November 4, 2018, He Is Not the God of Ghosts, but of the Living – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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“Do you believe in ghosts?” Seeing as how it was Halloween this past Wednesday when we were working on Shepherd’s Pie for the Community Dinner, it wasn’t too surprising that that question came up. Do I believe in ghosts? I have to say, I’ve heard some very convincing stories about ghosts from some very rational people. At Nashotah House, where I did my theological studies, it was claimed that we had a ghost in residence. We called him the Black Monk. The librarian, who was a perfectly normal, non-hysterical person, said that she had run into him numerous times in the basement of the library, and that he seemed like a very friendly ghost. We’ve all heard stories like that. Who knows what the truth is behind any of those stories?
A technical definition of a ghost is that it is the disembodied spirit of a person who has died, whose body has returned to the earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust like we say on Ash Wednesday. But for some reason, a ghost, even though it is dead, has a tangible presence in the world of the living. That’s why people find ghosts so scary. They are walking reminders of our mortality. In our imaginations and in our stories we endow ghosts with all the most horrifying things we associate with death: pain and fear and grief and worms and decay and loneliness and regret. Think Steven King. Think Wuthering Heights. No matter how civilized our world thinks it is, it will always be scared of ghosts. Some people are genuinely terrified of the whole idea. Other people take it lightly and kind of get a thrill out of being afraid. But the fear is there.
The Church has celebrated the Feast of All Saints, as we are doing today, for at least twelve or thirteen hundred years now. And there have been pagan festivals of the dead for much longer than that – probably as long as there have been people. But the Feast of All Saints is not just our version of those ancient festivals. It’s not a “Christian” festival of the Dead. And the reason it’s not, is because it is a festival of the Living, just as Jesus told the Sadduccees, who had sent their smartest guys to try to out-argue Jesus on the subject of the Resurrection, and make him look foolish. After they had failed spectacularly, he said to them, “ Don’t you remember in the book of Moses, how God spoke to him out of the burning bush, and said, ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? You’ve got it all wrong,” he told those Sadduccees, “God is not the God of the dead; he’s the God of the living. ”
It seems like I’ve been doing an awful lot of funerals lately, and I don’t mind that, because I think funerals are really important. One reason funerals are so important to people is that we really need to come together to comfort each other when we lose someone we love; we need the company of others who share the sadness of loss with us, so we can help bear one another’s burden of grief. Funerals are also good and helpful occasions to celebrate the life of the person who has died: we tell stories, and we cry, and we laugh. We remember together, and we are thankful together. Any funeral, Christian or otherwise, can serve those good purposes. But as we, the Church, understand it, a funeral is also an opportunity for us to be reminded and to reaffirm the hope that we have, not only in this life, but through the thing we call death and beyond. It’s an opportunity to remember that God is the God of the living, not the dead.
The words of the Burial service are beautiful, and it’s easy to get caught up in the holiness and solemnity of the liturgy sometimes, and not to notice the earth-shattering things we are saying about this whole death thing. But if you pay attention to what we are saying, you’ll notice that we make some amazing claims.
We begin the service with the ancient anthem, “I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord. Whoever has faith in me shall have life, even though he die. And everyone who has life, and has committed himself to me in faith, shall not die for ever.”
We make that claim even as the body of our loved one is carried in and set before us, laid in the casket, or maybe their ashes in an urn. The reality of their death is right in front of us, and still we make that claim. “Everyone who has committed himself to me in faith shall not die for ever.” This enormous certainty, this fearful thing, death, we claim – it’s not going to have the last word.
And then we pray for our loved one, prayers that would be utter nonsense if we believed that death was really the end of their story. We pray for them to rest in peace and that light perpetual would shine upon them and those kinds of nice, comfortable, reasonable thoughts. But then we pray this: “Grant that your servant, being raised with Christ, may know the strength of his presence, and rejoice in his eternal glory.” We pray, “Grant them an entrance into the land of light and joy, in the fellowship of your saints.” Notice what we’re asking. We pray that their minds might have understanding, that they might receive strength from the very nearness of God, that they might feel joy. We pray that they might enjoy the company of other people. Those aren’t things you pray for a lifeless corpse; those are things you pray for a living human being.
And so, in the Proper Preface to the Communion in the Burial service we make this claim: “to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” A dwelling-place – not a resting-place, which sounds a little like a parking spot – but a dwelling place, a place to live.
Today, on this Feast Day of All God’s holy people, we do remember the people we miss and we miss the people we remember – “all those we love, but see no longer” as we pray in the Burial service. We take note of the empty spots in the pews, those empty places that will always remind us of our good friends even when they are filled by new friends in the future – we remember Joan, and Ruth, and Dot, and Harriett. We remember Alice, and Barb, and Laura. And I know each of us are remembering so many other empty spaces in our own lives: people we can’t call on the phone anymore, people whose houses look unfamiliar now when we drive past, people whose hugs we can’t feel and whose cooking we can no longer enjoy. And we remember each and every one of them with deep gratitude and certainly with sadness for our own loss.
But we also make our claim that they are not ghosts and they are not gone from us. They have entered into a kind of life that is beyond our understanding. John wrote, “Beloved, we are God’s children now. But what we will be has not yet been seen. The only thing we do know is that we will be like him, because we will see him as he is.”
And because we know that, we can be sure of this. Since our loved ones are alive now in the presence of the God who has made his dwelling with us, then we know, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that they are very near to us as well. We know that because we know that the kingdom of heaven, which is their new and eternal home, isn’t a somewhere-over-the-rainbow kind of thing; the kingdom of heaven is the presence and the power of God – “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth”.
When Jesus called Lazarus forth from the tomb, Lazarus answered his friend’s call. He came staggering blindly out of the cave with linen strips binding his hands and feet, and cloths wrapped around his head. I can only imagine people must have been terrified as well as amazed to see a dead man come back to life. It was an awesome display of divine power. But Lazarus was only alive in the usual, earthly, run-of-the-mill way. Death had suffered a setback, no question, but it was only temporary. Lazarus would go on to grow old and feeble like everybody else and finally, he would die. All over again.
The raising of Lazarus was a sign, a sign of God’s power over our old enemy, death. But the abundant, everlasting life that Jesus gives to his people isn’t like the life Lazarus received. At the last supper Jesus prayed, “this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” Eternal life is about our union with the Father. It isn’t pie in the sky when we die; we have life abundant now, through our baptism into Christ and his eternal Spirit who indwells us. In Eucharistic prayer B, we pray, “In him, you have brought us out of error into truth, out of sin into righteousness, out of death into life.” It’s important for us to know, and to remember, to hold onto the truth that the gift of life in Christ doesn’t begin at death.
But it is also true that our life in Christ doesn’t end at death, and that as Paul says, what see now like a dim, fuzzy mirror image, after death we will know up close and personal, face to face. And that is the life that the saints we honor today have come to know. We frequently read these words of Paul in the burial service: “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction – and by that, Paul means our suffering in this world – is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” Our beloved parents, our dear friends, all those we remember today, have seen, and are seeing right now, that eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.
In Ireland there is a tradition that there are certain places that are “thin places”, holy places where we are able to draw closest to God, where the veil between heaven and earth is at its sheerest, and we catch a glimpse of that glory. You have probably happened upon such places sometimes yourselves, especially out in nature, when you were in a particularly beautiful and unspoiled place – on a mountaintop, or looking out at the ocean. But we also come to a thin place every week, when we gather together to celebrate the Eucharist. We claim it, when we say – we join our voices with angels and archangels and with all the hosts of heaven, that whole communion of saints that we talk about in the Creed. And among that holy congregation that gathers around to worship with us, are all the saints whose lives were so dear to us, and who continue to live even now, in the unending fellowship of the family of God.
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