Revelation 21:1-6a, “ . . . Death will be no more. . . .”
Sometimes life does make you feel as if there is no hope. Confronting death is certainly one of those times. Three years ago we celebrated All Saint’s Sunday just a few days after the funeral of a long time member of the church that I served. E.L. and his family had moved to Savannah several years prior, but he and his wife remained a presence, sometimes physically, within the congregation.
The following is the sermon from three years ago. It reminds me that even when things seem difficult, “it’s allllllll-right”.
This morning we are celebrating what we call All Saint’s Sunday. This is really where the holiday of Halloween comes from anyway. You see, All Saint’s Day was actually yesterday, the day we had our cake walk and party. And the day before that, what we now call Halloween, is a day that was formerly know as All Hallows Eve, sort of like when we have Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. The story goes that on that night before All Hallows Day or All Saint’s Day, that on that night before, the spirits of those who have passed away get a chance to walk around. Now this was not necessarily a “scary” or “spooky” thing as we might imagine today. These weren’t ghouls and goblins or anyone that would be trying to frighten us. These were the spirits of those one’s relatives who had died, those people who had left us, people who had meant something to us that we cannot exactly describe. And this pre-holiday, this All Hallows Eve, became a time where people wore masks, and no one knew who was a spirit roaming the night and who wasn’t. But this wasn’t necessarily a “scary” thing. But somewhere along the line . . . I’m not quite sure where . . . we became frightened. We became afraid of what the dead have to teach us, what those who have gone before us have tried to tell us. Somewhere along the line we have taught our children to be suspicious of anything that even hints of death . . . we have become terribly frightened as a people . . . a people who mistrust those who are older and realistically closer to death than the young, the fit, the healthy. But we are all vulnerable. We are all, even the youngest of us, living a life that is a gift, but a gift that is fragile and strong at the same time, a gift that is a wonderful blessing from God. On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember those who have gone before us and most specifically those who have been a part of us who have died in the last year.
And that’s why we have a single taper, that single candle sitting on the table to my left, behind the other smaller candles. That candle, even though he was not currently a member here when he died, that candle is for E.L. Cowart.
Many of you did not know E.L. or have not had the chance to meet he and his wife Tenie. Tenie and E.L. Personally, I can’t even imagine saying their names separately, without hearing those two names together: Tenie and E.L. They just went together. And you know what . . . they celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary at Hospice House while E.L. was a patient there, where he would eventually pass away from us. I first met them at Magnolia Manor when I was invited to preach there for their Sunday evening vesper’s service. They invited me for ice cream afterwards at their apartment. Tenie explained pretty quickly that E.L. had had a stroke several years ago. That stroke meant that E.L. did not walk around as well as he once did . . . and that he had lost the ability to speak as he had once had. That stroke left E.L. with only a few phrases that he could say. One of those phrases was “I can’t talk.” That one was helpful, right. That way E.L. could tell people that it wasn’t that he didn’t want to speak to them, didn’t want to carry on a conversation, but that he was just not able to do so. So E.L. could say, “I can’t talk.” And another phrase that E.L. was left with was this one. E.L. would say, “It’s aaaaaaaalll-right.” He would say it just like that too. “It’s aaaaallll-right.” In the midst of a condition that left him somewhat debilitated, unable to do things that he used to do, E.L. was left with being able to tell others . . . and maybe himself too, “It’s aaaalll-right.”
And you know . . . it was . . . alright.
The scripture that we read this morning is from the book of Revelation . . . all the way at the end of the bible . . . a book that to be real honest with you almost didn’t make it into the bible as we have it. Martin Luther didn’t like it. John Calvin thought it ought to be taken out. The language in it is so tough; the images that it uses are so hard to understand. Everything there is so highly symbolic that it is tough to interpret. From what we know it was written during a time of real trial for those early Christians about the year 100. You see, there is so much talk about those who have been martyred, who have been killed for their faith. There are so many images of governments run by Satan and how oppressive and awful those governments are. There are continuous tales of how God’s judgment will condemn those who are unrighteous, that they will lose in the end . . . that even though it seems like evil has won again and again, that God has the final say and the final victory. It is a message of hope and heaven for those who are in the midst of despair and hell. Those to whom these writings were addressed knew suffering, knew times when it looked like there was no way out, when all around the wrong thing was happening. These were writings of hope for those for whom hope was hard to come by.
But that is the funny thing about hope. When we are in those difficult times . . . and some of you have been there . . . how hollow it feels at times to have someone tell you that it is all going to work out in the end. You say, “Show me. How is it working out now!?!” Or maybe you think that they don’t know what they are talking about. “How would they know . . .” Sometimes offering hope in the midst of suffering is the hardest and most unpredictable thing to do. We sometimes, all of us sometimes, have a hard time believing in that hope.
But John offers hope here in this book of Revelation. John offers heaven for those who are in hell. John describes a time when God will dwell on earth, in a new Jerusalem, a city of peace and not violence and strife, a city where everyone gets along with each other. John offers a vision of newness, a new heaven and a new earth where there is no more crying, no pain, no death. God says, “Behold, I make all things new.”
Children teach us about newness sometimes . . . sometimes when we are in the midst of our grief and pain. I remember our niece Ella when Dena’s grandfather died. He had to have his leg amputated about six months before he died. And then after he died, Ella, just four years old at the time, sat with her great-grandmother. Ruby was certainly sad at losing her husband . . . but even in the middle of that sadness, little Ella said, “You know what Grandma, Grandpa can walk now. He’ll have a whole new leg.” We are reminded that our God makes all things new.
And that is the nature of hope . . . but it is not just a hope that says that we should be patient and accepting of the difficulties in the present knowing that the future will be better. Our hope is one that breaks-in to this present. Our hope is a hope that not only says that those who suffer now will not suffer in the future, but it is also the kind of hope that says that life is possible now . . . even in our tough times: that we can hear when we were deaf, that we can see things that we did not think it was possible for us to see, that this heaven that we hope for breaks in to this earth where we live and breathe and work and learn. The lines that we draw between heaven and earth are not nearly so bold and solid as we think.
It is like the way that people believed that around the time of Halloween or All Souls’ or All Saint’s or whatever you wish to call it. It is like the old belief that the lines drawn between those who are dead and those who are living are not nearly so distinct as we think. And that is why we celebrate this day, this All Saints’ Day, by recognizing the way that those who have been among us may no longer be with us in body, but they remain with us in spirit. They are with us as we celebrate this Holy Communion with God but also with all of the saints from this church and churches everywhere, that great cloud of witnesses.
So, in this communion, in the difficult times in our lives, we hear God saying, “I am making all things new . . . one day there will be no more death, nor crying, nor pain.” In this communion we remember all of those that have died that have been a part of our lives, that raised us and cared for us, that led us in the faith. And in this communion, we can even hear E.L. Cowart saying to each of us, “It’s aaaaaaaalllll-right.”
Mizpah 11/2/03 (All Saint’s Sunday)