By Rev. Rebecca Messman
November 7, 2021
All Saints’ Sunday
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4 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.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
When I was a child in church, I would often pass the time by taking my mom’s rings and putting them on the tops of my thumbs so that they looked a king and queen wearing a crown. So I think I was almost as distraught as she was when, about 15 years ago, her engagement ring went missing. She told me over the phone that she’d looked everywhere in the house, from obvious places like next to her bed to the places one looks only when they have not only lost something precious but also lost trust in themselves. Maybe it would be in the fridge? Could I have put it in a sock drawer? She told me that she worried maybe someone had taken it. When you’re desperate, you can easily imagine how desperate other people might be. So, she contacted the local pawn shops. They hadn’t seen anything like it. Eventually, she told herself that it was fine. The wedding memories were as clear as any diamond, she said, and she took comfort in trying to care less, to minimize the loss in her heart. Shock, Anger, Denial. That is the grief cycle for you.
And, I also remember when, on a whim, my Dad went back to the same jeweler he’d visited as a young man with sweaty palms decades before, with a slightly thinner wallet and midsection. He called me to say, “You’re not gonna believe this. Your mom’s ring. The original jeweler was still there and had one almost identical. So, hot dog, I got it and I just proposed again.” “And I said yes,” I heard her yell out in the background. Every phone conversation was kind of a free for all like that. And I was glad for a time to be in a world where all things could be made new. A bride adorned for her husband. Every tear wiped away. Mourning and crying no more. Once lost, now replaced. Alpha. Omega. Done.
The book of Revelation ends with this gleaming vision of God unrolling a new heaven and a new earth. At the end of one of the most difficult and frightening books of the Bible, there is this opening of hope, this vista of possibility, as Professor Brian Blount calls it. And, I for one absolutely love the notion of a shiny new world as it should be with no crying and no death and only God’s gentle thumb on our cheek wiping away any tear. I love to imagine God as a generous groom proposing to all of humanity that we start over again. I love to daydream about the world God desires free of baggage and injustice. Behold, I am making all things new! In this new earth, cereal boxes will now have Ziploc bags and our communities will nurture everyone well and the wolf and the lamb will play in Fall leaves together that rake themselves and our loved ones will never leave us.
But, Revelation according to John of Patmos proclaims that God dwells with us, not just somewhere else. Revelation declares that this making new is happening in the present tense, now, already, as we speak. For those of us obsessed with HGTV, Revelation declares that theologically, the renovation has started and this text is God’s permit taped to the window. And I have come to believe that that is even more hopeful than some kind of religious reboot. It gets at a truth our hearts know. That our lives aren’t some linear chain rolled out to a certain length and then cut, but that we are part of everyone we have known and they are part of us and we are all being breathed alive by God in an ecosystem of love. We are being made and remade all the time by the grace of God.
All Saints’ Day might be the day when we practice that truth in the most personal way. In our tradition, saint means holy. So that means all of us, not just the heroes and martyrs of old. We whisper or type or chant or scribble or sniffle through the names of those people who are holy to us and have joined the “church triumphant” as we might call it, and as we do that, we expand our souls to better imagine eternal life. On All Saints Sunday, we practice that part of the Apostle’s Creed that often is just rattled off, “I believe in the communion of saints” or that part of the communion liturgy that rolls toward the singing part, “joining our voices with the choirs of heaven and with all the faithful of every time and place who forever sing to the glory of your name.”
All Saints’ Day began around the 6th century. In those days, death was much closer to home than it now, and much more normal. Death happened at home, not in hospitals. And often church happened at home too. The bitter persecutions of Christians had abated by then but normal courage was still required. So, the early church practiced remembering the Saints. Like Peter, how he denied his Lord and then went on to be the boldest disciple and the rock of the church. And I imagine remembering him well kept them from perfectionism. The early church practiced remembering Paul, who persecuted Christians mightily and then quite literally fell blindly in love with the Gospel. And I imagine that kept them hopeful that people could change. For us, maybe today we remember the grandparent who showed us what unconditional love looks like at a dinner table. Maybe we remember the husband who hiked us up the mountain trail of life where we beheld life’s splendor. We remember Fred Rogers and Fred Craddock. We rest in the truth that none of us is self-made. If anything, we are recycled, made new out of all those God made before. And even though grief is no picnic, we wouldn’t be who we are without those we have lost. Which reframes the idea of loss toward a more Christian one. Remember the verses we say at all the weddings? The one thing that never passes away is love.
As I have shared with some of you, my mom passed away on March 20, 2020. Cancer is a terrible foe. Since then, I haven’t really been able to sing For All the Saints all the way through without blubbering or going mute like Ariel the Mermaid. I kind of go dead-eyed when someone offers me platitudes like “she was so nice God just wanted to have her sooner.” Or “she’s in a better place now.” Or “she had done what she needed to do and God needed her back.” Maybe you’ve been on the business end of those words that are meant to comfort the hearer but often just comfort the one saying them. Those words also do no service to the God we know. What God is saying in today’s text sounds more like, “I am here for you.” It sounds more like, here are flowers from my garden. Here is bread from my oven. Here is a hug with no words at all. I’ll just stay for a few days – I brought my stuff. And, drink this water, honey, it’s a gift from the spring of life.” That is what today’s text sounds like.
I was talking with one of you the other day when it dawned on me, losing someone really does make all things new, though not necessarily in the ways you want. You get new routines, new work to do, new roles. Suddenly you are the one who figures out the taxes or the Christmas lights. Losing as much as we have in this pandemic makes our world feel new to the degree it is almost unrecognizable. The ongoing racial reckoning in our country gives us a sense of how deep the grief goes. I learned that the word bereaved actually means robbed. We feel robbed of time, events, people, and a sense of our place in the world. Rather than speed through toward a reboot, we need to acknowledge the grief. Not to become stuck there. But to learn to carry it. And learn from it. And let it teach us.
I hope we as a congregation can use grief language to speak about what has changed here and from there continue to comfort each other and trust God is still doing a new thing among us, in this place, even now.
It’s not all Eeyore either. Grief slashes the veil between this life and eternity in ways that can be exquisite. When you are in grief, a single yellow flower can feel like an answer to a prayer only you know about. A cardinal or a hummingbird or a rainbow can feel like a visitation from a loved one. You start to see the soft contours of humanity in all its grief and beauty all around you and want to offer a tissue to a complete stranger. Ordinary things are crowned with meaning like a ring on a thumb.
I’ll tell you this story that I wouldn’t believe if it were written in a novel except that it truly happened. In late February of 2020, we knew mom only had a few weeks with us, tops. There was such an intensity about those days that we would sometimes find a silly errand or task just to breathe. To let our brains rest. Grief… it comes from gravare, the Latin word for heavy. It was a heavy time. And one of those tasks was organizing mom’s jewelry. Mom and Dad started telling stories about each piece. “Ah, this one was from when you were born. These were our 20th anniversary. And these earrings were from our trip to Texas. I think it goes with a bracelet, check in that bowl in the cabinet near the sink,” Mom said. My sister brought over a ramekin with a couple of safety pins and a bracelet and also, under that Texas bracelet, the missing engagement ring. There was a lot of whooping and weeping about that, and then Mom said, “How about that, now there’s one for each of you.” And we held it in our hands, something that wasn’t new, in fact, it had always been there, we just hadn’t known where to look for it.
God makes a home with mortals. For my family, it was like finding a lost ring and believing even without mom’s presence that we’d have what we needed. Maybe for you it is the friend who shows up at just the right time with candles and wine and you know you are not alone. Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven as treasure hidden in a field. When a man found it, he hid the treasure again and bought the whole field. It wasn’t a different glamorous field somewhere else but this same old field was precious to him all the more because he knew the treasure it held. The kingdom of Heaven is like that.
The English poet David Whyte describes grief as a deep well.
Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief,
turning down through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe,
will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,
nor find in the darkness glimmering,
the small round coins,
thrown by those who wished for something else.
The kingdom of heaven is like that. Field of treasure. A wishing well. A communion table where we are surrounded. Whatever metaphor we go to, this is the not the kiddie pool of church. It’s not the shallow part where most of the noise comes from. This is the deep end, where there is peace even though we can’t touch bottom. Even though it doesn’t fit into tidy slogans. Even though it might leave us cold sometimes. We know in some ineffable way those loved ones join us at this table. We feel it. Sometimes we see it. Maybe you have her smile. Maybe you have his ring on your necklace. Maybe you say “fantastic” the exact same way he did.
The kingdom of heaven is like that. You love and it breaks your heart and by God’s chivalrous grace you wind up with more love that you started with.