November 2: All Souls Day

Tyson Conner is a lay preacher at St. Hilda St. Patrick and a licensed mental health counselor. His sermon for All Souls Day was based on the manuscript below and preached as a response to Wisdom 3.1-9.

From our reading this evening, listen to Wisdom: The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. – Wisdom of Solomon 3:1

It came to pass that Keanu Reeves went on a late-night talk show to promote a new movie. He bantered with the host. They told stories and made jokes.  Everyone seemed to be having a good time. In the run up to the commercial break, the host made a sudden shift in conversation. “Keanu Reeves,” He said, “What happens after we die?” The crowd laughed. 

From our reading, listen: In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster– Wisdom 3:2

Keanu Reeves paused to take in the question and wait (like a good performer) for the laugh break to end. Then he said, “I know that the ones who love us will miss us.” There was a moment of quiet. The laughter stopped and the host and audience were still. But there were ads to throw to, so the host did just that, assuring us all that they’d be right back after this.

Listen to Wisdom: Their going from us seemed to be their destruction, but they are at peace. – Wisdom 3:3

The crowd’s laughter is understandable. Keanu’s reputation as a chilled-out California beach bum contrasts sharply with the existential and profound question. Perhaps some of the more pop-culture savvy of the audience would have known that Keanu Reeves’ personal life has been marked by grief and struggle; his only child was stillborn; a few years later his partner died in a car accident; his sister suffers from long-term cancer. Whether these biographical data points were in the host’s mind when he asked the question is more than we can know. I suspect they might have been present in Keanu’s mind as he formulated his answer.

Listen: For though in the sight of others they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. – Wisdom 3:4

It is said that grief is the process that allows trauma to become suffering. Trauma is inexplicable, painful, confusing. It doesn’t make sense. Suffering is equally painful, but it is explicable. It can be made sense of. In the initial blindingly cold impact of loss that envelops us when we realize the fact of a loved one’s death, the overwhelming pain is an all-encompassing trauma. The world is broken now, and it will not be fixed. This is the moment in which, famously, Jesus wept. 

Listen: Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; – Wisdom 3:5

What happens after someone dies? Those of us that love them miss them very much. We weep and suffer. Their absence in our hearts, minds, and lives aches like a childhood injury that our bodies know long after memory fades. In missing them, remembering them, continuing to love them, we find bittersweet fruits in good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, poured into our laps. We keep connected to them, and though the connection is painful, it soothes the mourning soul.

Listen: like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. – Wisdom 3:6

My great grandmother was dying the year I went off to college. Before I left, she gave me her bible, the one that survived the fire. She said I’d have more use of it than she would. A few nights before I moved away, I had a dream that she was standing in a meadow of tall grass and wildflowers, surrounded by farm equipment, no longer needed, left to rust. The evening sun was gentle on her unwrinkled face and closed eyes. Her arms were out at her side and a soft breeze blew through her brown hair. She died two months later.

Listen: In the time of their visitation they will shine forth and will run like sparks through the stubble. – Wisdom 3:7

The year after I graduated from college, I was at a Chinese restaurant with my family. My grandparents and parents talked about my great-grandmother as if she were a person. They didn’t talk about her the way we talk about the dead, somber and full of reverence, respect, and grief. They just spoke easily about her habits, her words, her actions, her loves, and her failings. I watched this conversation unfolding and I thought to myself, “this is what immortality looks like.”

Listen: They will govern nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will reign over them forever. – Wisdom 3:8

Today we remember those who have died. Today we miss them very much. Today, we participate in a part of their immortality. The promise of the cross is the promise of suffering, our God does not remove the reality of loss from our lives. The promise of the empty tomb is the promise of resurrection. Christ, risen from the dead, trampling down death by death promises that death is not the end. Our readings today speak to the promise of eternity. Christ’s resurrection is our resurrection, and our loved ones resurrection as well. The victory shared for all humankind.

Listen: Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect. – Wisdom 3:9

But, we are not in eternity. Not yet. We, created, temporal, limited beings, we creatures, we divine image bearers experience life through our limited lens. Our longing for eternity that we glimpse through the divine inside ourselves and our neighbor exists in tension with the felt reality of our lived experience, grounded in time and place and physics and matter. Here lies one of the great mysteries of our faith. We know that we die, and we know that death is not death. We miss those we have lost. We look for the day when we will see them again.

Our longing for those we have lost is evidence of our love. Our tears are sacred, as is our laughter. Those who have died live in our memories and in Christ. Tonight, we hold tight to both sides of this irreconcilable mystery. We do not abandon our grief for the sake of easy soothing and therapeutic theology. Neither do we abandon God’s promises for the sake of living in the inexplicable trauma our limited beings know so well. 

Listen to the wisdom of Keanu Reeves: When we die, those who love us will miss us. Listen to the Wisdom of Solomon: The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them.

Listen and know, all wisdom comes from God.

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