Revelation 7:13-17, 21:1-4
On April 23rd, in Orem, Utah, 51 year old Laurel Terry died suddenly and unexpectedly leaving behind her husband Will and three sons. 1 Will was, as you can imagine, devastated and as news of his wife’s death was posted on the internet, there was an outpouring of sympathy. Will Terry is a children’s book illustrator and has become a household name in the online art community because almost 50,000 people follow his Youtube channel and thousands more listen to his podcasts. 2 In the days following his wife’s death, Will expressed his appreciation to those who had sent condolences but also told his fans that he would be taking a break from his illustration activity in order to spend time with his family and so for the past six weeks, he has been absent from social media. This past Wednesday, however, he posted a picture of some sketches he had done to his Facebook feed and said, “Well, I’m drawing again.”
While some people heralded this post as a sign that Will Terry is healing and once again able to resume life as it was before tragedy intervened, I heard in his words heartache and an attempt to try to figure out what normal means in a life which has lost its foundation. Grief undoes us and undoes our world because everything that was once so familiar and that we took for granted is now a foreign land without the presence of that person who shared our time. We no longer know how to move forward in this strange place where grief has thrown us. As we try to pull together the pieces of our shattered hearts, we go through the old motions of the day, hoping that in those old familiar routines, we can find a place to steady our feet, and yet at the same time, those routines feel empty now, and we know that in fact we are just “going through the motions.” “Well, I’m drawing again,” we say but while our bodies may be moving, our minds are elsewhere, and our hearts — our hearts are missing, swallowed up by grief. When we experience the loss of a loved one, even the future itself loses meaning because we can’t imagine what tomorrow might look like. Before grief intervened, we went to bed every night knowing something about the shape of the next day. A new day meant that we would get up, have coffee, fulfill the obligations on our calendar, maybe spend a little time griping about the weather, share some conversation with our loved ones, and turn out the light at night thinking about all the things on the calendar for the next day. When grief crashes upon us, however, everything we learned to expect about tomorrow is gone. We can’t even envision a future when we might get up in the morning and not be immediately knocked off our feet again by the weight of our broken heart. How can we imagine a day when it will matter to us again if it is raining or not? And it feels absolutely impossible that somewhere in the future lies a time when we will once again hear ourselves laugh in joy. The author Jamie Anderson said that “Grief… is all the love you want to give, but cannot. All that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes, the lump in your throat, and in that hollow part of your chest. Grief,” she says, “is just love with no place to go.” When our love has nowhere to go, we ourselves have nowhere to go but become mired in the awful heartache of the present. It is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other in order to “go through the motions,” as if the motions mean anything anymore.
The passages I read in Revelation from chapter 7 and 21 acknowledge the power of grief to unmake our worlds, and it is no coincidence that these two passages bracket the rest of John’s vision. Though the book of Revelation feels like a violent story, it is set within these two passages that proclaim to us that the destruction and struggle that we are about to witness will bring us in the end to a place where all of our tears are dried and our sorrows cease. In fact, these passages are frequently read at funeral services, even by ministers like me who would never choose to preach about the four horsemen of the apocalypse. While the rest of John’s vision remains mysterious and confusing, everyone can immediately understand these passages in chapter 7 and 21 because we all long for that place where God will wipe every tear from our eyes, where death is no more; where mourning and crying and pain will pass away, and our hearts can rest in safety. For a person who has experienced the devastation of grief, all of the violence of the book of Revelation is a mere description of the battle already going on in their own lives but here this turmoil is bracketed by words that have the power to help them to stand once again: God’s enduring promise that one day God will wipe away their tears, and the brutality of death will be thrown down and will be no more.
I have said in previous sermons that the Book of Revelation is concerned with the corruption and brutality of the powers, institutions, and policies that rule over our corporate life, and to read it as a blueprint for individual salvation is to completely miss the point, but here in chapter 7 and 21 the words of John’s vision feel very personal. When God promises to dry our eyes, we feel as if God is speaking to the Will Terry’s of the world who are just trying to get through each day in a land that has suddenly become foreign to them. What do these passages have to do with corrupt social systems? Are they an anomaly in a book that’s mostly about the battle for social justice? No, I think that in these words the Bible is reminding us that every social injustice is personal. When we battle racism, or fight for the rights of people of every sexual orientation, when we try to alleviate poverty or bring decent health care to communities, we are battling not simply for causes but for people who have names; for people who grieve as we do when their loved ones die because those loved ones didn’t have enough food to eat or because they couldn’t afford good hospital care; we are battling on behalf of real mothers and fathers whose hearts are broken when their children come home from school in tears because they were bullied for being transgendered. The same grief that undoes us when a loved one dies is undoing oppressed people on a daily basic. It’s easy to get so consumed with debates over policies and abstract ideas that we forget that the people living under those unjust systems have names. Every social injustice is personal.
Gerardo Camacho is a coffee farmer in Costa Rica with three children. Twenty five years ago, coffee prices were so low and poverty so pervasive in his town that the community was not able to afford a school or decent roads. Even if they had had a school in town, the children would not have been able to go because they had to work in the fields along side of the adults in order to make enough money to eat. Gerardo Camacho finally decided that the only hope for his family was for him to come to the US and find work. He snuck across the border, and lived in the US for eight years as an undocumented alien, sending all that he could back to his family in Costa Rica until finally his parents were able to afford to buy their own farm. Even then, coffee prices were so low, Camacho stayed in the US another two years to supplement his family’s income. He was finally able to return to his home however, when his community became part of a Fair Trade consortium, which stabilized coffee prices and ensured the growers a sustainable income. Since that time, Camacho’s community has been able to build schools, roads, bridges, and even has a scholarship program so the children can go to school. Camacho’s oldest son is in college, and his two other children plan to go as well. Camacho says, “With the help of Fair Trade…they won’t have to jump the border from Mexico to America, leaving their country for ten years, like me. They can decide what they want in life.”
At the church’s annual meeting, Jan Porter suggested that our congregation begin using Fair Trade coffee at coffee hour. If she said to us, “Let’s support the work of Fair Trade because their coffee beans are part of a more equitable and sustainable alternative supply chain,” your eyes would probably glaze over, but if she said, “Let’s drink Fair Trade coffee because it will help Gerardo Camacho stay in his home and raise a healthy family,” you’d feel good about that because it is no longer an unjust system you are fighting but you are fighting against the evils that torment the heart of a man with a name. All social injustice is personal and the book of Revelation brackets its fight against the unjust powers of the world with the reminder that every act of oppression is breaking the heart of a real person and every triumph over those powers is drying real tears.
The book of Revelation makes us this promise: God knows the power of our grief; God knows the heartache of injustice. God knows the tears we shed when our children are bullied and abused and starve because there is no work in our town. God knows our pain when our loved ones are sick and we can’t afford the care needed to treat them. God knows how our worlds are unmade when the person with whom we shared that world is taken from us by death. And God promises to stand with us through our suffering and hold the future in God’s loving hands when we have no ability to believe in that future ourselves. It may feel like a flimsy promise for God to say, “Trust me with tomorrow even if you have no strength to stand today,” but promises have the ability “to create the reality they name.” 3 If I am drinking coffee in the privacy of my home and think, “You know, maybe I should buy Fair Trade coffee from now on,” my good intentions may or may not become reality, but if I promise in front of an entire congregation that I will throw my support behind Jan Porter’s suggestion to find a way to ensure that this church manifests our mission in what we drink every Sunday, it is much more likely to happen.
Our promises have the ability to create our reality; how much more can we trust God’s promises to create our reality? If God promises that God will one day dry your tears, that God will one day remake the world into a place of justice and peace, we who plant our lives in that promise will find that we have the strength to endure until that day. As much as we fear it might, we will discover that our grief will not wholly unmake us because we can rest our broken hearts in the promise of God until the time when tomorrow doesn’t feel quite so dark. Our courage to fight for justice will not flag because we will trust in God’s promise that even if we cannot see the faces for whom we strive, or watch the seeds we plant sprout, injustice will one day be broken and peace will one day come. We will know that no matter how defeated we might feel in this minute of this day, that God promises that we are on the winning team and God’s love will prevail. And so we will begin right now shaping our lives into conformity with that promise, letting God’s promise create our reality. We will drink Fair Trade coffee for Gerardo’s family, we will speak out for peace and justice on behalf of real men and women and children around the world, and we will open the doors of this church to all people so that when we sit together at Christ’s table, tears will be dried and pain will be healed because of the welcoming arms of a people living out the reality of God’s grace.
1. The funeral was in Orem but I’m not sure where her home town was. The three sons are all young adults, two of whom are married, but while these details are obviously important to the family, I left them out for the sake of the sermon.
2. “Three Point Perspective” podcast with Will Terry, Jake Parker, and Lee White
3. David Lose