Wars, Elections, and All Souls
How is everyone this morning?
I wondered how I might need to open this sermon on the first Sunday we join in worship after our midterm elections. But it turns out that no matter what your political affiliation, you ended up getting some of what you wanted and some of what you didn’t want.
And you are more than likely asking yourself: given the situation we are in now as a nation, what is our role as people of faith? How can we go forward together with integrity and compassion?
The election is of course not the only thing on our minds and hearts on this Feast of All Faithful Departed, also known as All Souls’ Day.
We gather together today to remember those we love and see no longer, the people who have formed us, loved us, hurt us and healed us, called us to deeper faith and blessed us with their lives.
Some of those people died far too early, others lived long and rewarding lives.
Some lingered through painful illnesses, some were taken away swiftly.
Some of our beloved departed are vivid in our memories, with years of stories and songs and laughter that come to mind.
Others are only imagined composites we’ve pieced together because they are too many generations back for us to have known them ourselves.
In a confluence of spiritual ideas that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit, today we walk through the aftermath of a hotly contested election and celebrate All Souls’ Day on an important historical anniversary. Today is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
On November 11, 1918, at 11 a.m.—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month—the guns fell silent and what was known at that time as the War to End All Wars concluded at last.
Place yourself, if you can, in the shoes of an Indiana Episcopalian on November 11, 1918.
It is very likely that a family member or friend, certainly a member of your church, has fought and died on the distant fields of Europe.
It is also very likely that you or someone you know is against the war and has been from the start, while you or someone you know felt America’s participation in the war was vitally important.
As ships continued to arrive at Ellis Island from Europe and San Francisco from China, immigration was a bitterly divisive issue in America in 1918, with the primary immigrant groups being labeled as undesirable and even subhuman.
Women did not have the right to vote, but more and more of them were demanding it.
Lynchings of people of color still occurred all over the country.
The political climate in 1918 America was volatile. In short, it would have felt very familiar to us today.
So you, the 1918 Indiana Episcopalian, arrive for worship on All Souls’ Day, knowing that the war is over. What feelings wash over you?
Relief, certainly. You will have the chance to welcome home the men and women, the soldiers and nurses and other service members whom you love.
But there are many others who will not be coming home. And as you hear their names read out during the All Souls’ remembrance, your heart is probably full of grief and questions.
Just war or not, almost everyone agreed that the loss of life in World War I was extravagantly wasteful to the point of being almost unimaginable.
We, with the benefit of hindsight, know that a Great Depression is around the corner, and a few short years later, the Second World War would erupt directly out of the problems the first war could not solve.
And yet important progress for women’s suffrage, the labor movement, and even racial justice lay around the corner too, not to mention medical and technological innovations that would alleviate suffering around the globe.
The point is that every generation before us has grappled with seemingly insoluble social problems, political divides that feel like chasms.
They, just like us today, got enmeshed in long wars whose purpose seemed to fade even as the death toll mounted.
Their fear of the outside world seemed to climb along with their mistrust of their neighbors.
Even the call for civil discourse, while noble, seemed then and seems today like a pale solution for the deeply wounded soul of a people.
And yet the Feast of All Souls calls us to a much wider perspective on a much bigger story.
Last week we remembered the saints, the heroes of the faith who inspired us with their sacrifices and greatness.
Today we remember the close-to-home saints, our beloved departed who took something from us when they died, and yet left behind something infinitely more rich.
And as we read their names aloud in worship, we sanctify their stories. These faithful souls that we name today measure up with every bit of the worthiness of the great saints we remembered last Sunday, even though their stories may be known by only a few.
And that is the deepest thing we hold in common with the 1918 Indiana Episcopalian, or the 1818 Indiana Episcopalian, or any of the people of God who have gathered year after year for thousands of years in the simple rhythms of faith.
Christians in the catacombs of Rome lit candles in memory of their loved ones, even as war and politics raged around them, at times threatening to consume them and dissolve the very threads that bind society together.
What did they hold on to?
The same thing that we do: the infinite promises of God that speak to us through scripture. The words of faith.
Listen to the words of our text from Isaiah:
“On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples, a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.”
We read in First Thessalonians: “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. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.”
Jesus himself speaks to us from the Gospel of John: “Very truly, I tell you, 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. Very truly, I tell you, the hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
Death is not the last word, not in 2018, not in 1918, not in 1518, not in 518.
When we pray for All Faithful Departed today, when we light candles in the darkness, we are making a pledge of hope.
We are saying that when the times are difficult and when the times are joyful, we will speak the words of faith.
When relationships are in harmony and when they are in conflict, we will speak the words of faith.
When our political party is on top or on the bottom, we will speak the words of faith.
When war is declared or peace is declared, we will speak the words of faith.
When injustice seems insurmountable and when real progress is made, we will speak the words of faith.
And the words of faith that lie deepest in our hearts are the names of the people who loved us.
So let us speak them now.
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