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.

Advice on Investing: A Sermon for the 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Faithful Jews are buried in pine boxes.  No frills.  No metal hinges.  The body is wrapped in a simple white garment with no pockets, a reminder that you can’t carry anything with you from this world to the next.  No matter who you were, what you had in life, billionaire or pauper, the ritual is the same.  The shroud is the same.  The box is the same.

“But God said to [the rich man], ‘you fool!  This very night your life is being demanded of you.  And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’”  Jesus’ story this morning is often called the parable of the “rich fool.”  It can be tempting to think of Jesus as unilaterally against the rich.  Especially in our day with such disparity between the super-wealthy and those who are making an un-livable minimum wage.  The overall arc of the Gospels however, tells a more complex story of Jesus’ relationship to wealth.  Jesus has some rich followers; among them are Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea.  Jesus also has disciples who started out as impoverished fishermen.  The text we have today, of the “rich fool” is one of the more nuanced texts in the Gospels about wealth.  The rich man is not condemned for his money.   Rather he is called a fool for his attitude toward his possessions.

I’m not sure it figured into the creation of the preaching schedule, but a few weeks ago, as we were first proofreading this bulletin, Luis declared, “I really don’t like this reading.”  He went on, “I don’t like this reading because it makes me think about my wine cellar, and I like my wine cellar.”  Luis is about to head off on vacation, which is usually a sign that the wine cellar is going to grow more abundant.

I don’t have a wine cellar, but I have bookshelves.  I love my library.  I have an abundant library.  I can do some damage in a bookstore.  Most of us, I would venture, have some possessions that we enjoy possessing in abundance:  cars, musical instruments, vintage furniture.  I knew a guy in San Diego who collected vintage taxidermy.  He paid top dollar for old stuffed squirrels, deer heads, and pigeons, to each his own.  The danger, in this particular parable does not come from the possessions themselves.  The trouble comes when the man says to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years, relax, eat, drink, be merry.”

The man in the story has invested in his barns.  He has invested in his possessions, but he has made more than a simple monetary investment.  The rich fool has invested his soul, his life, his sense of self.  That’s the danger.  The man has tied his soul to his possessions.  He made his investment and withdraws his sense of self from what he owns.  But I want to move on from wealth for a moment.

Jesus says, be on guard against all kinds of greed.  Paul expounds upon the very same word Jesus uses here, greed, pleonexia, Paul in his letter to the Colossians says greed is idolatry.  You cannot serve God and mammon.  Invest your identity somewhere other than God, and you get in trouble.  Last week I read a quote from the writer David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address to Kenyon College, and I want to share it again.  Foster Wallace said to the graduates of Kenyon college, “in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.”

Foster Wallace goes on to list several other forms of worship. He finishes with this sentence: “the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

Be on guard Jesus says, because it is easy to fall into one of the defaults of our society.  In Washington money presents a temptation.  So does sex.  Sure.  But Washington is famous for a certain form of worship, a certain greed, that is particularly pernicious.  You know the old joke, “you know someone is from Washington because when he shakes your hand, he’s looking over your shoulder to see if someone more important than you is in the room.”  We build storehouses, barns, to hoard influence in Washington.  And Washington sells influence, and it don’t come cheap.

A friend recently leant me a copy of Mark Leibovich’s new book “This Town.”  Have you seen it yet?  The book is sort of a 400 page Beltway insider version of “US Weekly” magazine, full of Washington gossip.  I haven’t gotten far in the book.  I actually find Washington gossip a little boring, but I love the disclaimer on the back cover.  WARNING (it reads): “This Town does not contain an index.  Those players wishing to know how they came out will have to read the book.”  Of course the Washington Post has already published an unauthorized index, because people in This Town have to know how they’re mentioned, if they’re mentioned.

It’s fun to parody, but there is an inherent danger in “This Town,” a danger of becoming invested, personally invested, spiritually invested, in building influence.  We can get greedy.  Jesus warns his followers to be on guard against all forms of greed.

But there is good news in these lessons today, even for Washington.  Even though we live in the most influential, most prosperous city in the wealthiest country in the world, there is hope in these lessons for us.  The hope doesn’t require us to sell our possessions if we’re wealthy.  The hope doesn’t require us to accumulate a certain amount of wealth or influence before we can enter the club.  The hope of these lessons is an invitation to invest our lives, our selves, our souls in God.  Jesus rebuke of his fictional character is an invitation, to “be rich toward God.”

What does investing in God look like?  How does it work exactly?  I can’t tell you I have it worked out entirely, but I have known some people who have had a good start.  A year ago yesterday, a good friend from seminary’s father died.  I had gotten to know Tony Wright pretty well in the years I was at Virginia Seminary with his son Matthew.  Tony wasn’t a wealthy man.  His home was pretty simple, but it had a great front porch.

tony wright
Seminary friends with Tony in Murphy, North Carolina

My image of Tony will always be sitting with him on that front porch in Murphy North Carolina, drinking a cup of coffee while watching the purple martins, beautiful birds that swoop speeding, wings folded, into their nesting sites.  Tony explained to me that the white painted gourds that hung from posts in his front yard were the only nests that the purple martin would accept, and so he had hung a score within easy viewing from his front porch.  Tony loved to sit there in the morning, watching the birds, laughing at Rudy, the Wrights’ pudgy dachshund.  The dog looks like an over-stuffed ottoman.  Rudy’s tummy drags on the ground as he waddles around.  Tony loved that dog.

What I remember about Tony Wright most was his easy laughter, the sort of gentle grace he had about him.  Maybe you’ve known someone like Tony Wright.  Sitting with Tony, you never felt like he was trying to get a word in to the conversation.  When he spoke, at least around us seminarians, he often worked to round out some of the hard edges of our conversations.  “Don’t you think?  I wonder if? I don’t know about that.”  He would use these phrases to ease us out of quick judgments.  Tony had grown up Pentecostal, and he was resistant to faith that had too many answers.  Tony had more questions about God than religion had answers.  But still, there was an assuredness to Tony.  I always got the sense that Tony understood, on some fundamental level, that he was loved.

Tony Wright would have been embarrassed to hear me say it, but Tony is one of the people who showed me what faith, what investing yourself, your soul, in God can look like:  that easy grace, his quick smile.  In Tony’s quiet confidence, you knew that Tony didn’t get his sense of self from his money, or his influence, or what other people thought of him.  Tony drew his assuredness not from himself or his possessions, but from God.  Tony drew on his faith in God even while asking a lot of questions about religion.

As I said, Tony died a year ago yesterday.  He had spent his career working highway crews for the North Carolina Department of Transportation.  He was killed by an out of control driver on the side of the road.  No warning.  No preparation.  I travelled to Murphy soon after Tony died to be with my friend Matthew and his family for Matthew’s ordination to the priesthood.  Tony’s family and friends were still dealing with the shock of his sudden death.  They were still telling a lot of Tony stories.

At one point in today’s parable, Jesus has God ask the rich fool, “these things you have prepared, whose will they be?”  I can’t answer that for Jesus’ character, but I can answer the question for Tony.   Tony’s laughter was infectious and he left it to us.  As we sat on his front porch last summer, we were still laughing with Tony as friends and relatives dropped by to tell stories about him.  Tony’s faith, Tony’s confidence inspired more people than just me.  I can see Tony’s faith in his son, in his family.  Have you known someone like Tony?  Someone who inspired your faith?  Someone whose quiet confidence breathed life into your own trust in God?

We leave this world with no pockets.  We carry nothing physical with us into the next life, no matter how fancy the box they put us in, or how simple the urn.  But today Jesus invites us to live richly, to love richly, to laugh richly.  Today Jesus invites us to entrust our lives to God, as my friend Tony did, even with all our questions.  The return on investment won’t just pay in the future.  Investing with God pays dividends in the life to come, I am sure, but trusting God can also pay out in this life, helping us to be a little more graceful, a little more confident, not in our selves, not in our influence, not in our wealth.  But entrusting our souls to God can grant us the blessed assurance that can never come from greed, trust that we draw our lives from a God whose best name is love, and who loves us better than we can love ourselves.