Sharing ourselves with another person changes the world. A bold statement, I know, but a true one all the same. When we share our stories, our vulnerabilities, our joys, our hopes, our dreams; when we commit to sharing a life with someone else; when we enter into another’s life, we are changed, they are changed, and something in the world is changed. Ripples of change emanate from that experience and move through the world shifting it this way and that. There is no scientific meter to measure this. There is no scientific hypothesis of which I am aware that really explains this. Yet it is a lived truth that people in all cultures and religions know. Being joined with another in a bond of love, with understanding and forbearance; being known, really known, and knowing another; these things reach into that part of us that stays hidden from the world and it works miracles there. With these people, these ones with whom we trust our tender places, we experience something that I only know to call “home.”
Yet, we live imperfect lives and carry scars, and we are are trapped by fears deeply established and rooted in our minds and souls. We build up walls to protect us from further pain and loss and disappointment and suffering. These same walls that protect us keep us from one another; they keep us stuck in pain or at least numbness; they keep us stagnate in life; they fragment a world that God is desperately trying to re-form into its intended wholeness.
We are living near the end of a period known as Modernity or the Enlightenment. Its birth pangs began long before, but it came into its own in the 1700s as societies moved from feudalism to nation-states, from agrarian economies to capitalism - a new idea altogether, and it is marked by the rise of democracy. One scholar has said that during this time we moved from the “divine right of kings” to the “divine right of the individual.” Germ theory rose to prominence as a way of explaining the spread of disease. People learned about atoms and subatomic structure. Once forbidden studies in human anatomy yielded to humankind’s need to know. Psychology developed as a new science that attempted to explain the “whys” of human behavior, and it sought to help the broken self heal. In the production world, the assembly line was developed. Technology provided humans with the ability to travel far distances in short periods of time. The world, which had up until this time been understood in whole terms, was dissected, reduced, pulled apart, named, categorized, and segmented. If one thing can be said about the past few hundred years, it is that it can be known primarily as a time of segmentation - of fragmentation. We have been able to parse the world down into mind-boggling units. And, with this never ending segmentation of the world and the increasing development of humans as individuals, we find ourselves living as completely separated people in a highly fragmented world.
Birth and death have not escaped this process of segmentation. More often than not, in industrialized countries where the technology and money exist, women receive their first baby photographs in their first trimester. We can prolong death in extraordinary ways. Our thinking, our ethics, our understanding have not caught up with our technological abilities. How we think about birth and death has become very privatized. We can scarcely understand a time when people did not understand themselves as individuals, wholly separate people, being born, living in the world, and dying. We have even made the separation between life and death much more pronounced that in previous times. Just in the past decade or so, it has become increasingly customary to hold memorial services without the body present. And it is now becoming increasingly common not to hold memorial services at all. Death has become final. Really final. Yet, we belong to a faith that does not distinguish between life and death in such stark terms. Life and death are not so far apart. And, God is active and present in them both. Throughout our scriptures, God is reaching in to dead places in order to pull out new life. When people seek out Jesus for a teaching, a healing, an exorcism, or to literally bring someone back to life, it isn’t just the individual who is changed. It is a holistic experience creating unity in whole communities. The world changes, not just the person. Jesus doesn’t just cure an illness or remove a demon or tell people to live good lives. Jesus restores communities. Through his life, his ministry, his suffering, death and resurrection, Jesus brings the wholeness of God’s kingdom and the unity of God’s shalom to life here on this earth.
Today we honor the Mexican holiday of Dia del los Muertos, Day of the Dead, which came into being when the native peoples of Mexico were introduced to Catholicism as the Spanish conquered Mexico in the 1500s. But we could just as easily give a nod to Samhain (sow-een), the Celtic Druid celebration out of which Halloween emerged. Both of these, Dia del los Muertos and Samhain are premodern celebrations. They are not encumbered by our scientific explanations or individualistic experiences of death. In every premodern culture that I know of, there is a ritual to honor the dead and to commune with the dead. For Dia del los Muertos, the belief is that the souls of the dead return to their homes on November 1, All Souls Day. So, on Oct 31, homes are prepared to welcome them. Altars are set up. Favorite foods are left out, in part to show them the way home and in part to welcome them with a feast once they’ve arrived. Bright marigolds are arranged to help souls find their way. Candles are lighted and incense is burned. Specifically, small candles are lit at 4 AM on Nov 1 for returning souls of children; they are blown out at 8 AM. At 3 PM large candles are lighted. Prayers are said at home and on November 2, people go to mass. The visual theme is the skeleton, specifically the skull. Displays are set up that show skeletons doing all of the joyful things that people do while they are alive: at weddings, at feasts, driving cars, playing musical instruments, even playing sports. The more whimsical the toy, the more true to the holiday. For some in our country this can seem macabre, but it isn’t. It is a way to celebrate that our relationships do not end at death. Loved ones remain a part of us. Their joys don’t cease to affect the world. Dia del los Muertos reminds us that death isn’t that big of a chasm. In Christianity we believe that the veil that separates the living and the dead is torn apart on this day. Death, despite its power, is not stronger than the love shared by people, even if they can no longer share the same physical place. And, their love continues to change the world, even after death.
When Jesus entered Jericho, the tax collector Zacchaeus climbed a tree to, we are told, “see who Jesus was.” I find this curious. He didn’t just want to see Jesus. He wanted to see who he was. When Jesus called him by name and told Zacchaeus that he would be eating in his home that day, Zacchaeus was changed. I don’t know if he at first saw who Jesus was, but Jesus saw who he was. And it was a powerful thing to be seen and known. Zacchaeus responded to Jesus with an offer to pay restitution to all whom he had harmed. This is real transformation born out of a shared experience. And to him, Jesus says, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Jesus says, “Wholeness has come to this house.” Not just to Zacchaeus, but to his whole house. I bet their feast was something pretty great.
We feast today, too. We feast in the assurance that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We feast at God’s table as the host of Christ himself. We break this bread and we feast in the presence of the saints and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. This is a mystical meal that crosses all the boundaries that try to keep us separated from one another and with God. In this meal, shared with the living and the dead, in the presence of the Most Holy, transformation occurs, not just in us. No. In the taking of this bread, in the sharing of this meal, by the confession of our mouths and in the prayers that we offer and in the stories that we retell, ripples are sent out into the world, and it is changed from this day forward.
God sends us to one another to share in this world and all that it has to offer. To share big and robustly, not to hid behind the walls that we erect, to be safe from one another. Shared life is risky life. Yet shared life is whole life - healing life - salvific life. Today we are reminded that nothing really separates us from one another or from God. As it is written in Romans:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36As it is written:
"For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."[l] 37No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[m] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Let it be so. Amen.