Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
Fort Collins, CO
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
On this mountain the [Holy One] of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast, a feast of choice wines, of select foods rich in flavor, of choice wines well refined. [She] will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is veiling all peoples, the shroud enshrouding all nations. [He] will swallow up death forever. The [ONE God]will wipe tears from every face; God will remove the people's disgrace from off the whole earth, for God has spoken. They will say on that day, "Look! This is our God, for whom we have waited—and God has saved us! This is the ONE, for whom we have waited; let's be glad and rejoice in the Holy One’s salvation!" Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 27223-27235).
When I lived in Denver, the drive I took to First Plymouth UCC church where I served had not one, but two, major scenic vistas of the mountains as you came to the top of big hills on Hampden Avenue. It was stunning to watch them each morning and see how they changed with the seasons. I often thought to myself, “I live on the edge of a great feast of beauty. Yet I’m not partaking of the nourishment!” My family and I rarely went to the mountains. Busy lives of church and work and school activities distracted us from participating in the feast. I guess we feasted in other ways. I know that so many of you make the feast of our Rocky Mountains a regular part of your lives! Good for you! And I realize now that I always feasted my eyes on the glory of the mountains as I drove to work and often remarked to my children about the views.
Our brothers and sisters of Mexican heritage have such a beautiful feasting tradition in their Day of the Dead celebration which takes place on November 1st and 2nd, the same days as All Saints and All Souls Days from European traditions. They lay out a feast for their ancestors who have died, remembering them with all their favorite foods, golden marigold petals and candles to light their way home and envisioning the spirits as butterflies who fly joyfully in for a visit. They do not sanitize their grief or push it away. Instead, they ritualize it with tangible, touchable remembrances. They invite both tears and laughter into the celebration.
Our scripture today brings us healing images of a great feast of abundant life served by God on the top of God’s holy mountain, Zion. And the context for this prophetic healing feast is grief. Isaiah’s poetic prophecy is set against the backdrop of the Hebrew people’s physical and spiritual devastation after they have been conquered by a foreign empire and seen the destruction of their city, Jerusalem and its beautiful temple built by King Solomon. Families were pulled apart as captives were taken into slavery in exile. Homes are torn down around the people still living in them. There was death all around. Don’t you know that the people felt that God had abandoned them? Death cast a shroud over everything.
Does that sound familiar? A shroud over everything? I think that is an apt description of our times after 18-19 months of pandemic. We have felt death, many kinds of death, as an active force of negativity, a shroud, a pall, during these months. We already knew that grief and death were not one-time visitors in this life. They thread their way through our lives in so many ways. We grieve many losses that are small deaths as well as the big deaths of loved ones and friends –job loss – relationships loss – loss of meaning in the midst of despair and depression – loss of health in a diagnosis – loss of community in a move– the loss of a beloved pet – then all the losses of the Covid 19 pandemic piled on top. And in the midst of pandemic, the grief of racism came to us with renewed force as we were already grieving so many injustices in our political system. Sometimes we feel so helpless when we are caught in the grip of grief, so 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 very alone.
Yet we are not alone. The Hebrew people were not alone. They had a prophet telling them that God was preparing salvation for them, salvation as abundant as a feast with fine wines, perhaps all their favorite foods! Salvation as amazing as wiping away every tear and conquering death forever. Death will be no more! Suffering will be no more! Now that is salvation!!
While we are caught up in profound lamentation and grief, God, the Holy ONE, brings hope in the assurance of God’s presence and God’s ultimate deliverance of all people, not just the Hebrew people, but all of the God’s people, from the power of death. Scholar, Christopher Sietz, tells us that is what the phrase, “God will remove the people's disgrace from off the whole earth” means….all the people, not just the Hebrew people. And I would add all of God’s beloved creation, for we cannot be separate as human beings from creation. We are creation. God will deliver ALL from the power of death. This is a vision of hope and the vision we celebrate today in Totenfest here at Plymouth as our Mexican sisters and brothers prepare to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
On this day that we remember those in our Plymouth family and in the wider communities of our individual lives who have died since when we last celebrated this day together. We speak their names. And we are not alone. We “feast” with one another this day as we do throughout the year, that is we companion one another. In an echo of God’s companioning presence, using the example of Jesus, God-with-Us, we are with one another, in joy and in sorrow, in all seasons, in pandemics and in times of health. In times of justice-making and in times of injustice protesting. We are not alone for God, who has the power to in community. Grief experts around the world will tell you that the best thing you can give someone who is in grief is your presence. Simply being a companion.
Here we are today in the great communion of saints. We are all saints of God, my friends, not because we are something extra special. Those designated saints of the church by our Catholic siblings were simply ordinary people following God in extraordinary circumstances. And their stories inspire us. Let us recognize that we are all followers of God today as we companion one another and acknowledge the journey of life’s mystery that extends through and beyond physical death. As we remember those who have moved beyond us on that journey this year by speaking their names in this sacred time and space, we gather in the company of all God’s saints, the living whom see around us and those who have moved into the life with God that we cannot see with earthly eyes. One of the early saints of the Christian faith, St. John Chrysostom, says to us, “Those whom we have loved and lost are no longer where they were before. They are now wherever we are.”
Let us be gathered in God’s companioning presence to speak the names of our loved ones. By this simple act we open ourselves to the transformation of our grief. It does not cease, but it allows God’s love and forgiveness to enter our hears. And this empowers us to companion those in our Fort Collins community, in our state and nation and around the world who are shrouded in grief, who raise their voices in lamentation. As we feast together in God’s transforming and companioning presence, remembering those we love so dearly, we bring the hope of love and forgiveness to all the communion of saints, the living and the dead, now and in every time and place. Amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2021 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
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.