Passage: Revelation 7:9-17
Date: November 5, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
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A few months ago, the husband of one of my college friends died. She shared these words of Shakespeare, from Romeo and Juliet, and I find them so beautiful.
“… and when he shall die,
Take him and cut him out in little stars,
And he will make the face of heaven so fine
That all the world will be in love with night
And pay no worship to the garish sun.”
It may not be the worst thing, but it is an awful thing when someone we love dies. There are times when it is a relief, a death after much suffering. There are those occasions, though, when death slams a door shut, and there is no hope for reconciliation, for unsaid things to be spoken.
You know that as well as I. Death comes, much to our surprise even though all the while we knew that it would. Death comes, and we are depleted. Night falls, and we wait for our beloved to become like the stars at night, making the face of heaven so fine, as Shakespeare said.
I have realized that one of the big drawbacks to being a pastor in the same place for a while is that you start officiating at the services of those people who have become your friends – those people you’ve sat through endless meetings with; those people who have sat through the good, the bad, and the ugly of your sermons; those people you served a meal with; those people you sat with in the hospital, or had tea with at home or rode to a Presbytery meeting with. It’s enough to make one want to serve two years then move on.
But we don’t. We don’t up and leave and not make connections just so we can avoid the pain of death. Because the upside of grief – if there is an upside – is that it reminds us that there has been so much love. Maybe grief can be understood as love that is undergoing transformation – love that is no longer tangible and touchable, love that no longer has a voice and beautiful eyes and thinning hair, but love that is moving on ahead of us, love that’s not waiting for us to catch up just yet, but love that will be there for us, somehow, in some unimaginable form, on some unclouded day that is beyond the horizon.
Well, that’s what I hope because it seems to me that the only way we live with our grief – because our lives do go on – is to have hope. Many of us here this morning have a hope that saying goodbye in this life on this earth is only a penultimate act; something more awaits us after death. That may be as definite as we can get, but still, that hope lets a little light break through the darkness of our grief; that hope is like a star shining in the deepest night.
Pastor and artist Jan Richardson knows about that kind of hope. Her husband died unexpectedly, and in her grief she wrote a book of blessings called The Cure for Sorrow. This is her “Blessing of Hope.”
So may we know
that is not just
but for this day –
in this moment
that opens to us:
hope not made
but of substance,
hope made of sinew
hope that has breath
and a beating heart,
hope that will not
and be polite,
hope that knows
how to holler
when it is called for,
hope that knows
how to sing
when there seems
hope that raises us
from the dead –
but this day,
The writer of Revelation offers a different view of hope. The entire book is about hope, of course; hope for a people who are tired of suffering under the cruelty of Rome, people who are tired of being poor and powerless, who are tired of being used and crushed by those who rule with capriciousness and greed. The arching theme of the Book of Revelation is the ultimate power of God in Christ, who thwarts the evil of the world and brings reward to those who have suffered for their faith.
Today’s beautiful snippet from Revelation offers a more intimate hope – that in the end, in God’s time, suffering will be redeemed. There will be a great reunion, and bruised and broken bodies are made whole. Who are these who are made whole? Who makes up this reunion?
“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal,” one of the elders says. But now, he says,
“They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
That is our hope this All Saints’ Day. That the suffering in this life will end in the next. That we will see each other again. And that God, in eternal love, will comfort and sustain us with life abundant after death.
This week I saw a wonderful Peanuts cartoon. Charlie Brown and Snoopy are sitting on a dock, looking out over the water. Charlie Brown says, “Some day, we will all die, Snoopy.” “True,” Snoopy responds, “but on all the other days we will not.”
What shall we do then, this day, this All Saints’ Remembrance, as we live within the tension of our grief and our hope? How shall we live, as the saints of here and now?
The clue to our response lies in the word “saint.” In the Christian tradition, and particularly in the Protestant Christian tradition, a saint is, simply put, a person of the church. We are saints not because we are particularly good or holy, although some of you are those things; we are saints because we are part of this community that is holy because it is called together by God. Our All Saints’ Remembrance is about those in our communities who have died and gone to God. Our All Saints’ celebration is about the joy of each other, those who gathered last week and those who gather this week and those who will gather next week.
We are saints who are better because of those who have gone before us. In that vein, I leave you with words from Maya Angelou, from her poem “When Great Trees Fall.”
When great souls die,
the air around us becomes
light, rare, sterile.
We breathe, briefly.
Our eyes, briefly,
a hurtful clarity.
Our memory, suddenly sharpened,
gnaws on kind words
never taken. ...
And when great souls die,
after a period peace blooms,
slowly and always
irregularly. Spaces fill
with a kind of
soothing electric vibration.
Our senses, restored, never
to be the same, whisper to us.
They existed. They existed.
We can be. Be and be
better. For they existed.
To the glory of God.