I don’t know why it is so, but ministers read poetry when they are sitting in the quiet of their study--and I am no different. In fact, there ARE ministers out there, who will end practically every Sunday sermon with a good poem. I don’t do that, not just because most times it’s hard to find a poem that fits, but also because it can become too predictable; and then, too, frankly, too many poems, just aren’t that good—they can put you to sleep rather than wake you up and send you off with good vibes to start your week. Today though, on this All Saints Sunday, I hope you will excuse me if I begin this sermon with a poem.
I have been told, that poets write about two things, death and love. Billy Collins, the poet whose poem I am about to read, is no different. This Billy Collin poem is about death. It is entitled, “The Dead.”
Well, maybe, but probably not, right? That’s not what our deceased loved ones are doing, although the poem definitely offers up some really great images, don’t you think?
In fact, we don’t know what happens to ordinary people after they die. We only know what the Bible tells us in relation to Jesus, after he was crucified. And here we definitely do not get a complete picture. After Jesus dies remember, he reappears, but some of his loved ones do not recognize him. Mary thinks he is the gardener. Why is that? Some disciples on their way to Emmaus, walk with the crucified Jesus for a substantial number of miles and even share a meal with him, before they finally recognize him. Why is THAT? When people die do they come back, but in an altered form?
Then, there’s the question about Jesus’ physical consistency. The crucified Jesus walks through a locked door, which means that he must have been more ghost than flesh and blood. Except that in Luke 24, we read that he ate fish—which ghosts don’t do, at least as far as I am aware. So do our deceased loved ones become spirits or do they hold on to their bodies?
After a time on earth, during which Jesus appears to numerous people, according to Luke, Jesus is “carried up into heaven.” The same story is repeated in Acts. In that book, in the very first chapter, we read, “As the disciples were watching, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.“ So is that what happens to our deceased loved ones? Have they been hauled up into heaven? And as Billy Collins suggests, are they looking down on us as we go about our daily tasks? If that is the case, maybe college graduates have it right. We should all be writing messages on the tops of our hats. Miss you Mom! Miss you Dad!
Still though, you may have heard stories, or you may have experienced something yourself, that is out of the realm of what we would call explainable as relates to people who have passed on. As a pastor, I have heard a few, and in my personal life I have been privy to others. One from my own life I will relay to you here.
It was when I was pregnant with my oldest daughter, Emily. My mother had died four years earlier. It was a great sadness to me that she could not be with me during my pregnancy—a greater sadness that she could not be alive for the birth of her first grandchild. She so wanted to be a grandmother.
There’s a word I have been using a lot lately, in conversation, and in my writing—it is “poignant.” Poignant-it comes from the French verb “Poindre,” which means to prick. Something is poignant, then, when it pricks the soul—as deaths and funerals do, certainly, but also happy times, like pregnancies, and births, and weddings. These latter are happy and sad times both. It’s the reason people cry at weddings. Their souls have been pricked. OUCH!
During that first trimester in my pregnancy, maybe in part due to hormones, I was depressed. My mother was not with me to help see me through this strange new experience; and, she would not meet her first grandchild. I cried. My how I cried! My soul had been pricked. One Sunday, my then husband and I were on our way to church. We were in the car. The tears just started streaming down and streaming down. They wouldn’t stop. He finally turned the car around and we returned home.
That time of sadness passed, though. There were baby showers to attend, a nursery to prepare, and all the excitement that goes along with introducing a little one into the world.
The day arrived—a Sunday morning—there may be something to that—I don’t know. Emily came into the world. In the delivery room a nurse put little Emily on one of those metal carts. Although the nurse was still working on her—cleaning her up, putting a diaper on her, the cart was near enough to me, that I could see her scrunched up, yet oddly exquisite, red, blotchy face. And then, I promise you, for one fleeting moment, I saw not Emily’s face, but my mother’s—floating between us, and my mother was smiling.
Do with that what you will. I can’t explain it, but I am telling you that it happened. And it gave me a feeling, then, that all was right with the world; and that my mother, wherever she was, is? had met her granddaughter, and she was at peace.
Long time ago, I was listening to George Allen, you know of George and Gracie Allen fame—For you on this side of the room, they were a married, comedy duo who kept folks laughing in the early 1950’s all the way through the 70’s. You could tell, just from their comedy routines, that they shared a great mutual love and respect. Gracie died first. I remember hearing George tell an interviewer that after her death, he had begun sleeping on Gracie’s side of the bed. He did that so he could feel her presence. Who are we to say that he didn’t?
My mother, George’s Gracie, your deceased loved ones. We don’t know what has happened to them, now that they are gone from this earth, or even if they have truly left, but wherever they may be, the church refers to them as saints. The church calls them that, not because they were perfect, I dare say not even Gracie was perfect, and I know my mother wasn’t, but because where ever they are, they have been, “engrafted into God’s kingdom that is ruled by forgiveness and love." I read that in a book on Christianity, but it is true. They have been transplanted into a new reality—We might call it a new dimension and we will hope that it is better than this reality.
The author of Ephesians, who may or may not have been Paul, says this in so many words in our scripture reading for today: Unification of the living and the dead with God and Jesus is not complete until ALL of the departed and the living, and people of every religious stripe—both Jews and Gentiles-- are united under the authority of Christ.
That is God’s plan. One way to think of this is—you have the vertical dimension of the cross—connecting heaven with earth and the dead with the living, and then you have the horizontal dimension of the cross, connecting all the living--and the meeting place of the vertical and horizontal? Well, that’s Christ’s kingdom. X marks the spot where God and Jesus are planning for us to end up.
So are we making any progress toward that end? Our first inclination is to say, “Are you Kidding?!” All the rancor of the elections has pitted Republicans against Democrats and Democrats against Republicans and even Republicans against Republicans. The Black Lives Matter movement underscores the still all-too-real racial inequalities in this country. On the international scene, religious radicals are terrorizing folks in the Middle East and actually the world over.
Yes, division, rather than unification, is the trend today.
Our hope is, that as the author of Ephesians says, Jesus is still in charge—the stories he shared, the lessons he taught, the principles he espoused—the self sacrificial love he practiced, still have authority and power in this divided world of ours. We hold on to that truth, as we hold on to the memory of the saints—our loved ones. With Jesus in charge, with us here on earth to be his hands and feet, and with the truth of Christ’s power to unify, we choose to believe that a great sea change IS possible.
A great Sea Change.. I am going to end this sermon with a poem. You knew I was going to do that, didn’t you? It’s about sea change. I am not going to read the whole thing, but I will read a couple of verses. This poem is another one of my favorites—by Seamus Heaney: It’s called The Cure at Troy:
Let us hope and pray for that, and the outcry and the birith-cry of new life at its term, even as today we also remember our saints. Amen