Sunday, November 3, 2013

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner? (Revelation 21:1-6a)

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” 5 Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

On this All Saints’ Sunday, we celebrate the lives of those who have finished their course in faith, who now rest from their earthly labors, whose lives shine like so many twinkling stars in the heavens.  We join with Christians through the centuries, a great cloud of witnesses who testify with one voice to our resurrection faith.

While the patterns and symbols are fairly standard and straightforward from place to place – names read, bells tolled, candles lit – each community will still celebrate in its particular way, for the life of each person is a delicate and unique strand of a complex tapestry we call “life.”  For every person whose individual thread has made the entire piece a closer reflection of the goodness and beauty God intends for this world, we call one such person a “saint.”

On this Sunday each year, we take a few moments to remember the saints who have moved their membership from this church into the Church Triumphant, and this year we remember Margaret Robinson, Eazora Cummings, Fred Williams, Sr., and Willie Maude Michaux.  We remember other saints – persons in our own lives and total strangers – who have made that same journey, whether recently or a long time ago.  We give thanks for their witness, and for the faith they have given to us.

All Saints’ Day is one of those days where a grab bag of emotions flood our senses, moving us seamlessly from grief to hope, tears to smiles, sadness to joy, and then back around again, because we not only remember their lives with us on this side of the resurrection, but we celebrate that God has restored them and healed them fully – their tears are wiped away, death has passed away, and mourning, crying, and pain are no more.  Thanks be to God!

My family, like many of yours, is remembering the lives of our saints this year.  A month apart in August and September, Ashley’s Grandma Alice and my grandfather, “Papa” Bill Breese, joined the Church Triumphant.  Many people asked if I conducted the service, having done how many dozen funerals before, surely I was qualified to do it!  I just smiled politely, and said, “There is a time for me to be a pastor, and a time for me to be a grandson.”

Grandma chose a gravesite in the back corner of the town cemetery, almost within throwing distance of the fields Papa had worked for 65 of his 86 years.  As the breeze blew on a warm, Pennsylvania fall day, Grandma and Papa’s pastor commented on something I have also witnessed in my years of ministry – that when a family is one of faith, yes, there is crying and mourning (I mean, even Jesus wept at the grave of his friend, Lazarus), but that is accompanied by the calm assurance and hopeful confidence that death is not the end of the story.

The tears are for us, not for our departed loved one.  Friends, our faith is a resurrection faith – death is not a final stop but rather a beginning.  Jesus promised that he is making all things new – and for the saints, death is but the beginning of the next chapter of a life lived in the sunshine of God’s delight.

My Grandma Thomas spent her last few years in a nursing home because of advanced dementia.  Now, if you want to get a picture in your mind of my Grandma Thomas, think Driving Miss Daisy, and other than the part about being Jewish, there she is.  She and her sisters were the quintessential proper, Southern women.  On the morning she died, she awoke early in the morning, called down to the nurses’ station and asked that they come and get her dressed.  They said, “Miss Elsie, it’s not time to get up for a few more hours, so go back to sleep, dear,” but she insisted they come down to her room and get her dressed.  As soon as she was dressed, she said, “I’m tired now, and I’d like to lie back down,” and she laid back down on the bed fully dressed.  They came to check on her a few hours later, and she had passed away quietly.

They called us to let us know, and recounted this story, which they were having trouble making sense of.  We just laughed, which was even more puzzling to them, until we explained: we think she knew it was time to go, and being the proper Southern woman she was, even with her advanced dementia, she wasn’t going anywhere until she was properly dressed.  There’s no way she was going to meet Jesus wearing just a nightgown!

Friends, the saints have gone on to a better place, but they haven’t left us – that’s another promise of our faith.  We are not separated from the saints who have finished their course ahead of us.  The verse of the hymn says,

“Yet we on earth have union with God, the Three-in-One,
And mystic, sweet communion with those whose rest is won.”

We call this “the communion of the saints,” it’s one of the things we affirm in the Apostles’ Creed, and by it we mean that nothing shall separate God’s saints from each other or from God’s very self.  We are connected to each other – all members of the body of Christ are joined to one another with the ligaments of love.  Even through the thick, dark curtain of death, the light of God’s love is strong enough to shine through.

A young girl in Sunday School was asked, “What is a saint?”  She paused for a minute, thought of the saints depicted in the stained glass windows in the sanctuary, and said, “A saint is someone the light shines through.”

And that’s really all there is to it.  Sainthood is not reserved for some special brand of super-Christian, or something that only an elite few will ever attain.  It’s something we can all do, by the grace of God.  It is less about who we are and what we do than it is about being open for what God will do in and through us.  God’s light can and does shine through anyone.

Further, we don’t have to wait until we die for God’s light to shine through us.  Sometimes after funerals, people will tell me what a beautiful and fitting service it was.  Can I tell you the secret to that?  I work with the material at hand; it is easy to craft a beautiful service for a person who lived a beautiful life.  Every day, we are given an opportunity to write our own eulogy.  The surest way to get into heaven when we die is to let heaven get into us while we live. Though our days on earth are numbered, the saints are those who made their days on earth count.  Their love still shines brightly because it is really God’s love shining in and through them.  May it be so for us.

On this All Saints’ Sunday, we celebrate lives of love that live on beyond death.  The candles in this room represent the light of their love that still lives on.  In a few moments, we will light these candles, first Margaret, Eazora, Fred, and Willie Maude, represented by the pillar candles on the altar table, which will be lit by members of their families who are here today.  Then, we will celebrate Holy Communion together, and after you have received the bread and wine, you are invited to light one of the candles along the side to remember the beloved holy ones in your life who have gone on before us, and to proclaim that they live on still.

Death is not the end of the story.  To be sure, the saints are always with us, but on this day, when the light of their love fills this room and warms our hearts, we press up against a thin place in the veil between this world and the world to come, and we realize that our loved ones may, perhaps, be much closer than we first thought.

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Because of them and because of one another and because of the God who binds us all together we can do more than any of us had dreamed to do alone.”

In life, in death, in life beyond death – we are not alone!  God is with us, and we are with each other.

There is yet one more place where the reality of our enduring connection is realized – around our Lord’s table.  Again, there’s a reason we say we believe in the communion of the saints. Holy Communion means many things, but an emphasis I want you to remember today is that, at our Lord’s table, the connection we have with the risen Christ is made real, as is our connection with all others who ever have or ever will take their place around this table.

At one point in our Communion liturgy, the presiding minister says that we praise God and celebrate this meal, not alone or in isolation, but “with God’s people on earth, and all the company of heaven.”

Belton Joyner, a retired United Methodist pastor from the eastern part of our state, tells of a friendship he and his wife had with another pastor and his wife. For decades, these two couples had been close friends, doing the things that friends do – trips, time in each other’s homes, meals around the table. Susan, the wife in the other couple, died a few years ago, and a few months later, both pastors found themselves at a worship service that would include Holy Communion.  Belton leaned over to his now-widowed friend and said, “I sure am looking forward to having dinner again with Susan.” With that, they went, together, to the Lord’s table.

The other night, Ashley told me that she thinks about my mom every time she comes to Communion.  My mom died of breast cancer only a few months before Ashley and I met.  She said, “I hope to have 1000 meals with your mom before we ever meet face-to-face.”

Today, we celebrate the communion of the saints – and guess who’s coming to dinner!  We are looking forward to having dinner again with Margaret Robinson, Eazora Cummings, Fred Williams, Sr., and Willie Maude Michaux.   Our friends who have gone before are already enjoying the fullness of the heavenly banquet; this meal of bread and wine is for us a foretaste of the joyful reunion that awaits us.

Today, I am looking forward to having dinner again with my mom and her dad, my Papa Breese.  Today, I am looking forward to having dinner again with Ashley’s Grandma Alice and Papa Sam, with Grandma and Papa Thomas, and countless others who have finished their course in faith.

With whom are you looking forward to having dinner again?  We are looking forward to having dinner again with all the saints of light whose love already shines around us in this room.

Dinner’s on the table; let’s not keep the saints waiting any longer.

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