A Sermon for All Souls

Every time the Feast of All Souls comes around, and the church invites us to remember those who have gone before us, to stand at the door of the tomb, at the edge of the grave.  And I can’t help but feel that there is something terribly final and something terribly unfinished about this feast.

Something terribly final – because that is how death and absence feel to us, and today is a day when we allow ourselves to sit with that feeling of absence.

And something terribly unfinished – because we each carry with us the memories of all sorts of unfinished business – there is more to say and feel and grieve and celebrate – and there are all of those things said and unsaid, done and left undone within the context of lives of unfinished and imperfect love.

But today, many will make physical journeys to gravesides and cemeteries or spiritual journeys through silence and memory, in order to remember and honor that unfinished love, a love which now lives alongside and is set deep within God’s perfect love, which is never finished with us.

A couple years ago, a parishioner invited me to go with her to take flowers to the grave of her recently deceased husband.    When she came to pick me up, I could barely squeeze into the car.  It was like she had cut down her whole garden to transport it to the cemetery.  We said a little prayer in which I thanked God for the gift of Zyrtec and off we went.  In the car, we talked about her gardening and we talked about her grief – both acts of love, both seemingly unfinished, both always a struggle.

In the world of the Bible, however, the garden was the symbol of victory over struggle.  Whenever a great king established peace along his borders after struggle, he would do three things.[1]  He would build a temple.  He would build himself a house. And he would construct, in those difficult and unyielding lands, a glorious garden.  This garden, like the famous hanging gardens of Babylon, would be a sign of victory and a symbol of peace.  So, in the book of Genesis at the very beginning of the Bible, it seems appropriate that the new world, Eden, was depicted as a garden, a symbol of the victory of God over the great chaos, a garden given to humanity to cultivate.  And it makes sense that, at the end of the Bible, Revelation offers us a vision of victory and return, a new garden, the sign that suffering and death have been defeated.  A place of peace.  And although it is a strange story, it makes sense that when Mary Magdalene found the tomb empty on Easter morning, and wept in confusion and grief, she turned around and saw Jesus – but she didn’t recognize him at first.  The Bible says she thought he was the gardener.  Perhaps this was no mistake, because in that moment she was looking at the one who had gained the victory over suffering and death and had returned to cultivate peace and new life.

Today, on All Souls day, we also are called into the strange joy of hope, because in our living and in our dying we are unfinished.  Even when the work of human being has ceased, we are still becoming, being brought to completion by the God who created us to abide in his love – the God who prepares a place for us, a new garden, so that where God dwells, there we may be also.

Today we remember those who spent their lives cultivating God’s garden here on earth – those for whom life was always unfinished, always a struggle, but very often a source of joy and delight.  And we make our stand here, at the end, the tomb, the place that feels like defeat for us, knowing that, from here, Jesus – the master gardener, calls to all the saints to lead us along the path to the very heart of God – to his own victory garden of peace.

[1] Many thanks to Professor Jesse Rainbow for this insight about the symbolism of the garden in the ancient near eastern world.


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