It has been an interesting weekend with a jumble of stories being told. It seems that Halloween, as a story of ghosts, ghouls, and all things ghastly has grown significantly over the last few years. For some this is clearly being whipped up by retail which floods the shops with cobwebs and costumes and like sheep (to the slaughter perhaps) many fall in line. There is something in that but it must also be tapping into something otherwise it wouldn’t catch the imagination. A friend of mine thinks it is that lives are so safe and protected that a bit of scary fun reminds us we are alive. A bit like the appeal of extreme sports and the desire to go to dangerous places. There is also possibly a need to play with the mystery of death, from which we are so protected and separated by modern dying, that there is a need for the imagination to play with the meaning of life, especially for a society that has lost touch with a confident faith. What does it mean to be ultimately powerless in a world that pretends it can control everything? Halloween becomes an attempt to tame the untamable.
The story of Halloween could not be further away from the story we tell today, the real feast of this weekend, All Saints Day. Today we celebrate the light of hope over despair, of faithfulness over denial and betrayal, of those who have followed in the way of Christ and lived lives that have been and are an inspiration. Love conquers death. Life is gift and in that gift we flourish and receive blessing. The dead are not condemned to a shadow existence of half life and zombie gloom, but are welcomed by the source of love to a banquet of grace.
It may be that Halloween provides a safe expression for the deep fear that there is around. Fear of terrorists out to get us, fear of those who would exploit us, the vampires who use power to oppress and coerce. The world seems rather scary at the moment and we are told from time to time that there have been a large number of serious threats on the scale of 7/7 and 9/11 this year alone. Our security services are having to be constantly vigilant. It is not surprising that the corporate psyche needs to let off steam and it may be that Halloween is one of the ways that our society channels those tensions and anxieties. It may also be a kick back against the constant pressure to be beautiful and the oppressive effect that has on self esteem. So a bit of ghoulish make up is a relaxation from anxieties of image. And I guess there is some fun in dressing up, of releasing the darker side of otherwise controlled emotions. The appeal will be mixed and varied. As someone who studies culture and social developments I find the metaphors are work here very interesting, not least because they are beneath the conscious surface.
We know we live in a world where bad things happen and evil brews in hearts that would attack and destroy. Violence and hatred brew in all sorts of directions. I was talking with a colleague this week about how hurt and pain can in turn lead to people hurting others and causing them injury. Damage done leads to damage passed on. We actually don’t need to look hard to find the really scary and dark. It is in all of us.
Today’s focus on light and hope matters enormously, so much so that we have now made it into a mini season. These days between now and Christ the King at the end of the month have a particular focus on God’s Kingdom, on the sanctity of life and holiness being worked out in the challenges we face. Next week comes the challenge presented by Remembrance, the horror of war and the evils that lead to it. Again this is not a place to stay, but to think about what builds and sustains peace, what is it that binds us together and strengthens the bonds of unity and concord.
We also hold during this period the memory of those we have known who have died. All Souls, the actual day is tomorrow, is not just about those we have known and loved, but all who have died. Some memories will be precious and treasured. Some will be damaged and there will be wounds we still carry. We need a place to lay those so that they don’t haunt us and oppress us so that we become injury to others. All of this is held in affirming the redemption which comes through Christ. We are changed from glory into glory, and all these thoughts are held in the embrace of God’s kingdom: between the bookends of All Saints Day and the feast of Christ the King at the end of the month. We will have an opportunity to hold the memory of those who have died at the special service on 15th November at 4.00pm, to which we have also invited all who have been involved in a funeral we have taken this year.
Our readings reflect this All Saints hope. Isaiah (25:6-9) gives us a vision of a banquet, celebrating the destruction of all that oppresses us. It used the image of the shroud that is wrapped round the dead being destroyed so that tears are wiped away. The second reading from the end of the book of Revelation (21:1-6a) brings the great hope of a new city, death is destroyed, it has no hold on us, and all things are made new. This is not the image of zombie risings! It is completed by the one who is the beginning and the end, the source and goal of existence.
The gospel reading (John 11:32-44) was the touching story of Jesus raising his friend Lazarus from the dead. He is no ghost and is not in any kind of half-life. His sister Martha seems to picture something from the ghoulish and ghastly, he’s been dead four days so his putrid flesh is stinking. The life on offer from Jesus is not bound by this life, it is the life that comes from grace, the gift of God and so when flesh corrupts, it is liberated through blessing. There are multiple layers to this metaphor of the raising of Lazarus. There is the hope of life being treasured beyond the grave to which this points. There is the liberation that comes from celebrating life rather than death, of being set free from whatever would hold us in death, pain, destruction and all that oppresses. Just as Lazarus was released unbound from his grave clothes so we are released from the grip that death can have on our thinking or behaving. It can become characteristic of our outlook. Rather we are to embrace life and hope, future promise rather than decay.
The call to us who celebrate All Saints, the kingdom of God in our midst in holy lives that bring light and peace, is to be people who bless others through this. Sometimes we all need help with what should be straightforward, like just being nice to people, it’s amazing how hard that can be at times. A start is to ask how I can be blessing in this situation, whatever it is. And some are harder than others; some have greater struggles to overcome to connect with the blessing rather than the pain. But celebrating All Saints is to look for those who can remind us of this, be they from the past or those we know today. There are people who lighten up a room when they walk in. There are also those who depress it too. I would rather be the former than the latter. If I am being the latter, I need to reconnect with holiness, with light and hope, to hold onto the vision or picture in my mind of someone who displays this grace. Our city centre chaplains have the strap line to their project which simply says ‘Be the light’. Or as Gandhi put it, ‘Be the change you want to see’. It is amazing how such actions can change the world and change a situation or group’s tone.
Today we celebrate the light and hope of the saints, their example and their inspiration. May they set before us a vision of blessing, grace and peace that we grow to be more like them and shaped as followers of Jesus Christ. Ours is not a story that locks us in zombie risings and death, but is liberated by life, light and redeemed life in Jesus Christ.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 1st November 2015