All Saints, All Souls: What happens to us when we die?

The Revelation to John is not often listed among the top 10 favorite books of the Bible for Christians who worship in Episcopal churches. Today, All Saints Sunday, is one of the few Sundays the church consents to read a passage from this suspect book in service. We’re suspicious about the “Revelation” I think in part because we are loathe to think of ourselves as “literalists.” Folks who consider themselves “biblical literalists” tend to love the Book of Revelation. Many try to calculate the hours, looking for signs of the end times. I once heard a pastor who had declared based on John’s Revelation, definitively, that Colin Powell was the anti-Christ.

I worry about definitives when it comes to the Bible, especially with prophecy and visions. I would disagree with my brother pastor about Colin Powell’s true identity. But this morning I do want to invite you to spend some time with John’s Revelation. For all of our supposed enlightenment in the Episcopal Church, for our willingness to subject Scripture to the scrutiny of history, I worry that we may be writing some of the hope and blessed assurance out of our faith. This morning I want to hold together the Revelation of John and I want to explore an anxious question:

What happens to us when we die?

I call this an anxious question because Christians have created a lot of anxiety around the inquiry. What happens to us when we die? Do we go to heaven or hell? Do we, as Socrates said, fall into a restful dreamless sleep? Does our consciousness simply cease? Does the answer depend on how we lived our lives?

They tell writers and preachers not to ask a question in your text unless you plan to provide an answer. I am afraid I will break that rule today. I don’t have all of the answers, even with two theology degrees. Death in so many ways continues to be a mystery. Death can be a painful mystery. We pray not painful for those who die, but even a peaceful gentle death is often painful for the loved ones left behind. The feeling is strange when someone you have loved, someone you have leaned on, is no longer there. It feels somehow unsteady.

In a society like ours, a culture that prefers scientific certainty,  question like “what happens to us when we die?” can be hard questions with which to grapple. Likewise, for those of us who bring academic tools like linguistics, sociology, and archeology to scripture, it can be easy to dismiss “revelations” and “prophecies.” But if we dismiss books like Revelation, when we come up against the mystery of death, we don’t have the language, the images, the assurance.

I want to hold on to the image from today’s reading in the Revelation of John. It really is quite striking. A countless multitude stands before God, robed in white, from every language and tribe and people and nation. This image of diversity is also an image of wholeness. John envisions the heavenly banquet as a sign of completeness, of wholeness. All God’s people are there around the throne.

This image of wholeness is also an image of hope. The image stands in contrast to an image that came before. The previous several verses of John’s Revelation have listed the 144,000 people who will be saved. Maybe you’ve heard that number before? Here is the danger with literalism: you have to pick and choose which verses to get literal about. Just after those lists of numbers comes our passage today, and we have a vision of wholeness. If you just read the first half of the Revelation of John chapter 7, you might think heaven had a fixed seating capacity. But then John looks again, and behold, the countless multitude. All God’s people are there. All of them.

That vision of wholeness is a vision worth holding, worth contemplating. John’s revelation stands in contrast with theologies that say: “when we die some of us go to heaven, and some go right to hell.” At Theology on Tap Tuesday, we’ll talk a bit about the development of the doctrine of heaven and hell, the different things Christians have believed over time about death.

Suffice it to say for today, Heaven and Hell are an oversimplification. For most of Christian history the old phrase “may she rest in peace and rise in glory” was a fair summary of Christian theology. The vision of Revelation, and the visions often described by Jesus of a “last day” were seen as eventual, that is to say, they were coming events. Christians believed that those who died were “at rest” until the last day. St. Paul had to reassure the Corinthians that their loved ones were “asleep” in Christ. They would still rise in glory.

Most Christian teaching about life after death involves “two steps,” rest until the last day, and rising like Christ in the general resurrection. Jesus’ conquering of death is seen as ours as well.

What happens on that last day? Isn’t that the day of Judgement? The images of judgement are strong in the Bible. Matthew talks about the sheep and the goats. Revelation has images of gnashing teeth. Again, I find today’s image a compelling contrast, this vision of wholeness, of completeness, every tribe, language, people, and nation, the countless multitude that appears for John. Notice, they are not there to be judged. The crowd has not appeared to wait in line before St. Peter, no, they’re already gathered round the throne, and they’ve come to sing. Their songs ring through the heavens, giving praise to God. They rise in glory.

Christian mystics will often talk about prayer as an early taste of the heavenly banquet. We say that of the Eucharist, the sacramental prayer, we say we get a taste of heavenly food. I find it to be more and more true for me that I can “feel” that taste in a congregation that looks like the crowd in Revelation. When I look around the room and see people from different tribes, languages, nations, colors, genders, and orientations, I get a sense that what we are doing is connected to what God’s eternal work in this world.

Now you might get the impression from all of this that I am a Universalist, that I believe all people are saved. My response to you is a complicated yes. The wild crowd in Revelation today cries out “Salvation belongs to God.” Who is saved is not up to me.

I think the state of your soul still matters. This last day that John describes seems like a really good party, which I find is a useful image for eternity. I believe in free will. I think it is possible that some folk might not enjoy a really good party. I think that the human soul has the capacity to tie itself up in angry, hateful, and frustrated knots. In life some of us get really tied up. Even after some blessed rest, I want to hold out the possibility that some souls might arrive to the heavenly banquet a little grumpy, a little haggard. Some people might sulk in a corner, at least for awhile.

Notice how the passage ends. John was writing to Christians who faced persecution. In the midst of a military empire that conquered and controlled, Christians stood for love, and they suffered. “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal” John hears. And God will wipe away every tear. In death God shields the soul from any future suffering, God grants rest and sustenance, but God’s love is not just a shelter for the eternal future. The countless multitude will receive comfort for the past, whatever the experiences and trials faced in life, in death we will be made whole. I can only speak for me, but that kind of eternal love, I imagine, will eventually turn the hearts of the most knotted soul.

How do you measure the state of a soul?

Today is the Feast of All Saints. Historically we’ve been able to point to some souls that “got it right.” Today we celebrate not just one Saint or another, not just Lucy or Barnabas. We celebrate ALL of them. Now, saints are sort of tricky business for Episcopalians.  We make them more complicated than we need to. We’re not exactly sure what to do with Saints. We have a calendar, well, actually we have about four different calendars of saints, and our governing body, the General Convention sort of left a mess of which one we are supposed to follow. I’m not sure which saints we’re actually counting at the moment.

So we’re a little unsure about the saints officially, but unofficially, we Episcopalians really like saints. In my view, the best Episcopalian understanding of sainthood comes from the author Madeleine L’Engle, an Episcopalian. She used to canonize her own saints. She talked about St. Johann Sebastian Bach and St. Einstein. She talked about the lives she looked to who helped point her to the divine. I like Madeleine’s idea, because her saints seem a little more approachable. We know JS Bach was a great composer and a very human being. We know Einstein was a genius, and he could be a bit of a mess. Think about that hair.

We have a capacity as human beings, to hold up certain examples. We learn to be better human beings by emulation. We learn kindness and gentleness, patience and prayer, when we see these virtues modeled by those we admire. We learn to be generous when we see our parents or grandparents faithfully giving away their time, talent, and money. We learn prayer when our families pray together over meals or before bed. We learn strength when we walk with a friend who is facing cancer and who will still take time to make us laugh. We learn virtues by looking up to others.

These capital “S” Saints which we honor in the church, and the small “s” saints we honor personally or locally, they help point us in the direction of the heavenly banquet. We measure our spiritual health by their example.

I do love that very Episcopalian hymn we sing for All Saints day: “I sing a song of the saints of God.” As an aside, I know the hymn isn’t exactly what you’d call “a fine piece of music.” Many organists I know have complained about the childish tune, and I can be a bit childish about the words. There are several alternatives. My favorite goes like this: “And one was a doctor, and one was a queen, and one was both, if you know what I mean.” But if you continue, you get to the best theology in the hymn. “The saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.”

There’s a deep invitation in the hymn, in the feast of All Saints. The invitation is to consider how a life well lived, in love and in service of others, prepares us for life after death. When we ask, “what happens to us when we die?” the Saints point us toward an answer. In death, as in life, we are invited to get lost in wonder, in love, in praise. We are invited by God to ensure that all people know their invitation to the great banquet. And this day we have the faithful assurance, the assurance of the saints, the vision of St. John, that in the end we will feast with God, and God will wipe away every tear.

Easter: Evidence for Resurrection

Did you catch the setting of this morning’s Gospel? “Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” While it was still dark, that’s when Mary came to the tomb. Darkness is a theme in John’s Gospel. This morning, that phrase which starts us off sets the whole tone: while it was still dark.”

The whole Gospel story is filled with fear, confusion, and a sense of dread. “Where have you laid him?” Mary asks again and again. The tone matters. The setting matters. You have to remember, this is a community in shock. Mary, Peter, James, John, and the other disciples have given up lives and livelihoods to follow Jesus. Their hope died on the cross. They’ve watched their leader be silenced by the might of Rome. We don’t need news of Resurrection when all seems right in the world.

“Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark…” The work Mary goes to do isn’t glamorous. According the Luke’s Gospel she’s headed there with spices. Jesus had been hastily buried ahead of the Passover. Under the cover of darkness, hoping not to draw attention, Mary wants to try to bring some dignity to the degradation. Instead she finds an empty tomb. She panics. She weeps.

“Woman, why are you weeping?” The question has to come twice that dark morning. Lost in her grief, still under the dim light of morning, she doesn’t recognize Jesus at first. Then he says her name. The world changes. Resurrection happens while we’re feeling lost and scared. “Early on the first day of the week, when it was still dark…” Darkness, sadness, fear, these set the stage for resurrection.

Modern folks have a hard time with spiritual truths like resurrection. We hunger for facts. When I was in high school, at the urging of an Evangelical friend I read a bestselling book called “The Case for Christ.” The crime journalist Lee Strobel tried to make a case AGAINST his wife’s conversion to Christianity. He looked at the Bible, the history, talked to experts and instead he convinced himself in the truth of the Gospel. Let me be clear. I’m not recommending the book, or the movie that has apparently just come out. Each of Strobel’s chapters talks about a kind of “evidence” especially for the resurrection. “Eyewitness evidence,” “Corroborating Evidence,” “Scientific Evidence,” “The Evidence of the Missing Body…” You get the picture.

I have to tell you, I find books like this interesting, but not compelling. Every so often archeologists discover a new papyrus or tablet and the media reports the “evidence” that Jesus was not resurrected. History is important, science is critical in our day, but if you need facts to prove your thesis, you’re not talking about faith. You’re not talking about resurrection. When we try to prove faith with science, we end up in some strange places. Even if you could build a case, based on 2000 year old evidence that Jesus’ body walked out of the tomb, I couldn’t tell you that was evidence for Resurrection.

Evidence for resurrection is something else entirely because Resurrection is a spiritual truth. Resurrection means that new life springs even after tragedy. Resurrection means that even when we mess up royally, God can take the wreckage and make something new. God can bring life out of death. Love can conquer hate. Goodness can win against evil. Resurrection as a spiritual truth I do find compelling. I can live my life looking for hope in the darkest places. I can live my life watching for life to spring out of death. 

You see, I do want to talk about evidence for Resurrection this morning, but not the kind of evidence in the Case for Christ.

The New Yorker this week features a short biography of Pauli Murray, a saint of our church, but not one you’ve likely heard much about. Pauli Murray was the first black woman ordained to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church. Though she came to the priesthood late in life, like Mary Magdalene before her, Pauli Murray was an early riser.

In 1940, on her way from New York to North Carolina to spend Easter with her family Murray was arrested for refusing to go to the back of a segregated bus. Pauli missed Easter that year and did her time in jail, unable to pay the fine for her disorderly conduct charge. The Civil Rights movement wasn’t quite ready to organize the bus boycotts that would begin in Montgomery when Rosa Parks followed Pauli’s lead fifteen years later.

Pauli was refused admission to the University of North Carolina because of her skin color. She was frustrated, but she used her anger to fuel her path. Instead she took other steps toward integration. Murray was the first woman to attend Howard Law School, at the time thought of as the “Black Harvard.” While she was there, she wrote a senior thesis where to defend and argument she’d had with a professor. Murray argued lawyers should stop trying to prove that the black schools were unequal. The wins were too small: one school at a time. Instead she said, make a legal challenge to the “separate” part of the “separate but equal” framework of Jim Crow. Her professor called her crazy. That same professor later used Pauli’s thesis as part of the winning argument in Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court case which ended legal segregation.

The New Yorker article, and the recent biography on which the it is based, both profile Murray’s struggles around sexuality and gender. Pauli was born Anna, but hated the name. She shortened her middle name “Pauline,” and used it instead. Though she always used feminine pronouns, she never felt fully comfortable with her gender. She married a man, but the marriage only lasted a weekend. Pauli had deeper romances with women. While she left these stories out of her autobiography, she left behind journals and letters that described inner work to reconcile a queer identity before the language, psychology, and society caught up with her.

Pauli was ahead of her time in many regards. I’m grateful to be part of a church that eventually found the guts to ordain her, and 25 years later to declare her a saint. If you want evidence of resurrection, I submit the life of Pauli Murray. I submit the thousands who continued to stand with faith before the world was ready. I submit the witnesses, the saints, even those who are not widely remembered. On Easter morning we proclaim the resurrection with trumpets and triumph, but new life often comes before it can be fully understood. New life comes about early, while it is still dark. (That’s why we started the service in darkness this morning). Resurrection happens when the world is not yet ready. We are always playing catchup to God’s work.

I don’t know where you are on the journey of faith this morning. We say around here, wherever you are on the journey of faith, you are welcome. Faith is a journey, and sometimes the road gets dark. Sometimes the world around can seem off-kilter. If these last months have been difficult for you, if you find yourself struggling with fear and shock, if you find yourself turning off the radio and putting down the paper out of frustration, you are well prepared for Resurrection.

God can and does make new life out of the worst of human circumstances. While all the reporting may cover bad news, there is good news today and every day. Life continues to triumph. Love continues to win. Light continues to shine, even in the darkest corners. When you look at the big picture, there is evidence for resurrection all around.

All Saints: a Prayer for Comprehension

Sometimes Jesus teaching doesn’t sit well with our sense of timing. Let me offer an example. If you were a Chicago Cubs fan at any time over the last 107 years “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” could feel a little trite. A Cards fan last year wouldn’t have wanted to quote to a Cubs fan “blessed are you who weep.” It would have felt paternalistic. For over a century the Cubbies had cause to ask “When is that laughter coming God?” But on Wednesday night this week, the laughter came. You can be sure some of the saints above were laughing too.

Cards fans, don’t lament. Remember, “Blessed are you who are hungry.” (Plus, now when we beat the Cubs next season, we don’t have to feel as bad).

The depth of Jesus’ teaching is how it holds together seeming opposites in life: joy and pain. Every life lived fully contains measures of weeping and of laughter. God is with us in the extremes and in the humdrum of daily life. God’s love is comprehensive.

I’ve mentioned before one of my favorite prayers in our Book of Common Prayer. It comes in the office of compline, the prayers we say at the end of each day:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

This prayer, like our service today, seeks to comprehend the fullness of life. Give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, AND shield the joyous. There is a fullness to this prayer. As I said, there’s a stretch to our liturgy today as well. This morning we will give thanks for life at its very beginning, as we baptize two young souls, and we will bless those who have died as we dedicate our altar of remembrance. We will hold together the two ends of life with blessing.

I’ve been thinking a great deal this week about holding things together. I’m betting that many of you, like me, are weary of this election season. We’ve been so embattled as a country, and now some are worrying whether we have drawn lines so deeply that after Tuesday has come and gone, we will have a difficult time coming out of the trenches. Will we hold together? Regardless of the outcome?

Then in the midst of this last week came the feast day of Richard Hooker, the theologian with the funny name, who lived in a similarly divided day. By the time Hooker was ordained the church in England had been Catholic, Protestant, Catholic again, and had finally settled with Queen Elizabeth I somewhere on a middle ground. But Richard Hooker saw and described a unique giftedness to this middle way, the via media. The Prayer for his feast day includes this phrase inspired by his writing:

[God] Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth.

There’s that word again, “comprehension.”

As Anglicans, we speak of the virtue of “comprehensiveness.” In one Church we hold together and celebrate Protestant and Catholic traditions. We’ve held together different perspectives, political parties, and viewpoints. And our quintessential theologian asks us to see this holding together not as a compromise to maintain the peace, but as a stretching to hold a wider truth.

It strikes me that many of those we consider “saints” lived in a way that was marked by comprehension. They found ways to hold together difficult opposites. They were present to the highs and lows of life. Saints seem often to be set apart, made holy, by their ability to see opposing forces and to find another way through.

The Episcopal Priest and Contemplative Cynthia Bourgeault seeks that sense of Comprehensiveness as she writes about the Trinity in her latest book. She sees in the Trinity, the “three-ness” of God, a way out of polarity: this or that, the either/or liberal/conservative patterns of our day. Like Richard Hooker, for Bourgeault, the truth is not something I hold on my own. The truth is not something I hold over your head to show you that you are wrong.

Imagine, she says, our political conversations transformed by a Trinitarian perspective which teaches:

“the enemy is never the problem but the opportunity; the problem will never be solved through eliminating or silencing the opposition but only through creating a new field of possibility large enough to hold the tension of the opposites and launch them in a new direction.”

“The enemy is never the problem, but the opportunity.” How often do we see our opponents this way? Bourgeault points to a basic wisdom in Christianity: there is always a third way. None of us has a monopoly on truth.

Jesus’ teaching this morning challenged those who thought they held the truth. In Luke’s Gospel, these are his first words of teaching to his newly chosen apostles. “Blessed are you who are poor.” Can you feel the shockwaves? Throughout time and eternity, wealth and health have been interpreted at signs of God’s blessing. After all Job’s suffering, God gives him great wealth. Even today, how often do we hear someone say of their many possessions: “I am blessed.”

“Blessed are you who are poor.” The words were a challenge to his own followers, and they are a challenge to those of us who seek to follow Jesus today. “Blessed are you who are hungry, who weep, when people hate you:” this is not the popular wisdom of our day. This isn’t a popular idea in any day. But Jesus is turning our sensibility upside down. Jesus is challenging us to take a different perspective. Jesus wants us to comprehend.

I think this teaching, like much of Jesus’ teaching, challenges us not simply to change our view from one side to another. Jesus did not play the games of his day. He didn’t pick one side in a debate over another. Jesus re-wrote the playbook. He challenged his followers to grow, to see opponents as opportunities to grow, to wrap our minds around ever-widening ideas. Jesus invites us to comprehend.

And so this day, we hold together, with all the saints, the whole of life. We look for God in the beginning and in the end. In the words of the letter to the Ephesians we pray for “the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth” of God’s Love. We pray that God might continue to Keep Watch with ALL, ALL those saints and souls who work or watch or weep. We pray that God might continue to shield the joyous. And all for thy love’s sake.