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.

The Accidental Anglican: Bishop Todd Hunter

This summer I’m catching up on some reading and came across this book from 2010 by Bishop Todd Hunter. In 2009, the Anglican Mission in America consecrated the former National Director of the Association of Vineyard Churches as their Bishop for Church Planting. The consecration might seem unlikely, which Hunter hints at in his title The Accidental Anglican.” How could such a committed Evangelical find his way into a purple clergy shirt, in an incense filled church, standing behind the altar? Hunter’s answer: God’s call. God wants to build the Anglican movement in North America, Hunter believes.

In January of the year Hunter was consecrated, another evangelical leader spoke in Washington National Cathedral to a crowd of clergy and lay people. Brian McLaren titled his talk “The Episcopal Moment” and spoke of how our world was hungry for Christianity with ancient wisdom, symbolic depth, and theological balance. Anglicanism has these treasures in spades. Our church should be growing rapidly, McLaren argued. Hunter agrees. He names the Liturgy, the Lectionary, and what he calls “Sweet Reasonableness” as Anglicanism’s principal resources for reframing Christianity in our post-secular world.

I found Hunter’s narrative limited in scope. Hunter’s vision of Anglicanism has been shaped by a lot of white men. He dedicates whole chapters to John Stott, N.T. Wright, and J.I. Packer. Only the shortest of these “influences” chapters focuses on people of color. He dedicates three pages to bishops Kolini and Rucyahana of Rwanda, who helped to form the break-away denomination that consecrated him bishop. Hunter does not go into any depth about the African leaders’ accomplishments, as he does with his English and North American Anglican heroes. Hunter’s highest praise is reserved for John Stott, who he describes as his model for “how to lovingly proclaim the gospel to the world’s power brokers and the middle class.” Questions of privilege are unexamined in The Accidental Anglican.

Hunter also ignores the divisions that split his denomination from The Episcopal Church. Same-sex relationships and women’s ordination are not broached in the book. Todd Hunter often writes that “social justice” is one of the fruits expected of the churches in his “Diocese of Churches for the Sake Others,” but he never names what this fruit might look like. Does Todd Hunter’s “social justice” include justice for people of all races, genders, and sexual orientations?

For the sake of full disclosure: I come to Hunter’s book with my own bias. As a priest in The Episcopal Church personally invested in the decisions to name the blessing of same-sex relationships and ordain women, I have a bit of chip on my shoulder toward his corner of our tradition. Still, Hunter’s book and his ministry challenge me. I agree with him (and McLaren) that our tradition has deep treasures to offer. I wonder: “Is The Episcopal Church squandering our ‘moment?'”

We have a way of following Jesus that resonates in today’s fragmented world. More than that, our particular church has been lifting up the Christian leadership of women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community. We are in a place to talk about “comprehensiveness” in a way that resonates today. The Episcopal Church should be investing, like our more conservative cousins, in starting new communities of disciples. We should be planting and re-planting, rather than shutting and selling churches. We should relax about our internal squabbles, and focus our energies on those outside our walls. I believe we should make this investment, not because we should be competing, but because I believe in the power of the Gospel. I believe God’s message of love and reconciliation is for ALL people. More than anything Todd Hunter makes me ask: “Where is The Episcopal Church’s Bishop for Church Planting?”



How do you talk about God?

How do you talk about God?

Now, some of you may be thinking: “Mike, you know we are Episcopalians? Yes? We DON’T talk about God, not if we can avoid the topic.” This has been a stereotype of our faith. Many Episcopalians are really wary about the word “evangelism.” I have heard many Episcopalians quote St. Francis, who supposedly said “preach the Gospel always. When necessary use words.” We like to think that almost never necessary to use those words.

Friends, I’m here to tell you, I think we need to talk more about God. We need to talk about God for our sake, and for the sake of our neighbors. How do you talk about God?

I hear a resonance for our time from the story of Paul in Acts:

Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and
everything in it.

Paul doesn’t go on a tirade against the Athenians, as he is sometimes wont to do. Paul chooses to speak carefully to the experience of his hearers: “your own poets intuit something of God.” Paul talks about the unknown God, the God the Athenians have already encountered. This God, Paul says, this God is who we Christians worship. Let’s talk about THIS God.

A few years ago now I went to a show at the 9:30 club, a famous concert venue in Washington, DC. The band was called Volcano Choir. You may not have heard of the group. The lead singer, Justin Vernon, once had a slightly more famous band called “Bon Iver.” You may not have heard of them either. That’s okay. You don’t need to know their music to follow the story.

Justin Vernon took the stage at the 9:30 club that night in a way that seemed familiar to me. The rest of the band arrived first, re-positioning microphones in the dark, adjusting guitar straps, then the lead singer climbed up and stood behind a lectern, a substantial lectern, a pulpit really. Vernon opened up his moleskin binder, and laid it on the pulpit desk, and touched his lips before beginning to sing.

The scene was reminiscent of what we’re doing, right here, right now. I was up in the balcony, near the stage, so I could look out not just at the musicians, but also over the faces of the crowd. The fans looked on silently, waiting, for the song to begin. Their faces were trained on the singer-come-preacher.

In a way, the crowd was very Episcopalian. At a punk show or a the crowd would probably be singing along. A hip-hop crowd might have looked more Pentecostal, dancing in the aisles. This, however, was white-boy acoustic rock. So the crowd was still, giving their full attention. Maybe they closed their eyes at a beautiful phrase, but they felt self-conscious about such an obvious display of emotion, as I said, they could have been Episcopalians. The frozen chosen.

They could have been Episcopalians, but I’m going to hazard a guess that most of the people in the 9:30 club that night WERE NOT Episcopalians. I would guess, actually, that most of them do NOT go to church on a Sunday. Some of them may have grown up in church, but I’m pretty sure this was the first time that most of the people in that room had seen someone behind a pulpit in a long time.

Now, I don’t want you to think I judge that crowd for not going to church. You might think that, as a preacher, I stood up on that balcony, looking over the fans, saying to myself: “Sinners… why are you listening to this heathen music? YOU SHOULD BE EPISCOPALIAN, DON’T YOU KNOW THAT IS THE ONE TRUE FAITH?”

No, that’s not what it at all. Almost the reverse, in fact. I found myself thinking “Look at all of those faces, transfixed by beautiful music. God is here, somehow, somewhere.” In an environment as secular as the 9:30 club, something of the beauty of the music was working on the hearts and minds of the people.

I wonder are our time and Paul’s really very different? In Athens learning, money and sophistication were on display. People came regularly to Mars Hill, the Areopagus, to hear brilliant philosophers and poets hold forth. Just beyond the Areopagus lay the agora, the marketplace of Athens, lined with columns, filled with temples, shops, and sellers, a major crossroads for Rome’s empire. With the knowledge of the world at their fingertips, with every sign of wealth, every type of food, every cosmopolitan form of worship available, did the Athenians still feel a little empty? In a competing marketplace of ideas, did they still search to name of a deeper truth?

How different are Athen’s marketplace and Delmar’s loop? How many temples, churches, and Scientology Centers can you count between Skinker and Hanley? How many yoga studios? How many Christian Science Reading Rooms? How many concert venues?

Paul speaks to the Athenians and says, “what you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Paul talks about God. He finds God even in that secular marketplace, at that unknown altar. Paul finds God present, already active, among the people. Don’t hear me say that God is not in the yoga studio. I know yogis who would say they have encountered God on the mat. Paul has no doubt, God is in Athens, God is always out there, ahead of the church. Paul does not have to bring God to the people. Paul’s work is to help them to name what God is doing, to talk about God.

And the stakes are high for Paul. The disciple is angry, angry because religion has been made mostly into a financial transaction: “God is not like gold, or silver, or a stone formed by the imagination of mortals.” Paul believes religion has been abused in Athens. He understands why people might have erected an altar to an “unknown God.” These people have a holy hunch. The gods they’ve been sold don’t merit worship. Let’s talk about the God you know is closer to you, the God who your poets claim as kin. Leave behind those transactional gods, Paul says.

In the Episcopal Church, many of us know a thing or two about abusive religion. When people ask me to describe our congregation I say: “well, maybe one third of us grew up Episcopalian.” This surprises some folks.

We Episcopalians aren’t very good about growing our own. We’re getting started on that around here, we’re going to be building up our children’s and family ministries, but historically, especially in the last 30 years, we haven’t been raising up our congregations. Only about a third of us grew up Episcopalian. Another third grew up Catholic. The final third grew up Evangelical or some other milder form of Protestant. Awhile ago our sign on Delmar said, “Refugees are welcome here.” We mean that in the literal sense, and in the figurative sense. I am glad our church is a refuge.

But being a refuge can mean it is hard to move beyond the trauma. Many of the folks who end up in Episcopal Church pews seem more sure about what they know God is NOT. If I asked you to turn to your neighbor and tell them one thing you are sure God is NOT, I bet most of you would have something to say. “God is NOT a white, bearded, man, in the sky,” many would say. “God is not a homophobe” would be popular. I’d agree with you. “God is NOT a Republican voter.” “God is NOT a Democrat” (I know there are a few of you who are sure God isn’t a Democrat. I agree with you as well.) “God is NOT an NRA member” others would say. We tend to be sure about how NOT to talk about God.

But that brings me back to my initial question. We can talk negatively, about what God is not. How do we talk about God? How do you describe God? Positively? It’s a little more difficult.

When I was a little kid, I used to get nosebleeds, awful nosebleeds. Maybe it had something to do with growing up in Denver’s dry climate, but I’d wake up sometimes in the middle of the nights, my face, and pillowcase covered in blood. I remember one particular moment, one of the many nights, after my mother came and pulled me out of bed, and sat me on the counter in the kitchen, a cold washcloth pressed against my nose. That night I remember her looking at my scared tired eyes and saying: “We’re a team. You’re going to be okay.”

My mom was just trying to calm me down, but she spoke something deeply true that night. My mother’s love and care, and her words, taught me about God. As I grew up, and learned the stories of Jesus, heard the teachings of Jesus, my mother’s teaching stayed with me. When I read words like today’s Gospel, Jesus reassuring “I will not leave you orphaned.” When I encounter Paul’s description about the God, in whom we “Live and move and have our being,” I remember that sense of safety, that sense of love. I encountered God as the abiding presence, the One who is with me, when I am lonely, scared, tired, afraid. As well when I am elated, in love, encountering beauty beyond description, God is there, always.

I offer my own description as a humble example. I am curious to know How do you talk about God?

Up there, on Mars Hill, Paul had a sense that the Athenians were groping, looking, searching for God, a god unlike the false images they were being sold. I’ve seen God out there at concerts, in yoga studios, in protests. There is a marketplace outside our door where the god who is mostly loudly proclaimed by Christians is judgmental, and angry, and at war with our culture.

How will WE talk about God? Will speak words of God’s love to those who desperately need them? Will we speak of God’s justice in the courts that are judging so many unjustly? How will we talk about God?