This Fall I have been reflecting a lot on the inevitability of change. Fall is my favorite season, especially here in Minneapolis: gorgeous trees in all their autumn fabulousness line the Mississippi River. Bright blue skies fade to glorious late afternoon light and brilliant, colorful sunsets. Chilly mornings where I can see my breath lead into comfortable afternoon walks and on the first crisp Fall day of the year, even something as mundane as waiting at the bus stop feels suddenly magical and full of possibility.
Given my real love of Fall, I was disappointed to realize a few months ago that I would be busy or traveling for much of late September and early October. Between some work commitments, social obligations, a wedding in Arkansas, and an in-person board meeting in Ohio, early Fall was filled with good things – just not good things that involved getting outside in Minnesota. Usually, in late September and early Fall I try to go apple picking, go up North to Lake Superior, have a bonfire in the backyard with friends, even just walk around lakes and parks in the city. But my busy schedule meant that I was unable to do most of that at all this year, and what I was able to do didn’t happen until late October – just last weekend.
Almost obsessively, when I found myself stuck inside, working, I constantly refreshed the “peak colors” tracker on the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources website. As more and more regions across the state landed in “peak season” or “near peak season” I found myself praying that nature would slow down, would wait to enter “peak season” until I, personally, could enjoy it.
I was reminded, over and over again, by the Minnesota DNR “peak colors” tracker and by looking at the gorgeous maple tree in my backyard, that nature doesn’t work that way. The earth does not slow down – or speed up – to meet my needs. Change happens, in all of creation, in a way and at a speed that is almost entirely uncontrollable. My choice is not if, when, or how change will happen, but rather if, when, and how I will respond.
Today in worship we honor All Saints Day and All Souls Day, which, to me, have everything to do with inevitable change. Traditionally, All Saints’ Day is celebrated on November 1 and All Souls Day on November 2. The distinction between the two, historically, is that All Saints’ Day honored specifically those faithful people canonized by the institutional church and All Souls’ Day honors all of our beloved dead. Today, we blur those lines, knowing that there are many saints – wise and holy ancestors – whose sainthood will never be formally recognized due to their race, class, gender, sexuality, or politics, and that many who are formally recognized as saints have caused great harm through colonization, racism, anti-semisism, and more.
All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day are largely believed to be a Christianized adaptation – so ordered by Pope Gregory III in the eighth century – of the ancient pagan festival of Samhain (Saw-win). Samhain (saw-win) is a pagan religious festival originating from an ancient Celtic spiritual tradition. In modern times, Samhain (saw-win) is usually celebrated from October 31 to November 1 to welcome in the harvest and usher in “the dark half of the year.” Celebrants believe that the barriers between the physical world and the spirit world break down during Samhain, allowing more interaction between humans and denizens of the Otherworld. This is also known as a “thinning of the veil” between worlds and between the living and the dead. As many will say this time of year, “this is a time when the veil is thin.”
Our Scriptures today speak of this balance between worlds, this anticipation and coming to terms with inevitable change. Our reading from the Book of Wisdom – which is in the Catholic bible but not the Protestant bible – tells the story of the other side of the veil. From our side of the veil, the passing of the dead is painful: “an affliction,” our scripture says, a “punishment” and “utter destruction.” But, Wisdom’s author tells us, that is only one and a very human perception. On the other side of the veil, we are told, our beloved dead are at peace. We are told that our dear ones are free from torment, in the hands of our loving God, and greatly blessed. My favorite line from this passage comes toward the end: “in the time of visitation these souls shall shine, shall dart about as sparks through stubble.” I can only think that visitation is now, the time when the veil is thin, when we feel – even worlds apart – especially intimate.
I have to admit, I don’t always know what I think happens after death. I grew up with an idea of a very white heaven in the sky, where a very white and very male God welcomed me to a kind of boring, samey-same universe, part amusement park and part cruise ship. As I’ve grown older and as I’ve faced more loss in my life, especially the loss of my grandma Sharon and grandpa Mike, that idea of heaven no longer fits me. As my love of disability theology grows, I’m increasingly unsure I want a heaven without bodies and minds. As my understanding of racial justice grows, I’m increasingly unsure I want a heaven that is just so white. Here is where I trust the mystery of the veil: I may be close to it, but not quite through it, not quite able to perceive what is happening on the other side.
Our second reading, from the first letter of John, speaks to this mystery, this faithful uncertainty, as well. “We are God’s children now,” he writes, “and it has not yet been made clear what we will become.” I feel this, deeply: it has not yet been made clear what we will become. I feel this strongly with death – it has not yet been made clear to me what, who, or how we become through death – and, also, strongly with life. It has not yet been made clear to me what I will become through all of the inevitable changes of this world: the political changes, environmental changes, familial and social changes, through changes of joy and changes of pain, changes of loss and growth and learning and forgetting. These changes, the changes that make me who I will become, are inevitable. My choice is, again, not if, when, or how change will happen, but rather if, when, and how I will respond.
Death, itself, is an example of an inevitable change. As a disabled person in relationship with many disabled people, I am frequently reminded of how entirely mortal each and every one of us are. So many of my friends are in bodies that continue to change in ways that bring death closer, or that make death more possible, or that make life more fragile. Even those who are not disabled – or, at least, who are not disabled for now – have experience with the inevitability of death. My beloved grandfather Mike, whom I have mentioned in this sermon and in previous sermons, was a huge influence in my own life and journey with faith and justice, especially as I grew older. Even into his eighties he was incredibly active, healthy, and strong: he was a high-pointer and a distance hiker, proud of summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, walking the Camino de Santiago (twice!), and, only a few years before he died, completing his hike along the entirety of the River Thames. Every year, until his last, he participated in the One Day Hike, a 100 kilometer (60 mile!) hike along the C&O Canal Towpath near his Washington, DC home.
When my grandfather (who had been a long-time smoker) was diagnosed with lung cancer, the family was unsurprised and unfazed. The rhetoric around his diagnosis was that his prognosis was good, the doctors were confident, and, after all, he’s so healthy; he’ll live forever. I remember that phrase specifically; he’ll live forever.
But, of course, he did not live forever. In fact, he never quite recovered from his cancer and chemotherapy treatment and died in February 2021.
I wish, so deeply, that the rhetoric around my grandfather’s health had been more realistic, more in touch with predictable human mortality, less “he’ll live forever” and more “there will be a time when his life with us will end.” Because change, like the change of death, is inevitable. As much as we want our beloveds to stay in this world with us in flesh and blood, as much as we want the trees along the Mississippi River to stay green for just one more week in late October, change happens, with or without us, and we choose only when, if, and how to respond.
I say this not to be fatalistic – perhaps a play on words as I am, after all, talking much about fatality. There is, to be sure, much change in this world to which we can contribute: the change that happens when we vote and when we protest, when we compost more and use plastic less, when we nurture our children and when we care for our parents, when we show up with love for our partners and ourselves even at our weariest and our worst. All of this is contributing to change in a real and meaningful way, and I don’t want to understate that. In that way, the form of change is pliable; the fact of change is constant.
In the first letter of John that we read today, after his statement about our collective unclear futures, John writes, “We do know that when God appears, we will be like God; because we will understand God as God truly is.” To those reading this early letter from John in real time, the appearance of God may have been taken more literally, may have been taken to mean an actual time and place when God descends to the world – maybe from my white, disembodied, cruise-ship heaven – and reveals Godself physically. But I read this letter today and think about all the ways that God appears to us, each of us, every day, I think of God especially appearing to us through change, especially through the inevitable changes of death and the constant turning of the earth. As Octavia Butler has taught me (and as we will pray together at the end of worship), “God is change.”
If Octavia Butler is on to something (and, I believe she is), and God is change, than we can read John’s letter like this: “When change appears, we will be like change, because we will understand change as change truly is.” How about that: We don’t know what we will become, but we do know that when change appears, we will be like change, because we will understand change as change truly is. Even as there is so much I don’t know – even as it has not yet been revealed what we will become, in this life or after it – I pray that we will be like change, that we will understand change, and that, through change, we will come to know God more fully and more intimately. Today, I honor the mystery of change, and I imagine my grandparents darting around, wherever they are, as sparks through stubble, just on the other side of the veil. May you, too, find comfort in this time when the veil is thin, may the mystery of the future call you to form change in all the ways you can, and may the ones who have gone before us teach us to make peace with those changes far beyond our control. May it be so, and amen.