A man I grew up around is active on Facebook. Along with the kinds of posts we might expect, this fellow uses his page to report the passing of those near and dear. This is a touching effort. And also brave. Now in his early 90s, it’s fair to say that he’s at that point in life where his goodbyes outnumber his hellos.
I’ve heard this as a joke, but it’s really not very funny—that you know you’re of a certain age when the newspaper comes, and rather than pour over the headlines, you turn immediately to the obituaries.
Loss finds us no matter our age, of course. When I was five, one of my kindergarten classmates died partway through the school year. When our teacher, Mrs. Lloyd, announced this, an unfamiliar stillness swept across the room as our young souls labored to make sense of this. One of our own was gone forever.
“What happens after we die,” Mormon missionaries asked one day many years later while I was on my way to freshman English. “I have no idea,” I replied. “I belong to the United Church of Christ. We don’t spend much time talking about the afterlife. Our primary concern is the here and now.”
In the hours and days that followed, the missionaries’ question gently carried me where I had never been before. What settled into my soul is something that has never left me: a solid certainty about what awaits us, an uplifting, unchanging conviction that has seen me through many losses, some personal and some pastoral.
God does not leave us to sort out life’s weightiest question alone, of course. As people of faith, we are the inheritors of teachings and traditions that comfort and anchor us. Enduring truths wrap themselves around us when we grieve and help us release the fears and dark thoughts that can visit when death makes itself known.
The rituals of the church are certainly a gift. They help us draw near to death without getting trapped by it.
Recall that on the first day of Lent, an ashy cross is placed on our foreheads or the back of our hands. With that mark comes a gentle, loving reminder that we are dust, and to dust, we shall return. This truth is spoken over us, spoken into us, not so that we can cower but so that we might—yet again—set aside the denial of death’s inevitability that so often cheats us of living fully and well.
Following that day of ashy reminders and on through the holy season of Lent, we follow Jesus toward his physical end. We ask ourselves how it is that he is so utterly unafraid of death. How might we, too, claim some or all of this freedom?
At Easter, we revel in Jesus’ triumph over death and claim this victory as our own.
Over the years, as our faith journeys unfold, as we grieve losses expected and unexpected, our tradition holds out its arms to us. It invites us to rest in certain passages from scripture, to take refuge in lines from memorial services, to recall lyrics from hymns we have sung, and perhaps to remember a helpful phrase or image from a funeral sermon.
And then, on a day like today, when our gospel reading speaks into the mystery that lies beyond this life, a day when we pause with intention to remember those we have lost in the previous year, we let Jesus’ words to the Sadducees sink into our souls and psyches.
In today’s lesson from Luke, we hear an exchange between Jesus and some religious leaders who have come with a question about resurrection. Perhaps these men are sincere, but likely they are not; Luke makes it a point to tell us that, as a group, Sadducees did not believe in resurrection.
The men’s question to Jesus is at once ridiculous and understandable.
Ridiculous because it involves an over-the-top story about a childless woman who has married seven brothers in sequence. She has done this according to her faith which teaches that when a childless woman’s husband dies, one of that man’s brothers is obligated to marry her. In the afterlife, the Sadducees ask, whose wife will this seven-times married woman be?
It’s a ridiculous question, and yet also it’s an understandable one. After all, we humans have a habit of using what we know to reason out what we don’t.
We see this all the time in Christianity. People who know a little too much about conditional love project onto God all sorts of limits and rules—and not just in this life but also the next. People who have lived with a little too much fear of (or experience of) punishment often have a tendency to imagine that God can’t wait to bring the hammer down on the wayward and the willful—and for all eternity.
Given these inclinations, no wonder some among us are preoccupied with how to avoid God’s condemnation and ensure a comfortable place in the afterlife.
It takes a special kind of person to face with confidence the unknown, unexperienced realities of the life beyond the one we presently know and to do this with a certainty that what we will find there will be far more marvelous than any can imagine. It takes a special person to peer into the brink and say with bold confidence, as the English mystic Julian of Norwich said, “All will be well. All manner of things will be well.”
For those who trust him, Jesus is that special person. “God is not the God of the dead but of the living; to God, everyone remains alive,” we hear Jesus say to the Sadducees.
Even if these men don’t believe Jesus, or simply can’t, his words mean the world to us. They speak of a God who is deathless, a God whose presence and power transcend the familiar boundaries between life and death, a God who is neither confined to nor confounded by any setting or circumstance.
Even as God is deathless, even as every soul is perpetually alive to God, God is also tremendously attentive to our human vulnerabilities. God knows how real and unbreachable the boundary, the separation between those who are alive and those now gone, is for us.
The Apostle Paul expressed this vulnerability well, didn’t he when he wrote that from this side of the veil, all of us see through the glass darkly. Even the most spiritually clear-sighted are left squinting.
God doesn’t shrug God’s shoulders when God sees us bumping up against the hard questions and realities that surround death. No God leans in. God draws near. With grace and compassion, God invites us into that tender, risky place where life, loss, and love intersect.
God invites us here, not so that we can gather up all the answers. And certainly not so that we can be humbled by what we can’t yet know—but so that in this space, this space that acknowledges that our lives include loss, we might find God ready, willing, and able to minister to us. To all of who we might be in this moment. To all of who we aren’t, as well.
This morning we are as brave as that man who takes time to post recent losses on Facebook. We step toward loss and death so that God might meet us at the edge of what we know and what we do not know. Not yet, anyway.
We take these steps out of love, of course. Out of love for those we have most recently lost, as well as love for the precious gift of life itself, a gift that has allowed us to know, love, and be changed by those whose paths have joined ours a little or a lot.
This morning we take a few moments while we silently call forth the names and faces of those lost to us in the last year. Other faces and names will come, of course, because our sense of loss simply can’t be confined to twelve months. Receive all who come to your heart and mind.
After we have spent a few moments in silence, I will invite us to name those whose loss is more recent. We will sound the singing bowl after each beloved name, and then when that music has faded, we will offer up another name. Following this, I will lead us in prayer.
Let us move now into sacred silence and holy remembering, a place where God meets us and ministers to our depths.
Ritual of Remembrance
Gracious God, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, you call us to remember. That is, you invite us to gather up in mindful gratitude our recollections and memories, the stories that have been passed down to us—sacred and familial both, so that we might be blessed and made more whole today and so that we might step into tomorrow, even more, your people than we are in this present moment.
You, O God, are the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Isaac and Rebecca, the God of Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel, all of whom are alive to you and in you and with you. You, O God, are the God made real to us in Christ, come to us in the Holy Spirit, as well as the God of every soul who has walked, is walking, or will walk this good earth.
We are grateful for those you have placed in our lives, people who, just by being themselves, have enabled us to become who we are. With humble hearts, we pause now to remember by name those precious family members, friends, and people whom we have lost in the last year. With the sounding of the bell, we honor each one and rest in the knowledge that they live in your love everlasting.
(Call for names.)
Loving God, we also sound our bell for all those whose passing in years gone by we are still grieving. (Strike the singing bowl.)
We sound our bell for those unknown to us, people whose passing in the last year has been the source of grief for those who knew and loved them.
Similarly, we sound our bell for those whose deaths have come too soon—people living on the streets; men, women, and children under siege in Ukraine and those living in other regions of conflict; those risking everything to cross into the safety of this country as well as other nations around the world; those who suffered death because they dared to be themselves; those who disappeared or were disappeared; those whom modern medicine could not spare; those lost to violence, accident, or self-inflicted injury.
All those whom the human family has lost are not lost to you, O God. They are found this very moment dwelling in your heart, loved beyond limit, not dead but indeed alive in ways we who are here on earth may struggle to imagine.
You who have always been with us, be with us today, tomorrow, and every day as we live with the mysteries of life, death, and love. Bring us to life, again and again, in and through your deathless love.
These things we pray in the name of the one whose victory over death belongs to all of us. Amen.