1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
My first experience of the faithful departed was not a positive one. I was a young child, and it dawned on me that “they” could see me. Everyone in heaven could see me. It was like when I looked down into my terrarium. It was like an Alfred Hitchcock movie with a one-way mirror. It was like the x-ray eyeglasses that you could buy through the mail. I was being watched all the time, and I was terrorized at the prospect of being seen so deeply and, perhaps, by so many in the heavens. Yikes.
I’ve quite changed my mind about the faithful departed. I still imagine that I am seen (that we are seen), and heard and remembered by the faithful departed – whether it’s like a terrarium or a hidden microphone or whatever, I don’t know. Those images of “what it’s like” may still be quite apt. But the reason I’ve changed my mind has much more to do with the nature of love. Love is not blind. Love is seeing and hearing and knowing someone deeply. Not despite who they are but in light of who they are, truly and wholly. And so to be, in some way, remembered by those who walked the path of this life – a path that overlaps in some way with our own – and who knew us in this life, whom we believe know us now – may be a source of enormous comfort. Someone taking the long view and loving view of us from some larger perspective, and then whispering in Jesus’ ears about us. And so there’s another image that comes from my own childhood, and a very positive image: of parents or grandparents or teachers sitting in grandstands during a sports event whispering to one another, with great pride and affection, about the kids running around the playing field… or children who are performing on stage before adoring adults. It’s not that the children their sport or their art that evokes so much love and whispered admiration among the adults. It’s simply that the adults can see in these beloved children from where these efforts have come and where they will lead as the child grows… and these adults can do nothing but applaud and brag.
How wonderful it is to be remembered, and especially remembered by those who know us and understand us, and who hold us in their heart, whether these people actually be alive on this earth or whether they have died and are, in some way, still “alive in Jesus Christ.” Somehow their remembrance of us bridges the gap between this life and the next, helping in some way pave the way for us into eternity where we will be welcomed and reunited with those whom we actually know who have died before us. And when it’s done and said, I suspect that many of us will be glad to trade some of the images of heaven – pearly gates and gold-paved streets and the like – simply for a reunion with those who have formed us into the women and men that we are. I would do anything to sit in my grandmother’s lap again. You may carry your own similar “eternal longing.” Somehow that memory is kept alive, not just by you but by this precious one who has passed from this life to the next, and who remembers you.
The other real grace in the church’s remembrance of the faithful departed is in the kindly remembrance of sinners. This day could as easily be called All Sinners Day. By “sin” I mean here a deep brokenness that has deformed who a person truly is or who the person was intended by God to be. Some of life’s brokenness comes from our own actions – things done and left undone, said and unsaid – which have may have had lifelong consequences. Some of this experience of the brokenness of “sin” comes from what has been “done unto us,” or “not done,” “said” or “not said.” And the scarring may be lifelong. Many people depart this life quite broken, not just in body but in spirit. Some people depart this life with no conscious awareness of God’s love for them. Some people depart this life leaving a residue of carnage among their survivors, generation to generation. Everything does not come round right in this life.
Momentarily we will pray the Apostles’ Creed. One phrase in this ancient creed is deeply fraught with hope. We will affirm that God the Son (whom we call “Jesus”) “descended to the dead.” An earlier English version says he “descended into hell.” You may find deep comfort in this belief that, whatever death may mean, or wherever a departed soul may end up or start out on this eternal continuum between hell and heaven, Jesus will seek him or her out, not unlike a shepherd in search of a lost sheep. And so this may invite prayer from “our” side of eternity: praying for someone who departed this life less than whole, or unreconciled, or deeply damaged in some way. This may be our whispering in Jesus’ ears about someone whom both you and Jesus know. Jesus may even be to you a kind of eternal ombudsperson to listen to your cares or distress or anger or sighing about a departed person, things which could not have been communicated in this life, for whatever reason. You may welcome Jesus to be your mediator between you and another person.
Someone asked me recently, “How long should I pray for someone who has died?” And I said, “I don’t know. But you will know. Something will change. You will know.” I think that is so for all of us… as we anticipate a larger life beyond this mortal life, “where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying, but the fullness of joy with all God’s saints, and souls, and sinners.”
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