It's also a very personal homily, as will become apparent. Gary's read this and approved it (thank you, love!), but I may have tried to do too much in too small a space.
We'll see how the congregation reacts. As my therapist keeps saying to try to break me of my perfectionism, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."
I had a very hard time loading the photo, which is already a cropped and scanned copy and therefore not the best reproduction. Blogger wasn't cooperating at all and would only load the smallest size, so I apologize for the poor quality. If you click on the one here, you'll get a larger, clearer version. One neat note about the photo (which I discuss late in the homily): our friend Katharine -- not Jefferts Schori; it's a common name around here! -- entered the full-size version in a photo contest, and recently learned that she's a finalist, so we're keeping our fingers crossed for her.
The readings are the Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, Revelation 21:1-6a, and John 11:32-44.
* * *
I know a woman who died when she was nineteen. She drowned and was rescued by lifeguards, who resuscitated her. When she told me this story, she said, “I was dancing with my grandmother in heaven. It was beautiful. I was so happy to see her again, and when I opened my eyes on the beach, the first thing I said was, ‘Let me go back! Let me go back there!’”
That was a long time ago. My friend has grandchildren of her own now, and she’s very glad to be here with them. But she no longer fears death. She knows her grandmother is waiting.
Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints. This is when we remember the people close to us who have died, those we love but see no longer, who have gone on to heaven. Many of us have brought photographs or other mementos. I’m wearing a necklace that was a gift from my aunt, who died this past June. If we have no objects to remind us of dead loved ones, we can write their names on slips of paper. The Feast of All Saints assures us that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses; it promises us that there is, indeed, life after death, that those we love are not forever lost to us. In the words of the Wisdom of Solomon, “Their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.”
This doesn’t mean, though, that we don’t or shouldn’t mourn. It is right and fitting that our faith in eternal life is balanced by sorrow for our own loss. One of the wisest passages in the Book of Common Prayer is the note after the funeral liturgies, on page 507:
The liturgy for the dead is an Easter liturgy. It finds all its meaning in the resurrection. Because Jesus was raised from the dead, we, too, shall be raised.“Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend.” We heard that story today, in the Gospel of John. It’s the story of the raising of Lazarus, a tale that moves from tears and grief and the terrible anger of Mary’s bitter reproach — “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” — to the miracle and joy of resurrection. Lazarus takes us from Good Friday to Easter.
The liturgy, therefore, is characterized by joy, by the certainty that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.”
This joy, however, does not make human grief unchristian. The very love we have for each other in Christ brings us deep sorrow when we are parted by death. Jesus himself wept at the death of his friend. So, while we rejoice that one we love has entered into the nearer presence of our Lord, we sorrow in sympathy with those who mourn.
This Gospel gives us permission to be angry at death, to grieve and cry and rail at God, to question how any loving God could allow such suffering. The story assures us that God hears our anger and grieves with us; but it also promises us that death is not permanent, that we will be reunited with those we have lost. And, finally, it reminds us that those who have been welcomed into new life need the help of those who love them. When Lazarus emerges from the tomb, Jesus says to Mary and Martha and the other bystanders, “Unbind him, and let him go.” Lazarus can only come fully back to life if other people reach out to help him into his new existence.
This story takes place on earth, but I suspect the same is true in heaven. When my friend died, her grandmother was waiting in heaven, stretching out her arms in welcome. When my friend came back to life on earth, her rescuers were waiting: she survived because they had stretched out their arms to help her, to pull her out of the water and blow the air back into her lungs. She has witnessed the importance of human help and welcome on both sides of the grave.
Some of us may scoff at this story. We may believe that my friend only imagined dancing with her grandmother in heaven, that the whole thing was wishful thinking or a hallucination caused by lack of oxygen. But in my work as a hospital chaplain, I’ve heard many stories like this, usually from people who seem fully sane and rational. Hospice workers report that dying patients often attest to the presence of beloved friends and family who’ve gone ahead of them. When I lived in New York, I worked for a woman -- as no-nonsense and unsentimental a soul as I’ve ever met -- who died of cancer. At her funeral, a priest talked about visiting her in the hospital shortly before she died. Trying to comfort her, he told her that many dying people he knew had talked about seeing dead loved ones. Lucie nodded and said in her usual tart tone, “Oh, yes. They’ve already been here. They come and stand around the bed.”
We can believe that all the people who tell these stories are crazy or deluded, or we can believe that those we love live on in another form, and that they continue to love us. That belief can never be proven by science. It falls into the realm of faith. Faith in the afterlife is an act both of memory and of imagination. If we remember how our living loved ones have stretched out their arms to help us, and if we imagine how overjoyed we would be if those we have lost returned -- how we would rush to them with our own arms outstretched -- then perhaps we can begin to believe that when we die, we will be welcomed that joyously into the next life. My friend was delighted to see her grandmother again, and surely the joy must have been mutual.
I’ve never literally died, and I can’t say that I’m eager to have the experience anytime soon. But, probably like most of us, I have experienced metaphorical resurrections. One of them happened last March. As some of you know, I had gone through several very dark years of family difficulties, struggles here at church, and health problems. After a while, all of that started to take a toll on my marriage. My husband Gary and I descended into a period of mutual anger and distrust, months when I feared that our relationship might be dead, months when we often found it difficult to turn to one another for help or comfort.
Last March, our friend Katharine invited us to go with her to Maui for spring break. It was a wonderful, magical, healing trip. Among other miracles, Gary and I reconnected in ways I’d begun to fear had become impossible. Our marriage began to revive. During that week, we went for a hike on a very muddy trail in the rainforest, and Katharine, who had wisely decided to stay behind, took a photograph of us. You probably can’t see it very well from where you’re sitting, but those two little blue and white specks, framed by bamboo, are Gary and I. I had just scrambled down a very steep, slippery stretch of trail, and Gary was reaching out to make sure I didn’t fall. The angle of the photograph makes it look as if I’m buried up to my waist, rising out of the ground. It looks as if Gary is reaching out to help me out of a grave.
And that was how I felt. I felt like Lazarus, being called back out into the sunlight, being embraced and unbound by those who loved him. I felt as if I had been welcomed back into life.
This experience of earthly rebirth makes it easier for me to have faith in another rebirth: in the continued existence of my aunt, who died this year, and of my grandfather, who died in 1987, and of my mother’s mother, whom I never met, because she died in 1938. Although my faith will never be proven by science, I believe that each of them was welcomed into heaven by those who went before them, and I believe that when I die, they will welcome me, too. They will usher me into the place where mourning and crying and pain are no more, where God wipes away all tears. They will rush forward, arms outstretched in joy, to include me in the dance.