On this All Saints Sunday, we honor all the saints of the church, past and present, the people who let the light of God shine through them in order to bring God’s love and grace to those who are lost, lonely, outcast, feeling far away from God. We honor the saints who have stood up for their faith –even when it was unpopular– in the face of persecution and, sometimes, death. Among those saints is our own patron saint, St. Stephen.
What little we know about St. Stephen is found in the book of the Acts of the Apostles. He was one of the first seven deacons chosen to serve the poor and widows who lived in the Greek-speaking Jewish community. Brought before the Jewish authorities on charges of blasphemy, he preached that Jesus was the Son of God, the Messiah. Stephen gave an impassioned speech that challenged the insistence of the Jewish establishment that God was present only in one particular place, the Temple. God, present in Jesus, and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, is in many places and among many peoples, said Stephen. He also called the authorities a “stiff necked people” who, rather than guarding the truth of God’s universal love, were disobedient to what God had called them to be and do as God’s people. This did not endear him to the authorities and, the more he spoke, the angrier they became. Finally, when he looked up to heaven and declared that he saw Jesus sitting at the right hand of God, their anger overtook them, and the crowd stoned Stephen to death. Today we honor Stephen’s boldness and courage to declare God’s truth in the face of persecution. We honor his work among the poor and forgotten.
But rather than focus on Stephen’s speech or his martyrdom, rather than pick apart what he said and the details of why the authorities were so angry, I want to look again at what he did before his trial. As a deacon, he distributed money and food from the newly formed Christian community to the poor and the widows.
Most likely, that did not mean that he sat behind a table and processed applications. Most likely, it meant that he went to their homes, sat with them, heard their stories, grieved with them in their losses—husbands lost to an early death, or folks who had lost their jobs or were forced into a life of begging because of physical infirmities. Stephen brought hope and life to those who were in despair and darkness.
In our gospel today, we read of a time when Jesus turned aside from his mission of preaching to respond to a call from Martha and Mary to be with them in their grief at losing their brother. When he heard of Lazarus’ death, Jesus took time to grieve before he headed to Bethany. When Jesus first got there, Lazarus’ sister, and his friends, asked: “ Why didn’t you come earlier? Then maybe he would not have died.” But Jesus was clear that life doesn’t work that way. We don’t escape the realities of life’s struggles or of death. Jesus tried to get them to see the important truth that God showed in Lazarus’ death and resurrection . That is, we have to die in order for new life to begin. We have to grieve our losses before we can move on to new life. Jesus wept. He did not skip the grieving.
Fast forward to the 20th century and to all that has been researched and written concerning death—grief has been identified as a process that takes a long time, that has identifiable stages that need to be passed through before a grieving person can move on. About twenty years ago, an interdenominational program developed called Stephen’s Ministry. It was named after St. Stephen because it focuses largely on training people in compassionate listening, to walk alongside people who have experienced some sort of loss in their life, either loss due to a death, to losing a job, or becoming physically impaired in one way or another.
Three of us from St. Stephen’s are currently going through this training course. What it has done for me is to raise the spectre of my own losses—the recent death of my father, the death of my mother years ago, the leaving of my job in WV to come here, my divorce which, by chronological stands, was a very long time ago. This Fall also marks one year since George’s retirement. Although an accepted thing, to retire after many years in ministry, George’s retirement was also a great loss to this community. Several weeks ago, after Bruce Smith supplied for me at Sunday services, he emailed me a few comments about corrections needed in the bulletin. But he also wrote that he still heard a lot of anxiety about the future and grieving for George. I think it is important to name the truth that grieving takes a long time, it is normal, and it must be gone through before you can move on as a community to welcoming new leadership and new directions for your ministry.
You miss George, you will always miss George, but it will get easier over time to move on. Jesus wept. Grieving brings with it an overwhelming sadness, a sense of loss and confusion, emptiness and loneliness. We can feel crushed and lose hope. We can feel like the ground beneath us has shifted dramatically or completely disappeared. What will happen to us? What does the future look like? No matter what set of losses we each face in our lives, these are central questions. In the midst of grieving, it is also important to remember that Jesus brings us hope in the midst of despair. Jesus’ presence at Lazarus’ death , his prayer to God, reminds Martha and Mary– reminds us– that God goes with us on that goodbye journey. God weeps when we are bent over from the storms of life. And it is God “who will enable our empty places to become sources of transformation”. Like Lazarus, “there is so much within us that needs to come to life. Moments of suffering, times of goodbye, can cause us to peer inside our own tombs of unfinishedness or incompleteness and we can discover vast storehouses of resiliency, vitality, fidelity, love, and endurance.”*
We see this truth in the lives of the saints. Whether we think of St. Stephen, St. Peter, or St. Francis, whether we think of Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, or someone you have known in your own life, the witness of the saints is that, trusting in God, they moved through their losses and found Life. (L)
In her book Praying Our Griefs, Benedictine nun Joyce Rupp, recalls how the ancient Aztecs reflected on the presence of loss in the course of human life. In one of the Aztec prayers, they express their gratitude to the Creator for the “preciousness of life and the fleetingness of it.” Only for so short a while you have loaned us to each other, because we take your form in your act of drawing us, and we take life in your painting us, and we breathe in your singing us.
But only for so short a while have you loaned us to each other. In this and other writings of the Aztecs, there is a deep gratitude as they understand that all of life is gift. We are at the beginning of a year long focus on deep gratitude for all that we have been given by God—for each other, for the Creation all around us, for this community, for the resources of this building, for the abundance of our lives. We are so quick in this consumer society to focus on scarcity, on what we have lost, rather than what we have and what we have gained.
But being grateful for what we have also must be held lightly for, as the Aztec prayer reminds us, all things earthly, including our lives, are fleeting. Can we be grateful for what we have while at the same time move toward letting go of what is, in order to make room for what can be? The saints witness to the truth that life in God is dynamic, not static, and that the power of God’s love moves us to deeper ways of being and living.
The Rev. Faith Perrizo
*Rupp, J., Praying Our Griefs, pp. 45, 57,69