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.

True Religion

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name; increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.  (BCP 233)

I just read for you again the prayer from the beginning of our service, the Collect. We pray one of this short prayers at each service on Sunday morning. The Collect helps us transition from getting here to being here, and introduces the Scriptures we are about to hear. Most of these short prayers are thousands of years old, like the one we heard today, and many of them bear the stamp of their first translator into English, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, like the one we heard today.

Cranmer was a poet, and a contemplative. He believed in the power of language to move the soul. For thousands of years, the priests had intoned the earlier version of this prayer in Latin. They asked God simply “to increase in us religion.” Cranmer added the word “true.” Thomas was Archbishop during the time of the Reformation, when there were several competing religions. He thought: “We might need to specify. Increase in us true religion.”

This prayer holds the genius of the poet. Because it makes us ask, what is TRUE religion? Cranmer wants you to wrestle, to pray for TRUE religion.

True religion doesn’t come easily. Take a look at Moses.

Now, you have to know where Moses finds himself for this story to make sense. Moses was rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter last week, pulled out of the river in the basket. He grew up in the royal household. Moses knows privilege. Then something happened that changed Moses’ whole lot in life. But then he sees the way that the Egyptians are treating the Hebrews. He sees the injustice. Moses defends one of his kinsfolk when an Egyptian master is beating the Hebrew. Maybe Moses goes to far. Moses kills the Egyptian. He buries him in the sand. Then he runs. Moses gets out of Dodge.

Which is how he finds himself tending the flock of his Father-in-law Jethro. Now, this is not a comfortable place. Moses grew up in the palace.  He’s a bit of a city boy. Tending your father-in-law’s flock is not where you wanted to end up in the ancient world. (Working for your father-in-law is hardly ever where anyone wants to end up). Moses is on the lamb. He has no where to go, no prospects. He’s stuck.

Moses is out there, the Bible tells us, “beyond the wilderness,” and he hears a voice: “Moses, Moses.” Notice, God has to say his name twice to get his attention. God is persistent, even when humans are resistant. “Moses” God goes on: “I am the God of Abraham.” I am the God of Isaac and Jacob. God establishes continuity. Then God turns the page.

“I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings”

This encounter with Moses shows us the something critical about our God. God is a God with a bias. God stands on the side of the oppressed. God works actively for the liberation of people from slavery, from bondage. God is a God who seeks out the least, the lost, the left out. The rest of the story of Exodus, in many ways the rest of the story of the Hebrew Bible, and the story of the followers of Jesus is a living out of this revelation of God to Moses: “I have heard their cry.” God is not a God who blesses the powerful and leaves the weak out in the cold. Quite the opposite. Here’s one of the tests of true religion: True religion responds to the cry of the suffering.

As the great theologian Howard Thurman once asked, What does your religion have to say to people with the “backs against a wall?”

“I have heard the cry of my people, and I have come down to deliver them.” This is where the passage gets really interesting. The story turns really fast. Did you catch it? God says, I have come down to deliver them. You could almost imagine Moses turning his head around looking for God. Where? Where are you? It will be a long time before Moses sees God. Instead God says, I have come to deliver them, so Moses, Moses I’m sending you. YOU go talk to Pharaoh. “Go Down Moses. Way down in Egypt Land. Tell Old Pharaoh, to let my people Go.”

You sort of feel for Moses in this moment. God has just said “I am coming down.” Moses probably got excited. He was nervous to see God’s face, but I’m sure he was eager to see God’s action. He was eager to see God right the wrongs, to turn back the tide of injustice. And then God says, “it’s on you Moses.”

It’s a bit like what Jesus says to his followers this morning: “Take up your cross.”

I feel for Moses this morning, surprised by an overwhelming task from God. I also feel for Peter. Today we read Jesus’ harshest rebuke . “Get behind me Satan.” I feel for Peter this morning. If I’d been there, honestly, I probably would’ve been standing near Peter, nodding, agreeing with him, saying “Yes, yes, exactly.”

We come to this rebuke of Peter while Jesus is on the run (notice a theme). They’re on the road, getting away from the crowds. Jesus has fed 4,000 on the sea of Galilee. The Pharisees come after him. He escapes. He performs a healing of a blind man in the chapter before this reading, and tells the man “don’t even go into the village” because he’s afraid of the news getting out. When Jesus asked last week, “who do people say I am?” there are nerves behind that question. Peter last week got the answer right, for once. “You’re the Messiah.” And Jesus orders him to be silent.

Jesus is nervous. Jesus explains to the disciples what is coming, and he paints a pretty ugly picture. Jesus explains that he expects to be hauled before the courts, to suffer, to die.

Peter doesn’t want that for Jesus. Can we blame him? He doesn’t want it for the movement he’s joined. Peter has just identified his leader as the savior, the messiah, the anointed one. Peter wants success. Peter wants it to look good. We don’t hear Peter’s words to Jesus, but I imagine they are something like: “Wait a minute Jesus, that suffering and dying stuff, I’m not sure I signed up for that. That’s not going to sell well.” True religion doesn’t sell well. If a faith doesn’t require some skin of your back, it isn’t Christianity.

These are heavy words, “take up your cross,” and I’m mindful that we’ve had an awful week. We still haven’t seen the full scale of the disaster in Houston. Even as the flood waters were rising, a group of Evangelical pastors were spitting homophobic and transphobic nonsense and saying they represented the one true faith. (All their sound and fury signifies nothing). Parishioners of mine in Washington DC got in touch this week. They’re nervous. These are folks who were able to secure good jobs, and come out of hiding because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA, were terrified this week that they were going to lose their immigration status, be shortlisted for deportation to countries they haven’t seen since they were a few months old. We’re also still dealing with the trauma of the images that came out of Charlottesville, waking some of us up to the hatred that is alive and deep in this country. I know I’m not alone in thinking, “Oh God, what’s next?” How do you even respond when the new cycle just feels like body blow after body blow for people you love?

I’m going to ask you to read a book.

This Fall we’re going to try an experiment. We’re calling it “One Book, One Parish.” The assignment is The Rev. Dr. William Barber’s “The Third Reconstruction.” Barber is a black Baptist pastor, and the chair of the North Carolina NAACP. He was one of the architects of a movement called “Moral Mondays” challenging the North Carolina legislature. And he take the long view of history. He argues that we are at a turning point in this country. The First Reconstruction was after the Civil War. America was re-made when slavery was abolished. The Second Reconstruction was the Civil Rights era. Today America is trying to be remade again. We have reached the Third Reconstruction.

I want us to read this book together, because I think it can help break the paralysis and the fear. Lately it feels like our whole country is playing defense. We’re standing up for some vision of history. We’re standing up to defend our neighbors from bias. As long as we are playing defense, I think we’re all losing. Rage won’t win the day. Rage isn’t enough. We have to get out of defense mode. We have to start moving forward toward a vision.

What is the America we want to see reconstructed? What is the city, the country, the world we want to live in? What does that look like? How can we get in the business of hope?

In “The Third Reconstruction,” Barber tells a story about his grandmother. After cooking for her whole extended family on Sunday, but before the food was served, she and her nieces would take a little bit of food along with a little money and anointing oil. She’d say to young William in the kitchen “We’ll be back shortly. We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” Here, in Barber’s words, was his response to his grandmother:

As a young black boy learning proper English in school, I thought my uneducated grandmamma was misspeaking—that she mistook the word “hope” for “help.” I even may have tried to correct her error in word choice a time or two. But looking back, I see that Grandmamma articulated more theology in that single phrase than some preachers manage to get into an entire sermon.

I don’t know a better description of “true religion.” “We’ve got to go and hope somebody.” True religion is Houstonians volunteering boats and going to rescue one another. True religion is the Baptist and Muslim youth groups my friends in Texas saw working side by side yesterday to muck out houses as the waters receded. True religion can be radical. I heard some true religion from a Catholic priest on Friday, here in St. Louis at a rally to protect DACA, who spoke out and said our Christian vision of the world imagines a place for refugees and immigrants. We welcome the stranger in the Christian worldview. Where have you seen true religion lately?

Friends I have to brag a bit about this church. Amidst all the bad news we’re hearing, this church is on the front page of the paper. This church is proclaiming good news. There’s a story about our laundry love ministry. Every third Tuesday we’re getting to know our neighbors and spreading some Laundry Love. You’re invited. September 19. Come volunteer at 6pm. Go hope somebody.

I could go on and on about the work of hope I am seeing in this church. Reconstructing a house, meeting neighbors for a beer and discussion, doing the hard work of praying for one another. I am grateful, really grateful to be a member of this congregation. You help me see hope: Your hard work, your generosity, the love you show, it increases in me true religion every day.

God has heard the cry of the people. God is coming. Go hope somebody.

Surely God is in this Place: Jacob’s Ladder and Unlikely Spiritual Geography

Jacob’s story today is a claim of unlikely sacred geography. Jacob finds himself on the run. He’s tricked Isaac into giving him Esau’s blessing, his birthright. Essau, as we heard last week, isn’t someone to be messed with. So Jacob, the trickster is on the run. Away from home, away from the lands of his grandfather Abraham, he has a dream and declares. “Surely God is in this place.” The claim is surprising. God is in the “place,” the “holy place,” of people of Haran. What, we might ask, is God doing THERE?

Jacob’s dream becomes one of the most lasting and captivating images of the connection between heaven and earth. Jacob’s ladder has been painted, carved into stone, and set in stained glass. We sing old of the ladder in old spirituals, and have you ever been in a guitar store and not heard someone learning Led Zeppelin’s stairway to heaven? Jacob’s Ladder is even a popular wooden toy. How many Bible passages have their own toy?

We are fascinated by this image of Jacob’s dream, Jacob’s ladder, this sense of God’s connection to earth, that in some places, the infinite and the finite touch. “Thin places” the Irish call them. Some of us have experienced the thinness. Do you have a sacred spot? A place you return to? I have a few. There’s a certain sage field at a camp I worked at in my early twenties in Colorado. I made it through a lot of angst spending quiet time in that field. There are places in our lives, old-worn paths that lead us to God.

But don’t miss what Jacob says when he wakes up. Surely God is in this place and I, I did not realize it. Our English translation misses a point of emphasis in the original. For you language nerds out there, we have an unnecessary pronoun: “I, I did not realize” Jacob says. The grammar of the Hebrew points to his realization that he, he has missed something. He has missed the presence of God. The responsibility for not noticing God in this territory belongs to Jacob.

Which leads me to ask: “How often do I, I not realize?” How often do we, we miss God? One of the biggest blunders in the spiritual life, and one I commit with great regularity, is assuming I know where to find God. God however, keeps ignoring my maps, showing up where I least expect. Jacob’s ladder touches down in unfamiliar territory.

Many of you know that I spent a year after college living in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. As a freshly minted Bachelor of Liberal Arts, I was convinced that I could make a difference. I came to Honduras fully expecting to find God, and I did, eventually, but not where I was looking.

You see, I believed fully that I would find God in my work. I was convinced that I had a great deal to teach, a great deal to offer. I was giving a year, I thought, maybe even more, to serve God in “the least of these.” I was sure to find God.

I arrived to El Hogar de Amor y Esperanza, the Orphanage that would be my home to discover that the job I had come to fill did not exist. I thought I would be teaching English and helping to orient short term volunteer groups who came to visit from the states. I arrived to discover El Hogar had an excellent English teacher, and no volunteer groups were scheduled to arrive in the next six months.

To complicate matters, my Spanish was not nearly fluent enough to manage over 100 boys between ages six and 15. I had been reading Thomas Merton, the famous 20th century monk and mystic who described with such poetry his encounter with God’s presence. I had not found God in my work. I spent most of the first six months in Honduras feeling frustrated, bored: useless.

I said as much in an email home to a priest in San Diego, the rector who had sponsored me for the volunteer program. I told him that I had applied for some jobs that would take me home early. His response came like as a wake up call. He said, in three sentences: “Thomas Merton had a lot to say about usefulness. None of it was positive. Stay in Honduras.” I did.

And somehow I let go of my crippling need to find God in “meaningful work” at El Hogar. I discovered that, for the sake of trying to find God in serving others, I had missed God in the laughter of the kids around me, in games of soccer, in shared meals, in simple conversations, and hugs. Surely God was in that place and I, I did not realize it. Until I let go of my expectations, my assumptions about where God was to be found.

Sometimes we don’t make the best judges of God’s presence. I think there is wisdom in Jesus’ parable about the weeds and the wheat today. I think he may be trying to tell his disciples not to go weeding before they learn the distinction between the wheat and the weeds. I could have easily uprooted myself too early from Honduras, and if I’d done so God’s presence to me in that place would never have blossomed.

Sometimes we can be so sure where we are to find God, so expectant about how God is supposed to act, that we miss where God is present. Wearing blinders that we’ve constructed, we pass through life looking for the God we can’t see, until we trip over the rungs of a ladder connecting heaven and earth.

I have a secret to share with you. Don’t tell anyone I said this, but I don’t think God is just an Episcopalian. Years ago, because of some crazy friends at seminary I had a profound sense of encounter with God while whirling with dervishes in a Sufi muslim mosque. Over the last months and years, I’ve prayed with Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, and Presbyterians as we work for justice in our region. I think God has been getting around. I think this story of Jacob encountering God in the pagan temple of a strange people has something to say to those of us who live in a religiously plural world.

If you’ve tried meditation with the Buddhists, read some of Rumi’s poetry, been to a yoga class, or experienced a seder dinner with Jewish friends, you may also have a sense of this. Episcopalians, even Christians may not have a monopoly on the divine. God can be found in the most surprising places, the upstairs room of a bar, or even in a laundromat.

As Jacob, that trickster, discovered, sometimes the best adventures occur when we venture into unmarked terrain. When we find ourselves out of our comfort zones, when we try the unexpected. Sometimes what makes a “thin place” thin is the loss of our sense of security and surety. If you find yourself somewhere unexpected, keep your eyes out. Pay attention to your dreams. Surely God is in this place.