Grief & Hope

Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for All Saints’ Day.

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18

But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.

Every once in a while, there’s a line in scripture so powerful that it grabs you and doesn’t let go. 

For me, it’s that thirteenth verse of the fourth chapter of 1 Thessalonians: “do not grieve as others do who have no hope.”

1 Thessalonians is not a book I spend a lot of time with in the library of our scriptures. It doesn’t have the good storytelling of Genesis or Luke, nor the elegance of the Psalms or Romans. It’s a homespun little letter, written by Paul to a group of newly minted Christians at Thessalonica, who are in mourning. 

The very first Christians believed that Jesus’ return was going to be soon, and that when he returned, he would usher in a new heaven and a new earth for all who had remained faithful to him. They were all set to wait. 

But then that little congregation began to lose people. 

There’s nothing in the letter to suggest anything traumatic. Just some of their number were old, or sick, and they died. And the congregation, in their sadness and fear, thought that that meant those people weren’t going to be part of Jesus’ heavenly kingdom. That an accident of time had taken away their chance to ever see these beloved ones again. 

And so Paul writes to this congregation about hope. It’s a condolence card, but more than that, it’s a powerful testimony to the power of faith to transcend death. 

“For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died,” Paul writes. He goes on to describe a great victory parade, in images that would have been intimately familiar to the Thessalonians, living in the capital city of the Macedonian province of Rome. When Roman generals returned from conquest, they returned with messengers ahead of them and the sounds of trumpets, while the people of the city streamed out to meet them with cheers; so Paul describes Jesus returns as the conqueror of death, and the congregation soaring to meet him. 

Rapture theology has twisted Paul’s image of hope into something to be afraid of, which breaks my heart. What Paul most wanted the congregation at Thessalonica to know was that their dead were not gone forever. He wanted them to know that Christ was not just the savior of the living, but the shepherd of the dead as well. He wanted them to grieve with hope.

This is the great paradox of the Christian faith: that we grieve with hope. That we are called to protect and preserve and promote life, but not to fear death. That we trust that there is more beyond death, even if we cannot see what that more will be. 

I was talking with one of God’s living saints this week about what heaven will be like. He didn’t think much of mansions and golf courses; I thought that sounded like too much to dust. We agreed we didn’t really know, but that we trusted God would take care of it. Then he said something that took my breath away. “I don’t know what heaven will be like,” he said, “but I think it’s a place of communion and reunion.”

Words of hope that I needed to hear. At the end of this broken, fragmented, loss-filled life, lies a place of communion and reunion. With God, and with each other. 

This is a hard All Saints’ day. The losses of this year have been astonishing. The sheer numbers of the dead are hard to comprehend. And there are more invisible losses too—loss of trust, of respect, of faith, of normalcy, of connection, of relationship, of routine, of confidence, of hope. 

We need to grieve. And we need to hope. 

We need to grieve, because we can only lie to ourselves for so long before we collapse like the proverbial house of cards. Everything is not fine. We have to grieve. 

But we also have to hope. Because to say this world is hopeless, to say humanity is too far gone, to say nothing will ever change, is to lie about who God is. Death did not defeat God on the cross, and it will not defeat God in the ICU. God has walked with broken, frightened, lost people before, and God is walking with us now, hand in hand, until the dawn breaks. 

For the next few minutes, we’re going to slow down, and simply name a few of our losses, and our hope. There will be silence where you are welcome to speak aloud or to simply hold space in your heart.

First we name the people who have died since last All Saints’ Day, whose life and legacy we celebrate but whose absence we grieve. Especially we name those we have lost from within this congregation:

  • Barbara Niehoff
  • Eloise Lee Kastings Parr
  • Elmira Reinhardt Scott
  • Verdia Peeno
  • Penny Ritzenthaler

Savior, give us the strength to grieve with hope. 

Second we name the people we have become disconnected from, because of pandemic restrictions or political disagreements, prejudice or pride, abuse or strain or simply the gentle separation of busy lives. Especially we name the toll of racism, poverty, privilege, and apathy to separate and damage people, relationships, and communities, in ways that cause so many of your children to live in want and fear that has nothing to do with the current pandemic. We grieve the relationships that are now broken. 

Savior, give us the strength to grieve with hope. 

Third we name the impact of this pandemic on our own souls. We name the loss of normalcy and trust, the loss of compassion and calm, the loss of events and opportunities that matter deeply to us, the loss of health and work, the loss of joy, even the loss, at times, of our faith in others and our faith in God. Especially we lift up those who have been touched most deeply by the trauma of this pandemic, who have seen the death and grief and despair first-hand, and who will not walk away unscathed. 

Savior, give us the strength to grieve with hope. 

Paul writes: “we will be with the Lord forever… encourage one another with these words.” Our losses now are overwhelming, but they are not final. One day, Christ will mend the shattered and broken places in our lives, and bring us into communion and reunion with each other and with him.

This is the promise of our faith: that in God nothing is ever lost or forgotten. We follow a Savior who died, and so who knows more intimately than any of us sitting here can. But we also have a Savior who rose, and so knows hope more intimately than any of us sitting here can dream. 

So friends, grieve, greive for all that is wrong, all that hurts, all that is lost, but do not greive like those who have no hope, because we have hope:

The God who defeated death once will do it again, and again, and again, until all of us are with the Lord forever. 

Amen. 

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