Naming the Dead

On Friday, I attended a conversation hosted by the BTS Center called It’s Okay to Grieve. Allen Ewing-Merrill, the new Executive Director of this organization, is also a friend, He and his wife and sweet girls arrived in Maine while I was pastoring there to plant a new church within an old downtown congregation. I’ve said it before. My colleagues are doing the most amazing ministry with such care, compassion and creativity. I am in awe and I was excited to listen in on a conversation particularly for clergy.

Later that day, I watched the press conference that Andrew Cuomo hosted earlier that day. It’s the same one where he bashes the president. I might have watched it for that reason. Maybe.

I was struck by the slide with the death tally. The total deaths reached as high as 15,683 but it wasn’t the total that appeared on this slide. Instead, it was dates and numbers.

April 13: 778

April 14: 752

April 15: 606

The number of lives lost on these days and the three days that followed. I found a still here. Though the dates were, the death tally wasn’t cumulative. I found this confusing. Or maybe I was just tired because I was watching it way past my bedtime, but I expected the number to go up to reach that overwhelming statistic that has probably increased not only in New York state but in many other places around the world. 

It hit me then that those people had names. It should be obvious just as each and every one of those nursing home and hospitals have a name. They have boards making hard choices about how to manage care. They have doctors, nurses, cafeteria workers and janitorial staff that are all essential workers. Every single one of them has a name that was given to them on the day of their birth. A name that originated from their father’s lineage or sprouted from the wonder-filled bliss of two new parents. We shall call this child beloved.

Names are important especially for people of faith. We recall with wonder and confusion that Adam and Eve were given the daunting task of naming God’s creations. It was one of the many ways that they partnered with God to care for these new precious beings.

I felt the rush of sorrow for each and every one of those beloved children.

All 15,683 in New York.

All 23,660 in Italy.

All 4,632 in China.

All 339 in King County surrounding Seattle.

All 743 in Westchester County where my parents still live.

All 477 in Texas.

I remembered in seminary when we had committed to praying over the names of those that died in the war in Afghanistan. I remember when that number reached so high it seemed impossible that we had lost so many young lives as much as I remember the knot in my stomach that the only names we had were for the American soldiers who had died. There had been other lives lost — women, children, innocent bystanders, and even enemy soldiers — but we didn’t know their names. We didn’t pray for them.

There is power in who we choose to name in our prayers just as there continues to matter that we remember Tamir Rice, Tanisha Anderson, Mya Hall, Walter Scott and Sandra Bland. It matters that we say their names as much as it matters that we remember their stories. In the midst of this pandemic, when families aren’t able to gather and memorialize the dead, there are too many dying alone. It feels all the more important that we remember their names and their stories.

I had seen this video on Twitter of someone flipping through the pages of the obituary section in the Italian paper before any of this really felt real. I feel the enormity of that loss. There are so many but each of those names has a story. Each of those names deserves to be honored and cherished. A colleague of mine exclaimed earlier this week that worship shouldn’t feel like a funeral right now. We are already feeling that weight. Worship needs to offer something else, she insisted, perhaps because it was Easter just the week before. I’m not so sure. I wonder if our worship shouldn’t reflect our collective loss right now.

I wonder if there shouldn’t be a time when we pause to name the dead.

There are lists that record the celebrities who have died of COVID-19. In fact, I found several lists of famous people. There’s a list of healthcare workers that have died. It is a HIPAA violation to share those names. I know. I’ve spent enough time in hospitals in my ministry but I still wonder how we name the dead.

And I wonder if it can really wait with all the grief we are already carrying.






Liturgical Lights for Sunday May 17, 2015

J A S M I N EThe Narrative Lectionary on May 17, 2015 is Romans 6:1-14 where it boldly claims, “So you must consider yourself dead to sin and alive in God and Jesus Christ.” My first instinct is to start singing along with Bon Jovi but it really has nothing to do with this text. Except there is something compelling about this idea of Dead or Alive. It would make a good sermon title, I do believe.

Because we’re in this in-between space. Over at Working Preacher, J. R. Daniel Cook points out that in this chapter the verbs referring to Christ are consistently past tense. But the verbs referring to our new life are regularly in the future tense. That is to say that we know about the dead part — but we’re not sure how we’ll come alive. We’re not sure what that resurrection will look like or if it will come. But, the awesome mystery is that we do not have to sin anymore. But, that’s a tricky word. Most might like to avoid it. Perhaps because it’s been overused. Perhaps because it’s hard to define. Or maybe because we’ve used it as a weapon. We’ve charged each other with sin rather than examine our own hearts and minds for sin.

In her little book on this very topic, Barbara Brown Taylor suggests that sin is a “holy, helpful word.” It is in fact “our only hope, the fire alarm that wakes us up to the possibility of true repentance.” It is what points us toward the possibility of becoming alive.

Call to Worship (Responsive)
Inspired by Psalm 51

Dead to the guilt we’ve carried for so many years,
Alive we walk into the newness of life.
Dead to the many things we have done wrong just this week,
Alive we will move for God in Jesus Christ.
Dead to sin that is always before us,
Alive we will be with the grace of God.

Prayer of Invocation 

Come to us, Living God,
As we come together as your people,
With our hearts broken and crushed
Feeling like we are more dead than alive,
Wondering how we might walk into your grace again, Come.
Because we are pretty sure that we can’t do anything right
and that we’ll only make it worse if we even try, so come.
Come to us, Living God,
so that we might feel so alive that we might
be moved to walk or dance or sing
because your grace is so present.
Come, Living God.
Be in every word.
Be in every voice.
Be in every song so that we might come alive again.
Come and walk us into the newness of life.
Help us in all our awkwardness and missteps
to move gracefully into your grace.
May it become so alive in us
in our worship and praise
that we can’t remember when it wasn’t there.
Come to us, Living God, and make us alive again.
In Christ Jesus, Amen.

Call to Confession 

Never feeling like we’ve really found it, always bound by the weights that we carry from our many failures and mistakes, we come before the grace of God to glimpse resurrection. We seek to come alive for God in Jesus Christ by confessing those things that have deadened our hearts and minds. And so we pray together,

Prayer of Confession (Unison)

We don’t like to talk about sin because we don’t really want to admit that we’ve done anything wrong. We don’t want to believe that we’re all that bad. But, Living God, you know. You know that there are things that we’ve done and things we’ve said that have made us feel dead inside. We’ve carried this guilt around for so long that we can’t forgive ourselves. Living God, forgive what we can’t forgive. Or, if that’s not possible, if we can’t believe that even you would forgive us, help us to see these deadening sins as reminders of your grace. Living God, help us to walk into the newness of life in Christ if we could only let go of these sins.

Silent Prayer & Personal Confession

Assurance of God’s Grace (Responsive)

Walk into the newness of life.
Come alive to God in Jesus Christ!
Because God forgives you. God always forgives you.
So we must consider ourselves dead to sin and alive in God and Jesus Christ. Alleluia!

If you use the prayers I’ve written in your worship, and I hope you will, please do offer me credit with as follows:

The prayers in our worship this morning were written by/adapted from Liturgical Lights for Sunday May 17, 2015 by the Rev. Elsa Anders Peters. Elsa is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ who blogs at