Almost every Sunday after the sermon, we say a creed or confession or statement of faith together. We do that as part of our Liturgy of the Word, which is usually expressed in three ways: we hear the words of scripture, we hear those words interpreted ~ usually in the form of a sermon, and we respond to those words with our own communal statement of belief, affirming that have heard, and wondered, and believe ~ that what we have heard and wondered about has spoken to our hearts and minds. And when we say The Apostles’ Creed, which we often do, one of the things we affirm is that we believe in the communion of saints.
The communion of saints – what does that mean? Many of you grew up in the Catholic tradition, and learned that there are specific individuals whose personal holiness and connection with God is recognized by the church with the label of saint. Even many of those of us who have always been Protestant have our favorite Catholic saints ~ mine include St. Ignatius, upon whose life of prayer I model my own, and St. Brigid of Kildare (Ireland), who was a great healer and teacher and administrator in the Celtic tradition, someone whom I admire tremendously. But we in the Protestant church also honor as saints all of those who have gone before us in the faith ~ parents, grandparents, teachers, healers, helpers ~ all of those whom we have loved and lost.
Today, All Saints Day, is our annual opportunity to remember those saints of our lives, and to remember them well ~ with their names read aloud, with flowers dedicated to their memories, with music to remind us of the important place they have in our lives, with sadness and longing, and with hope and a sense of promise. It’s also an opportunity to be reminded that the communion of saints, those long gone from our lives on this earth, and those still together here, join at the table at which we will celebrate in just a few minutes.
That’s a bittersweet reminder, isn’t it? Because, when we tell the truth, we know that we would prefer for our departed loved ones to be here, right here, with us. We want them to be healthy, and living their lives ~ and here. I’m sure that as we read the names of the saints of our church and our lives, and as we thought of names of those perhaps not listed, we all felt the heartbreak of having lost them, and wished they were still alive. The idea of the communion of saints, living and dead, is a powerful one, but it’s nowhere near the same thing as the actual physical and living presence among us of the people we love.
And so . . . we lament.
“What does that mean?” a few of you have asked me. “That word lament ~ what does it refer to?”
A lament is a song ~ a song of grief, a song of sadness, a song of longing. It’s the sort of song that makes many of us uncomfortable. We have been taught, especially in our society, not to feel sorry for ourselves, not to indulge ourselves, not to dwell on the painful aspects of life, and, most especially, not to express ourselves where loss, and death, and grief, are concerned. Not even where the loss of a mother, or father, or husband, or wife, or child, is concerned. Not even where the loss of a church is concerned. We are taught to put on a bright face, to put loss behind us, to get on with life. We are so death-averse in our culture that many of us do not even know the word lament. We do not know that there is a form of writing, a form of music, designed to express our sorrow.
And yet the Bible, the book at the center of our spiritual lives, is filled with songs of lament. There is an entire book in the Bible entitled Lamentations. Fully one-third of the psalms are psalms, or songs, of lament. We tend to flip the pages right past these words ~ we want to hear the stories of triumph, of power, of healing; we want to sing the songs of praise, of honor, of glory. We want so much to avoid death, to pretend that loss is not a constant in our lives, to believe that heartache is not a frequent visitor to our homes, that we also avoid their expression in the Bible.
But the reality, as my friend Patricia Raube preached to her congregation last summer, is that we need songs of lament every bit as much as we need songs of praise: “Because we need all our emotions. . . . Without them, we are not completely human. We are shut down, and we are cut off. And sometimes that seems like the safest place to be… until we realize that, in the immortal words of John Green, “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.” . . . We need to feel our sadness. We need lament. Not all the time, not 24-7-365, but as part of the menu of full human expression, full human living.”
And so . . .the Bible offers us models for lament. Models such as today’s Psalm 42, in which the psalmist cries out:
When shall I come and behold the face of God?
My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually,
‘Where is your God?’
. . . I pour out my soul:
. . . .
I say to God, my rock, ‘Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?’
Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever felt disoriented in your relationship with God? Disoriented due to your feelings of anger, of frustration, of sadness in the wake of loss? Some of you may be feeling that right now, due to personal losses of loved ones, of health, of other things upon which you have counted. Many of you may be feeling that way due to the impending loss of this church.
And if you are feeling such disorientation, such sadness, then your feelings are not denied, or avoided, or ignored, in scripture. They are affirmed in scripture ~ they are given voice. Because God does not ask us not to be who we are. God does not ask us to hide our true selves, our very real feelings of loss and pain.
But ~ God does ask one thing of us in our sorrow. God does ask one thing of us as we mourn our dead on this All Saints Day, as we grieve the loss of our church this month, as we contend with the other losses that each of us face. God does ask one thing of us, and that one thing is: not to lose hope.
The hope that God offers us ~ it’s reflected in Psalm 42, and it’s reflected in our communion meal.
Psalm 42, like almost every other psalm of lament, gives voice to pain ~ and then it turns toward hope: “Hope in God; for I shall again praise God, my help and my God.” One of the remarkable things about most of the psalms of lament is that they do not stop at anguish. They do not end with despair. They honor those feelings of anguish and despair ~ they honor and respect them as genuine expressions of the human experience. But they don’t stop there. They keep moving. They move to hope.
And so do we, because we are called through these words of scripture, and through the rituals of our worship ~ we are called deep into hope. We are called to know that we will again praise the God who is our hope. We are called to share a table first set two thousand years ago, on the night before it seemed that all was lost, and two nights before all was gained.
Lament is what we do when we face sorrow ~ when we lose our loved ones, when we lose our church. We cannot move forward without singing our songs of lament.
But lament is not the end. Lament is not where we conclude our journey of faith. Lament is but a waystation on the road toward resurrection, the road toward that day when the entire communion of saints will again gather, not on either side of the barrier between life and death, but together, in God’s new creation.
And, this morning: Know both. Know both, in the mystery of God. Know that your longings are honored, that your sorrows are held safe, that communion is a promise, and that resurrection is assured. Amen.