I gave this homily for All Souls Day Noon Service at Harvard Divinity School on October 28th, 2015.
Source text: John 11:32-44
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 [my memories] reveal those pieces of myself that have been formed by loss. 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 my 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 of someone I miss.
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 dancing 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.
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 whoever 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 of feelings they bring. Good, bad, ambiguous. Marvel in their complexity. Unbind them, and let them go.
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