Posted by: skokiecentralchurch | November 1, 2009

2009.11.01 “The Worst – and the Best – Sunday of the Year” All Saints Day

Central United Methodist Church

“The Worst – and the Best – Sunday of the Year”

Isaiah 25: 6 – 9; Revelation 21: 1 – 6; John 11: 29 – 44

All Saints Day

                             November 1st, 2009

       Just when the leaves fall from the trees and the temperature dips, just when Trick-or-treaters take to the streets and daylight savings time ends, we celebrate one of our favorite festivals of the Christian year: All Saints, when we remember those dear to us who have died. 

        For some, it is the worst Sunday of the year; for others – like me – it is one of the best Sundays of the year.

        It’s the worst, because now, by action of Congress, it is the weekend of the time change, the end of daylight time. By 5 or 5:30 today, it will be dark.  With this weekend, we all return to winter mode, driving home from work in darkness. I’ve always figured I have SAD (Season Affective Disorder), because I suffer the darkness, and find it depressing. You too?

        And, in truth, even before the time change, some people find this time of year depressing, as the trees lose their leaves and their (and our?) dormant cycle begins. I am always reminded of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73:

                “That time of year thou mayest in me behold

                When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang

                Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,

                Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.”

        Some may also find this season depressing because with all these things, the early darkness and the falling of the leaves, and the corresponding reflecting upon our own mortality, we remember those we have loved, now gone.

        While you will immediately think of those dear to you, many of us today, will, for example, think of Anna Carroll, whose Memorial Service we held only last Sunday. Or Sandy Bloom, who died in August. For the last year of each of their lives, as their condition grew worse, I visited both of them regularly.  I can still see in my mind the faces of Anna and Sandy – just as I can the faces of so many other parishioners I have grown close to over thirty-five years of ministry. 

        About a month ago, I received a surprise call from a dear friend in Memphis, Earl Major, now in his late ‘80’s. When I answered the phone, he began crying, and told me his wife – Mabel – had died.  I thought she had just died, but then he told me she had died in June, even more cruel.  At that time, Earl – who is now blind – could not locate my phone number.  If I had known, I would have gone.

        When I went to Memphis in 1976 to take my first church as a pastor (I was at that time a clergy member of the Memphis Conference), initially Trinity United Methodist Church in mid-town Memphis had no place to house a new Associate Pastor, and Earl and Mabel Major took me in until I found a place of my own. 

        Over the years, they became dearly beloved not only by me, but also by my children, because they treated everyone with generous hospitably. Mabel, in particular: whomever Mabel was with was at that moment the most important person in the world. Her family and my family mourns her passing: for us the world is a darker place without her presence.

        So you see, even us pastors must sometimes stop and grieve, deeply affected by our individual and cumulative losses over the years.  While working on this sermon, I took a look at my funeral files from over the years:  so many people, so many memories; not all of whom I had the opportunity to become close to, but so many.

        In fact, no matter who we are, but especially the older we are, that’s likely our experience. That’s the thing about grief: you can be going about your life, thinking you are healed from a grief or a loss, when suddenly a sight, a sound, an old photograph, even a piece of clothing, triggers a flood of memory, and grief and loss are as fresh and raw as they ever were.

        No wonder, then, that the Church, in tradition and wisdom, gave us such a day to remember our losses and to celebrate the lives of those we have loved, now gone from us. All Saints Day is devoted not to any particular saints day, like St. Francis or John Wesley, but to all saints, which in the New Testament is used in reference to all Christians, both living and dead.

        As the author Frederick Buechner clarifies: 

        “On All Saints’ Day, it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and overbearing ones, the broken ones and whole ones, the despots and tosspots and crackpots of our lives who, one way or another, have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints, and whom we loved without knowing we loved them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have, or ever hope to have, of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.” (The Sacred Journey, pp. 73 – 74)

        That’s why it has become to me – as perhaps it has to you – one of the best Sundays of the year.

        From the moment the low G note sounds on the organ, announcing the beginning of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ tune to William How’s great hymn “For All The Saints”, I am filled with gratitude and hope. “For All The Saints,” with words written by William Howe and music written by the great English composer Ralph Vaughn Williams, is one of my favorite hymns in the Hymnal and of the entire church year.  I had a friend in seminary who used to say that if they weren’t singing this when he went marching into heaven, he was going to be very disappointed.

        I love the colors, and the candles, symbolizing to us the lives of those we remember, like stars, twinkling in the night sky. I think we Protestants went too far after the Reformation when we got rid of candles, and I love those huge banks of candles in Catholic churches, symbolizing prayers for people, as well as the people for whom the prayers are offered.

        Best of all, how can we not love the Biblical texts for All Saints?  Although they are different in each of the three years of the lectionary cycle, they are always some of our favorites, and speak to us of consolation and hope.  While some Biblical texts need to analyzed and examined, others need to flow over us with their images, appealing more to the heart than to the head.

        And that is the case with today’s texts.  The prophet Isaiah, for example, speaks of that day when:

“the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, of well-aged wines . . .  And God will destroy . . . the shroud cast over all peoples . . . will swallow up death forever.  Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.”

        What a marvelous image as we gather around God’s table, saints above united with saints below! Who would have known – especially us Methodists – that God is a wine connoisseur?

        Or the passage – one of our favorites – from the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, most often heard at funerals:  “I saw a new heaven and earth.”

        A few years ago, I heard John Buchanan, pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago, say that when you visit Patmos, you can see a monastery on the spot John was thought to have been imprisoned, and the cave where he was chained to the wall, with the shackles still there. Across the dark, low cave on the other side, there is a small opening through which the prisoner could breathe fresh air and see a slice of brilliant blue sky and sea.

Old John wanted to write a letter of encouragement to his friends under persecution, so he looked out that tiny opening in his prison cell, saw the sky, the sea, and wrote striking words that somehow were smuggled out of his prison and given to the world; as Buchanan says:

“Powerful words that people who themselves were or are up against hopeless odds would turn to gratefully: prisoner of war, political exile, terminally ill person, son-daughter-husband-wife-partner-friend keeping watch as a dear one declines and dies, you and I as we ponder the great imponderable of our own aging and mortality:

“See, the home of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them . . . and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (“Memory and the Peace of God,” by John Buchanan, Pastor, The Fourth Presbyterian Church of Chicago, May 27, 2001)

        Or finally, that heartrending and hopeful story from the Gospel of John, of Jesus at the tomb of his dear friend Lazarus, which contains the shortest verse in the Bible, “Jesus wept.”  Just before he called Lazarus forth from the dead.

        I believe that if you read and hear this text long enough, soon the faces begin to intermingle, and the faces you begin to see are not those of Jewish mourners and Martha and Mary, but people we have known; and the face of Lazarus becomes that of someone dear to us, someone we have loved whom we deeply grieve.  Only one face stays the same, that of Jesus calling them, and us, forth from the tomb: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’

        Though it’s hard to choose, perhaps my favorite verse from William How’s hymn, “For All the Saints,” is this one:

“And when the strife

is fierce, the warfare long,         

steals on the ear

the distant triumph song,

and hearts are brave   

again, and arms are strong.

Al–le–lu-ia, Al–le–lu–ia!”

        When we think of those we have loved who are gone, we can see them, we can see their faces.  We miss them, we thank God for them, and by their example and triumph we are encouraged and strengthened to live lives of devotion and service to God, that someday we too may be remembered fondly by others. 

        Thanks be to God and to Jesus the Christ, who is the Resurrection and the Life.  Amen.

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