Death be not proud!
by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston
“Danse Macabre” by Bernt Notke, c. late 15th Century. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons
A Sermon Preached on the Sunday after All Saints’ Day, November 3, 2013
By The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut
Texts: Ephesians 1:11-23; Luke 6:20-31
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Welcome to the revolution. Perhaps when you pulled into the parking lot this morning and parked in your usual spot, you did not realize that you had arrived at a meeting of dangerous radicals. Perhaps when you stepped inside the church and settled into your usual seat in your usual pew, you did not know that what you were coming here for was a protest, a demonstration, an act of outrageous defiance against oppression and tyranny. Perhaps you were not aware that each day, each week, year-in and year-out, from the highest Holy Days to the lowest low Sundays, what we gather here for is a resistance movement—a radical society—a grand conspiracy—with news that can topple the mightiest powers that hold sway over this world. Friends, I say it again: Welcome to the revolution.
Now perhaps some of you are feeling a little uncomfortable by this point. Some of you may be asking yourselves, “When did that nice young curate get so political?” Some of you may be wondering whether there’s still time to reduce your capital campaign pledge…
But before you do anything rash, let me first explain what I’m talking about. Today is the Sunday after All Saints’ Day. Today we celebrate the Feast that took place last Friday, and in so doing we engage in a stunning act of defiance. You see, on All Saints’ Sunday we remember and give thanks for all of God’s servants down through the ages. But we do more than remember the saints this day. Today we rejoice in them as fellow companions and present realities in the life of the Church. All Saints’ Day is not a holiday of history—a time to look back through two millennia of the Christian faith in order to choose heroes and tell stories of people long dead. Rather, on this day we remember that God has “knit together [his] elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of [his] Son Christ our Lord.”
Consider what those words mean. Today we profess that we who are still in our earthly pilgrimage—we who walk as yet by faith and not by sight—nevertheless are one—one communion, one fellowship, one body—with those who have gone before us. The Church recognizes no barriers of geography or chronology–of space or time. We are one with all baptized people around the world today, and we are one with all baptized people down through the centuries, even though they have died. And this claim, this profession, this assertion, is what makes this day revolutionary, for it requires us to defy an oppressor and a tyrant.
And yet the oppressor we repudiate today is not a political one, though he is often wrapped up and mingled in the practice of politics. But no: this All Saints’ Sunday we defy a ruler before whom the President of the United States, the Queen of England, and the Secretary General of the United Nations all stand subject.
The tyrant we reject this day is not an economic power, though greed and wealth have long been known to serve him. But no: this All Saints’ Sunday we renounce a creditor to whom the CEO of General Electric, the Chairman of Microsoft, and the President of the New York Stock Exchange must all pay their final debt.
No, beloved, the enemy against whom we gather today stands over and above all manifestations of human power and authority. He is the power behind all other powers. He is the last and inescapable equalizer of humankind. He is the one uniting reality of human life, because he reveals himself clearly and undeniably in the end of human life. For the great and terrible foe whom we this day defy is Death itself. That is the meaning of this All Saints’ Sunday. That is the force of our protest. That is the revolution of which we are part. Today, we stand defiant in the very face of Death.
And if we are to grasp the full force of our rebellion this day, we must begin with a sober acknowledgement of Death’s power. We must give Death his due—for his horrors confront us everywhere we turn.
The front-page of The New York Times this morning1 tells of a TSA agent murdered in the line of duty, and a Taliban leader “taken out” for the security of the world. These headlines are notable because they are not unusual. Dear people, Death’s reach is global, his activity is unceasing, and he is happy to ally himself with the disturbed and the deranged as readily as with the calculating and the just.
On the radio yesterday2 I heard a heart-wrenching story about a twenty-three year old woman waiting to hear the results of a test that would determine whether she has Huntington’s Disease—a hereditary condition similar to Parkinson’s, except that symptoms typically begin in one’s late-thirties, progress rapidly, and are always, eventually, fatal. The young woman was accompanied to the appointment by her twenty-one-year-old sister, who already knows that she has the gene that will lead to the disease. They talked bravely, casually, with a sort of gallows-humor about how they hoped their siblings would care for them when their very bodies began to rebel against them and their minds began to deteriorate. After all, they had watched it all happen to their own mother. Now, in their early twenties, these two women know that the same fate awaits them. Dear people, Death’s power is personal, and he is a subtle, patient enemy: hiding in our genes and family histories as much as in our choices, or in the changes and chances of this life.
Or consider the e-mail announcement that I received this week, inviting me to an interfaith service of remembrance on the one-year anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown. That terrible day—and the too-many terrible days just like it that have shocked our nation and the world—reminds us, dear people, that Death’s approach is random, and his movement capricious.
Beloved, this is the enemy whom we defy this day, and we must not doubt for a moment that his reach is universal, his grip is personal, and his power is terrible.
And yet defy him we do. For in keeping All Saints’ Day we claim that untold generations of Christians whom we love but see no longer have not, in fact, been conquered by Death. Today we dare to say that the tyrant’s power is broken and the oppressor’s reign is overthrown. Today we declare our freedom from the fear of Death itself. Today, we stand with the seventeenth-century priest and poet John Donne, who wrote these mocking, defiant words:
Death be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
But how can Donne speak so confidently? How can we dare to join in this celebration today, and joyfully declare that the saints whom Death thinks he “dost overthrow / die not”? What gives us the courage to keep this Feast and to sneer at watchful, waiting Death: “nor yet canst thou kill me”? What gives us the strength to shake our fists in the grim face of Death?
Today, dear friends, we dare to defy the great power that rules this world because we know that a greater Power has broken into this world. In our reading from Ephesians, we heard these words: “…with the eyes of your heart enlightened, may you know what is the hope to which [God] has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe…” These are words of promise, words of hope, words of encouragement. But, Christians, they are also words of defiance, words of upheaval, words of revolution!
For how can we know the extent of God’s power that is at work in us? Because “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…” Brothers and sisters, here is our glory and our sure confidence. Here is the source of our strength this day—the source of our rejoicing in the company of all the saints. Here is the root of John Donne’s confidence, and may it be established deep within your heart also.
Today we topple Death, our mighty and dreadful enemy, with two little words: Jesus lives! Today we stand and shout our words of defiance in the Apostles’ Creed when we say that, “Yes, Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate—Yes, he was crucified—Yes, he died—Yes, he was buried…but on the third day, on the third day, on the third day he rose again!” Where, O Death, is thy victory? Where, O Grave, is thy sting? Jesus lives!
And the promise of our Scripture and celebration today is that in him, his saints too shall rise. This is no vague “spiritual” promise—no sentimental assurance that “our loved ones live on forever in our memories and our hearts.” No! This is a battle cry. This is a declaration of independence. This is an act of defiance, of strength. For in the resurrection of Jesus, we see that Death’s power is broken. In the resurrection of Jesus, we find that Death’s reign is ended. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, you and I need not fear the grave, nor cower before Death’s forces at work in our world. For we are become joint heirs with the One who has conquered—brothers and sisters with the saints in light—and we live now for the praise of his eternal glory.
And so, beloved, welcome to the revolution. Upheld by the prayers of the saints, “compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the author and finisher of our faith.”4
Let us this day, with John Donne and with all the saints of every age who share in Christ’s eternal victory, look defiantly on the grim, proud face of Death and ask,
…why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more: Death, thou shalt die.5
“The Resurrection” by Piero della Francesca, c.1460
1 The New York Times. November 3, 2013. Accessed electronically.
2 “What Are You Doing for the Test of Your Life?” in “509: It Says So Right Here.” This American Life. Chicago Public Media. October 25, 2013. Radio.
3 “Holy Sonnet X.” The Complete English Poems of John Donne. Everyman’s Library: New York, 1991.
4 Hebrews 12:1-2a
5 “Holy Sonnet X.”