God Will Wipe Away Every Tear
Revelation 21: 1-6a
It’s popular to say “I’m no saint” when we’re about to choose something we think we ought not to or when we don’t want to hear what anyone else has to say about what we’re doing. “I’m no saint” effectively means, “Don’t look to me for answers. I don’t have it all together and I didn’t sign up to be anyone’s role model. I’m not here to be perfect.” Well, John Wesley’s ideas on “moving on to perfection” aside, being a saint isn’t about perfection. It’s not about spotless living or what the Roman Catholic Church has to say about you after you’ve died.
All Saints Day is a celebration of all Christians in every time and place, and uses “saint” in the New Testament sense, to refer to all Christians. It’s a celebration of the solidarity of the living and the dead, understanding that there are already times – like our Supper at this table – when our voices and spirits join the closer harmonies of heaven. The blessing of this annual Feast Day of All Saints is that it gives us a yearly moment to pause and remember and give thanks and draw inspiration from all the saints who have traveled with us this far.
It’s a blessing too broad to measure, the gift of saints.
My life has been full of saints and this past week marked the passing of one of them, my grandmother. It’s too soon to write about her but I want to share with you my reflections from last year’s All Saints Day, when I happened to talk here about my grandfather. I shared this sermon with my grandmother last fall after I preached it and it’s a comfort in this sad week for me, to remember them both and to realize that theirs are among the voices in the company of heaven, praising God along with us as we offer up the Great Thanksgiving.
Later on in our worship we’ll light candles in memory or honor of the saints in our lives and I hope you will also share with us how you have been blessed by the saints in your life.
My dad’s dad, Granddaddy Lewis, never told us when he dropped out of school. He was one of 10 children from a farm family and at some point before high school he dropped out to farm and help the family full time. Granddaddy was a smart man but ashamed enough of his level of education that he wouldn’t tell us how far he went. My granddad was the one who taught me how to lick an ice cream cone so that it didn’t melt and drip all over my hand before I got to enjoy it. He was the one who took me and my brother on a grand tour of all the monuments and sights in Washington, D.C. one spring break in elementary school, joking in line at the Washington Monument that maybe I’d better not take a picture of the White House from there because in my photo I might get Jimmy Carter looking out from one of the windows. He was the one who used to let me, my brother, and our cousins practice driving his pick-up truck on an old dirt road in the country – when we were barely teenagers.
One of my favorite stories he used to tell is from his own childhood. His grandfather (David Graves George) was the man who wrote the folk ballad “The Wreck of the Old 97.” This grandfather worked on the trains and once got caught between two trains, damaging his hip and forcing him to walk with a pronounced limp, one leg shorter than the other and with a thick-soled shoe on that foot. Well, my grandfather had a definite mischievous side and one day at his grandparents’ house he decided to take all the shoe tacks from his grandfather’s cobbler’s bench and nail them into the bench itself. Whenever I asked my granddad about this and how old he was when it happened he would say, “Old enough to know better.” As the story goes, when his grandfather saw what he’d done to the cobbler’s bench he started to chase after him, running with his pronounced limp. There they were, my sprightly young, mischievous granddad running away from sure punishment at the hands of his angry, limping grandfather. They were running in circles around the house and his grandmother was watching this with worry. As they came around again, my granddad beginning to edge further away from his struggling grandfather, his grandmother encouraged him to take another lap or two to gain a greater lead. Then she had him run inside where she had time to hide him under the clothes in the clothes hamper before his grandfather could see and long enough for his grandfather to cool down before meting out the punishment.
When Granddaddy told us stories like this one, his eyes would twinkle with delight and mischief, even when he was quite old and could no longer see. This twinkle and his charm won him friends among the nurses and orderlies in the hospital unit where he lived during the last few months of his life. His body was giving up on him but he received every visitor to his room as a gift and an occasion for hospitality and conversation.
When I moved to Atlanta for seminary, my granddad – a lifelong Red Sox fan – abruptly changed his allegiance to the Atlanta Braves. He had some misgivings about me moving so far away and to such a big city and it was his way of connecting with where I was and supporting what I was doing. A few years later when I had my baseball conversion experience and became a Braves fan myself, Granddaddy and I would watch games together and talk about the players. But for a long time I had no idea that he’d chosen that team for me, that when we was cheering for the Braves he was also cheering me on.
There is so much I could say about him and how his life – his Christian sainthood – blessed my own life. But one of the most striking is something my dad told me after my grandfather had died. My granddad often worked on big construction projects, especially on building dams. At one point, when my own father was only about nine years old, my grandfather had the opportunity to take a well-paying job on a dam in California. He didn’t take the job. His reasoning is what catches my attention in such a striking way. In discussing it with my grandmother he said, “If we go out there then our children will grow up out there. And that will be their home and some day when we come back here they’ll be grown and have families and they’ll stay out there, and we won’t get to see our children and our grandchildren.”
I was struck by how connected he was to a family that did not even entirely exist yet. I was struck by how thorough and thoughtful his considerations of moving were and by how much his deepest values informed his decision. As the story was told to me, he didn’t talk about God or wonder how Christ would have made the decision. But in a most Christian way, he understood who he was, what his life meant, and where his deepest calling lay. As a living saint who understood at a profound level his connection and relationships to other people – present and future – he made a simple decision that, among many other things, brought me to this place with you today.
This is what a saint looks like. I have known others and I have a hunch that you have seen a few in your own life. They may have already passed on or they may be present here and now in this room. They may be older and wiser or a brand new person in your life. God works through us all, in ways we recognize and in many ways we don’t see until we’ve gained another perspective further along the journey.
Sometimes we need a vision to see more clearly what is all around us.
Revelation offers us such a glimpse. “‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God himself will be with them; God 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.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new’” (Revelation 21: 1-6a).
It’s a promise of what is to come beyond this life and it’s already begun to take shape here and now in the community of saints. God’s reign has already begun and it is yet to come in its fullness. It’s here in this Body of Christ that we practice it, that we help God bring it about, that we demonstrate in the midst of an imperfect world the sanctifying perfection of life in God.
You may be “no saint” but watch who you say that to around here. Look around at these gifts from God. Look around and give thanks for these fellow pilgrims. Remember who has shown you the way and who has received what you had to give.
Sometimes blinking through tears of sorrow and sometimes tears of joy, we gather around this table to the feast Christ prepares for us. We gather in a circle, and in circle beyond circle all the saints gather with us, pressing in shoulder to shoulder in that great cloud of witnesses. And as we feast God wipes away every tear and welcomes us home.
Thanks be to God!
© 2009 Deborah E. Lewis