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Bible Readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=228


 

 

Proper 32 Year B (Commemoration of the Departed) – Nov 8, 2015               St James', Peace River

 

Many years ago I was talking with a woman who had lost her husband about ten years before. Half out of caring and half out of ignorance, I wondered how much his memory was still an active part of her life, so I asked her, “How much do you think about [Peter] now?” And I'll never forget her answer. With a choked voice and tears in her eyes, she said, “Only the first thing every morning when I wake up, and the last thing every night before I go to sleep. And you know, Iain, in ten years no one else has ever asked me about that.”

There really was nothing for me to say at that point, but there was lots to think about. For one thing, that remembering our loved ones is a lot more powerful than we realize or care to admit, even to ourselves. For another, it is such an emotional and uncomfortable area that it is almost taboo – there are almost no situations where we would invite someone to talk about their memories, and even fewer where we would do the talking ourselves. And that's harsh, because it means that something so hugely important to the person doing the remembering, is something that has nowhere to be shared.

You would hope that the church might be an exception, and sometimes it is, though not always. Even here we've lost many of the habits that allow us to talk about people who have died, despite our faith that they really are still part of our lives. That is, still, part of our faith – we mention it in the creed each time we talk about the “Communion of the saints”, and we reinforce it at every eucharist, as we share Christ's body and blood, the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation, which nourishes not only us in this life but all the souls now in God's safe keeping. But it is very rare now to see that observed in any specific way. Where in the past, people were very conscious of each other's remembered loved ones, and made space for the anniversaries of their deaths to be remembered publicly in prayer – now, we bring our memories to church with us, but only to keep them to ourselves.

Which is one of the reasons for today. Today we take the time to say some of our griefs out loud, or just whisper them quietly, and to listen and share others' remembrances with compassion, gratitude and faith. We do that because we know our faith, our conviction that God gives life beyond the life we know, may be the only thing that can really speak to our grief. But we also do it because we know we need a community, friends, and a safe space to express and experience the power that our remembered loved ones still have in this life: from the pain of loss, to the surprise of a happy recollection, to the determination and commitment that comes when we realize how much their values and goals have shaped our own.

For the church to be that safe place, there are two big things that we need to offer one another, not just today, but every day. One is compassion; at least, I think that's the word I want. Not sympathy, which can only take you so far. Not empathy, because in fact we can't enter into the strength and depth of feeling that someone else's grief has for them, as I learned in that conversation I mentioned at the start. But compassion, because whatever the other person is experiencing, we can make the effort to feel at least some of it along with them.

In that way we acknowledge and communicate that the whole range of what our memories can bear, belongs in the community which Christ founded and where he is still present. It's OK to cry, to be in shock; it's also OK to be numb, or angry; and it's OK to be relieved, happy, or even giddy, when your remembering takes you there. Jesus lived a human life in order to be with us through all of those things, as we were reminded last week when we saw him sad and angry and bold, all at the same time, at the tomb of Lazarus. And by being there for one another, we make that story real and give life to our faith right here and now.

The other thing we need to offer one another, is the story of faith itself. Sometimes, when you are trying to comprehend a loss in your own life, the language of faith can seem strange or distant. But when there are people around us who keep telling the story, there's something to hold on to. And when I say “the story” I mean the real story, and the whole story. Not just that “everything's OK” because that's not what our faith is about; and not just that “it comes out all right in the end”, because there's a lot of the story to tell and to live through before we get there.

The story of faith is one in which loss is real, and deep. The people of Israel spent 70 years in exile, away from their land and the stories of their parents and grandparents. God came to be with them, and to weep with them by the waters of Babylon. And before, during, and after that part of their story, they were dealing with their own more personal griefs, as Abraham mourned for Sarah, David lamented his beloved son Absalom, and generation after generation buried their dead with the promise of God's Anointed One as yet unfulfilled. But in all of that, they persisted in believing in God, believing that it all meant something, believing that there was part of the story still to be told.

We heard a glimpse of that at the end of the Old Testament reading this morning – the wrap-up to the story of Ruth and Naomi, which seems like it has little to do with the overall picture of the Bible until you hear the very last verse, and realize that we are talking about the great-grandmother of King David, and the 15-times-great-grandmother of Jesus. Even Ruth and Naomi's story is a story of mourning, as it begins with them losing both their husbands, along with Ruth's other son. It becomes something else in the end, a pointer to God's promise, but only because there was a whole community of people who kept faith, and kept telling their story as part of that faith, passing it on from one generation to the next.

All of that, all the centuries of it full of personal stories of loss and faith, all of it leads us to Jesus, who embodies it all – in the most literal way, not only grieving for his lost friend Lazarus, but being the one who dies himself and is mourned by his friends. His resurrection doesn't undo any of that, it doesn't rewrite the story, except by adding another chapter, one that is so hard to believe in when it's happening to you or the people you love, and yet is always there saying to us, “After the end, there is something more.”

And so we remember. We remember the generations before us, and we tell their stories. We remember the people who have been part of our lives and are now gone from us, and we talk to God and one another about them. We remember their acts of public heroism, self-sacrifice and service as we are going to do on November 11th. But we also remember private moments when we shared the whole range of human life with them, in sadness, joy, passion, boredom, conflict, commitment and everything else. But remembering, for us, is not just about keeping the past in the past. It is our way of affirming our faith that, with God, everything is present, everything and everyone is alive in a greater and more real way than we can understand or experience right here and now. To remember someone is for them to be present with you – again, something we experience every week as we remember Jesus and discover how he is with us; but also something we know, when we experience the people we remember as part of our lives, now and forever.

There was one more person we heard from this morning who sums that all up. I didn't notice her at first, because that gospel passage is one we usually use to teach a whole different lesson, about giving from the heart. But the woman whom Jesus notices giving her tiny copper coins – she, too, is a widow. And that's a part of her story, thought what it means to her we can only guess at.

We know that it means she doesn't have the person in her life that she depended on and (I hope) loved. We know that it means she's now left materially poor and powerless. And yet there she is, living life more generously than the wealthy who hardly deign to notice her. Maybe there's something about loss that, when you live through it and still try to hold on to your faith, makes you understand the value of things. Not just the value of what you had, but the value of what you have now and will have, because you find that value in the certainty that God walks with you through it all. As we remember the people we've said our goodbyes to, I pray that we can ask God to remember them with us – to make them present with him in eternity, in a way that reflects in our lives today. And knowing that, may we be as strong as that nameless widow, ready to live our part in God's story in such a way that people will eventually be remembering us too.