Sermon for All Saints Day
The entrance is defined by a simple wrought-iron gate with the words “Wilmington Lutheran Cemetery” inscribed across the top. The gate itself is a bit of an anomaly, since that is all there is… just a gate, but no fence surrounding the old country graveyard carved out of the North Dakota farmland… surrounded, as it were, by the gravel county road on one side and the verdant fields of hard red winter wheat on the other three. There are perhaps two or three hundred grave stones which mark the burial sites in the cemetery, some carefully tended by family members, and some long-since fallen into disrepair as there is no one left to tidy the markers or pull the weeds or lay fresh flowers on Memorial Day.
Other than the side of the cemetery marked by the road, the other three borders are imprecise, as the trimmed grass between the headstones gives way to longer grasses at the edges, which then yield to a small stripe of native grasses and weeds, which suddenly transforms itself into the waves of gently blowing wheat, swaying to and fro in the mid-summer breeze. The line between what is cemetery and what is wheat field is hard to see – even harder to define. It is an indistinct and imprecise line between that sacred space which honors and holds the dead and that sacred space which provides such bounty to the living.
There is indeed a fine and fuzzy line between the sacredness of life and the sacredness of death. And in the end, we often come to realize that that line is an artificial one, created perhaps to ease our conscience, or rationalize our decisions, or simplify our choices. But sometimes – even amidst those artificial boundaries – we are fortunate enough to come to discover the gift of death in life, and the gift of life in death. At what point does the cemetery become the wheat field, or the wheat field the cemetery? For each holds in its very bosom the stuff of life, and the stuff of death.
We are gathered here this evening to celebrate the Feast of All Saints Day, along with its sister celebration, the Eve of All Souls Day, sometimes known as the Commemoration of All Faithful Departed – a time wherein we stand once again in that intermediary space between life and death… between the life on this side of the line separating those two worlds, and the life which lies just beyond… and in the act of standing in that holy space, we find those two worlds collapsing into a single “now”… a single divine moment where we are united with God, and united with one another across time and space, and united with all of creation.
All Saints Day is all about blurring that line between life and death. It’s not about denying the reality of death in our life, but it is about claiming death – the big death which will some day claim our mortal lives, or the countless little deaths we encounter in a myriad of ways every day – claiming death as a part of life, as a gift of life, as a source of life.
I was at a conference once where one of the participants made the following comment. He said, “Life begins with an inhalation, and it ends with an exhalation.” In other words, what I heard him saying is that life begins with something as simple as a breath – our first breath – and it ends, as well, with something as simple as a breath – our final breath. Life is lived between breath and breath. It is a tenuous and fleeting experience – this experience of catching your first, or surrendering your final, breath.
I might carry his image one step further and say that every inhalation is, in its own way for me, a new, small life… and every exhalation a new, small death. And it is that endless cycle of life and death, life and death, life and death – especially as we find ourselves surrounded by other members of our community of faith experiencing those same cycles of life and death – which ties us to one another, ties us to the saints of the past and the saints yet unborn, ties us to all of creation, ties us to our good and gracious God.
For the gift of life is that, buried deep within it, most assuredly we will find death. And the gift of death is that, buried deep within it, most assuredly we will find life. At what point does the cemetery become the wheat field, or the wheat field the cemetery? For all of it is fertile ground, coming to us as a gift from our God, who loves us into life… and loves us into death… and loves us into new life once again.