The Reverend Canon Dr. William J. Danaher, Jr.
All Saints’ Day (B)
November 4, 2018
Wisdom 3:1-9; Psalm 24; Revelation 21:1-6a; John 11:32-44
It was in the middle of the afternoon and I walked more deeply into the forest. It was fragrant Loblolly Pines, winter time, early December. I walked into the forest behind our home where we lived because my mother was dying and she was an 18-hour flight away. I knew I could not be with her as she died, so I went into the forest to keep vigil. I had seen her a few months before and we knew she was going to die, so I had been able to be with her, but this was my time to be with her in spirit. And I remember stopping and sitting down on the bench that my husband built me as a place to pray and with the eyes of my spirit, I could see my mother. Those of you who’ve kept vigil with a loved one as they die know what I’m talking about.
As I watched her with the eyes of my spirit, I saw her kind of winding up out of her body. She would wind up a little bit and then she would wind back down, and then she would wind up a little bit and then she would wind back down. As I watched this in my heart of prayer, I noticed that she was young and beautiful again. She was no longer 96 years old. She no longer required oxygen. Her vision had been restored. Her hair was red again. She was the woman I remembered when I was a little girl. What I saw on her face was radiant joy. And so, I watched as she wound up out of her body.
A little while later, my sister called me and said, “Mom has passed.” I said, “What happened?” And she said, “Well, you know how much Mom loved the hokey-pokey.” Mom used to sing the hokey-pokey to the doctor, to the nurses, to visitors, to everyone when they’d come. And she said as she was making her transition, the pastor was there, our friends were there, I was there, and every once in a while Mom would whisper in a hoarse way, “You put your right foot in. You put your right foot out.” And she wound her way into the arms of God.
That time in the forest keeping vigil was painful and sweet because as I kept watching this thing happening in my heart, my own winding up and winding down was going on, my own struggle with grief. I grew up in a tough family with violence and addictions in my home. We were poor and life was hard. It was always hard. All of us children left home when we were still kids because we had to and all of us kids came to faith long before our parents did – my parents were in their late 60s when they finally came to faith.
And so, it took a long time and with God’s grace we were able to be reconciled, but as I watched my mother in prayer leaving her body, I watched for the last time the possibility of some dreams to be fulfilled that would never be fulfilled. I remember scenes and events in my heart that would always cause me grief. And isn’t this just the way grief happens? Grief. Each time we suffer a new loss, the previous painful losses come back to us and we visit them again. Lost dreams, brokenness, violence, a lost job, a lost lover, longings, absence, emptiness. Grief feels just like fear. It does the same thing to our bodies. We feel cold. We feel hunched over.
There’s a restlessness to grief you can’t quite get comfortable. You can’t find a place to sit. If you’re sitting, you want to stand. If you’re standing, you want to sit, and when you lie down, you can’t lie still. You want to be with people, but when you’re with them, you can’t stand it. You want to be alone. You just can’t find a place of rest. Sometimes you can’t stop crying and other times you can’t start crying. It’s just too hard. And where can we go when we’re filled grief, when we’re filled with such emptiness? We know we’re people of faith. We want to be people of faith, but at those times it can feel like we’re in a dark night, that our faith is a half-forgotten dream. What can we do?
We can remember something that Blaise Pascal, the great Christian mystic, theologian, philosopher, mathematician, something that he said. “Jesus shall be in agony until the end of the world and this is why. Everything that hurts us is a pain to Jesus. Every loss and grief we suffer is His own loss and grief. He takes all of our sorrow into Himself and bears it in His own heart, in His own spirit.” This is not just something that happened long ago in the Middle East. This is something that is continuous. I believe that.
And so, in our grief, whether we’re able to walk back into a forest, a pine-scented forest, and sit on a special bench that’s been created lovingly for us so that we have a place to pray, or whether we have to sit in our car in the parking lot at the grocery store or go in the restroom at work, let us come to Christ, who suffers with us. We can go to Jesus on the cross, Jesus who is stretched out, pinned there, and come up right up against His side, His pierced side, and press ourselves to Christ, who receives everything that we are, everything that we’re experiencing, receives it into himself. Jesus welcomes into himself our shame, our sense of lostness, our feelings of rejection, our feelings of being abandoned by our loved one. Jesus welcomes that into himself. All of the cruelties that we’ve suffered, all of the cruelties that we’ve inflicted, Jesus welcomes into himself. He bears it into himself and suffers with us. We never suffer alone. We never breathe alone.
This text from the Book of Wisdom is so powerful. It aptly names how we feel, that the one that we love who’s lost, the one who has a good past and a checkered past, the one that we have hopes for in the afterlife, the one about whom we feel some uncertainty, this one is beloved to God. This text gives us hope. This Book of Wisdom, this particular chapter that we read, is probably the first time in the Jewish canon where the afterlife is mentioned in this way and it was written at a time when the Jewish people were deeply in need of assurance that there’s more than just suffering in this world. When we fear what might happen, when we fear judgment, when we’re not sure what we think about Hell, when we’re not sure what we think about Heaven, when we’re not sure what to believe because we’re caught in the depths of grief, this text promises us and the story of our Lord, Jesus Christ, promises us that love will win, there is resurrection, death does not have the last word.
I remember leading a retreat with my sister, who’s a therapist. We were leading a retreat to help people heal who have suffered sexual abuse and we were sharing with them from the book called Good Goats by Sheila Matthew and Dennis Lynn. Good Goats, this wonderful book. It’s like an adult picture book of good theology. And they were talking about how our image of God is so shaped by the way we think about these things and our image of ourselves is shaped and how we treat one another is shaped by this language of judgment and the afterlife.
And I remember looking in the book and there’s a picture of this – it’s sort of like a children’s storybook. There’s a picture of mean old Uncle George frowning down from that oval shaped frame in the living room. And they said, “So often we talk about God as if God is mean old Uncle George, just ready to smite us, but God is not like that. You don’t find that God in Jesus, who reveals to us what kind of god God is, what God is like.” We find in Jesus the one who drinks from the wrong person’s cup, the one who loves all the wrong people, the one who comes to us in Revelation 21, Verse 5, and says, “Look. I am making all things new. Not just some things, not just my favorite people, not just the special ones – all things.” And this is the God that we worship.
Catherine of Genoa, one of the great Christian saints and mystics of the Church who’s known for her practical homely wisdom, teaches us that she saw that Heaven and Hell are really kind of the same place and that when we go there, we experience the brilliance of God’s love, which slowly heals us from our falsehood deceptions and ways we’ve gotten it wrong, but in the end the light shines brightly for us all because God is love. And then there is that wonderful satire by C. S. Lewis, “The Great Divorce,” about a fanciful bus trip from Hell to Heaven and Hell, in this imaginary world that he’s described, is like a London suburb that stretches on endlessly into the fog and rain and people get into quarrels and keep moving to the next house. And that’s Hell – this endless restless unhappiness and moving away.
And yet in this story – which, yes, is a satire, but satire is a vehicle to communicate deep truth – in this story, people regularly have an opportunity to get on the bus and go see what else is possible. Go see a world where that which is vague and ephemeral, transparent and ghostly, smoky and wispy, where all of that becomes solid and real, bursting with life. Does God understand the depths of our grief? Does God understand that pain? Psalm 58:6 tells us that God loves us so much when we are suffering, when we are in grief, that God has a special bottle for each of us and collects every one of our tears as a remembrance. God honors every tear that we shed. This is how God loves us. Love, not death. Love, not damnation. Love, not blame, not shame, not fear, not guilt, not hate. Love, not Hell, will have the last word.
In the name of Christ, amen.
[End of Recording]