When I was a boy, my mother taught me how to make hospital corners when making my bed. You begin by positioning the flat sheet so that there is an equal length on either side of the bed and the top of the sheet is lined up with the head of the mattress. That leaves you with a much longer length of overhang at the foot of the bed. Next, you tuck all the excess length at the foot of the bed tightly under the mattress, leaving you with two flaps of sheet hanging over either side of the bed. Here there is some variation in opinion. Having worked in hospitals myself, I know that one way of finishing the bed at this point is to simply tuck the overhang under the mattress on either side of the bed, leaving a foot or so of slack near the top of the bed to be folded back over the blanket. My mother, however, taught me an extra bit of bedsheet origami that is difficult to explain, but involves one extra fold that has the end result of creating a tighter corner that stays in place longer.
Mom learned how to make hospital corners while working as a nurse’s aide on the neonatal ward in college. She speaks fondly of that work when she talks about it, remembering holding the newborn babies who were hospitalized for birth abnormalities, premature delivery, or other concerns. I got a closer look at the kind of work she did later in my own life when I began doing chaplaincy work in children’s hospitals.
Hospitals are full of bedsheets. They’re kept in bins that can be carted around on wheels so that they can be easily transported from floor to floor after they’ve been washed, sanitized and bleached. Before a patient is admitted to a ward and assigned a bed, the room has to be prepared. This involves making the bed. The application of proper technique to the folding of hospital corners has some practical purpose, I’m sure, though I’ve never asked. I suppose that it’s about maintaining a neat and orderly environment that is safe for doctors and nurses to move through. From a pastoral perspective though, the function of hospital corners has always seemed clear enough to me. They communicate a sense of neatness and order to patients and families terrified by the chaos and disorder brought on by injury or illness. They are a symbol among many others that you are in a place that knows how to respond to the body’s many frailties. Hospital corners inspire confidence. Diseased and damaged bodies tucked firmly into place between their reassuring folds. Everything is going to be alright.
But in hospitals, as in life, everything does not always turn out alright. Despite all their knowledge and diligence, doctors and nurses are not able to heal every disease or repair every injury. Working in a hospital means tending not only to bodies that heal, but also bodies that die. And when a body dies the nurses return to the same bin of bedsheets to retrieve a shroud for the body. This time the sheet is arranged loosely over the body, though with no less care. The sheet provides a measure of modesty and is an attempt to preserve the dignity of a body that may have been operated upon or damaged, so that mourners aren’t left with images too difficult to bear. A body becomes cold and stiff within an hour of death, though families will gather around the body for much longer, so the bedsheet we use to cover the dead creates the illusion that we are still carrying for the needs of the dead – keeping them warm – in much the same way as it provided the illusion that we could hold back death by folding the corners just right.
When a family is holding vigil, either during a long, difficult surgery or after death, as they wait for family and friends to arrive and begin the long process of grieving, we send for a food cart. The food that comes up on the hospital food cart is nothing like the kinds of casseroles and other offerings that will be brought to the families in their own homes by the members of their community – but it is a version, a symbol of that same kind of care. The anxious and the grieving need to attend to their own bodies, they need to keep doing what living bodies do, even in the midst of their grief. They need to eat. So we bring them a cart with coffee and tea, cookies and bread rolls and sandwiches. We provide a portable feast in miniature of comfort foods, knowing that food is yet one more symbol of provision.
The texts for this morning that deal with death also evoke images of bedsheets and banquets. The context in John is more personal, more like the kind of grief we experience at the hospital bedside. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha and friend to Jesus, has died. His family has wrapped him in his death shroud and laid him in his tomb. Death has taken hold of him so firmly that no amount of perfume or anointing with oil will hold back the stench of death. But Jesus performs a miracle more powerful and more stunning than any other he has yet performed. He does not simply heal a broken body, or calm a raging storm. Here Jesus commands a force more irresistible and inevitable that any other force of nature, he turns back the power of death itself to restore life and vitality to one who was undeniably dead.
Because the story of Lazarus is a personal story involving characters with names and histories of relationships to the central figure of Jesus, it is the most dramatic of the stories we hear this morning. It is the one we can most easily visualize as a scene in a movie in literal terms. But the theme of God’s power over death is expressed in more cosmic terms in the passages from Isaiah and Revelation. I love the one from Isaiah the most. There, as in the hospital, the dead body is covered with a shroud – but this shroud covers all people, this sheet blankets all nations.
This is first clue that we are now speaking of death as something more than the cessation of vitalizing bodily functions, something more than heart rates and respiration. We don’t imagine that Isaiah envisions a world in which all people are literally dead, but that Isaiah perceives something about the way we are living with each other to be death-dealing. Death in this passage is actually more than just death. Death is not the end-point of a life, but a power that holds dominion throughout life by the way it controls our ways of living with ourselves and others.
For Isaiah, the power of death was at work in the wars between Israel and Assyria. The nations of the ancient near east were caught up in a power struggle that kept pulling greater numbers of people into their wars. The northern kingdom of Israel formed an alliance with Syria against the even greater power of the Assyrian empire. Entire tribes of Israelites were carried off into exile. Life was brutal and uncertain. Life seemed to be ruled by something stronger than life, by the fear of death.
Into that culture and atmosphere of fear and violence, Isaiah imagines a scene in which God lifts the heavy pall of death from all peoples and all nations. God restores life to a lifeless land. God calls for the food cart and sets out a banquet of the highest order – the richest foo
ds, the sweetest wines – and where the peoples of every land and every nation are promised good things to eat, Isaiah says that God will consume death forever. God will take into God’s own self the death that has plagued the peoples of earth.
There is a temptation on All Saints Sunday to say too much about the dead. This is, after all, the day when we celebrate our unity with those who have gone before us, unity that is given to us in baptism when we become part of the living body of Christ that spans across every nation and every era to include the living and the dead, the known and the unknown. It is a day when we light candles to remind ourselves of the living presence the dead maintain among us through our own connection to them. It is a day when we tell stories about those who have died and remember their strong presence in our families and in our community. It is a day when our memories may give rise to fresh tears, as grieving that seemed over is remembered again and our hearts ache from the absence of people we have loved but no longer live with. To address those heartaches and losses, we can assure one another in the words of Revelation,
See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and our very God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.
And perhaps we can’t say much more than that. Hospital chaplains and nurses alike know that it is dangerous to say too much more than that. We can’t say what happens after death. We can’t say what waits for us on the other side of that transition. We can only acknowledge the reality that for those of us who remain here, in this life, that it hurts to be separated from the ones we love. And we can reassure one another that God is not one who sits passively on the other side of death, simply waiting to receive people into some new reality. The home of God is among us, the living. God dwells with us. God wants to be as near to us as possible, even so near as to completely take our nature and our experience. God wants to be incarnate, to be human, so as to completely experience and also completely transform our way of living.
And God wants to swallow up death. God is willing to trade plates with us at the dinner table, so that we come to the rail to feast on the bread of life and the cup of salvation, but God eats the bitterness of death and drinks in the tears of our suffering. God transforms the shroud of death that has kept nations at war with one another into the tablecloth of peace, where all peoples and all nations are invited to sit down next to one another, to break bread, to pass the peace.
When we come to worship we understand today to be an inbreaking of that new reality into the world. It is not complete, but it is underway. The salvation God promises all people and all nations is not someday, far off, after we have died and approached the judgment seat. It is, in part, today. That’s why we sing, “This is the feast of victory for our God. Alleluia!” This, today, our worship and our gathering is a part of the pulling back of death’s pall over the world. We confess our sin, we accept our forgiveness, we sing our praise, we extend peace to one another because the healing God wants to work in the world cannot wait any longer. We listen for the living word of God in Christ Jesus, the healer and the liberator who demands, “unbind him, and let him go!” We understand that he is speaking not only to dead Lazarus, but to you and I as well – deadened by the world’s resignation to death.
In the hospital we cover bodies with sheets and call for food carts for those who are still alive, and grieving. These comfort measures are not for the ones who have died, they are for the ones who are still living. The dead we commend to God, trusting in God’s mercy.
All Saints Sunday is for the living. We remember our dead, but today is not for them. Today is for us, we who remain, who perhaps still grieve. We tell the truth about our sorrow so that we can comfort one another and draw strength from the community. We see that community, that worldwide, trans-temporal community of God when we pass by the baptismal font on our way to the communion rail and are reminded that we belong to a body much larger than our own, a body that has already died and been resurrected, a body that is giving way its life for the sake of the world. We belong to the body of the risen Christ, made up of all the saints of God. This is the feast of victory for our God! Already, and not yet. Begun, but not completed. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.