Congregational Church of La Jolla
Rev. Tim Seery
November 5, 2017
It’s a rather bizarre albeit colorful scene. There is a throne surrounded by countless people from every tribe and every nation, speaking every language. Imagine them chattering in their native tongues, circling around this area in excitement and confusion —people from near and far. I think of it looking like what Salvador Dali’s rendition of the Los Angeles airport might look like. Multitudes from near and far under one roof. But in our text today these people are there not to catch a flight, rather they are all dressed in white, standing before the throne giving their glories to God. And if that’s not enough for you, in this scene we have angels flying above head, some unspecified various creatures crawling around, and elders.
But out of this chaotic and scene these multitude come to worship God. When asked who they are, we find out that these are the people who have come out of great tribulation and are now standing before God and God’s throne and that they are to never hunger again. They are to never thrust again. God will be their shepherd, leading them to springs of living water. God will shelter them. And it ends with my favorite part, God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. This text out of one of the Bible’s most complex, provocative, and symbolic books comes from the vision of John of Patmos, the man we believe wrote the Book of Revelation. John was exiled to the Mediterranean island of Patmos during a time of intense Christian persecution. It was there that he authored this book, which eloquently and symbolically dreams of a world free from pain, suffering, and injustice. My first week here I said you’d hear me talk about the way things are versus the way they should be: in this text John gives us a glimpse of the way things ought to be, a glimpse of the world to come. A world that I hope we are actively working to build. I love this text because it depicts a drama in which we all can participate both in this life and in the next. Here in this world we can stand before God in worship, as we do every Sunday here, and work to build a world where suffering is no more. But also, this text gives us hope for what is to come — for no matter how bad it gets here, in the end, God will shelter us. God will wipe the tears from our eyes. And suffering will be no more.
Today we celebrate All Saints Day. A day where we reflect on love, loss, and hope. A day where we are in some ways reconnected with those who have moved on from this world before us. For today, we take up a common mission with them. We here in this world hope to bring a little piece of their world into ours. Our world could use a little piece of heaven. A place that does not know suffering.
But at its very core, today is about remembering. Today may we come before God and remember. I hope that you will hold in your heart during this hour someone you have lost, someone who you wish more than anything in this world you could see, talk to, send a text to, someone you wish that if you called their number now, they would pick up.
You see one of the great human struggles is that love and loss are two sides of the same coin. But sometimes, it’s good to just remember. And so I want to offer you today three examples of remembering. And then at the end of the sermon, I will invite all of us into a time of personal reflection where I hope that each of you will take a moment to remember the saints in your own life, who have gone on to the heavenly kingdom.
But first, if you’d allow me a moment of personal privilege. The first story is actually my own. Today I am remembering. I am remembering my maternal grandmother, who I knew as Grandma B. She died this last March during my final semester of divinity school. When she entered hospice I left school and I flew to Oregon to be with my mom, and my aunt as we kept vigil with her for 12 days. While missing that much school was a challenge it was the best thing I’ve ever done because during that time I learned more about being a pastor than in any class I took that semester. Because I had so much work to do, it was often I who volunteered to stay up through the night, quietly typing away on my laptop against the backdrop of labored breathing. Unfortunately my grandmother and I, due to distance, and the busy rhythms of various family lives, hadn’t spent time totally alone with each other since I was in high school. While I never realized then that the next time we’d spend together, just the two of us, would be under these circumstances, it was an a time I will always treasure. A time of incredible intimacy, closeness, and vulnerability despite no words being exchanged. We looked at each other. We smiled at each other. The eye contact is all we needed. She would lay in bed and watch me page through her signature Blue study bible. I would look and examine the passages she marked and highlighted. You see, more than anything, her whole life she wanted to make it finally see me graduate and become a pastor. She missed that by about 6 months but I take comfort in the fact that she got to be my final professor. Our classroom was a hospice room, our class met during the wee hours of the night, and her pale blue Study bible complete with pictures and notes from her grandchildren stuck between the crisp pages was our text book and I got to be her only student. She trusted me with her dignity, she was made vulnerable in my sight, and she showed me what it looked like to be a disciple and a child of God. This is what I remember today.
Today I also remember my all time favorite artist, Felix Gonzalez Torres. His two most famous works of art I have shared with you on the handout in the bulletin. Take for example, Perfect Lovers. If you’re thinking, “Gosh, that looks like just two commercially available wall clocks stuck on a wall.” You’re right. This work is just that. Two clocks placed 8 feet above the floor, synchronized to the same time. However if we consider these clocks as a metaphor for lovers, as the title suggests, we are faced with a visual representation of how two individuals with hearts beating like the ticking of clocks can be in perfect sync and then inevitably fall out of sync. The title suggests that the lovers remain perfect even after they’ve fallen out of sync. But there is even more because this work wasn’t made by any person at any time. It was made in 1988 by Felix Gonzalez Torres after his partner Ross was diagnosed with AIDS. This heartbreaking work is made even more resonant when you know that Ross died in 1991 and Felix died at age 37 from AIDS in 1996. His battery lasted just a little longer.
While Ross was sick, Gonzalez Torres created the second work I share with you today, titled “A Portrait of Ross in LA.” Gonzalez Torres calculated Ross’ ideal body weight: 175 pounds; he purchased 175 pounds of wrapped candies and stashed them in the corner of the exhibit, inviting everyone who came by to see the work to take one with them. In this way, the 175 pound pile of candy slowly diminished over time, as a metaphor for what AIDS was doing to Ross’ body. But at the same time, in the midst of this tragic work, the viewer got to take away a piece of sweet candy. Gonzalez Torres wanted you to see the pile of candy get smaller and smaller each day but to also taste the candy’s sweetness so that you might know that Ross was really sweet too.
Felix Gonzalez Torres’ works are some of my favorite and they poignantly convey timeless themes of life and death, love and loss. But mostly, they invite you to remember, to remember with Felix the love he had for his beloved, hoping that you too might be able to identify on some level with him. By remembering Ross through artistic metaphor he was keeping Ross alive.
I also today am remembering a new song —a song that I think is perfect for All Saints Day. Lady Gaga, the stage name for the world renowned singer and song writer Stefani Joanne Germanotta released just this year a song she calls “Joanne.” Now, many of you may have heard it before — but I think the song makes sense when you know why Lady Gaga titled this song, her new album, and her entire world tour “Joanne.” You see, Joanne is more than just the singer’s middle name. Joanne was Lady Gaga’s aunt who died at age 19. She never got to meet her. Joanne died from complications due to lupus but at the time doctors didn’t know too much about this and so one day Joanne was rushed to the hospital with huge sores on her hands and she was in shock. The doctors didn’t think there was much they could do, Joanne’s little 19-year-old body was giving out. As they started to loose Joanne the doctor said he could try to amputate her hands to see if that might work but he was doubtful. Joannes’ mom said that she couldn’t take Joanne’s hands away from her. She was an artist. A painter. A poet. A musician. Her hands were her life and Joanne’s mother couldn’t bear to have her daughter’s last moments be without her hands. Aunt Joanne is Lady Gaga’s inspiration as an artist. An inspiration she never got to meet but one whose spirit flows through her.
Here is what I believe. I believe that Joanne, Felix and Grandma B are all standing before the throne. All of them are sheltered by the grace of God. Their tears, are no more. Their lupus is gone, their AIDS is no more, their weakened, tired, fed up bodies are no more. They are standing before the throne as radiant as ever. And now I would invite you to bring your own guest into this story. I invite you to remember, to bring with you into your pew, next to you, that person who has shaped you, the one you want to be next to:
PLAY JOANNE (3.12)
Thank you for remembering. To God be the Glory. Amen.