Listen to the sermon HERE.
In 1862, the poet Walt Whitman came to Washington, looking for his brother. His younger brother had fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg and the family feared the worst. Walt went from hospital to hospital, looking and hoping. Finally, he found his brother– a little banged up, but basically o.k. But that experience changed Walt Whitman and turned into a three-year commitment of helping the wounded, volunteering as a nurse, visiting the sick, and tending the dying.
In one section of Whitman’s Song of Myself, his experience informs his poetry and out of a poem, a question arises. It’s a question anyone might ask, anyone has asked. But here, the question comes from the lips of a little child.
The child picks up fingers-full of fresh, new, green grass, and asks, “What is the grass?”
Whitman then meditates on a possible answer. “How could I answer the child?” the poet wonders. “I do not know what it is any more than he.” But he wonders further,
I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven.
Or I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrancer designedly dropt,
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves. [. . . ]
And then the poet imagines who might be buried in such graves.
It may be you transpire from the breasts of young men,
It may be if I had known them I would have loved them,
It may be you are from old people, or from offspring taken soon out of their mothers’ laps,
And here you are the mothers’ laps. [. . . . ]
And then the great question comes, the question that seems so right for this night of All Souls, a question we each must have asked before,
What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?
What becomes of those we love, when they die? What happens to us, when we die?
There are, of course, as many ways of answering the question as there are of asking. Some would suggest that when death occurs, that is it. The body, the mind, the soul… all of it simply dies. Some religions might suggest that a part of the persons remains and perhaps returns in a different form.
Those who continue to be influenced by Greek philosophy might imagine that while the body dies, the soul continues on to be reunited to its source. But the Christian belief is that there is no splitting of the soul and body. Both die completely. But because of faith in Jesus Christ and the miracle of his resurrection, we too are raised with new spiritual bodies, again the body and soul are not separated. We call this new state of being “heaven,” understanding that it is not a geographic place, but a spiritual one.
The Church through the ages, has also spoken of an in-between place, that some have called purgatory. Especially in the Middle Ages, the idea of purgatory could seem literal and physical. The picture of a fiery purgatory in which people are perfected before being admitted into heaven was good for the business of getting people to behave, not to mention of raising vast sums of money, as offerings were made on behalf of the dead. (As we made our way through the capital campaign don’t think I wasn’t tempted!)
But I wonder if that idea of purgatory hasn’t been thrown out a little too quickly, too fully. [Because] if you think about it, if God’s grace is truly unending, if God is always working on us, drawing us to himself, then why should we think for a second that God’s grace ends just because our bodies may die?
Our scriptures tonight help us think about what happens when we die.
The Wisdom of Solomon assures us that the “souls of the righteous are in the hands of God, and no torment will ever touch them.” Those who have died in faith are in familiar hands, because they are hands that bear the scars of nails, hands that have withstood death on a cross, hands that offer peace, and extend love, and wipe away all tears. We are held in the hands of the Risen Christ.
In the second reading, the Letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes to a church that believes that Jesus is coming soon. They fully expect him to raise up everyone together. And so, some in the community are worried about those who have already died, worried that they might not be raised along with those who are still living. Paul assures them (and us) that in God’s love, all time and sequence are overcome completely. We meet one another again, when we are raised.
Finally, in the Gospel, Jesus puts it plainly that whoever hears and believes in him has eternal life. It’s that simple. The judgment of Christ is judgment only in that calls the name of those who have loved him, and in that calling, we recognize his voice, and we respond. There is life, and there is life eternal.
When Walt Whitman asks the question about the people who have died, when he asks,
“What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?”
He then goes on to answer (in his way)
They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.
All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.
Whatever our own particular belief about life after death, I do believe that “to die [will be] different from what any one supposed, and luckier.”
Especially on this day, we offer our prayers for the faithful departed. It is not a matter so much of their needing our prayers. After all, if we strain our ears, we just might hear them praying for us. But we add our prayers to theirs, to join in the unending song of God’s love and purpose of love unending.
May we be strengthened by the communion of Saints. May we feel their presence and know their love, even as we live and move and have our being in the eternal love of God.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.