You're going to die.
A sermon for All Saints in a time of war.
Not sure how many of you have seen the Barbie movie, but hands down, my favorite moment was when in the midst of a sparkly dance party at her Barbie dream house, surrounded by all the other Barbies, arms waving, music thumping, she cheerfully blurts out “do you guys ever think about dying?” record scratch – crickets.
(If you’d like to listen, click below….sermon starts at 31:15)
So as I thought all week about what to say to you today as we celebrate the Christian Feast of All Saints, I realized I am finally like Barbie in exactly one way…I have indeed been thinking a lot about death.
Which makes me even worse at small talk than I usually am.
So it may not come as a surprise that my two favorite days in the liturgical year are Ash Wednesday and All Saints …the former being the day you are reminded that if you are not in your grave, you are one day closer to it, and the latter being the day when we speak the names of those who have died and offer thanks for their lives.
I’m so grateful that the Christian calendar has days set aside to just call a thing what it is; days where we confront the truth of our mortality. And I love that we have the gall to do it right smack in the middle of our death-denying culture, a culture where we are so often offered the message that we can live forever with the right combination of yoga, injections and elective surgery. But while the false promises of immortality through self-improvement might sell product, they do nothing for us in any real way other than to make us feel like we can avoid the most inevitable thing in the world:
That you will die.
And I will die.
And so will every human being ever born.
I’m so sorry to be the one to say it, but there are no exceptions, I’m afraid.
We who gather today and speak the names of those who have died this year will one day be the ones whose names are spoken on a Feast of All Saints in a year to come.
It stings a bit, does it not? Like, how dare I say this.
But the truth about our mortality is only offensive if it’s heard as an insult and not a promise.
I mean, to my ego immortality sounds great, but to every other part of me it sounds exhausting. And kinda boring, honestly.
Because it is the fact that we do not live forever that makes life so precious.
I mean, like, really rare.
Right this minute the Webb Telescope is shooting back images reminding us that the universe is billions of lightyears across. And as of now the only place where we are certain that life as we know it exists, is on this little tiny blue speck of a planet.
This is it, people. 13 billion light-years across and only here are there are puppies and pizza and dancing and Beyonce.
That we are alive at all is miraculous. Singular. A gift.
Because life is so astonishingly brief, when we grieve the death of someone who has lived a long life, yes we are grieving their absence, but we are also celebrating all that messy and miraculous living they got to have.
Which also means that when we grieve the untimely death of children and young people and any who died too soon, we are grieving the loss of life that should have been lived.
We are grieving the years of life stolen.
Because to have the thing that is most precious in the universe end prematurely is intolerable. There is an order in which death should happen, first the grandparent, then the parent, then the child, then the grandchild.
And when that order is disrupted there is no way to make it right again.
Like many of you, my family had the order of our deaths disrupted.
Two years ago, my sister’s 23 year-old son Henry was shot and killed.
And when, a few months after his death, the feast of All Saints came around, I was comforted that at least the church would read his name in love.
Because I confess that I made the mistake of searching for how the incident of his death was reported in the media. The entire event of my nephew’s killing was flattened into a nugget of newspaper information for the public to consume – all kept at a digestible distance from the truth his grieving family, especially his mother, knew and experienced in our hearts and bodies.
I remember thinking, if someone read this they would know nearly nothing of the truth, then wondering, how often have I read quick little news stories and never thought of the pain and grief the event caused the actual people in the actual lives of those who were killed?”
To be fair, none of us can possibly stop and consider the emotional reality of every single tragedy. Please know that.
I’ve written elsewhere about how our psyches were not developed to hold and respond with full compassion to every human tragedy that happens every minute of the day across the entire planet.
Anthropologically speaking, our psyches were developed to hold and respond to the human suffering in our village.
But knowing the sorrow just that one death has caused in my entire family, as I thought about the Feast of All Saints this week and what I would say about those whose lives have ended, I knew that the focus is usually on naming those in our own lives who have died this year, but I was constantly distracted by the news.
Maybe you have been too.
I was distracted by the thought of the 1,400 Israelis who were slaughtered in their homes and the 9,000 Palestinians who, as a result, have been slaughtered in their homes and streets and hospitals and schools, and all I could think about is how each number in that rising death toll is a child of God who has a name. And that name was spoken by their parents when they were born, each has a name that they were called their whole lives, in school rooms and boardrooms and bedrooms. And their names, while unknown to us, are as much on the lips of those who are grieving them now as the names of our dead are on ours.
The untimely and unnecessary deaths of 10,000 children of God, many of whom are actual children, in just that one tiny area of our planet in one month’s time ripples out into an ocean of grief for the 100,000s of thousands who know their names…their babies, and brothers and wives and friends.
This is their day too.
So as we remember our own dead, may we feel connected to the sorrow of those who are also grieving today. And say as our lord did, Blessed are they who mourn. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
I’m usually not one for interactive sermons, but take a moment to think of someone you loved who has died. And I invite you to speak, or yell or whisper their name now.
May their memory be for blessing.
In closing, I want to say that none of us has been promised another day. We have this day only. But we have been promised the impossible - that death is not the final word. I am reminded of that line from a famous Auden poem – Nothing that is possible can save us, We who must die demand a miracle.
And while the afterlife is unknowable in any epistemological sense, I’ve had an image in my head all week –and it wasn’t mansions and gold streets in heaven like in the Gospel hymns I grew up singing. Never really understood the appeal of spending eternity in a place that looks like it was decorated by Liberace … anyhow, all week I’ve had this image of the miracle demanded by we who must die. It is the souls of the dead woven together in the presence of God, their names being spoken in pure love by God, every tear being wiped dry, every illusion of their separateness and divisions being vanished, woven through eternity. And it lit the heavens. Maybe this is what Paul named the great cloud of witnesses and while it cannot be seen by the Webb telescope, maybe in some unfathomably spiritual sense – maybe it is the fabric of the universe itself.
In the words of our scripture for today: See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are... Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed.
But it will be. It will be.
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