All Souls’ Sunday 2021

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.”


All Souls’ Sunday 2020

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.

All Souls’ Sunday

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 11, 2018 (All Souls’ Sunday)

If I really drag this sermon out, I’m reasonably confident I can still be speaking by the time the clock strikes 11:00 am. Or, as it’s been known to generations, “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.” It was at this moment 100 years ago that the armistice was signed ending World War I. The death totals from The Great War are staggering, well beyond what the human mind can even fathom. 16 million soldiers, sailors, and civilians were killed during the four-year conflict, with another 20 million injured, often in gruesome ways. It’s difficult to comprehend the horror unleashed by the first full implementation of the modern military machine: tanks, flamethrowers, poison gas, artillery, and machine guns were all introduced or perfected to deadly precision in World War I. Not to mention the diseases that ran rampant in the trenches: influenza, typhoid, dysentery, cholera.

It’s no wonder the end of the war was met with such unabashed joy and that Armistice Day has been celebrated throughout the world ever since as a symbol of peace.

I came across a story recently about an Episcopal priest in the small Central New York town of Oswego, who kept in touch with the local soldiers sent overseas during World War I. The Rev. Richmond Gesner was rector of Christ Church and he regularly corresponded with a small group of servicemen from Oswego, who found his letters a comforting reminder of home. 

Corporal Arthur Ingram was one of “Gesner’s Boys” as they came to be known. In one cpl.-arthur-ingram-281x375letter to Father Gesner, he wrote from France, “About half the time, I have been in the front line, sometimes not more than sixty yards from the enemy.” He lamented that the “once beautiful wooded country” had turned into “a shelled, broken-up, muddy mess.” And continued, “Not a twig on any tree is alive, but the one link we have with nature is the birds. . . . the more intense the bombardment, the harder they seem to sing. They just sound great in contrast with the guns. When I hear them, it seems like a promise of peace.”

“A promise of peace.” I love that phrase. Set against the terrifying sounds of war, of human beings destroying one another, the songs of the birds hold out the beautiful promise of another way. I’m reminded of the passage from the prophet Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

And the contrasting image of singing birds as a symbol of hope is taken up in the first stanza of the famous poem In Flanders Fields, written by a soldier after presiding over the funeral of a friend and fellow comrade in arms:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow; Between the crosses, row on row; That mark our place; and in the sky; The larks, still bravely singing, fly; Scarce heard amid the guns below.

As we mark All Souls’ Sunday this morning at St. John’s, Corporal Ingram’s words are also a reminder that Jesus offers us all a promise of peace. For ourselves, for our loved ones, for our world. 

It’s not a promise that things will be easy. Or that everything will go your way. Or that life won’t be full of challenge and adversity. But the promise of peace is a reminder that Jesus will be with you even to the grave and beyond. It is a promise of hope in the midst of despair; a promise of light in the presence of darkness; a promise of resurrection in the face of death. 

Grief is a sneaky emotion. We may think we’re over the loss of a loved one. The initial swirl of emotion has passed. The flurry of activity that marks the immediate aftermath of a death — the food, the planning, the friends dropping in — all fades. The looks of sympathy and words of comfort no longer come. The invitations stop and the assumption is that you’ve moved on; that life goes on; that time heals all wounds. 

And yet grief can creep back into your consciousness when we least expect it. It may be triggered by a stranger’s glance or a whiff of cologne or a change in seasons. It may be a sweet memory or a painful reminder of loss. But grief is also a marker that we remember, that we care, that the person we miss so deeply touched our lives in very real and meaningful ways. There is joy in the midst of grief, perhaps not when it’s so raw, but in time we see it. In tiny glimpses at first but then in the attitude of gratefulness for having had that special person in our life for as long as we did.

This is where faith can play an important role. Frankly, I don’t know how people face grief without it. The depth of despair must be unbearable. But faith is more than just wishful thinking. It may be comforting to think about your loved ones flying around the clouds strumming harps. But the life of resurrection is more than this. It is the blessed assurance that through faith in Jesus Christ, life is not ended but transformed into a larger life, where there is no pain or grief, but life eternal. This is the promise of peace.

One of those seemingly pie-in-the-sky ideas about death is that one day we will be reunited with our loved ones. In some cases this is comforting; in others, less so. But, again, this isn’t just something we say to make people feel better. This is the promise of peace. St. Paul writes in his First Letter to the Thessalonians, the oldest book of the New Testament from which we read this morning, “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord for ever.” 

The point is that this separation we feel from our loved ones who have died, is only temporary. And that one day, we will come face-to-face both with God and with those who have preceded us into the glory of the resurrection. This is the promise of peace. 

Today we offer up to God all those for whom we pray but see no longer. In some cases, the open wound of grief remains raw. In others, we have come to terms with the loss. Usually it’s somewhere in the middle. We often find ourselves along that continuum of deep wailing and acceptance. But in the end, grief is not linear. It dances and swirls and makes itself known in ways we least expect. If you are experiencing grief, be kind to yourself. If you are comforting someone you care about who is grieving, be understanding. But know that Jesus, the great comforter, remains with you. This is the promise of peace.

Corporal Ingram wrote that letter to Father Gesner more than two years before the armistice was signed. He was never to return to Oswego as he was wounded in France and died in an English hospital in 1917. But like all who die in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life, Ingram lived his life in that promise of peace. And like so many we meet along this continuing journey of life and faith, he points to something beyond the visible, to that promise of peace that surely does pass all understanding.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2018

All Souls’ Sunday 2017

A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of 
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on November 12, 2017 (All Souls’)

It’s an odd thing about clergy. If you ask us whether we’d rather do a wedding or a funeral, nine out of ten will tell you they’d much prefer a funeral. There are various reasons for this — there’s no mother-of-the-bride at a funeral or tipsy groomsmen; people don’t look at the liturgy as something to get through quickly so they can get to the all-night party. Or at least not as much. There’s no friend of the bride butchering St. Paul’s “Love is patient, love is kind.” And the hymns are better.

But the primary reason is that the funeral rite speaks to the very heart of the Christian CEM2247302_138513678262faith. Through it, we boldly proclaim the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In poetic language the Church tells of Christ’s triumph over death, his victory over the grave, the movement from death to new life. The good news of the gospel stands in stark relief against the raw emotions of grief. And from the pulpit clergy can speak a word of hope into heavy hearts, offering comfort, perspective, and meaning.

So it’s not that clergy are maudlin by nature; rather it’s that we find nothing so moving as sharing the light of Christ in times of darkness.

Today on All Souls’ Sunday, we enter into this heart of darkness. We remember those whom we have 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. So we bring grief — some sweet, some raw, some unresolved — with us this morning. We bring a swirl of emotions to this safe and sacred space.

And I invite you to embrace these emotions — in all their nuance and complexity — not because I want you to hurt, but to bring you into a place of even deeper relationship with the God who loves you so deeply and cares for you so dearly. You know, we worship a God wholly familiar with grief and death. This is not some foreign concept for a remote deity. One need look no further than the cross on Good Friday to see that our God is intimately familiar with the agony and pain of loss. The life and death of Jesus assures us of God’s comprehension and compassion. And there is comfort, I think, in knowing that God fully understands and relates to any emotions we may experience around the loss of a loved one. Jesus himself knew what it was to mourn a friend in Lazarus and it is in response to the news of his death news that we get the shortest and most poignant verse in the entire New Testament: “Jesus wept.”

On a day like this, our thoughts naturally go to specific people we have lost. You’ve likely been reflecting on particular individuals who have been important to you over the years and I’m aware that your own thoughts may become intertwined with my words. It may well be that God is speaking to you more through your head and heart than the sound of my voice. So if you lose some of what I’m saying this morning, that’s okay. I mean, don’t make it a habit…

But acknowledging the holiness of wandering minds, I’m going to speak a bit about the person I always think about on this day. My own father who died 25 years ago at the age of 52, an age I’m rapidly approaching myself. I’ve spoken about him in the past but the upshot is that he was a symphony orchestra conductor who died just as he was on the brink of a major international career — he won a Grammy for a recording he did with the Chicago Symphony that he never lived to see. But I wanted to speak about the circumstances surrounding his death. It was cancer that got him; melanoma. They thought they’d removed it with surgery but when it came back it returned with a vengeance. He conducted his last concert, a Nutcracker of all things, at the end of December and was dead by mid-February.

What I think about most is the manner in which he died. He was at home and hospice was involved. But it was the peace with which he died that stands out. He had every reason to be bitter and angry — on the surface of things the timing was just so cruel. His career was taking off, his children were finally leaving the nest, his 25-year marriage remained the bedrock of his life. And yet that life itself was slipping away.

Despite all odds, there it was: that deep, abiding sense of peace. Someone who had every right to be angry and filled with self-pity was instead filled with peace and joy and love. I couldn’t understand it at first. I was filled with all those darker emotions. And the rage and anger at the situation felt good and righteous! But you just couldn’t hold on to them in the presence of that serenity.

So where did it come from? This inconceivable and all-encompassing peace? Well, it was faith, of course. Which wasn’t something that came naturally or automatically to my dad. Despite a lifetime of church going, it wasn’t until the last few months that the words he had been proclaiming all those years — in prayers and creeds and hymns — were experienced first-hand as the peace and freedom of true relationship with Jesus Christ.

He had entered into that peace of God which passes all understanding. 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 his Lord; that Jesus was calling him not to a bitter end, but to life eternal.

And after he died, as I was in the throes of profound grief and sadness, I knew that I wanted that same sense of peace. Not as something to possess but as something to experience and to share with others. Which is in many ways why I do what I do.

Here’s another odd thing about clergy — or at least this particular member of the clergy. I like walking in cemeteries. Fortunately I have a dog to accompany me, so I don’t look like some creepy priest haunting the tombstones. But it’s something I like to do because I find myself having my own personal All Souls’ service. I think about people I’ve known and lost — friends and family members. I think about parishioners I’ve buried and the connections I’ve made walking with families through the valley of the shadow of death. And I think about that peace that truly does pass all understanding. Sometimes it remains elusive but at other times it’s wonderfully pervasive.

And I’m reminded that the good news for you and me is that death is not the end. The heart of what we believe resounds in the Easter message. Death no longer has dominion over us. We know that our Redeemer lives. The sting of death has been taken away by Jesus’ victory over the grave. Which opens up for us, again and again, that freedom and joy and abiding sense of peace.

© The Rev. Tim Schenck

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

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