This sermon was delivered on November 4, 2012, at Wallace UMC.
21Then 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.2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home* of God is among mortals.
He will dwell* with them;
they will be his peoples,*
and God himself will be with them;*
4 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.’
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ 6Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
Have you ever been in a place that you just knew that God was there? Have you ever been to a place where, in your heart you knew, that heaven had met earth?
This past month, I was graciously given the opportunity to take a week off. I got that Sabbath that we hear so much about, and I got a break so that I could restore myself, for which I am very grateful. On that vacation, I was able to go to the city of San Francisco, and in the city of San Francisco, I got to do something incredibly special, something that I’ve wanted to do for a very long time. I got a chance to go to and experience prayer at Grace Cathedral.
For those who don’t know, Grace Cathedral is the third largest Episcopal Cathedral in the US, and the 5th largest Gothic style cathedral in the US. What that means is: it’s a really, really big church designed in a very ancient style. And it is incredibly beautiful. I went to the cathedral in the late afternoon, so that I could go to the evening prayer service they hold in the sanctuary. The first thing you see, as you walk up from the street level going up to the cathedral is two enormous bronze doors, called the Doors of Paradise, on which are bronze plates sculpted with images from the bible. You enter into the church, and in the front entrance, you are immediately hit with the immensity of the place. For one, the ceilings are incredibly high. So high, you could hardly see the top of the room; it looks like the sanctuary goes on forever. Because it was in the evening, the light was shining through the stained glass windows in just the right way. There was an overwhelming sound, the sound of silence. There was awe in that sanctuary. I don’t use that word lightly. I was moved in my heart. I prayed there. I stood in amazement, and I knew that God was there. God was with me, and with everyone at that evening prayer service. God was there.
I’m not saying that every church needs to look like a gothic cathedral—far from it. I’m lucky enough to have been in many places where I’ve felt God’s presence. I’ve felt it in the grandeur of the mountains; I’ve felt it witnessing the raw power of the ocean; I’ve felt it in the course of a drifting stream; I’ve felt it in the silent forests; I’ve felt it in the empty and immense deserts; I’ve felt it in the plains and rolling hills, where the skies go on forever. And I’ve felt it in this small white-frame country church. The truth of the matter is, I know this in my heart; there have been many moments, when I knew God was there. It wasn’t the building, although it was beautiful. I was filled with a sense of God being there. That somehow the eternal was present in the physical world. In that moment, heaven made an appearance to me in some indefinable way.
If you have ever had that feeling before? That feeling that heaven and earth had met? It’s a powerful experience. It’s incredible. Above all, it’s transformative. It calls into question everything you had ever felt before about your place in the universe. It’s easy, in everyday life, to have a narrow view of things. To just put the blinders on, and see life in a way that’s easy to take, and to live with. When you have a moment though, that opens your eyes, it’s like taking off a blindfold. It’s like seeing something in 2D, and then moving to 3D. There’s new depth to everything. Suddenly, your perception of the world is opened up to new possibilities, new ideas. You’re also opened up to realizing how very small you are in the grand scheme of things, and how vast this universe really is. How suddenly the universe contains more in it than you can see, more than you can hear, or taste, or touch, or smell. There’s subtle electricity in that moment. The breathtaking beauty of Heaven is one that is impossible to put into words—and that’s part of the joys of being given the chance to preach on All Saint’s Sunday. I know I’m going to fail, but I’m going to try anyway.
As we all know, this past week was Halloween, or All Hallow’s Eve. What you may not remember is that really, Halloween is a day of preparation before another important Christian holy day: All Saints’ Day. All Saints’ Day is a day that the church gets to reaffirm and celebrate the lives of the faithful that have gone before us. It’s an undertaking that we as Christians should take fairly seriously, but also joyously. I mean, what’s not to love about celebrating the faith of the people who formed us, and shaped us in our own faith? That’s something that I think is incredibly important, as well as humbling.
We say it every time we say the Apostle’s Creed: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, and the communion of the saints. A question was asked of me a little while ago about that last bit though. Have you ever wondered what it means when we say we believe in the communion of the saints? The thing about the church is that, when you join church and are baptized, you stay a member of the church, even and especially after you die. I know, it might sound weird at first, but the more you think about it, the more it makes sense, doesn’t it? Let’s take this church for example. I bet everyone in this church knows the spirits of the saints of this church are still with us. You can feel them, taking part of worship with us. You can feel it. And it’s a joyous thing to remember. The memory of their faith remains in you, and remains a part of the very foundation of this church. Their faith remains in your heart. When we take part in communion, we acknowledge that the saints are with us in partaking in the body in the blood; they have remained part of the body, redeemed by the blood.
All Saint’s day is a day that has a potential to be a day of great memory. It’s also a day, much like Ash Wednesday, much like Good Friday, where front and center is the reality of death. Unlike those other days though, All Saints Day is not nearly as sobering as that. It’s a day of rejoicing. It’s a day of rejoicing in the memory of our loved ones. It’s a day of recognizing the love that they have given us, and the love we have to give one another. And it’s also a day we get to acknowledge the hope of heaven that we look forward too.
Death is a very delicate subject, and a fearful thing. I know that, in this congregation, we have seen our fair share of sadness, our fair share of death and of grief. When we lose the ones that we love the most, it’s natural and right and a good thing to mourn. It’s never easy, and I’m not going to downplay how hard dealing with death is. It’s hard. It’s probably one of the hardest things in this world.
That’s the thing though, isn’t it? This world has been touched with death from the very beginning. We know it in our hearts, even if we don’t always want to admit it. But the truth is, it’s all over our holy scriptures. The problem of death is woven into the fabric of our story, as faithful believers, as the family of God. In Christian belief, sin and death go hand in hand. The wages of sin is death, we say. Honestly, I can believe it. When sin entered into the world, death was not far behind it. Death is ultimately the cost of sin.
I think the biggest part of death though is that, on some level we fear death. I think it’s safe to say that everyone has a fear of death, some more so than others. But why, I wonder? There was once I time, and it’s well documented, that people did not fear death nearly as much as we do now. This is because, once upon a time, people were surrounded by death. People didn’t go away to a hospital to die, they died more often than not at home, surrounded by their loved ones. Death was not as taboo as it is today. Death, after all, is a part of life. Every life has a beginning, and it also ends.
I will say this though; work in a hospital for any length of time, and you really begin to understand this on a deeper level. I have to confess; dealing with death was and remains something hard for me to do. To be honest, when I worked in a hospital, I really was afraid of death. I was afraid to talk about it, even though it was all around me. I was afraid to think about it, even though I wasn’t the one who was going through sickness and death like the patients and families around them. I confessed my own fears of death to a loving mentor, Nina Bryant-Sanyika one day, and I’m glad I did, because she got to the root of the problem with me. I was afraid because, at some level, I was afraid of what I didn’t know. I was also afraid, because I thought in my heart that when we died, we were really alone in death. And that terrified me. And honestly, I believe that a lot of people are afraid of the same things. We’re afraid of what we don’t know. We’re afraid of not knowing, because it’s beyond our control, completely and totally. We’re also afraid of being alone. Loving and being and sharing life with one another is one of the great joys this life has to offer us, and so we fear being alone. Those were my fears, and that’s what I shared with my mentor.
My mentor Nina, though, she knew exactly what to say to me. She had long ago wrestled with this inner struggle, these fears that tormented me, and do you know what she said? She said “Grant, people aren’t alone in death. Nobody is alone in death, nor is death the end. Death is the beginning.”
And she was right.
My brothers and sisters, she was right. We aren’t alone. We are never alone. For you see, I believe, and we believe, that we have with us the love of God at all times, that that love of God surrounds us even in our darkest hour. Not only that, we are surrounded by the love of the ones who have gone before us, who sit beside us, and the ones who will remain after we are long gone. And that is a joy, my friends, a joy worth believing in. As it says in the letter to the Hebrews chapter 12: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
We have no need to fear death, because the good news is, death, through Christ, has been defeated. In that great hope, we realize that heaven is not some distant place that we can never encounter. Heaven is a reality that transcends human understanding, but in keeping a vision of heaven, in keeping that cloud of witnesses, in keeping that hope for a new heaven and a new earth in our hearts, we are given the perseverance to run the race before us.
The passage that was read earlier from the book of Revelation is the culmination of this victory. It’s a vision that is so transcendent, so filled with awe and power, it has very much defined what heaven is like for centuries. I’ll take that vision over any pop book speculating on heaven any day. This vision is magnificent. Our narrator John of Patmos tells us that he was given a vision of a new heaven and a new earth; the old earth and the old heaven had passed away. Really, what had happened is that the old earth and the old heaven had been redeemed, and in the fullness of time, regained the glory that had been God’s intention for creation. What was broken is made just as new as it ever was.
And in this vision, what do we see? We see all the redeemed people, all the saints, all the faithful rejoicing together. All of creation is rejoicing together! And the best part about it is this one sentence, this one hope that I have tried to keep in my heart: There will come a time when
“the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 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.”
So you see, when heaven meets earth, when you have those moments when you are witness to the awe-inspiring grandeur of God, what you get in that glimpse of the eternal is hope. When you open yourself to the life God given you, and when you open your heart to receive the love of God, is that you receive into your heart the hope of a future where death is defeated, where there is no more crying, no more pain. You get the hope of a life when we will see God face to face.
If you haven’t had this at some point in your life, I’m sure by the end of it you will. Remember that on this All Saints Day, we have nothing to fear. We are surrounded by the love of the faithful that have gone before us, who remain with us, and who we will see in glory at the end of all things. This is not to say that we should just give up on this world, though. This world needs the witness of those who have seen God face to face, who hope for a new heaven and a new earth, because when you have that in your life, you want to do everything you can to make this earth more like heaven. That’s what we do when heaven meets earth. We want to make earth more like heaven. We want to make earth more beautiful. We want to make earth more just. We want to make earth more merciful, and joyous, and holy. We have nothing to fear. God has been with us, is with us, and will always be with us. Alpha and Omega. We have nothing to fear.Amen.