A Sermon for the Feast of All Faithful Departed
Death is tricky for us, and it wasn’t much clearer to the early Christians. Confusion about death hit the Church early. In the fourth chapter of 1 Thessalonians, Paul does his best to comfort an audience that seems to be quite anxious over the status of dead loved ones. He assures them that the dead will be raised first upon Christ’s return, followed by the living faithful. I don’t know if this successfully placated the worried Thessalonians, it seems to me that Paul is confident that most of most of his contemporaries will see Christ’s return in glory with their own living eyes, before their natural, earthly deaths. This confidence becomes a stumbling block for us, two thousand years later. If we’re to take Paul literally, here and now, (not that we should always do that!) after centuries of Armageddon-free human life, we have to conclude that he was either stretching the truth to calm his frightened friends or that he was simply wrong about the immanent return of Christ. This is just to say that the puzzle that the dead pose for us and our faith isn’t some new dilemma brought on by the modern world. The dead have had a mysterious hold on our attention since the beginning of Christianity, and, no doubt, since before even that. The eternal life proclaimed by Jesus and our witness to him has always been a difficult truth to grasp. I don’t pretend to have figured out this puzzle, but I do have a few thoughts on the matter.
G.K. Chesterton, in one of the cleverest arguments for Christian Orthodoxy the English-speaking world has ever produced, calls tradition “nothing more than democracy extended through time.” “Tradition,” he writes, “means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” This idea resounds with the path I took back to the Church after six or seven years of not giving organized religion a second thought during and immediately after college. I felt sort of stuck, like I was spinning my wheels, and I felt like I needed to grow up. (My growing up, it shouldn’t surprise you, continues to be an ongoing process.) In order to discern where I was to go, I felt it important to reflect on from where I came. It’s hokey, I know, but I find the “Good enough for Grandad” line from “That Old-Time Religion” a pretty convincing argument. Just, please, don’t tell my theology professors I said that.
The generations of Christians that precede us provide a powerful testimony to the faith that we proclaim here. I really believe that, but I don’t think that this is the only story the dead have to tell us. Walter Benjamin, a German-Jewish scholar who died tragically while trying to escape the Nazis during World War II saw history not a chain of events but as “a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of [our] feet.” The progress of human society, Benjamin thought, is built up on the crushed bodies of the poor and oppressed. The author of today’s lesson from the Book of Wisdom wrote, “No torment will ever touch [the souls of the righteous.]” Benjamin disagrees. The threat of a blind faith in modern progress is a threat to the dead as well as to the living: “Even the dead,” he writes, “will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.”
Too often when Christians think or talk about the continuing presence of the dead in our lives we think or talk only of their giving us something we want. Their spiritual presence is felt and it gives us comfort as we mourn their physical absence. Their love for us gives us strength to walk our own paths. If we leave it at this, though, the dead are no longer people, but tools for us to improve our own lives. It’s helpful to remember that the dead, like the living, don’t always do the things we want them to. If there is eternal life, and if they are with us when we need them, they’re with us other times, too – times when we don’t necessarily want them around. We’re all kinda used to doing bad things before God, but that’s not quite so scary; we know we’re forgiven and anyway, our God is a busy God, She has to watch over every single person and just might have missed that crazy night at the frat house. Things are a little different with Grandma, who doesn’t have nearly as much to do now that she’s departed for the spiritual realm. What does she think about that outfit my sister’s wearing to tomorrow’s party? It’s not just God and the guy sitting behind us who know we’re checking our email instead of paying attention in class, but our Mothers, who worked so hard to get us into the lucky positions we enjoy.
Today we’re observing the feast of All Faithful Departed, and we are reminded that those who have gone before us are still with us, whether we want them here or not. The traditions in which we participate in this service are one acknowledgement and manifestation of this continuing presence – the rites we celebrate are structured according to forms developed over centuries by Christians long since gone to their Maker. We must be careful with this tradition, however. Benjamin reminds us that “In every era the attempt must be made anew to wrest tradition away from a conformism that is about to overpower it.” Two thousand years of Christianity haven’t changed the fact that we’re still presented with the real existence of the poor, the hungry, the mourning, the meek and the voiceless. These are the folks Jesus tells us to take care of, and we haven’t done a real good job of it. Perfect church attendance and unquestioning doctrinal fidelity aren’t the final demands placed on the Christian.
I do believe that, in some sense, the souls of the righteous are, as the Book of Wisdom teaches, free from earthly torment, but how could the powerless ones of the past look down on us now without a twinge of sadness that the vicious cycles continue and without the hope that a real change will come? I believe that the peace of heaven and a hope for the future of creation are complimentary aspects of the eternal life Jesus proclaims to us in today’s Gospel lesson. We owe it to the past, to All the Faithful Departed, to redouble our efforts on their behalf.