Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I have a confession to make. I have long appreciated well-crafted art with whose apparent or even explicit message and underlying worldview I fundamentally disagree. That is, so long as those pieces remain niche, so long as they don’t enter the mainstream. This is not me confessing to being a “hipster”–that is, the sort of person who defines himself by liking marginal culture so long as it remains marginal. It is a much more pernicious sin–probably a combination of intellectual elitism, cultural chauvinism, and paternalism.

So, for example, I appreciate the plays of Samuel Becket, the films of Joel and Ethan Coen, and the early novels of Haruki Murakami, but the idea of somebody consuming such literature without the tools to reject their ideological implications worries me. I was, thus, of two minds when Annie and I went to see the University of Findlay’s production of Jean Genet’s Les Bonnes last month. On the one hand I was impressed that folks in the rural Midwest would produce such a thematically difficult, edgy play. On the other hand, I was a little worried about what an unsuspecting theater-goer, out for some light Sunday afternoon entertainment, might have taken away from it.

The thing that worries me about so much of what has remained inaccessible art, then, is not that it will be misunderstood if made more accessible, but that they will be embraced without a compelling, intellectually serious counterargument. This is not to say that the so-called “cultured despisers of religion” are more intellectually serious than Christian critics of culture (I generally find them to be less so) but that the latter generally don’t get jobs at The New Yorker or The Paris Review.

To cut to the chase, one of the prevailing modes of highbrow art and literature over the last three-quarters-of-a-century, has been an embrace of absurdism, particularly riffing on Albert Camus’ philosophical essay The Myth of Sisyphus. The basic idea, to grossly oversimplify it, is that the universe is meaningless and that there are three options: religious faith, suicide, or a revolt against meaningless by making one’s own meaning and finding some “happiness” in the midst of existential nothingness, and the absurdists almost invariably take this last approach.

I said that I can appreciate art on its own terms so long as it’s well made, even if I disagree with it, so long as it doesn’t enter the broader zeitgeist; so long (to fall back into my paternalistic sin) as it doesn’t lead the little ones astray. So you can guess my reaction to the tremendous box office success of last year’s Everything, Everywhere, All At Once–a beautifully shot, well-written and produced movie with humane performances, which nonetheless had at its heart this nihilistic philosophy. When we went to the theater to watch it, I thought both “this is a beautiful movie” and “this movie’s point is abhorrent.” One can hold both of these responses in tension, and perhaps I should have more trust in the average movie-goer to make the same distinction, but it does give me pause.

My concern is that the assumptions of such absurdist works has already and may become more and more the neutral position of people who would be better served by recognizing what we believe to be the truth of the matter, namely, that the universe is full of meaning (we don’t need to make it up for ourselves) and the human condition is not existentially hopeless, because there is a God who created it and us and promises us a life full of immortality, to quote The Wisdom of Solomon.

If you’re not as concerned as I that the former is becoming an apparently viable worldview for many, I’d simply note that a couple of weeks ago the Courier ran an editorial written by the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker. Parker claimed that we only live on after death so long as somebody remembers us, that she is making an effort to remember somebody who died without family or friends (itself an admirable thing to do), but that when she’s gone that person will be lost forever in the sands of time. Oh well. As often as the Courier runs letters to the editor written by cranks of various types I was certain that somebody would write in to take issue with this from a potentially embarrassing if at least putatively religious standpoint, but no. Radio silence. We can throw scripture grenades about all manner of hot-button social and political issues, but a vacuous op-ed leaves us gobsmacked.

Perhaps I should have written a letter to the editor about it, but I need to try to present myself as less of a crank than I may sometimes be. So, instead, the best response I can think of comes ready-made from this morning’s Old Testament Lesson, from the Book of Ecclesiasticus:

There are some of them who have left a name,
so that men declare their praise.
And there are some who have no memorial,
who have perished as though they had not lived;
they have become as though they had not been born,
and so have their children after them.
But these were men of mercy,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.

Here is an apparent contradiction, which I contend is no contradiction at all. There are those who have died, whose descendants have died, and been entirely forgotten. Yet they are remembered. It is only a contradiction so long as the only people capable of remembering are mortal men, doomed to die. But there is another rememberer, whose memory is perfect. That is the Lord God, who remembers both the forgotten and his own mercy, and who promises eternal life.

So, two points by way of concluding. As we do every year, we will in a few minutes remember by name the faithful departed who are near and dear to us. That is a good and appropriate thing. C.S. Lewis, in response to those who claimed that we ought not pray for the dead gives a perfect, pragmatic argument:

Of course I pray for the dead. The action is so spontaneous, so all but inevitable, that only the most compulsive theological case against it would deter me. And I hardly know how the rest of my prayers would survive if those for the dead were forbidden.

There are plenty who would quibble with this, no doubt. Just because something is intuitive doesn’t make it so, necessarily. It does, I think, mean the burden of proof rests squarely on those who suggest such a natural impulse is inappropriate, and lest I get too much into the weeds here, I’ll just say that I have not encountered a convincing repudiation of the practice.

In any event, we strive every year not to let names drop off this list. Many more names will be read than those which have been submitted over the last few weeks, and this is at least partly as a reminder that even after one has been “forgotten” to us, they are remembered by God, and the church strives to model that. But should a name inadvertently drop off through a typographic error (or should I be followed in several years by a Rector who cares more about liturgical brevity and efficiency) those names, those human beings marked with the seal of Baptism and claimed as Christ’s own forever, will indeed be remembered by the perfect rememberer, not just in some vague sense, but in the provision of eternal paradise.

Second, even before we get to the reading of the necrology, a new name will be entered into that greater and larger book, the Lamb’s Book of Life, when Lilly McConnell is baptized with water in the name of the Trinity and marked as Christ’s own for ever. This, too, is an act full of promise, the promise that as a member of Christ’s own household, she too will be remembered. Perhaps she will be among the famous men and women whom the writer of Ecclesiasticus praises, renowned for some great work or witness to the Kingdom of God as she grows (as we will promise to support her) into the full stature of Christ. Or perhaps she’ll turn out like the rest of us, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, always dependent on the love of God and his promise of salvation among the changes and chances and messiness of life in the midst of a fallen (if meaningful) universe. Either way, it doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the fact that she will belong to God, like all of us, that she will never be forgotten in that most important sense.

We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, known and unknown. Because, as the hymnwriter Lesbia Scott just reminded us, the saints of God are just folk like me and you and Lilly and the people whose names we remember at the altar and thousand of thousands whom we may have forgotten but who nonetheless were marked as Christ’s own, and whose hope is full of immortality.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.