My heart goes out to the Rev. Becky Withington, who is pastor of Everett United Church of Christ, about 6 miles south of Marysville, WA. Marysville-Pilchuck High School was the scene of yet another school shooting a couple weeks ago, where 4 young people, including the shooter, died. Everett UCC celebrated All Saints Sunday last Sunday with the reading of names and lighting of candles for those who have died, as we do during our Service of Memory and Hope; but Rev. Withington says, “When we observe All Saints/All Souls Sunday, usually our grief is tempered by time and by rich memories of long lives faithfully lived out. This time our anguish is fresh and raw.” (ucc.org)
While Everett UCC has a few Marysville residents, none of them had students in the high school. Still groups of students and former students attended the service at Everett last Sunday morning. The Rev. Mimi Lane, the chaplain at the hospital where the wounded students were brought, preached the sermon. “The prayers were prayers for dealing with what seems unreal in this tragedy [she said] and for those injured, killed, and their families and community. The choir sang ‘Carry the Light,’ which was so profoundly right that morning: ‘…in this world of darkness we are given light, hope for all the dying. How will they know that Jesus loves them? Carry the light. Go and tell the children they are precious in His sight. Carry the light.’ So perfect for the morning, [Rev. Lane said]…Lots of tears. So perfect [for] when we just don’t understand.”
So, at least 4 more souls–even the shooter, eventually, I believe– added to the Light. And all those who died of ebola this week…and all those who died of hunger…and all those beaten or stoned to death …those killed by bombs or bullets or in plane crashes…those who succumbed to cancer or other diseases…those who had simply lived the length of their days and went Home.
“They will hunger no more, [John says in the Book of Revelation] and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” Words of comfort from a book in the Bible more widely known for its uncomforting words of destruction and damnation. “God himself will be with them,” it says toward the end of the book. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more…” We read these words of comfort at funerals.
But we know, as one writer points out, that all loss that deserves notice and demands comfort comes not only from death, but from many places. “It comes in leave-takings, [he writes]as we depart for a new job and home and leave beloved friends and colleagues behind. It comes as you slowly lose a loved one to Alzheimer’s. It comes in the loss of employment or dignity. It comes from struggles with illness both of body and mind. It comes from the exhaustion of caring for a special needs child [or an elderly parent] and the occasional recognition of all the things given up in order to offer that care. It comes from disappointment at home or work or school, of dreams deferred or hopes dashed.” (David Lose, inthemeantime, 10/27/14)
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled….Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus says to those who are not usually thought of as blessed, “You are blessed.” Not “you will be blessed in some future time,” but now, you are blessed. The blessing doesn’t immunize them from suffering or grief–that is part of every life–but it plants a seed of blessing that will indeed blossom in response to love. Like the promise of God’s wiping away every tear, so these blessings create a new reality. A faithful promise can do that. One dad tells of his promise to his children that after dinner they will play board games. When he arrives home from work, the board is laid out, the pieces are at the ready. The promise creates the reality. Or the promise to have and to hold, in sickness and in health, in plenty and in want, until death shall part us. It is a promise that creates a new reality, a promise to be remembered every day of a marriage, though we know and acknowledge with deep sadness that those human promises cannot always be kept. But it is different from just “living together,” without those solemn promises.
It’s hard in the midst of grief or loss to imagine anything different, any newness; and so the promises of God –to wipe away every tear, to bless those who mourn, those who are persecuted–those promises are important to be reminded of because they create future possibili-ties not defined by the past. (David Lose, op cit.) Those promises are that God sees and knows and accompanies us, no matter how deep our grief or pain or loss or disorientation; and, by the way, it’s alright to struggle with this, to doubt in the midst of your loss. Martin Luther, the reformer, listed “struggle” as one of the marks of the church, alongside preaching, sacraments, and others. Doubt is testament to the depth of the struggle to take God seriously.
Last Sunday at Everett UCC in Washington, one of the hymns they sang was ‘Now Thank We All Our God,’ [which we also will sing at the end our service today]. The words to that hymn were “written by Pastor Martin Rinkart in 1647,” Everett’s preacher of the day said. “In the midst of the Thirty Years War, when everyone in his walled city was dying of hunger and illness (even his wife died) and he was performing up to 40 funerals a day because one of the other clergy left the town and the two others died, he wrote this lovely poem for his children to remember God’s love for them. We dedicated this song to MPHS (Marysville Pilchuck High School) with hopes for healing and comfort.”
“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices, who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices. Who, from our mothers’ arms, has blessed us on our way with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.” No wonder there were lots of tears.
Whatever loss you’re experiencing today, whatever saint’s face is in your heart’s eye today, know that God’s promises are to be trusted. God is not far away, disinterested in your pain and sorrow; God is right here in our midst, even inviting us to take and drink of God’s very self, to carry the Light and Love and Word made flesh in our flesh. Take and eat. Take and drink. This is for you and for the whole world. Thanks be to God! Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark