“What makes a funeral a good one?” Writer Kate Bowler posed this question to Thomas Lynch, the funeral director in Milford, Michigan. For more than 40 years, Thomas has lived his life in close proximity to death. He’s helped countless families say ‘goodbye’ to their loved ones. He’s stood at the grave with people of all faiths and with people of no faith, as each one — wrestling with the mystery of mortality — stares into the abyss. Yes, Thomas knows something about the rituals that accompany death. He knows something about what makes for a good funeral.
“A good funeral has to include the essential elements,” Thomas began. “We need a corpse. And we need people to whom the corpse matters — mourners. That’s very important. And we need a story. And the story can’t be ‘Oh, Grandma really liked chocolate chip cookies or Pop-Pop always cheated at golf.’ That’s not sufficiently nimble a story to handle the mystery of mortality … [It doesn’t explain] the difference between being and ceasing to be … We need a story to say … ‘This is how this person came to be the ones they are, and this is where we think they’ve gone.’ And if you can get that story told in a funeral, you’ve done people a lot of good.”
Now, this is not a funeral. But All Saints’ Sunday is the day we remember loved ones whose remains have been returned to the earth. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. And it is the day we name before God the saints who have joined the church triumphant since this time last year. So, in a sense, this day makes us all mourners. For it is the moment in the liturgical year when we recall those we’ve lost, when we acknowledge our collective grief. For some among us, this grief is acute. Piercing. Sharp as the sting of death, itself. For others this grief is like a stone we carry in our pockets. It’s worn smooth after years or decades. But — still — it’s there. Yes, in a sense, this day makes us all mourners.
Because of these things, today we wrestle with the mystery of mortality. Which, as Thomas Lynch has learned, means this moment requires a story. A good story. One that anchors our souls. One that is sufficiently nimble to handle our big questions about life and death and life beyond. One that explains what it is we’re doing here.
And — thank goodness — we have such a story …
In today’s passage the author of Revelation — John of Patmos — sets before us a vision. He paints a picture of the heavenly throne room filled with a vast multitude. There are faces from every nation — from all tribes and peoples and languages — so many that no one can count them. And, together, the faithful raise their voices in song: Blessing and glory and wisdom be to our God forever and ever!
This scene offers a welcome respite from the visions of destruction for which Revelation is known. This book was addressed to Christians living under the oppressive heel of Rome, and the preceding chapter is filled with troubling images that represent the very-real threats this community faced. Chapter 6 is where we meet the four horsemen of the apocalypse, who bring conquest and strife and famine and death. Chapter 6 is where we read of cataclysmic cosmic events — the sun turning black as sackcloth, the stars falling from the sky — that portend the wrath to come. Against the horrors of apocalypse, this chapter ends with a question: Who is able to stand?
John of Patmos answers his question here, with this image of a great multitude standing before the throne of God. The worshipers are robed in white; they wave palm branches with the thrill of victory; they cry out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God!
This gathering is none other than the communion of saints — the faithful ones who have come out of the great ordeal. They stand in the shelter of the Almighty who protects them from suffering. There is no more hunger. No more thirst. The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat. Because Jesus — the Lamb who is also their shepherd — will guide them to springs of the waters of life. God will wipe away every tear; sorrow and sighing will cease. This immeasurable multitude — the fellowship of the faithful — are forever free from pain. And so they praise the Lord day and night, singing: thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!
John’s description of the heavenly throne room echoes a promise God’s people had heard long before. Centuries before Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth, The Prophet Isaiah foretold a day when the Lord will prepare a feast for all people:
God will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the covering that is spread over all nations, Isaiah writes.
[God] will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces …
It will be said on that day,
“… This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
Here, in the Revelation to John, we see Isaiah’s prophecy fulfilled. The great multitude rejoices in God’s salvation, for the Lord has wiped away the tears from their faces. The shroud that was cast over all peoples — that was spread over the nations — no longer covers them. Instead, they stand sheltered by God — the one who has swallowed up death forever …
It’s a good story. A profoundly good story. One that anchors our souls, because we know it to be true. God has swallowed up death. In raising Jesus from the tomb, God has shattered the power of death and opened the way to eternal life. This is the story of Easter. And it’s the truth we proclaim every time we gather at the grave. It’s the truth to which we cling every time death creeps uncomfortably close: when a doctor utters a dreaded diagnosis or sirens shatter the stillness of night. It’s the truth that sustains us in a world where sorrow and sighing seem as unceasing as tides rolling ashore.
And it’s the truth that anchors our souls on this All Saints’ Sunday. Today, as we name before God the saints of this family of faith, we imagine them standing before the heavenly throne. They are there — members of that great multitude, robed in white — who stand forever in the presence of God. In that place, there is neither hunger nor thirst. Death is no more. Sorrow and sighing are no more. Every tear has been wiped away.
It’s a good story. I expect Thomas Lynch would tell us it’s sufficiently nimble for a funeral. It does the job. It tells us where the people we have laid to rest go beyond the mortal veil … But it’s not just a story for a funeral. It’s not just a story for All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a story that gives us hope for this life, on this side of the grave.
And we need this hope. Because, on this side of the grave, it can feel like a shroud is cast over us. It’s not just the shroud of death — although, in a world still reeling from the pandemic, the pall of death hangs heavy. As the election nears, it seems a looming sense of dread has settled over our nation. People of good will are wondering if violence will erupt, if truth will win out, if democracy will prevail. And beyond the angst of the body politic, our emotional health is besieged by the constant onslaught of bad news. Our lives are cloaked in anxiety. We just can’t get out from under the fear that the next disaster will affect someone we love. It can make us yearn for the day when death will be swallowed up completely, when tears will be wiped away once-and-for-all. Until then, it can leave us questioning: Who is able to stand all this? Who is able to stand?
Today’s passage gives us an answer: The great multitude is able to stand. This throng of saints who worship day and night before God’s throne — they are able to stand.
But they are not the only ones. They are not the only ones who are able to stand in faithful witness before the Lord of Life. Because God’s presence is not confined to that heavenly throne room. And this promise of the Shepherd’s sustaining grace is not restricted to the saints who have come through the great ordeal. This promise is for the whole people of God — those who rest from their labors, and those of us who continue to labor in God’s vineyard. Despite the pall of anxiety that threatens to overwhelm us, we, too, are able to stand. Because we stand in the shelter of the One who, even now, wipes away our tears and leads us to a table prepared for us. And, as we strive to be faithful in our own witness, we stand on the shoulders of saints who have come before, drawing strength from the stories their lives have taught us.
In the same interview in which he laid out the essential elements of a good funeral, Thomas Lynch spoke about the grace-filled promises that help us bear up the weight of our lives. “I [don’t have a clue about] what comes next.” he said. “But I do think that we are given glimpses … All my life I’ve had a sense about the Cloud of Witnesses. I always think of it like the balcony in To Kill a Mockingbird …”
You might remember this scene from To Kill a Mockingbird, as well. It comes at the end of the trial. Despite all the evidence before the court, and despite Atticus Finch’s best efforts to defend Tom Robinson, the all white jury has convicted the black defendant. Right after the verdict is read, the white residents of Maycomb, Alabama file out of the courtroom. But the black citizens linger in the gallery above. And, as Atticus packs up his things, these onlookers begin to rise to their feet. Soon, everyone in the balcony is standing. Everyone but Scout, who sits on the floor, watching her father through the railing. So Reverend Sykes looks down: “Miss Jean Louise,” he says. “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your Father’s passing.”
It’s a wonderful image for the Great Cloud of Witnesses — for that vast multitude, the Communion of Saints. The ones who stand around us in silent witness, watching over as we strive to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. As we strive to be faithful, even in the face of all that threatens to undo us.
The Communion of Saints surrounds us. Perhaps not as clearly visible as they are to us at this moment, when photos of our own beloved saints offer a visual reminder of the Great Cloud of Witnesses. But, always, they are there. Standing to support us, even as they stand before the throne of God. Strengthened by their presence — and sustained by the One who leads us to the waters of life — we, too may stand. We, too, may live our days in faithful witness, until we take our place before the throne of God, where death and weeping and pain are no more.
Friends, it’s a good story. It’s a great story. One that anchors our souls because it is true. And this good news binds us together as one community in Christ, as the communion of saints who stand — who stand! — by the grace of God.
Creator of the Cosmos, the One from whom all things come and our eternal destiny when our earthly life comes to an end, we give you thanks for your stunning creation and for the precious gift of life.
Today, we express our deep gratitude for the saints who graced our lives and now live eternally with you. We remember parents, grandparents, sisters and brothers, wives and husbands, children, teachers, and friends.
As we pause to recall the saints of our lives, we give thanks for
the ones who brought out the best in us…
the ones who encouraged us to be determined and never give up…
the ones who supported us when life weighed heavy…
the ones who disciplined us when we strayed…
the ones who forgave us when we were harsh…
the ones who prompted us to pursue a spiritual life…
the ones who taught us the vital importance of honesty…
the ones who were generous with us and inspired us to nurture a generous spirit…
the ones who loved us even when we were not all that lovable…
the ones who made us laugh…
the ones who comforted us when life was oppressive and grueling…
The ones who helped us discover our purpose…
The ones who challenged us to work for a just cause…
The ones who showed us how to find real happiness and true joy…
Everlasting God, we give thanks for those who died during the past year whom we now remember and name:
Mighty God, as we remember our loved ones – sometimes brilliant and sometimes baffling, but so important to us – we express our gratitude for the special ways they touched our lives and for the part of them that will continue to live on through us.
And now joining our voices as one, we pray the prayer Jesus taught us to pray together, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
 Kate Bowler (Host), A Good Funeral with Thomas Lynch (Season 9, Episode 4). In Everything Happens. https://katebowler.com/podcasts/thomas-lynch-a-good-funeral/
 To Kill a Mockingbird, directed by Robert Mulligan, starring Gregory Peck, Universal Pictures, 1962.
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