Well, as I mentioned at the top of the service today, we're celebrating All Saints Sunday because this Tuesday, November 1, Is All Saints Day, a time for us to honor and to celebrate our loved ones who have passed and to recognize that their light is still with us.
And I loved our words of integration and guidance this morning about that cemetery, all lit up at night on All Saints Day, how it didn't look spooky or scary. The writer said it actually looked beautiful, festive and alive. And that of course reminds me of Dia de Los Muertos, The Day of the Dead, when our Mexican friends celebrate this time of year. Altars are set up in Mexican homes, and on them our photos and memorabilia of loved ones who have passed. Their favorite foods are prepared. Their their favorite music is played throughout the house. And it's not a mournful or sad time. It's a time of celebration, because we're recognizing that our loved ones are still very much alive, just in a different form.
Now, in the years that I've been your pastor, I've officiated now more than 25 celebrations of life here in the church. That's what we call them. We don't call them funerals. They are celebrations. And I've also had the very sacred privilege to be at the bedside of church members, as they were getting ready to make their transition. And that's what we call it – a transition. Death is not the end of the story. Our faith tells us that it's a transition into the next chapter into the heavenly realm.
Now that, of course, isn't to diminish the fact that those of us who have lost loved ones are grieving deeply. I recently met with a woman whose father passed away years ago. And she said that she was still struggling with it. And one of the things she struggled with was, she was concerned that her father wasn't in heaven. Because, she said, he did a lot of bad things in his life.
And I said to her, I don't really know exactly what heaven looks like, but I was pretty sure that her father was there. And the reason I believe that is because God is Unconditional Love. That means God's love isn't based on conditions about what you did do, what you didn't do. God is all-loving, al- forgiving.
Now, last year, at this time I shared with you about a documentary I had seen on Netflix. It's a movie that's called Come Sunday, and it is all about the life of Reverend Carleton Pearson. In the 1990s. Reverend Pearson was the head of a huge Evangelical Church, one of the biggest in the United States, with more than 6,000 members. And he was a televangelist on the Trinity Broadcast Network. Their show reached millions of people around the world. He was so popular that he was even invited to the White House by the first President Bush.
But as Reverend Pearson began to grow spiritually, as his spiritual understanding began to grow and evolve, he began to understand that if God is pure love, if God's love is unconditional, if God is all-forgiving, well, then there can't be a hell and that people didn't need to be saved. Because God was all-loving and forgiving, so all people were saved. And he began to teach what he called the Gospel of Inclusion.
Now even though Reverend Pearson was speaking truth, the evangelical church considered that heresy, and Reverend Pearson not only lost his ministry, he lost everything. But in 2006, he was welcomed into another denomination, he became ordained in our denomination, the United Church of Christ. Reverend Pierson and I both believe the same thing. People do not need to be saved.
All people experience salvation.
Now, I share this with you today, not only because it's All Saints Day this week, but because in the Gospel reading from today's lectionary for the 21s, Sunday after Pentecost, Jesus speaks of salvation. We hear about the salvation of this man Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector.
Now salvation is a term that many Christians today, I believe, are very confused about. They talk a lot about being saved, they want to make sure that they're saved, and that their loved ones are saved. And for them, it's about the next life. But salvation isn't about the next life. Salvation happens in this lifetime. And today's Gospel reading gives us clues for that.
So let's look at it together. Now, we don't know for sure whether Zacchaeus was a real person, a historic figure. But the writers of the Gospels gave him a name that means “clean” or “pure.”
And that's pretty ironic, because if you were here last Sunday, we were talking about tax collectors, and how in Jesus's day, they were considered unclean and impure. They were the people that were looked down upon by the religious figures. That's why you see that people grumbled in today's Gospel reading, because they were like, ‘How can Jesus, a good upstanding religious person, go into the home of someone who was unclean?’ That went against the religious purity codes.
So I love that the gospel writers gave him a name that means pure and clean, indicating that yes, maybe the religious people of his time considered him to be unclean, but God didn't. And I also love that the gospel writers described him as being short in stature, which again, literally could mean he was a short guy. But we know the Gospels are meant to be read symbolically, and short in stature means “lesser than,” a lower person in society. And that is how he was treated.. So what does he do? He climbs a tree, a sycamore tree or a fig tree. We hear a lot about this tree in the Bible. It symbolizes a place of higher consciousness. And we don't just hear about this in the Judeo Christian tradition. Many of you know that in Buddhism, we hear the story that Buddha experienced enlightenment, sitting under this type of tree, and that our Hindu friends pray and meditate under and around this type of tree. It's a symbolic symbol of the Divine.
And so Zacchaeus climbs this tree, hoping to catch a glimpse of the presence of the Christ. And when he does, not only does the Christ recognize him, but says, ‘I'm coming to your dwelling place, and we're going to share a meal together.’ Now, if you read the Bible, literally, you'd say, okay, a short guy, a tax collector, climbed the tree, saw Jesus, and ate with him and was saved.
And that's fine. But you don't really get the meaning of it. Remember, these stories are about us. We are like Zacchaeus, when we think less of ourselves, when we listen to the voices of our churches, our society, our family, who tell us that we're less than, not good enough, beneath them. When we start to rise, in spiritual consciousness, climb that tree, we began to realize that we are more than just human. When you stop viewing yourself at just an earthly level, and you climb that tree of life, you begin to understand the truth of your being, that you are not only human, but that you are divine. You are a child of God, you are the light of the world. When you begin to know that truth about yourself, you're set free.
That's what salvation means. It has nothing to do with the next life. Jesus never described it that way. Jesus said, The kingdom of heaven is at hand. It is here and now. And he said the kingdom of heaven is within you.
When you know the truth of your being, your light, your divine nature, when you see yourself from that higher perspective, the way God sees you, you're set free. That's what salvation means.
Some 30 of you actually were involved in our October book read on Parker Palmer's book, On the Brink of Everything. And in that book, he talks a lot about Thomas Merton. Thomas Merton was the 20th century Christian mystic, a Trappist monk. And Thomas Merton said this about salvation. He said, “Salvation is becoming more of who I already am. He said, salvation is discovering my true self.” And he said, “Therefore, to be a saint, is to be more of myself”. And our friend Father Richard Rohr said something similar. He said, “Salvation is not some divine transaction.” He said, “Rather, it is an organic unfolding of becoming who we already are.”
Now I explained at the top of the service, we're going to conclude our service today singing Amazing Grace. And I love how in recent years we have replaced that line in that song that says, ‘Saved a wretch like me.” And it's been changed to “Saved and set me free.” Because that's what grace is. That's what Amazing Grace is. It is given to us freely. We don't have to do anything to get it. We don't have to earn it. My friends, you don't have to earn God's favor or win God's love. Because you already have it. And you don't have to do anything to ensure your place in heaven. Because your place in heaven is already assured by an all-loving and all-forgiving God who loves you unconditionally.
Isn't that freeing?
So why would we do good things then? I mean, a lot of people do good things because they're trying to ensure their places in heaven. Good things are God things. When we do God things, we become more and more of who we are, children of God, we become more and more of who we were created to be. And so my friends, on this All Saints week, let us remember that we have been called to be saints, to become more and more of who we already are. And may our loved ones who are already in the spiritual realm – may their life and their spirit inspire us to do God things. To live fully, to love wastefully and to have the courage to be all that God has created us to be.
Rev. Salvatore Sapienza
Words of Integration and Guidance
By Christian Villa
Every year on November 1, All Saints Day, I remember Sacred Heart cemetery in the town where I grew up. It was a huge Polish cemetery situated on a long sloping hill next to a busy intersection. Starting at dusk on November 1, the eve of the Catholic All Souls Day, the entire cemetery would be lit up with thousands of red votive candles on nearly every grave. It looked like the dead were getting ready to have a party and had turned on all the lights in the house. It sounds weird to say that the cemetery looked festive, but that's exactly how it looked. Lit up like Times Square, it looked more like life than death. It confused the categories of living and dead. It made the dead seem less separated from us, and not so different from us. When I was a child, those candles burning all night on all those graves used to make me think that it must make the dead people happy. Of course that's a childish belief with no theological depth, but now I wonder: why not? If death is not the end, then it's not the end of celebration or joy. And not just the theoretical, pie-in-the-sky kind of celebration and joy, either. The real thing, the exact same happiness we know now, the kind that makes us light Advent candles and put up Christmas lights. The kind of happiness that makes us wish it could last forever. And possibly, it does.
What did you think?