©The Right Rev’d John Roundhill
In the name of the one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit Amen.
Midway through the 1999 blockbuster movie the Sixth Sense, a disturbed 9 year old boy (played by Haley Joel Osment) reveals to a child psychologist (played by Bruce Willis) that “I see dead people” and indeed he does.
At this time of year we are surrounded by dead people. For today is … All Saints Day, well now actually its Halloween! It is not often that we celebrate All Hallows on All Hallows eve. But as you go round shopping centers there are all manner of dead people present, from zombies, to animated skeleton and to a near ubiquity of smiling skulls. I would like to begin this short sermon thinking about those skulls.
I was in Woolworth’s the other week, and I saw this very colorful stand for El Paso Tortilla kits which was complete with decorated skull and a QR code to help you have a good Day of the Dead Day. November 2nd is All Soul’s Day or the Commemoration of the Faithful departed, or if you if you follow the QR code it is the Day of the Dead.
Can I just pause there? What is going on in our culture that we have Woolworth’s helping folk keep the Day of the Dead? What is our attraction to that day? El Dia de los Muertos comes from Mexico and we see it represented here by colorfully decorated smiling skulls.
Is this just the extension of American fun fear which we think might explain Halloween. When I was a lad I remember folk dismissing Halloween as just an American import. Look at it now, it has taken over this time of year. How do you feel about that?
I have a smiling skull coffee cup at home, which looks great on Zoom calls. You can now get smiling skull cushions at Bed and Bath, they are on wine bottles, I have a skull plant pot and you can go to any knick knack shop and you can get a skull.
Have you noticed this; it has been going on for a good few years now? What explains our recent obsession with exotic skulls? Are they just a modern form of the medieval Memento mori?
What can we learn from the celebration of Halloween? This might sound like I have wandered away from formal celebration of All Saints and All Soul’s that I grew up with as a child and adult, but what is going on?
The idea which binds all these things together; that is the celebration of Halloween, the day of the dead and the Feast of All Saints and All Souls is death.
And it is death and the hope that we have beyond it, that seems to dominate the readings we had today. We had a most unusual reading from the book of Wisdom. This is one of those books of the bible that is not in every bible, but only ones that carry the Apocrypha. Some people call them Roman Catholic Bibles, but I have to say that if you look at article VI. Of the 39 Articles “Of the Sufficiency of the Holy Scriptures for Salvation” it does say that some books are read to read for example of life and instruction of manners but not for formation of doctrine and then lists these, including Wisdom.
But that hope which is expressed as “the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them” is also a hope that is present a hundred years later when the writer of Revelation of St John writes that and God himself will be with them;
“he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’”
And it is that hope that is also witnessed in the extraordinary reading of the raising of Lazarus. What are we to make of death?
If I can pause for a second time; I have a been a preacher for more than twenty 25 years. It might be to do with my age (ha) but I think sermons about life and death have gotten more prescient these last few years. This is not just a commentary about covid although the actual death toll from covid worldwide is according to the economist magazine far higher than that which gov say, but it is comment about simply the destruction of our habitats, our world, the threat from climate change has made us all realize that this life is quite precarious. Our trust in mother nature and in ourselves is somewhat shortened.
But I also think there is another theme about culture, which is why I started talking about grinning skulls, our very culture seems more fragile or thin at this time. The trump years might, just might be in the past, but it is not as if the global political world has settled, we are more unsettled in some ways then even after 9/11. For back then you did not have superpowers facing off as we do with China and the USA.
So thinking what the message we have received through the ages is all the more timely. Put simply, is our attraction to Halloween, decorated skulls and just as recently zombie movies,
Is this just all a Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
We do I believe see something else with the story of Lazarus. This is not a resurrection story as Lazarus goes on to live a fruitful life, by tradition he flees Judea to head to Cyprus to be appointed Bishop; Bishop Lazarus. There in Larnaca you can still find the Church of St Lazarus where reputedly he was buried some 30 years after his first burial.
What are we to see in this story, what are we to make of the celebration of All Saints which the rubric for one of the prayer book says:
“While many people think of the saints as examples of “virtuous and godly living”, this hardly does justice to the biblical insight that in our pilgrimage through this world,” we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses”. Sanctity is not so much about hero worship as about accessibility; the saints are the real men and women of every age in whose lives we can glimpse heaven in our midst.” [i]
The story of Lazarus, the tradition of the Saints, the deep testimony of both the bible and tradition is all about facing death without anxiety or fear with frenzy or rage.
The age we live in has at times been called the age of anger and before that by WH Auden called it the age of anxiety. We are in a world fearful of the future and of death. The Christian hope is that all shall be well and that hope for the future has a deep consequence for our lives here and now, that we have the chance to be truly alive. That phrase that I opened up this sermon with “I see dead people” rings out a truth in our secular world, a world where even those alive at times seem to be dead to some of the possibilities that are before them. Zombie as a real possibility.
Many years ago, Christian Aid, a British Aid Charity, had a tag line which they used to plaster all over the place. It simply read “I believe in life before Death” The Saints and St Lazarus would, I say, agree. It is the best preparation for what lies beyond.
[i] The Promise of his glory p45