Nihilism is the belief that there is no meaning or purpose in existence.
I am guessing it is the result of the last few days of gloomy weather — probably a foretaste of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) — but the above definition is an atmosphere I am seeing begin to appear in our society. The word is nihilism. In the extreme, it is a nasty philosophy that says nothing matters.
There is also the biblical “eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die” (Ecclesiastes, Isaiah). Whichever definition of life calls to you, neither does humanity much good.
When I checked today there were 40.2 million cases of Covid in the world. 27.6 million of those cases had recovered, but 1.12 million deaths have been recorded. I wrote that out to look at the zeroes — 1,012,000. The human race deals better with things we can touch, smell, see, hear and taste so looking at a series of numbers doesn’t do much for me. I can’t wrap my head around the human suffering unless it touches me, personally.
Many years ago I was traveling in India on a summer Fulbright program for teachers. When we were in Calcutta, we attended a concert which ended just about the time people were getting off work for the day. I was sitting in the bus when the driver turned the headlights on. Suddenly the population of India at 1,353,000,000 people became real to me. As far as I could see there were people moving. I imagined if I stepped off the bus I could have walked down the street on the heads of those passing by. Real people on their way home from jobs. Going to families to have dinner. To play with their children. To check on their elderly parents. And on and on I imagined their lives. Absolutely no different from mine. I have never forgotten that experience. Whenever I begin to be too self important, too self centered I think of the billions of people who are just like me. The human family — every color and language and culture God made possible.
The Covid virus has exposed our vulnerability and we don’t like it. The pandemic prevents us from doing the things we want to do. It is easy to become like a pouty, self-serving child when we don’t get our way. We begin to imagine that nothing matters but this moment and so whatever we do is okay. We imagine that we might as well party today because death might come to us tomorrow and we never think about those others whose lives cross paths with our own.
Edgar Allen Poe wrote a short story entitled “The Masque of the Red Death”. A group of wealthy people flee to a country estate to escape the plague wiping out the city in which they live. They feel fortunate to have gotten away from the threat of death. What they don’t know is that death will crash the party and they will all die. The theme of the story is the inevitability of death.
We can live with that idea of inevitability. But what can happen is that we lose our humanity and any compassion is quickly destroyed. As long as we live we need to care for each other. Life is not about me nor is it about you, but it is about “us” and how we can improve what time we have and make it good for everyone.
Autumn rains for the most part are soft rains. Hearing the rain on the roof of my carport is the most calming sound I know. If you don’t have a piece of metal somewhere that the rain can hit you should put one in. The rain makes me pensive and that’s a good thing. My breathing rate slows down and I look with dreamy eyes at the lowering clouds. I know rain is not always welcome when you are working with sugar beets or have hay to haul, but for the most part the rain is a fresh perspective as it washes off the dust and sharpens the fall colors.
We need dreamy, pensive moments. To just sit and look out the window and think is a gift of time which we ignore at peril to our mental wellbeing. In these days of trouble and strife the call for peace in our hearts, our families, between neighbors is the only way to look at the world with new eyes and with a more loving disposition.
Driving in a soft rain that falls straight down in a steady beat is almost a gift. My muscles and my brain just slow down to sync with nature. Ray Bradbury, a science fiction writer, penned a short story entitled “There will come soft rains.” A nuclear holocaust has destroyed all human life. In the story ”the rain signifies nature's way or function of cleansing itself. And, following this nuclear explosion and the decimation of the human population, there is the sense that nature is cleansing itself of the nuclear fallout and of the presence of humanity itself.”
The soft rains of fall may be a way of wiping out the anger and bitterness that have addressed this entire year, in fact several years. We have to move on to something better. When immigrants came to these shores in huge numbers it was because they were moving on. They were looking for a new start. The Westward movement beyond the Applachians and the Mississippi River was looking ahead. The Homestead Act that settled our area was for people to find a new start. We don’t have the land to explore anymore, but we do have an inner space that needs lots of attention.
People have survived drought, economic depression and war. Life has never been easy. One author has written that life is complicated and hard and until you accept that you cannot get on with the business of living. It is the determination to work together, and to care for each other that makes the difference. That willingness to look at the larger picture is the route to survival. The cause of justice for all people; an America that can see the vision of freedom and a good life for all its citizens needs to call good men and women forward to vote, to speak out, to serve each other. With this compassion, democracy will survive. Without it, all the good things for which we have worked to make life better for the children will disappear like a dream.
Sermon November 1, 2020 UCC Matthew 5.1-12
(first draft of a sermon)
Today is All Saints Sunday. It is a Festival of the Church that recognizes those who have gone on before us — their journey is done and they now rest from their labors. The day was celebrated by the organized church as early as 300 a.d., but it wasn’t until it came to England about 800 that Halloween was connected to it. Historians have linked Halloween to Samhain, the Celtic festival of the summer's end celebrated in Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man. According to Celtic mythology, the veil between the Otherworld and our world thins during Samhain, making it easier for spirits and the souls of the dead to return. So you can see how all this started to come together. When Madison Avenue caught hold of its significance — well, today more money is spent on Halloween decorations than Christmas.
All Saints’ festival comes at the end of the Church Year. In about three weeks we will be at Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the Church year and then Advent begins the new church year. We are at a summing up time. We in this rural area know the importance of harvest for our families in agriculture. Harvest is bringing in what you have created and then seeing that it will sustain you through the winter months. There is the weighing of profit and loss. “All Saints” parallels this harvest idea. It is a time of recognition of all the saints, those who have attained heaven, but whose sainthood is known only to God. A wrapping up, a time of closure: The great hymn “For all the saints” begins —1 For all the saints who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blest. I think of holy communion as the “communion of saints”. When we share the bread and cup, we join in that holy meal God has prepared for us and all the saints. When we take the bread and the wine, as we will in a few moments, we are with the saints and part of that great eternal body blessed by God and that is no small thing. The hymn continues: 4 O blest communion, fellowship divine, we feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine.
In the 1600s, author Paul Bunyan wrote a book called Pilgrim’s Progress. It is said to be the most popular book next to the Bible. It is the story of an ordinary man who reads the Bible and is convicted of his sin and begins the journey to the Celestial City. The trials and tribulations that Pilgrim meets on his journey have much to do with that idea of attaining sainthood. Until we go through the Valley of the Shadow of Death or the Slough of Despair or must contend with those who would draw us away from our journey we don’t see ourselves as saints. We think we have to be good enough to be saints. Well, saints are not perfect. All Christians are saints.
Let’s think about it. The months since New Year’s have really been long and tough. When you know that over 200,000 people have died from Covid in the United States alone and then you begin to add the count from around the world it is frightening; we have suffered through forest fires of terrible fury, hurricanes; protests on systemic racism; political anger; unemployment; poverty. And in many ways we are numb. As God’s people we really do feel we are called upon to care for others and speak out of behalf of justice and the poor. If I am going to call myself a Christian, if we are saints of the Cross, then where and how do we stand not only in these tempest-tossed times, but throughout all our lives?
Jesus offers us a solution. It is rather like answering a want ad. Listen to Jesus, the One we follow as our Lord and Savior, speak to his followers in Matthew, known as the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is like a want ad. Let’s listen to the job description, because it is here we can lay out our marching orders for the days ahead: 5 — When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 3“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 4“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. 5“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. 6“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. 7“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. 8“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. 9“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. 10“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth, the light of the world.
So here Jesus lays out God’s plan for us to follow. And its not a cakewalk! Answering the advertisement to be a saint is tough — we are called to be merciful, to look with the eyes of Christ, to care for the persecuted, to give ourselves to others with no concern for ourselves. And then Jesus reminds us that we are salt and light for the world. People cannot survive without salt and without light.
A saint is anyone who accepts the job description as it is written and faithfully follows Jesus. Most of us don’t see ourselves as “saints”. How do you describe a saint? I think of quiet people. They don’t walk with the crowds, but rather work with just a few to make things right. They don’t expect to make a statement or be remembered. They see something that needs doing and they do it. They don’t have to be asked. Saints don’t work for sainthood — to have a day named for them. It isn’t like a promotion in the Kingdom of God. Saints work because they love God and their lives are lives of gratitude for all they have been given.
The end of November is also the secular holiday Thanksgiving. That was never a festival set by the church. For Christians, everyday is thanksgiving day when we approach it as a saint. The saints of God are those who live lives of gratitude to God for all we have been given — life itself is central to that gratitude. The hymn “For all the Saints” closes with a vision of that blest place which is prepared for all the saints to praise God. Our desire for this place is built into our very DNA and we do not rest peacefully until we rest there. 7 But lo! there breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. 8 From earth's wide bounds, from ocean's farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host, singing to Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Alleluia! Alleluia!
This is our final destination granted to us by a good and gracious God. May our lives be saintly examples of God’s love and care for us as we walk the path of sainthood, caring for the people of God.