On June 2, 1935, at eight-thirty in the evening, and I assume the service started so late because of the heat, or the lack of air conditioning, or both, Lynn Harold Hough, then Dean of Drew University, offered the first sermon ever preached in the newly constructed Duke Chapel—the dedicatory sermon. “The Cathedral and the Campus,” it was entitled, and it was full of the kind of public optimism that existed in those uneasy days between the world wars. Public opinion: things are getting better, a little better all the time.
The nation was still in the throes of the Great Depression, the great Duke Chapel—itself built and paid for in those lean years—seemed to be the very symbol of the abiding American conviction that education and hard work (and a little help from the Almighty) can solve any problem, economic or otherwise. Yes, there were rumors of storm clouds gathering on an axis between Berlin, Rome an Tokyo, but the granite sanctuary stood as testimony to the classic and liberal Christian sentiment of a universal brotherhood, as it were, an enlightened good will between persons and nations beyond all class consciousness and ethnic hatred. Soon, education and hard work, thriftiness and democracy, would put a forever end to racism and poverty, hatred and war. Had not Christian thinkers at the end of the nineteenth century foreseen that the twentieth would be the “Christian Century”?
But on that same June evening in 1935, half-a-world away, Josef Mengele was in medical school, preparing to perform grotesque experiments on the powerless in Germany—thereby proving that education is not salvation; Dachau had already been in operation for two years, not as a killing place, not yet, at least not as it would become, but as a prison for German communists. Other camps were planned and would soon be under construction—Treblinka, Auschwitz, Bergen-Belson—thereby proving that hard work is no savior. The same nation that produced Brahms and Beethoven was about to unleash Goering and Goebbels on the world.
Dean Hough’s sermon was optimistic, like we are sometimes optimistic, but the reality of our world is sometimes quite different. We need more than education and hard work, more than business sense and sound-byte bromides. And Dean Hough was wise enough to realize all of that, though he did not say it just that way. What he did, though, was end his dedicatory sermon with a story—a story that speaks to a need beyond what we ourselves can attain, a reality beyond what we can build and learn in this world.
He said this: “The other day I heard an address by a Christian leader of great eminence. I walked away from the building with a man whose name you would recognize. ‘It was a notable address, was it not?’ I said to my friend. ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘it was a great speech.’ He was silent for a moment. Then he added: ‘I am over 80 years of age. He told me nothing about what I can hope for when I make my great adventure.’”
Death: the great adventure. And what that wise old unnamed man in Dean Hough’s story was saying is this: I need to hear a word from the leaders of the church to help me die well. Education, hard work—money, maybe—they may, may, help me live well, or not, but what will let me die well? What will give me strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow? That is the message the church needs to proclaim: nothing less, and maybe not even a lot more.
But what is that message? Dean Hough concluded his story this way: he said, “One of the great French proverbs tells us that to understand earth you must have known heaven.”
To understand earth, you must have known heaven.
That, my friends, is why we gather Sunday by Sunday and come to the Table of the Lord month by month: to know heaven. That is why we celebrate a day like today, the Feasts of All Saints, to let us know that there is hope beyond the ordeals of our world, and to know it so well that we can understand: that if this is a world where in the name of science and medicine crazy men experiment on the helpless; if this is a world where political leaders in the name of life still send thousands and millions to their deaths; if this is a world where for all our education and hard work were are still not saved—then there is coming another world, another day, a Savior and salvation which will do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is no opiate, my friends, to anesthetize us to the world’s ill; it is instead a promise, and a command, a hope and a summons to live now as we will live then, to understand earth, and our place in it, by knowing heaven.
John saw a multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. The Elder said, “These are those who have come through the Ordeal, the horror, the death; these are those whose rags, dirtied by the world and its ways, are now glistening white because of the blood of the lamb. Because of the blood of the Lamb—because of that and no other thing.
Because of grace, in other words. Grace greater than the struggle, greater than the sadness; grace greater than the sin.
Several years ago, I was at our Annual Conference of ministers and laity at Lake Junaluska, NC. I was standing to pray in Stuart Auditorium during what is, for me, the high point of every Annual Conference: The Memorial Service. We take time each year to remember the ministers and spouses of ministers, who have died that year, and we thank God for them.
Pictures flash across the screen as the liturgist reads the names—I would like to do that in here—and there, all at once, was a minister I knew. I will not mention his name, but he was a difficult and troubled man. A man who had, in some obvious ways, betrayed his vows of ordination, and maybe in some other ways, too. And yet there he was with all the rest, his picture among the others, his name read as one of the faithful departed… I was still trying to puzzle all of that out when the liturgist had us read a prayer, and part of the prayer said this:
Eternal God, we praise you for the great company of all those who have finished their course
in faith and now rest from their labors. We praise you for all those dear to us, our loved ones
who are no more. Days, months, and even years may have passed, and still we feel near to
them. Our hearts yearn for them… (and then this) We see then now with the eye of memory,
their faults forgiven, their virtue grown larger. So does goodness live and weakness fade from
sight. We remember them with gratitude and bless their names…
Their faults forgiven, their virtue grown larger. And I guess to the cynical mind that is an opiate, a kind of denial, like the kind of we experience now and then in funerals when the preacher says, “He was a good man,” and everyone in the house knows he was a louse.
But to the faithful mind it is not opiate at all, but an echo of God’s grace, and the very thing we need to know of heaven—that in heaven, dirty robes are washed clean and faults are forgiven and virtue grows large. In heaven goodness lives and weakness fades from sight, and with gratitude we bless our God who forgives, and we bless our loved ones who are departed and forgiven, and even our enemies—Can God forgive their faults, make their virtue grow large? Of course God can. That is what we need to know of heaven.
And if we know that, then we can understand that if this earth is an dark evil place, sometimes, full of dark evil people, some of them, we need not fear. Though tribulation overcome us, that is not the last word. Though we have all of us sinned, fallen short of God’s glory and our own expectation, there is grace—our faults will be forgiven, our virtue grown larger. By grace. Thought we are all of us different, different languages, tribes, tongues, God will have us together at the Last, and that will be a day of rejoicing.
When we ALL get to heaven, that to say, and not just our closest friends and neighbors, but multitudes which cannot be named or counted, and all so precious to God he felt them worth the life of the Son…
When we ALL get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be. We will see there those we love and have lost, and there we will regain them again. But even more than that… we will rejoice to see Jesus.
Does that give you hope for your great adventure? Whether you are eight or eighty, does that give you hope? Is that what you need to hear? Not by wealth, or education, or work, but by grace our faults will be forgiven, by grace our virtue grown larger, when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.