It happened again a couple of weeks ago:
In the middle of a funeral sermon I was ambushed by a wave of grief that caused my eyes to fill with tears and my voice to go all wobbly just as I tried to proclaim with confidence our sure and certain hope in Christ. The deceased was dear to my heart, and it was difficult to release him to God’s care. His dying days had been full of grace, and standing in the pulpit I was suddenly overwhelmed by both the privilege of ministry and deep sadness at this loss.
Preachers grieve. There is certainly nothing wrong with allowing that grief to show; yet, through our tears, we must still proclaim Christ crucified and risen. It is this proclamation that blesses and comforts those who mourn. It is this hope and joy that we know even in the face of death. This is the theme of our All Saints’ proclamation, as well.
I gained new perspective on the task of preaching All Saints from a dying saint in a congregation I served for many years. She was an elegant woman named Esther, who lived well into her nineties. She was not afraid of death. Her mind remained clear and her voice strong to the very end. The only frustration for Esther and her caregivers in those last days was communication. Esther was nearly deaf, and we feared that her deafness made her dying lonely−lonelier than we wanted it to be. We were wrong.
Two days before she died Esther asked one of the nursing assistants, “Who is singing?” The young woman smiled and shook her head. The room was quiet, peaceful. “No one is singing, Esther,” she said. But Esther insisted, “Can’t you hear the singing?” This conversation was repeated several times in those last days. Esther continued to ask those caring for her, “Who is singing? Can’t you hear the singing?” In that thin place between life and death, I believe that Esther heard the song of resurrection hope, the echo of the saints “standing before the throne and before the Lamb…singing,” as John of Patmos described in his Revelation.
Since Esther’s death, the goal of my All Saints preaching has been to help those whom I serve “hear the singing.” They are people who know well the sobering, dirge-like sounds of suffering, fear and loss, both as individuals and as a community of faith. In fact, there are days that the dirge is deafening. Therefore, my task as a preacher is to name the dirge while at the same time asking insistently, “Can you hear the singing?”
- Can you hear the song of forgiveness?
- Can you hear the song of resurrection?
- Can you hear the song of brilliant and beautiful hope that is ours in Christ?
“Can you hear the singing?”
I give thanks for Esther every All Saints Sunday when I am naming and thanking God for those whom I was called to love but lost to death in the past year. Nearly deaf, she reminded me that there is a song to sing from the pulpit, a song of hopeful joy in Christ, no matter what our circumstances may be. And as always, on this All Saints Sunday when I step into the pulpit and look out upon those whom I am called to love and serve, I am reminded that there is a community yearning to hear it.