A few years ago Ricky Gervais, a notable religious skeptic, wrote and starred in a movie, “The Invention of Lying.” It’s set in a world where everyone tells the truth, whether it hurts or not. And, of course, everyone believes everything everyone says because everyone always tells the truth. One day an untruth pops into his head and he goes with it. He has created fiction and he finds it to be an amazing power over people. Until the day he visits his mother dying in the hospital. She wonders about where she is going and with his new found ability proceeds to describe heaven to her. She is greatly comforted but the hospital staff overhears him and soon he is championed as a spiritual seer and prophet who knows the secrets of heaven because, of course, everyone believes everything he says. It all goes downhill from there because he can’t say he was just making it up for that would be a lie. And besides, people really wanted to believe him.
Whereas Ricky’s movie is a very cynical take on the afterlife, we probably all have questions about descriptions of heaven or even the reality of heaven. Who knows, really? So when we come to this mysterious, enigmatic Book of Revelation we, too, might be skeptical. This passage, obviously set in heaven, is just a bit too fantastical for our sensibilities. But I feature this text today not for its literal description of heaven but for the hope it might inspire.
In the same way our invitation and invocation to those dearly departed souls in our lives to be with us today can’t be proven in any scientific, literal sense. But we do it anyway because in some way we believe or sense that they are amongst us. And it gives us hope.
The Book of Revelation was written, well into the second century, at a time when the Christian church was experiencing considerable persecution from the Roman Empire. The Christian church, no longer regarded as a sect of legally recognized Judaism, was now an illegal religion. Persecution and martyrdom ensued. Revelation was written to give the church hope that God’s will would prevail despite Rome’s treatment. And that martyrs will be taken care of by God. “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
On this All Saints’ Day and Dia de los Muertos we entertain the notion that those who have gone before, whether they be long-ago saints of the church or loved ones we miss terribly, are still somehow with us. That we can learn from them still and ask them to watch over them and even pray for them. Now the skeptic in me says this is just a bunch of hooey. But the person of faith in me says I’m glad to make this spiritual connection with them. And so we today celebrate and honor them.
I’d like to think that those who have gone before us are watching over us. And this is where my sermon title comes in (in case you were wondering). It comes from a Billy Collins poem called “The Dead.”
The dead are always looking down on us they say,
while we are putting on our shoes or making a sandwich,
they are looking down through the glass-bottom boats of heaven
as they row through eternity.
They watch the top of our heads moving on earth,
and when we lie down in a field or on a couch,
drugged perhaps by the hum of a warm afternoon,
they think we are looking back at them.
Which makes them lift their oars and fall silent
and wait like parents for us to close our eyes.