A Homily for All Saints/Souls Day

John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upward and said, “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

Good afternoon. Thank you for being here with us as we celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. We have taken this opportunity to honor our lost loved ones as a way for you to enter into community with us, as I’m sure there are a few of you out there who are not part of the United Church of Christ or the Disciples of Christ. We’re glad you’re here. For many, this is a difficult day to celebrate. This service asks that we recall those who have impacted our lives, but are no longer with us. In this service, we celebrate death. That ominous, ever-present presence that we so try to ignore. That force that forces its way into our lives sooner or later, leaving specters in our memories that don’t always bring comfort or joy. Indeed, loss is hard. I know. I’m well-seasoned in it, being 28* and having lost (on average) a friend per year starting at age 13. Personally, this day comes with so much to remember. All those memories: good, bad, ambiguous, strange and frightening. All of them revealing those pieces of myself that have been formed by them. All those times I had to take a hard look at life and decide how to proceed upon news of their deaths. Loss doesn’t get easier the more you experience it. Each one brings its own set of questions and things left undone. Each one feels a little bit lonely. So, I’m glad you’re here.

Sometimes, it feels like life has been a collection of losses, and my task is to remember each one with poignancy and grace. I know that’s not true, but I often don’t realize it until I’m laughing my way through a memory. Things like knowing that it was wrestling season because Brett would eat nothing but heads of broccoli all day until his match. Jamming with Mike in the big room of our house as he encouraged me to learn that song or book that show. Helping Britt console her old, grumpy Chihuahua at a party neither of us wanted to be at in the first place. Shannon jigging her way through the store after a busy day of outfitting teenagers in Halloween costumes. It’s those memories that help me realize that loss doesn’t have to feel bad all the time. Those memories only come out when I’m talking with someone else.

Memory can be such a risky thing to venture into alone. Life’s difficult moments call to us from behind thin walls, beckoning us to let them out. The question is never will I but rather, how. When, and with whom? I think today’s reading gives us a little insight. I wish I could preach a full-length sermon to expound on it. But maybe it’s a gift that I can’t, because as much as I love historical context, right now, I can’t help but to read this passage symbolically. I often think about resurrection, especially on days like today, when we are asked to remember. What crawls out of our memories when days like this corner us into remembering? Is it pleasant, pristine, robed in white? Or is it those memories that haunt you? The ones with the stench that you’d prefer to just leave locked in their tomb? Maybe it’s some unresolved conflict. Maybe it’s acknowledging that your relationship with whomever is on your heart right now was complicated. Whatever the case, the purpose of this service and this space is to roll back whatever holds that memory in place. Roll back the stone from the cave and cry, “Lazarus, come out!” It’s not easy, but (speaking for myself) I know no other way to bring the dead back to life. We have made this space for it, surrounded by others to bear witness. So, if you feel so moved, call out to those memories. Acknowledge the range feelings they bring. Good, bad, ambiguous. Marvel in their complexity.

Unbind them, and let them go.


*This homily was given at a Harvard Divinity School Noon Service on October 28th, 2015. I have since turned 29. This changes nothing.

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