02 November 2009
Removing Every Tear
Isaiah 25: 6-9 & Revelation 21: 1-6a
All Saints’ Day, 1st November 2009/ Sacrament of Holy Communion
I was recently asked, “Where have you suffered?” The question took me aback and knocked me off-guard. It was asked by someone whom I really didn’t know very well and so I was reluctant to respond from the heart. For this is a heart, a soul question.
I thought about it and answered: I have suffered most in my losses. In saying this, I can think of plenty of people I know whose losses have been significantly greater than mine. Comparatively-speaking, I guess, some might say my losses are manageable (and to a considerable extent they are). But they are nevertheless mine, as yours are yours.
In my life, I’ve had to say good-bye to far too many very dear family members and close friends. I was born almost three months to the day of my maternal grandfather’s death. My mother was carrying me when she said good-bye to her father. I entered into a household full of mourning and loss. Years later as a boy, I remember feeling the loss, especially around holidays. I became aware, very early, earlier than I should have, that life is precarious and that death is never far away. I’ve always had an existential bent; life is serious and important and fragile. I came aware of my own finitude at an early age. (This is probably why I tend to be pretty serious at times.). When I was in fifth grade I lost a classmate to cancer and then my fifth grade math teacher died. I lost uncles to whom I was very close when I was in sixth grade. A mentor friend died when I was in high school, Jim Loebell. My mother, Grace, died at 59 in 1992, her mother, Ann, died in 2000. In the opening pages of my doctoral dissertation there’s dedicatory page to all the people I loss along the way in the writing of the thesis. I’ve had a lot of personal loss. Add to the loss all the people I’ve come to know and love as a pastor for twenty years. On All Saints’ Day I think of them and see their faces.
You have your memorial list. You have the names and faces of people who have gone on before you. The longer we live, the longer the list. Sometimes human grief is overwhelming. The tears just keep on flowing. “Time heals all wounds,” is a lie. For many the wounds are raw and real. Most folks work through their grief in healthy ways, but many don’t. Most folks find a way to carry on, but many don’t. Many suffer silently. They offer prayers to God with groans too deep for words. And the tears just keep on flowing.
We grieve for our losses. We grieve for our neighbor’s losses. We grieve for a world that is drenched with tears. That’s what we do in the church. We don’t advertise ourselves this way. We don’t have, “Come and grieve with us,” out on the Frederick Road sign. But this is what we do. Where else can people go with their grief, their sorrow? Where else can it be held by a community with love and care? If we’re not grieving in one way or the other, we’re probably not paying attention – to the tears of the world, to tears of our neighbors and friends and loved ones, of the silent tears of our hearts. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted (Matthew 5:4).” Happy, exceedingly happy are those who mourn. Happy, blessed is the one who can grieve. In his translation of the New Testament from Greek into German, Martin Luther (1483-1546) translated “mourn” with Leidtragen, meaning “sorrow-bearing.” It’s an odd blessing, until we realize that what Jesus was getting at was this: blessed is the one who bears the sorrows of the world and neighbor and self, because those who mourn have God’s ear – and they will be comforted.
In Isaiah 25, we heard God’s promise that there will come a day when all will be put to right. “On this mountain Yahweh will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled marrow of well-aged wines strained clear. And Yahweh will destroy on this mountain the shroud – the funeral pall – that is cast over all peoples….Then Yahweh will wipe away the tears from all faces….” That’s Isaiah’s vision for the time to come. It is a powerful, confident in the identity and purpose of God, a God who does not intend God’s people to suffer and mourn and cry, but to sit at a feast of rich food.
Centuries later the Holy Spirit gave a revelation to John on the Island of Patmos. In that vision he saw way into the future and like Isaiah received a glimpse into the future God will bring about, of a promise fulfilled. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more: mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away….Behold, Jesus says to John, “I am making all things new….I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and end.” In other words all of time is wrapped up in him, the Resurrected One. In him all the peoples of the world will find their rest. In time, there will come a time when everything lost will be restored and made new again. In him, there is a hope that despite the pain and sorrow and suffering and loss of our lives, the pain and sorrow and suffering and loss never – never! – have the last word.
As a Minister of Word and Sacrament, as Christian, as a human being who has felt the sting of death, I wish I never had to do another funeral again. But I’ll tell you there is no greater privilege in being a minister than standing with a family in the throes of grief and loss, in the intimacy of those places – seeing things, hearing things, experiencing things most people will never see or hear or know. I know Dorothy Boulton shares this view. And there’s no greater joy than to stand in this pulpit or sit at a bedside and declare the gospel, to read from Revelation 21 with conviction and assurance and give witness to the power of the resurrection – because if it’s not true in those heart-wrenching moments then it isn’t true in any other moment. I don’t say this because you pay me to, because I’m a minister, but because experience yields conviction and conviction demands faithfulness. It’s what I’ve come to know in and through my suffering.
How can I say all of this? Only because of grace. The gospel is true. Something happens when we gather as a community around those we love with the love and support and grace of Christ. It’s what makes the church so unique. There’s no place like it. This is the place where we hold each other’s sorrow and grief. When we share our sorrows and our grief, Christ is present there. The cross stands at the heart of all that we do and there’s no getting around it. Christ’s message from the cross says to us: in your suffering you’re not alone. In your suffering you’ll find me. In your losses I am present because I am greater than death.
On this All Saints’ Day, we are reminded of our losses. It’s a heavy day, this is a heavy sermon, intentionally so. It’s sobering, but not meant to be grim, but to be real, honest. It’s an invitation for us as a church to share our sorrow, to carry one another along in our losses and grief. There’s an old Egyptian proverb that goes, “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a hard battle.” We are all broken. We all know loss. But we are given the gift of one another so that as a church – with saints above and saints below – we can share our sorrow and when we do we soon discover Christ’s presence among and within us. Christ showed us that we experience God’s grace in the broken places, in the sorrowful, tearful, crying places. Why does it have to be this way? I haven’t a clue, that’s the way it is. God’s grace is known the strongest in the weak and hurting and broken places – which is precisely the point of this Table and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and why he invites us to share this meal. Here we remember our loss of him, but how he was known to us in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:35). But it has to be broken and then shared; then the meal takes on life, the life of Jesus who was broken for us and shared his life. It has to be broken and then shared; when lives break, when broken lives share, Jesus promises to be there too. An unwillingness to be broken and to share means we miss the Christ.
A friend of mine tells the story of a church with a lot of customs and traditions and they didn’t like anybody disrupting them. The church had an interim minister who was trying to shack things up a bit, but wasn’t being too successful. This church had the custom of putting a loaf of bread on a communion plate on the table every week. They don’t celebrate the Lord’s Supper every week, but they have a symbol of the sacrament. If you think that would be expensive or wasteful to have an unused loaf of bread on the Commmunion table every week, don’t worry. They use the same loaf. It is a large unsliced loaf of Italian bread covered with polyurethane. So they use the same bread over and over again. One Sunday the minster was leading people in Communion. He lifted the ceremonial loaf of bread, said, “Take eat, this is my body.” Then he cracked it open and ripped it apart.
There was a collective gasp in the congregation. Then it was absolutely silent as he continued to break the bread into large chunks to place on the Communion trays. It took a few minutes for people to realize the minister has switched the polyurethane bread with a real loaf. Afterward, someone said, “You really had us going there for a minutes. We thought you actually broke our Communion bread.”
The minister said, “If it isn’t broken, it can’t be shared.”
On this Sunday we acknowledge our losses, all the broken, hurting places in our lives and we share them, in and through this meal. As we do we will find the Risen Christ, because that’s where he is known to us, in our losses.
“O blest Communion, fellowship divine. We feebly struggle, they glory shine. Yet all are one in Thee for all are Thine. Alleluia! Alleluia!”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Collier Books, 1963), 121. “For the emphasis lies on the bearing of sorrow. The disciple-community does not shake off sorrow as though it were no concern of its own, but willingly bears it. And in this way they show how close are the bonds which bind them to the rest of humanity.” (121-122).
Sermon by William G. Carter, “If There Isn’t Enough to Go Around,” William G. Carter, ed. Speaking of Stewardship: Model Sermons on Money and Possessions (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1989), 117-118.
William W. How, “For all the Saints” (1864).
Photo: K E Kovacs, St. John's Cross at Dusk, Iona, Scotland (June, 2008).