In Remembrance, God gives us comfort and new life
A Sermon preached by The Rev. Tom Pumphrey
at the Service of Remembrance
at the Church of St. Peter & St. Paul, Marietta, GA, December 12, 2019
Isaiah 40:1-5; Psalm 46; Revelation 21:1-7; John 20:19-22
Isaiah 40:1-5: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Revelation 21:1-7: Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 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.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. Those who conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they will be my children.
John 20:19-22: When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.
We are here for remembrance.
I remember Christmas time in my house growing up in Ohio. My dad and I would go to the late services. Dad is a priest, and I was in the choir, and we would come home super late at night. We would drink a glass of eggnog in silence by the light of the Christmas Tree, almost filled with presents underneath. In the morning, I would face the inevitable wait to open presents while Dad led the Christmas Day service. And when he returned, we would gather around the tree. My mom especially led our gift exchange as an orderly affair. We would take turns opening presents, sharing in the anticipation and excitement of discovery, opening each present to see what lay inside. By mid-day, I would savor the blessings found in my collection of presents, taking in the excitement and the kindness and love that each gift represented.
Dad would rest and mom would prepare Christmas dinner for the afternoon. Often, family would join us. Aunt Anne, Uncle Jack, Aunt Mary, Cousin Mary Ellen and Chuck, Cousin John & Mary Beth. These were pillars of my world, grounding me in a legacy of family and faith, tying me to others and to God who knit us together.
We are here for remembrance, and in remembrance, God changes us.
Our remembrance tonight is important for us, and at this time of year, our remembrance has a practical purpose. Christmas is so tied to memories and past connections, that things seem incomplete or broken when there are holes in the story. We are not quite ready to embrace today when someone is missing. We are not quite ready to step into something new. There is grieving and remembrance yet undone for us. So, we gather here tonight to give space for our grief, and space for our remembrance. For in remembrance, God gives us comfort and new life.
The prophet Isaiah tonight brings a message of comfort for God’s people. The grief of the people of Israel was deep and painful indeed. Jerusalem was destroyed, the temple of the Lord was destroyed, and God’s people taken into exile. They still yearned to be God’s people, to return to the land and to return to God’s peace—God’s shalom. So, God sends them a message of comfort, even though they had turned away from God in the past. God tells them ‘your term is served, your penalty is paid, the time of your restoration is coming, and the glory of the Lord will be revealed.’
Our remembrance is not just of our suffering or the suffering of our loved ones. We also remember God’s grace in their lives and God’s grace in our lives. We remember the promise of God’s present comfort, and we remember God’s restoration beginning in us now. In remembrance, we re-hear God’s promises, and we embrace God’s renewing work in us today. In remembrance, God gives us comfort and new life.
When I served a church in Pennsylvania, we had a program for those grieving the death of a loved one. In that program, there was this metaphor about grief. They said that when a loved one first dies, it is as if you are in a bus, and grief is at the wheel, you are in the back of the bus, and grief is driving that bus wherever it wants. You crash into things, you veer off the road, careening crazily down unknown streets. Things feel out of control, and grief seems to have taken over.
But eventually, you are back at the wheel, and grief is in the seat right behind you. Your friends all see you back at the wheel and expect you to be in control again, and technically you are. But grief is right behind your head screaming and yelling and shaking your seat. Your friends may not notice, but you grip the wheel in white knuckle terror, hoping that you can simply make it safely down the street.
But then, eventually, grief sits in the back of the bus. Life at the wheel is calmer and the journey not as crazy. Grief occasionally makes noise, and you notice it back there. “hey, keep it down back there,” you say. Or maybe “don’t make me stop this bus!” But grief is no longer in control. Grief stays with us, if the one we miss was truly that much a part of us. How could that loss not stay with us? But by God’s grace we find healing and the ability to look ahead and engage life. New roads, new friends, new blessings, new Christmases with new family or friends. New gifts from God. We remember and we look ahead. And God gives us comfort and new life.
Remembrance involves remembering God’s promises too. And in remembering God’s promises, we look ahead. Today’s reading from Revelation looks ahead to the fullness of our restoration, where all will be made right. Where all that is broken will be mended. Where God will wipe away our tears, where death will be no more, neither crying nor sorrow nor pain, for the first things have passed away, and God will make all things new. We are here for remembrance of God’s promises, God’s promises of comfort and new life, God’s promises of restoration, healing and renewal.
My mom died in 2012. She had had a few strokes, and she mostly recovered from them. But at some point, she developed a mild dementia, and the dementia meds and the stroke meds battled things out and brought illness to my mom. When she died, it was a complicated grief for me. She meant the world to my brother and my dad. But for me, my relationship with mom had always been complicated. She criticized more easily than she encouraged. She defended more easily than she apologized. And I remembered my hurts more easily than her blessings. I love my mom, but the dance of our relationship often stepped a maddening spiral, one that I couldn’t lead. When she died, there were many things left undone, things left unreconciled, healing still left incomplete.
I didn’t know how to share my grief with my brother or my dad; it was different. It was hard to talk about. I didn’t want to injure them. But I wasn’t quite sure what to do with that frustration and incompleteness. Over time, grief is not driving the bus, but it still shouts out from the back seats from time to time.
So, I respond with remembrance. Remembrance of God’s vision of new life, where all that is broken will be mended, where all that is unfinished will find its completion in God. “It is done” God says, “the former things have passed away, and behold! I am making all things new! To the thirsty, I will give water as from the spring of the water of life.” In remembrance, God gives us comfort and new life!
The promise of new life is the promise of the resurrection. But the resurrection is not just for the future. In Christ, the resurrection is God’s new life breaking into the present! The first fruits of the resurrection are found in Jesus, who came to give us new life. The Gospel reading tonight is from the first Easter day. After the apostles find the empty tomb, Jesus comes to them, alive from the dead, conquering sin and death itself. Jesus says to them “Peace, be with you! Peace be with you!” Jesus gives us that same peace and comfort that Isaiah proclaimed, that same wholeness and shalom that God’s promised. Jesus, risen and alive gives us this wholeness: “Peace be with you,” he says to me and to you.
God’s peace is incredible comfort to us, and God’s peace also calls us forward. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you,” Jesus says. Jesus breathes on the apostles, Jesus breathes on us the breath of life, the Holy Spirit of God. He says to us “receive the Holy Spirit.” Jesus not only gives us the comfort of the presence of God, Jesus gives us new life.
Grief may still be in the bus, but we are at the wheel. With God’s guidance, we can take new roads and new adventures. With joy we can engage all the blessings God has ahead of us. We’re not leaving our loved ones behind. They’ve impacted us too much to do that. They are part of who we are. Their blessings remain because it is God who blessed us through them. And as Christ is alive, so are God’s blessings alive with us.
At Christmas, I remember Christmases past, and I miss them. But in remembrance, God gives us comfort and new life. I remember those pillars in some ways missing, but in many ways present: Aunt Anne and Uncle Jack and Aunt Mary, Cousin Chuck and Mary Ellen. I remember them especially at Christmas. And I remember my mom too. I remember how my mom showed me her love for God and God’s abiding care for her. I remember her honor for family, her resilience in the storm, her steadfastness of spirit, her tenacity of faith.
In remembrance, what she gave me becomes real for me in this present moment. I see the roots of this legacy, and the seeds of that legacy taking root in my sons. I see the opportunity to embrace those blessings and give them strength. In remembrance of God’s healing power, I see the opportunity to share those blessings with my sons and my friends—to share those blessings with you. In remembrance, we make real in the present the blessings God gave us in the past, and we share them with others.
The Jews have this understanding of remembrance: making real in the present God’s actions of the past. Jesus calls this to mind in the Eucharist. He takes bread and wine, saying “this is my body, this is my blood, do this in remembrance of me.” In the Eucharist, God makes real for us the presence of Christ and the grace of his life and death and resurrection. In the Eucharist, we are united with the past, the past is made real in the present, and we are united to the future in our Communion with Jesus, raised from the dead, where our communion will be made complete. In remembrance, God gives us comfort and new life.
So tonight remember! Remember those who were God’s gifts to you! Remember God’s grace in your life and bring it to the present! Find healing from the grip of grief and shake off the sting of death. Rejoice in the new life that God gives those who have gone before us and rejoice in the new life that God gives you tonight.
Savor this new Christmas that is on its way. Like opening gifts on Christmas morning, savor that moment of discovery of what is new—that new gift of the present blessing. Find delight in what God has done and what God is doing in you today, and what blessings God has in store for you tomorrow. In remembrance, God gives us comfort, and God gives us new life!