After graduating from seminary, I interviewed for a job as pastor of a tiny parish in very rural Maine. Following the interview, a couple of the parishioners took me on a tour of the village.
They pointed out the Grange Hall, Charlie Merrill’s cows, the Grover’s lumber mill, Clyde Millet’s oxen (which he trained for the fair) and the one-room cabin they had found for me to live in.
I noted with some dismay a small, unmistakable building just behind it in the woods. “Does the cabin have plumbing?” I asked hopefully. “’Fraid not,” was the reply.
But human adaptability is a wondrous thing. I lived comfortably in that cabin, although I always knew my time in Maine was temporary. Yet, it was the start of a journey that has taken me to many places. In some ways, that journey is symbolized in the variety of abodes in which I have lived: roomy and cozy, rural and urban, flimsy and solid, populated and solitary, rented and owned, plumbed and unplumbed.
Temporariness, impermanency; these are part and parcel of the human condition. As the biblical authors are ever at pains to remind us: we are visitors here; we are merely passing through.
Biblically speaking: life is an expedition and we live in tents. Don’t let the apparent solidity of your dwelling fool you. It may be of brick or stone or wood, but it’s not forever.
In the book of Deuteronomy, there is a pivotal phrase, a phrase deeply engrained in Israel’s communal memory: “a wandering Aramaean was my father.” Having stated that fact of ancestry, having proclaimed that heritage, that defining datum of family lore and history
(as defining as, My ancestors were enslaved, or My ancestors are Rockefellers) the author goes on to tell the story of the Exodus: the story of a nomadic people, wanderers, itinerants, immigrants – voyaging upon the desert sands, dwelling in tents
The story affirms that because God accompanied them, they did not merely manage the harsh and demanding life of the Bedouin, they flourished. Their flocks increased, their descendants were many; they grew in wealth and status.
It was during this forty-year sojourn that the Israelites gave God a nickname: Shekenah.
meaning, the God who pitches a tent among us. Our lives may be impermanent, our stay temporary, but this we believe: God is with us. God travels with us. That, in the end, may be the single most important article of our faith: that God is present with us on the journey...the journey throughout this life and, not only this life, but also and crucially the journey from this life into the next. This article of faith is all the difference in the world: the difference between despair and hope; between nothingness and meaning.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul writes about the impermanence of our individual lives, our own mortality. Yet Paul writes with this assurance: “If the earthly tent we live in (that is our body), is destroyed we have a building from God, not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens.”
Don’t let the sweet warm beating of your pulse or the firmness of your skin fool you: they’re not forever, these bodies. Like the brick and mortar of your dwelling place, these too, are but temporary abodes. But, here’s the kicker; these bodies are temporary, fleeting, perishable, but they are not in the end, essential!
Today all across the globe, the Christian Church commemorates the festival of All Saints. On this festival the Christian church makes a bold claim, an outrageous claim: though our stay on earth is temporary, though these tents of skin will not last forever, we have a building from God not made by human hands, eternal in the heavens
This is our faith. This is our story. It is the story of a God who does not abandon us, who does not consign us to nothingness, who has made provisions, who, when we have shed these earthly tents greets us at the gates of heaven, flings them open and bids us enter.
This day, all Saints, we gather with the memories of ones we have loved who are now gone: who are nowhere to be seen, whose voices we can no longer hear, whose warm skin we can no longer touch, but on whose behalf we dare proclaim our resurrection faith. We dare assert that our dead are not dead! That they are alive, wondrously alive in God’s transcendent love; that they dwell with God in a house not made with human hands, imperishable, eternal in the heavens.
RITUAL OF REMEMBERING
As we shift now, into the ritual of remembering, I invite you to pause in reflection. Gather into your heart, in your mind’s eye, those loved ones of yours who have died, who have made the transition from this world to the next, from flesh to spirit, from earth to heaven.
Mingled with these memories, are the fresh memories of Old Southers who departed this life within the past year. We recite their names now:
William G. Amidon
Professor Dan Terrill Dunn
Professor Alvar W. Gustafson
Sylvia Ferrell-Jones, Esquire
The Reverend Professor Merle R. Jordan
Professor David Scott Palmer
Professor and Sir Elizabeth Sherman Swing
Rae Jean N. Wiggins
In addition, we name before God those
who will be laid to rest in our Columbarium this day:
David Carl Francis Chandler
Harry Lyn Huff
The Reverend Canon Peter George Southwell-Sander
We do now for our beloved dead what human hearts and hands can do. We will make them visible, using a rose to represent them. You will be directed by the ushers to undertake a pilgrimage of sorts, to go all the way round the sanctuary, leaving your rose in one of the vases
or laying it upon the table. If you are unable to take the pilgrimage, invite the person next to
you to carry your rose to the front or you may hand it to an usher who will bear it to the front.
Let us embark upon this journey, this pilgrimage of our love, our losses, our hope and above all, our faith in the God of heaven and earth, the God by whom death is defeated.