For as long as I can remember, I’ve thought about the dead. Lodged in my memory, from early childhood, is something my dad told me. He told me that I was named after his father, my middle name: Samuel. That was my grandfather’s name, Samuel. I never met him because he died five years before I was born. But my parents gave me his name as my middle name because I was born on the anniversary of his death—on the same day, but five years later. My name remembers his life: someone who I never met, someone who I never knew—but somehow my life would be a living memory of his, that my life and his would be remembered together. I can’t help but remember the dead.
My grandfather is the first death I can remember—even though his passing preceded my birth. The second and third were my childhood Sunday school teacher who was killed, and my best friend’s mother who died of cancer. I was eight, or maybe ten—it’s all a fog, but I do remember not knowing what to say to my friend who lost his mom. We just sat there together at the funeral.
From the beginning, the central practice of the church has been a kind of memorial service, a ritual of remembrance: Communion, where we gather around a table and take the bread, then the cup, and remember the dead-yet-mysteriously-alive Christ. “We proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes”—that’s what we speak over the meal in the words of institution.
When it comes to our faith, about knowing what to say, I feel like my ten-year-old self again—there with my friend, at his mom’s funeral, just sitting there, because all the words seem cheap and cliché, every word feels like a kind of lie. That’s what church feels like for me. That’s how our faith feels like. A long history of not knowing what exactly to say, so we keep on fumbling with our words, listening for the least worst things to say—and the best we can do is offer an invitation to gather together, to meet for worship, for fellowship, for a meal; to gather around a table and proclaim his death until he comes.
There’s a wordless longing at the core of our faith, because our gathering together is all about this Jesus who has gone missing, a friend who has been absent, disappeared from us. We fumble with our words because nothing quite gets at what we feel, what we want again, which is love—for God, for each other, for the people we miss.
Church is how we remember God’s love of us as we let ourselves love one another and hope for the return of the ones we still love, even though they are not here.
When the prophet Isaiah longs for the day of salvation—as we heard in our passage Pauline read for us—when Isaiah dreams of God’s redemption, the prophet imagines a meal, all God’s people eating and drinking together, a table with fine wine and comfort food. “The Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines” (Isa 25:6). Salvation looks like a meal, with people of all nations—your neighbors and a few strangers, a reunion where loved ones are restored to one another, because, as Isaiah puts it, “death will be swallowed up forevermore,” the reign of death will be destroyed (25:8).
For now, we gather, we worship, we fellowship, we eat and drink—without being complete, without being whole, because we are waiting for every wound to be healed, every tear to be wiped away, every broken heart to be mended; we are waiting for every shooter, every solider, every police officer to be disarmed.
For now, we hope for new life, the renewal of heaven and earth, where death and violence and fear no longer exercise dominion, where all will be remembered and all will be restored.
For now, we look for lights to help us find our way—that’s what we do here when we remember people with these candles, these flickering lights as symbols of our memories of our friends, our loved ones, people who were for us flames of God’s love, warming our lives, showing us how to live and how to love.
Saints are those people we can’t help but remember, and miss, because they have shown us something of God, of what God is like. And without them we go on with our lives in a kind of bewilderment, a fog of confusion, a sense that the world is out of balance, that time is out of joint, because we feel them with us even when they are gone, and we feel them gone when we need them with us. All we have are flickers of memories, the flashes of their presence.
We can’t help but remember them because their lives have opened us up to God, to the God who is love. Their love has taught us what it means to love. Their lives have taught us what it means to live. They have opened us up to the spark of God’s love, a spark in us, that we might become flames like them: the fire of God, the warmth of love in a world that feels cold, the chill of this world: too cold for life, too cold for love.
We call them saints because we take them with us, they keep us warm, even after they’re gone, because they live on in our love, because God was in the love they showed us, because God is still in their love, the love that still flickers in us.