All Souls’ Sunday 2015

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 8, 2015 (All Souls’ Sunday)

We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and hearing about and reflecting on the mysteries surrounding the end-of-life over the last few weeks. Between the Grave Matters adult education series and last Sunday’s All Saints’ celebration and this week’s commemoration of All Souls’, we’ve spent a lot of time in that liminal space between life and death. A place of deep emotion and unanswered questions; a place of hope and despair; a place of grief and joy.

And in many ways, thinking about specific loved ones that we have lost is where the theoretical and theological rubber meets the road of life and experience. It’s one thing to think about the great saints of the church, the ones who surround us in stained glass and statuary. To hear their unique stories and be inspired by their witness to the gospel. To honor those who make up the great saintly cloud of witnesses that transcends all time and space. And it’s one thing to speak of the theology of resurrection, to talk about the burial rite as an Easter liturgy, to discuss death in the abstract.

But it’s quite another thing to think not generally about the souls of all the faithful departed, but to think specifically about a particular person that we have known and loved and lost. Which is precisely what we do today. We remember and pray for people in our own lives that have died. We poke the wound of grief we thought had scarred completely over and we recognize just how raw the emotion sometimes remains.

In this spirit, I’d like to share a personal story of a particular death. One that has deeply touched my own life and continues to define who I am and what I do. And I recognize that even as I speak, your minds will be moving toward your own stories; toward an individual that particularly impacted how you experience grief and loss and life and faith. So I offer my own story as a portal into your own experience. Because it is a reality of the human condition that the experience of grief and loss binds us together; it is a shared experience for anyone who has spent any time at all on this earth.

Some of you know that my father, Andrew, was a symphony orchestra conductor. We aschenck3moved to Baltimore when I was four because he was hired as the associate conductor of the Baltimore Symphony. He eventually went on to have a few orchestras of his own — on Long Island and San Antonio, a chamber orchestra in Manhattan.

But in the last several years of his life, he really made his mark recording music with orchestras around the world and became most closely identified with the resurgence in the work of American composers. And he was just on the verge of a major international career when the cancer first appeared.

One of the last concerts he ever conducted turned out to be his most inspired performance. And I’ll never forget it. It was a live recording with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra featuring the music of Samuel Barber. On the program that night were two of Barber’s choral works. The first, The Lovers, had never before been recorded. The second was Barber’s setting of the Prayers of Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish philosopher and theologian.

Professionally, this was the most significant night of his career. Here he was doing a world premiere recording with one of the best orchestras in the world. And he was dying. Telling no one but his family, he somehow summoned the strength to put his very soul into the music. It turned out to be a remarkable performance that won a Grammy Award. Something we found out on Ash Wednesday the month after he died at the age of 52.

But my father was never about the awards or the applause. He never demanded that people call him “maestro.” His life wasn’t defined by ego or the often cut-throat politics of the music industry — he refused to play that game. He was about two things: music and family. He was always a dad first and a public figure second.

l4780802n79_lYet when I look at his life as a whole, I can’t help but add a third leg: faith. Because while we always attended church as a family he was honest enough to admit that while he spoke the words and sang the hymns, they didn’t always resonate. Until those last months of his life when he experienced first-hand the peace and freedom of faith in Jesus Christ.

Now, on the surface of things, that makes absolutely no sense. His career, his life, a beautiful 25-year marriage — they were all cut short by a merciless disease that quickly ravaged his body. He conducted his last concert in late December — a Nutcracker — and was dead on February 19th. Someone who had every right to be bitter and angry and filled with self-pity was instead filled with peace and joy and love.

And as I found myself wondering where Jesus could possibly be in all of this, it took the dying man himself to make me see precisely where Jesus was. Watching my father’s response, his unwavering faith in the face of death, opened my eyes to the fact that Jesus was just as present with him on the podium, as with our family in those last days, and in his final breath. That’s where Jesus was; right there with all of us. In the tears, in the laughter, in the spark of my father’s eyes even as he neared the end, in the memories, in the grief.

My father’s last words were “Good things are happening.” Which, again, on the surface of things sounds like a cruel joke. But at another level it was unadulterated truth. Because he had entered into the peace which passes all understanding; he was ready to enter into God’s everlasting arms of mercy. Amidst the pain, he was able to give thanks for the abundant blessings of this life. Despite the seeming unfairness of it all, he was able to be at peace with God, with his family, and with his friends. He knew that he was soon to be with Christ, that Jesus was calling him not to a bitter end, but to life eternal. Good things were indeed happening.

And while I didn’t know it at the time, this experience of glimpsing resurrection in the midst of death propelled me onto my vocational path. It’s an experience that continues to sustain me and give me hope even in life’s darkest moments. And this is what we celebrate on All Souls’ Day — the living hope of life snatched out of the jaws of death. That’s what Jesus does for us. He allows us to wonder, right along with St. Paul, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” And he reminds us that out of darkness there is light; out of pain there is joy; and out of death there is life.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2015

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All Souls’ Sunday 2013

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy Schenck on November 10, 2013 (All Souls’ Sunday)

No one knows what Jesus actually looked like. That’s kind of odd isn’t it? This man who caused quite a stir in ancient Palestine and was either adored or reviled and no one thought to do a quick sketch? Nowhere in the Bible is there even a physical description of Jesus. He’s been worshipped for thousands of years by people who have no idea if he had a long thin nose or a square jaw or broad shoulders.

That’s not to say there haven’t been hundreds of thousands of paintings and statues and icons done of his likeness. But we don’t know what he actually looked like. One thing is for certain — he wasn’t the blond-haired, blue-eyed, handsome teen idol he’s often depicted as in bad art. He likely had a dark, olive-skinned complexion made even darker by the hot sun as he travelled throughout the countryside. I can’t imagine his beard was the neatly-trimmed variety we often see in commemorative plates put out by the Franklin Mint. Not only were there no electric hand-held trimmers, Jesus likely would have followed the Jewish law requiring males to “not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” And anyway Jesus doesn’t strike me as the vain metro-sexual type, overly concerned with grooming and hair products and image. His lifestyle didn’t allow for it, nor did his outlook and philosophy on life.

I’ve been thinking about Jesus’ appearance in the context of our All Souls’ commemoration because of a line I remembered from the Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis’ book A Grief Observed. This was written in the aftermath of his wife’s tragic death as a way of surviving the intense, overwhelming grief that gripped his soul. Out of this raw period in his life, we’re given the gift of a brilliant man wrestling with the fundamental issues of life, death, and faith in the midst of loss. To me, it’s still the best book ever written on the subject of grief and I’ve found it personally helpful over the years.

51kt4-naFSLOne of the things Lewis writes about is the difficulty he has, while in the throes of grief, of picturing his late wife in his mind’s eye. “I have no photograph of her that’s any good” he writes. “I cannot even see her face distinctly in my imagination.” This isn’t uncommon. Alive, we see loved ones from every conceivable angle and in all sorts of situations. But these aren’t static images; they’re the dynamic, moving pictures of relationship. From personal experience, I would, of course, recognize my late father if he walked through my front door. Visualizing his face when I close my eyes is agonizingly difficult, however. Except on those rare but sweet occasions he materials in my dreams and seems vividly alive.

To live is to grieve. I’m not sure if anyone famous said this but the phrase kept popping into my head this week. To live is to love and to live is to lose and to lose is to grieve thus to live is to grieve. You can’t experience the fullness of life without losing loved ones. That’s not a great news flash but it’s important to acknowledge that grief is an integral part of the human condition, one we can’t avoid.

At the beginning of this liturgy we remembered all of the people that we have loved and lost over the years. And if our collective thoughts could have somehow been projected onto a screen we would have experienced a kaleidoscope of images and faces and interactions and emotions ranging from peace to anger to joy to bitterness to deep pain to acceptance to love. Grief is the rawest of human emotions — it affects us emotionally, spiritually, and physically. It can grab us when we least expect it, triggered by an image or a smell or a particular object.

But here’s where faith comes in — not to minimize our emotions but to give them context and a place to heal. There’s a reason our Prayer Book calls the burial rite an “Easter liturgy.” There’s a small note at the end of the rite that states, “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy.” Which at first glance is an odd rubric. Now most funerals don’t feel like Easter Day. There aren’t any big hats or marshmallow Peeps; there’s not an Easter egg hunt on the front lawn after the service. And indeed, when we bury a spouse or a sibling or a parent or a friend, resurrection is not foremost on our minds. Amidst the grief of losing a loved one, unparalleled joy feels distant and our minds are on a tomb that hardly feels empty. But in the Christian faith, death cannot be separated from resurrection. Death opens the gate of eternal life. So rather than a liturgy of despair, the burial rite is an affirmation of our hope in Jesus Christ. It is the fulfillment of Christ’s promise to “be with us always, even to the end of the age.” And we commend the deceased to Almighty God in “sure and certain hope of the resurrection.”

So the Christian faith teaches us that death is not the end. In our gospel reading this morning Jesus states quite clearly that “anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Death doesn’t get the last word. Which is precisely why, as we say at the end of the burial service: “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Our grief is tinged with joy — not in the midst of the open wound, perhaps, but in time we come to see that death is not the final word; that Jesus’ resurrection has taken away the bitter sting of death; and that our loved ones have joined the heavenly communion of saints that stretches through all time and space.

I can only imagine the swirl of emotions surrounding the disciples after Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection. From agony to euphoria in three days and then gathering together and trying to piece together and remember all the things he said and did, trying and sometimes failing to remember exactly what he looked like. But their profound grief is something we can all relate to; it’s something that connects us to the disciples in a very real way.

For me, not knowing what Jesus looked like actually enhances my faith rather than diminishing it. Because when we stare into the eyes of Christ we see our true selves reflected back to us. We see someone who is loved and forgiven and saved. So I wouldn’t spend too much energy on weather Jesus had a full beard or a goatee; whether he was 5’8” or 5’11”; or whether his hair was curly or straight. The important thing is that Jesus came into the world as God in human form and that faith in him transforms us from people of despair into people of hope.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2013