First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Rev. Dr. Cynthia Lindenmeyer
Date: November 3, 2019
Wisdom Readings: Book of Wisdom 3:1-3, African Traditional Religion Poem
Sermon: “Giving Life/Receiving Death: When the River Meets the Sea”
One of the sages of Judaism brings to us our reading from the Hebrew Testament, found in the Book of Wisdom:
Book of Wisdom 3:1-3
1 But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them.
2 In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery,
3 And their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace.
From the African Traditional religion, poet Birago Diop captures how the deceased are still part of the living…,
Those who are dead have never gone away.
They are in the shadows darkening around,
They are in the shadows fading into day,
The dead are not under the ground.
They are in the trees that quiver,
They are in the woods that weep,
They are in the waters of the rivers,
They are in the waters that sleep.
They are in the crowds, they are in the homestead.
The dead are never dead.
So… I think of myself as somewhat educated when it comes to costume recognition when Trick or Treaters appear on the doorstep Halloween night, and Thursday I encountered many Avenger and Star Wars costumes. But I am at that stage in life when I realize that the older I get, the more out of touch with Halloween costumes I get. And yet, over the years, there’s one consistent costume—the Grim Reaper. This past Thursday, I wondered as Grim Reaper #7 came to the door, couldn’t have been older than seven years old, if that’s how death gets a bad rap. What if instead of a black robe with a scythe, death was personified as a Superhero?
During November, we are exploring the concept of gratitude, and each Sunday mirrors the four sections in the book written by Diana Butler Bass entitled Grateful. I am excited about the many adventures we will be experiencing in worship this month—we have pet blessings, drumming soundscapes and the final Sunday we witness what happens when gratitude intertwines with justice. Chapter One begins with a quote from a Benedictine monk who believed religion must be rooted in mysticism: “Everything is a gift. The degree to which we are awake to this truth is a measure of our gratefulness, and gratefulness is a measure of our aliveness.”
Imagine how our life would be radically changed if we believed EVERYTHING is a gift? Part one speculates…is gratitude an emotion or an exchange? As an emotion, when we receive a gift, our heart is awakened. But when we approach gifts as an exchange, then gratitude becomes a transaction, a quid pro quo. And theologically, I wonder how much we have strayed from the emotional aspect of gratitude to the transactional response that possibly leads to perceiving the relationship between life and death as one of reciprocity, or quid pro quo: We’ve been given life, so we owe life in return, and the Grim Reaper comes to collect the debt, leading not to gratitude, but fear.
Bass says that gratitude is an emotion more powerful than fear because it can transform the way we see the world and experience life. What would it mean to not fear death, but accept death with gratitude? What if we could re-frame our narratives about death? That is what ALL SAINTS DAY does, it awakens us to ponder the changing of seasons, the paradox that surrounds us this time of year when we are in awe of the beauty of the leaves of the trees, knowing the changing colors signal the end of life for the leaves born in the spring. We live in the reality of autumn and the shortening of the days, a rhythm that echoes our life journey. Think of the saints we celebrate in the church—many of us witnessed their beauty, and remember when they let go of the tree of life and transitioned to a mysterious place beyond. All Saints Day, like the change of season from summer to fall, invites us to enter into gratitude for the gift of life that is the power that prepares us for the next stage of our journey, death.
What I value about All Saints Sunday is the connection. In the church, All Saints is a time when we reflect on and give thanks for those who have been influential in our spiritual journey, reminding us that as we still live, we can influence the lives of others. Friday, on All Saints Day, I attended a conference here in Omaha and was reminded of how powerfully motivating gratitude can be, and how we never know how our actions will change the course of a life.
When serving as a chaplain at West Point, I had the honor of overseeing the Sunday School program where cadets rose early on their only day to sleep-in to teach the children of the community. Scotty taught second grade four years at West Point, graduated and married his high school sweetheart, Tiffany. While deployed in Iraq, he was hit with a blast from an IED (improvised explosive device). He survived but lost his eyesight. While recovering in Walter Reed Army Hospital, he was angry. Gary Sinise, Toby Keith, the President, and a long list of notable people went to encourage Scotty. But his anger consumed him, until Andrew Harris, one of the boys to whom he taught Sunday School, came to see him. Andrew told Scotty that he was his hero. Those words were a gift that overcame the anger imprisoning Scotty. He let go of his anger and his life has been an inspiration to many. Scotty and Tiffany are motivational speakers who encourage thousands, and they are truly saints. They both know each day they are alive is a gift.
When we live life as if it were a precious gift from God, then we can receive death not with fear, not as reciprocity, but with gratitude. Death awakens us to life. But we must receive life as a gift, which means unwrapping the casings of a culture that binds us to a narrative of fear when it comes to death. We are part of the cosmic paradox that the gift of life means we also receive the gift of death.
This All Saints Sunday, we look at our insert and are connected with those who once worshiped among us. We read not just a name, but light a candle. The act of lighting the candle connects us to the sacredness of transformation when we realize the power of spiritual awakening sheds light on the reality that as we give the wick of the candle reason to burn, we are the receivers of its light.
In the world of the physical, music connects us to the spiritual. You are invited, as Mark and Jill sing, to light candles here in front or in the back, to connect with the presence of those who we may not see, but who still are:
MARK and JILL: WHEN THE RIVER MEETS THE SEA
When the mountain touches the valley
All the clouds are taught to fly
As our souls will leave this land most peacefully
Though our minds be filled with questions
In our hearts we’ll understand
When the river meets the sea
Like a flower that has blossomed
In the dry & barren sand
We are born & born again most gracefully
Thus, the winds of time will take us
With a sure and steady hand
When the river meets the sea
Patience, my brother and patience, my son
In that sweet and final hour
Truth and justice will be done
Like a baby when it is sleeping
In its loving mother’s arms
What a newborn baby dreams is a mystery
But his life will find a purpose
And in time he’ll understand
When the river meets the sea
When the river meets the almighty sea!!
When we comprehend Death coming to us to free us from the banks of the river that limit our flow, then we realize our soul is freed beyond the gift of life free to expand everywhere into an infinite ocean of opportunity. The dead are never dead.
I invite you to close your eyes, take a breath in. Then breathe out. All of us will experience one day that the breath will not return to our bodies; our eyes will not re-open. Death personified comes to us as the ultimate Gift Giver. Life has been given to us; may we receive death.