A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 14, 2021 (All Souls’ Sunday)
I know what you’re all thinking. Either consciously or subconsciously you’re thinking, “Why isn’t he wearing the usual matching vestment? The one that goes with the altar hangings?” Well, as we mark All Souls’ Sunday and remember those we have known and loved and lost over the years, it felt appropriate to wear this particular chasuble.
You see, it was made for me shortly after my ordination to the priesthood by a woman named Anne Carroll. Mrs. Carroll, as I always called her even well into my 40s, was my best friend’s mother and a special woman. Growing up in Baltimore, Mrs. Carroll was just always there, always a part of the fabric of my life. She was a second mother to me, tough at times, but fiercely loyal. Once you were part of her universe, she never, ever let go. And her belief in me was unrelenting. We need people like that in our lives, non-biological family members who love us unconditionally.
I’ve never worn this on a Sunday morning, though I often wear it at our Wednesday service when the liturgical color appointed for the day is white. And when I put it on, I always take a moment in the sacristy to remember Mrs. Carroll and the non-verbal ways she expressed her love. I mean, there was no great presentation or speech made when she gave it to me. I think she just handed it to me, made sure it fit, and moved on with her day. And yet the gesture continues to reverberate, and I’ve treasured this vestment even more in the seven years since she died.
I think we all have such items in our lives, objects which link us to particular people we’ve lost and memories we cherish. It may be a necklace or a letter, a tool or a photograph. These things become for us holy relics, tangible markers of loved ones who impacted our lives in profound and meaningful ways. Windows into the souls of people who touched us deeply and imprinted a lasting legacy of love upon our hearts.
Of course the memories are enough. But sometimes a physical object enhances or at least focuses our memories and serves as a material reminder of that love. As human beings, we crave the tactile symbols of outward and visible signs, which is why the sacraments are so compelling. The water of baptism, the bread and wine of the Eucharist, the oil of healing. Physical symbols that point to, evoke, and enact God’s grace.
The Eucharist, in particular, binds us to Jesus both physically and spiritually. He didn’t just show up in our world and then leave without saying goodbye. At the Last Supper, Jesus left for us a sacramental reminder of his love. When we “do this in remembrance of me,” Jesus is fully present with us in a way that transcends mere memory. The physical act of receiving Christ’s body places us in relationship, in communion, with him. That’s an incredible thing. The true miracle of our faith.
Through his resurrection, Jesus lives. And through the Eucharist, Jesus lives in us. Which is why we can proclaim in the opening words of every funeral that takes place in this church and in every church, those words from Job we heard this morning: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth. After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God. I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him who is my friend and not a stranger.”
“I know that my Redeemer lives…he will raise me up…I shall see God.” The thing about death is that, at the same time, we know nothing about what happens after we die, and yet we also know everything. The kingdom of heaven is a great mystery to those of us on this side of the curtain. And yet, Jesus also spells it all out for us. He extends to us the offer and the promise of eternal life.
“He will raise me up…and I shall see God.” That’s the promise. That’s the source of our unbounded joy. That’s why we refer to the burial rite as an Easter liturgy. Not because grief isn’t hard or real, but because we stand in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.
As we reflect upon and remember our loved ones this morning, and talk about physical objects that hold meaning, I also wanted to mention a physical characteristic I’ve noticed over the years. The brightest eyes I have ever seen, have been the eyes of those closest to death. People whose eyes have danced and been illuminated with an intangible fire. These eyes, so alive and so luminous, have literally served as windows to souls.
This hasn’t happened at every death bed I’ve been privileged enough to have attended, but I’ve seen this phenomenon enough to know that it’s not an isolated occurrence. And what these radiant eyes have in common has always been a deep and abiding faith in Jesus Christ. These shining eyes belong to the faithful. Not the perfect, not the ones who have figured it all out, not those without regrets, but the faithful. The ones who have a tangible relationship with our Lord. The ones who stand in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. Theirs are the eyes that dance and glow and see something the rest of us cannot yet see. Theirs are the eyes that have glimpsed the very edge of this mortal life and stand ready to enter into that larger life in God’s eternal care.
I first experienced this 30 years ago during my father’s final days. Gazing into his bright eyes as his body wasted away is what put me on the trajectory towards the priesthood. I knew I wanted to share that sense of peace and illumination with others.
Maybe you’ve seen this yourself over the years. But what lights up these eyes, I think, is that these precious children of God who exist in that liminal space between life and death, between life and eternal life, have glimpsed glory. They have caught sight of the glory that is to come; the natural and utterly human fear of death dissipates before our very eyes. They know at the core of their being, at the depths of their souls, that their Redeemer lives. That he will raise them up on the last day. That they shall see God. That Jesus’ promise of eternal life isn’t mere wishful thinking, but is the ultimate reality. That’s why their eyes glow with the veritable grace of God.
Physical objects, sacramental touch, physical characteristics. They all point to the love of God that illuminates our relationships with the people who have meant the most to us. And to whom it has proven hardest to say goodbye. The good news is that in the life of faith there are no permanent goodbyes, only temporary farewells.
“I know that my Redeemer lives…he will raise me up…I shall see God.”