Scripture: Revelation 21:1-6a
For several weeks, our son and daughter-in-law, Alex and Cynthia, have known they needed to have their cat Gaston put down. Gaston had ceased to have any control over what we might delicately call “bodily functions,” and with a baby in the house, and no one else able to take the cat, the situation had become untenable. They were torn up about it, because they’d had the cat as long as they’d been together. But the needs of an infant forced them to do what they so wanted not to do.
So off they went to the vet Tuesday evening, wishing they didn’t have to do this. And after they had signed all the papers, the vet told them that she wanted to keep Gaston as an office cat. She thought that in this new setting, Gaston might well come around. Not surprisingly, Alex and Cynthia were elated. Even though they knew they couldn’t keep the cat, they were so relieved that his life had been spared.
Death: it looms over us with a relentless inevitability. And most of us, of course, hate it. It can scare us, or maybe most of the time just numb us. It was Sigmund Freud who said it’s impossible to imagine your own death. And when we try to imagine the deaths of those we love, it’s both strangely inconceivable and absurdly painful.
Right about now you may well be thinking to yourself, “Oh, no! I could have stayed home today and enjoyed a relaxing bagel and coffee!” I get that this may not be the most fun subject in history. I think, though, that most of us yearn for some engagement and reflection on the subject of death. And most of all, we yearn for a sense of God’s presence in this most disconcerting facet of our lives.
The bald fact is we are going to die. In case you’re inclined to forget it, I learned this week there’s an app called, of all things, “WeCroak.” And here’s what it does: at five random points during the day, it sends an alert to each user. And the message always says the same thing: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” You’re sitting down to your morning coffee: “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” You’re just about to head into an important meeting? “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” There’s a difficult conversation you need to have with your child? “Don’t forget, you’re going to die.” We all will, indeed, croak.
This is something we in the church acknowledge on Ash Wednesday. That day, as Lent begins, we have ashes imposed on our foreheads, and we are confronted with the solemn words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” And here today, on All Saints Sunday, maybe surprisingly, we come together to be reminded again of that most fundamental of all facts: we are all going to die.
And one of the questions that can haunt all people, including people of faith, is: what becomes of us at death, and what place does death have in our faith? The biblical witness about death, it turns out, is not so much about facts and blueprints. It doesn’t detail the interior design of heaven. When the Bible talks about death, it is almost always to convey the core of the good news of God. Its main interest is to convey comfort and hope.
The Bible’s last book is a dense, mystifying vision of God’s presence in times of challenge and persecution. It has visions of a seven-headed dragon, a serpent, a beast and so much more. Some people have seen this as a literal prediction of the future. That, though, is way too narrow a way to see this wildly imaginative work. Revelation is not prediction so much as it’s poetry. And it points to what is most fundamental.
And for us, my sense is its most special feature is the way it ends. As the last book of the Bible, it already has a distinctive place. And in its next-to-last chapter, the chapter from which we read today, its own ending is a vivid and potent reminder of what God is doing in it all. As is so often the case, Eugene Peterson, in his translation called The Message, captures the sense of these words: “I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. . .. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: ‘Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making [God’s] home with men and women . . .. [God will] wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone” (Revelation 21:3-4).
The author’s deepest conviction is that all the trials and tribulations of this life will culminate in a state of being that is free of pain and tears and struggle. No architectural plans for the layout of heaven. No detailed list of who or what is going to be there. Just a deep conviction that grace will embrace us. Just as with the beginning of life, the end of life will be filled with the presence and love of God. What we will discover at death is that God has indeed moved into the neighborhood.
As we remember the saints of Federated’s family who have died this past year, and as we remember today our own family and friends whom we’ve loved and lost, we are invited to trust that, in those great words of Julian of Norwich, “all shall be well.” And they shall be well because, whatever transpires after death, God will be there.
Sometimes people will object: “Well, there’s no proof that there’s any life after death, or that God is there.” And of course, they’re right. What’s equally true, though, is that there’s no proof that there isn’t any life after death, or that God isn’t there. Proof isn’t really the issue, because nothing can be proved either way.
The real issue, from a Christian perspective, is that we have been given this spectacular gift of life. It’s not something we made happen. And it is so grand and special that it would be incredibly odd if it were no more than an accident. And so we say: God has done this. God has given us life and breath and beauty and thrills and love. And if God cares so much as to give us all this, wouldn’t it be extremely odd if God suddenly gave up on us at death? “Here you go, have a life. But once you breathe your last breath, I’m having nothing more to do with you.”
No, the conviction of Revelation is that when death arrives, God comes near and everything is made new. All the old aches and pains, the regrets and remorse, the resentments and envies—they all vanish in a love that knows no bounds. “Tears gone, crying gone, pain gone.” In the words of a great hymn, God says, “When the evening gently closes in and you shut your weary eyes, I’ll be there as I have always been with just one more surprise” (“I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry,” v. 6).
Maybe we could say that saints are those who, in some way or other, know that next surprise. When we use the word “saint,” we tend to mean someone who is exceptionally holy. A saint is someone like Mother Teresa. Or Nelson Mandela. Or maybe someone in your neighborhood who, every fall, rakes the aging neighbor’s yard. “She’s a saint,” we’ll say. And we mean she’s remarkably giving and generous with her time, her money, her spirit.
In the Christian church, though, sainthood isn’t really about sterling moral character. When we sing “For All the Saints,” we’re not singing about just those rare moral exemplars. We’re singing about everyone. “We live and struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine” (v. 3). A saint, in truth, is any child of God. Sainthood is not something we make happen. It’s something God makes happen. Sainthood is not something we can earn or attain. It is, instead, pure grace.
My sense is it may be good to preserve both senses of that word, both the specialness of sainthood and the everydayness of it. I don’t think it hurts us, for example, to lift up people who have shined the light of God into our lives in a uniquely radiant way. When we lift up as saints the remarkable people we mentioned earlier, doesn’t it call us to a better tomorrow? Doesn’t it set for us a vision of love and light into which we might live? Doesn’t it give us a sense of vocation and mission? Luminaries have a way of conveying to us: you can do this!
Two of the people I would call saints died in the last couple of weeks. One of those you have likely never heard of. His name was Thomas Keating, and he died on October 25 at 95. What he is remembered for is his development and popularizing of the notion of centering prayer. Centering prayer is a way of experiencing God’s presence deep within, “closer than breathing, closer than thinking.” It’s not so much about words as it is about silence. It seeks to move a person “beyond conversation with Christ to communion with Christ” (https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/category/category/centering-prayer). In centering prayer, “you choose a word, sometimes called a prayer word, sometimes called a sacred word, that expresses your desire to be in intimate relationship with God” (https://www.upperroom.org/resources/centering-prayer)—a word like love or peace or joy. At its heart, centering prayer is about simply “resting in God”
(https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/category/category/centering-prayer). Thomas Keating reminded us what’s most important. He called us back to the center, and there’s a saintliness about that.
I mentioned last Sunday that Eugene Peterson also recently died. He was a long-time pastor of a church in Maryland, and he’s the one who produced the translation of the Bible that we read from earlier, the version known as The Message. That alone makes him a gift.
I need to add, though, that Peterson is also one who has pointed the way for many of us as pastors. He has reminded us, in books that have been enormously popular among clergy, that our pastoral work is not first of all to master techniques or to market God or to organize the church. Those can surely be valuable. But a pastor’s first call is to love God, to pray, to read the Bible, to read literature, and to love the people of the church. A pastor’s first call is to attend to the center. When a church loses that center, too much has been sacrificed, he wrote. He wanted to make it clear that pastors need to be rooted in God. On days when I am tempted to get too caught up in peripheral matters, Peterson would remind me to dwell in the heart of God; to be still and rest; to observe and ponder and study and write and teach and listen and tend.
“It is far more biblical,” he once wrote, “to learn quietness and attentiveness before God than to be overtaken by . . . the twin perils of ministry, ‘flurry and worry.’ For flurry dissipates energy, and worry constipates it” (The Contemplative Pastor, p. 25). Peterson has been a saint, as he has repeatedly called us back to the core of Christian faith.
Nor, of course, are Keating and Peterson alone. Such leading lights call us back to the center in all sorts of ways. Above all, perhaps, they remind us of the fundamental oneness we are so often tempted to forget. They call us to remember that there is no “other” in life, that our sisters and brothers are Jews in Pittsburgh and Muslims in Solon and migrant people in Mexico. Luminous saints call us out of our parochialism and remind us that, in God’s world, there are no aliens. Only friends.
All that said, though, it’s not just a few superstars who are saints in the church. Doesn’t it make a difference if we acknowledge that we’re all saints, that each of us has been endowed with a unique quality of holiness, that God’s grace dwells inimitably in every single one of us? If I see you as a saint, doesn’t that mean you hold your head just a little bit higher? Doesn’t it give you something to aim for? Doesn’t it remind you that you are God’s holy child, and that you’re filled with love and light?
So here’s the bottom line: as death stares us all in the face—WeCroak—what is most true is that you and I are saints. And we are saints, not because of anything we’ve accomplished, but simply and only because God has seen fit to love us with an unfathomable love. You are a saint! And strange as it may seem to you, I am a saint, as well! And all that’s left is for us to live as any saint should, with forgiveness and acceptance and love at the center. As one of God’s countless saints, Mother Teresa, once put it, in words I heard recently from a friend, “Spread love everywhere you go. Let no one ever come to you without leaving happier.” So be it!