All Saints Day 2019 – Pastor Goede
You might already know that the cemetery business in the United States is in big trouble. Forty years ago, if you wanted to list businesses that would never go belly-up, cemeteries would have been one of them. People are always going to die, everybody used to say. They were right, but nobody anticipated that within a very short period of time, just a few decades, almost everybody would choose cremation rather than burial. They really didn’t foresee just how many paper mache boxes of ashes would find their final resting places in drawers and closets and cabinets in the homes of loved ones.
I get it. People don’t want to lose forever those who have died. But it speaks to a larger problem when people are very afraid to even say those words, those who have died. Almost everyone now says, they’ve passed away. And it’s very common to hear people say, my loved one is not far away, they’re right there in that drawer, with me. They come back to me sometimes in another form, a butterfly, a rainbow. I know they’re here in the room with me right now, watching over me. They’re not really gone.
More people speak in this way now because many fewer people have faith in God and resurrection from the dead and life everlasting. If you believe that death is the end, then it is unbearable to let go of a loved one who has died. Faith allows us to speak about death without fear, because for us, death is just another step in our journey through life and death and into everlasting life. We have hope for the life to come, a sure and certain hope we say.
If we want to be a witness of hope to those who are in mourning and to those who live in fear of death, it’s helpful to spend time reflecting on how we imagine this life everlasting. It’s important to know what the church teaches about death and life after death. It’s helpful to know how other people have imagined the afterlife. But it’s equally important to spend time making that hope your own by imagining what you feel everlasting life might be like.
For me, I love the idea of the communion of saints, that company of heaven, all of those who have gone before us surrounding God, communing with God. American Christians tend to focus on very individual images of themselves in heaven, concerned with what’s around them. I’m more inspired by the idea of communing with God and communing with the saints.
When it comes to the communion of saints, many still use the language that Martin Luther knew in his time, the church militant and the church triumphant. This might explain for you all of the language that we hear in our hymns about fortresses and soldiers and marching. The church militant is all of the living saints, those of us still on our journey through life. The church triumphant is all those saints who have gone before us into everlasting life. The military language imagery rings true for those who like to feel a part of something bigger than themselves. As many veterans can attest, this is something in which the military excels, and the saints marching is a very physical image that works for a lot of people.
I like the image of communing with God around a banquet table. We sometimes call Holy Communion “a foretaste of the feast to come,” because when we’re around the table, we are saints communing with each other and with God. Like any good dinner party, the food and drink are good, but what’s really compelling is the conversation and stories and laughter. What’s really good is the spirit around the table, the collective spirit that arises in the midst of fellowship. We have fellowship with each other because of all of the things we share as a congregation, the remembrance of baptism at the font, the holy supper, Oktoberfest, singing hymns about the marching saints. We do things together because we not only commune with God but we commune with the saints.
Someday, we’ll find that fellowship, that communion, with all the saints in light, as we say, all those who have gone before us in faith. What we hope, what we have to look forward to, is communing with God and other believers in spirit. It’s hard to imagine what that looks like. A dinner party is a pretty good image of that.
After the hymn, you’ll have time to walk around the nave, light a candle or more than one if you’d like, read names as we read names aloud. Exercise your imagination. Try to put your hope into images or words. As the communion of saints, we need to sustain the hope and the faith of each other, and build faith in those who are uncertain, afraid and hopeless.