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 moved 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.
Yet 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