as preached at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Houston, October 30, 2022
From age to age
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
Love ends. But what if it doesn’t?
Be Thou with us, now and always
I have only one picture with him.
We will not see it, none of us.
Behold, peace shall extend to thee like a river
I offer you this jumble of words drawn from the music and poetry of this, our All Souls Day service, as an invocation of the great cloud of witness and memory that is present today. Today we celebrate All Souls, All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, Day of the Dead, Samhain… In many of the world’s traditions, it is a time for remembering the dead.
The neo-pagan Starhawk describes it as when “the veil is thin between the worlds.” It is a holy day when we recall that our communion is more than just those present with us. “[C]ommunity,” in her words, “encompasses … those who have gone before, and those who will come after us.”
In the Unitarian Universalist tradition, we name the day All Souls for two reasons. First, we speak of All Souls as an acknowledgment that all humanity, all life, and all being shares a common fate. We are born. We live our span. We die. President or pauper, poet, painter, priest, professor, pie maker or pipe fitter, once we were not and sometime, again, we shall not be.
All Souls reminds us that we are all caught in the same cycle of life. It began long before any of us. Its origins are lost in the faintest echoes of the birth of the cosmos. We can speak of the star whose dust we are. We can try to cast our minds back further and imagine the incomprehensible origin point of all, the Big Bang. We can rest our imaginations on the beginnings of life on this planet or the obscurities of our immediate ancestors’ lives.
Mystery, whatever starting place we choose, the beginning of all life, even our own lives, is wrapped in mystery. The same is true with our endings. No one really understands what happens after death. It is the great undiscovered country. All of us will one day travel to it.
All Souls, the second reason we hold it as a holy day is to recollect a core Unitarian Universalist principle. We assert that every human life has inherent worth and dignity. This is not to naively claim that human nature is intrinsically good. History is filled with too many monsters. Our contemporary world contains too many demagogues and would be dictators to make such a claim. It would be wrong to state that all people are basically good in a society where elected officials like the Speaker of the House, or anyone else for that matter, are consistently threatened with the possibility of political violence.
No, to claim that every human life has inherent worth and dignity is to recognize that we each share kinship with every member of the great family of All Souls. There are no different categories of human being. President or pauper, poet or painter, pie maker or pipe fitter, we are each born with possibility. We each make our unique contribution to the unfolding story that is human history. Some are worth celebrating. We benefit so much from the discoveries of science, the advances of medicine, the feats of engineering, that have shaped our lives for the better.
Some of what we humans have done is horrifying. The genocide, the exploitation, the suffering that we inflict upon each other, so much of it is awful beyond whatever words I might cast before you. Yet, it is also all part of our human story. To say that every human life has inherent worth and dignity is to acknowledge each person makes a contribution to human society. Those contributions need to be recognized. If they have benefited us then they need to be identified as worth lifting up. If they have caused suffering we are challenged to honor the suffering that has brought us to this point.
We will not dwell here, on suffering, for this All Souls for my homily must be short and we have music to return to. Instead, I cast back to words from our poems to remind us that to speak of All Souls is invoke the full complexity of our ancestors. It is to confess that our lives and the lives our descendants–be they descendants by blood or by culture–will be complicated too.
We have Ada Limón telling us, “You can’t sum it up. A life.” She celebrates her grandfather and her grandmother, whose remaining span is short.
There is Jenny Liou with her fragmentary memories of an “uncle who died second:”
He opens his mouth to laugh and I reach in
to steal sour-sweet starfruit,
What is it, the poet seems to ask us, that remains of her father’s brother? He has left his imprint upon the great family of all souls. Its outlines are hard to discern. But it is there, like one of the twinkling stars whose faint light form the full glory of the night’s sky.
And then we find Kenneth Rexroth’s poem “For Eli Jacobson.” Limón and Liou are both young, living, poets. Rexroth is dead. He was one of the great poets of the anti-Communist Left. He spent his life trying to imagine into being “the Golden Age.” He wrote about world literature, translated poetry from Chinese, Japanese, Latin, French, Spanish, and Greek. I have learned much from him.
“For Eli Jacobson” remembers the life of a friend of his who was murdered by Stalin’s agents. It is a favorite mourning poem of mine. It speaks to the difficult times–the times when hope is all but impossibile to find. And yet, there are things about it that do not read well, that I do not like. Its concepts of gender are dated. It objectifies women.
It is the work of a White man from the middle of the last century. And it includes so many of the flaws of thought found in this country in 1952. But, I still find much in the poem.
This returns me to All Souls, we celebrate All Souls. We recognize that everyone who has gone before has made the world that is. All are a part of the great cloud of witness and memory that surrounds us. Not just the best. Not only the worst. But all souls and all aspects of them.
There is a challenge before us today. It is the challenge found in all of the days of our lives. It is to recognize the truth of our being, that we owe something to all of the souls that came before us. We are then to hold onto that truth and do our best to lift up that which we know to be good. And we are set aside that which should be set aside. We do so in the hopes that we can do our part in building up a world where, as our choir sang, “justice shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness shall abide in the fruitful field.”
All Souls, before we conclude with song, I offer you this 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 passing on the best of ourselves,
and setting down the worst,
so that when future generations
speak of all souls
they might number us
amongst those who remembered 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.
recall this truth,
and do what we can
to leave a more beautiful
world behind for those who will come next.
That it might be so
I invite the congregation to say Amen.