All Saints Day, Year A
1 November 2020
The longer one serves a congregation the more likely it is to repeat oneself, but maybe some things need to be said more than once. A former colleague who came alongside me as a mentor in my first parish used to say that every pastor has one sermon and preaches variations of it.
So I may repeat myself when I say that I have always found it painful when someone says about a person with advanced dementia that they are only a shell of who they used to be and that the real person is no longer there.
This is problematic on several levels.
One, because we all change all the time and I am no longer the person I was when I was two, or twenty. Does that mean I am no longer me?
Two, it seems that we say things like this to make sense of things we don’t understand; as well as perhaps make ourselves feel better about having difficulty to handle this new reality that may make us answer the same question multiple times in succession or accept someone’s perception of reality as fact, and rather than argue, shift the conversation to a different topic.
I am not saying that any of this is easy but who said that life was easy?
In a booklet on dementia, John McFadden compares dementia to leprosy in biblical times. “In the time of Jesus, selfhood and the divine image were strongly associated with corporeality, which is why leprosy was so widely feared. The physical disfigurement (…) robbed its victims of their essential identity as the self they had known. Additionally, they were barred from entering the Temple because they were no longer perfect offerings — no longer fully formed in the divine image — limiting direct access to the presence of God. Purity laws (…) removed them from their normal role in the web of relationships …”1
McFadden makes the point that in our time selfhood is understood almost exclusively as cognition, “I think, therefore I am,” as our ability to be in control, to be productive, and to be independent.2
Of course, that is a fallacy, as much as we like to believe it to be true.
We are never independent only interdependent, and those who think they are truly independent are sociopaths without friends. Certainly, we are proud of certain accomplishments and abilities, and we have every right to be. But these accomplishments and abilities don’t make us who we are, for they do not exist in a vacuum without others who encourage, support, praise and critique us.
It has been a difficult year for us. This is our first All Saints Day without Elias. It is no longer hard to imagine that he would be among those we remember today, for we miss him every day and visit the cemetery each Sunday afternoon.
Last year we lost my brother-in-law. I have been thinking for some time about why death is so disruptive, no matter at what age a death occurs. The answer, I think, is that relationships are the thing that gives our lives meaning. So when a really important relationship is disrupted by death, it is profoundly destabilizing and disorienting.
That brings us back to where we started. McFadden in his booklet on dementia says that for Christians selfhood is not solely defined by our bodies or our cognitive abilities, but by our relationships with others. And we are creatures created in the divine image not because we physically or intellectually resemble the Almighty One, but because God remains in faithful relationship with us in all circumstances and conditions. God’s goodness can be experienced within the reality of dementia,
even as it can be within physical disability, chronic pain, or heartrending grief.
Visiting people with advanced dementia is something we need to learn. But visiting them continues the relationship we have had all along. It does not matter whether someone can remember our visit an hour, and day, or five minutes after we have left, for when we are with them they knew they are not alone. Friendship reminds us that we are not alone and therefore us all remember the larger frame within we live: We are not alone because God is with us, including in our relationships with one another.
I don’t know about you, but while I certainly want to live in the awareness of the presence of God, I am not always there, and I don’t need dementia for that to be the case. But thankfully my relationship with God is not solely dependent on me, but God remembers me even when I don’t remember God.
All Saints Day began as a day when there were more martyrs than days in the year and it was no longer possible for each martyr to have their own day. Some traditions celebrate All Souls Day (November 2nd) as the day on which we remember all the faithfully departed. We celebrate martyrs and faithfully departed on this one day because we know that all holiness is gifted by God and our salvation is God’s gift, even while we recognize that some lives particularly embody holiness.
In our reading from the First Letter of John we are reminded that we are God’s children. That we are God’s children is the determinative reality of our lives. That we are God’s children also invokes relationship as that which gives identity, value, and meaning to our lives: Relationship with God and each other, in the community of the church. In our living we seek holiness, after all we follow Jesus, God’s Holy One. But we are not yet complete and what makes us who we are, are not our good deeds, though they flow from the love of God, but God’s relationship with us. And so John can tell us that when Jesus is revealed, when he will be all in all, then we will be made holy, we will be like Jesus.
It is relationships that give our lives meaning, it is in relationships we learn to love with all that that entails, and it is God who calls us into relationship, us who are here today, and those who have gone before us.
1John T. McFadden, Aging, Dementia, and the Faith Community – Continuing the Journey of Friendship, 2012 Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, © Ekklesia Project, pp. 5-6: http://www.ekklesiaproject.org/publications/pamphlets/#aging