Harrowing Of Hell
November 3, 2019

All Saints Day 2019 (7:30 AM)

The Rev. Dr. Peter Strimer

Well this is one morning where the 7:30 am preacher can honestly encourage you to sneak into the balcony of the church and to catch the 8:45 am sermon as well. Epiphany Parish has the great honor today of hosting The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and one of the Anglican Church’s leading theologians.

So I begin by saying, I am not Rowan Williams. I am Peter Strimer and I have met many of you over the past months in my new role as an Assisting Priest on staff here at Epiphany. I am the retired rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in the Green Lake neighborhood. Before my 8 years in that role I was the Communications Director for the Diocese of Olympia and before that the Canon Missioner at our cathedral, St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill. Doyt has graciously extended an ongoing invitation to be on his team in the month’s when my wife, El McFarland, and I are in the Seattle area. We are snowbirds, actually more rainbirds, and spend half the year in Florida and will be leaving to return there before Thanksgiving. It has been a great joy and privilege to join your community as a teacher and priest and I look forward to our return after the rains stop.

We are joined together today to commemorate the Feast of All Saints one of the four feast days set aside for the sacrament of Baptism. In the later morning services we will be welcoming eight souls into the fellowship of saints (and at this service we will renew our baptismal covenant.)

This feast day has a rich history. The first All Saints’ Day occurred on May 13, 609 (C.E.) when Pope Boniface IV accepted the Pantheon as a gift from the Emperor Phocas. Boniface dedicated it as the Church of Santa Maria Rotonda in honor of the Blessed Virgin and all martyrs.  At first only martyrs and St. John the Baptist were honored by a special day which for 200 plus years was observed on May 13. Other saints were added gradually and increased in number when a regular process of canonization was established.  Pope Gregory IV officially designated the date of November 1 in 837.

Since it began with a ritual re-ordering of a Pagan temple into a Christian Church, there is a certain symmetry in the fact that All Saint’s Day now finds itself nested in the midst of several significant pagan observances. This day has long been connected to a Celtic holiday of Samhain, a harvest festival that falls nearly halfway between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice. It was a time that Celtic people believed the lines between our world and the world of the spirits blurred a little. We get similar observances in Latino culture in Día de Muertos or Day of the Dead, which recognizes

All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, and All Souls’ Day as sort of fall Triduum, or three Holy Days, a time when you pray for those who have gone before, when you go and decorate their graves, when you laugh in the face of death. Halloween is literally the Vigil for All Saints Day, and so pagan and Christian themes are woven together into a fabric pulled tight by the tension and conflict of the varying strands of intermingled traditions. I saw a bunch of wild, pagan themed costumes on our children in church last Sunday and I thought, “That is just fine.”

So, it seems abundantly clear that there is a desire, a strong desire throughout the world of Christianity to affirm that the world we see is not the only world that is. In the Nicene Creed we say that we believe in the holy catholic and apostolic church, that we look for the resurrection of the dead. But in the more ancient Apostles’ Creed, recited twice a day at Morning and Evening prayer in our Anglican tradition, we say very clearly, “I believe in the communion of saints.”

Praying to and through and on behalf of those saints who had gone on before was roundly opposed during the Protestant Reformation, but it is part of our Catholic tradition within Anglicanism that we have retained both this feast day and a theology of the saints. You might recall that instead of All Saint’s Day, many, many churches such as the Lutherans and Presbyterians and Congregationalists observe Reformation Day. This honors the date when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the Cathedral at Wittenberg in Germany.

The Gospel lesson for All Saints is always the Beatitudes, but this year’s version we get from Luke rather than the more familiar version found in Matthew. We then also get this additional teaching from Jesus in our Luke passage:

“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

This is the portion of the text I want to focus in on today because it is the most challenging.

I would put “Love your enemies” at the top of the list of Jesus’s commandments that are the hardest to keep. I believe this lesson was chosen for All Saints Day because no one but an absolute saint can obey it. It is no accident that this lesson from Jesus is also the assigned Gospel for our observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s feast day. His sainthood was derived from his ability to obey this commandment of Christ. Other saints through history earned their stripes by obeying this hardest of all commandments – To love your enemies. Some weren’t even Christian like Mohatma Gandhi or the Dalai Lama. Others who come to mind when we think of modern day saints such as Mother Teresa and Oscar Romero, the murdered archbishop of El Salvador. They had it down, we not so much.

A reporter was interviewing an old man on his 100th birthday. “What are you most proud of?” he asked. “Well,” said the man, “I don’t have an enemy in the world.” “What a beautiful thought! How inspirational!” said the reporter. “Yep,” added the centenarian, “outlived every last one of them.”

Not all of us can outlast our enemies, so it becomes important to learn how to love them.

I truly believe that a key to a breakthrough in the cultural wars that our country is facing is for each of us to learn to love our enemies. This isn’t just an emotional, or a Hallmark card response; we are called by Christ to adopt spiritual disciplines that will allow us to truly love our enemies. If we can do so, we too can become saints.

There is a certain vitality in hating your enemies. Whether it is a chant of “Lock her up” at a Trump rally, or a chant of “Lock him up” at a World Series game, you can feel the energy and excitement and outright glee in people’s angry, hateful voices. It is what you are urged to feel during the Passion narrative on Good Friday when as a member of the crowd you are urged to shout out “Crucify him, Crucify him.” If we deny the vitality of violence we do so at our own peril.

That is why it will require a strict discipline to go against our animal instincts and instead of hating our enemies to love them.

So just to scratch the surface, I want to offer the following spiritual practices for learning to love your enemies.

I need to say I studied many books and websites looking for suggested spiritual practices but the best and most practical came from Leo Babauta on his website Zen Habits.

  1. Stop, breathe, detach yourself. Disconnect if you can from the rage and the vitality of hatred.
  2. Put yourself in their shoes. Now that you’ve removed yourself from the situation, and you’re looking down on it from above … try going down into the other person’s body and head. Imagine yourself becoming that person. What is that person like, from inside? How did they get to be the person they are? What have they gone through?
  3. Seek to understand. That, of course, is the objective of putting yourself in their shoes. But it’s important to stress it here, because if you can understand what they did and why they did it, you can take the next steps (below). Really try to understand, even if you don’t want to.
  4. Forgive, and let the past go. Ah, maybe the most difficult step of all.Try to think about this: what happened is in the past. A saint once said when asked, “What is anger?” Anger is a punishment we give to ourself for somebody else’s mistake. You can either hate what’s happened in the past, and change nothing but be angry … or you can accept it and move on.
  5. Find something to love. It could be anything … their smile, their willingness to help someone, their generosity, their stubbornness even. Find something admirable or lovable.

There is another approach I want to address that for many of us involves learning to love our greatest enemy of all – ourselves.

In one of his earliest famous sermons entitled “Loving Your Enemies” Dr. Martin Luther King speaking at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in Montgomery, Alabama, in  November of 1957, said, “Now first let us deal with this question, which is the practical question: How do you go about loving your enemies? I think the first thing is this: In order to love your enemies, you must begin by analyzing self.”

The self-hatred we harbor for certain parts or aspects of ourselves are the roots of the alienation that leads to the hatred of others. What if Jesus words “Love your enemies” refers also to the enemies within?

Our craven selves
Our abusive selves
Our self-loathing selves

We all have these parts. We try to deny or mask or hide them but they are there. What if instead we loved them? Listened to them. Sat with them calmly and asked them to teach us what they know about us? Might they calm down? Might they, once they were truly heard, recede and along with them the control they have of our lives.

Today in hearing Jesus’s challenging words to Love Our Enemies, I hope each of us in some way might learn more and more to love ourselves.