Monday, November 30, 2009

Advent 1

Jeremiah 33
14 The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 15 In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. 16 In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Psalm 25
5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness' sake, O LORD!

Luke 21
29 Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

What’s the weather today?

Maybe I’m the only person who thinks this a strange question. Inside my head there is a little voice that shouts “look outside,” or “late autumn, I expect.” That, of course, was before Al Gore ruined the weather when he discovered global warming (and the internet, I’m told). Suddenly weather is unpredictable, we are told, and you can never know from one day to the next.

For the weather Nellies, as I like to call them, there is the Weather Channel. According to legend, the first person who thought of a 24 hour weather channel was laughed from the room. Ditto for the all news channel, and reality TV too. Now we know that in the future there will only be three types of television, and I just named all three.

Weather is unique. You can ignore most of the news, you can turn off the infernal box, but you can’t ignore the weather. You can hide indoors, you can close the drapes, but sooner or later, weather will find you. Even reading your bible:

Then he told them a parable: "Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near.

Most often this is preached as a “sign of the times” passage. The fig tree becomes a trope, a kind of symbolic shorthand for knowing something because the evidence is right before your eyes. In the traditional way of reading this, Jesus points to the green shoots (another trope) as a way to say “don’t you see?”

The traditional interpretation, then, is study the signs of the times and be ready—ready for the return of Jesus and the end of time. I have no issue with this, but I’m wanting to explore another tack.

People have way to much time on their hands. Go online, and you can find compiled lists of everything. It started with static web pages, often devoted to some topic of great interest. With the advent of the wiki, collaborative sites that people can freely edit, this phenomenon has come into it’s own. The first example, of course, is Wikipedia. Search around, however, and you will find the Muppet Wiki (a personal favourite), a NASCAR wiki, and a wiki for every topic under the sun. I’m rolling out a Central wiki this week, so stayed tuned.

Another wiki I discovered is a trope wiki. Built for writers, the site is lists of thousands of examples of words and phrases that writers use to convey something without saying it. An example: “Freud was right” is a popular trope. Rather than saying “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” or “sometimes there is no hidden meaning.” All of this gets shortened to “Freud was right.” I know I’ve drifted from the fig tree, but bear with me.

"Look at the fig tree and all the trees; as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near.” Read the first way, it’s “as soon as they sprout you can see summer is near.” Read the second way, it’s “as soon as they sprout it’s already too late to read the weather, because summer is already here.”

I call this the Matrix interpretation, named for my favourite line in the movie.

I sent two units. They're
bringing her down now.

No, Lieutenant, your men are dead.

Of course they’re not quite dead, because Trinity is still getting warmed up. The line is part of a common trope called “they’re already dead” or “dead man walking.” The meaning is that sometimes we don’t know that the conclusion is so forgone that in effect it has already happened. In other words, “as soon as they sprout it’s already too late to read the weather, because summer is already here.”

So the parable of the fig tree, barely two sentences long, may be deeper than first glance. But this makes sense, when the purpose of parables is to create a world, which we enter, then the world sours, and we are left to find new meaning. So we enter with the first assumption (new leaves indicate the sign of the times), discover that “it’s already too late” (if you’re seeing leaves, it’s already summer), and need to reorient ourselves to this idea of the “signs of the times.”

Sticking with our trope, “it’s already too late,” there is little point to looking for the signs of the times. Once you see then, the times have already arrived. In other words, searching for storm clouds is no substitute for fixing the roof. What does it matter if you can spot the next big calamity, if you are unprepared for its coming.

Advent. I knew there was an Advent sermon in here somewhere. There is no point watching for Christ’s return if you are unprepared for his coming. Searching for signs, hearing of wars and rumours of wars, watching the stars: none of this is preparation for finding room in your heart for Jesus to arrive. Advent is a time when we minor in waiting and major in preparing. And one must not be confused with the other. Buying a broom is no substitute for cleaning your house. That’s metaphor.


While I’m in a trope mood, having fun with symbolic language, what about the tree of Jesse? Jeremiah 33 is an echo of another passage, were a righteous branch “shall come forth [as] a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.” The Jesse Tree became one of the most popular symbols in the Christian tradition, from stained glass to sculpture and song. The idea that something humble or cut off could produce Israel’s greatest king had powerful control over writers and scholars, including the Gospel writers themselves. Matthew’s lengthy genealogy is an effort to make literal what was likely symbolic, that the reign of Jesus could only be understood in the context of the best king.

You’re thinking ‘best, really?” Infidelity, murder? You got the same David? I do. Mostly, I talking about David the poet. Here is today’s poem:

Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long.
Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD,
and of your steadfast love,
for they have been from of old.
Do not remember the sins of my youth
or my transgressions;
according to your steadfast love remember me,
for your goodness' sake, O LORD!

This is the older, wiser David: asking for forgiveness, asking to be led in the way of righteousness, praying that God be merciful to him and to everyone else. See the same trope is here, called “it’s already too late.” David knows his limitations, knows his utter dependence on God’s mercy, knows that even as he prays these words he will fail again. Even though it’s already too late, he longs to be remade, to reflect the glory of God.

This leads to another “it’s already too late” idea, the death and resurrection of Jesus. The Jesse tree is also a resurrection symbol, because both David and the new David (Jesus) will spring forth from the death-like stump and save all of us. Like the shrub in my backyard that I cut to the ground only to have it grow back before I notice, the righteous branch cannot me contained: the desire and the potential for new life is limitless, in the world God made.

Ignore the weather, it’s right outside.
Ignore the signs of the times, the future is here.
Ignore the green shoots, new life is come.
Ignore the stump, the righteous branch is grown.
Ignore the branch, it’s more like a tree.
Ignore the tree, it’s really a cross.
Ignore the cross: look instead to the one willing to die for you and me.

We live in the always and the not yet. We wait for Jesus but it’s already to late. We wait with Jesus, that he may come again, and enter our hearts once more. Amen.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Proper 28

Mark 13
1As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!’ 2Then Jesus asked him, ‘Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.’
3 When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, 4‘Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?’ 5Then Jesus began to say to them, ‘Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, “I am he!”* and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Sarah Palin is “Going Rogue.”

Perhaps you already knew this, if you are among the 40,000 people who have pre-ordered her book before Tuesday’s launch. That’s two more sleeps, as the kids like to say, before the real dirt about the 2008 US election is dished out, before we learn about “An American Life” as the sub-title promises, and maybe her intentions for 2012. The world waits.

Perhaps you are in the camp of people to think you have to actually achieve something before you get the number one bestseller in the pre-order category at both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Maybe you have the old-school belief that you should have something sensible to say before you put pen to paper. Foolish reader. Sarah’s book is ghostwritten by a talented writer named Lynn Vincent, with several book credits, including her 2006 title “Donkey Cons: Sex, Crime, and Corruption in the Democratic Party.” Sarah is in good hands.

Looking beyond future Presidents such as Sarah Palin, the genre of ‘political memoir’ is alive and well. Looking over a few lists, they range for former Presidents and Prime Ministers, upper level politicos such as cabinet members or ambassadors, and even underlings like speechwriters and “fixers.” They promise an accurate look at the recent past, some justification, or the ‘real story’ behind the headlines. More often than not, the memoir serves to correct public perception, or defend a set of ideas, or launch a program (or career) while pretending to look back.

The classic Canadian example is “Straight from the Heart” by Jean Chretien. Published in 1986, the book had everything: fond memories, a sense of conviction, and (surprise!) an outline of ideas for the future. To be fair to Jean, by 1986 he had already accomplished more than most politicians. But timing is everything, and the future was waiting for “The Little Guy…”

Stealing from painter Paul Gauguin, these books ask the question, “Where do I come from? What am I? Where am I going?” They will sometimes recount the inner struggle that comes with the exercise of power, but most often they tell stories of being witness to the use of power. The memoir is useful in offering early encounters with the truly powerful: to offer insight, to affiliate in some way, and to discern the most important moment in a story from the past.

This week St. Mark is “going rogue.”

He’s writing an important memoir, a recounting of his life with Jesus, and while he seldom enters the story himself, we know that he does all the things that memoir writers do. We know that he is trying to answer ‘where do I come from, who am I, and where am I going’ not so much for himself but for Jesus. He is attempting, in his years beyond the hurly-burly of direct discipleship, to write a memoir that will offer insight, affiliate in some way, and identify the most important moments in the story.

Mark is going rogue this week in the telling of what most scholars call his “little apocalypse.” Later in the chapter come predictions of arrest and flogging, the sky will darken, everyone will betray the people around them and there will be general examples of mayhem. In chapter 14, Jesus is arrested. So 13 is really a hinge moment, the moment before the true action begins, and Mark is saying ‘get ready.’

On Friday night we were privileged to travel downtown and see the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with lots of interesting antiquities, and more than a little explanation. Apropos to today’s reading, we saw bits of the destroyed Temple. I have to say I went prepared to be under-whelmed, having seen the great Isaiah scroll in its special home in Jerusalem. But seeing parts of the destroyed Temple, including carvings from the entranceway that Jesus likely walked through, was a very powerful moment. I’m a bit shocked they lent them out at all.

So, ‘not one stone was left here upon another; all were thrown down,’ and some are here in Muddy York. Incredible really, and incredible that Mark highlights Jesus’ prediction at the very moment the story turns, and the destruction of Jesus’ body is set to begin.

What I think we are seeing here is ‘conflation,’ the joining of two stories of equal import in the life of Mark. I think it would be fair to say that someone writing a memoir might look back and confirm that the death of Jesus and the destruction of God’s dwelling place on earth were two of the most dramatic things they witnessed. Assuming, as we do, that Mark wrote immediately after the Roman siege in 70 AD, we can imagine the powerful way these two events might mingle in the imagination.

Mark would even be inclined to remember, of all the things Jesus said on earth, the connection between the two. So he recounts Jesus words and lets them hang there, trusting us to make the connection. And John (in ch. 2) doesn’t even do that, writing “the temple he had spoken of was his body.”

So Mark 13 recounts the destruction of the temple (in his way) and creates a parallel to the world-ending drama of the death of Jesus. The events of 70 AD could accurately be called the 9-11 of the early church period, where the earliest followers of Jesus (still mostly Jews) imagined that their world was coming to an end. As Mark tries to answer the last of our three memoir questions (‘and where am I going’) we can trust that he found the answer in the words of Jesus: do not be led astray and try to stay calm.

I know I’m jumping back and forth in time, but it’s hard not to look for contemporary parallels. The whole “wars and rumours of wars” thing has been a popular source for biblical prophecy since the church began, and in our age seems to have new vigour. Think of the most popular Christian books published (aside from the Bible), the “Left Behind” series. It’s all based on the notion that the “little apocalypse” stuff is happening in our day, and we need only see the signs.

I’m a little dubious. I am willing, however, to search the signs and take the advice when I consider the state of the Christian church. Mainline churches in Canada are in steep decline, we seem to have lost any sense of direction, we see signs of destruction and mayhem all around us, and we are at a loss what to do. Quick facts that keep me up at night:*

Based on current trends, in 15 years we will have experienced a 75% drop in membership across Canada from the peak in 1965.

Based on current trends, in 15 years we will have witnessed a decline in weekly attendance in worship of 90% from the 1984 number.

Based on current trends, the last baptism in a United Church will happen some time in 2019 and the last Sunday School will close in 2018.

So back to Jesus, always back to Jesus. Jesus said “do not be led astray and try to stay calm.” The numbers are real, insofar as they represent the future based on our immediate past. But that doesn’t mean it will happen that way. It simply means that if we insist on doing things in exactly the same way, the outcome is fairly certain. Do not be led astray and try to stay calm.

People are going to try to bring all sorts of theories and pet projects to us as the future begins. All sorts of false prophets will say “less of this” or “more of that” and we will need to trust in the Holy Spirit to give us the gift of discernment. We will need to cling to Jesus and his story of redemptive suffering and know that even in the face of death we have hope. We will need to stick together.

And stay calm. Jesus said “do not be alarmed…this is but the beginning of the birth pangs.” Here, at Central, I like to believe that something new is coming to birth, and in the midst of denominational malaise we can keep our heads, we can act in great faith, and we can do what we always do: care for the most vulnerable, love each other, and remind the neighbourhood that Jesus is present in their midst. “God is in the midst of the city,” the psalmist says, and we can trust these words. The end of our memoir remains unwritten, and we may not know exactly where we’re going, but we know we never go alone.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Remembrance Day Sunday

Mark 12
As he taught, he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, 39and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! 40They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
41He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. 42A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. 43Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. 44For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.”

Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived. (Did you get the reference in my handy memory aid?) I don’t actually want to talk about the inspiration for my new favourite mnemonic. Instead, I want to travel back in time together Tudor-era England.

I want to travel back to London circa 1500 and just look around. So we travel, travel, travel and we're there. You're likely thirsty after traveling 500 years back in time, so we better have a pint. You can't drink the water, trust me. Stick to the ale. Now, a medium quality ale is going to cost you a ha'penny. So you look in your money sack and you don't have a ha'penny. Not to worry, let me help.

With a penny, we can both have a pint.
If you have a groat, you have enough for eight pints.
A shilling, enough for 24 pints: now it's a party.
2 farthings will get you that pint.
And 12 mites, deep in the bottom of your sack, will also get you that pint.

So how small is a mite?

A pound is 4 crowns, 20 shillings, 60 groats, 240 pennies, 960 farthings and 5760 mites. This monetary system seems to have some sort on internal logic.

So a mite is small. Mark tells us that the widow’s mite was two copper coins, worth barely a penny. My capitalist brother could tell me if this is deflation or inflation, but I’ll ignore the question and settle for small. A mite is very small. Small, but mighty, because Jesus makes it the point of his story. Jesus said:

Beware scribes and ministers who wander around with their doctoral gowns and pointy hoods, demanding to be greeted with titles and claiming the best seats at the Gala. Beware of their waywardness and their lengthy prayers.

Sitting down near the temple treasury, Jesus watched one-by-one as the people made their offering. The rich put in the red bills and the brown bills, the ones you hardly ever see. A poor widow came by and put in a mite or two, barely anything at all. “Truly, I tell you,” Jesus said, “this widow has but in more than Frank Stronach and Galen Weston put together. For they have contributed from their abundance, but she from her poverty, and she gave all she had.

The passage is about sacrificial giving, something we encourage, by the way. But I’m not going to talk about that. Instead, I want to talk about naming rights, and how the nature of giving never really changes. Back in my day, they didn’t really have naming rights. Sure there was the Guggenheim in New York, and the Eaton’s Parade, but buildings didn’t change names every 15 minutes based on who had the most cash.

Today we have Rotman, Ivey, Schulich, DeGroote, Ted Roger’s (I hear he has a stadium too) and The Asper School of Business, University of Manitoba (have they heard about CanWest Global?). Now, I don’t want to disparage these men, some now departed, but it hardly meets the mite test. In fact, securing naming rights is about as far as you can get from the concept of giving without any thought of return.

It actually gets the mind going—Tim Horton’s United Church, Weston—lemme get back to you.

And giving without any thought of return is precisely what the poor widow does. She is not trying to impress anyone or earn anything, simply giving what she can. Some make giving dramatic, some want everyone to know. She did the opposite, and did it without any thought of return.

So if the first glance at this story could be summarized, we might say rich versus poor, or generous versus really generous. Funny how this reading always comes up in November, about the time someone says, “maybe we should have a Stewardship Sunday.” But that’s not what I’m on about today.

Instead, I want to take a second glance and call it ‘scribes versus widows.’ Remember, Jesus condemns the scribes in the first section, and praises the widow in the second section. So, if we ignore the obvious contrast between rich and poor, we look at scribes versus widow in a new light.

The scribes were a unique religious class, at one time dedicated to administration, and later, interpretation of the law. When Israel became an occupied people, the scribes become experts and teachers of the Law of Moses. The fact that Jesus came to restore the Law, to draw people back to the centre of the law, such as “love your neighbour,” meant that he would be in constant conflict with anyone who disagreed with this emphasis.

Enter the scribes. They had come to enjoy their position in society, to the extent that they were given such a harsh critique in the first part of our passage. In Matthew 23, the critique grows, and Jesus condemns the scribes for ignoring mercy and thinking only of tithes. It was the duty of the religious to follow the law, and the law was no clearer than Exodus 22:

22 “Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. 23 If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.”

I would say God is pretty clear here, speaking through Moses, at Mt. Sinai, when all the golden calf people are still feeling a little sheepish and listening very carefully. And the scribes job was to teach this stuff and remind people every day.

So why, Jesus asks without asking, would this widow be allowed to give all she has to the temple treasury? Where were the scribes to intervene and say, “No ma’am, you are exempt, you are too poor to be expected to give.” But give she did. She gave even when the law of God might give her an exemption, she gave even when most would stop and wonder why.


Most of the young men on these plaques knew the danger they faced when they enlisted. They signed attestation papers, underwent physicals, and trained in complete knowledge of the danger in Europe. They didn’t enlist to impress anyone or try to win favour, they just wanted to serve.

Many of the soldiers, particularly in the Great War, were born in the UK and returned with a sense of protecting friends and family. Many had only distant connections to Europe and simply wanted to help the cause.

Whatever their motivation, it would be accurate to say that few—if any—went in pursuit of glory. In a conflict with 65 million combatants, there would be very few Billy Bishop’s or Earl Haig’s. The average soldier toiled in complete obscurity, a fact that makes their service that much more unique. Like the widow’s mite, the service of most was a small part of a larger whole, but they gave all they had.

To put this another way, my father would be unable to name the thousands of men and women who liberated Holland, though he has met a few and thanked them through tear-filled eyes. His liberation memories are the memories of a hungry 12 year-old, of white bread dropped from Lancaster Bombers, tasting chocolate for the first time in six years, and joining every man, woman and child in a smoke, because—like manna from heaven—cigarettes fell too.

And so we pause today, to honour those who did not seek glory, but only the opportunity to serve. We remember the men and woman who appear on countless plaques and memorials, including our own. We read the names knowing that they represent a lasting gift given to each of us. And every day we give thanks. Amen.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

All Saints’ Day

John 11
32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep. 36So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ 37But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’

O grave, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?

Jesus waited in the land of the Jordan, some twenty miles away, before he returned to Bethany and his friends in need. He knew his friend Lazarus was dying, but has his own idea how to proceed.

Two days they waited, and puzzled that Jesus would tarry. But when he finally resolved to go, the disciples feared the day. Too close to Jerusalem, Bethany was a danger from those who opposed Jesus and his way.

He went, nonetheless, and when he arrived he learned that Lazarus was dead, dead four days in his tomb. He found a scene of great sadness, and some angry friends who couldn’t understand his delay. “My brother would be alive if you came sooner,” one sister says, and her sister repeats it to make sure we hear the same.

Jesus weeps for their weeping, and says, “where have you laid him?” At the tomb he says, “roll this stone away.” And they do. Jesus is intent on showing them the glory of God that day, and so he bows his head: “I pray so that your children can hear, Lord, that they can believe. Thank you for hearing my plea.” Looking up, he called into the cave, “Come out, Lazarus, come out! Unbind this man, death, and let him go!”

O grave, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?

“The Unfortunate Rake”
“Young Sailor Cut Down in His Prime”
“The Streets of Larado”
“St. James’ Infirmary”

The song our friends played a moment ago is perhaps the most enduring and most adaptable song ever written. The earliest written versions come from 18th century England, where the “unfortunate rake” tells his story, cut down by the peril facing every soldier on furlough and every sailor in port since the beginning of time (wink, if you know what I mean).

Eventually the song comes to America, adapted into a cowboy song where cards and drinking and a six-shooter prove the end of a young man ‘cut down in his prime.’ Then there’s the blues version, which returns the original title “St. James’ Infirmary” but makes our young man into a woman:

I went down to St. James Infirmary,
Saw my baby there,
Set down on a long white table,
So sweet, so cold, so fair.
Let her go, let her go, God bless her,
Wherever she may be,
She can look this wide world over,
She'll never find a sweet man like me.

It seems an add twist, to go from a cautionary tale about fast living to a lament that a newly departed fair maiden will never find someone quite like the artist singing. But such is the license of folk and blues (and jazz) and the charm of Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Artie Shaw and countless others who have made this an important standard.

The best version of St. James’ Infirmary features an animated Cab Calloway lamenting over the death of Betty Boop. It’s hard to find, created before the so-called “Hays Code” that turned Hollywood into a boring source of virtue after 1930. But the theme continued, with the death of that naughty Betty Boop replaced by the Acme Portable Hole and the frequent death of a certain coyote.

O grave, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?

The St. James’ Hospital was torn down in 1532 by a very greedy King who wanted to build a palace on the spot. This tells me that we’re being entertained by a 500 year-old folk song. What gives a song staying power? What can we expect to learn from this song well into the future, long after “Thriller” no longer thrills and disco is finally and truly dead?

I think we can learn that this 'warning song' is hardly a warning at all. It isn’t really a song about death by misadventure as much as a song about death itself. It is the oldest theme we have, the only theme with any staying power, the theme that will outlive all other themes and never die itself.

So what shall we say, on this All Saints’ Day, about the oldest theme we have? It’s the only theme that can make a 500 year-old song better and better and make Jesus weep. It’s the only theme that can make us pine after the saints in light. And pine after the likes of Dr. King and Rosa Parks, who made justice sound like beautiful jazz. It’s the only theme that can move us and stop us and send us to our knees.

And it’s the only theme that speaks to our humanity. First we ask: Who have we, as humans, consigned to the realm of death? Who’s in that cave with Lazarus, making a stink, ready to be unbound from the realm of death? A billion go hungry, with food enough to spare. Many live under tyranny, and only dream about the freedom we take for granted. We enjoy a living unparalleled in human history while the people who belong to this land live in squalor “reserved” for them alone.

O grave, where is thy victory?
O death, where is thy sting?

And Jesus weeps for their weeping, and says, “roll this stone away.” Jesus is intent on showing them the glory of God, and so he bows his head: “I pray so that your children can hear, Lord, that they can believe. Looking up, he calls into the cave, “Come out, friends, come out!”

They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and guide them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from the eye of Mary, and Martha, and everyone who has tasted death.