November 5, 2017
Feast of All Saints
Matthew 28: 1-10, 16-20
Before I came to HFASS, I was a hospice chaplain. And in that job, most of my responsibility was to the bereaved families. After a hospice patient dies, the family is entitled to at least a year of follow-up grief support. So, every few months I would make a phone call or an in person visit to these families. Most of these families did not need much more than the occasional reminder that they were not alone, but then there were folks like “Diane.” Diane was unconsolable and experiencing what is called complicated grief. Diane’s husband was an alcoholic and was only in his late 40s when he died from cirrhosis of the liver. But as I met with Diane month after month, I began to realize that her grief was so intense not because she loved her husband and missed him, but because she hated him. When Diane’s husband would get drunk, which was most of the time, he would beat her up and call her names. So, when he died, Diane was relieved. And yet, she was grieving more deeply than anyone else I worked with.
One day, all of her grief and anger came to a head, as we were talking, and she blurted out, “There’s no way my husband is in heaven, right? I won’t ever have to see him again, right?” Despite all my seminary training and years of working as a chaplain, Diane’s question scared the shit out of me. I mean, what was I supposed to say? I tried to get out of answering the question at first by telling Diane I did not know. Which was of course true. Even if you believe that every word of scripture is the literal word of God, nothing in the Bible gives us a blueprint for what lies beyond the grave. The stories of our faith point to the life beyond through the psychedelic fever dreams of prophets. Through images of oceans made of glass and flying beasts that look like oxen, lions, and eagles. Totally clear! But Diane wasn’t satisfied with I don’t know. She wasn’t looking for the 1+1 equals 2 kind of certainty. Diane wanted to know about my faith. Based on what I see in Jesus, what do I think is most likely. Diane wanted to know what kind of God I believe in.
Which is what I was afraid she was asking. And I was afraid because I knew she wasn’t going to like the answer. I knew that Diane was initially not going to be comforted when I said that deep in my gut, I believe that God is making a place for all of us. And that everyone means everyone. “From every nation, tribe, people and language,” says our scripture for today. I knew Diane wasn’t going to feel safer, when I told her that in death I believe we will all be united to all who came before us, and that we will be reconciled to each other. I knew that Diane wasn’t going to like hearing that I believe that before the throne of God, God’s spirit of truth will judge and purify her husband of whatever it was that made him drink himself to death and hit her and hate her. And that God will do the same for all of us. That God will transform the parts of me and of you and of all people that lead us to harm and hate ourselves and others and that the only part of us that will remain will be the image of God, the very essence of us that God created us to be in the first place. And I was right, Diane wasn’t happy with what I said. She shouted back, “I believe there’s a special place in hell for my husband. So, if my husband is in heaven, I don’t want to go there.” That made sense to me. I didn’t want to argue with Diane’s feeling for even a second, because holding out hope that there was grace for her husband felt dangerously close to saying her suffering didn’t matter. It felt perilously close to saying that God causes suffering in order to make us stronger, better people. But I don’t believe in a God who is like that. I don’t believe that God created Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Diane’s husband to be abusers so that their victims would have something to overcome. That’s not a God I can put my faith in. But I can put my faith in a God who never gives up on us and who washes the sin within us and drowns the evil around us even after we have left this world. And I believe that God continues to work on us beyond the grave for the sake of others. I believe God judges us, but ultimately heals all of us so that others, like Diane, might live. Our salvation does not belong to us alone, but is for the sake of the whole world.
I got to see this firsthand as I continued to visit Diane over many months. At first Diane was so trapped in her anger, resentment and grief, that she hardly ever left her house. But as she began to take seriously that there might be grace for her husband, I saw God begin to free Diane as well. I saw her begin to shed her own shame as she talked about how she never believed she was worthy of love and because of that, she always blamed herself for the abuse. And as Diane began to open to the idea that maybe she will one day see her husband again but that, if she does, God will have freed him from all the violence and evil that plagued his life, as Diane began to open to this possibility, she also opened to the possibility that God was transforming her and empowering her to lay down all the shame and self-loathing that had bound her for so long. And as I watched Diane blossom into self-love and self-respect, I saw how God is doing the hard work of reconciling all things to herself so that we might live. I saw how God was transforming Diane’s husband so that Diane could be free and live life to the fullest. I saw how everything that has ever come before us has been born and has died just so that we might live.
This is the faith of All Saints. That every atom and molecule that has ever come into existence and then collapses expending its energy, each one has done so to lead us to this moment where we live right now. That every one of the billions and billions of stars that has ever been born and died, did so in order that this planet might grow and that we might live upon it. And that every person who has lived upon the earth has lived and died, and made choices that in one way or another conspired to bring us to now. This moment where we get to breathe in and out. And that therefore, every moment of our lives on this Earth and in the world to come exists for the sake of others and for their freedom.
So, when Lindsey and Nathan asked if we could baptize Theo on All Saints, Pastor Nadia and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate the God who breathes life into us through those who have gone before us than Theo getting baptized by his grandfather and by Pastor Nadia wearing Lindsey and Kristen’s mother’s stole. Theo’s grandmother lived so that Lindsey and Kristen might live and they live so that Theo might live. And Theo lives so that all who come after him will live, just as we live for those who surround us and who come after us. We are all knit together into one body by the Spirit and God will continue to transform all our lives until the whole body is free.
This is the great promise of All Saints and of the Christian faith. That God will never give up on any of us and that God, who is beyond all time and space, continues to work on us and mold us so that the whole world might live and be free. And that God is busy reconciling all things to herself for our sake. Not just the shiny pretty people. Not just the loved ones we like to remember. Not just the heroes and the martyrs. But that God is at work even in the souls of our enemies, even in the soul of Diane’s husband so that Diane and all us will one day be free. Amen.