The Ever Rolling Stream
A sermon preached by the Rev. Abigail Henderson at First Congregational Church of Minnesota, UCC, on Nov. 7, 2010 (All Saints Day).
Job 19:23-27; Luke 6:20-31
When I was a little girl, my mother and I would go gravestone rubbing. We’d walk to old New Hampshire cemeteries, some dating back to the 18th century. I learned that early graves were laid out like beds—with a headstone and a footstone. Graves always had different appearances and textures and levels of decay, depending on their material—be it slate, marble, granite, limestone. The older the grave, the more it blended back into the earth. These stones, though still and quiet and man-made, had a living, organic quality—coated as they were in moss and shaped by the elemental forces of wind, water, and time.
Gravestone rubbing is a controversial practice. It must be executed with great care, lest you damage the precious historical artifact before you. But, if you are skilled with your paper and wax, you come away with the most fantastic images, symbols intended to make meaning from the mystery of death: winged skulls, peacocks, skeletons, doves, hourglasses, shells, willow trees, grapevines, trumpets—it goes on and on. I always found these images poignant, so much so that when I was 19, I had one tattooed on the back of my neck—and I don’t regret it!
Many gravestones also feature epitaphs—brief—and occasionally not-so-brief—texts honoring the dead. They range from the practical and descriptive to the religious and philosophical. The words can be poetic; ironic; and occasionally hilarious.
In Memory of Beza Wood
Departed this life
Nov. 2, 1837
Aged 45 yrs.
Here lies one Wood
Enclosed in wood
The outer wood
Is very good:
We cannot praise
Reader pass on and ne’er waste your time
On bad biography and bitter rhyme.
For what I am this cumb’rous clay insures,
And what I was, is no affair of yours.
Time was I stood as you do now
And viewed the dead as I passed by
Ere long you’ll lay as low as I
And others stand and gaze on thee
These inscriptions convey a strange tension. One the one hand, they are unflinching in their acknowledgement of death—in all its finality and tragedy. Rarely do we modern people speak so bluntly about death as an inevitable feature of life. Yet on the other hand, these words—and the very fact of tombstones—speak to a deep human desire to linger on the earth in some form. To be known and remembered as a singular creature. To leave some evidence of ourselves.
As Job himself cried, O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!
Like so many of you, I went to schools with old buildings that bore the names of alumni, donors, and beloved faculty. Phelps Science Center. Houghton Memorial Chapel. Widener Library. What immortality! Thanks to their significance, wealth, and generosity, these peoples’ names are repeated thousands of times a day, falling effortlessly from the tongues of generations of students.
Now that I think of it, Henderson Hall has quite a ring to it, no?
Needless to say, few people actually get buildings named after us. But I imagine that many here have experienced the anxiety of being forgotten—or the fear of death as oblivion; emptiness; non-existence. I imagine too that there is often a connection between this mortal awareness and the practice of generosity. We want to use our time to its fullest. We want to be able to say, I left my little slice of existence better than I found it.
Furthermore, there is that inescapable sense that our lives influence our deaths. What we do here and now has calculable effects for our souls. Anyway, that’s one meaning you could glean from today’s Gospel text. The poor will be rich. The hungry will be full. And vice versa. So on and so forth, Amen. So be good, OK?
But I wonder if Jesus’ words are really meant to be a formula for success in heaven. For although they speak to the future, their impact is most acutely felt in the present. Regardless of what happens after death, your struck cheek still stings in life. You are still cursed and abused. You are still hungry, in body or spirit. To practice the radical generosity preached here is not easy, and it requires something deeper than a promise for delayed gratification or reward.
It calls for real and present connection to other people and the world. It also calls for a willingness not to hold onto our names and identities and our things but to be willing to let go. To truly give something away—with no expectation of compensation—is to give up control. When give gifts, we cannot predict, exactly, how they will be received. We cannot ensure they will have the effects we desire. Indeed, the effects we desire may not be the best ones.
In this way, generous giving is a bit like dying. When we die, we cannot guarantee how and if we’ll be remembered, no matter how many buildings we fund. It reminds me of our final hymn this morning, which I’ll present here in Isaac Watts’ original language:
Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.
So often, I think, we fight the tide of that ever rolling stream with all our might. We like to think that our realities are like rocks, hard and somehow permanent. But, as I learned as a young girl, even those marble gravestones deteriorate. What happens when we stop fighting the tide? When we allow the stream to carry us wherever it goes? When we stop clinging to safety—but begin releasing our tightened hearts, like a breath? We don’t have to wait until we die to start giving up the ghost—that is, to offer up parts of ourselves to a world in need.
Our gathering words this morning spoke of “risking significance.” This poem spoke deeply to my sister Rachel, who died from brain cancer in 2008. She once wrote, “Although I doubt that anyone enjoys discovering and rediscovering the fragility of their life and its potential meaning, there’s a crazy energy that accompanies it. If you are impermanent and possibly inconsequential, why not live for the moment?” Now, that sentiment doesn’t make her death easier or less tragic. But it makes her life so thoroughly lived.
Rachel is the saint that I am celebrating today. We invited you to bring in photographs of departed loved ones who taught you to be generous. If you would like, dedicate their memories by your photos in the offering plate or simply saying a prayer for them. All Saints Day recognizes that the line between life and death is blurred; let us steep ourselves in memories and spirits and then entrust those loved ones back to God.
Because in the end, who do we belong to? I hope and pray that we belong to God. I hope and pray in a God who keeps us all, who remembers us, and who literally re-members us—putting us back together after death has taken us apart. A God who bears our significance so that we can risk it.
Job, suffering in body and spirit, had this vision:
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!
And that would be as good an epitaph as any.