All Souls Sunday

First Parish in Norwell
November 2, 2003

When love beckons to you, follow her,
Though her ways are hard and steep.
And when her wings enfold you yield to her,
Though the sword hidden among her pinions may wound you. . . .

For even as love crowns you so shall she crucify you.
Even as she is for your growth so is she for your pruning. . . .

~adapted from The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran

Mysterious and Eternal Spirit, we think now of those whose love has crowned and crucified us. In loving them we have fulfilled our most sacred charge. In losing them we have been made more fully human. Let our hurt and our losses make of us a compassionate people. May we be present to our pain,
and the pain of others with courage "coeur-age" – full of heart.
We walk in this world but briefly: let it be also mindfully, and gratefully.
Minister to us now in the hour of our memory. Make us one with those men, women and children -- those flawed and frustrating, ornery and difficult, exhausting and disappointing beloveds whose mortal lives you gave us to share. We know they are perfected in you, free of the confusion of human life.
In the silence, grant us a moment of their peace: the peace that passeth understanding. Amen.

THE SERMON "They Are With Us Still" Rev. Victoria Weinstein

I saw a beautiful musical a few nights ago. Perhaps some of you have seen it. It is "The Secret Garden" based on the beloved novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, a story many of you may have had read or have read to you long ago, and perhaps read to a child yourself. "The Secret Garden" is about ghosts. It is about our relationship to the dead – a relationship that doesn' t end with the physical absence of our loved ones, but a relationship that is often characterized by longing, and sometimes by anger and regret. Our relationship to our dead is complicated. They seem to be one-sided relationships but how can we know for sure? Maybe they aren' t one-sided at all.

In "The Secret Garden," Mary Lennox is a ten year-old, proper British child whose parents and servants and entire known world of acquaintances die in the cholera epidemic in colonial India in 1906. She is sent to live with her Uncle Archibald at the foreboding, haunted Misselthwaite Manor on the moors of Yorkshire, England. Just as young Mary is grieving terribly, so is her uncle. He has never recovered from the death of his wife Lily ten years earlier – Mary' s aunt Lily who died in childbirth. In this scene from "The Secret Garden" (adapted from Hodgson Burnett' s novel by Marsha Norman), Mary comes upon her uncle in the ballroom where we have just seen him utterly lost in a dream of his wife, and boldly asks him about the afterlife:

MARY: But I want to know what happens to dead people.
ARCHIBALD: Yes. Well. Quite natural that you should wonder that. (A moment.) We bury them. We put their things away, we remember things they said. We… talk to them sometimes . . . in our minds, of course…
MARY: Can they hear us?
ARCHIBALD: (And now he seems angry at himself.) And then one morning, when we think we' re over them at last, we find ourselves in the ballroom, knowing full well we have been here all night, and we draw the painful conclusion that we have been dancing with them again.
MARY: I don' t understand.
ARCHIBALD: Nor will you ever. They' re not gone, you see. Just dead.

They' re not gone, you see. Just dead.

It' s one of the wisest bits of dialogue I have heard in a long time. Certainly it caught me quite off guard on Thursday night, and I found myself brought to tears of recognition. Isn' t this what we need to know about our relationship to those gone before us into the unknown territory of death? They' re not gone, just dead. Perhaps this is all we need to know.

Each of us has at least two major and unavoidable spiritual tasks pertaining to grief and loss in our lives. The first task is to make a working relationship with the death of others we have known, and the second task is to make a working relationship with our own death.

To make a working relationship with death simply means that we learn how to live with the grief that the final parting of death creates. Simple but not easy. To create this working relationship with death doesn' t mean that we aren' t allowed to be incapacitated by sorrow. It doesn' t mean that we won' t hurt, or that we won' t be irrevocably changed by our losses. It doesn' t mean we are required never to be afraid of death -- our own, or others' . It means that we learn how to remain engaged with life even when terribly aware of the finitude of it all.

I am as afraid of dying as anyone. Lately, when my thoughts turn to my own mortality I think to myself, "Well, I suppose I' ll eventually get to do this thing that every single person in the world gets to do." There is somehow tremendous comfort in remembering that.

Sharon Salzberg tells the story of Kisa Gautami, an Indian woman who lived at the same time as the Buddha. Kisa Gautami' s child died and she went insane with grief, carrying his body through the streets, begging holy person after holy person to restore her child to life.

"Finally she came to the Buddha and begged him to bring her baby back to her.

The Buddha agreed to bring her baby back to life – on one condition: ‘You must bring me a mustard seed from a house in which there has been no death.' And so Kisa Gautami began her search, still carrying with her the body of her child. She went from house to house, asking at each for a mustard seed. As the occupants would turn from their door to fetch a seed in answer to this strange request, Kisa Gautami would say to them, ‘Wait a minute. Has anyone in your family died? The mustard seed must be from a house in which there has been no death.' Each time the response was the same: ‘That' s impossible. Certainly not here.' As she went on, hearing the same answer over and over, a change came over Kisa Gautami. She no longer felt so alone and isolated in her grief. She returned home to bury her child, then joined the Buddha to become a nun. It is said that after some time of practice she became fully enlightened."
(Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, pp. 114-5).

So we do our best navigating the new territory of life without the loved one or ones, and we teach each other what we' ve learned about coping with death. Religious communities, with their concern with what is ultimate and eternal, make it their particular mission to provide a place to do this. In this church, Karen Kimball leads a support group for those who have lost loved ones to suicide. Compassionate Friends is a local group for parents whose children have died. Widows and widowers in our congregation got together last spring to talk about how they re-fashioned their lives when spouses died.

Sometimes people meet with me individually to process through the reality of death, and grief. Many times, what the bereaved want to know is, where do I put my love now? What do I do with this interrupted relationship? Am I supposed to end it? If so, when?

May Sarton wrote some of the best words I know in response to this question, in her poem "All Souls." In this poem, often read at funerals and memorial services, Sarton wrote, "What has been once so interwoven cannot be raveled, nor the gift ungiven. What has been plaited cannot be unplaited – only the strands grow richer with each loss."

There is no need to end our relationship with our dead, for they are still ours: still ours to struggle with, to learn from, and to love. There is no timeline for grieving them and there is no finitude to loving them. Through time – as long a time as it takes – we take their dreams and their desires and their issues and integrate them into our own; we make use of whatever hard-won wisdom they were lucky enough to gain while they lived. We continue to forgive them, if forgiveness is called for. We continue the work of their hands.

A member of this congregation said about the now-dead churchmen and women she has known over many years, "The people from this church who are dead aren' t dead because I' m doing their work. Those people are not finally gone. They' re not dead because I can still move my hands."

Death isn' t therefore something we are called to get over. We are called to walk together as gentle companions through the valley of the shadow of death; a realm that is shadowed, I am convinced, not because it is frightening and bereft of God' s presence, but shadowy for its mystery, for its sanctity, for its utter universality.

I will close with these words from our Minister Emeritus, who, over his 31-year ministry in this church had the occasion to preside over the memorial services of many of our church saints. The Reverend Dick Fewkes writes, "On All Souls, we remember our beloved dead not as ghosts who haunt, though haunt our imaginations they may do, but as members of the Beloved Community, whose precious life is Life of our life, Soul of our soul, Heart of our hearts, lingering thought of our minds. We count up the treasures they have left – gifts of life, and love and wisdom – and consecrate them to our continued use and progress, that we in turn may add them "to the ever-growing treasures of the common life."

Let us now form our Circle of Remembrance.