Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Yes, You Will” (Isaiah 25:7-8)
November 1, 2015
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Every year on All Saints Sunday I thank God for the many saints who have personally impacted my life with the love of God, especially saints who “from their labors rest” (from “For All the Saints,” Hymn 287). The scripture readings for All Saints Sunday are replete with the hope we have through Jesus Christ that death is not the end of the story, that we will one day worship God in heaven together with all the saints. Along these lines in today’s beautiful passage from Isaiah the great Old Testament prophet writes about something magnificent that God would do in the future
And (God) will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death for ever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:7-8).
And yet in spite of this hope I still get a little emotional on All Saints Sunday because I am reminded how much I miss these saints who from their labor rest, reminded of how I look forward to seeing them again. Today I am going to share briefly about three specific saints who impacted my life with the love of God.
The first is a friend I had named John, whom I got to know while living in Charlottesville because he had two daughters who played on sports teams I coached. He was about seven or eight years older than me and was a no-nonsense New Englander who had worked as an investment broker on Wall Street for many years before moving to Charlottesville. John was an inspiration to me because John was paralyzed from the waist down due to a car accident when he was in high school. John was one of the most positive, upbeat people I ever knew. As he trained for the many wheelchair races and I often saw him whizzing up and down our hilly neighborhood. In the soccer and basketball games in which our kids played he cheered equally enthusiastically for every kid, not just his own, yelling encouragement and words of life to them.
But John’s condition made him vulnerable to sepsis, and one day unexpectedly I received a call that he was in the ICU at UVA Hospital. When I arrived he had a breathing tube in and so was unable to talk—but he was able to crack the smallest of smiles with the sides of his mouth, and his eyes spoke volumes, revealing the two emotions we all vacillate between, love and fear.
I took his hand and he squeezed it tight, really tight because he had incredibly strong hands from all his wheelchair use. I had been told that he did not have long to live, and so I talked to him about how much he and his family meant to me, read some psalms to him and prayed with him. His funeral was standing-room only, and on the cover of the funeral bulletin was a photo of him racing in his wheelchair, shades on, grinning with determination from ear to ear. John showed me what it looks like to be an overcomer. Thank you, John.
The second saint is a hilarious kid named Devin, whom I got to know when I was a youth minister in South Carolina. Devin was one of those guys who had the uncanny ability to drop hysterical one-liners at the exact perfect moment and make even the grumpiest people laugh. He was an amazing soccer player and had lots of friends. You wanted to be in Devin’s club. He had successfully battled cancer as a middle school student but when he was seventeen it came back and ultimately proved to be too much.
During his last few months Devin and I hung out a lot. We talked and laughed out loud as we watched ridiculous Adam Sandler movies, some multiple times, and we had lots and lots of chocolate shakes and peanut-butter cookies that my wife Steph made him. It was another standing-room only funeral—and that remains the most difficult sermon I have ever preached.
After the service and the reception his mom, Pat, another saint who had handled every parent’s worst nightmare with unbelievable grace and class, handed me something, “Devin asked me to give this to you after he had…you know.” Do you know what it was? A thank-you note, written in wobbly cursive because down the stretch Devon had lost his ability to keep his hands from shaking. Devin, a seventeen year old kid dying of cancer, was spending some of his final hours writing thank-you notes. The cancer defeated his body, but not his grateful heart. Thank you, Devin.
The third saint is my maternal grandmother, Donna. She was awesome. When I was a kid in Virginia she flew out several times from Colorado to visit us. At the airport she would shower me with smiles and hugs along with cool little gifts like candy bars or PEZ dispensers. She was one of those people who had endured some major setbacks in her life but who refused to have a victim complex. Her joy and laughter were contagious. When I graduated college, she was there. When I got married, she was there. The first Thanksgiving dinner Steph and I had as newlyweds was in her dining room in Denver—a spectacular feast.
When I heard that grandma had cancer I flew to Denver for a final visit. She greeted me at her door out of breath, a scarf on her head, and yet with the same shower of hugs and smiles, although no PEZ dispenser—she mistakenly thought I had outgrown those. At the end of the visit I took her to her favorite Mexican restaurant and she had a huge margarita and I had some Coronas and we laughed and laughed as she led me on a delightful trip down memory lane. When I dropped her off on my way to the airport and walked her to the door she gave me one last hug and another smile, “I love you so much.” “I love you too, Grandma.” I couldn’t say goodbye and so I said, “I’ll see you later” to which she replied with three words, “Yes, you will.” She reminded me that because of the love of God there are actually no goodbyes, only see-you-later’s. Thank you, Grandma.
John, Devin and Grandma are only a few of the many saints who have impacted my life with God’s love—and there are so many others, including some living saints here this morning—without such saints I have no idea where I would be. Who are some of the saints in your life who have impacted you with God’s love?
In 1993 Eric Clapton won the Grammy for Album of the year for his masterful live album Unplugged (1992). On this album was “Tears in Heaven,” a moving song he wrote in memory of his son Conor, who a couple years earlier at age four had tragically died from an accidental fall from the window of a New York City apartment building. Eric arrived after the accident. In this song he gently sings:
Would you know my name if I saw you in heaven?
Would it be the same if I saw you in heaven?
I must be strong and carry on
‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in heaven
Would you hold my hand if I saw you in heaven?
Would you help me stand if I saw you in heaven?
I’ll find my way through night and day
‘Cause I know I just can’t stay here in heaven
Time can bring you down
Time can bend your knees
Time can break your heart
Have you begging please, begging please
Beyond the door there’s peace, I’m sure
And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven
The truth is eventually time will indeed bring each one of us down, bend our knees, break our heart, have us begging please. The truth is each one of us will eventually face something that is simply too much for us. But what is too strong for us is not too strong for God. Nothing is too strong for God, not even death.
Back to Isaiah’s words for a moment…“(God) will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.” The mountain that Isaiah about which prophesied here is Calvary, where Jesus died to atone for our sins and in doing so indeed destroyed “the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations.”
Moreover, as we pray in “The Burial of the Dead” service in The Book of Common Prayer, God “by the glorious resurrection of (his) Son Jesus Christ destroyed death, and brought life and immortality to light” (493). Isaiah’s prophecy proved true, so that the Apostle Paul used the exact same language in writing that the resurrection of Jesus Christ means “Death has been swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).
And as if that were not enough Isaiah then continues, “Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” What a moving expression of the tenderness of God’s love—there are few things more tender in life than having someone gently wipe away your tears. In the final book of the Bible, Revelation, John the Evangelist recounts a glimpse he was given of heaven. Listen to what he describes:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away” (Revelation 21:3-4).
You see, when your time comes to join “all the saints who from their labors rest” you can place your hope in the love of God in Jesus Christ, a love that is even stronger than death. In his poem, “Hymn to God my God, in my Sickness” the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century Anglican priest and poet John Donne (1572-1631), articulates this:
Since I am coming to that holy room, Where, with thy choir of saints for evermore, I shall be made thy music; as I come I tune the instrument here at the door, And what I must do then, think here before… We think that Paradise and Calvary, Christ’s Cross, and Adam’s tree, stood in one place; Look Lord, and find both Adams met in me; As the first Adam’s sweat surrounds my face, May the last Adam’s blood my soul embrace.
John Donne experienced that embrace on March 31, 1631—and on your appointed day you will too.
In the meantime, who do you long to see in heaven? Who are the John’s, Devin’s, Grandma’s or Conor’s in your life?
The good news of the gospel on this All Saints Sunday is that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ ensure that when it comes to your desire to see your departed loved ones in heaven…“Yes, you will”—and God will wipe every tear from your eyes and you will join all the saints in a spectacular feast.