It's All Saints, not Some Saints
a message on complicated grief and the afterlife
This last Sunday we celebrated All Saints in the women’s prison. They had lost their computer teacher to cancer a couple weeks prior so we wanted to offer a time for them to remember her and their other loved ones who had passed. On a table donned with flowers (a rarity inside), each woman placed an electric votive candle and a post-it bearing the names of those she was honoring. Some had even brought old family photos. Their All Saints altar was as beautiful a thing as I have seen in worship.
Here’s the sermon I preached in the chaos of that prison gym:
Seeing How The Story Works Out
For a Protestant girl, I‘m pretty into the saints. I love the super traditional ones like St. Frances with all his little animal friends and St Theresa of Calcutta and her dignifying work with the poor, but what I really love are the super weird ones. Like not sure if you guys have heard of Saint Drogo but he was reportedly not the most handsome dude and now is considered the patron saint of unattractive people. And this guy names St Fiacre from the 6th century who was a magical healer and is now the patron saint of people with venereal disease.
That is a saint I really could have prayed to a bit more in my 20s.
Anyhow, today is set aside in the church year to remember the saints. And while I love the big name celebrity saints – today is not just about the ones who have trading cards and Wikipedia entries, because today is All Saints Sunday and not just Some Saints Sunday.
I mean, in the Lutheran tradition saints aren’t a special category of people who happen to be the opposite of sinners, in the Lutheran tradition saints are just regular sinners who happen to be forgiven.
That’s all of us, by the way.
So we have a day set aside each year to remember forgiven sinners who have died. We have a day set aside each year to honor our dead and honor our grief; to celebrate their memories and also celebrate God’s mercy.
Many of us have come here today with hearts that are heavy with the loss of someone dear to us, our own saints–- especially the ones like Ms. Cummings and Rebecca’s dad and Chaplain Terry’s uncle; all of who died so recently that our eyes still sting with the grief of it.
I, like you, stand here today and grieve my own dead. Those I loved who I lost to: overdose and heart failure and COVID and gun violence and old age and suicide.
The hits keep coming. Death can feel like such a thief and the longer you live, the more the bastard takes from you.
But the thing I wanted to talk about today is how some grief is more complicated than others.
Like - it’s difficult to grieve a parent you loved but who was also a terrible mother.
And it’d difficult to grieve someone who we still carry guilt over not treating as well as we could have.
Or to grieve a friend who for sure slept with your man. (note to readers: this line may not have flown in a traditional church setting but it got an applause break in the women’s prison!)
It’s unavoidable that at some point the fabric of our hearts will snag on the rough side of other people. And it can make grief pretty swirly and not so basic.
And the rougher parts of us will snag the hearts of those we love and even when we don’t mean to, we may hurt them.
And when we die the grief they feel will be complicated too.
My friend Lydia wrote this week about the passing of her father with whom she had a complicated relationship. One sentence in particular, about her father’s failings stood out for me – writing about their reconciliation at the end of his life, she said "[His] shortcomings that seemed so glaring when I was young suddenly faded because I could see how the story worked out."
The shortcomings of our lives that are so glaring now fade when we see how the story works out.
So thinking of how thin the veil is between the worlds and how surrounded we are by those who have gone before us, the reading I chose for today is a vision from the book of Revelation. And this vision is about “seeing how the story works out”.
These are they who have come out of the great ordeal;
they have washed their robes and made them white in the
blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God
and worship him day and night..
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more and thirst no more …
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
There in John’s revelation, is an image of countless tribes and peoples gathered around God’s throne. They had suffered the ordeal of living in a world that can break your heart, their souls were soiled by loss and regret and sin and shame but at the throne of God they had been washed in the blood of the lamb and made clean. They encountered the compassion of Christ in its most condensed form and it healed what was broken – it cleansed what was stained.
That’s so beautiful to me, that we can go through ordeals – of our own making and the making of others – we can accumulate so much grief and pain in this life and yet, in any spiritually significant way those are not the parts that remain. Because Jesus Christ, the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, is at work, which means the story is still working itself out:
Your story. Your loved ones stories. Your victims stories.
In my limited understanding of all of this, all I know is that we all come from God; I swear you can smell him on the heads of newborns. And while we are here we have access to God, our divine source – when we come to God in prayer and when we are forgiven by someone and when we show mercy and when we love ourselves and when we are of service to others and when we sing and when we admit our faults and when we weep. These are thin places in which the veil between here and the heart of God is translucent.
I am no expert in the afterlife, but all I know is that when we die, we somehow return to our divine source. And because God is love, the love we shared here on Earth is the connective tissue that unites us eternally with everyone who loved us. In some inexplicable way, we are all - every single one of us - held together in the heart of God.
And after we die we get to be the ancestors of the generations to follow. Maybe we even get to see them off when they are born and welcome them home when they die.
And if there is such a thing, I for sure want to be on the hospitality committee in the afterlife. For one thing, I really hope that in heaven I won’t be an alcoholic anymore and God willing I can safely drink again.
I just know the food will be off the hook.
I mean, check it out - 800 years before the book of Revelation was written, the prophet Isaiah wrote a similar vision of God’s working the story out, but he included the menu:
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the covering that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth.
I mean, come on, isn’t that beautiful?
I have no idea why so many churches try to make Christianity into a reward and punishment program instead. I do not know why so many people seem to think that we only get to return to the one who created us if we happen to say the right things and believe the right things and do the right things – only if we happen to be a member of the right church and have the right lifestyle and political affiliation.
As if we are that powerful.
Friends, if as the prophet Isaiah said, God is swallowing up death –I just can’t imagine God spits anyone out in the process (as if the blood of the lamb can only wash garments that are lightly soiled)
It just isn’t like that, friends. We aren’t more powerful than God’s grace and mercy.
Our failings are never as powerful as a God who sees to it that all the shortcomings (mine, yours, our loved ones’) that are so glaring now, fade when in glory our eyes adjust to the light of Christ and we finally see how the story works out.
God promises you this. The story works out. Amen.
Join The Corners for access to exclusive essays, monthly Q and O with me, and a comment section featuring the most thoughtful least shitty people on Al Gore’s internet.
I wanted to share this amazing note I got from one of the folks here in The Corners:
You asked what I do on All Saints day and often, I tell this story:
My Irish friend and I were invited to join a New Zealand Māori community in the Morea (their community house of worship). It was a great honour.
There are a number of rituals to be managed before you join the community inside…. …On admission to the sacred space, the first thing you must is visit the wall of ancestors. One wall of the building is covered with photos: graduation pictures; army portraits, snapshots – a whole wall of young and old, some ancient photos and some new-ish. One is called to stand in front of the wall and give thanks to those who raised you and those who went before.
My friend and I are both adult children of alcoholics. We had the arrogance to believe we had lived fruitful and successful lives despite our parentage; despite our childhood trauma. Now we were being asked to say, ‘Thank you’.
At that moment, the tears welled in both our eyes. No one had ever asked us to do this before. It is the first time as adults we had looked past our parents’ illnesses and past our personal pain to find and give thanks for the gifts our parents gave us. Gifts like curiosity, creativity and courage. Even the gift of examples of what we wouldn’t do with our lives. We were forced to confront the humans hidden behind parenthood and recognize their value.
No family is perfect. And Māori communities suffer from the same social disruption as any other first nations people – yet, they have the capacity to hold, honour and give thanks to their elders and that is where their individual health and the health of community grows from.
That day, my friend and I began a new path of wellness – true wholeness. We don’t get to choose our ancestors or who forms us but every one of them is there for a reason and we cannot be complete without acknowledging them. - Jean Shannon
Have a Blessed All Saints Day. May the memory of your dead be for blessing.