Scripture: Ephesians 1:15-23
On Monday, as we occasionally do, Mary and I took a long walk through the gorgeous Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland. It’s where President James A. Garfield is buried, he with whom I feel a kind of kinship, as he preached at an earlier iteration of Federated and went to college where I did. That cemetery is where John D. Rockefeller is buried. And former mayor of Cleveland, Carl Stokes. And Eliot Ness. And African American inventor Garrett Morgan, who invented the red/yellow/green traffic lights so familiar to us. And Adella Prentiss Hughes, the pianist and impresario who founded the Cleveland Orchestra. Alan Freed, who first popularized the music he named “rock and roll,” is buried there, his grave marked with a life-sized stone replica of a jukebox. So is former Cleveland Indian Ray Chapman, the only major league baseball player who died due to a game-related injury. His grave is adorned with various baseballs and caps.
And as I reflected on the more than 104,000 people buried there with them, including friends and relatives of yours and mine, I couldn’t help but ponder their place, and our place, in the life of this universe. The strange fact is that, for many of them, there is perhaps no one alive now who knew them. I remember my father once musing that he and his sisters were likely the only three people on the planet who had any memory of their mother, who had died many years earlier at the age of thirty-five. There was not a single other person who would have met her. And with my father and his sisters now gone, there is no one alive who knew my grandmother, not to mention all the countless others who are long gone. The sobering truth is that we’re born; and we live a handful of years; and then we die. And eventually we move into total obscurity with only the occasional stray visitor to the cemetery walking past our graves. It can be a somewhat morbid realization. Few, if any, of us will be long remembered.
All Saints Sunday invites us to ponder our lives and their meaning and significance, and to wrestle with that apparently inevitable obscurity. As Mary and I strolled through the cemetery on Monday, we went into the remarkable little Wade Chapel there. Seating only 72 people, the chapel is centrally an artistic witness to the power of God over life and death. Adorned on its walls with Louis Comfort Tiffany depictions of biblical scenes, its chief marvel is its only window, a north-facing window illustrating what Tiffany called The Flight of Souls. It is essentially a resurrection window. It’s cross-shaped, with brilliant poppies at its base and a whole slew of now-angelic people accompanying Christ in his rising to new life. It’s stunning.
It was as I looked at all those souls rising with Christ that I awoke to what seems an almost contradictory truth. In the face of our inevitable deaths, we Christians affirm that life is finally not about us—it’s about God. And, at the very same time, we claim that what we do and the way we live our lives matters infinitely. As we approach death, it’s crucial to remember that God is the primary actor and undergirds it all. And, at the same time, to say that we, too, are irreplaceable actors, and that every moment of our lives is full of significance and meaning.
First, it’s all about God. Near the beginning of the letter to the Ephesians, the writer, a follower of Paul, rhapsodizes about “the immeasurable greatness of God’s power,” and goes on to say that “All this energy issues from Christ: God raised [Christ] from death and set [Christ] . . . in charge of running the universe . . .. And not just for the time being, but forever” (1:19-21, NRSV and The Message). There is nothing, in other words, over which Christ does not reign. Born and live but a few days? Wrapped in Christ’s arms. Live a long, happy and successful life? Wrapped in Christ’s arms. A life full of ups and downs, successes and failures, pain and elation? Wrapped in Christ’s arms. Life and death—all of it, for everyone—is wrapped in those holy arms. In the face of the sometimes fractured, dangerous, fragile lives we lead, that is the truth that lets us live, at every moment, with a kind of peace: Christ “fills all in all” (1:23)! Everything will finally be OK.
People will sometimes say to me, as their own death approaches, or as the death of someone they love stands right in front of them, that they hope the one who is dying has done enough to merit God’s favor, or they wonder if that person, or themselves, will pass divine muster. And clearly there’s a degree of agonizing worry attached to these musings. And I confess that I sometimes struggle with what to say in response. On the one hand, I want to acknowledge what I suspect is a measure of anxiety or guilt or anger lying just below the surface. They may be wondering if they themselves have done enough. Or they may be acutely aware of a dying person’s weaknesses and shortcomings. They may fear that their ultimate fate hangs in the balance. With all of that, I want to give them space to articulate their regrets, or the struggles and resentments they may harbor for a loved one who is dying. It’s not at all helpful to squelch that sort of reflecting and processing. We clearly need to be able to confess our own sins, and to let go of the sins of others.
At the same time, I want to say to people who worry about ultimate fate, “There isn’t some litmus test you need to pass. It’s not as if you have to hand in every single homework assignment and ace the final exam. The last thing God wants at the time of your death is for you to be anxious, and wondering whether you’ve been good enough. Because at the time of death, it’s not really about you. There is not a single thing more that you can do at that point. When you die, you’re as vulnerable as a baby, and the only thing God cares about is welcoming you with open arms. No matter what you’ve done—let’s say it again, no matter what you’ve done—you are a blessed child of God. And eternal life with God is yours—free gift—not because of anything you’ve done or not done, but simply because that’s who God is.” That’s what I want to say to those who worry about the likelihood of eternal life. We’re so convinced that life revolves around us, and what the letter to the Ephesians asserts baldly is: Get over yourself. It’s really all about God. The verdict has been issued: you are adored just as you are.
And—strangely, seemingly contradictorily—it is also about us and about the fullness of every moment of our lives. It may indeed be all about God, but I’m still the one who sees the rainbow; I’m the one who picks up the newborn and smells the back of her neck. I’m the one who has the concussion; who dances radiantly; who fails on the work project; who stops in my tracks at the sight of the heron; who inadvertently, or maybe even intentionally, hurts someone; who waffles on my child’s discipline; who spits the milk out in uproarious laughter. God may be at the heart of the universe, but I’m the one living and breathing and laughing and crying and injuring and forgiving.
Which means that every moment matters. Every second is a gift. Every moral quandary is, in theologian Paul Tillich’s apt phrase, a matter of “ultimate concern.” We dare not waste a nanosecond of this precious short life of ours. That doesn’t at all mean that we should be busy, busy, busy all the time, and that we shouldn’t ever rest or relax—far from it. Part of a full and attentive life is taking time to savor it, to express our gratitude, to go to God with our appreciation. Prayerful thanksgiving is crucial in a rich and fulfilling life.
And at the same time, our daily habits and interactions matter. We don’t need to be frenetically busy. But we do need to remember that our daily actions make a difference. Did we engage the bagger at the grocery store? Did we smile at the person sitting in our pew this morning? Did we say something nice to our spouse or partner or child or parent? Did we seek to break down a barrier in the culture, a barrier of race or gender or orientation or class? Did we support someone on their journey through “the valley of the shadow of death” (Psalm 23:4)—phoning them, sending them a “thinking of you” card, sitting with them in a deeply respectful silence? Did we join in one of the many ministry opportunities available at this morning’s Mission and Involvement Fair?
When we do these things well, does God see them as part of passing that proverbial litmus test? Not on your life. But are these gestures vital in establishing the sort of world for which God aches? You can bet your life on it. How we treat each other isn’t incidental to God. It’s part of the core of human life. It’s part of what we might call a saintly life.
When the Bible uses the word “saint,” it’s sometimes used about people who have died after living exemplary lives, which is the way we often use the word—like St. Patrick or Saint Teresa of Avila. The word “saint” in the Bible is usually used, though, as it is today twice in Ephesians, of those who are living, those who are gathered in God’s name and God’s church. The letter writer talks about the Ephesians’ “love toward all the saints,” and about “the riches of God’s glorious inheritance among the saints” (1:15, 18). And who are the saints? The saints are the members of that very church in Ephesus.
The saints, too, are the members of this sterling church here in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. It’s here, in our everyday interactions, that we have the chance to live out the sanctified, saintly lives God has given us to live. Here we have the opportunity daily, weekly, to practice being the saints God has called us to be.
Just this week, a church member sent me a weekly reflection piece she had received from Maria Shriver. In it, Shriver asks us all what our superpower is. We’ve each been born with a superpower, she says, and our job is to engage it and let it flourish. Superpowers aren’t at all these big, impossible gifts that Stephen Hawking or Simone Biles have. Our superpower is the thing we do that sets us apart and makes a special contribution to the world. Mary’s mother’s superpower was her laugh that just delighted me. Mary’s father’s superpower was his inveterate, insatiable curiosity about the world and about you. My brother Tim’s superpower is his off-beat and self-effacing sense of humor that just puts everybody at ease.
Shriver says that, when she first heard we all have a superpower, she asked two of her colleagues what their superpower was, and they each answered easily. “‘Being all in with everyone I know,’ one of them said. ‘Forgiveness,’ said the other.”
And she goes on to say, “As they spoke, both became wide-eyed at the idea that they possessed an ability that was unique to them—a power that could, in fact, change another person’s life. As they stopped to think of their superpower as something significant, their faces lit up. It was like they recognized all of a sudden that they had a special gift that they could give to others.”
So Shriver asks, “What is it that makes you smile? What is it that you do really well in life? Maybe it’s teaching. Maybe it’s parenting. Maybe it’s organizing your fellow citizens to do something in your local community. All of those things are superpowers that change lives.”
She’s convinced that recognizing these powers can shift the landscape of our world. “What if we saw our superpowers as our ability to forgive, our ability to care, our ability to make someone smile, our ability to connect, our ability to listen, or our ability to comfort?”
So she suggests that we give each other a gift. “This week,” she says, “consider sitting with a friend and telling them what you perceive their superpower to be. I guarantee that the gift you give them will shift their thinking about themselves. I guarantee it will make them feel empowered, gifted, and special” (“Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper,” October 27, 2019).
As we all face the prospect of our own death, here’s the bottom line. First, don’t worry about it. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, God will welcome you home—you, me, all of us. No exceptions. The most important of all truths is that it all depends on God.
And second, and also vitally important, live your life as though it all depends on you, passionately and compassionately, exercising your superpower with an unrestrained buoyancy and confidence and joy. With God bearing you up, and you and I, the saints of Federated Church, living exuberantly and gratefully and generously, life will be sweet and grace-filled. And all shall be well.