All Souls’ Day Observed – Commemoration of All Faithful Departed
Sunday, November 19th, 2023
WISDOM OF SOLOMON 3:1-9; PSALM 116:1-8; 1 PETER 1:3-9; JOHN 11:21-27
I should lose nothing of all that he has given me,
but raise it up on the last day
It has been a long season of loss for us, all over the world with COVID. And it’s been a long season of loss for us at St. John’s, too. Only some of the people, though, that we remember today, died of COVID, even if, for some, we’ve called it something else.
And just dying during the time of various sorts of lockdown, though, changed the way we’ve been able to name and experience loss. One of the funerals I took during COVID’s long season, we did at the graveside, because at that point being outside was preferred. But we were still limited to twelve people.
The family wondered if more could join, but the times were such that there were representatives of the region driving around in cars counting the number of people at these sort of outdoor funerals; and so the funeral home folks said no, we will get in trouble with the authorities. Twelve people only around the graveside. So the family asked if they could sit in their cars with the windows open. Well, we couldn’t really keep anyone from doing that.
Of course what happened, though, was that the people who weren’t counted among the twelve official mourners didn’t stay in their cars. And so throughout the funeral people opened their car doors; they got out of their cars; and then they began to creep closer, and closer, to the casket, to the point that we had people hiding in the bushes nearest the graveside, and grieving there.
We need to grieve when we lose someone; and the ritual of a funeral, and the proclamation of the gospel promise of new life in Christ, are so important to that grieving process. And what I learned, during that long season of lockdowns, was that you could do that—you could mourn and hear the gospel of life— hiding behind a yew bush, if you had to.
That wasn’t the only sort of funeral we’ve had in this season of loss at St John’s, a season of loss that goes beyond COVID, reaching to the months both before and after. We’ve had some big funerals, and we’ve had some small funerals. And for some of those we’ve lost, we haven’t had a funeral at all. And while it saddens me that for some, we haven’t had that beneficial ritual that is the funeral service, I hope we can take some solace in what we hear in John’s Gospel today.
I’ve actually read both Gospel readings for All Souls, rather than just one—because they have such different, but such important things to say. The dialogue between Jesus and Martha puts death, and life after death, firmly within the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus tells Martha, clearly, that her brother Lazarus will rise again. But this rising again isn’t something that happens apart from Jesus—the Jesus who is “the resurrection and the life.” And that those who believe in him, even though they die,will live. So there is something that happens in Jesus, particularly in his resurrection, that gives us a vision of what those who put their trust in Jesus experience—life, and life in the body, life that is found first in the body of the Jesus the disciples see, touch, and eat with, even though he died on the cross.
But I read the other passage from John because it says something else that is very important, especially today, as we call to mind all those who died—some having far smaller funerals than they should’ve had, if circumstances had been different; and all those who have had no funeral at all. What Jesus says in this other reading, is that the will of the Father who sends the Son, is that the Son should lose nothing of all that the Father has given him; instead of losing the ones that are given in his hand, the Son will keep them, and keep them safe, until he raises them up on the last day.
And so yes, the funeral is so important, so important that people will sneak out of their cars and hide in the trees to hear the good news of the resurrection at the funeral of the one they loved. At the same time, though, the funeral does no magic thing either, in particular for those who have passed away. Because it really doesn’t matter how big, or how small, or even if we haven’t had a funeral at all—for all the good a funeral does for us. What matters is Jesus, and what matters is that Jesus remembers us, even if the deceased die in obscurity largely forgotten, and with few mourners, or even none at all.
What matters is that we have been given already to him, and those who have been given to Jesus will not be lost—but rather, what is given to Jesus, even those who die hidden in him, he will bear first into paradise, and then on the last day he will raise them up, giving to them what has been given to him: resurrection.
And so even though we mourn today, may that mourning not be in vain; let us set our eyes on Christ, the one in whom we find life, both now and in God’s blessed future.