Sermon for All Saints' Day

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A strange urban legend has been confirmed recently. At long last, reporters found people willing to go on record to discuss a long-standing but illegal practice having to do with spreading the ashes of loved ones. Ashes, of course, are spread in all sorts of places, as a way of paying tribute to something that person enjoyed in life or found meaningful. Did you know that it’s apparently quite popular to sneak ashes into Disneyland and Disney World, and to scatter them throughout the parks? Human ashes have been left in flower beds, on Magic Kingdom lawns, on Pirates of the Caribbean and in the moat underneath the flying elephants of the Dumbo ride. It will come as no surprise that, according to park workers, the most popular location is the Haunted Mansion. When custodians notice new ashes, they call out the code “HEPA cleanup,” a reference to the ultra fine vacuum cleaner needed to remove the ashes while the ride is shut down due to “technical difficulties.” “Code Grandma” is also sometimes used. 

Fans say that treating the parks as a final resting place is the ultimate tribute; they just have to get the cremains past security. “Anyone who knew my mom knew Disney was her happy place,” said Jodie Wells, a business coach from Florida, who in 2009 smuggled in a pill bottle containing some of her mother’s ashes. Once inside the park, Ms. Wells left the ashes on It’s a Small World near a head-spinning bird, a moment in the ride that always made her mother laugh. Another woman reported spreading her father’s ashes near the park gates. As a kid, she took summer trips there with her dad, who worked the night shift at a plastic factory. She said that when they were at Disney, “he wasn’t my tired, night-shift Dad. He became the dad who said, ‘Let’s get you some Mouse ears! Let’s get your name stitched on them!’ Having his ashes there now is like saying, ‘I love this, dad! Can we stay forever?” (Wall Street Journal, 10/24/18)

Obviously I can’t officially endorse the practice of spreading ashes at Disney. Is is technically a misdemeanor. But there is something rather charming about the stories. People bring ashes to the happiest place on earth so that their loved ones can rest there. Happy memories can be cherished. A place that was special in the relationship can be revisited. It’s a way to stay connected to those loved ones, which is one of our deepest desires on this side of heaven. In many ways, our prayers on All Saints’ night are about that longing. 

Perhaps you are grieving the loss of a loved one tonight. Maybe recent tragedies weigh heavy on your heart. Or, you might simply be contemplating your place in the mysterious communion of saints. Our prayers and music tonight are wide enough to span both grief and joy, whatever you bring to this occasion. This service is for anyone seeking connection to loved ones or to heaven itself, a search we often fumble our way through since we so quickly come up against mysteries that are too large for us to understand. Maybe that’s why the Disneyland stories are so poignant. They are examples of our very human, imperfect search for that connection to heaven. 

I see that same imperfect search woven throughout the story of the raising of Lazarus. Martha and Mary were upset that Jesus hadn’t arrived sooner to save their brother’s life. Lazarus was already gone, and they grieved the finality of his absence. In the verses leading up to the passage we just heard, Jesus told Martha that her brother would rise again. Martha agreed that he would rise again on the last day, a common Jewish teaching at the time. That’s the way we usually talk about resurrection, too, as a future event that we don’t yet understand. Listen to the strange words that Jesus said next to Martha. “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” Resurrection is now, in Jesus, in the present tense. And to make this teaching tangible, he called Lazarus out from the grave. 

The English theologian F. D. Maurice once said that the exchange between Jesus and Martha depressed him. “How sad it is, he observed, that after two thousand years, the church has gotten most Christians only to the point to which the Pharisees (and their teachings on resurrection) got Martha: a belief in resurrection in the future, in resurrection a week from some Tuesday. Only a handful have ever gotten past that point and made the leap to resurrection now – to resurrection as the fundamental mystery of creation made manifest in Jesus’ own flesh. And yet that mystery is all over the pages of the New Testament.” (Robert Capon) Another preacher suggested that if you held a light beneath the page with the Lazarus story written on it, you’d see the resurrection of Jesus shining through. 

The raising of Lazarus was not about saving Lazarus’ life. Lazarus would die a second time. Bringing Lazarus back from the dead was meant to show us something more fundamental about who Jesus is. Jesus is the resurrection and the life, now. Making life from death is what he does. His death and resurrection are underlying realities, not of a specific moment in history but of all moments. Like a grand sacrament, Jesus is the fundamental sign of God’s grace that infuses all of creation, the sign of God’s mercy over judgment, of God’s forgiveness over sin, of God’s life over death itself.

Just as God created out of nothing, God redeems out of the nothingness of death. Lazarus didn’t earn resurrection and neither do we. We cannot earn anything eternal by our own merits. Heaven is already ours through the grace of Jesus Christ. His resurrection and life are what bind us to one another, a communion of saints, from Lazarus to loved ones we have lost, and even to us.

Tonight, we give thanks for the communion of saints, that sacred and very non-exclusive club of which we are all members. We honor those who have gone before us, the saints who rest from their labors. As we now know, some rest in stranger places than others. Which just shows the very imperfect humanness we bring to the task of understanding this larger picture of life and death, of earth and heaven. Tonight, we’re in good company with the likes of Mary and Martha. Like them, we long to hear that there is a sacred glue that holds us all together. And with them, tonight we are assured that it’s true. Not because we have figured anything out, but because Christ’s resurrection shines through us all. 

Ragan Sutterfield