Rev. Timothy B. Tutt
United Church of Christ
Sunday, November 2, 2014
All Saints Sunday
“The Lawyer and ‘Tincans’ ”
After this I (John) looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, 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.”
A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon about a friend of mine who had died – a cantankerously compassionate lawyer who was a member of the church I served in Austin. He drowned while swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. His death pained me, as I said in that sermon, and my emotions were raw. Several of you kindly offered words of support. Sue Kirk emailed me some kind words that started a good conversation.
Sue, of course, is a member here. She is the executive director of Bethesda Cares, the local organization that works to care for our homeless neighbors in Bethesda. There’s a good chance that Sue does more good for the world than the rest of us combined.
Sue sent me an email after I preached about my friend’s death. Here is what she said:
Tim, My heart out goes to you and Amy. Your friend sounds wonderful and is lucky to have had such love in his life. I couldn't see you after church to give you a hug, so here's one now.
Parenthetically let me say, that is a very nice thing to send via email don’t you think, a hug? Not a complaint, or an agenda item, or a political message, or one more thing to add to one’s to do list. A hug. Sent over the internet. We probably should do more of that.
Back to Sue’s email:
I couldn't see you after church to give you a hug, so here's one now. I ask for one in return. My social worker found one of our formerly homeless clients dead when she made a house call on Friday. We've lost one or two a year, but Willie hits home hard. He was so gracious and sweet in light of all his troubles. If I look for reasons, they are not hard to see. He was African American with a 3rd grade education, missing half of one foot and toes off the other from frostbite. You may have seen him. He was pretty immobile and took shelter in the bus shelter in front of the Bethesda library. Our frayed and siloed social services treated him poorly. It took us over two years to get him housed. The injustice rankles me. He didn't complain but was thankful for each day.
Sue concluded her email:
“Rest in peace, Willie ‘Tincans’ Roberts. We lost some gooduns this week.”
My friend, a liberal trial lawyer from a West Texas oil family. Sue’s friend, a homeless man with no education. Died the same week.
I emailed Sue in return. By the way, that’s the danger of emailing with a preacher: You email them a hug, you get a sermon in return.
Here is part of what I said back to Sue:
Sue: Thanks for your email. I don’t intellectually put much stock in a literal heaven, a sentient afterlife, blah, blah, blah. But at an emotional and narrative level, I resonate with the idea that your friend ‘Tincans’ and my friend Ernest are sitting somewhere safe, pleasant, just and lively getting to know each other. My brain can’t assent to that. My heart sings with hope for that.
I thank Sue for this email exchange, and I thank her for permission to share it with you. I’m grateful that she provided me space to articulate my doubts and my hopes. What I said in that email is true: My science, my physics, my biology, my cosmology, my astronomy don’t allow for a heaven up there, out there, off over yonder, where -- if we live a good life -- we die and go to sing songs and wear robes and wave palm branches. My intellect has no room for that. But my emotions, my yearning for community, my primal spirit, my hope that the moral arc of the universe does indeed bend toward justice, hears these words from the Book of Revelation and cries out, “Yes.”
Not, “Yes,” to palm branches and white robes. But, “Yes,” to an ongoing experience that is safe and pleasant and just and lively, where hobbling ‘Tincans’ and a Texas lawyer can break bread together.
So, here we are on All Saints Sunday. Or, more personally, here I am on All Saints Sunday, with my uncertainties and my doubts and my hopes and my dreams. What are we to make of all of this? All Saints Sunday is set aside on the Christian calendar to remember those who have died, especially those who filled the world with grace. The choir has sung our prayer on this day, “Requiem aeternum dona eis,” “Grant them eternal rest,” “et lux perpetua luceat eis,” “and let perpetual light shine on them.” But what does that mean? All Saints Sunday, this poignant music by the choir, Mozart’s Requiem, this odd holiday. All of this gives us time to think on that most elusive of topics: Death: What happens to us when we die? Is there an afterlife? If so, what shape does it take? How do we live beyond our lives? What happens to those whom we love? Where are they? What form do their lives take?
We read earlier an excerpt from the Book of Revelation. This spooky, spectacular book of visions and mystery. People have all kinds of opinions about the Book of Revelation. My mother, who suffers from migraines, says that John, the writer of Revelation, must have had migraines, because he described the same kind of swirling, flying pictures that she sees.
Other people read the Book of Revelation and say that John was predicting a heaven that is to come, an afterlife with palm-waving and robe-wearing and hymn-singing and streets of gold and crystal seas. As a child I remember hearing about heaven as a place where you wore fancy robes and sang hymns all day forever and ever. And as kid I thought, “Well that’s boring. I don’t want to go there.”
So what do we make of all of this? I think another, much more helpful interpretation of the Book of Revelation is to understand who John, the writer of this revelation was as a Christian in the early days of the church. The Book of revelation was probably written about 100 years after the birth of Jesus, about seventy years after the crucifixion. To be a Christian in that time was to be confused. John lived at a time of tremendous distress. He looked at the world around him and saw war and hunger and oppression. He saw a terrible military empire trampling on the ordinary people. He saw women and men who were confused and in need. He saw grief and loss. In short, John, on the island of Patmos, saw a world much like the one we see from Bethesda, Maryland. A world aching with trouble.
And so he wrote a book, a letter really. He wrote a Revelation, that was not so much about revealing the world that is to come, but revealing how this world is and how it could be. John was creative. He used fantastic imagery and powerful words. He painted pictures of hope. He imagined a time and place that transcended fear and pain.
“I see a great multitude,” John said, “Of people from all tribes and nations and languages.” John’s picture of life was big enough to include my friend, the West Texas lawyer, and Sue’s friend, Tincans, homeless on our streets.
“I imagine this crowd gathered together,” John said, “all dolled up and happy, sharing a feast so bountiful that no one in all the world will ever be hungry again – they will hunger no more and thirst no more. The desert-sun of the Middle East will not scorch them. Life-giving water will bubble up for everyone who is thirsty. An oppressive empire will not rule the day,” John said, “no world of war and death. Instead, a gentle shepherd will be our guide. And the Great God of the Ages would wipe every tear from their eyes.”
With poetry and imagination, John offered a glimpse of God’s goodness. He called this goodness the Heavenly City. You and I may call it the Beloved Community or the communion of the saints. John painted a picture not of how we might live in some far-off eternity, but how we might live on this day.
John was not predicting a future heaven. He was describing the very present longing of all humanity -- a humanity whose hearts pump blood due to nodes and veins and arteries charged by electrical impulses from the nervous system. But more than that, a humanity whose hearts beat with poetry of hope. A humanity whose brains are filled with billions of neurons and protoplasmic axons. But more than that, a humanity whose brains are fired with imagination of life.
We humans are not bound to literalism. We are liberated to life that transcends what we know. We are more than physics and facts and science and tissue. We are grief and pain and life and love. We are hope fueled by grace. We are imagination fired by memory.
And so, for all the saints who from their labors rest, for my lawyer friend from West Texas and Willie ‘Tincans’ Roberts, for Bob and Peg and Lorraine, for Jack and Catherine and Mable, for Calvin and Edith, for those whom we know and name in our hearts, we pray with thanksgiving.
For the saints who are to come, the children who fill our nursery, the young people who light the candles and collect diapers in worship and the generations yet unborn, we pray with hope.
And for the saints who are, for the average ordinary women and men and girls and boys who fill our world with Light, who sings songs of Justice and Grace and Peace, for the ordinary saints who sit in these pews today, for you and me, we pray with visionary imagination: May we see the world as it is and live into the world as it could be.