I believe I have succeeded in posting an audio version of my sermon.
Thanks to the saints of Christ Presbyterian Church by the Sea for bearing with me as I made this first attempt at recording. They are good and generous and kind folks, and I am humbled every time they invite me back to worship with them.
And All Shall be Well…
Sermon preached by the Rev. Sarah Segal McCaslin
November 2, 2014
1 John 3:1-3
Today we celebrate All Saints Day, when it is customary to remember those who have died in the last year and attend to the dimensions of our faith related to death that are often neglected. It is a right and good thing to do, so we shall. We will sing ‘for all the saints, who from their labors rest!’; we will receive the promises of Scripture that those who have gone before us to life eternal will hunger no more and thirst no more…and God will wipe away every tear from their eye; and we will break bread and bless the cup and imagine that future time when we will all feast together at God’s table in glory.
We will do all these things with solemnity and dignity and reverence and joy.
And… we will also acknowledge the many other kinds of loss that we have experienced, for there is not one among us who has not experienced loss this year. There is not one among us who has escaped unscathed. Like death and taxes, loss is a sure thing, and yet it never fails to surprise us. It can take our breath away– loss– when it happens suddenly, leaving us bent over and gasping for air to fill our lungs. Loss can happen slowly, too, eating away at us little by little, small loss over small loss until it reaches its own, inevitable completion. Loss comes from many places, not just death, and that loss deserves our attention today, as well.
As someone has said, ‘Loss can come from leave-takings, as we depart for a new job or home or leave beloved friends and colleagues behind. It can come as you slowly lose a loved one to Alzheimer’s. It can come in the loss of employment or dignity. It can come from struggles with illness both of body and mind. It can come from the exhaustion of caring for another and the occasional recognition of all the things given up in order to offer that care. It can come from disappointment at home or work or school, of dreams deferred or hopes dashed.’
Who or what have you lost this year?
If loss is an event, or a moment in time, or a single, unique experience– grief is what is left behind after loss. And grief can become a constant companion, attached at our hip like a stray animal, starving and desperate for attention.
What are we to do with this animal named Grief? It can be a rangy and sharp-toothed thing, grabbing at the hem of your coat as you are trying to leave the house- as you are trying to put your life back together again. But that animal named Grief wants you to stay inside and stay devoted to its care. It doesn’t mind if you get angry; anger means you are going to let the animal named Grief stick around longer. It doesn’t mind if you feel despair; despair just means you are growing dependent on Grief.
We live in a culture that despises animals named Grief, and would rather you stay indoors with it than put it on a leash and take it out for a walk in the fresh air. We live in a culture that is terrified of animals named Grief and so has set up statutes of limitation for dealing with loss to keep Grief out of sight. But animals named Grief don’t pay attention to statutes of limitations, and Grief can’t be bothered with what culture has ruled ‘acceptable loss.’
We are allowed to grieve the loss of a relative or dear friend; are we allowed also to grieve the loss of a beloved pet? We are allowed to grieve the death of a child already born, but are we allowed to grieve infertility and miscarriage? We are allowed to grieve a cancer diagnosis, but what about schizophrenia? When are we allowed to bring our Grief into the light of day, and when are we expected to hide it?
Approximately one thousand years ago, I led a grief recovery group, and here is what I noticed: even before the group had had its first meeting, I received phone calls like these: Well, my husband and I haven’t been intimate in a number of years and I am grieving the loss of the expectations I had for our marriage. Does this count as grief? Can I participate?
And from another: my dad died ten years ago, but I still feel really sad. Is it OK to join the group if it’s been so long since I lost him?
You and this community endured terrible loss two years ago, and it is likely that many, if not most, of you are still grieving the loss of your homes; the loss of a sense of security that a home provides; the loss of confidence in the government and nonprofit institutions to offer real and timely assistance. The loss of friends and family who have moved away for good. So many losses to grieve… Who can put a statute of limitations on that kind of grief?
What are you grieving this year? How you have attended to your grief? Does it keep you up at night? Does it make you anxious or depressed? Do you hide your grief because you think you should be ‘done’ grieving by now? Are you worried that you’ll be judged for still grieving?
I’ve described grief as a rangy, sharp-toothed animal nipping at your heels, because it’s needy, and both vulnerable and slightly dangerous, and it just won’t leave you alone. Maybe that image resonates with you, or maybe grief is a place- dark and still, devoid of sunlight and oxygen? The poet Ann Weems describes what she knows as the Valley of Grief:
O God, find me!
I am lost
In the valley of grief,
and I cannot see my way out.
My friends leave baskets of balm
at my feet,
but I cannot bend to touch
to my heart.
They call me to leave
but I cannot follow
the faint sound
of their voices…
O God, find me!
Come into this valley
and find me!
Bring me out of this land
O you to whom I belong,
I will wait here,
for you have never failed
to come to me.
I will wait here,
for you have always been faithful.
I will wait here,
for you are my God,
and you have promised
that you counted the hairs on my head.
What is your grief like? How do you attend to it?
If All Saints Sunday is a time to remember those we’ve lost and be comforted by the knowledge that in an unknown future all shall be well through the promises of God, All Saints is ALSO a time to lean on the saints who have gone before us; to recognize the saints who still walk among us. To take an inventory of the ways in which we, too, may be accounted saints for others. And to take custody of God’s promises that are for us in the present moment. For God is not stingy in doling out blessings upon God’s own children.
Listen again to these words from Scripture, and pay close attention to the tense- not past or future, but present!
- From 1 John, “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of god; and that is what we ARE…Beloved, we are God’s children NOW…
- From Matthew’s Gospel, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are the meek… blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness… blessed are the merciful… blessed are the pure in heart… blessed are the peacemakers… blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake… blessed are you when people revile you.
Are you a child of God? Are you mourning a loss? Are you a peacemaker? Are you a victim of persecution? Are you poor in spirit? If you can identify as any of these, then you are ALREADY blessed. Right in this moment, you are a blessing to God, who through Jesus Christ, knows what it means to be all of these and more.
It is true, but that doesn’t make it easy to believe. We are invited to trust these promises of blessing and comfort even though we cannot see them. And there are times. Lots of times. When it is just about impossible to wait for these blessings to be revealed when we are sitting upon a heap of ashes. When we cannot find it in us to be patient in the face of so much loss, and grief, and pain, and heartache. When it even seems that those who have left this life are better off than those of us left behind.
I met a young woman at the hospital last week, as she walked slowly along the hallway, trying to stretch her aching muscles. She has a constellation of medical diagnoses that amount to both chronic and acute pain and illness. She’s away from her young children; at the mercy of doctors who are flummoxed as to how to treat her multiple diseases; and in tremendous pain. She does not hide her aggravation and her tendency toward despair. But when I mentioned that I was a chaplain, her eyes lit up and she began to talk about Job. Of course, Job. She and Job are companions in their grief. Everything taken away- health, wealth, family. Well, almost everything. Not faith. Even through his grief, which must have looked more like a snarling beast than a rangy, sharp-toothed dog, Job held on. He is her saint. He walked ahead of her, leaving his story behind as a talisman. ‘I survived; you can, too.’ What was left at the end of her story was a steeliness and stubbornness in her eyes that said, ‘I will not let this defeat me. I will choose to be victorious, regardless the outcome.’
‘The word saint is not limited to the ‘greats’ of history, for even the Apostle Paul and other writers in the New Testament use the term synonymously with Christian and, at times, with believer. We all have saints, those who are deceased, and those who are living and walking among us.’ (source)
Who are your saints? Who among the saints walks ahead of you and shows you that grief and loss will not have the final word? Who among the saints walks ahead of you reminding you that you are a beloved child of God right at this very moment? Who among the saints might give you strength and courage for the living of these days? Who among the saints teaches you to attend to the animal named Grief? Or who can pull you from the Valley called Grief?
Saints do not become saints by sheer determination and self-discipline. Saints become saints because God creates them by grace. And because God’s grace is abundant and overflowing, any of us are worthy to be called saints. To honor the saints today, those gone before us and those even in this sanctuary, is not to revere the good works of the few, but to affirm the transformative power of Jesus Christ at work all around us in human lives.
We will do this, too, with solemnity and dignity and reverence and joy.
Who can you be a saint to this year? Who can you remind, in the depth of their grief, that they are children of God, right this very minute? Who can you give strength and courage to for the living of these days? Who can you teach about attending to animals and valleys called Grief with tenderness and patience? In the action for others, you will find a blessing for yourself.
I’m not sure I’ve answered the question about how we might believe God’s promises while sitting upon a heap of ashes. There is no equation or prescription for seeing past the impassable and experiencing hope. My own practice has evolved over the years, and I imagine it will evolve over the full span of my life. The first thing is my motto: Fake it ‘till you make it. You know that one, right? You know they’ve done studies that show if you make yourself smile, even when you are sad or angry, the plain, physical act of smiling will actually change your mood. For me, it means pretending I have hope and trust, even when I don’t, until the pretending to hope and trust turns into actually hoping and trusting.
I also embraced a mantra this year. I dislike the term mantra and especially having a ‘personal mantra.’ But here it is: God will not forsake me. A very wise and faithful man (a saint for sure) gave this to me when I was sitting on a heap of ashes not too long ago. I privately rolled my eyes because there was no way saying it would work. It has worked. It has done miraculous things in my life.
Now, on this All Saints Sunday, I’m thinking about the words of an old hymn. Maybe you know it: Standing on the promises that cannot fail, when the howling storms of doubt and fear assail, by the living Word of God I shall prevail, standing on the promises of God my Savior.
Or, finally, this one, spoken by a mystic but as a close an interpretation of promises laid forth in Revelation as you’ll find anywhere: All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
May it be so.
© Sarah McCaslin, 2014