ALL SAINTS DAY
A sermon preached by Brian Mason
at the First Universalist Unitarian Church of Wausau
on Sunday, October 28, 2018
Reading: “Kissing the Dead” by Marisa Silver
In the Song of Solomon (8:6), the wise poet writes:
Set me as a seal upon your heart,
as a seal upon your arm;
for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
I find it fitting that the Song of Solomon is most commonly read at weddings. After all, one of the things that made Solomon wise was that he admitted he wasn’t wise at all. Solomon never longed for fame and riches; he longed for wisdom alone. Wisdom is one of those rare things that cannot be taught. It is a gift of time and experience, and that rare ability we have to learn from our many mistakes. But the Song of Solomon isn’t a wisdom book like Proverbs or Ecclesiastes; rather it is a poem about love and desire. It meditates on love’s enduring mysteries; how we feel more complete when we sacrifice our wants and needs for that of another; how our own lives are diminished when someone we love suffers an illness, struggles through addiction, or worst of all, precedes us in death.
The great writer Frederick Buechner wrote somewhere, “When you love somebody, it is no longer yourself who is the center of your own universe. It is the one you love who is. You forget yourself. You deny yourself. You give of yourself, so that by all the rules of arithmetical logic there should be less of yourself than there was to start with. Only by a curious paradox there is more. You feel at last you are really yourself.” True love demands that we give a part of ourselves away, but in so doing it makes us larger than we were before.
If we’re lucky we get to live this reality at some point. For some of you, love’s great and never-ending education started in high school, that odd land of developing human emotions, which is often a testing ground for romantic love. Most of us gave a little love away in those days only to have it walked on, which resulted in our first exposure to a cracked, if not broken heart. College or young adulthood, that sprawling, unsupervised prairie of raging hormones, continues this baptism by fire. Love and its process are hard to define, but it seems to grow slowly and secretly.
Most of us are familiar with the process: somehow the person you went bowling with and stayed up until morning talking to becomes the very object of your every desire. Somehow the little kid who kept you up all night with the croup and puked in your bed makes you feel whole. Somehow the sister or the brother who serially dates the most annoying people you’ve ever met can make you feel at home no matter where you are. Humankind longs to be transformed, and love is a great transformation.
Only in love can we give of ourselves and somehow come away feeling we are more than we were before, and more who we really are.
Today we are celebrating All Saints and Souls’ Day, the annual commemoration that officially falls on Thursday and Friday, respectively, which honors the souls of all the departed. Death is that great democratic fact that comes for all of us, whether rich or poor, liberal or conservative, clever or foolish. In the Dhammapada, the Buddha reminds his listeners, “There is nowhere you can hide from death—not in skies, not in the mountains, not in the depths of the sea.” In other words, none of us are getting out of here alive.
It is suggested that living with death in mind adds urgency and seriousness to someone’s life. How might we live differently were we to consider today our last? Most of us don’t do this, of course. We choose to plan our lives as far out in advance as possible. There’s no denying the advantages in making detailed plans. But a life well planned doesn’t equal a life well lived.
The sweetest parts of life tend to slip in through the cracks like dust and sunlight. Sometimes we feel most alive loafing about, watching sunlight slip through leaves; sometimes we feel most in love staying in bed, trading a perfectly warm, sunny day for cuddles and giggles. Sometimes we feel at peace with our hands in the dirt, planting flowers we know will be dead in months—for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
In the psalmist’s 39 song, the poet prays unto the “Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am.” Here the poet is thinking about the brevity of life, and how, when compared to the earth and stars and sky, life is just a brief span of time. So much life preceded our arrival, and so much life will follow long after we’re gone. Yet, here we are.
I can remember one terrible Saturday night when I worked as a hospital chaplain that eight people died. I traveled all fifteen floors of the hospital, going from room-to-room baptizing children and praying for the dead or nearly dead. By the time I left that next morning there wasn’t a prayer or an ounce of hope left in me. And yet as I walked out of the hospital, after a night filled with only tears and sadness I was met with a bright and radiant sun and a crystal-clear blue sky.
I found in that moment a sense of hope. Even though losing someone makes it hard to know how to carry on, there is something beautiful about life’s persistence.
In my first year as minister here I officiated no less than six memorial services, three of which were for members of this congregation: First, Jack Williams, then Diane Ninnemann, and, most recently, Bob Ringstad.
Jack, Diane, and Bob all loved this church. Jack was, by my estimate, a classical churchman, a true believer in service and stewardship; Diane was lover of this church’s community, a Buddhist in practice who enjoyed having lunch with the minister and hearing a sermon from time-to-time; Bob was a thoroughgoing believer in the necessity of the church in society to fight the evils of injustice and intolerance. Jack, Diane, and Bob went to church until their bodies or minds prevented them from doing so. The three of them couldn’t be different in temperament and experience. But each of them loved life, even as they neared death. All of them wanted a similar message conveyed at their memorials, which was: So long, I love you, and live well.
And all of them, in their own way, invested a portion of their lives to ensure this church’s eternal renewal. In so doing, their names and legacies have joined the great cathedral of saints who went before them, and those who will follow in their paths.
For 148 years people have worshiped as the First Universalist Church of Wausau, and here in this very sanctuary for more than 100 years. They chose to marry and dedicate their children here; they mourned their mothers and grandchildren here, and said goodbye to fathers and brothers here. They prayed and cried and laughed in those same pews. The same sun that shows through the painted windows shines on you now.
A church this old means we have more dead members than living ones. Knowing that memories of the dead outweigh the memories of the living is a frightening thought. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit there is a part of me that fears death.
And though I know death will come, I refuse to give in to my fear; doing so would make an idol of it, and I refuse to worship fear.
To live in fear of death clouds one’s vision for the sacred and eternal now. We mourn the dead out of honor and respect. Because in so doing the dead tell us a little something about living. They show us that there’s no use worrying about dying. After all, there’s a race that needs running.
But the dead teach us more than just perseverance. They teach us that we need one another.
No tree, nor rock or flower will miss you when you’re gone. Nature’s indifference to human life serves as proof of our need for one another.
We need one another to greet us when we come into this world, to nurse and feed us, to clothe and comfort us. We need someone to run cool water over our fevered heads, to teach us to get up when we fall down, to hold us when we can’t stand up, and cry with us when our worlds fall apart. We need one another so that when the end draws near, we can fold into someone’s loving embrace as our bodies and minds go.
Let us bear in our minds the memories of all the faithful departed, especially those who lived with a graciousness of spirit and an abundance of hope. Let us lift them up in our hearts now, for the only thing strong as death is love.
From Buechner’s Wishful Thinking.
Richard Hooper, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna & Lao Tzu (New York: Bristol Park Books, 2012), 147.