Laurence the Deacon and the meaning of eternal life

Almighty God, knit us together in one communion and fellowship with all the saints.

All Saints Sunday comes several days after the end of a little mini-season in our church calendar that begins with the Eve of All Saints, also known as Halloween J, continues with All Saints Day on November 1st, and concludes with All Souls Day on November 2nd. Tradition has it that on All Saints we honor Saints-with-a-capital-S, and on All Souls we honor the heroes in our own lives who have shaped us and guided us, as well as loved ones who have died, whether or not they were our heroes. In the Latino culture the All Souls tradition, Dia de los Muertos, is much more of a big deal than All Saints. Today we’ll celebrate a little bit of each: Saints-with-a-capital-S and all those whom we love and see no longer.

Saints-with-a-capital-S are saints who have lived out their faith in their own time and place in such a way that their stories illuminate ways that we can live out our faith in our time. It has been my custom to pick a “Saint of the Year” for my sermon on All Saints Sunday.

And so, this is the moment I know you’ve all been waiting for…[drumroll….]…may I have the envelope please….

St. Laurence!

Laurence the Deacon died in the year 257, during one of the many persecutions that characterized the first three centuries of Christianity.

There are not a lot of stories about Laurence’s earthly life and ministry, except about his final witness, which is probably the most important for us today. He was martyred during the Valerian persecution, named after the Roman emperor of the day. This particular persecution, the Valerian persecution, focused on the confiscation of church property. The emperor’s henchman cornered Laurence and demanded information from him the whereabouts of the church’s treasures. He expected Laurence to reveal, under duress, the location of the local church’s stockpiled silver and gold. Laurence’s primary role as a deacon had been to distribute church funds to the poor and sick. He asked the Roman soldiers to give him a few days to round up the riches they sought. When they met up again, he was surrounded by the poor and needed whom his church had supported. He said to his interrogator:

These are the treasures of the church.”

This response made Laurence’s examiners so angry that—the story goes—he was cooked on a gridiron. It is because of this gruesome end, according to my least reverent book on saints, that Laurence is the patron saint of cooks. He is also the patron saint of the poor.

In his final witness, Laurence reminds us that what matters is ordinary men and women, ordinary people whose names we never know, but who are treasures nonetheless. Laurence reminds us that our lives, and our church’s life, will not be measured by what we earn, but by what we spend.

* * *

            All Saints and All Souls invites us to bind ordinary needs and ordinary lives with the eternal, and to ponder the big faith-questions about life after death. In my life, I’m privileged to have conversations with people about their faith. People tell me they believe in Jesus, but they don’t believe in heaven. Or maybe they believe in heaven, but they don’t believe in resurrection. Or they believe in Jesus’ resurrection, but don’t believe in anybody else’s resurrection. There’s no right answer. I always talk about eternal life as life lived to the fullest, here and now. That’s always been how I understand Jesus’ invitation into the Kingdom of God.

When we renew our baptismal covenant, as we will in a few minutes, we begin with the Apostles’ Creed. We say we believe in

the communion of saints,…
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting.

I wonder how many of us do believe this, really. The resurrection of the body, the real eternal life of ordinary people, not just Jesus, is something we don’t talk about much. We either assume that most people don’t believe in it, or that some do and some don’t, but it’s not a belief people in churches like ours debate.

Last week I came across an article published in the Huffington Post that has been floating around on Facebook and Twitter, so you may have read it as well. The article is titled “All Saints Day: The Courage to Live Eternally,” by the Rev. Dean Snyder from Foundry United Methodist in Washington, DC. Be prepared: I’m going to reference the article far more generously than I normally do in a sermon.

Snyder writes that he is concerned “by how often the suggestion is made—subtly or explicitly—that believing in life after death is a sign of weakness or cowardice.” He quotes the well-known atheist-physicist Stephen Hawkings as saying that heaven is “a fairy story for people afraid of the dark,” implying that believing in life after death is “a form of …denial by those too weak to face the truth….” For Snyder, “choosing to believe in life after death may actually be an act of courage.”

“If Easter is when Christianity celebrates the resurrection of Christ,” he writes, “All Saints is when Christianity celebrates the resurrection of the rest of us. The focus of Easter is the victory of Jesus over death and the grave. The focus of All Saints’ is resurrection and life eternal for the rest of us.”

“[I]t can be an act of courage to believe in eternal life and to strive to live lives consistent with this belief. It takes courage to live as though our lives matter eternally—even if they seem to us very ordinary, even frustrating and disappointing. It takes courage to believe that our lives matter beyond this lifetime…when so much of what we do seems trivial and even pointless. It takes courage to do the good and just thing in terms of eternity, rather than what is easiest, even when it will cost us something in the short-term and nobody will much notice or care anyway.”

I wish I’d written that!

“[F]or those without much power or recognition in this life,” he goes on, “it [is] a courageous affirmation to believe that each one of our lives and the way we live them matters eternally. Such people of faith should [be] honored, as we seek to do on All Saints’ Day.”

“All Saints’ insists that it is not we who pass away. It is not the human community, …the communion of saints, who pass away. It is the world that passes away. The communion of saints is eternal. Nations and empires will pass away, but love is eternal.”

I really wish I’d said that!

St. Laurence saved people’s lives by caring for their basic needs, acting as though they mattered. Laurence made a difference, and he is part of the communion of saints eternally. And so are the unnamed, voiceless ones whom he dedicated his life to help. And so are we. How will we live as though our work, our love, our lives truly matter?


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