we may fear it in fleeting glimpses from close calls out on the highway, or just in our daily lives. Death is a very common theme in our lives, and as such it is a very common theme in or art, how often do we read a book where death is at the very least a bit player?, or watch a play?, or a movie?, or listen to a song about Death?, or dying?, or loss?, or grieving?... and we here today, in this age, are not alone in our fascination and our preoccupation with death. Generations of people have lived out their lives under the ever-presence of death, and many of them much more so than we do. Think of those who lived in this country during the civil war, or the revolutionary war, or who came out west before the railroad who faced so much more uncertainty about how soon it would be that they faced the precipice of death . But even we, in our relative safety and insulation from the daily threat of death must face the fact that it is a very real fact of life. We will all die and we will all experience, as we already have, the loss of those we love.
And so we think of death... and we remember “To be or not to be” because it is about death. We think about death and we fear death... we fear the deaths of those we love. and we fear our own deaths. We hear that loneliness and loss that we feel when someone is gone. And we struggle, just as Prince Hamlet does, as we fear the end of what we know and the beginning of what lies beyond the end of our ‘baptismal journey.’ Later in that same speech Hamlet speaks of death as:
“The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”
This is the point isn’t it? That death is that place that we’ve never been, the “undiscovered country” and we fear that unknown because we don’t know what it will bring, and we certainly don’t know anyone that has gone to death and returned... do we? Do we...?
[Look to the cross]
If you’ve been wondering when Jesus was going to come up today, here is your answer.... He’s been there all along. He’s right here with us in our obsession and our fear because you can’t talk about Death without at least indirectly talking about the one who’s been there, and come back. The one who conquered death so that we might live. It’s the story that we’ve been hearing since we were little kids, or since you first started coming to church if you joined the party later in life, Jesus Christ died on the cross for us and for our salvation, so that sin and death would have no power over us and then he was resurrected, “on the third day he rose again”... and we are told that we too will participate in the resurrection, we too will be given eternal life. We don’t need to fear death because Christ has conquered death...right?
Well... yes that’s true... but does it really make you feel any better? Well it doesn’t really help me to feel much better, at least not initially. Yes “I know that my redeemer lives” but what does that mean for me exactly....
So then when I look at the Sadducees’ question for Jesus today, I think: “Yeah... what about that, Jesus?”. What do you have to say about that? A lot of people when talking about today’s text will talk about how the Sadducees are trying to trap Jesus, they’re trying to ask him a question that he can’t answer, so that he’ll have to either refute the Torah or amend his ideas about resurrection, and while that may be true it doesn’t really change what this question is about. The sadducees are asking Jesus about the particularities of the resurrected life and in some ways I can kind of relate to that question. I want to know that this life is going to look like. I’m afraid of the unknown and I’m afraid of death so I want to know little things like who I”m going to be married to in heaven. So then, even though there might be malice in the Saduccees motivations for asking this question, we might imagine ourselves sitting nearby, thinking: “ooh good question” and leaning in closer for the answer. And what do we hear Jesus say? He says: (and this is a bit of a paraphrase) Uh uh uh.... not so fast... it doesn’t work like that... The resurrection isn’t going to look like what you’re used to... You’re not going to be able to understand it in the way that you understand this world. So don’t even try... Man, that guy can be frustrating....
But I think this picture is beginning to make sense... you see, it is very important that Jesus answers this way because it tells us something very important about this promise of resurrection, it tells us that it’s going to be much different than any way that we can possibly imagine our life being. And more important than this is what Jesus says last:
“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” Breathe deeply now my friends because our relief has come, the promise is here, Jesus’ message of hope is alive in these words: God is God of the Living. This is not a phrase of exclusion, saying that God only cares for those who still walk the earth... no, no... This is a phrase of complete and total inclusion, God does not need to care for the dead, it says, because there are no dead. All of them are alive.
Now, I’m sure you know that this doesn’t mean that everyone still lives and breathes, we’ve been over that already this morning, so what does it mean? Well the word for alive in this case is ZAO which is one of a multitude of words that could be translated as life or living... and what is important about Zao is how else it is used by Luke in the Gospel... it is not used as the waking and rising, This is not the ‘live’ that is the daily in and out of breath.... This is “man shall not live by bread alone, but by the very word of God” This is... “Your brother was dead and is alive again, was lost and now is found” This is “Why do you seek the living among the dead...?” This is... “Your son lives...” This is... “I am the resurrection, and the life.” This verse: “All of them are alive”, is the promise that death is not the end. And this is a promise from God so you know you can trust it, it’s the same kind of promise that we will very soon experience in God’s presence in breaking of bread and the sharing of wine, these are promises that will be fulfilled according to God’s grace.
So.... do you feel comforted yet? Maybe... a little bit? Perhaps the sting is starting to wear off? The fear is loosening it’s grip. Well God has promised us eternal life... God has promised us the resurrection and here is what I can say about that. The fear will never leave completely. No matter how at peace we become with our own mortality, the fear of the unknown will always be close by. But... even though we don’t know what exactly will become of us, we know we will remain just as we know that our loved ones are in the loving arms of God.
A man I know, who had just lost a very close friend of his, said, as he grieved, that: “Death is for the Living.” And what he meant was something like this: We fear death because it is the end. To us here on earth, every experience of death that we have had has meant the end. Death is a precipice that waits and the end of this road from which we cannot exit, and we have watched our friends and our companions disappear over it’s edge, we cannot look down to what is waiting below because we are not yet close enough to do so. And so of course we are afraid of that, everybody hates the feeling of falling.... but Jesus promises that there will be a soft, safe landing and paradise waiting for us, and sure that’s a vague and abstract term: paradise.... but we get the idea right? Paradise... Jesus has promised us paradise. And so death is not the end of all things, it is just the end of THIS thing. So, Death is for the living... because the living person who witnesses death, who knows someone who dies is the only one that experiences it as death... Jesus’ promise today is that our own death will not feel like death but more like rebirth, more like a caterpillar being transformed into a butterfly....how scared would you be if you were heading into that cocoon? and yet how glorious is the exit from it?
Remember where Hamlet’s soliloquy takes him.... He refers to death as sleep... This is a metaphor that you may have seen before. It is a common one, possibly because the outward appearance of the two is so similar.
Well, if death is like falling asleep, then resurrection, Jesus’ promise of resurrection, is like a dream, but not just any dream, a dream that is more real than any waking moment you’ve known.
Those that have gone before us, have experienced what we will experience.... the end of this, yes... but not just an end, they are not gone as though it may feel to us like they are.... their end was the beginning of something different entirely. It was not death to them, but transformation..... it was birth....
To them it was like falling asleep.... and waking up into the most incredible dream....