It was a bright, sun-filled day as I left the church to go home for lunch. Passing by the Cloisters, I noticed a woman walking along the path in the Memorial Garden. She stopped at one point and stood in front of a section of the wall. It was a private moment, but I wondered to myself, what might she be thinking…or remembering…or praying…in the beauty and peace of the garden?
Thomas Lynch is a poet and essayist and also a funeral director in the town of Milford, Michigan – not far from the church I served in Birmingham, Michigan. A few years ago, he wrote an engaging book called, The Undertaking: Life Studies From The Dismal Trade. In his book, Lynch reflects with engaging honesty, affection, humor and love, on his profession as an undertaker, and his personal perspective of death. The opening sentence reads, “Every year I bury a couple of hundred of my townspeople.” (p. 3) Lynch lives with a gentle but very real awareness of the friends and neighbors he has buried. “For every home made memorable by death, dozens are made memorable by the lives that were led there utterly unscrutinized by the wider world – lives lived out at a pace quickened only by the ordinary triumphs of daily life: good gladiolas, the well-shoveled walk, the mortgage payments made, the kids through college.” (p. 106)
The longer you live, the more you become aware how precious are those “ordinary triumphs of daily life” as Lynch termed them. Though not counted for much as they quietly occur, they come to define a person over the years and are remembered with fondness by those who know us best. Every minister who has sat with family members planning a memorial service knows that each life’s story goes deeper than any recitation of activities or accomplishments. It is the relatively small, personal ways and kindnesses that are consistently given that truly form the tie that binds.
About midway through the book, Lynch discusses his parents’ deaths and his anger at God for his mother’s pain and suffering. “My mother’s funeral was a sadness and a celebration. We wept and laughed and thanked God and cursed God and asked God to make good on the promises our mother’s faith had laid claim to in her death. It was
Halloween the day we buried her – the eve of All Saints…Whenever I have business at Holy Sepulchre,” Lynch continues, “I stop in section twenty-four where my mother and father are buried. He lived on after her two years…I miss them so…sometimes I stand among the stones and wonder. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I weep. Sometimes nothing at all happens. Life goes on. The dead are everywhere.” (p. 98-9)
Today in the church we are observing All Saints’ Sunday. All Saints is a special time of worship when we stop and remember the saints in our lives that have brought a touch of God’s grace into our living. Following the sermon, we shall remember by name those saints in our congregation who have died this past year. Elza Garnett and I will read the names of those whose lives have touched us and whose love has sustained us. Many of us will also picture in our mind’s eye others who have gone before us. All ordinary, extraordinary people. Saints every one.
If you grew up a Protestant, it is likely you were not accustomed to calling ordinary mortals – saints. In a preaching class at seminary I recall how strange it was to my ears when an African-American woman opened her sermon saying to us, “Good morning, saints.” It jarred me. I knew I shouldn’t be included in that circle. After all, I had worked in advertising too many years. But since then, I’ve come to a different understanding of what it means to be called a saint.
Frederick Buechner says, “Many people think of saints as plaster statues or moral exemplars, men and women of such paralyzing virtue that they never thought a nasty thought or did an evil thing their whole life long. As far as I know, real saints never even come close to [that]…the feet of saints are as much of clay as everybody else’s, and their sainthood consists less of what they have done than what God has for some reason chosen to do through them.” (Wishful Thinking, p. 102)
So there are everyday saints. You and I have saints, even if we don’t call them that. These are the saints of your life and mine: the mother who sat up with you through the night when you were sick; the grandfather who taught you how to cast a fishing line; the daughter who let you know you were loved and forgiven; the son whose zest for life is contagious; the husband who encouraged you and held your hand; the friend who helps you to laugh at yourself. These ordinary saints enrich our lives. The name of each one is written on our heart, and today we give thanks to God that we have been blessed to share life with them.
A couple of years ago I was standing on a sidewalk watching a parade go by when I noticed a small boy next to me on his father’s shoulders. I said to him, “My, you sure are tall.” And with grave seriousness, he looked down at me and said, “This isn’t all me.” I remembered that when I thought about the saints in our lives. It isn’t all us. Like that little boy, we stand on the shoulders of others.
Henri Nouwen, a priest and author who taught theology at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard, believes that our loved ones become our spiritual companions after they have died. He writes, “It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we
have loved. Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship.” I love that phrase ongoing companionship and I am convinced it is true. By God’s grace, through our memories we sustain a connection to our loved ones that carries them with us into the future.
How is it the writer of Song of Songs put it? “…love is strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave…Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it.” Whether we lost someone decades ago, or quite recently, we have within us memories of them. We remember their faces and their voices. We remember their love of nature. We remember their fears and little quirks. We remember the pancakes they made on Christmas mornings. We remember the examples they set for us, the sound of their laughter, and the warmth of their hand in ours.
I believe it was Carlyle Marney, a Baptist preacher, who was the first to use the metaphor of “balcony people” to describe those saints who have come in and out of our life and now look on from afar – inspiring us, blessing us and wishing us well. Sometimes it is that our “balcony people” believed more in us than we believed in ourselves. They are the ones who walked before you and me and served as a light to our path and guide for our way. Marney suggests that on All Saints’ Day we should take the time to turn and look up at those gathered on the balcony of our life and call them by name; give them a wave and let them know how much they continue to mean to us. It occurs to me that perhaps that was what the woman was doing there in the Memorial Garden.
Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Like the other Beatitudes, it is an improbable thing to say…especially when the loss of a loved one still pierces your heart. Inevitably with the death of a loved one comes the mourning of grief. But loss comes to all of us.
In the November Joyful Noise Newsletter, Kathy Irvin tells of a child’s loss. “We had a’ good moment’ on Friday in one of our classrooms…At ‘drop off’ a Mom mentioned that their puppy had died and that her son wanted to pray about it…After our snack this little guy said he would like to say a prayer for his puppy. I asked if he would like to say the words or if he would like help…No help needed. He knew what he wanted to say. We folded our hands and waited. After a deep sigh he stared, ‘Dear God! Our puppy died and we are really sad.’ [There was a] long pause and then he added, ‘Thank you God.’” Kathy adds, “I mumbled some additional words that I hoped brought comfort but really this child said it all in 13 words.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted,” Jesus says. We are blessed by the presence of God and by the caring of others who reflect God’s love. We are blessed by the shoulder we have to lean on in our time of loss. We are blessed by the sympathy cards and notes we receive. We are blessed by the friend who calls weeks after the passing of a loved one and tells us they are holding us in prayer. We are blessed by the women of our church’s Memorial Guild who prepare the reception that follows a memorial service.
“Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted.” Our faith is a source of great comfort. We are greatly blessed by the promise that there is more to this life than we know. The promise Jesus gave saying, “in my father’s house there are many rooms…and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself so that where I am, there you may be also.” The promise that those who have gone on ahead of us are now part of the communion of saints around the great banquet table in heaven.
In the Revelation passage we read earlier, the author describes a glorious vision of heaven. There will be “a great multitude of the redeemed,” so many that no one can count them. They will all be with God. Every sin that they have committed will be washed away by the blood of the Lamb. All the saints, even the ones we would not expect to be there, will come together in the presence of God with palm branches and white robes that symbolize the righteousness that they did not earn, but is a gift through Christ. And all the trials they have experienced – pain, loneliness, disappointment, fear, unresolved regret – will have passed away and “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
In Jesus Christ, whose own death was not the end, but led to the victory of life over death, we can trust that nothing of love will ever be lost.
On this All Saints’ Sunday we celebrate the blessing of the ongoing companionship of the saints of our lives, the blessing of arms stretched out to comfort us, the blessing of memories that live on, and the great and wonderful blessing of the promise of eternal life we have in our Lord Jesus Christ.
With gratitude to God on this All Saints’ Sunday for all those we remember in our hearts, let us close with words borrowed from the poet, Wendell Berry…
“We clasp the hands of those that go before us,” Those hands of our mothers and fathers, our grandmothers and grandfathers, And for some, children that were loved and lost. We clasp “the hands of those who come after us.” Our sons and daughters of tomorrow. The hands we reach out are blessed by Christ. And joined in “the larger circle of all creatures, Passing in and out of life.”
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen. .