LEAD ME HOME
Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. 2 In my Father's house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3 And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also…18 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. 19 In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live…26 But the [Comforter], the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
(John 14:1-3, 18-19, 26-27, NRSV adapted)
I care deeply for Rabbi Jodie Siff, Rabbi Lee Friedlander, and Cantor Eric Schulmiller of Manhasset’s Reconstructionist Synagogue. Just a few days after 9/11, Jodie and I put together the first Manhasset 9/11 service, which continues every year. In the wake of 9/11, Jodie, Lee, and Eric comforted me as their synagogue had not lost any members in the attacks. This past Friday night, I attended a service at the Reconstructionist Synagogue to comfort Jodie, Lee, and Eric. The police car and armed officers were a sad reminder of the tragedy one week prior. This was the first Shabbat or Sabbath service since the massacre of 11 worshippers in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue. After the service, congregants greeted me and the other clergy who had come from other houses of worship. They thanked us for standing with their faith community. When bad things happen, people of goodwill band together in solidarity to help those who are suffering.
These last couple of weeks have been excruciating. In addition to the tragedy in Pittsburgh, a white supremacist gunman, Gregory Bush, decided to attack an African American church in Louisville, Kentucky. Fortunately, the church gathering had ended and the doors were locked. Unfortunately, Bush, unable to enter the church, walked into a nearby grocery store in search of African Americans to kill. 69-year-old Maurice Stallard was the first person Bush shot to death. On his way out, Bush killed a second African American, 67-year-old Vicki Lee Jones. And just two days ago, Scott Paul Beierle, killed two women in a Florida yoga studio.
And then there’s Cesar Sayoc, the would-be bomber who mailed pipe bombs to 14 public figures whose politics differ from his. He also sent a pipe bomb to CNN. Can you imagine if all of these bombs had exploded and killed the recipients and others? It would have sent shockwaves around the world.
With all of these tragedies and near tragedies in the news, you and I are not immune to our own personal tragedies. In fact, many of you came this morning, All Saints Sunday, because someone you loved died over the past year. Every one of us has been touched by tragedy in some form—a family member dies, a child suffers a life threatening illness, a painful divorce, the loss of a job and the list goes on. None of us are immune to the slings and arrows of misfortune. None of us are impervious when the relentless sadness of the world pounds us and we feel like our hearts will shatter. And sometimes they do. What then? How do we reassemble the lives we once knew? Sometimes we have to start from scratch and begin all over again because sometimes that is the only way to move forward. When bad things happen, on a personal level or on a national level, people of goodwill band together to help those who are suffering. Standing together gives us hope for better days here and in the life to come.
Once I attended a hospice seminar on hope led by Cathleen Fanslow. In her many decades of working with the dying, she came to this conclusion, “[Most] of us can live with the knowledge that we have an incurable disease, but none of us can live with the thought that we as persons are hopeless.” Fanslow contends that we can always hope for something, though our hope changes over time.
Upon learning that we are sick, we hope for a cure, for a treatment that will restore us to good health. For most of us most of the time, our illnesses can be treated, and often cured. But this does not last forever. The next stage is when we discover that we cannot be cured. At that point, we hope to live as long as we can with as high a quality of life as possible. Some people hope to live long enough to experience their daughter’s graduation, their son’s wedding, or the birth of a grandchild. Some hope to enjoy one more Christmas, commemorate one more anniversary, celebrate one more birthday.
When our bodies start to fail us and we realize that our time on earth is drawing to a close, we hope to experience a peaceful death. We don’t want to suffer at the end and we don’t want our families to suffer as they make peace with our passing. At the end, the hope that sustains us is the hope of eternal life, the hope of immortality, the hope of Heaven.
The scripture I chose for this All Saints Sunday is one of my favorite passages in the New Testament, John 14. These words were spoken by Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room the night before he died. The setting is Holy Week with its hopeful beginning on Palm Sunday as Jesus rides into town atop a humble donkey to the cheers of the crowd. The tide turns when Jesus chases the cheating money changers out of the Temple. Where once he had merely been a theological threat, Jesus was now a financial threat to the religious powers that be. Soon the religious hierarchy wanted him dead and Judas sold him out for thirty pieces of silver.
The final night of Jesus’ earthly existence coincided with Passover. (And yes, this was intentional.) Jesus, being an observant Jew, gathered in the Upper Room with his disciples for a Passover Seder. It was while they were gathered around the table, after they had shared the bread and the cup, that Jesus took the role of a servant, and washed his disciples’ feet. After this object lesson on how we should serve one another, Jesus began talking about his impending death, which of course sent the disciples into a tailspin. Seeing his disciples in deep distress, Jesus spoke these soothing words of hope in John 14: “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also…Because I live, you also will live…Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…Let not your hearts be troubled, and neither let them be afraid” (John 14:1-3, 19b, 27).
As we gather this morning, tangled up in grief and sorrow, what would Jesus say to us, how would Jesus comfort us, how would he give us hope? Like the disciples, we are also the left behind, left behind after the death of a loved one. Perhaps Jesus would speak words of hope and peace like those spoken in the Upper Room. His message is loud and clear—fear not, trust God, heaven awaits, peace awaits too. The peace of God which passes all understanding can seep into our broken hearts with words of healing and words of hope in the face of death.
In 1923, Lebanese American writer, Kahlil Gibran, wrote of death saying, “You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the health of life? The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light. If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and sea are one. In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond; and like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring. Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity…For what is it to die but to stand…in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance” (Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet).
On this All Saints Sunday, I pray that all who mourn will find hope in the faith that when the time came for their loved ones to leave this earth, that God reached out for their hands to lead them home. And when our time comes, God will take our hands as well, take our hands and lead us home. As the old hymn says:
Precious Lord, take my hand,
Lead me on let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
Lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.
(Lyrics and music by Thomas A. Dorsey, 1932.)
Written by Rev. Jimmy Only
All Saints Sunday 2018
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.