All Hallows Eve: How do we live in the world?
A sermon by the Rev. Brian Pavlac
Preached at St. Stephen's Wilkes-Barre
on the Feast of All Saints, two days before the election
Isaiah 25: 1-10 exalt God, made of the city a heap, strong peoples glorify ruthless nations fear; be a shelter. make a east of rich food and well-aged wines; swallow up death forever. We have waited s that he might save us. Revelation 21: 1-6 new heaven and new earth holy city new Jerusalem Death will be no more. It is done Alpha and Omega. John 11: 1-45 Lazarus “Illness not lead to death but God’s glory”
Being a historian, I am asked sometimes to talk about historical stuff. At the college I work, I have been interviewed several times on the campus radio station about the origins and history of holidays like Valentines, St. Patrick’s, or Thanksgiving. This week they called me up about Halloween.
All Hallow’s EVE, like many holidays, is obscure in how its practices came about. While it is a uniquely American holiday, its roots are in many traditions that deal with human nature. When asked about trick or treating I noted that begging is an old Christian practice as the poor try to get some wealth redistributed from the rich to themselves (and such begging is even mentioned in a Shakespeare play). When asked about costumes, I noted that in Europe people dress up in costumes at Karnival or Fat Tuesday another religious season, as a way to deal with death.
I sort of surprised myself with that comment, but I expanded on it.
We all know that we are going to die.
All Hallow’s or All Saints DAY recognizes this as still celebrated in Europe, in particular in Austria where I lived for several years, because All Hallow’s or All Saints is a serious and solemn day: people get time off from work and their loved ones who have passed on from this life, visiting the cemeteries where their physical remains lie buried and entombed.
Our Halloween, like their Karnival at a different time of year, uses fun and games and foolishness as a way to cope with our awareness of death.
We know we are going to die.
As appropriate for All Saint’s which we celebrate today, the lectionary readings are about death.
In Isaiah God appears like a great protector, a refuge to the poor, a shelter from the rainstorm.
The prophet says
7And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
The reading from Revelation is about the death of death itself. As the visionary writes,
Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
With the end of this age, a new heaven and a new earth everything will be different in the end times.
When we get to the gospel, of course the Lazarus story is about death, of one person, but that death is for the glory of God.
Prefiguring his own death and resurrection, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, showing us that death in this world is not the end, but there is something more.
Today, the prophets, visionaries, and miracles seem to be long gone in our weary world.
As Christians we are left to believe this message of hope, of a life beyond death, or to reject it.
And if we accept this message, the question is, how do we live in this world into a life after death in the next?
When I first looked at the readings for this Sunday I had forgotten it would be All Saints and just looked at the regular readings. We would have read the gospel from Mark 12, where in a conversation Jesus is asked what God commands us to do. I quote:
29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ 31The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
I have said before and I’ll certainly say again: here is the central message of what we as Christians are supposed to do:
love God and love our neighbor.
By doing those two things, we live into the salvation from death that Jesus has provided for us.
The Devil, however, is in the details.
What does loving God require of us to do?
What does loving our neighbor require of us to do?
For an answer, you might look at the catechism in our Book of Common Prayer which uses the Ten Commandments as a framework to organize thoughts around these issues.
But even they are vague when it comes to specifics.
We’ve got to decide ourselves, both as individuals and as members of larger communities, what to do concerning specific situations.
One such specific I’ve been paying attention to recently is the upcoming election. I’ve been reading recently, some other denominations, some other pastors have offered some specific answers about whom to vote for in this election. I’ve seen them called “non-negotiables.” They are saying, that no Christian can believe and act contrary to these “non-negotiables” and still call oneself a Christian or even be saved, they say.
What I find surprising is these beliefs are not about theological issues—the holy spirit, salvation, grace, those kind of things, but about political and social issues in this world, especially as connected to the current political campaign that ends on Tuesday.
Perhaps you’ve seen some of appeals:
Voters guides by religious groups like Wallbuilders or the Christian Coalition;
newspaper ads like Billy Graham paid for;
various youtube videos by preachers and;
commercials paid for by PACs, such as one narrated by Mike Huckabee.
They all are trying to tell Christians what the most important issues are in this election, as if the whole world depended on the right choice, really as if all of creation, heaven, and hell depended on it.
Thinking about such proposals, I ask myself what would Jesus do in this particular election?
For whom would he vote?
Let me first say, the question is anti-historical, since Jesus had no concept of voting. As a Jewish subject in the Roman Empire he had no right to cast a vote for any political office, make a choice about any ballot initiative.
Jesus asked that people respect politics, rendering unto Caesar and all that, but God was more important.
Not being involved in politics, not voting is an interesting proposition—maybe we shouldn’t at all. Many Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians avoided American politics until, ironically, one of their own, Jimmy Carter, became president, but he was too liberal for their conservative social policy.
This week I heard a lady on the radio who was very upset about one candidate, she called him a liar. You know which candidate I’m talking about right? Maybe not, since I always tell my students all politicians lie. Anyhow, then she said she wasn't going to vote except for herself and God (and she meant she was not going to the polling booth).
There's a consistency there, perhaps, but a foolish consistency in my opinion.
I believe that we are in this world to act, so how do we act as Christians in an election?
In that regard, what if the candidates are not the best choices?
An old student of mine wrote this week that we should not choose between the lesser of two evils (meaning the two candidates running from the Democratic and Republican parties for President), since to do that is cooperation with evil, which is forbidden by our Judeo-Christian tradition, natural law, and even the Declaration of Independence, somehow.
My response to him was that by his philosophy we couldn’t vote for anyone since we all, voters and candidates alike, are all sinners.
Jesus calls on us to repent of our sins, for the kingdom of heaven is near. And he calls us, again remember, to love God and love our neighbor.
So if we do vote anyhow, is it on the basis of “non-negotiables”?
I ask, though, do these “non-negotiables” help us love God and our neighbor?
By supporting only Israel’s hardline politicians and not the Palestinians who live under their power?
By regulating people’s reproductive lives, including banning almost any science-based contraception or in vitro fertilization?
By making it easier to have access to guns?
By forbidding some kinds of people to love other kinds of people, especially within a legally recognized relationship?
These are some of the “non-negotiables” that I’ve read that Christians “must” do.
But when I read my Bible, I don’t see that Jesus talks much about that stuff.
What I do read is how Jesus calls us again and again
to avoid overvaluing our wealth,
to help the poor, and
to love each other, including loving our enemies.
These things are against the grain of our natural inclinations, certainly against the grain of our politics.
Now, I’m a political person as much as anyone, maybe more. As a citizen, I’ve written letters to the editor, had conversations about politics, even worked on a political campaign. In all these forums, I’ve argued that the political candidates and positions I support are the right ones and best for our country and its future.
Even I forget, often, or find it hard to actualize enough, devaluing my wealth, helping the poor, and loving my enemies.
But the real point of every election is to help us create a just society, that balances rights and responsibilities we have to each other and to God,
And there are no easy answers.
As you cast your ballot on Tuesday, I urge you, though, to think about devaluing your wealth, helping the poor, and loving your enemies.
Who would be the best candidates or ballot issues to fulfill God’s command in treating the poor and our enemies?
You may not have much information to go on, since our news media almost never report on poverty issues, despite 46 million Americans officially classified as poor.
I hardly need to note that our media reports even less about poverty in the rest of the world, although we here know a little, at least, about the South Sudan.
And our news media usually casts our enemies, domestic or foreign, as evil, not to be sympathized with, especially because in many cases we kill them without much thought or regret.
You can tell that I reject all those “non-negotiables” I’ve mentioned as floated about by these politicized religious parties. You don’t have to agree with me.
Our Church since its beginning has included people of different political opinions. The Anglican tradition in particular has tried to avoid forcing people to violate their conscience on issues of import to them.
If we haven't been able to iron out all our religious differences, it’s not surprising that we don’t agree on all political issues.
Before elections, during them, and after them, we come together in Common Prayer and in the Eucharist.
In these moments we remember, again, how Jesus calls on us to repent of our sins for the kingdom of heaven is near. Then we love God and love our neighbor. Our reward is in salvation that has conquered death and brings us from this world to the next.
When life comes down to it, the only “non-negotiable” is death.
It comes for each one of us, in turn.
Our time in this world is brief.
We don’t even need the Bible to tell us that, but it reminds us of it often, like with today’s lectionary.
To cope with our fear of death, we may mock it at Halloween. But we need not fear death.
For we believe that God has sent Jesus who, is the Lord for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
May these few words help us to embrace the eternal Word.