Isaiah 25: 6-10a
All Saints Sunday, November 3, 2019
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
25:6 On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
25:7 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.
25:8 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.
25:9 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
25:10a For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.
The poetic prophecy of Isaiah is set against the backdrop of the Hebrew peoples’ physical and spiritual devastation when a foreign empire conquers their country and destroys their city, Jerusalem. Families are pulled apart as captives are taken into slavery in exile. Their homes are torn down around them. There is death all around. It seemed as if God had abandoned them! Death had cast a shroud over the whole people. If images from recent news of refugee camps and the devastation of Middle Eastern cities are coming to your mind, then you are getting the situation of God’s people in this text.
Death is an “active force of negativity that moves to counter and cancel and prevent well-being,” writes Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann.[i] Death, in its many forms, leaves us feeling diminished and separated from God. Grief after death is not a one time visitor....it’s thread runs through our lives in many ways. As a chaplain friend of mine says, “There are so many little deaths in life – dying is just one of them.”
We most certainly experience the shroud of death Isaiah speaks of when our loved ones die. Some deaths are just way before their time and come with tragic circumstances. And even when the death of a loved one has been peaceful and comes naturally at the end of a vital, productive life we can still feel the devastation of loneliness and abandonment. We grieve many other losses in life..... job loss – relationship loss – loss of meaning in the midst of despair and depression – loss of community in moving across the country – the loss of a beloved pet. We grieve when we hear the news of violence against other human beings – gun violence, domestic violence, the violence of prejudice and injustices of all kinds, the violence of war. We grieve when we hear of and experience ecological violence against God’s creation. And we often feel helpless in the midst of grief, disgraced that we cannot lift ourselves up from the mire, that we cannot change the circumstances that caused us or others to grieve. We feel alone.
In all these experiences our hearts, our souls, long for companions in community and in the presence of God. We need those who will walk beside us, following our lead as we move through the sorrow, the anger, the numbness, the loneliness. We need companions without judgment, without time frames, or fix-it solutions to cheer us up. We need companions who patiently walk with us toward the hope of transformation. The best gift we can give someone in grief is simply being a companion.
The poet, Patricia McKernon Runkle beautifully expresses this kind of companioning in her poem “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief.”
Slip off your needs
and set them by the door.
this darkened chapel
hollowed by loss
hallowed by sorrow
its gray stone walls
are here to listen
not to sing.
Kneel in the back pew.
Make no sound,
let the candles
In other words, just be. You do not have to fix. Listen. Or simply sit in silence with the one in grief. Your presence is the balm, the greatest “fix” you can offer.
The prophet Isaiah proclaims that our companioning God invites us to sit and be at God’s table of hope and abundance in the midst of grief and loss – in the midst of the many little dyings, as well as the big ones, in the midst of fear and devastation. At God’s table we are transformed by God’s companioning. God feeds us with love in a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines – or here in Fort Collins, maybe we should say, well-brewed beer. The prophet declares that God will destroy the shroud, the sheet of deep grief that is spread over all nations; God will swallow up death forever and will wipe away the tears from all faces. I believe that in the death and resurrection of Jesus who is now the Christ, the redeeming presence of God with us, death was swallowed up forever in an ultimate and cosmic way that is both mystery and revelation. And we can trust this mystery because of the new life that it reveals.
Friends, here in this community of God’s saints we endeavor to companion one another on the journey of life’s mystery that extends through and beyond physical death. God is our ever-present companion drawing us all together. As companioning community we are tangible evidence of the presence of God in all our lives.
You have been and continue to be companions of your pastors as we continue to walk through the grief of my son’s death and through the grief of Hal’s cancer diagnosis and treatment. You are with us in tangible and intangible ways, in prayers, in the mountains of cards you have sent. You are with us in the prayer flags that you made for me after Colin’s death. They hung on our back fence for at least nine months until I noticed early this summer that they were disappearing. I finally realized those darn squirrels were taking them. Irritated I went out to salvage what was left, muttering to myself, “Those were MY prayer flags!”
Then later that day Hal took me to our deck and pointed up. There in a very large, very tall, evergreen in our neighbor’s yard, way at the top of the tree, was a very colorful squirrel’s nest, made with prayer flags. They had been “transformed!” So they still companion me....and I hear Colin’s laughter each time I look at them. They assure me of God’s companioning presence that comes through you and through the beauty and surprise of nature.
The words of Isaiah assure us that God’s hope is as abundant as a great feast. And that the shroud of death is not the ultimate future. God’s life is the ultimate future. God’s presence offers transformation because God is the ultimate companion in the many deaths of our lives. God comes into the darkened chapel of our souls and sits with us as a congregation of one, listening to our grief. God sends us to one another to listen as companions in grief. And through our companioning we are transformed in our individual grief as well as in our community. Transformed to companion those here in Fort Collins, in northern Colorado, in our country and around the world who suffer the death-dealing forces violence, prejudice and injustice.
Even in the very real ache of grief we can say with the prophet and with conviction, God will swallow up death forever. God will wipe away all tears and take away the shroud of disgrace that covers the earth through human violence and greed. Don’t you want to participate with this companioning God in this miraculous transformation? The invitation is open as we companion one another through God’s love.
© The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2019. All rights reserved. Permission is granted to reprint Patricia McKernon Runkle's poem from her website: griefscompass.com.
[i] Walter Bruggemann, Isaiah 1 -39, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 1998, 199).
[ii] Patricia McKernon Runkle, “When You Meet Someone Deep in Grief”. The is poem is reprinted here with the permission of the poet. You can discover more about Patricia McKernon Runkle at her website, www.griefscompass.com and on Good Reads. Her book on her own grief journey after her brother’s death is titled, Grief’s Compass; Walking the Wilderness with Emily Dickinson.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.