as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 31, 2021
It is so good to have the choir back. The impact that COVID has had on live music or, really, let me be honest, live performance or gathering of any kind, has been devastating. Coming together to sing, or to be sung to, is one of the oldest human activities. It is possible that collective song predates language. And it is certain, that music is connects us to each other.as
“We sing and dance, therefore, we are a community,” the cognitive scientist William Benzon observed. Not being able to join our voices in song or our bodies in movement ruptures our communion. It makes it more difficult to maintain a sense of us.
When we sing we bring our bodies into rhythmic alignment. We inhale, our hearts beat, we exhale, in synch with one another. The isolated I dissolves into the communal we. The loneliness that can feature so heavily in contemporary life can be lessened. The great truth, the profound revelation, that we are all bound up together, that there is no me without you, becomes physically manifest.
Throughout the earlier phases of the pandemic, it was unsafe to sing together or even gather to listen to others sing. While we were meeting entirely online, Mark did a spectacular job of offering us the facsimile of a collective experience. He knit together recordings from dozens of singers and musicians to create a virtual choir: a “Jazz Alleluia” mixed with David Brubeck’s “Take Five;” versions of “John Brown’s Body” for a special music service; hymns and anthems in Spanish and English… At the same time, he met regularly online with the choir and provided them a ministry of fellowship that helped to sustain a vital node of connection. For all of this, and more, he deserves our gratitude and an applause. For all of this, and more, he will be greatly missed next year when he leaves us for his new faculty position at Lone Star College.
Today, though, Mark is with us for the annual celebration of life, remembrance, and music that is our All Souls service. It is a service in which we remind ourselves that are deeply connected to each other. It is a service where, in the words of the philosopher William Burke, we recall that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” It is a service where, through lyric, harmony, and melody, we evoke the poignant truth woven into song by Ysaye Barnwell, “Those who have died have never, never left.”
Those who have died have never, never left… “They are with us in our homes / They are with us in this crowd / The dead have a pact with the living.” It is good to remember this. It is good to remember this today, as we celebrate All Souls, and it is good to remember it throughout the days of our lives.
Remembering, learning, our place in the great family of All Souls, each of our connections to all that is, is one of the purposes of our religious communion. We gather to remind ourselves that we are creatures bound by time–with birth on one side and death on the other. We gather not to despair at our finite nature but to take comfort in the creation of community and celebrate that through it we achieve something larger than individuality. I will perish. You will perish. But community, the communion between those who are, those who have gone before, and those who will come after, will continue as long as humanity continues upon this planet.
It will continue longer than that. “We are made of star-stuff,” Carl Sagan said. We are the children of a long dead star animated to life. When we die the molecules in our bodies will be transmuted into new life. In the infinite past, before even our mother star was born, the very matter that forms our bodies, and comes to consciousness in our minds, was united with the infinitely dense all that is, was, and shall be which exploded into the Big Bang and birthed itself into the universe. Each of us, all of us, are connected by the very fabric of our being to all that is, all that has been, and all that shall be.
Those who have died have never, never left… I tell you these things, for this All Souls Days service, as we conclude our sermon series on reimagining grief because it is one of the purposes of our religious communion to provide each other comfort in times of anguish and despair. I tell you these things because the poet John Donne was right when he, in his gendered language, told us: “No man is island entire of itself; every man / is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”
Those who have died have never, never left… I tell you these things out of my own gratitude for you. You have stuck with us through a month of difficult work, talking about, praying on, the hard process of grief. Together, we have mourned what has been lost, what will be lost, and what is. Not celebratory fare, and yet you have returned each week so that we might do it together.
No one is an island entirely to themselves… the work of these services has been the work of recalling, as our offering collect reminds us, that we are all part of a tapestry woven of love and action. And that by reimagining grief, each is connected to, and has some responsibility, for all.
Connection and responsibility can be rough burdens to bare, especially in the midst of a pandemic. At such a time, the weight of five million dead throughout the world and almost 750,000 dead here in the United States can feel like just too much. At such a time, it seems risky to acknowledge that COVID is not only the pandemic we are living through.
The social isolation brought on by physical distancing has come with its own high tolls. In this country alone, in the last year, more than 90,000 died of drug overdoses, over 21,000 people were murdered, and some unknown died because they could not get medical care from an under resourced healthcare system.
It might be better to speak of being in the midst of a series of pandemics rather than living through a single pandemic. There is the mental health pandemic. Mental illness has increased dramatically with the COVID crisis. There is the pandemic of gun violence. Per capita more people die in the United States from firearms than in any other developed country. There is the pandemic of racism. Each weekday members of congregation mount a vigil about the horror of this centuries long pandemic on the corner of Fannin and Southmore. There is the pandemic of gender violence. It combines with other pandemics to produce the horrifying reality that every six hours a Black woman is murdered in the United States. This is a 30% increase from the previous year. There is the pandemic of…
There is the pandemic of… No one is an island entirely to themselves… To speak of any of these pandemics is to be present to almost unfathomable grief. To speak of any of these pandemics is also to be called to reimagine grief. For while grief is a reaction to loss, it is also a reaction to connection. We are connected to those we mourn.
And when we acknowledge connection, we must also acknowledge responsibility. The responsibility can be individual. It can be social. Whatever the case, we each have an obligation to each other to do what we can to lessen the ferociousness of all of the pandemics. Each of them is tied to human actions. Human hands and human minds can work to reduce any of them.
This recognition is why First Houston has been conservative in our choices around meeting and worshipping together these last months. As much as possible, we have wanted to do what we can to lessen the COVID pandemic. And while many things were outside of our control, many of them were within it. We were challenged to take responsibility for what we could to reduce the deathly toll. And I think we did the best we could, which is why we made decisions like delaying the start of choir until it seemed safer to resume it.
In the grief of the pandemic, or maybe I should say the grief of pandemics, there is another kind of responsibility we can take. As a religious community we are called not just to do what we can to lessen the viciousness of the world’s pandemics. We are called to comfort each other in our grief.
Offering each other that comfort, while encouraging each other in our larger responsibilities, is a principal reason for our community, our gathering, and our uniting our voices in song. It is why we celebrate All Souls each year. It is why it so good to have the choir back. And it is why it will be good, in a moment, to unite together for our closing hymn “Comfort Me.” But before we do, I invite you to join me in prayer.
Oh, Spirit of Life,
that some of us name God,
and others describe
as the force that drives life forward,
the power of love,
or the highest aspiration in the human heart,
be with us,
stir within us,
and in all the days of our lives,
so that we might each do what we can
to take responsibility
for lessening the pandemics of the world
and, at the same time,
provide each other
with the comfort,
that we need in our times of grief
so that we might remember the great truth:
we are all connected to each other,
all children of the same long dead star,
and all members of the great family of all souls.
That it might be so
I invite the congregation to say Amen.