Deuteronomy 34: 1-8; Acts 1: 6-14

It seems like the human race needs regular reminders for certain events that are special. We need a day like Christmas to remember the birth of Jesus, and a day like Easter to remember his rising from the dead. We need a day like Valentine’s Day to focus on romantic love, Mother’s Day to focus on our mothers, and Father’s Day to focus on our fathers. You get the idea. Few people, except those most affected, remember the day when another person died. But the ones closest to them remember it. Indeed. Years ago, a day was set aside to remember soldiers who were killed in that war, known by some as the Civil War; by others as the War Between the States; and by others as the War of Northern Aggression! Good grief. But, that was the origin of the day known as Memorial Day, also known as Decoration Day. Later it was designated to remember any people who were killed in one of our wars. It is the day when loved ones or other thoughtful Americans go to the graves of those who served in the United States Armed Forces and decorate them with flags or flowers. It is a way to honor the dead. Such a practice may seem honorable to you, or perhaps it seems morbid. I find it comforting. Whenever I visited my grandparents—the ones who lived in Pennsylvania, or the one who lived in Georgia—we would go to visit the graves of family members. We would water flowers, but more importantly, we would talk about the person who was buried under a headstone. It was comforting and we were taught about those earlier relatives. Like looking through photo albums (or your photos on your phone these days!) we should all share our photos and pictures with our children or nieces or nephews. Memorial Day is a reminder day. So let’s take the opportunity to remember some other people today.

Let’s start with the Bible leader who God chose to lead his people out of captivity in Egypt, wander for many years, and eventually get to the precipice of the Promised Land: Moses. To get to the land God was gifting them, they needed to cross over the Jordan River from Mount Nebo (in the country of Jordan,) to the land known as Caanan. Such a journey became the talk of legends for many oppressed people, especially for Jewish people, and later, for slaves in America in the 19th century. They wrote great spirituals like “Go Down, Moses.” And they sang about Moses’ shouting God’s words: “Let my people go!” Spirituals also lift up the Jordan River as the water that needs to be crossed to get to the Promised Land, except when the slaves sang it, and when others sing them to this day, they are describing the crossing from this land of hardship and sorrow to the land of promise called heaven. It is where Christians go after we die. It was a different story for Moses. As the book of Deuteronomy tells us in chapter 34, Moses led his people to Mount Nebo, just across the river from the Promised Land. But there is where he died. He never crossed over. He was buried there, and the Bible says: “To this day no one knows where he was buried.” Normally that would be unusual for an Israelite. But in this case, if Joshua led everyone across the Jordan to the promised land, who would care for Moses’ grave on Mount Nebo? I’ve been to Mount Nebo. The plaques there say Moses was buried there, but to this day, no one knows where. Jews officially don’t believe in a resurrection like Jesus experienced. The Jewish legacy is the swath of teachings and deeds from a person’s lifetime; they are remembered by family and friends who love them at the time of death and beyond. If you go to any Jewish cemeteries in Jerusalem, you will see the above ground burial boxes called ossuaries everywhere. A Jewish custom is that if you visit the ossuary of a prominent Jewish person, you are to leave a stone on the top of the burial place, saying, in effect, that you are pleased to remember them. Then when others come to visit the grave behind you, it is instantly clear who was especially loved by others, and by extension, was loved by God. On one of our Holy Land trips, I asked our bus driver as we toured Mount Zion to stop by the grave of Oscar Schindler—the man who saved so many Jews during the Nazi regime. It was his wish to be buried in Jerusalem in the Mount Zion Catholic Cemetery, but so many Jews are grateful to him that there are a lot of stones on his grave. Jews place a stone on top of the grave of Jews and others they admire and respect. That is the way one group of people remember and honor their dead.

The group of people with which we are most familiar are the Christians. Last Thursday was one of those reminder holidays—it’s called “Ascension Day,” hardly observed by Protestants, but it should be. It is the 40th day after Easter, the day traditionally when witnesses saw Jesus ascend into heaven. It is recorded in Luke chapter 24 and Acts chapter 1. In that scene, the newly alive Jesus, who had arisen from the dead, gathered with his disciples on the Mount of Olives, sometimes called Olivet. That is the place where Jews believed, and still do believe, that the Messiah will appear. That’s why its hillside is covered with a Jewish cemetery, with the bodies of Jews waiting for their Messiah to appear. But it was on that hill that Jesus took his disciples to show them something very special: to show them a new way of thinking: instead of death being the end of life, there would be death, but then, resurrected life! Jesus told his disciples they should keep telling people about him, which is wonderful advice for those thinking about a loved one who died even today; keep telling others about them! Our passage then tells us: Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” [Acts 1:9] Two angelic messengers were left to interpret what had just happened. They said, according Acts 1:11: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Well, that’s helpful, isn’t it? Instead of thinking our life ends when we breathe our last, disciples had a message, not just for the present, but for the future too: Jesus will come back for them! John, in his gospel, was especially good at saying that his book was written “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” [John 20:30-31]

So has someone you loved died? Do you have a special place, or a special way, to remember them? Like our Jewish friends, it is so helpful to remember what they had done for you and for their neighbors. Doing that is what most faithful people want: to create good memories, and to do good works. But beyond that, the New Testament just lets us see through the floorboards of heaven. As we read these words, we might imagine looking up, and seeing a few things through the cracks of the floorboards of heaven, metaphorically speaking. Perhaps we can see Jesus, who still plans to meet his faithful followers in the air when it is time, according to 1 Thessalonians 4:17. We might also see parts of the Holy City, that John calls New Jerusalem. I once had some egg on my face in my first pastorate when I was reading the local Methodist Church newsletter in town. There I read: “Myrtle Jones, on May 7th, 1982, transferred her membership to the Church of New Jerusalem.” I scratched my head and said I had never heard of that congregation before! Then it dawned on me: It was Heaven! Yes, that’s where Myrtle had transferred her membership! What is heaven like? According to the vision Jesus gave John: It is a place where “death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” [Revelation 21:4] Then we read that an angel came and said “’Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And in the Spirit, [John says] he carried me away to a great high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God.” [Revelation 21: 9-11] In that vision, Jesus was bringing heaven down to show it to John! Looking more carefully, John saw that indeed it had 12 gates that were each 12 pearls, each of the gates made from a single pearl! And the streets were pure gold, but transparent as glass.” {Revelation 21:21] Here we must use a disciplined imagination to envision the holy city, because we are just getting glimpses of it in our mortal form. One day, an angel might come to you, one that perhaps has already come to your loved one who died, and one day he might come to me, to prepare us for our journey. “Look” the angel might say. “You are about to move to a new life! Do not be afraid! It is not like your old life; it is new in so many ways! Here’s a peek!” And then we might be given a glimpse of glory, where the Lamb of God-our Savior-now reigns: strong, loving, never to be hurt or sick again. That is the life beyond this life in which I choose to believe! And I invite you to see all the signs of that life in the New Testament too, and be comforted by them.

This Memorial Day weekend, in the midst of any activities you may plan, please take some time to remember those who died for our freedom; those family members or friends who died before you have; and finally to consider what people might remember about you after you die, and what God might say to you, when you meet- on that beautiful shore.

Let us pray:
Thank you, O God: for teaching people to honor those who have died in the faith, and for giving us traditions and rituals to cling to when our breath turns to crying or our legs go weak. This weekend, may we remember the rituals of honoring those who have died before us. Amen.

Jeffrey A. Sumner May 24, 2020