Gail, Hazel, Ida, Mary, Elizabeth. Those are my maternal ancestors starting with my mother and going back as far as I can. When I was growing up, the stories of these women captured me. Elizabeth, Mary, Ida, Hazel, Gail. When I was a young girl, I would whisper their names to myself, making sure they stayed in my memory. My family moved often and I was an introvert who didn’t jump easily into new situations. Knowing these names, and hearing their stories, gave me a sense of security and connectedness. I knew where I belonged: Elizabeth, Mary, Ida, Hazel, Gail...
What are some of your names? To whom to you belong?
Belonging is important. In fact, as people who follow Jesus, we believe belonging is at the core of who we are. In baptism, we welcome people with the words, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever”. You belong. Around the table, we remember that the bread and wine are broken and poured for you. You belong.
Every Sunday we gather to remember that we belong to ancient stories of awe and wonder. Stories of earth and sky, stories of holy mystery. Stories of growing and learning, failing and trying again, journeys and adventure, love and anger, darkness and light. Stories of great joy and deep grief. We belong to all of it.
We belong to the teachings that stop us in our tracks, and cause us to ponder and question. Teachings that guide, comfort, challenge - and inspire us to try harder.
It is quite incredible, really. To all belong to one another in this way.
Today, All Saints, is a time set aside to remember this. And to remember that all of this is for all of us. Today is not about a select few, the chosen and special ones who have more faith and do more good than we could ever muster. Those who “really” belong. Today is about the Divine Love that connects all of us through time and space. The love that ensures each of us belong. And about the fact that this love, and this belonging to one another, cannot be broken or lost.
Because where we don’t belong, our faith tells us, is in death. We don’t belong in death or to death.
"Lazarus, come out!" Jesus says today. And the dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth.
Jesus said to them, "Unbind him, and let him go."
Now, we don’t know who Jesus is talking to here. We might logically assume the “them” is the crowd of people gathered. But when I imagine this scene, I imagine Jesus is talking to Death. UNBIND him, Jesus says. Death, you have no power here. Death, you are not stronger than love. Death, you cannot divide us; you can’t keep us from one another. And this man, Lazarus, he is loved. He belongs, and he belongs to us.
Death, UNBIND HIM.
It’s not an accident that we celebrate the Feast of All Saints at this time of year. As Kate Johnson taught in Adult Ed, this is the time of year many cultures and religions have similar celebrations. This is the time of year when the veil between this world and the next feels very thin. It’s the time of year we are invited to peek through that veil, and call to those who have gone ahead. “Remind us that you’re here”, we ask. “Come stand beside us.”
Episcopal Bishop Steven Charleston urges us to look and listen closely: Can you hear them? he asks.
Can you hear them as they pass by? Can you feel them standing just beside you? They are the ones who have gone before, saints who have touched our lives. They are the family to which we belong, ancient and never ending. Our ancestors watch over us, their constant vigil keeping. Their wisdom surrounds us. Their healing a river through channels of time. Can you hear them? They speak of a love they have seen, love beyond imagining, love that holds us safe, until we rise to meet them.
This doesn’t mean we don’t, or somehow shouldn’t, experience grief when someone we love is gone from this world. In fact, All Saints’ Day is the one holy day set aside to tend to our grief. The grief we experience on Good Friday is grief for Jesus. All Saints Day is for us, for remembering the people who were important to us, who made an impact on our lives. The people we couldn’t live without. The people we miss.
Grief is powerful and can be all-consuming. And it is often very lonely. Maybe you, like me, have experienced waking up on the morning after the death of someone you love, and wondered how the Earth could still be turning. How the sun could possibly rise another day. How people could continue to drive off to work, how the world could just go, after our world has been shattered. We feel separate from everyone and everything. We are grateful for the love and concern our friends show us, but it doesn’t fix it. And ultimately grief is a path we travel alone.
But on All Saints Day, our grief is seen and shared. On All Saints’ Day, our grief is no longer lonely and isolating. On All Saints’ Day, our grief bind us together in a new and powerful way. We enter the valley of the shadow of death together, and walk through it – through it and out the other side - together. Today we mourn and celebrate and remember together.
And how did Jesus raise Lazarus to new life? How did he bring him back from Death’s grasp? By calling his name. “Lazarus, come out!” Today, we do the same thing. We speak the names of the ones we love but no longer see.... We speak their names and we reject death. We speak their names and know that they, like Lazarus, are UNBOUND.
And Bishop Charleston, again, reminds us that when we speak to them, they do answer us:
You have heard the whispers on quiet summer evenings when you’ve been walking alone. They are the sound of the ancestors, speaking softly just on the other side of what we call real. You have felt the touch on your shoulder, when you were deep in prayer or bent with worry. You have experienced the mystery that surrounds us - the coincidences that are actually signs, offering proof that we live just next door to heaven. That they are all much closer than we think.
All Saint invites us to remember we are not alone. Not now or ever. We live in the love of God, and are sustained by those who have gone before us, those who are now reunited with God, but continue to love and guide us. A great cloud of witnesses, cheering us on.
All Saints invites us to remember that we all belong to one another in the communion of saints. No one gets baptized alone. No one receives communion alone. No one walks through this life alone. Death cannot change that. Because we are unbound. And because there is nothing, not time and space, and certainly not death, that can separate us from the love that holds us in belonging to God and to one another. Thanks be.