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 Day: Unbind Him, Let Him Go

Unbind him, and let him go!

Powerful words in the midst of an emotional Gospel. Unbind him, and let him go. We learn today that Jesus brings even the dead back to life. But lest we start out too seriously this morning, I am reminded that this lesson also has been the subject of one of my favorite translations in all scripture. It’s really one of the only moments that I prefer the King James. For in the official authorized version, after Jesus tells the gathered crowd to roll away the stone, Martha turns to him and says, but Lord, “by this time he stinketh.” It’s really one of the great moments in King James’ translation.

How many of us, if we’re honest, feel like we might surely stinketh? From time to time? I think one of the most human feelings in the world is to feel like you stink, like you are a fraud. “If only they really knew…” This is at the crux of this morning’s story.

The feeling is there even for Jesus: the crowd doubts him as he weeps “surely he could have stopped Lazarus from dying?” Our fully human Christ feels this moment of human humiliation before the raising of Lazarus. He feels the defeat and frustration of a friend’s death. That’s the power of the Gospel this morning: our story lets the tension build. We can feel with Jesus the frustration, the sadness, the sense that he might be an imposter.

“Surely he stinketh…” How often do we say that of ourselves? Of others? How often do we expect the worst? But surely…

That’s why the words at the end of this Gospel are so very powerful. Unbind him. Let him go.

Often it is the self-doubt from which we need to be unbound. Often it is our own self-censorship that we need to let go. Sometimes to let go of our own doubt, we need to pause for a moment and consider our humanity in light of the humanity of others.

Today is the Feast of All Saints. 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’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 this summer 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 could be a bit of a mess. Think of 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, and patience, 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 still takes time to make us laugh. We learn virtues by looking up to others.

But we have to be careful with sainthood, because considering someone a saint tends to sanitize an otherwise more complex life. If we hold someone up too high, we risk making the platform of holiness impossible to reach. If you scratch the surface on some of the saints, you discover that they too stunketh.

St. Francis treated his parents pretty terribly on his way to poverty. St. Augustine famously said “Lord make me chaste, but not yet.” Even Mary, the mother of our Lord, forces her son to perform his first miracle because they’re running out of wine at a wedding. Among the great saints, even with all of the sanitizing of history, we can find a very human side, and I think it is important that we look.

Those of you who regularly come to Holy Communion know that the Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr has had a big effect on my spiritual life. Richard is a contemplative who has written a number of books on prayer, justice, and, well, life. This week one of his daily email meditations told the story of his meeting Archbishop Desmond Tutu (another of my other living saints). Both of these men of God have attracted a worldwide following. When they met, Bishop Tutu said to Richard that they were “mere lightbulbs.”

“We get all the credit and seem to be shining brightly for all to see, but we both know that if this lightbulb were to be unscrewed from its source for even a moment, the brightness would immediately stop.”

Richard says Tutu laughed hilariously afterwards, and gave him a wink of understanding.

Even the spiritual greats, perhaps especially the spiritual greats, can feel like frauds. Mother Teresa wrote all of those letters about her lack of faith. Bishop Tutu’s words are a caution. Don’t forget that human beings are “mere lightbulbs” at their best. But on the other hand, his words are an invitation: Shine. Be plugged in. Be unbound. Be set free.

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 alternative s. My favorite alternative 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: to see one another for what we really are, flawed and frustrated human beings who sometimes can shine with the brightness of God.

Ellis and I have been watching a TV show from Australia the past few weeks called “Please like Me.” The show follows the day to day life of a young 20something named Josh in Melbourne. I don’t know if I’ve encountered any work of fiction, book, movie or otherwise handle human emotion and especially mental health with more grace and gentleness.

In a scene from the most recent episode, Josh, his boyfriend Arnold, and his friend Tom find themselves on the roof with his dad. Arnold has just come out to his parents and it hasn’t gone well. Tom is having difficulty at work. In the midst of it all, we learn that Josh’s father doubts whether he is a good parent. Josh smiles and says, “I’ve never really thought of whether you could have been a better dad. You’re the only dad I have. It’s a bit like wondering whether the moon could be a better moon.” His dad frowns, but Josh goes on “yeah, I think you have been a good dad.” His father responds, “sometimes I just think I’m hopeless.”

But in a moment of grace, Josh immediately responds: “well yes, yes you’re hopeless. But I’m hopeless. Arnold’s hopeless. Tom, Tom’s hopeless. We’re all, everyone is hopeless. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad dad.” Josh hears and acknowledges his father’s struggle, but he doesn’t leave him there. He doesn’t allow him to wallow. He says, let go. You’re a good dad.

You never know where you’re going to get theology. The human condition is, in the end, human. We all are going to feel like we stinketh from time to time. We all are going to feel like an unlit lightbulb. But at the heat of our humanity is an invitation to be plugged into the life of the divine. As we consider the saints, the official greats or our own unofficial lists, can we consider how some very human beings helped God’s light to show a little more brightly?

You know, we don’t ever find out what that tomb smelled like. The Gospel doesn’t say, “and lo, Lazarus smelled like roses.” No, we don’t know. What we know is that Lazarus came out. He was unbound. He was let go.

Often we are taught to expect the worst. We all anticipate the stink. We expect the worst for others, and sadly, sometimes especially for ourselves. But friends, that’s not the Gospel.

We follow a Christ who invites us to let go, to be unbound. Our God is a God who looses chains, who brings sight, and healing, and wholeness. Our God is the God of the New Jerusalem. Our God is the God who makes all things new.

This All Saints day, can you let go of your doubts about others? About yourself? Can you find solidarity in our shared human struggle? Can you be unbound? Can your light shine a little brighter?