I preached this sermon at St. Lydia's on All Saints Sundy, a day in the Christian calendar to remember those who have died. The text is Matthew, 5:1-11, the beatitudes.
I was the one who told my mother that her mother had died.
It seemed backwards, somehow,
for a daughter to deliver that kind of news to her mother.
It felt like it should have been the other way around.
I was living in Amsterdam; my parents had come to visit me,
and we were on the train,
traveling through the countryside,
past pastures of grazing cows,
sectioned by the blue of the canals.
This was back before international cell phone plans
and so when the call came, it came to me because I was the one who lived there.
A family member sending word from half way around the world
that back in Vancouver, her mother, my mother’s mother, was dead.
It wasn’t unexpected.
My mom knew by my tone of voice on the phone what had happened.
And after I had said all the words I knew I was supposed to say
she simply nodded
and turned her head to the window to watch the farmland speeding past.
Months later back at home,
I found our house filled with relics from my grandmother:
side tables and paintings that I remembered from her house.
Some of them seemed just slightly out of place in our home’s less formal aesthetic;
like artifacts that found themselves in the wrong wing of the museum.
When my mother spoke of the death of her mother,
she spoke of a loss of memory.
I keep wondering, she told me, about these little things.
Like whether it was me or my sister who fell of the carousel in Boardman Park,
or just how that story about Uncle Graham went.
And when she was alive, I would just call her up and ask her.
But I can’t call her up anymore.
And no one else remembers the stories.
My grandmother was the keeper of memories in our family.
The one who remembered the details of stories and family history
and recited them when we came for a visit,
or when we called her up.
Now, it seemed, those memories had died with her.
These past few weeks we’ve had some actors in residence in our basement,
who are doing a piece that takes place out on the Gowanus Canal.
The piece is based on the Greek myth of the River Styx
and it tells the story of Charon,
the boatman in who ferries souls to Hades.
In the myth, each of the souls who travel to the underworld
must drink from the river Lethe:
the river of forgetfulness, of oblivion,
and in doing so, forget their lives of the world above.
This weekend, I was lucky enough to see the production.
Together, the small audience climbs aboard a boat
and travels down the polluted Gowanus canal,
Charon is at the helm
and each of us is dressed in a ghostly blue hood,
for we are the souls on our way to Hades.
It is night and it is cold,
and the crumbling concrete banks of the Gowanus
take on an other-worldly feel as we pass an empty concrete factory,
a rusted out barge.
The scene is weird and unearthly.
And you feel like you just might forget the life you lived in the world above.
Death is awakening to the knowledge
that there are things in this life that we can lose, and lose forever.
Things that can never be recovered.
Perhaps the myth of the river Lethe allows us to encounter that fear and that reality.
My mother’s notion that with the slipping away of her mother,
came the slipping away of our stories:
the things that make our family who we are.
There are some things we can’t get back.
Tonight is a night when we remember people who are gone.
We write their names on slips of paper and light candles,
and thank God for the gift of each beautiful, imperfect soul.
I am always reminded on All Saints,
of all the names we don’t remember.
All those names of people whose lives have slipped past,
their contributions to this world perhaps lovely,
but not kept by the pages of history.
It’s those sort of saints that Jesus is pointing to
in this sermon, delivered on the green grass of the hillside.
Blessed are the poor.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are those who are merciful,
who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
Blessed are the pure in heart.
The names of these blessed ones
and perhaps even their memories
have slipped away from us.
We tend to remember people who did things that were big.
But God remembers those who were small.
And calls them blessed,
for their simplicity and the purity of the offerings they made to this world.
They are saints.
And they are not forgotten.
Our memories are always in pieces.
They are never complete -- we have lost names and faces,
fragments of history and bits of our past.
But Christ’s words on the hillside offer us a picture
not of fragmentation, but of wholeness.
Those who mourn are comforted.
What is broken is mended.
Death is something different in the Christian story
than the underworld of the ancient Greeks’ imagination.
While the river of Lethe dis-members us from ourselves and our stories,
death in the Christian context re-members us.
Puts us back together in wholeness and restores us to God.
Death may be final, but for Christians, it does not have the final word,
and we worship the one who met death on a cross:
a cross that through that death, became the tree of life.
In this story, death is not a river where we forget
or a land where we are lost,
but a table where there is bread,
a commonwealth where we are restored.
We may have lost bits and pieces of our stories.
we may have lost bits and pieces of ourselves.
We may have lost someone we cared for, deeply,
or someone who was simply a piece of our life.
But nothing is lost in God.
Whatever names and faces we may fail to remember,
God remembers every one.
And look at them all here with us now,
these saints of God,
this great cloud of witnesses.
Those names we remember and those we have forgotten.
All of them here at this table,
where we break the bread apart into pieces, into fragments
and we eat it,
and it makes us whole.
Every time we do this,
they are with us.
Not lost to a world of forgetfulness
but re-membered -- put back together again
at this table that death -- death!
has made big enough for all.
How will we, like those before us, re-member the world?
How will we mend what is broken?
Draw together what has been fragmented?
With our mercy.
With our humility.
With our morning.
With our poverty.
With our meekness.
With our hunger for what is right and good.
There are things in this life that we can lose, and lose forever.
Things that can never be recovered.
Things we can never get back.
But I have this trust
that there is a life, a world,
beyond this one.
Or maybe sort of below it -- underneath.
All these fragments, these pieces of ourselves,
of our stories,
the names, the faces, the memories,
slip through the cracks of our sidewalks
and are caught there.
Find a home there,
in that place beyond the river.
And in that place
nothing is ever lost.
Worship on All Saints' Day, the names and photographs
of those we remember hanging above the table.