Rev. Sarah Buteux              

May 19, 2019

Revelation 21

Easter 5, Year C

Yesterday we said goodbye to a saint of the church. We commended the spirit of our sister Denise Karuth to God. And it was beautiful. And it was hard. 

This morning we’ve welcomed a tiny new saint into our midst. We’ve welcomed Sam, a miracle in more ways than one. A little fellow we’ve been praying for since before he was born.  

Today our hearts are a little bit broken and our hearts are overfull. So it may come as no surprise to you that life and death and the meaning of it all are very much on my mind this morning. 

I’m also, like many of you, still processing the loss of Rachel Held Evans who died two weeks ago at the age of 37. How many of you followed Rachel Held Evans or read her books? 

For those of you who aren’t familiar with her, Rachel was a blogger turned author. In her short life, Rachel evolved from a girl whose evangelical faith gave her all the answers into a wandering prophet whose real and honest questions gave us something better to believe in. 

Rachel’s writing was wise and funny and compassionate. And much like our Denise, she was a tireless advocate for those on the margins. I said to Laura that part of the difficulty of processing this loss is that if someone else of Rachel’s stature and influence had died like this, Rachel’s blog is one of the first places I would have turned to make sense of it all.

But she’s gone from us now. Her blog has gone silent. She leaves behind a husband and two small children… so small that her daughter turned one just last week. And that breaks my already broken heart.

When I think of people like Denise and Rachel, two women who lived passionately and loved fiercely, women who truly used their gifts to challenge injustice and question the status quo, who used their talents to help and delight, lift up and encourage those around them, women who left this world better than they found it, I think heaven was made for such as these. 

I read a passage like this one from Revelation, and I want them to be in that kind of place…a place where there is no more death or crying, a place where all the pain and sorrow are washed away.  

It actually helps to ease the pain in my heart to think that at least they are ok now. It helps me to remember that for them, “death itself has passed,” to quote the funeral liturgy – “and they have entered the home where all God’s people dwell in peace.”

And yet at the same time, I admit that I can’t imagine how that is actually possible. I’ve tried to wrap my brain around it. As a thought exercise I tried convincing myself that heaven must be so wonderful that somehow Rachel is happier there than she would be here slogging though this life with her husband and her children.

I tried imagining that Denise would rather be up there with God – able to walk freely and see clearly – then down here struggling through another long day with Fred and Fendi by her side. 

I tried. But I couldn’t do it. Because the truth is that I honestly can’t imagine how we can be at peace in heaven while still separated from those we love. I personally can’t imagine how-as a mother – I could ever take comfort from God in the next life knowing that I was not here to comfort my children in this one. 

I can’t imagine how God could wipe away my tears at not being able to wipe away theirs. 

I can’t conceive of any place so wonderful that I wouldn’t give it up in a second to return to those I loved, because when you love people- truly love them – you would endure anything to get back to them, suffer anything to protect them. 

In order for me to know peace in heaven, God would have to do more than just wipe away my tears. God would have to wipe my mind, kind of like a hard drive. 

In order to take my grief at our separation away from me, God would need to take my love for them away from me, remove all those memories of them from me…at which point – I have to wonder – would I even be me… anymore? It’s not a trade I’d be willing to make.

I was recently asked what I would do differently if I could go back in time and change something in my past, and without hesitation I said I wouldn’t go back and change a thing because I wouldn’t want to risk not having Andrew and George and Genevieve in my life. 

All the stupid mistakes and humiliating missteps, all the pain and the grief and the sorrow I have endured have made me exactly who I am in this moment, a person who gets to love them in the here and now with all my heart. And I wouldn’t risk that for anything. 

Nor do I want to give any of those experiences away- as hard as some of them were, because my sorrow, my grief, my wounds and my mistakes, they too are a part of what makes me, me. 

So much of the wisdom I have gathered and the capacity for love and forgiveness I have developed can be traced back to moments in my life that were painfully, shamefully, hauntingly hard. Those memories are not easy to carry, it’s true. Some of them still make me cry. But who would I be if God, in heaven, took them away?

I don’t know. Admittedly, I really don’t know how any of this works any more than you do. And the more I think about it the more I begin to wonder – really wonder – if the idea of heaven makes any sense at all.  

But I do know this. I know that when Jesus appeared after the resurrection he was both perfect and scarred. Life, death, suffering, and love..they left their mark on him… on his hands…on his feet. His disciples recognized him because of his scars. God didn’t erase the wounds of Christ’s suffering, but integrated them into his person forever. God didn’t give Jesus a new body without blemish. God made his wounded body new. 

Likewise, in this passage from Revelation we read that on that day when the first heaven and earth shall finally pass away, God will not set about making all new things, but making all things new. “The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them (21:2).” 

Norman Wirzba points out that “God’s trajectory, throughout scripture has always been toward Earth rather than away from it.” God’s plan is not to scrap the whole creation/human experiment. Heaven and earth are not to be destroyed and replaced, but essentially recycled, refashioned and joined. In this passage heaven comes down. God comes to us. And the earth in all her scarred glory, is made new.

I wonder if that is what happens to us too. I wonder if our grief and sorrow, our missteps and mistakes, our life, death, suffering and love, all that has left its mark on us …. I wonder if it is all – in the end -not wiped clean, but refashioned and redeemed, integrated into our person forever. 

I wonder if God takes all that we have been through, all that we have loved and lost and still long for, and uses it to craft within us a purer more compassionate heart than we ever could have had otherwise. 

A heart not floating somewhere high above waiting in passive bliss, but a heart at peace because it is assembling even now with the hosts of heaven. 

A heart at peace because it is beating in time with the heart of a God who is ever and always making her way back not just to the ones we love, but to all of her people, making her way back like a mother who cannot forget her children. 

I think I could be at peace in that kind of heaven. I think I can imagine Rachel and Denise at peace in a heaven like that as well. 

I got a letter this week from my favorite musical duo – Karin Berquist and Linford Detweiller of Over The Rhine. Alright maybe letter is overstating it. It was an e-mail. They are going on tour again soon and they always reach out to check in with their followers before they do. 

I was sad to learn in this latest missive that Karin had just lost her mother, and deeply moved by what Linford wrote in response. His words resonated with me and I want to close with them, because I think they may well resonate with you as well.

           “Karin and I acknowledged last week that we are both still really conflicted these days about referring to ourselves as Christian … Somedays, American Christianity — as touted by the privileged and powerful — feels mostly like an oxymoron. Often what is described as “Christian” doesn’t describe us.

           And yet we find that in spite of ourselves, our doubts, our misgivings, in matters of life and death, we are still believers. We are still hopeful that Jesus was such a lover of the human race, that he chose to become human, and that his life and death somehow transcended and upended the finality of the grave. We still hold the secret hope that God’s love is greater than death, for anyone and everyone.

           We (still) hope we’ll get to meet our loved ones again someday.” 

And friends, I want you to know that I do too. I don’t know how it all works or how to make sense of death.  But for all my questions, I harbor that secret hope as well. The hope that we will see one another again. The hope that this life is not the end. But also the hope that this life is of such great worth that God will allow it to shape and inform who I am in the next one. My secret hope is not that God will take away all my grief, my scars, my pain and my longing, but that God is such a “lover of the human race” that she will honor the way this life has shaped me – just as she honored the way it shaped Jesus- take me just as I am in the end and make the all of me new. Amen.