Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and meditations on all our hearts be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. In Christ’s name we pray, Amen.
“Grief and Hope”
My first gut-wrenching encounter with death and with grief was during middle school.
The church I went to had a youth group, which was run by two women. Their names were Jackie and Karen, and they were best friends. They organized Sunday School and youth group nights, events and fundraisers and mission trips. They laughed with us, got to know us, but remembered why we were there; we talked about God, did service projects, and once a year we would have a time where they would have a foot-washing ceremony. And then one day they announced that Jackie had been diagnosed with cancer, that she would be taking a break from leading youth group to have her treatments. She stopped coming to church and to youth group.
Jackie died, and it sent shock waves through the youth group. It must have been right before the next mission trip, because I remember going on that, and I remember everyone still being shocked.
On the last night, when it was traditional to have a foot-washing ceremony, they put us in a separate room so we could all grieve together and have our first ceremony together without Jackie, so that we could cry and sing her favorite song and wash each others’ feet as she’d always done for us.
I’ve grieved other people since then. We all have grief, we all have people we remember on this All Saint’s Sunday, whether the grief is near or far, raw or healing. And All Saint’s Sunday is a time where we grieve together. We may look forward, to our hope of resurrection, but grief isn’t so linear as that. If you’re still stuck in disbelief, in anger, in despair–God is there, with you. You don’t have to affirm our hope all the time. Sometimes you can hold on anyway, but sometimes it’s OK to let God catch you as you fall, to let your community and your people hold you up as you fall apart.
If we turn to our passage in Revelation–it begins with “a great multitude that no one could count,” from every time and place and people, gathered together to worship the Lord. Not only are we not alone because of God’s eternal presence, we are also not alone in our worship together, we are not alone in our questions and griefs and suffering, or our joy and service and praise. God’s people has seen it all before, weathered it all before. They prove God’s faithfulness to us as we take our turn to live, to be battered by grief and pain and sin. God was faithful to them, and so they are gathered together by God to worship.
It’s important, too, to notice what they’re saying: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” The saints who have come before us did not endure because of their own efforts or words, because they got things just right and were able to answer all their questions; they know, just as we do, that salvation comes from God. Healing comes from God. Joy comes from God. It is all a gift, one we have not earned and cannot earn.
And in that lies our hope, in God’s faithfulness and God’s salvation, in the healing God has promised and that we see described here, in a time where there will be no hunger and no thirst, no burning pain and no tears of grief. Hope is such an odd word, such a hard word to use in church because of all the ways we use it differently in every-day language: for the language of saying, “I hope I get a bike for Christmas” is far different than saying, “I hope in God,” or “I hope for the day when there will be no more tears.” “I hope for a bike” is a wish, is saying something that you’d like to come true but you have no idea if it will or not; when we as Christians talk about hope, we mean waiting for something that has been promised, holding on to it and to the fact that it’s coming and to the trustworthiness of our God who’s promised.
And hope isn’t just a feeling; it’s not just an exercise in how much hope you feel every morning or every night before you go to bed. Hope is something that we act on. We see what God is doing and we take part, because we believe that God is working already to bring about a world without pain and without tears, that God’s heart breaks for every child without food and person without love, and that God wants to heal them. We put our beliefs and our hope into action, into raising money and gathering supplies and praying and calling someone you’ve been missing. Our hope is something alive, something active, something we hold on to.
At my first church internship, I helped organize a mission trip, and then went with them. We went to Niagara, New York, and it was with the same group that we’d gone with in middle school. I remembered a lot of how they did things, but somehow I forgot all about that foot washing ceremony on the last night, and all of a sudden I’m sitting there and the leader up front is saying we’re about to do this and I’m the one who has to wash everyone’s feet and I’m suddenly feeling all those emotions I felt all those years ago when we did the same thing together as a grieving youth group. And it was only later that I was able to see what I’d been feeling, see how I’d come full circle–how I was acting out my hope and Jackie’s and ours, how I was affirming that God is our hope, stronger than any pain or grief, stronger than death or sin.
I would invite you to join me, to support me and each other as we struggle to find God, to affirm our reasons for hope and then to live that out through grief and pain, through sunny days and funerals, through our actions and our lives–and, of course, only and always through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.