First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
November 11, 2018
“Even in the Midst of Tears”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9
But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them.
In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. They will govern nations and rule over peoples and the Lord will reign over them forever.
Those who trust in him will understand truth, and the faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his elect, and he watches over his holy ones.
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.
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, 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.”
100 years ago today, the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, the world that had been at war would be at war no more. An armistice was signed, an agreement that declared that all fighting on land, sea and air would cease and the war to end all wars would be history. This war would become one of the deadliest conflicts in the history of the human race. As in every war, military deaths came not just from combat, but also from infections and disease and the lasting effects of what war does to the body and the soul. Civilians, as in all armed conflicts, were among the dead as well. Civilian men, women and children died from the direct result of the war to secondary causes such as disruption in economies, access to food, shelter, medical treatment, forced labor and genocide. Remembering the day that war ceases is committing to living into the hope that comes as weapons are laid down.
Today, we not only pause in the ongoing flow of life to remember those in our lives who have died as we engage in our annual All Saints Day observance but, because we delayed that observance a week, we are doing so on Veterans Day – a day set aside to remember and honor those who have given all or a portion of their lives for military service. This year, Veterans day falls on the 100th anniversary of the signing of that armistice that brought the first world war to an end. It is indeed a solemn and somber time – remembering the dead and honoring those who have put their lives on the line in service to their country. It’s that time when we are humbled at the impact that people have on our lives and world history. It’s that time when words will always fall short. A time when silence speaks the most – a silence that echoes the whisper of voices that have been stilled by death – a silence that carries the memories of events and circumstances that haunt those who carry them.
But, when we gather in this place, we do so because we are seeking the presence of the one who is known as the Word made flesh. We seek that Word in hopes that what we hear can help us make sense of the wars that have happened since the war to end all wars has ended. We seek that Word to find comfort and relief from the ever-present shadow of loss and grief that comes upon us in waves that ebb and flow across the shores of our souls. We seek that Word to give us what is needed in the wake of events that seem to be beyond our control but strike at the heart of our very being.
The Word spoken in this place, that Word made flesh speaks to us today through the words of sacred texts that point to the hope of the ages: that those who have died are in peace and that some day, that peace will reign. It is the promise of our faith. It’s the promise of the resurrection: That death is not the final word but merely a comma in the middle of the sentence—a slight break between different parts of life.
And yet, and yet, even those who have that gift of being so assured in the promise of the resurrection and assurance that those they love who have died are at eternal peace, still grieve. The waves of sorrow and loss still come. The silent tears still sneak their way out of beloved memories. The empty space in the center of the soul remains empty, even after years. There’s a reason why the tearing of one’s clothing at the time of death is so powerful—it recreates that tearing of the fabric of life when one who is beloved dies. And that tearing, no matter how long the time, no matter how well one has “moved on”, no matter how much grief counseling, therapy or praying to bring the ragged edges together, that tear will always remain evident.
Mourning is a part of life because death is a part of life. And it’s into that very part of life that God enters most profoundly. Just think of it, the giver of life enters into death. So if life-giver enters into the place of death, wouldn’t it follow that even that place is a place where life can be found? I believe that. But I also believe that grief and loss is real and God, by entering into death does not seek to diminish that but but honor it.
Remember the story of the raising of Lazarus? Lazarus was Jesus’ good friend, perhaps best friend. It appears that Jesus visited the home of Lazarus on several occasions and was always welcome there. And when Jesus got word that Lazarus had died, do you remember his response? It wasn’t to say “he’s in a better place” or “it’s God’s will” or even “my thoughts and prayers are with you.” He wept. Not a little one-tissue weeping, a deep-hearted, half a box of tissue sobbing.
That’s how God enters into death and experiences it as we all do. When we talk about Jesus being God in the flesh, it includes the entire weeping, sobbing, nose-running, mascara-streaking messiness of sorrow that rises from the core of our being. God’s there. So, when we allow ourselves the gift of grief, good grief, we are allowing ourselves to live more fully into the image of the God who created us and then who became like us. When Revelation proclaims that the home of God will be among mortals we can point to those times of loss and grief and say, “Look! God is living in the midst of these tears today.” It makes that vision of the new Jerusalem not just about some future, undated event that everyone tries to figure out just when, but an event that happens here on earth today and everyday where the sobbing presence of the divine is known in the midst of our own grieving.
As we realize that in all our days of sorrow and grief we are not alone, not only do we have the comfort of family friends and neighbors to hold our hands and walk us through, we have the giver of life there to hold our heart, cry with us and, when we’re ready to dry the tears, help us recognize the new life that those tears have watered into being. Resurrection comes in many forms, sometimes on this side of death’s comma. And that is the gift of the new Jerusalem already coming into view each and every day that we allow ourselves to recognize the presence of God in even the most difficult of times.
Today, on this observance of both Veterans Day and All Saints, we honor those who have given of their service, as well as those whose lives have touched ours in profound ways. As we do, we acknowledge the frailty of human life, the wonder of human relationship and the ever-abiding promise of God that is manifest and blessed in every life.
Today, we remember those who have gone before through a ritual of lighting candles and stating names. After the beginning of the litany, I’ll read the names of those who have died in this past year. Then, you’ll have some time to come forward and light a candle in memory of someone in your life who has died. I also invite you to step to the microphone and say their name.
Let us begin our time of remembrance.