November 1, 2019 – Eve of Commemoration of Faithful Departed
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here.
Every time we remember something we recreate that memory in our mind. Each recollection builds not purely upon the event itself but upon the last time we remembered it. Our wedding day, our child’s first step, that hurtful exchange with our friend, our father’s last few hours—each act of remembering brings a moment back into our consciousness and reassembles or reconstitutes it, allowing it to live on not only in the deepest recesses of our mind, where our brain stores away silent, unilluminated thoughts for safe keeping, but also right out in the front of our thoughts, where it still lives and breathes and shines.
The same is true for those we have loved and lost. Their memory is not static—a snapshot of the last time we saw them—but a living remembrance that comes back into our lives both when we recall them into our consciousness and, often, when they show up unexpectedly. I have heard many people who are bearing the struggle of grief tell me that they still see and hear their loved one—not only when they close their eyes but also when they are sitting quietly or eating a meal or brushing their teeth. They come to us not in a strange or spooky ways, but in an ordinary, comforting sort of way that seems natural for someone whom we love that much. Memories remain alive even if we know that the ones we hold in our hearts are no longer with us. But, when we remember those we love not only in our minds but also in the presence of God, something else is true.
“The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,” the Book of Wisdom reminds us, “and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish, they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster and their going from us to be their destruction, but they are at peace.” As people of faith, who put all of our hopes and trust in the love of God, we know that those who have died are kept alive not only in our memories but also in the unending love that God has for us. Though our experience of suffering and loss in this world is undeniably true, God has given us a vision through that suffering and beyond this life and, in Jesus Christ, has allowed us to see and know that, because of God’s love, they are not lost to us but live on in the presence of God.
Whenever we come into God’s presence, therefore, we come into their presence—not only because we cherish their memory but because the Holy Spirit brings us into the communion of all the saints and all the souls that have returned to God. Although they dwell in a plane of existence beyond our reach, as we encounter the divine, our souls are lifted into that space that is beyond space and into that time that is outside of time. And, again, because of love, we are united with them in God’s presence.
For centuries after the Reformation, our tradition rejected the practice of praying for the dead because it was thought to be a practice designed to change the status of the souls of the departed—an attempt to move them from purgatory to heaven. But, after World War I, attitudes began to shift. Millions of dead across a continent torn apart by war left twentieth-century Anglicans struggling to find a response that would be faithful both to the innumerable losses and to the theology of a Protestant church. What they discovered is what so many of us already know—that praying for those who have died is not about promoting souls from one realm of existence to another but about holding in our hearts and minds and before God those whom we have lost but still love. And that act of love and prayer, which we gather to celebrate this evening, teaches us again a truth that dwells at the very center of our faith—that in God nothing is lost and that in God we remain united to one another.