All Saints’ Sunday
Nov 4, 2018
Isaiah 25:6-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
For so did you ordain when you created me, saying, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return.” All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. These words are found in our burial service in the Book of Common Prayer. And oftentimes, when non-Episcopalians come to an Episcopal funeral, they remark how beautiful our burial liturgy is.
I think it’s so beautiful and striking because it’s balanced. It allows for grief, yet it is under girded by hope and joy. It is anchored in the resurrection life of Jesus. This is what the Book of Common Prayer has to say about the service: “The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we too shall be raised.” So as we remember the dead and mourn our loss in that Easter liturgy, we also rejoice that death doesn’t have the last word.
And I’m thinking about the burial service because today is also an Easter liturgy, where we remember the dead. Today is All Saints’ Sunday when we commemorate all the saints who have died. The popular ones that we all know, and also the saints in our own lives who have witnessed to the risen life of Jesus. We commemorate, we remember and show respect, for all the saints, those known and those unknown. This resurrection life of Jesus knits us together with them into one communion and fellowship that is the mystical body of Jesus Christ. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we too shall be raised along with those who have gone before us.
And we remember the dead in the light of the resurrection. Because of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that sin and death no longer have the last word. That’s why, as we remember those who have gone down to the dust, and as we remember that we will go down to the dust, we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia. Because there’s no place we can go, not even death, where Jesus’ love will fail to be with us.
Several years ago, Lauren’s grandfather died. Even though Rowan and Phoebe were young, we felt it was important for them to be there at his funeral. But before we went, we talked to them about what it means to be dead. A friend of mine worked with children in grief and taught me how important it is to describe death in concrete terms, to help children begin learning about it. So keeping in mind her wisdom, I told Rowan and Phoebe that being dead means you don’t breathe anymore. You can’t see. You can’t move or feel or hear. You can’t think. You can’t remember. And this kind of concreteness is important when talking to children about death, and it’s only after this that we can begin exploring the spiritual significance of it.
And this concreteness of death, the reality of the loss of life is something that we as adults understand only too well. And it’s a theme that runs through today’s scripture readings. Death is the tears on our faces, and the pain in our hearts. Death is mourning and crying and pain. Death is, as Isaiah states, a shroud that is cast over all people, a sheet spread over all nations.” We are all wrapped in the burial clothes of death just as Lazarus is buried in his tomb. We may not be there now, but we will all walk that journey. We will be in the tomb with Lazarus where we can’t move, think, feel, or remember. In the great unknown of death, will we be remembered by the ones we love? Will God remember us?
When you are dead, you can’t think, feel, or even remember. And that’s what we fear about death. That we no longer have any control. Who will take care of us in this ultimately vulnerable place? When we are wrapped in the shroud of death, when we are in the tomb with Lazarus under the sheet of death, who will remember us when we ourselves can’t remember who we are?
A couple of months ago, the clergy of the diocese met in Birmingham for a day of fellowship and learning. The topic for the day was “Dementia from the inside out.” The speaker for the day was Tracy Lind, an Episcopal priest who had served as the dean of Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland, Ohio for seventeen years. A couple of years ago, she received a diagnosis for early on-set dementia. She had been diagnosed with fronto temporal dementia and hers would advance quickly. The doctors basically told her to get her finances and affairs in order and to prepare for the end of her life. Several months later she retired as dean of the cathedral.
I learned a lot that day as Tracy and her wife, Emily, both discussed dementia from the inside out. How different forms of cognitive loss effect one in ten people over the age of 65. How many people with dementia and associated conditions feel too embarrassed to talk about it. And how we often unknowingly infantilize persons with cognitive degeneration.
Tracy was initially devastated, but she immediately began a quest to find the grace of God in her condition. She talked about learning a new spirituality of dementia, about learning to trust God like a child, even as she experienced cognitive losses, and an increase in fear and anxiety. Emily talked about the rage she felt about the unfairness of it all, and how, eventually over the last couple of years, she has been able to start finding the grace of God as they walk this journey together. And Tracy said something that day that has stuck with me. As she initially began to process her diagnosis this is what she prayed: “God, will you remember me, even when I can no longer remember you?
Tracy shared how, even as she loses abilities and sometimes doesn’t recognize the face she sees in the mirror, she is convinced that God will remember her when she can longer remember who she is or who God is. Because she believes that nothing can separate her from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Like Lazarus in the tomb, wrapped in the shroud and darkness of death, even there Jesus comes to us and calls our names. We might fear the shroud of death and wonder if God will remember us, but there is no place we can go, not even death, where Jesus’ love will fail to pursue us and call out our names.
And today, in this Easter liturgy of All Saints’ Sunday, we join with Jesus and remember and honor all those saints who have gone before us. They have entered the tomb and have been wrapped in the shroud of death. But they have also heard the voice of their beloved, calling them each by name. And today we join in that work of Jesus by remembering and calling out the names of the loved ones who have died in this past year.
We might fear the shroud of death and wonder if God will remember us. We may fear the loss of abilities, control, and the vulnerability of death, but there is no place we can go, not even the grave, where Jesus’ love will fail to pursue us and call out our names.
All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.