All Saints Day
November 2, 2014
This sermon was originally preached on All Saints Day, 2005 at Southern Methodist University's Service of Remembrance.
My grandmother, after whom I am named, passed away in 2000 at the age of 95 in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. She was one of a kind, like all the people we honor today. Cook Extraordinaire. Enemy of all moles—because of the damage they did to her acre garden. Impatient with a certain granddaughter who climbed the apple tree to avoid chores and read a book. Possessed of a stubborn cheerfulness that stayed with her to the very end of life. That's all I have time to tell you today. I wish you had known her. I wish I had known more of those we honor today, because what God says is true of Solomon is true of them: No one like them has ever been before and no one like them will ever arise again. They are children of God, just as we are. The difference is they see God now and we, inspired by them, press on in hope of the day we will join them in that cloud of witnesses. In the meantime, as the author of 1 John reminds us, "we are children of God now" because of the gift of our identity from God (1 Jn. 3:1).
A few days after her funeral service, I went with my mother to Nana's apartment at Bethany Village United Methodist retirement village where she had lived for the past twenty years. Mom didn't want to go through her things alone. I'm known in the family for my efficiency in giving things away in the interest of neatness. I've even thought at times that, if this professor thing doesn't work out, I could start a business where you go in and help people de-clutter and organize their lives. So I was an ideal choice to go with Mom to Nana's apartment.
The apartment was still the same as I remembered it from many visits. Nana had surrounded herself with mementos of her family, and so I stood in the middle of her little living room surrounded by pictures of my mom, her only child, her four grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. Surrounded by special china and figurines all of which I remembered from visiting her as a child.
As I stood looking around the room, a troubling vision came to my mind. I pictured what would happen in a couple of days to this room—the carpet cleaners would come in and steam clean the carpets. The painters would come in and repaint the walls. And then someone else would move into Nana's space. My mind filled with dread and my limbs were weighed down with weariness. None of us wants our loved ones to be forgotten! We want the flag to stay at half-mast. We don't want anyone to delete the bulk email that announces a death in the Southern Methodist Community. We want to live surrounded by their memory.
I'm afraid I wasn't as much help to my mom that day as she had hoped because the de-clutter queen spent most of the morning squirreling things away in a big boxed marked "Keep." Two green bird figurines I remembered seeing as a little girl in her living room in her bigger house. The blue porcelain tea with the cups with missing handles we'd played with so many times. And the pink art deco vases with the figures of nubile young women on them that my grandfather had splurged and bought in 1935 because she had admired them in the department store display. My kids call them the naked pink ladies vases and ask me to put them away when we have company. But I don't. I taped up the box and shipped them all to Texas from Pennsylvania, so that those who live in and visit my home will be surrounded by memories of Nana.
When I got home from Pennsylvania, I found a stack of cards waiting for me from my friends and relatives. I appreciated the thoughtfulness of the senders. I put the cards on the table in our front hall in an orderly row. Most of the cards had pictures of trees or flowers and sometimes boats on the front and inside something like "May your pain be lessened by the hope that your loved one will live on in the memories of those whose lives she touched." That's our culture's definition of life after death. And it is a theme that threads its way through many world religions. It has always seemed to me to have a sort of wishful thinking feel to it.
I wanted bolder cards. I wanted cards that expressed, not human hopes from culture, but Christian hope in the face of death.
I even imagined the insides to the cards I wanted to receive and put around my house.
How about a card with a picture of King Solomon on the front and inside a quote from
1 Kings 3? This is the account of Solomon's request of God when he was mourning his father and feeling inadequate to be king. The people wrote it down so they could remember it in times of national bereavement and confusion.
How about a card with God's response to Solomon affirming his uniqueness? It could say, "No one like your loved one has ever been before and no one like your loved one will ever be again. Thanks be to God in whose loving care she rests now and always!"