Today we celebrate All Saints Day – the day when we remember those who have passed on, and we celebrate their continued lives with God. It is also the day that we look forward with anticipation to the time when, as we heard in Revelation, “Death will be no more. There will be no more mourning, crying or pain, for the former things have passed away.”
The story about Lazarus has many levels of meaning for us. We are reminded that even Jesus grieved. The shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept” is an important verse for us, reminding us that grief is normal, that God, too, has experienced it, that it is a necessary and yet healing part of life. We are also given our first real glimpse into that time when death will be no more, when things such as grieving and loss will be no more because even death will be overcome. Jesus ends death for Lazarus, and in doing so shows us that we don’t have to just grieve, remember and celebrate the past lives of those saints who have passed, but that there will come a time when we can celebrate with them together again.
Additionally, as we know, our relationships with those who have passed haven’t even ended now – they have simply changed. In the early church, walls in the sanctuaries were hung with pictures of the “saints”. These pictures were there to remind congregants that they were not worshiping alone. The pictures, the images represented a cloud of witnesses that were all worshiping with us. Some traditions include the practice of kissing those pictures or icons – again as a way of recognizing that though that person has passed, they are still part of our community, they remain part of the worshiping body, that they continue with God and remain here with us as part of our worshiping community as well. For us, we don’t separate out some people as Saints. Instead, we recognize that all who have passed on are the “Saints”. Still, we are also called to recognize that they are here with us, too, worshiping God as we do. In this way, our connections to those who have passed on also serve as reminders that we are connected to something else, something bigger that unites all of us – that connection is God.
We keep the spirits of the saints with us through our memories, through our time spent with them in thoughts, in stories, in looking at pictures, in sharing with others our connections with those who have passed on.
For awhile, when the kids were very little, we had a Beta fish named Jeriah. We also had a daily ritual or routine where I would sing Jonah to sleep every night with the song, “the more we get together, together, together, the more we get together, the happier we’ll be.” And then I would name the members of our family. “With Jonah and Jasmyn and Aislynn and Daddy and Mama and Sabbath and Jeriah and everyone.” Well, as happens with all pets, eventually Jeriah died. After Jeriah died, the kids and I had a little “service” to say goodbye to the fish and to give Jeriah a proper fish burial down the toilet. Jonah, the most sensitive of my children, was the hardest hit by the death.
You wouldn’t think a person could get that connected to a fish, but I was wrong. Jonah, at two years of age, was very sad that Jeriah had died. That evening when I went to sing the good night song to Jonah, I came to the names of everyone in the family and for a moment hesitated when I came to the place where I had always said, “Jeriah”. For a moment I didn’t know how to proceed, especially because Jonah had been so hard hit about Jeriah’s death. But Jonah quipped up with, “Say Jeriah. Don’t forget Jeriah!” Still I hesitated. Did he not understand that Jeriah had died? Did he think that maybe in the morning Jeriah would just be right there in the fish tank like always? Finally, I said, “You do understand, honey, that Jeriah is dead, right?”
“Yes,” he responded, “but even in death, he is still a part of our family.” Yes, he was right. Jeriah was still a part of our family. He will always be a part of our family because death doesn’t end that. Death doesn’t end those connections, time doesn’t end those connections. A few years later, my grandfather died. Now Jonah was 5. And this death, too, hit him hard. He talked about my grandfather regularly for the next year and still mentions him on occasion. But again, he continued to proclaim that even in death, great grandpa remained an important part of our family. And he was right.
After the death of a loved one, the relationship does change. And while the new relationship, the changed relationship with our departed loved one may start with intense grief, over time that changes as well. We grieve differently, we may spend less time in the pain of the grief, less time focused on that person and the loss of that person. But a connection once made always remains in some way. That “saint” that has passed is part of our history and is therefore part of us. We incorporate their soul, their being, in a different way into our psyches but they remain with us – they have affected who we are, our memories of them, the stories of which they are a part have become part of our very being. That connection with the Saints, that remembrance of lives once spent together and now connected in a different way, and the future anticipation of a time when death is no more, all of that is a great gift to us. Following the sermon, I will invite you to bring a flower forward and say the name of someone who has passed but who is still a saint for you, someone who is still part of your being, has been part of making you who you are in some way. I invite you to remember that while those saints have passed, we remain united to them, and they also remain part of our worship, that they, too, are worshiping God with us now even as we are. And even as they are apart from us physically. Amen.