November 5, 2017 (All Saints)
Rev. Fritz Nelson – First Presbyterian, Columbiana
Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:9– 13
At one point when I was in college my grandmother shared with me that she still spoke regularly with my grandfather. I’m not sure why this conversation came up, but I remember being shocked. My grandfather had died long enough ago that I’d never known him. I’d also gotten the impression that while their relationship was by no means horrible, my grandmother had more than relished the freedom and independence of her widowhood. She’d even had at least one serious boyfriend. Yet she still regularly experienced her husband’s presence and still discussed most major decisions and other important matters with him.
Before my mother died she carefully collected the various passwords, account numbers and other information crucial to the household in a document on her computer. She then password protected the document. She then told my father the password. She also wrote it down and hid it in a “safe place” – which she also told my father. A couple of days after my mother’s death, we collectively learned that my father hadn’t been listening. He didn’t remember the password. He had no idea where the “safe place” might be. We scoured my parents’ home office. My brother-in-law, an official computer geek of the highest order, began researching how to hack Microsoft Word documents. All to no avail. That night my mother came to my father and informed him of the password.
I’ve spent enough time in hospital rooms and funeral parlors, nursing home and generally around those who have lost loved ones to know others who share my family’s experience. At times the boundary between life and death seems fixed, permanent, final. At other times the boundary seems permeable. Many, many individuals who are dying report visions and conversations with loved ones who have gone on before. These conversations seem to ease the transition between life and death. Are they vivid hallucinations or cross dimensional visits? Regardless they seem very real to those who report them, as real as my father’s sense of my mother’s presence, as real as the decades long continued relationship between my grandparents.
Do not be worried about those who have died, Paul writes to the congregation in Thessalonica. Many of Paul’s congregation were waiting expectantly, impatiently, for the return of Jesus Christ. They expected Jesus to return within a generation, certainly within a lifetime. They believed, as do we, that Christ’s return would usher in a glorious new age, a time when:
the home of God would be among the mortals.
Christ would dwell with them as their God;
they would be his peoples,
and God himself would be with them.
God would wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death would be no more.
Mourning and crying and pain would be no more.
For all those things would have passed away.
But the Thessalonians’ loved ones were dying before Christ came back. What about them, they ask? Are they missing out? Will they be able to experience the joy of being in Christ’s presence. Does death ex (remove) – communicate (from community) them?
No, Paul says. Since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, we can have confidence that through Jesus God will bring with him those who had died. Boundaries seemingly concrete to us seem permeable to God. Those who die in the Lord remain in community with the Lord. Those who die in the Lord remain in community with us. The boundaries are permeable.
We know this without being told, without reading it in the bible. Its in our gut. Its in our experience. Its in the rituals and liturgies that span ages and cultures. Its why we light a candle representing the spirit of those who have gone before – spirits still very much present with us now.
Its why, as we come to the communion table, we will use a liturgy recognizing those who are with us in spirit but not in body. Those of us who will come after – our children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, those discovering faith anew and those meeting Christ for the first time. Unknown to us but known to God; part of God’s timeless community. Those who have come before – our parents and grandparents, our teachers and mentors, those who anchored us and anchored this place in faith. Still present among us, still remembered, part of God’s timeless community; part of our community.