A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 8, 2020 (All Souls’ Sunday)
One of the things I like to do when things are feeling particularly uncertain in the world or I’m just feeling out of sorts in my own life, is to walk through the cemetery down the street. I used to take Delilah with me, but now that she’s 17 and not getting around so well, it’s just me and Cooper walking or, to be honest, sniffing our way among the gravestones. Given the state of things in this country, and the continued need for reconciliation and healing, you won’t be surprised to know that there were multiple strolls through the cemetery this week.
Now, I know that for some, there is no more depressing place than a cemetery. There’s a reason we used to hold our breath when we’d drive past one as kids. In a cemetery, you are literally surrounded by death, and in each gravestone you come face-to-face with the very fleeting nature of life. But I find that, for me, walking through Hingham Cemetery is good for the soul. Rather than ghoulish or gloomy, I experience it as a place to reflect on life and faith; it offers perspective, and reminds us that our own troubles — whether personal or civic — when placed in the broad context of human history, are not so unique.
And I always think of the line from the prophet Isaiah, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever.” So in those headstones I also see hope. Hope is not something that comes without grief or burden. Hope is not untouched by pain and brokenness. Hope is not cut off from sadness or despair. Rather hope, as we understand it as followers of Jesus Christ, is the light that shines in the darkness; and darkness does not and cannot overcome it. Whatever we’re facing, whatever we’re struggling with, whatever difficult situation we’re confronting as individuals or as a nation, hope abides. Hope endures. Hope stands forever.
On this All Souls’ Sunday, we remember those we have known and loved and lost over the years.
People who impacted our lives and helped shape our identities; people who were dear to us and cared for us; people who caused us great joy and, in some cases, deep pain; people with whom we may have had complicated relationships; people we wish were still with us. So we bring grief — some sweet, some raw, some unresolved — with us this morning.
And I invite you to embrace this swirl of emotions. Not because it’s always easy, but because grief, if we let it, can serve as a pathway to hope. As we just heard in St. Paul’s letter to the church in Thessalonica, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” So grief and hope are inextricably linked. A point which, to someone without faith, sounds like utter foolishness. How can there be hope in the midst of loss? How can there be hope when all seems lost? How can there be hope when someone we love is dead and gone?
These hard questions, these very human questions, always bring us back to where it all both ended and began: the cross of Christ. Hope is deeply embedded in grief in the same way that resurrection is deeply embedded in death. At the cross, Mary wept over the broken body of her son. At the cross, Jesus’ closest friends all fled in terror. At the cross, God’s only son was murdered like a common criminal. The cross was supposed to be the end; the final nail literally driven into this foolishness through crucifixion.
And yet hope itself rises from the grave. The bitterness of grief gives way to resurrection. Through the power of hope, grief is transformed into joy. That’s the Easter story. And it’s precisely why we show up to worship week after week after week, whether in-person or online. To celebrate the power of hope, to dance on the grave of death and despair.
None of which is to minimize anyone’s feelings of grief and loss. If anything, this year grief feels particularly pointed. Maybe it’s because life has been so hard and so isolating. Maybe it’s because the things we normally do to alleviate our pain and loneliness, like hug our loved ones and spend time in their presence, has been taken away from us. Maybe it’s because we haven’t been able to gather in-person for worship for so long. Maybe it’s because of the deep division in this country that pits neighbor against neighbor and tears families apart. Maybe it’s because the worst of humanity has been highlighted again and again.
You know, we’ve been living with the specter of death hanging over us for a long time now. Consciously or not, that’s what happens when you live amid a deadly pandemic. This sense of fear has gotten into the very marrow of our existence. And only by the grace of God are we able to be kind to others. To keep the faith. To live in hope. The good news is that, through faith in Jesus Christ, you can’t live in the shadow of death without embracing the sunshine of hope. That’s the gift of this day. That’s the joy of this moment, as hard as it may be. And thanks be to God for that.