FACING THE POWERS OF DEATH IN THIS WORLD,
THAT WE MIGHT SHARE THE POWER OF LIFE IN GOD'S ANTI-WORLD
In a few minutes, during the prayers, we will read the names of those members of Redemption who have died in this past year since last All Saints Day. We will give thanks for their lives among us; we will pray for their families and friends who miss them; and, remembering that they are all saints in our Lord Jesus Christ, we will rejoice in the eternal power of life which now fully embraces them.
But first I would like to ask you to do something which is going to seem pretty risky. I'd like for you to imagine, even a little bit, the kind of grief which can surround such a loss. Now, I don't ask this lightly of you. I hope you will see that in a few minutes. I don't ask this lightly especially keeping in mind that we sent letters of invitation to spouses and children of our saints at Redemption who departed us this year. These are the folks who are still more in the middle of such griefs. I don't have to ask them to imagine the grief.
And there will be many others of you who don't have to imagine too hard because the grief is still close. So, yes, what I'm asking us all to do here in the next couple minutes is a bit risky. But please try to imagine and empathize a bit.
As your interim pastor, I didn't really get to know any of these saints who died this year. And I've only gotten to know a little bit some of you who are family members. I talked with Nina Lohmiller this past week, for example, and I found out that she and Lyall had been married almost sixty-two years when he passed away in June. The last several years have been difficult ones after he survived an aortic aneurism, but they are still years that Nina was thankful to have. They had already shared about sixty of their years together, and they were thankful for each additional one that they were able to be together, sharing this life.
The only funeral that I've been through with any of these families was with Stan Sosinske. And I heard a similar story. Helen suffered from emphysema for years. Several years ago she was about to die from it, and she heard about a new procedure at Froedtert Hospital that might give her some more time, and it did. It worked. She was blessed with several more decent years of sharing this life with her family and friends.
There's no doubt personal stories like this that go with each of the losses we remember today -- family and friends who give thanks for the years they were able to share life together, and perhaps still wishing that they would have more.
Now, I've asked you to share this risky exercise with me because I'd like to push us even a bit further. We've been touched by a national tragedy in recent weeks that has brought us in contact with many of these kinds of personal stories of loss. Over six thousand of them! Did you know, for example, that shortly after the tragic events of September 11, the New York Times began printing such personal stories every day on their back page? "Portraits of Grief," they call them -- a picture of someone who died in the World Trade Center disaster and several paragraphs about them to give you a flavor of their life. I printed off several from the last couple days. There's Eric Sand, for example, a thirty-six year old equity trader, who worked hard but made sure he got home to his wife, Michele, and that he was there to tuck in his 18 month old son Aaron at least five nights a week.
Let me read you just this one. KALEEN PEZZUTI -- "Laughter and Loyalty," is the headline.
She graduated from Cornell University and backpacked around Europe with some sorority sisters. In fall 1995, she got a job at Cantor Fitzgerald. It was there that Kaleen Pezzuti met Matthew Grzymalski and fell in love. And there they died together.Now, why in God's name am I putting us through this? Because I think this national tragedy has the potential to teach us something that our Christian faith, and All Saints Day in particular, is trying to teach us. We can begin with our own personal stories of grief and begin to extend them in empathy to other peoples' stories of grief. We are doing that with the tragic losses of September 11.
"We are certainly hoping they were holding hands or hugging or wrapped in each other's arms somehow," said Mr. Grzymalski's sister Patti Ann Valerio.
At Mr. Grzymalski's memorial Mass, his mother gave Ms. Pezzuti's mother, Kathleen E. Pezzuti of Fair Haven, N.J., a card from Ms. Pezzuti she had found in Mr. Grzymalski's dresser. "My mom was right," she wrote. "Happiness agrees with me. I owe that all to you. I love you, K. XOXO."
Ms. Pezzuti, 28, was a loyal friend. She had blond hair, dark eyebrows, blue eyes. She never needed mascara. She played soccer. She painted. She had a contagious laugh. "On the night before, on Sept. 10, she spoke to one of her best friends and told her, 'He's the one,' "said Mrs. Pezzuti, whose other daughter, Megan, lost her husband in the Sept. 11 attack. "It would have been a really wonderful family." (1)
But in reminding us on All Saints Day that we are all saints of God, we have the opportunity to experience that for all of God's children. It's more difficult, but we might begin, for example, to extend our personal stories of grief to connect with those in Afghanistan who are losing their husbands, their children, their fathers and mothers. All of God's children are precious saints of God. That's what I think we are invited in faith to learn and experience on All Saints Day. Can we learn to empathize, too, with the two thirds of the world's population who are on the edge of dying every day from starvation, disease, and the terrible effects of abject poverty? Jesus says, in this morning's Gospel, "Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God." In what sense is this true if there aren't people of faith in God's kingdom who are moved to reach out to them?
We've mentioned our solidarity with those so tragically slaughtered in the acts of violence Sept. 11. What if we are able to empathize, on this All Saints Sunday, with all those tragic victims of violence across this world -- not only in this time in history, but in all the times of history: those victims of the Nazi Holocaust, of our own holocaust against African slaves and Native Americans who got in our way, of victims in the Christian crusades against the Holy Land, of Roman tyranny, of Babylonian, and Egyptian, and on and on and on?
Again, why in God's name am I doing this?! Because on this All Saints Sunday these words of God from Holy Scripture once again invite us to repent and to turn to the God of life. Seemingly wallowing in death might seem a funny way to get to hearing the God of life. But think on the Cross for a moment. The central symbol of our faith puts death in our faces. The cross is an instrument of execution on which our Lord died, the one we proclaim to reveal to us the Lord of life. It takes a death like that of our Lord's on the Cross to jolt us into facing the truth about our role in the powers of death.
Look again at our second lesson from Ephesians: "I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ ... may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened" -- you see? we need our hearts enlightened -- "you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power." Are you listening? This is about power, real power. Listen to this incredible description of hardly imaginable power:
God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.Isn't that unbelievable? It sounds like it's talking about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar, or any one of the greatest of conquering rulers in history. This is a power "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion," it says.
Now think again on the Cross: Some poor, peasant-town carpenter's son, duly tried, found guilty, and executed, both according to his own Jewish rulers, and according to the Roman governor. This one crucified is the same One whom the letter to the Ephesians proclaims as the most powerful person who ever lived. Let's be brutally honest here: either this is absolutely daft and crazy nonsense, or God is trying to show us, 'with the eyes of our hearts enlightened,' that what counts for power to God is completely, completely different than what counts for power to us.
How different? A casual look at our Gospel Lesson can indicate that. A closer look, 'with the eyes of our hearts enlightened,' might reveal a bit more about this difference. Jesus, in this Sermon on the Plain, begins by extending blessings to all who are poor, hungry, and suffering under a load of loss. Blessed, too, are those who are persecuted for faith. In other words, he counts as blessed precisely those who seem to have no power by this world's standards. And he extends woes to those who appear to be the most powerful: the rich, the well-fed, and the comfortably happy folks. Once again, we are seeing a topsy-turvy view of what counts for power in God's universe, a universe which is apparently some sort of anti-universe to the one we most typically live in. Isn't this such radical stuff that even a term like God's "anti-universe" fits?
What's going on here? What we are poised to hear on this All Saints Sunday is this: what counts for power and life in this world is actually an evasion of death, that is, power-moves that puts death off onto other people. Remember how we have tried to face death this morning, to reach out to other people's griefs. Well, what I'm saying is that that's the opposite of what generally counts for power in the human world. Jesus announcing woes to this world's powerful, in other words, to those who are wealthy enough, well-fed enough, and sufficiently entertained enough to think that they are putting off death. Being powerful in our usual everyday world means not having to face death today, even if it is all around us. Such human power allows us to think: 'Hey, someone else may die today, but I'm at least wealthy enough and well-fed enough and entertained enough not to have to worry about that today.' 'Yes, you are,' says Jesus, 'but your day of facing death will come sooner or later. Woe to you for not facing it today.'
Why? Why woe? Isn't that the point of life, to make sure that we survive? That our family survives? That our loved ones and closest neighbors survive? Isn't that natural that the power and ability to put off death should be what counts for power in this world? No, says Jesus! No, says our God! The only real power to survive comes with the acceptance in faith that God has given us a world that can sustain everyone, that God is a God of life, and that God calls us to be stewards of life, not just for ourselves, but for the whole creation. The true power of life and survival comes with everyone seeking the survival of everyone else.
We are all children of God. We are all saints. So we should be able to take every death personally. I don't mean that in the sense of feeling guilty for it. No, in God's grace we are also forgiven our chasing after human power that leads to so much death. We should take death personally, though, to the extent that we can begin to do something about it, that we can live by faith in God's power of life to be shared with others. We are freed from our paralysis in the face of death, to be about the business of sharing life, precisely as a gift to be shared, not as a precious treasure to horde.
"Do to others as you would have them do to you," says Jesus. The Golden Rule. But do you see what this means on the level of understanding real power? If we are to survive and find the real power of life, we find it together. We share it together. We are about the business of helping others to find life just as we would have them do to us. Our Lord lived a life of doing everything he possibly could to bring God's gift of life to others, through healing, through miracles of feeding them. Finally, he even gave himself over to our powers of death, our powers of trying to horde life for some at the expense of others. He gave himself up to that on the cross so that in his resurrection we might come to live by faith in him, to live as he lived.
Why? Why couldn't he just have gone on to heal and feed others as best he could? Because as one person he can't possibly do that. No, in dying and rising to new life, he shows us the real power in the world, the power of more and more people living in faith with him, faith in a God of compassion and life. We face poverty and hunger and the grieving of losses together, so that we might also find the true power of life together, the power of a compassionate reaching out for the sake of others.
Oh, people! There is so much more we should say about this. So much more we need to learn about these things. We haven't even gotten to the second half of our Gospel Lesson, additional signs of God's topsy-turvy anti-universe, in which we are called to even love our enemies, and to practice nonviolence to the point of turning our other cheeks when struck on one of them. But let me be quiet for now (until next week, at least, when I will continue with these themes). And let us prepare for the meal that our Lord once again comes to host, that he comes to enlighten the eyes of our hearts, with a grace and peace and love that we might share with others. We face his death once again in this Holy Supper, and we celebrate his rising again, so that we might be strengthened to face the powers of death in this world, moved to share the power of love and life with all of God's saints in God's world. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Redemption Lutheran,
Wauwatosa, WI, November 4, 2001
1. New York Times on the Web, November 2, 2001, "Portraits of Grief"; stories written that day by Al Baker, Alex Berenson, Celestine Bohlen, Jan Hoffman, Lynette Holloway, Charlie LeDuff, Clifford J. Levy, Andy Newman, Maria Newman and Yilu Zhao. Page address (URL):