The Rev. Noah Van Niel
Feast of All Faithful Departed: Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 130; 1 Corinthians 15:50-58; John 5:24-27
Today we celebrate the feast of All Faithful Departed, or as it is more commonly known: All Souls’ Sunday. I want to talk about the “All” part of that. And I want to talk about the “Souls” part of that.
Our Old Testament reading this morning comes from chapter 25 of the book of Isaiah, which is a part of a section sometimes called the Isaiah apocalypse—a story of how a people feeling beaten down and broken are to be redeemed. It seems to me we are living in a country that is experiencing its own mini apocalypse, in that there are a lot of people who have been feeling broken down and beaten up and tossed aside who have found their redemption in an electoral victory. This has left the other half of the country feeling broken down, beaten up and fearful for what the future holds. I imagine that there are people from each of these camps here this morning.
But in chapter 25 verses 6-9, Isaiah outlines the following vision for what God’s restoration will look like: “On this mountain (Mt. Zion),” he writes, “the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines.” This is a banquet for all people. Not red people or blue people but all people. He continues: “And He will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.” Shrouds are garments worn in mourning, “the sheet that covers the nations” I like to think of as a cloud of sadness and anxiety that feels like was spread across the middle of our country and is now spread over the coasts of our country. But it is God’s will to eliminate those marks of mourning, those marks of separation, in the name of bringing all people together to feast and rejoice. Wiping away all tears, taking away all disgrace, swallowing up death forever. This is the vision Isaiah puts forth for a people in distress: a vision of joyous celebration and total reconciliation. A feast for All Souls.
What would it take for our country to throw this kind of dinner party right now? The concept of “All” of us being able to do anything together is what seems to have been shattered instead of a glass ceiling late on Tuesday night. We feel like we’re living in two completely different realities, two completely different countries. People of such disparate understandings of the world and our role in it. It’s as though our one nation, under God, is not as indivisible as we might have thought.
What would need to happen for us to be able to think of all again? Well, most importantly it would require that we could agree that the concept of “All” is one we should aspire to, that it is in accord with the vision that God has for humankind and our highest principles as a nation. I would need to know that I should not have to fear that because the President-elect can make fun of a reporter with upper limb differences, Vincent will be made fun of because of his upper limb difference. If I am a woman, or a person of color, or an immigrant, or a Muslim, or a member of the LGBTQ community, I would need to know that I will be respected and cared for because I am part of the all we are celebrating today. Those marginalized groups who are worried for their safety need assurance of their rightful claim to a seat at the banquet table. So it’s up to us to show whether we believe all people are deserving of dignity and respect and that they have no actual reason to fear for their safety or well-being despite the words and actions of our President-elect.
And likewise, if we are to be truly committed to the ideal of all, we must show that we have heard the cries of all those people who are feeling left behind and angry at the way the country is run. Let me be clear, that does not mean people need to make peace with factual untruths, or actions meant to demean or demoralize another person or group of people. Those are unequivocally unacceptable. There is no need to make peace with hate speech, misogyny, or racial supremacy. But to be upset at the intransigence of the way our government works, to feel like you need to scream at the top of your lungs so that people will pay attention to your suffering and your pain and your loss, to mistrust officials with a history of shady dealings—those are legitimate grievances that cannot be ignored or written off as ignorant and backward. If I am one of the millions of people who cast a red ballot, I deserve to know that I will be respected as a fellow human being, made in the image and likeness of God.
All requires compromise. Compromise requires sacrifice. Sacrifice requires work. And we’ve got a lot of work to do. But we have to believe—all of us have to believe—that it is work worth doing. That the vision God has for this world is one of reconciliation and rejoicing for all people.
And that’s where the Souls part I wanted to talk about comes in.
I think the way we can start to recover the all of our country again, is to start seeing, and looking, for the soul of each person. Today, we commemorate those people who have died whom we love, and miss, and who, each of them, had a unique, blessed, beloved soul that touched some of us in some way. We commemorate red souls and blue souls at the same time because it is in their death that we recognize that political affiliation is a shallow perspective to take when viewing another human being.
We need to see each other as divine creations, not as data points or voting blocs or interest groups. If we recognize that the other has a soul—a unique recipe of mind, heart and will that combines to make each of us unique and magnificent—we can start to appreciate them on a deeper, more intrinsic level, which leads to a level of connection and healing that is desperately needed right now.
The scary thing, the thing that has had everyone so anxious the last few months, is that this election season called into question the soul of this country. A battle was being fought over what it means to be American. When were we greatest? Who is America for? What are our common principles that we can rally around together? All of these were up for grabs.
But what troubles me even more deeply is that this election has, in its own twisted way, also called into question the soul of our humanity. What kind of people do we want to be? What virtues do we want to cultivate? What sins do we want to overcome? What kind of person do we reward with the highest office in the land?
The gravest threat to the human being, the deepest fear most of us possess, is of death. And not just death of the body, but elimination of the soul. An elimination of that which makes you, you. In the Christian religion that’s why the Resurrection is so pivotal—it speaks to the fear that our soul is not extinguished with our final breath but is lifted up in some form that is similar but different from the form it took while in our body, into the divine life of God. It is why we celebrate the faithful departed this day with white vestments and talk of eternal life.
It is when the soul is threatened that deep, existential fear is born. When what you thought you knew about your country is shaken; when what you thought you knew about humanity is called into question, it is deeply destabilizing and deeply unnerving. It seems to me something of this kind of fear is what is driving the angst in our country right now.
But allow me to offer a little bit of hope, a reminder of what the soul actually is and how it is constructed and valued. It is not external, it is internal. It is not made, it is given. It is not earned, it is instilled. It is not of humanity, it is of God. And as such, it is not subject to the changing winds of culture or politics. It is more stable, more lasting, and more resilient than anything else we possess. Our lives are liable to be molded and shaped by all sorts of forces beyond our control. But our soul—that bit of God that resides in each of us—is unchanging in that it is always pure, and righteous and good and it is always there no matter how much hatred, or anger, or worry, or fear is piled on top of it. And it will, always, have the last word. As St. Paul reminds us this morning, our soul is the part of us that is imperishable, immortal. It is the thing that takes away the sting of death and gives us victory over fear. Our souls give us reason to hope for the future because the fact of our souls guarantees a future. All Souls’ day presumes all people have souls to be commemorated. And they do. And it presumes they continue on, dwelling in the divine company of our God. Which they do.
None of us can be sure of what the future holds, but we can be sure of a future, a future in which each and every single one of us, all of us, remain graced with the divine gift of a soul. And the great mystery is that while the soul within each of us is unique, the fact of its presence in us is what binds us all together. And if we could start understanding that, and looking for the soul that lives in each of us, we could start to recover the all for our country again. Its work that has to happen on an interpersonal level and it takes time and commitment. We must be steadfast in our faith that our God desires not division but harmony. We must be immovable in our commitment to that good work. That the flag to which we pledge our allegiance may continue forever to stand for liberty and justice for all.