Not the Final Answer
4 Nov 2018
About two summers ago I was asked to be one of the clergy participants at the funeral of a friend, a member of St. Tim’s who had died unexpectedly. Now Ronda was someone who was always, always late and one of her requests was that her ashes be carried into the church after the service started so that she could be late one last time. It was so Ronda to ask for that and it really added something for the family and friends who gathered. It was a large funeral with, as is typical, a meal afterwards where folks had a chance to catch up with one another and share stories.
Another funeral service that was held at Trinity Denison a couple of years ago was for a woman who had died at the age of 104. While none of the family had lived in Iowa since about 1960, they had strong roots here and the family members were all buried at Odebolt. A grandson gave the eulogy and once again stories were shared after the service. I was able to find in the parish register where the two daughters had been confirmed in that church in the 1950’s. Later I found that the large and beautiful ciborium that is in the tabernacle at Trinity was given by this family in honor of another daughter who had died from spina bifida at a year of age. When I read the inscription on the vessel I was able to make the connection and send photos to the family; months later one of the daughters returned to Iowa and was able to see the ciborium.
What I have learned is that we need to honor our ancestors, from those that we knew so well to those that walked this earth generations ago. We do so in and with our rituals, both formal and informal. In the Episcopal Church the funeral rite both helps us remember the one who died and leads us to look forward to the future, to a time when we are with all the saints.
The Hebrew scripture reading today is one of the choices for an Episcopal funeral service. Each and every one of those passages looks to the future, of a time when we will all be with God. The souls of the righteous are in the hands of God. That is the part of us that lives by faith, faith in God and faith in the future.
I like the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Meurtos. That is where we continue to make the connection with those who have died and we honor who they were and who they are to us. Imagine an entire cemetery lit at night with candles to let those who have past know that we have not forgotten them. God holds them and we remember them. Maybe we do not go in mass to a cemetery to have a picnic, especially not in November in Iowa, but I don’t see why we could not go and celebrate their lives and memory. In Spain I saw cemeteries where the crypts were stacked and behind a protective cover were pictures and memorabilia of the deceased. Those who have died know they are not forgotten.
Saints are not just those larger than life figures in our church history, the Peters and Pauls and all of the saints of legend, but they are the folks who walked the earth in our own time: Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa. They are saints who lived for and died for their faith. But what about you and I? What about our parents or grandparents? I am not a larger than life figure and I am certainly flawed. You may have had a parent who was not a good parent. Yet those of us who are ordinary folks are as much saints as the legends of church history. We all walk in the faith and carry on in that faith. We may call the day for those of us who are mere mortals All Souls Day, but it is the same.
I have a Bible that belonged to one of my grandmothers. As Bible’s go it is rather ordinary. I think it is a King James (I haven’t opened it in a while) but when it first came to me what I saw were all kinds of slips of paper marking short passages that I suspect were very important to my grandmother. It is the only tangible connection I have to her as she died before I was born. Yet it is enough to tell me she had faith and, from what I know of my family story, she did live that faith. I have nothing that would tell me of my other grandmother, who also died before I was born, save a story that my mother passed on: while she seldom attended church as it was not easy to get there she always spent part of her Sunday reading a Bible. And from what I have heard from those who knew her, I realize her faith was in fact great.
I have been present many times when death made its visit. It has always for me been in a setting where it was expected and that makes some difference as one can make some preparation. Nonetheless, there is a holiness and sacredness that is present when death comes. God is there, with us and for us, even in the darkest of times.
As Christians we believe in the communion of saints, life after death, and that God is just and merciful. The text today says it so beautifully!! Death is not the end, not the final answer, neither for those we love any more than for Jesus himself. It is at the heart of who we are as Christians. Death is the pathway into full communion with God. That does not negate the loss and grief that we feel when someone we love dies; this is why we who are living must honor and support the living who grieve, as the mourners were doing for the family of Lazarus. But those who have died become, as it is said, a great cloud of witnesses, for those of us who live. I am reminded of the hymn the begins “All my hope on God is founded.” It is the hymn that inspires the saints, all the saints from Peter and Paul to Aunt Susie.
On this All Saints, then, let us remember those whom we call the Saints with a capital “S”, and all of those saints whose ordinary lives were anything but ordinary. Lives of faith and courage, knowing that death does not have the final say and that within in us we hold the spark of God.
Let us remember ourselves as well!! For we are called to live lives of trust in God and to live into the promise that we have in Jesus. A promise that by living by his teachings, by following the great commandment as manifesto for living, we too will join that great cloud of witnesses!! Amen.