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This is a photo I normally keep in my desk drawer; for now I’ll put it on the table with the other saint memorabilia. Taken after Bible study on a spring Wednesday morning in 2012, the photo shows me with eight other women. I’m pretty sure a ninth had sneaked away before the picture was taken.
Each woman is smiling. Some of them are standing arm in arm. I was feeling so blessed to be with them.
But of those nine faithful, delightful, and amazing women, only three are still with us. Over the past 15 months, the other six, all longtime members of First Church, have died: first Dodie, then Windy and Gale—all in a single month in 2014—and then this year, Sabra and Gene and, just yesterday, dear Alice Mertz.
And that was just from the Bible study group. Over the same period we also lost Hubbard and Bob and Duncan and Peg Hartman.
Each one fully human: beloved, blessed, wounded, flawed, wellspring of light and love. Each one a miracle, the unlikely, utterly unrepeatable product of egg and sperm, nature and nurture, time and experience, trial and error, love and grace. Each one a sheep of God’s own fold, a lamb of Love’s true flock, a sinner of God’s own redeeming. Each one made from stardust and returned to dust.
Each one a saint of God.
Of course, we were not the only ones to lose them; they also left behind beloved spouses, children, grandchildren and friends. And they were not the only ones we’ve lost; in our own lives we’ve also said goodbye to spouses, mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, nieces and nephews, other family members, friends, and beloved animal companions.
We all have felt the sting of death, the black hole of loss, the weight of grief, the emptiness of a future without a dear one.
Jesus felt it, too.
As he stood at Lazarus’ tomb Jesus wept not only for his own loss of a dear friend and not only for the grief of Lazarus’ two sisters. He wept and he railed also at death itself: the pain it causes, the brokenness it creates, the grief that never ends. He wept because death hurts. He wept for for all who live in fear of death. He wept because death seemed to be the end. And he wept because he knew that death would soon come for him.
And then he remembered who he was: the Resurrection and the Life. Then he wiped away his tears and remembered how things are meantto be. He remembered that there is a power greater than death.
“Take away the stone,” he told the gathered community. Take away everything that separates anyone from the fullness of life. Take away one another’s fears. Leave behind all that constrains and oppresses. Set one another free from death’s grip. Even from the depths of your grief, even as you struggle to live with loss, do not believe that death will have the final word. Nothing can separate you from the heart of God, which is where your loved one dwells.
This is the illogical, irrational, unprovable faith on which we stand together: that as surely as the breath of life left their bodies, those who have died are made alive again in Christ. It is the hope that keeps us coming back on All Saints Day year after year, when we express our common grief and brokenness through a table crowded with photographs of dear ones we’ve loved and lost, when we proclaim the presence we know to be true, when we sing to the glory of God.
This is the day we set aside to remember that the dear ones who left our lives are now part of something bigger: a great cloud of witnesses—witnesses whose race has been won. This is the day to remember that we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses, this cloud of cheerleaders who give us strength, encouragement, and companionship as we run our own races, assuring us that our lives, too, are holy, that we, too, are saints.
We remember these witness-saints who from their labors rest. We give thanks for them, and pray that those who rest in peace may rise in glory.
Most of the departed ones we have already celebrated, but not Duncan Rollason. Duncan died last November 30 in Tucson, Arizona, and it made sense to have his memorial service there. But Duncan was a part of us for 67 years; his daughter, Betsy, is still a part of us, and so we are honored today to be able to honor his long and faith-filled life.
The son of a Congregational minister, a proud alumnus of Middlebury College, a devoted husband and proud father and grandfather, and a longtime professor and dean at UMass, Duncan was a grateful man who loved his life. He was an old gentleman, and a bit of a traditionalist except for his tendency to weep openly when a hymn, a memory, or a piece of music moved his soul. Not even failing eyesight and, eventually, legal blindness could keep Duncan from engaging with the world and the people he loved.
Today we give thanks for Saint Duncan, so called not because he was perfect or pious but because he put his trust in a God who chooses to work wonders through imperfect and broken people like us.
Yes, we, too, are saints. Having been buried with Christ in baptism, we will be raised with him in glory. In the meantime, we choose to seek to live into the fullness and abundance of life God wants for us.
In the meantime, we grieve our loved ones. In the meantime, we live in love and trust, even as we know that death will also come for us someday. In the meantime, we live in hope, because we believe death does not have the last word, because we believe that death, too, will one day be no more.
Not in some heavenly hereafter, not in the great by and by, but here on earth. There will come a day when God, working through us, the saints of God, defeats death.
God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, our scriptures tell us. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.
See, you saints of God, the One who loves us is making all things new. It is happening even now. And it will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Thanks be to God!