Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020
Jesus, Savior, may I know your love and make it known. Amen.
My daddy’s mother died when he was days shy of his 15th birthday, so I never knew her. But I did know, at least a little, my other grandmother. I have memories of riding in the car with my parents to visit her in a nursing home. But mostly I remember things from when she died, when I was seven years old. I remember vividly details from the funeral home — the metal casket, the smell of the flowers, even the chill in the room. But I wasn’t afraid.
I grew up in a time, a culture, and a Christian tradition in which my family would attend the funeral of church members just because they were church members. It didn’t mean we were necessarily close to the person who had died. We were part of the same church family, so that’s why we were there. But my grandmother’s death was different. It was the first time death came close enough to feel that the world had changed, that my world had changed, and to wonder what had happened and what was happening.
Two months before my grandmother died, in another part of the world, the philosopher Ernst Bloch died in Tübingen, Germany. He lived in the same neighborhood as the theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who walked over to visit Bloch’s wife as soon as he heard about his friend’s death. Carola Bloch came toward Moltmann and simply asked him, “Where is he now?” And she asked that question, a heart-wrenching question from any human being who’s ever felt left behind, while her husband’s body was still lying there.
Where are they now? Where are the dead?
Some say no where beyond what will return to the earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Early Christians, however, believed there was something more than that. They were known for having torn down the wall between the living and the dead, so to speak, unafraid to approach the places of the dead because of their belief in the resurrection of Jesus and the hope that they, too, would share in his resurrection. It gave them courage to experience life before death, amid struggles here.
I’ve always loved seeing on some older Moravian headstones the simple declaration, “Asleep in Jesus.” That’s not meant to be a euphemism to avoid speaking of the awful reality of death. No, it’s claiming this isn’t the end.
This person rests in Jesus, awaiting something, the General Resurrection. The implication, of course, is that the resurrection to eternal life, the resurrection of the body, is a future event. I mean, it has to be, right? That grave isn’t empty. As the words of the Prayer Book put it so beautifully:
Lord Jesus Christ, by your death you took away the sting of death: Grant to us your servants so to follow in faith where you have led the way, that we may at length fall asleep peacefully in you and wake up in your likeness . . .
As a priest in Williamsburg, Virginia, I would often read on Sundays before the opening procession into Bruton Parish Church an unusually long and dramatic inscription on a particular chest tomb. It was just outside the church, proclaiming to those who passed by these sad but hopeful words:
Here sleeps in Jesus united to Him
by Faith and the Graces of a christian
life, all that was Mortal of Mrs. Ann Burges
once the tender and affectionate Wife
of the Rev’d HENRY JOHN BURGES,
of the ISLE OF WIGHT: She died 25th
December 1771 in giving Birth to an
Infant Daughter, who rests in her Arms.
She here waits the transporting Moment
when the Trump of God shall call her
Forth to Glory, Honour & Immortality.
Oh DEATH were is thy Sting?
Oh GRAVE where is thy Victory?
The confidence of those words near the end is inspirational, although most of us don’t really talk that way. We love it when listening to Handel’s Messiah, as a bass voice sings the words of Saint Paul, words to the Corinthian Christians about how “the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.”
However, in contrast to that, a lot of us have gotten used to talking about life after death using the language of immediacy. Loved ones are with God right now, which is a comforting thought. But we’re not sure how that connects with the resurrection of the body, words we recite in the creed. So we don’t know what to do with their bodies, our bodies, or any body for that matter. “Some bright morning when this life is o’er,” we’ll just fly away.
It’s not that the language of immediacy isn’t found in the New Testament. We hear it on the lips of Jesus himself, from the cross, as he answers the thief beside him, who is also being executed and asked Jesus to remember him when Jesus comes into his kingdom. Jesus famously says to him,
Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.
And on this All Saints’ Day we heard in the last book of the New Testament, the Book of Revelation, a stunningly beautiful and glorious description of those standing before the throne of God, not in the future but now. Did you notice, by the way, that they’re all Palmers, said to be holding palm branches in their hands? And they’re “a great multitude that no one could count . . . from all tribes and peoples and languages.” Their past suffering, all of it, has come to an end; and because of Jesus who also suffered, the Lamb who was slain, “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” That last part always reminds me of Jürgen Moltmann saying,
God weeps with us, so that we may someday laugh with him.
So what are we to make of this tension within the Bible itself between the present and the future? Where are the dead?
Some believe, together with the 16th-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther and 20th-century Catholic theologian Karl Rahner, that it’s about the difference between our experience of time and God’s perspective. So here in this life, it appears as if those who have died are waiting for the resurrection. But at our own death, our experience of the resurrection will seem immediate and as if everyone is experiencing it at the same time.
Luther says as soon as our eyes have closed in death, we’ll be awakened. And it will be like those moments when we wake up in the middle of the night, with no idea how long we’ve been asleep. Whether a half hour or a thousand years, it will seem sudden, happening in the twinkling of an eye.
That weird thing about time is why we can think of resurrection as a future event but also have a very real sense of the communion of saints gathered around the throne now, cheering us on as we walk through the sufferings they’ve already been through, praising God together as we say “holy, holy, holy” at the Lord’s Table, knowing that a crown of glory awaits us through the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ, whom we shall see face to face.
The truth is that it’s a mystery. And there are other ways many faithful Christians have described that mystery because, as a friend of mine said a few days ago, “We’re always peering into hidden things when it comes to death.” Even so, in this election year, I’m voting with Martin Luther.
I’d say we’ll find out who won, who got most details right, when the Day of Days arrives not only for us and but also for the whole world. But here’s the thing: It won’t matter at that point because we’ll be in the presence of “the Love that moves the sun and the other stars,” the same Love that’s already taken us by the hand now and will have raised us to new life then.
What I know with certainty is that All Saints’ is one of my favorite festivals of the church year. It’s when Carrie and I had both of our children baptized. Rowan, our oldest son, was bathed in the font the same year my daddy died. All of that came together in that moment — the waters of baptism, death and resurrection, the communion of saints. But that All Saints’ celebration also enfolded my grandparents, the two I knew and the two I never met.
Those circles of love ripple out from there. They encompass people you’ve known, who showed you when they were alive what Jesus is like through small acts of love. They draw a line around a great multitude of human beings around the world who have died as a result of COVID-19. How is it not possible to remember them on All Saints’ this year, to pray for them, to pray for those staring at an empty seat around a kitchen table?
My friends, those whom we love are not lost in death. They are not.
Where are the dead?
They are held in the love of Jesus, which surrounds them and us, always.
This I believe.
1 BACK TO POST Carola Bloch, quoted by Jürgen Moltmann in In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 109.
2 BACK TO POST From the additional prayers at the end of the liturgy for the Burial of the Dead, Rite II, in the Book of Common Prayer (1979).
3 BACK TO POST 1 Corinthians 15:52 (KJV).
4 BACK TO POST Luke 23:43.
5 BACK TO POST Revelation 7:9.
6 BACK TO POST Revelation 7:17.
8 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, on page 112 in his book In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), states that other Catholic theologians joined Karl Rahner in discussing the idea of “the resurrection at death” but that “in 1979 Joseph Ratzinger, in his first declaration as cardinal, had these ideas rejected by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, because they make indulgences and Masses for the dead superfluous, and are therefore contrary to the [Roman Catholic] Church’s practice.” (That would have strengthened Martin Luther’s belief in it.)
9 BACK TO POST Jürgen Moltmann, In the End — The Beginning: The Life of Hope (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004) 111-112.
10 BACK TO POST Jacob Smith, Rector of the Episcopal Parish of Calvary-St. George’s in New York, New York, on the Mockingbird podcast Same Old Song, “All Saints’ (A): Grandpa Joe, Supervillain,” October 26, 2020.
11 BACK TO POST Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, Canto XXXIII, 145.
12 BACK TO POST As of All Saints’ Day, November 1, 2020, according to the the COVID-19 Dashboard of Johns Hopkins University, more than 1.1 million people have died globally as a result of COVID-19.
13 BACK TO POST Although not the subject of this sermon, the Feast of All Saints is an appropriate time to ask why Anglican Christians around the world and through the centuries have offered prayers for the dead. The best answer I’ve heard in response to that question comes from an unlikely source, an evangelical New Testament scholar and bishop in the Church of England quoting an evangelical lay member of the Church of England.
N.T. Wright, on pages 74-75 in his book For All the Saints? Remembering the Christian Departed (New York: Morehouse, 2003), writes this:
Many years ago, the General Synod of the Church of England was debating the question of prayers for the dead. Professor Sir Norman Anderson, one of the most senior and respected laymen in the church of his day, and known as a leading evangelical and Protestant, rose to speak. You might have supposed that he would take the traditional line and denounce prayers for the dead as irrelevant nonsense, indicating a lack of assurance or a belief in purgatory. But Sir Norman and his wife had had three lovely children, a boy (of exceptional brilliance) and two girls; and all three had died in early adult life. And he had come, in his own experience, to realize that it was perfectly in order to continue to hold those beloved children before God in prayer, not to get them out of purgatory, nor because he was unsure about their final salvation, but because he wanted to talk to God about them, to share as it were his love for them with the God who had given them and had inexplicably allowed them to be taken away again. When I read his speech I realized not only how much I respected his nobility of mind and heart, but how much theological sense it made. Once you get rid of the abuses which have pulled prayer out of shape, there is no reason why prayer should not stop just because the person you are praying for happens now to be ‘with Christ, which is far better’. Why not simply celebrate the fact?