One Riverside: Belong
All Saints Day
Two Sundays ago the New York Times printed a long story, above the fold on the front page of the paper. The article was titled, “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” and it told the story of a man named George Bell, who died alone and unseen, his body going undiscovered for days after his actual death.
There are over 50,000 people who die in New York every year—many of them die with family and friends surrounding them, a community to celebrate their lives. The article says, “A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.”
The article caught my attention, and apparently I wasn’t the only one who was struck by the article. The Times ran several follow up stories recounting the response they received from thousands of readers, many reporting that dying alone was their biggest fear.
And dying alone is truly a scary proposition. But I think living alone is probably much more terrifying. Everybody needs a place to belong, people who care about them, a community in which to build a life.
I considered all of this when I began to think about today, a special Sunday in the life of the church. We’re celebrating All Saints’ Day, and here at The Riverside Church it’s the first week of our three-week stewardship emphasis built around the theme of One Riverside: Belong, Believe, Become. It’s particularly appropriate today, I think, that we take a few minutes to think about belonging—about why we invest our lives and resources in this place right here, right now, and how our voices join a long litany of saints who have gone before us, modeling the truth that beloved community is essential to being fully human in this world.
Here at The Riverside Church we come from many different church traditions, so to help us mark All Saints Day I thought we’d quickly review what it has meant in the life of the church, to be a saint.
In the first 300 years after Jesus lived on earth, a saint was someone who lost his or her life for the cause of Christ, a martyr.
Around 300 it finally became popular to be a Christian and no one was getting killed for the cause of Christ anymore. To be a saint during this time in history was pretty synonymous with being famous. If you died a famous person and had enough money, a chapel would be built in your honor and people could come to your chapel, light a candle and pray to you—hoping of course that your success on earth would translate into a particularly close relationship with God, you know, up there. For 1300 years that’s what it meant to be a saint.
Next, the Catholic Church put an official process of canonization—the process of naming a saint—into place. This process must begin at least 5 years after a person’s death and involves a complicated investigation of a person’s life, approval by a panel of theologians and church leaders, and evidence that the person performed a miracle before and after his or her death.
When Martin Luther started causing trouble for the church and the Reformation began, the idea of praying to saints fell out of vogue among his group of radicals. And so, the concept of sainthood changed again. This time a saint became someone in your life whom you loved who had died. Family members, like mothers, sisters, brothers, grandmothers, etc., who died and went to heaven before us were now known as saints—sort of like scouts who got to the end of the trip first and were saving us a spot.
These days we speak of saints as those who came before us, whom we loved and who loved us, whose memories are reflections of God’s love, reminding us that we must be saints to each other, right here and now. If you read the George Bell story in the New York Times two weeks ago and had the same reaction as thousands of others in the city, you know too how precious the feeling of belonging is, how the care and nurture of our beloved community is so critical, and how being saints to each other is an essential part of our work in this world.
Jesus knew that, too. Today’s Gospel is from the 11th chapter of the book of John, one of the most famous and powerful pericopes in the New Testament.
The story starts out with Jesus, having taken a road trip away from the region of Judea. Judea is the geographical area where a lot of Jesus’ ministry took place—where Jerusalem is and the little town of Bethany, where today’s Gospel story takes place. Bethany is where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived, folks who John’s gospel reports were dear friends of Jesus—the dearest. Bethany was a place where Jesus belonged.
Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick; Lazarus died and was buried before Jesus came back to Bethany. Our text today begins with Lazarus’ sisters almost scolding Jesus—if you’d only come earlier, our brother would not have died. Speaking with the voice of their grief, they all stood staring death in the face and feeling the loss of someone they loved.Then, you know how the story goes; Jesus is led to the tomb, grieving, and then raises Lazarus. And most times we read this story and focus on that miracle—Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb, back from the dead.
But what struck me this week, thinking about belonging, One Riverside, and the so many who have gone before us whom we’ve lost and are remembering today on All Saints day, is that little scene in the middle of the passage, when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany and we see the first time in scripture where such a scene is recorded: Jesus breaks down. In verse 35, the shortest and maybe one of the most powerful verses in the Bible we read: “Jesus wept.”
Jesus, surrounded by the community of people who were his dear friends, having lost someone precious to him, wept.
And the people watching—his enemies, even—recognized in that moment something deeply and profoundly human: the awareness that we all need a place to belong, that this beloved community is very often the way we can see God, that the risk of loss is so deeply worth the gift of relationship, that we are given to each other for love. For love.
“See how he loved him!,” the Jews exclaimed. We see; we recognize; we want a place to belong like that, too.
Two weeks ago after I read “The Lonely Life of George Bell,” I couldn’t get the story out of my mind. What a tragedy, to live a life in which, when you die, there’s no one weeping with the visceral pain of your absence, no crowd standing by to say: “See how he loved him!”
I was particularly struck in that article by the comments of Inspector Juan Plaza, who works in Queens unraveling the mysteries of lives like George Bell’s. Inspector Plaza was kind enough to talk with me on the telephone this week, to answer some questions that kept nagging at me.
I wanted to know: how often do you see this in your job—this instance of dying all alone with no one to miss you? Inspector Plaza immediately answered, “A lot!” He explained he’d been working on the unit for about twenty years, and he would say cases like George Bell’s are “an everyday thing.”
I then asked Inspector Plaza how going to work and seeing this everyday affects him—how does encountering that kind of isolation and loneliness leading to a death no one notices, impact your life? He said, “When I started working in this office my whole life changed. I saw so many things that made me think: I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to live my life caring about the people I love. I need somebody to care about me, too. I used to care about money and getting things in life. I was selfish. But this job made me a different person. I just don’t want to be somebody who dies alone.”
And finally, I asked Inspector Plaza about the response to this article. The New York Times has had thousands write and comment on “The Lonely Life of George Bell.” The Inspector said the response has been amazing—so many people have called his office, wanting to talk about his work. Why?, I asked him. Why do you think this story has resonated so deeply with people? Here’s what he said:
“New York is a place with a lot of people from all over the world, but we live busy lives and we rush so much and we sometimes forget each other. We’re moving so fast that we don’t talk to the people we love. I think this story is a wake up call for people. They read the story and remembered that we all want to live lives that leave a legacy of love and friendship.”
In a city where it is so easy to become rushed and alone, there are few places we can connect with each other. Our communities of faith can be such places. Perhaps that’s why you’re here, because at some point The Riverside Church was a place where you encountered friendly face or a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand. We all long for connection. But we know that the kind of community for which we are created doesn’t just happen. It takes investment. It takes giving of our resources, of our whole selves, in fact. We do this because the reason The Riverside Church was able to be that place of connection for us is that those who came before us gave in this way. They modeled a legacy of stewardship of this community, of which we are inheritors.
Today is All Saints Day, a day we remember those we’ve lost and give thanks for their lives. May we remember that today is also a day to consider how we, the living, are even now working—everyday—to become saints, “God’s holy ones.” Our lives, our sainthood, is a reflection of the holiness of God, and we live it out in loving relationship with each other that builds beloved community where everyone can find a place to belong, like this beloved community, The Riverside Church.
That’s what it means to be a saint—a living, breathing group of people whose lives reflect the goodness and grace and the holiness of God, summed up best perhaps by the saint from the Queens County Public Administrator’s office who I met this week, Inspector Juan Plaza: “Sometimes we cross the street without even looking to see how we can help and interact with each other. Be aware; live a life in which you reach out and draw each other in; we have to value everyday and we have to show love for our neighbors. Everybody needs a place to belong.”