Sermon - 6th November 2016
All Saints and All Souls
Scripture - Job 19:23-27; 1 Corinthians 15:51-57
[An audio version of this sermon, in mp3 format, is available via the link at our Spirituality > Audio and Video page.]
November is traditionally a month in which we remember. In the church’s calendar, the first two days of November are called All Saints and All Souls. Last Monday was the 31 October, which is widely known as Hallowe’en, short for All Hallows Evening; and a more modern way of saying “the evening before All Saints’ Day”.
On All Saints’ Day (1 November), many churches pause to reflect on the lives of the Saints. Depending on your view point and the church to which you belong, a saint is anyone from Jesus’ disciples, including us (!), the early Christian church’s leaders, key people who have preached the Good News of Jesus, like St Ninian who first brought the Gospel to the people of Scotland, and people like St Theresa of Colcatta, the most recently appointed saint. Through such people, God’s church has grown through the centuries.
On All Souls’ Day (2 November), many will take time out to remember those loved ones - friends, partners and family - who are no longer alive. If you were to visit a cemetery at the start of November, you would find it busier than usual, as loved ones bring floral tributes to the graves of those they have lost.
And throughout the first half of November, in the UK nationally, it is a time for Remembrance. Red poppies are worn by many to remember those who died during the many wars, particularly during the two World wars of the 20th century. Later in November, the transgender community also holds a day of remembrance.
As with many events these days, among the schedule of our busy lives, all of these moments of remembrance now take place on Sundays. Today, on the first Sunday in November, we pause and take time to remember All Saints and All Souls.
[Reading 1 – Job 19:23-27 (NRSVA)]
The account of Job’s life recorded in the Old Testament is a source of comfort to many, particularly to those who face suffering. Job loses everything: his livelihood when he loses his flocks, herds and servants to thieves and a violent thunderstorm; he loses all his children in another natural disaster; finally, he loses his health when he breaks out in boils.
Our reading from the book of Job today comes about halfway through. It is very easy to take the reading out of context. From the opening verses we heard, Job’s wish to have his words during his time of suffering did come to pass: after all, the account of his life forms part of the Hebrew scriptures, and it is part of the Old Testament in the Christian Bible.
There is a potential pitfall in understanding when we come to verse 25: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.” As Christians, looking at this verse from the perspective of our belief in Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, we identify Job’s “redeemer” as Jesus, and that Job is speaking prophetically.
That is only one perspective, and one which is not shared by the majority of Biblical scholars. From its language and cultural references, Job is one of the oldest written books of the Bible, dating earlier than 1000 BCE and pre-dates even Moses.
The doctrine of the resurrection came much later in Jewish theology. Even at the time of Jesus, it was a divisive point. When we read the Gospel, we often read about the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These titles mean little or nothing to us in the 21st century. Essentially, they were the two largest religious groups, one point that divided them was the resurrection of the body: the Pharisees believed in this; the Sadducees did not.
So who is the “Redeemer” of whom Job speaks? The Hebrew word used is “go’el” and refers to a relative, someone who could restore a broken family: to buy back the lost property, to buy them out of economic slavery and to avenge the wrong done to them. Nevertheless, Job bewails the fact that most of his family is dead – who is left to stand up for him?
Job says that his “Redeemer” will “stand upon the Earth”. Again, while we might read a Christian perspective of the Risen Christ, what does the text have to say? The Hebrew word used here for “earth” is “yaqum”, the same word used in Genesis 3:19 to say that we humans are made of “dust”. Job’s “Redeemer” is one who stands on and above the “dust”. Job then identifies his “Redeemer” as God.
What do Job’s words mean for us? Who is our “go’el” or Redeemer?
Being cut off from family and friends is a common experience for many LGBT people. Many of our congregation have lost everything and everyone in the countries of their birth, and, in fear, have fled and have sought asylum here in the UK, now having very little indeed, needing a “Redeemer”. Organisations such as the LGBT Foundation, GMIAU (Greater Manchester Immigration Aid Unit), ASHA (Asylum Support Housing Advice), LISG (Lesbian Immigration Support Group) Rainbow Noir and First Wednesday are just a few examples of modern day ‘redeemers’, whom we might also call modern-day ‘saints’, and for whom we give thanks to God at this time of remembrance of All Saints.
Nevertheless, our Christian faith is one which spans past, present and future: it also spans both our time here on earth and in the life which is to come. When we remember our loved ones who are no longer with us, we seek comfort that one day we might see them again in the world that is yet to come. Trying to wrap our minds around death and eternal life is not easy, but it is something which St Paul in his first letter to the church in Corinth tried to do.
[Reading 2 – 1 Corinthians 15:51-57]
The following words have been attributed to the US president Benjamin Franklin:
“In this world, nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
However much we may try to avoid thinking about it: all of us, all our friends, family and loved ones, will die. Many of us will already have had the painful experience of losing someone dear. The pain of that grief can be made all the more difficult when the loved one is far away in a place to which we cannot return, as is the case for those seeking asylum.
Maria LaSala, a Presbyterian theologian at Yale Divinity School in the USA, has the following somewhat blunt perspective on resurrection:
“We run into difficulty, Paul proclaims, when we close ourselves off from the power of God's love to work miracles in our lives—especially the miracle of resurrection, life brought out of death.
Those who are closed to resurrection will surely feel as if they are sleeping through life. Those who are closed off will either live in fear of death or, denying the reality of death, simply cling frantically to the present. Those who are closed off from the hope of the resurrection will know none of the wonder in the moments of our living, none of the possibility that God has placed in the midst of our very human experience. They might as well be dead.”
As we pause this November for moments of reflection and remembrance, we look back at those who have gone before us.
We may have things in our lives which are in the past, but we refuse to let go of them and the memory of them in the present is dragging us down and darken our future.
We may have terrible, unresolved things in our lives which have happened to us that we refuse to acknowledge, except maybe to God or at the graveside of a loved one. Until we bring these into the light of today and deal with them, we darken our future.
We may wish to give thanks for a particular person or for many who are no longer with us who brought comfort and light into our lives.
From St John’s Gospel, Jesus’ last words on the Cross to us are: “It is finished.”
St Paul wrote: “Death is destroyed; victory is complete!”