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Shedding the Tears that God Will One Day Wipe Away

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 10:12 pm on Sunday, November 5, 2017

A sermon preached on All Saints Sunday, November 5th, 2017 based upon Revelation 7:9 – 17.

All Saints Sundayhe first thing that caught my attention in John’s vision is that “there is room in the circle” in the great multitude of saints.  There is room because Jesus, the Lamb of God seated on his thone is in the center of the circle making possible an inclusivity of that circle would have been mind boggling for John’s first century readers.  The multitude is more than can be numbered, and they come from every tribe and language and people, and so when we say every Sunday “There is always room in the circle,” we are taking our cues from the kingdom of heaven.

But the primary thing that caught my attention are the tears and the great promise that “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” At first glance these words might suggest that tears are a bad thing, and yet in order to allow God to do this tender thing for us, we have to have tears in the first place.

One of most basic things that distinguishes we human beings from all other mammals is our capacity to weep tears. Although as anyone who has owned a dog knows, they like certain other mammals can feel sadness but we are the only creature that sheds tears. This ability is related to the fact that our capacity for empathy and grief surpasses that of other creatures because of the unique self-consciousness that comes with being a human being — this awareness that one day we and everyone we love will die.

We wish it weren’t so, but to be a human being is to profoundly suffer emotional and spiritual pain.

We say that Jesus reveals to us God, which he does, but Jesus also reveals to us what it means to be truly human. It is striking that on two occasions Jesus is described as shedding tears:  at the tomb of his friend Lazarus, and as he approaches Jerusalem he weeps, knowing the pain the people will endure for their failure to learn the things that that make for peace. On one occasion Jesus was at a dinner hosted by a Pharisee when a woman crashes the party to throw herself at the feet where wordlessly she weeps, bathing his feet with her tears.  Jesus commends the great faith in her tears while the hard-hearted Pharisees condemn her. When the prosperity Gospel folks suggest that you can always walk on the sunny side — they simply aren’t paying attention to Jesus.

Jesus loved a good party and knew great joy but he also knew profound sadness, and in this life you cannot have one without the other.  We were put on this earth to love one another, and with great love comes both joy and sorrow.  There is no way around it.  Even if we have the good fortune in life to avoid the degree of pain and heartache that is the fate of so many in this world, if our innate capacity for empathy isn’t blocked it is impossible for us not to share in the pain and sorrow of those less fortunate.


We may try to avoid sorrow, but the only way to do this is by hardening our hearts like the Pharisees, which is one of the ways the Bible talks about sin.  When we harden our hearts we are attempting to avoid the pain of love – the pain of being a human being.

In John’s glorious vision the multitude of saints are said to be those who have “come through the great ordeal,” by which he was referring to the persecution the early Christians endured.  But if you live with an open heart like Jesus, there is a sense in which life itself is a great ordeal, full of a great multitude of griefs.

Have you ever had a moment, say when our choir sings a particularly stirring anthem like we had this morning when you are surprised to discover tears rolling down your cheeks?  Music is powerful that way.  It can open up the heart.

I had such a moment recently.  A couple of weeks ago I read this enthusiastic review in the newspaper of an off, off Broadway show that caught my attention.  It was essentially a one woman show written and performed by this quirky woman from Louisiana with a peculiar faith.   She described the show as what she called a “requiem mass for the souls of the dead.”

I like weird creative stuff, especially creativity that affirms the resurrection so I ordered tickets online for Sarah and myself.  A week ago Friday we drove into Brooklyn which was pretty intense in itself.  We thought we had plenty of time but of course the GPS lied to us, and so full of anxiety we were fortunate to get there in time though with only five minutes to spare.

The show was in this tiny little upstairs theater, smaller than I imagined, and as the audience we sat around the stage almost in arms reach of the woman and her wonderful four member backup band, making it all quite intimate.  For about an hour and a half the woman alternated between wandering around telling stories and sitting at her piano playing songs about growing up in the south with her grandparents and others she loved who had died but whom she was convinced were still with her — right there in the theater – and it was moving and funny and thoroughly entertaining, and reminding me a bit of my own southern raised mother.

But towards the end of the show things got a little more intense.  She brought on this chorus of singers – I think they were made up of the ticket takers and stage crew and such.  And then for several minutes all the lights in the theater were shut off – she’d warned us at the outset this would happen and I’m sure it was probably breaking various fire codes – so it was pitch black darkness which was weird.  The darkness was suggestive of death itself, but it also allowed me to let go into the music – the songs that were being sung – songs that involved calling out to God for mercy.

After a time one pinpoint of light appeared in the darkness, and then gradually one by one other pin points of light appeared, and it looked like the stars of the sky but also maybe the great cloud of witnesses of which the letter to the Hebrews speaks – the saints who have gone before us into the life beyond this one.

Eventually the stage lights came back on and the woman began handing out these little bells to people in the audience that had recently lost a loved one, instructing them to ring the bells whenever in the finale we heard a “hosanna” being sung, and then she and her band and backup choir began singing this glorious hymn full of hosannas and bells a-ringing, and this re-occurring line:  “God is in your broken heart”, and tears began running down my cheeks, tears of sadness but also of joy — all mixed together.

We drove home, and realizing my hardened heart had opened up within me, I knew there were more tears inside me to shed.  I sought out he darkness of the backyard as Sarah retired to bed.  Under the stars, and mindful that my neighbors on both sides were away, I took advantage of the softening of my heart that had occurred in the theater and began to weep for all the grief of my life — for my mother and my departed grandfathers I never met, and for other kinds of grief as well – for broken relationships and lost hopes and dreams and missed opportunities of both myself and the people I love.  As the tears flowed it seemed as though all the different griefs were connected by a single thread.

My weeping became a prayer, and it felt as though I was praying on a deeper level than usual, remembering that phrase in the finale of the show: “God is in your broken heart.” There was this strange mixture of sorrow and release, of joy mixed in with sadness, which was related to a profound sense of connection I felt at that moment with every other human being knowing that deep inside everyone of us there is our own unique version of burden of grief.  I felt within my body the truth of that beautiful saying:  “Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

I do believe we all carry around inside us a great deal of grief.  Some of us may be intensely aware of this grief because a recent loss has brought it all to the surface, and for you there may well be the wish that the tears would stop – that they would all be wiped away and wiped away right now.  Others of us are less aware because the grief has been pressed down deep inside us, and with it has come an unconscious hardening of our hearts.  We soldier up and do what needs to get done, but along the way times of joy become less frequent.

So here on All Saints Day we are given this vision of a day that will come when God will wipe all the tears away, and all the broken relationships restored.  We will see those we have loved and so many more.  But in the meantime, let us pray for the courage not to flee from our grief, but rather to embrace it, for it is a testament to the love within us – the love for which we were created.

And let us pray that in embracing our grief, we may as Jesus said, turn and become like little children who cry easily but also laugh easily, and in doing so experience together the kingdom of heaven even now, here on earth.

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