The Distant Triumph Song 11/04/18 (All Saints Sunday)

THE DISTANT TRIUMPH SONG
REV. HEATHER M. HINTON
TEXTS: ISAIAH 25:1-10; REVELATION 21:1-6A; JOHN 11:32-44
NOVEMBER 4, 2018
ALL SAINTS SUNDAY
SACRAMENT OF HOLY COMMUNION

ARTWORK: All Saints’ Day at a cemetery in Gniezno, Poland
Photo by Diego Delso 
CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=72250338

Friday morning, over eggs and cereal, I told Isaac that we would be going to a vigil at Temple Shir Tikvah, our town’s synagogue, that night. The kid has gone to lots of vigils and demonstrations, so this wasn’t a foreign concept to him, but still he wasn’t thrilled. He especially wasn’t happy when he learned that I would be sitting up front, helping lead, and he would have to sit somewhere else, probably not with anyone he knew in an unfamiliar setting. When he asked what the vigil was for, I told him that it was because 11 Jewish people died while they were worshiping at their synagogue, killed by a man with a gun who hates Jewish people. “It would be like getting shot in our own church just because someone didn’t like that we’re Christian. It’s really upsetting to imagine, isn’t it?” I said. “So we’re going to get together as a town, Jews and non-Jews, and hold each other in support and sadness and give each other strength.” As I spoke, I pulled the newspaper towards myself and Isaac immediately said, “I don’t want to read anything about it. It makes me too sad.”

Yes, my boy. Me too.

Once Isaac had gone off to school, I emailed his best friend’s mom. “Patricia,” I wrote, “are you planning on going to the vigil tonight? If so, could you bring Isaac so he doesn’t have to be alone?” After a few messages back and forth, we realized that we were both struggling with the same issue: how many of these vigils and protests and marches can we bring our kids to? We want them to be aware and we want them to be passionate about justice, but we don’t want to crush them. If we, as adults, are feeling this exhausted and brittle and fragile, what must all of this news be doing to our kids? In the end, we decided that Isaac would go to their house for dinner and playtime, but that in all likelihood they wouldn’t go to the vigil. She wasn’t even planning on taking her two older sons, who are world-aware and have been enthusiastic attenders at climate marches and the Women’s March. “How many more of these things can they go to,” she asked, “especially when, in their minds, it doesn’t do anything anyway? They’re asking, “What’s the point?””

Yes, boys. Me too.

When death and struggle and violence and fear are all around us, it can seem like nothing we do makes any difference. When personal losses strike, when our friends or family members get sick or die, when we ourselves grow ill or frail, it’s hard to remain upright. Add to that the endless assault of pain and suffering we see in the news and, as Rev. Don Remick wrote this week, we may find that the “enormity of the world’s grief” can be too much for us to bear. [1]

***

The grief was too much for the many neighbors and friends in the community who came to console the sisters Mary and Martha in their anguish after their brother Lazarus died. The enormity of the grief was just too much for Martha, who ran to Jesus and cried – or accused? – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” It was too much for Mary, who also went to Jesus and knelt at his feet and cried – or accused? – “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

And, I believe, the enormity of the grief was too much even for Jesus. He looked around and saw Mary and Martha weeping, and the friends and neighbors weeping, and he became greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. As soon as they led him to the tomb, he began to cry.

As others have said before me, we dare not sentimentalize these tears. These aren’t “for show,” to prove to the crowd how much he loved Lazarus. His wretched tears highlight the bitter cost and power of death. As any of us who have faced death know, grief causes a great disturbance in our lives. It is more than sadness. It’s a rending of all that we’ve known and nothing will ever be the same.

Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ tomb tell me this:

God doesn’t shy away from grief and loss, but gets right down in it with us and experiences it fully. Jesus gets covered in the dust and dirt of the road. He wipes his sweaty, tear-soaked face with dirty hands and leaves grimy streaks along his cheeks. He holds Mary and Martha and feels their bodies shake with sorrow and anger and confusion and despair. He looks at the gathered community and truly sees the grief on their faces. And he stands in front of that tomb and he breathes in the stench of death.

God stands with us in our terrible, unbearable grief. And God cries too.

Jesus’ tears at Lazarus’ tomb also tell me this:

Our grief, our tears, our anger, our confusion – the enormity of all that we feel when faced with tragedy or trauma – it’s all OK. To be grieving or sad, to be angry or confused, is not to be unfaithful. Jesus doesn’t tell them to knock it off, chin up, don’t worry, things’ll get better soon. No. He cries.

***

On this All Saints Day, it matters to me because it reminds me of the words I say at every funeral, and at every bedside prayer at the time of death in the hospital:

This life as we know it ends, but love does not.

Lazarus dies and is raised in chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. In chapter 12, we find Lazarus reclining against Jesus – a posture of intimate friendship, trust, and love. Lazarus wasn’t just brought back to life; he was brought back to relationship.

In Jesus, the love of all relationships continues past the expiration date on our physical bodies. God sits in the pain with us, and then gradually helps something new be born.

The scriptures this morning, on this All Saints Day, are about the promises of life winning out over death.

Let’s turn to Isaiah. Much of the Old Testament was written before there really was “money” such as we understand it today. At the time Isaiah 25 was written, people didn’t carry around metal coins or folded paper. Money as a status symbol just didn’t exist for most of the populace at that time. Indeed, most people lived just at, or slightly above, subsistence level.

What would be the best symbol of abundance in a time and place where for most people there is just barely enough to live on and there isn’t money, as such? A banquet, of course! An abundance of food, so much food that it’s overflowing platters and weighing down tables. Starvation is no longer a threat always looming in the wings. We find this image of abundance throughout the Scriptures, and here in Isaiah it’s so sumptuous:

On this mountain God will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear. (Isa. 25:6)

But it isn’t just that there will be abundance. It’s also that there will be an absence of death. Isaiah writes:

And God will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever. (Isa. 25:7)

Mot was the ancient Canaanite God of death, infertility, and drought. He was constantly ravenous and was depicted with an enormous mouth. The image here is that YHWH, the God of the Israelites, the God of Jesus and our God, will swallow up even the god of death and its enormous, ravenous mouth. God wins the contest with death, every time.

Does that mean we don’t actually die? Of course not! But it means that somehow – and don’t ask me to describe what it looks like, because I haven’t died yet so I don’t know – somehow, the enormity of the grief may feel like it’s going to swallow us, but God is bigger than it is.

And so we have the vision from John of Patmos:

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…And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and God will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. (Rev. 21:1-4a)

God’s home is among us! Right here, not just in our Sunday best but even in the pain and the sorrow and the grief. The personal sorrows; the natural disasters; the violence and the chaos and the killing and the dehumanization… all of it. God is in it with us. Sitting next to that tomb – even when we feel that we might actually be the stinking corpse – and waiting it out with us.

And then…eventually…and we know not how nor when, but eventually:

“See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)

First the grief, then the new life. And God smack in the middle of it all.

***

After the tears and anger and grief, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. Is this a promise that our loved ones will come back from their graves and live and walk among us again? I think I can say, with a great deal of confidence, “no.” But the promise here is that the enormity of our grief, of the world’s grief, will not swallow us whole. God is bigger than the gaping maw of death and grief.

***

On this All Saints Sunday, churches around the country will sing the famous hymn, “For All the Saints.” It’s long, so sometimes preachers or music directors take out one of the five verses. If they do, they almost always choose verse 5, probably because it seems like such a “downer.” Here are the words:

And when the strife is fierce, the warfare long,
Steals on the ear the distant triumph song,
And hearts are brave again, and arms are strong.
Alleluia! Alleluia!

Do you hear it? It’s precisely when the strife is fierce, when the warfare is long, when the news will not stop coming and coming, when we feel like all of our phone calls and vigils and protests and letters don’t matter, when our grief seems like it will never end – that’s when we hear it from far away…quietly at first, then stronger…a triumphant song – maybe the words, “See, I am making all things new?” – and then our hearts are brave and our arms are strong and we can shout alleluia!

It isn’t instant. We cannot rush to joy. We can’t just hurry up and move on. Grief must run its course – even grief that is for the enormity of the world’s pain. And it takes as long as it takes. But Jesus will sit with us while we cry and rage and shake.

Eventually, the possibility of hope may begin to whisper to us – a distant song humming the possibility that grief and pain don’t last forever. And someday, maybe soon, maybe not for a long time, we’ll find joy again. Just knowing that the new life is possible gives us strength when the fight wearies us and threatens to bury us.

On Friday night we gathered in the sanctuary of Temple Shir Tikvah, just as people gathered in all kinds of sanctuaries throughout the week and across this country, facing the strife and the warfare. We reminded ourselves that the God we know and worship in a variety of ways and by a multitude of names is the one who swallows up death, who places a banquet before us, who sits in the grief with us and then helps us find new life.

At the end of the vigil, Rabbi Cari said that members of her synagogue had asked her ahead of time if the vigil was going to be child-friendly. She paused. She scanned the crowd. She pointed to her two children. And two over there. And some youth gathered on the floor and along the windowsills. And a few more children in the back. And she said, “This is the best place for them to be tonight. Surrounded by all of you, by all of this light and love.”

Yes, my friend. Yes.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Rev. Don Remick, Transitional Conference Minister. “Letter from the Conference Minister: The Enormity of the World’s Grief.” 29 Oct. 2018.

 

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