Sometimes, to put things in perspective, I read about the life cycles of stars.
In very simplified terms: Within a nebula, which is usually composed of the leftover matter of previous stars, gravity draws a deep breath in. Particles, even galaxies, begin to collide, and everything heats up until finally it is hot enough to burn. The light bursts forth and the main sequence of the star begins. Hydrogen is fused into helium over millennia until it begins to run out, and outside the helium core hydrogen is fused into a shell and the star begins to expand into what is called a red giant. It swells and swells like a balloon, growing cooler as it does. The core begins to degenerate, fusing helium to carbon and oxygen, until, depending on its size, the star pushes this outer shell away and becomes a white dwarf, small, incredibly dense, and unable to sustain itself. It burns out slowly over millions of years until, we think, it becomes a black dwarf – but we’re not sure, because scientists estimate that the time it takes for a white dwarf to become a black dwarf is longer than the current age of the universe, and so the existence of those cold stars is still only hypothetical.
Just imagine it: Untold eons of ceaseless burning; contracting in, expanding out, and finally speckling the universe with the echoes of one wild, precious life.
I can’t tell you how my faith has been tested by this knowledge. Every truth, every prayer, every accomplishment, every personal tragedy, everything in existence pales in relation to this amazing natural phenomenon – and it is only one of the amazing things that occurs in our universe and has been occurring since before the world began, and will continue after all of us are gone.
It reminds me that the Israelite God who might, in the face of this cosmic truth, seem so small – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob – is in fact more incomprehensible than I could possibly imagine.
And surprisingly enough, I find that a comfort.
Where indeed is the sting of death in the face of such vast power?
I don’t mean to say death is not real, that it does not scar us. Mary and Martha knew that. All of you know that. I know that. I think being made in the image of God is living with a woven cord around our hearts, and perhaps one of the strands of that cord is grief. For all our vice and selfishness, we have the virtue to protest the loss of those whom we love. We have the capacity to feel so deeply for someone that when they die we yearn and moan and cry and blame each other and God. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
Everyone does it differently. Martha adds the proclamation of faith at the end – “I know God will give you what you ask.”
Mary doesn’t even bother. “If you had been here…”
Some commentators try to soften things by saying that this is a proclamation of faith on its own. When I read stuff like that I think, “Oh, come on. Stop trying to make it easier. Wrestle with the angel. Yearn. Rage.”
That’s what we do with death, especially when it imposes upon us unexpectedly. We rage against the natural order of things.
Or – what is believed to be the natural order of things.
Because Jesus shows us that the true natural order is not what it seems.
You know, the lectionary cheats us by cutting off when it does. The raising of Lazarus does not actually have a happy ending. Immediately after he is raised, the religious leaders plot to kill him and Jesus.
They are afraid. Jesus exposed death for the very human construct it is. The narrative of death is often followed by a desperate grasping for control. Once, folks made sure their purity or their prayer lives or their indulgences were in order. Today people use diets and beauty products and fitness fads and medicines. We all find ourselves inundated with death on the news, even though many beautiful things happen across the globe every day and receive no coverage, because peddling fear is far more lucrative than peddling peace. No-one stockpiles expensive weapons or buys into the notion of forging an inner identity through brand names when they are feeling at one with the universe.
But death in truth is such a small thing. The movements of interstellar space show us that death as we understand it (i.e. an eternal ending) is perhaps the greatest lie ever told.
Remember: Science itself teaches us that energy can never be lost. The true natural order is continuous cycling through birth, life, and death, only to begin again.
The true natural order is resurrection.
The truth is “Lazarus, come out!”
The truth is the descent of God to dwell among mortals; the mutual building of the holy city on top of humus, soil, earth; the bursting forth of light which cannot occur without gravity drawing in the leftovers: the little ones. (The last shall be first indeed.)
The truth is our deceptive fragility. Our lives are so very small – like blades of grass – and yet God knows that we can only change through our encounter with each other; our brushing up against each other as the wind which once stirred the waters now stirs us.
A child needs things to be concrete in order to learn – and isn’t it funny that we use that word “concrete” when what we really mean is “flesh”?
We, the children of God, need flesh to learn.
So God gave us Jesus.
We also have the saints – a gift from ourselves to ourselves. In the past they were singular persons who existed shackled by time and space and circumstance and who now look down from the paradox of the overflowing void. Today they are us, we who look out (and sometimes up, but remember, the kingdom of God is among us, not above us). And we also have those who look back, from countless years in the future. These ones are the most exciting to me. I can’t imagine what they will look like, or how they will glorify God, but I know they are there, swirling in the nebula, waiting to be breathed in.
Do not doubt that we have our place among these saints, we frightened few who may not feel so terribly sanctified or solemn or reverent. You may be surprised to learn that reverence and solemnity have very little to do with it. We do well to remember two things:
(1) The Christian story is cosmically ridiculous (God is human! The kingdom is here but not yet! Death is life!)
(2) It has changed the history of an entire planet.
One man’s death, whoever he was, had an effect, however distant, on the life of every human being on this planet.
That is how I know that Emmanuel, God-With-Us, IS. One man, strange and wonderful, who couldn’t read, who probably had never been further than thirty kilometers from his hometown, inspired his friends to shout a creed of utter nonsense to the world…and the world listened, because our hearts knew that it was all true.
Is this what our life is about: unbinding the truth over and over again, and letting it go?
Our Bishop Melissa often refers to a process called “Gather, transform, send.” This is what we do in church services, and in all of our many ministries.
And oh: This is what stars do.
And this is what saints do.
At first glance it probably sounds terrifying – how could anyone possibly do something so momentously “macro” on such a micro level? – but we’re not on our own.
It really is a macro truth on a micro level. In the first line of the Gospel of John, the word “God” is sandwiched in between two instances of the word “Logos.”
It’s a beautiful way of showing, in a sort of ‘word painting,’ the truth of the incarnation.
“Gather, transform, send” is like that too. We – people – do the gathering and the sending. God does the transforming.
This All Saints Day, take joy in the gifts God gives to the world through you.
With the hands of a saint, receive the fuel you need to burn here, at this table.
Let your heart become a star.