Stranger, call this not a place
Of Fear and Gloom.
To me it is a pleasant Spot,
It is my Husband's tomb.
Â· North Dakota epitaph
We come together to remember all those who have gone before us. All those who in some way contributed to the life we live and the world we live in. All those who know, better than we can ever know, the meaning of Paul's words which we read at the beginning of this liturgy: "If we live we live to the Lord, and if we die we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's."
Period! That is the fundamental and absolute word of scripture. Or, as another preacher has said, "God is the One from whom we came and the One to whom we shall return."
Coming and returning. That is the absolute truth of who we are. We are those people who come and return. We come from God and return to God, and God is all around.
Here is a story that might be helpful to think about today. Someone was asking an Episcopal priest, who they knew had originally been a Congregationalist, why he had left his original church, became an Episcopalian, and then went on to seek ordination. He had a very interesting answer. "It was all those feet," he said, rather cryptically.
It seems that this fellow had been an accomplished singer, a bass. Although he was a Congregationalist, he sang in the choir of a large Episcopal Church. The choir director, it seems, liked to keep an eye on the bass section. The basses sat in the front pew of the choir stalls in the chancel. "During Communion," the priest said, "we sang hymns as we knelt in those choir pews. As people came to the altar and returned to their seats, all I saw was an endless procession of feet. All of the feet were different. Some shoes were shined and some were not. Some shoes were worn at the heel and some bulged near the big toe. All those shoes, all those feet-going to and from the altar for the body and blood of Christ!"
The priest went on to say that what he was watching from his place in the choir seemed like and endless and timeless procession of coming and returning. "All those feet," he said, "spoke something to me of eternity, and the communion of saints, and the body of Christ. And how it is we are all a part of the coming and returning. That we are members, one of another, and of that same procession from and back to God, the one from whom we come and the one to whom we shall return."
Sacred to the memory of Amos Fortune,
Who was born free in Africa,
a slave in America,
he purchased liberty,
and died hopefully.
November 17, 1801, Aet. 91
Â· New Hampshire epitaph
There is also a story about Martha and Jesus that speaks to the issues of All Souls Day. At the time of the death of her brother Lazarus, Martha was just plain angry. While her sister and other friends and relations mourned the death of Lazarus, Martha marched right out to the edge of town to let Jesus have a piece of her mind. "If you had come when we called you, my brother Lazarus would not be dead," she said angrily.
How often we all feel like that. It does not matter if someone we miss died yesterday or twenty years of yesterdays ago-sometimes we just want to let God have it! We miss them. It hurts. Things just are not the same. And if only, if only, if only........
Jesus can take it. Jesus is patient with Martha, and is always ready to be patient with us when we are feeling separated from those we love and miss. Jesus is ready to transform our grief into faith and into joy. "Do you believe in the resurrection of the dead?" Jesus asked Martha. "Oh, yes," Martha replies, "we all know that at the last day, at the end of time, when the new age dawns, God shall raise the dead." "But Martha, I am the resurrection. Do you believe this?" "Yes," Martha answered; and she meant it.
In fact, Martha became the first person in John's gospel to proclaim that "yes," Jesus is the Christ, and even as they speak, she knows her brother lives.
Even now they are all alive with God in Christ. All of them. They are alive! They are with God in Christ! Imagine the joy of Martha. That joy is meant for us all. That joy is ours even now!
Here lie I, Martin Elginbrodde:
Have mercy on my soul, Lord God,
As I would do, were I Lord God
and you were Martin Elginbrodde.
Â· epitaph in Elgin Cathedral
As we prepare to go to the altar to receive the Eucharist, let's remember all of the souls that have found Jesus here, in this place, at the foot of this altar. Each one of our brothers and sisters was a unique witness for Christ, calling us to make our witness as we come and return, come and return to this table to receive the bread of life and the cup of salvation.
The story is told that before his death, Rabbi Zusya said, "In the coming world, they will not ask me: 'Why were you not Moses? Why were you not David? Why were you not Abraham?' No. In the world to come they will ask me: 'Why were you not Zusya?'"
Today, as we remember those who, like Martha, have gone on before us to meet with Jesus, may we also remember who it is God calls us to be: unique witnesses for the Lord in this place.
For whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. The One from whom we come and the One to whom we shall return. Amen.