Carla Bailey, Senior Pastor
November 2, 2009
On May 28, 1830 President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, a bill requiring all Indians living east of the Mississippi to leave their homes and be relocated far to the west. The first to experience the displacement were the Choctaws of Mississippi, but in successive marches between 1830 and 1839, thousands upon thousands of Indians from the Choctaw, Seminole, Muscogee, Chickasaw, and Cherokee nations were force-walked west. It is estimated that somewhere between one fourth and one half of those who set out on the marches died along the way. The Choctaws named the route they traversed and the journey itself “the trail of tears.”
History records many such forced migrations from which lessons are still being learned, though never well enough to prevent them from happening again, it seems. Our United States’ story, mythologized and romanticized almost beyond recognition, includes two of the most heinous such migrations – the American Indians and Africans forced from their homes and tribes and sold into slavery. The trails of tears crisscross the globe and they are legion.
For believers in God, the study of any one of those trails inevitably leads to a question about the power of God. Such sadness, such loss and terror, violence and death at the hands of powerful and greedy fellow humans, surely could have been divinely prevented. Wasn’t there something God could have done to stop the horrors that led to all those tears? It is an unanswerable question. God has not kept us from weeping for the lost. God does not keep us from weeping, ever.
One might interpret the strange, deeply metaphorical, symbolic visions written in the book of the Revelation to John like a dream. No one would present a dream as evidence of what actually was or is or will be. Neither should the Revelation to John be understood as something that will actually come to pass as it is described. Rather, the Revelation is an example of apocalyptic literature, seeking to interpret and give meaning to painful, violent history. In apocalyptic literature, time is divided into two ages - the present, which is filled with anguish and sorrow, and the future, when God will make all things right again. The end of this current age of sorrow and despair, whatever its cause or duration, will be sudden. God will intervene and catastrophe will fall on the enemy. There will be hurricanes, fires, floods, earthquakes, wars, plagues, and all those who have caused us pain will be punished. It isn’t hard to understand, is it, how those who suffer would turn to this kind of retribution for comfort. When we suffer, truly suffer, our minds, the most powerful of all our faculties, seek release, and what better release than to imagine the avenging angel of death, sweeping away tormentors in a mighty flood or fire or earthquake? Loud and dramatic, bold, bloody, God sweeps down to save us from our pain!
There is, within Revelation, and, I believe, within the human experience of God, a delicate but tenacious thread of comfort, lost on those who are emotionally seduced by drama and color or too suspicious to appreciate metaphor, or too immature for endurance. It’s like the quiet melody of the flute when the tympanis and brass horns have all stopped roaring, the ethereal shaft of light when the thunderstorm passes. Revelation, like retribution, is a pounding symphony of sound that often overpowers the quiet, sustaining melody of one voice.
The author of Revelation describes himself as a brother and companion of the Asian Christians, writing this letter to them in their distress and in their endurance. He claims to have written the letter from the Island of Patmos, probably from prison. It was written to a suffering church, persecuted Christians who were looking for Christ to come again with all the fire and noise of the symphony. John, the letter’s author, described all that sound and fury – blood, smoke, vengeance and retribution. But, woven throughout the text is the quiet melody of comfort, the single voice of solace. Hush. It is God who shelters you, God who quenches your thirst and provides food for you to eat. God will wipe the tears away from your eyes, every one of them. Shhhhh.
It’s important not to miss this subtle shift of away from causation and repercussions toward the very subdued and understated caress of comfort in this powerful and important piece of Christian literature. When we suffer, when we are afraid, when we grieve and we are afraid we are completely alone, it is God’s hand wiping the tears from our eyes. It is God’s love that penetrates the horrors of life, the natural disasters, the sickness and wars and tragic deaths, the betrayals. And it will be God who shelters and carries the bruised and aching heart when it grieves. I can’t think of anything as important as that to remember on All Saints Sunday. Amen.