Every one of those people died. But they still had faith, even though they had not received what they had been promised. How did they do it? They were glad just to see these things from far away, and they agreed that they were only strangers and transients on this earth. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back any time they wanted. But they were looking forward to a better home in heaven. (Hebrews 11:13-16a, MSG/CEV)
Yesterday we had a memorial service for Karl Hueglin, a church member and beloved community figure who was known for many things including his years with the Plandome Fire Department. At the time of his death, Karl had served the longest of any volunteer in the department, joining back in 1962. At the beginning of yesterday’s service, a group of Plandome firefighters in dress uniforms marched 2 by 2 down the aisle, passing by Karl’s family in the front, then taking their seats near the back of the sanctuary. Before the service, a firefighter placed a brass bell on the end of the altar. A firefighter explained that when there is a fire, the bell is rung calling the firefighters to the firehouse to suit up, hop on a truck, and head for the fire. After the ringing of the bell yesterday, a leader of the company recounted Karl’s years of service. We were then told that after a fire was extinguished and it was time for the firefighters to leave, the bell was sounded three times. The captain then asked his assistant if all of the firefighters were accounted for. The assistant answered that everyone was accounted for but one, Karl Hueglin. After a prayer, the bell was rung three times in Karl’s memory, a reminder that he had fulfilled his duty and now gone home to be with God.
A few weeks ago, we hosted a funeral for Angel Branch, a longtime worker with Adventures in Learning. She was only 56. The service included ministers who knew Angel in various capacities, including her brothers. In keeping with an old African American tradition the funeral was called a Home Going Service. I love how the concept of the deceased going home to be with God is emphasized in the name, Home Going.
According to one source, “The history of the home going service can be traced back to the arrival of African slaves in America. Early during the slave trade, slaves believed death meant their soul would return home to their native Africa. They were not allowed to congregate to perform any kind of ritual for burying the dead because slave owners were fearful the slaves would…create an uprising during…the gathering.”
According to historian, Erich March, “Control came in the form of hiring missionaries to introduce Christianity to the slaves. This was not out of concern for their immortal soul, because they were regarded as less than human, but to introduce the concept and fear of the eternal fires of hell for acts of disobedience to God and their master. Slave owners recognized that their slaves were spiritually inclined, clinging to ancestral and tribal beliefs and practices, but they never suspected the enthusiasm with which the slaves would embrace the [so called] ‘white man’s religion.’”
An article on funeral traditions explains that, “The slave population completely embraced the Bible. The Old Testament story of a captive and enslaved race, helped to freedom and the ‘promised land’ by God and Moses, resonated with their own enslavement. The New Testament story of Jesus’ promise of glory in heaven and riches far greater than those available in the mortal world, helped slaves take solace that their day of glory would come when they returned to the Lord. After the introduction of Christianity, the laws changed and black communities were permitted to hold assemblies for religious services and funerals. And so funerals and religious activities became the bedrock of early African-American culture, but [there was a difference with] the traditional funerals that the plantation owners held, the slaves held jubilant, celebratory funeral rituals. This must have seemed quite bewildering to the white Christians who believed that church services, including funerals, should be somber, reserved events. What they did not comprehend is that the slaves saw death as a release and the opportunity to [finally] be free…With no hope of ever returning to their…homeland, [the slaves]…perceived [death] as the glorious release from a life of suffering and the chance to ‘go home’ and live in glory and riches in the kingdom of heaven. It is this legacy of ‘going home’, and achieving a greater glory, that resonates with African-American funeral traditions even today.”
The writer of the New Testament Book of Hebrews viewed heaven as a glorious destination, joyfully anticipated by the faithful. The author mentions heroes of the faith who died without receiving the fullness of God’s promise, and yet kept the faith. In chapter 11 we read, “Every one of those people died. But they still had faith, even though they had not received what they had been promised. How did they do it? They were glad just to see these things from far away, and they agreed that they were only strangers and transients on this earth. People who live this way make it plain that they are looking for their true home. If they were homesick for the old country, they could have gone back…But they were looking forward to a better home in heaven” (Hebrews 11:13-16a, MSG/CEV).
Throughout his writings, Frederick Buechner often refers to heaven as our “true home.” At our core we long for this true home, yearn for this place of perfection. We even have a word for this longing for home—homesickness.
Do you ever feel homesick for the healing and perfection of heaven? I feel this way some times. When natural disasters destroy people’s livelihood, we long for the protection of heaven. When killers target the innocent with guns and trucks, we long for the safety of heaven. When people in the developing world die from hunger, we long for the abundance of heaven. When teenagers feel like they’ll never fit in and take their own lives, we long for the warm embrace of heaven. When people’s lives diminish with the ravages of time and disease, we long for the healing of heaven. When people are on their death beds and slip quietly from this world to the world to come, in those moments we may feel thankful that our loved ones have made it home to heaven.
As human beings created in the image of God, we are a people of two homes, children of earth and children of heaven. As children of earth we are created to revel in the beauty of skies and seas, to be good caregivers of this planet that future generations can enjoy our earthly home. But as surely as we are children of earth, we are all the more children of heaven, our true home. After all, none of us will live on earth forever. We are instead just passing through our earthly home bound for our heavenly home.
Today’s scripture reminds us that we are strangers and transients on this earth. We are sojourners and pilgrims searching our whole life long for the home that is beyond this earthly home, for the home with no mortgage or property taxes, for the home big enough to encompass all of God’s people, all our sisters and brothers from every time and place.
So on this All Saints Sunday, as we remember those who have left the confines of this earthly life and entered the wholeness and perfection of heaven, let us give thanks for the lives they lived, for the good they did, and for the love they shared in their time on this earth. Let us give thanks for all of the good ways they live on in us still. And let us give thanks that their journey has reached its final destination. They are no longer home going or going home, for they have already arrived safe and sound. AMEN.
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
All Saints Sunday
November 5, 2017
The Congregational Church of Manhasset, New York (UCC)
Our God our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, we turn our eyes to you on this All Saints Sunday. We remember those who have run life’s race before us and already crossed the finish line, attaining the reward of eternal life. While we give thanks that they now dwell secure in your heavenly home, we do miss them and grieve their passing. And so we ask for your healing this day. Heal our broken hearts, still aching with sadness. Heal our anxious minds, still distressed with painful memories. Heal our troubled souls, still fragile from the magnitude of our loss. By your grace bring us help and comfort, healing and wholeness, until we are all reunited once again at the last.
Through Christ our comforter we pray. Amen.
 Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home