Tag Archives: The Book of Common Worship

Celebrating the Saints

A Sermon for 4 November 2018 – All Saints’ Sunday

A reading from the gospel of Mark 12:28-34.  Before hearing this portion of the gospel, it’s important to know that Jesus is in Jerusalem at the temple.  And every time he turns around there, religious leaders are upon him.  At this point in the gospel of Mark, Jesus already has made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem on what we call Palm Sunday.  He’s been to the temple to overturn the tables of the moneychangers.  Next, four instances are recorded of the religious leaders coming to question Jesus – and not at all in a friendly manner; for lines in the sand already have been drawn between them.  At last a scribe, who overheard the other leaders’ disputes with Jesus, questions Jesus.  What follows is a beautiful reminder of what God really requires.  In this reading of Mark 12:28-34, listen for God’s word to us.

“One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that Jesus answered them well, he asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?”  29 Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel:  the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30 you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’  31 The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no other commandment greater than these.”  32 Then the scribe said to Jesus, “You are right, Teacher; you have truly said that ‘he is one, and besides him there is no other’; 33 and ‘to love God with all the heart, and with all the understanding, and with all the strength,’ and ‘to love one’s neighbor as oneself,’—this is much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.”  34 When Jesus saw that the scribe answered wisely, Jesus said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.”  After that no one dared to ask Jesus any question.”

This is the word of God for the people of God.  Thanks be to God!

 

All Saints’ Sunday is the perfect Sunday to have before us the story of Jesus in the temple – at long last putting an end to everyone’s religious questions by declaring it’s all about love, love, love.  Love of God first with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And love of neighbor as ourselves – as in loving our neighbors as if we saw them as our very own selves.  Though Roman Catholicism might reserve the status of saint to those the church officially deems so after a lengthy investigative process.  A process that typically includes a five year waiting period after death, substantive evidence of heroic virtue, and at least one if not two verifiable miracles (www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-27140646).  In the Reformed Theological Tradition we’re a part of, we view the saints a bit differently.  The PCUSA’s Book of Common Worship reminds us that the emphasis of the festival of All Saints’ Day “is on the ongoing sanctification of the whole people of God.”  We’re further reminded:  “While we may give thanks for the lives of particular luminaries of the ages past, we also give glory to God for the ordinary, holy lives of believers in this and every age.  (Thus) this is an appropriate time to give thanks for members of the community of faith who have died in the past year, and to pray that we may be counted among the company of the faithful in God’s eternal realm” (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, WJKP, 2018; p. 383).

During the Prayer of Great Thanksgiving today, we’ll remember the lives of this congregation’s saints – the members of this congregation who have died in the past year.  Elva, Faye, Bill, Bill, and John.  As Christians, we seek to pattern our lives after Christ – following the ways we learn of in Jesus’s life and death and resurrection.  And I think it’s good for us to look too to the lives of other followers among us.  Christians who have shared the pews with us whose lives give witness to the love of God and neighbor enacted among us today – like in our same kind of lives and in similar homes in which we too live.  Think about Elva – if you knew her.  ‘Til just a few days before she died, she sat over there.  Elva was raised in a faithful Christian family.  A member as a child at Woodland Presbyterian Church in East Nashville, she and her family became active members here in this church’s early years.  And for all those years, Elva faithfully worshipped and grew and served among us.  Quietly.  Diligently.  Through hardship and joy.  Her life reminds us to live likewise.  . . .  And what about Faye?  I’m told she too used to sit over there.  If you knew her, then you knew that in her last days, every breath was a struggle.  But Faye continued to have that welcome that graced her life with all sorts of interesting, eclectic people.  The memorial service we had here in celebration of her life reminded that Faye loved life.  And people.  No matter who it was, she opened wide her heart for strangers to become friends.  Her life reminds us to live likewise.  . . .  And Bill B.  At the beginning of the year, wasn’t he still standing with his cane right on that back row?  Bill had an incredible integrity about him.  A warmth and kindness that made him a wonderful friend and successful businessman.  His entire family admired him – from his devoted wife to his youngest great-grandchild.  Bill still is deeply missed because he cared so much for other people – making them feel special no matter who they were.  Exuding wisdom that came from deep faith.  Indeed his life reminds us to live likewise.  . . .  When I think about Bill R., I think about us visiting him just last Christmas when we caroled to him.  Remember how he took a hymnal and started singing along?  Bill loved all of our visits – especially the ones including the children of this church.  A man of few words, he had a presence of appreciation.  Some of you may remember how Bill lovingly cared for his wife for several years.  And though he knew deep pain in his life as a father, one of Bill’s greatest joys in his final months of life was seeing his son released from prison to start his life over – a sober, changed man.  Talk about the forgiving, abiding love of a father for his child!  Bill’s life shows us the power of love – a love like God’s that never gives up on us.  No matter the ways we mess up.  His was a saintly life that teaches us to live likewise.  . . .  Just a few weeks ago, we gathered to celebrate the long life of John.  A survivor the Great Depression, John (like Bill) proudly served our country.  As a naval commander, those who attended John’s memorial service heard the depth of his life’s impact.  A man who had served in the army as a part of the effort storming the beach at Normandy showed up to pay his respects at John’s visitation.  He told John’s children that if it hadn’t been for their father’s leadership by sea that day, he would have been killed in that battle.  John’s courage and steady leadership ensured others lived.  John’s deep love of his family and friends was inspirational.  The way he tirelessly gave for others needs encourages us to live likewise.

In a way, each friend we remember here today shows us what it looks like to put love of God first, followed by love of neighbor as self.  None of us does it perfectly, we know that.  But to keep our aim, as the saints of the faith have, to continue to get up each morning.  Give thanks to God for another day.  Go about our lives loving our family members and neighbors and co-workers.  Finding ways to welcome strangers and provide for those in need.  Giving ourselves in service for middle school students down the street and babies downstairs.  Using our talents in our life together here so that homebound people feel connection and hurting people have a place to come heal and others have a chance to discover new gifts and abilities, and friendship can deepen, and children can grow.  This is what saintly life looks like.  Faithful life.  Generous life.  Lives like the ones you have been living; for which we all can give great thanks!

Perhaps no pope will ever canonize any one of our lives.  No evidence will be sought that proves our heroic virtues or verifies the miracles we accomplished – though each one of us certainly has done the miraculous in the ways we have given of ourselves.  Even if a pope never deems any of us saints, no matter.  Today and every day, we look to the faithful that have slipped on before us.  We celebrate the saintly life of all who quietly continue to live among us right here each day.  . . .  Members and friends, in all the ways you have loved God first and neighbor as self.  In all the ways you faithfully have served God by serving others through your time and talents and treasures, THANK YOU!!!  Thank you!  Through it, God’s kingdom has been in our midst!  . . .  Alleluia!  And amen!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2018  (All rights reserved.)

 

God of the Living

A Sermon for 6 November 2016 – All Saints’ Sunday 

A reading from the gospel of Luke 20:27-38. We’re in a portion of the gospel where Jesus has been busy teaching in the Temple. According to the text, he’s actually been challenged by one group after another. Likely confronted by those threatened by the authority with which Jesus speaks and to which the crowds seem drawn. . . . In what happens next, listen for God’s word to us.

“Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to (Jesus) and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.””

This is the word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God!

 

Early in the Seventh Century on the 13th of May, Pope Boniface IV “consecrated the Pantheon at Rome to the Virgin Mary and all the martyrs” (www.catholic.org/saints/allsaints/). Thus, a Catholic Holy Day of Obligation was born. Meaning that all Catholics must attend Mass on that very day. As a way to honor those who had persevered in the faith, every Christian was under obligation to be present and reminded of the sacrifices made by ones such as the Mother Mary, the rock of the church Peter, the zealous apostle Paul, and all the others who risked their lives in the pursuit of following the Way of Christ. Boniface was tricky in his placement of the day – he made it coincide with an ancient Roman festival aimed at placating the restless spirits of the dead. The Pope usurped the pagan day with a focus not on the restlessness of the spirits who already had passed, but on a celebration of the saints who now enjoyed the fruits of heavenly life. All Souls’ Day, the day after, would remain a day to focus on any who may have died but not yet found eternal rest. But the Holy Day of All the Saints would be a way to honor the kind of faith the church wanted everyone to emulate. Later in the Eighth Century, Pope Gregory III would move the high Holy Day from May to November. Thus, the current practice of All Saints’ Day found its way to the first day of November (Ibid.).

Most of us likely spent more time and energy this week on the night before: All Hallows’ Eve – also known as Halloween, the secular holiday that seems to be taking second place right behind Christmas in the United States. If you participated Monday night, I’m betting you opened your door more to Super Man or a Princess or maybe even a tortured-looking goon than to the Blessed Mother Mary, Stephen who’s first Christian martyrdom is recorded in Acts, or our brand of Christianity’s hero Martin Luther who wisely posted his protests on the sanctuary door the night before All Saints’ so that everyone in Wittenberg would know the ways he believed the church needed to change. Unless you grew up Roman Catholic, you may be boggled about this talk of All the Saints. And by the way, we Presbyterian’s don’t do All Souls’ Day on November 2. We don’t buy that theology of the restless dead needing release. . . . Nevertheless, in the mid-Twentieth Century, when mainline Protestant denominations began to see the value of the cyclical seasons of the liturgical year; Presbyterians began to sing songs like For All the Saints who from their Labors Rest. The Book of Common Worship pointed us on November 1, or the first Sunday after it, to scriptures like Hebrews 12 that remind us that “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also . . . run with perseverance the race that is set before us” (Heb. 12:1). Prayers for this Day assure us: “neither death nor life can separate us from your love,” Eternal God. So “grant that we may serve you faithfully here on earth, and in heaven rejoice with all your saints who ceaselessly proclaim your glory” (PCUSA Book of Common Worship, 1993, p. 385). Many faith communities now look forward to this day when the names of those from the congregation who have died since last year’s All Saints’ Day reverently are spoken aloud when we come to gather around the table. Incidentally, our prayers around the table remind us every month that the veil between the living and the dead is not as solid as many often think. Every time we gather around the table of our Lord, we welcome the presence of all those of the Church and of our lives with whom we remain connected. Our minds may tell us death brings physical distance, which of course it does. Yet our spirits know we all always are and ever will be held together mysteriously in the binding love of God.

It’s the good news according to the gospel of Luke that Jesus proclaims to the Sadducees and any others who will listen. Here come these men who do not believe anything much takes place after one physically dies. Jesus is so incredibly patient as they concoct this crazy story about a family following the laws from Moses when one after another brother marries the sister-in-law who is left childless by each one. Seven times a wedding takes place; but still no heir is born. Perhaps because she’s heartbroken from burying seven husbands childless, the woman finally dies too. And all the Sadducees want to know is will she be Mrs. Jacob in the resurrection, or perhaps Mrs. Isaac. Will she spend eternity with brother number one, or maybe brother number five who she seemed to like a little bit more? . . . So much is so far beyond our grasp, isn’t it? I mean can we imagine an existence that’s not quite like anything we’ve experienced in our earthly bodies? Can we make sense of being eternally in God’s Presence instead of feeling so separate as we tend to most of the moments of our lives? Though our minds cannot figure it out – if others will know us as Mr. so-in-so who did such-and-such all our days here on earth; or if we’ll hang out forever at God’s eternal feast with our parents or children or favorite friends. We like such re-assurances that what lies ahead will be much like what we’ve known already. And then the words of Jesus strip away every social construct that’s defined who we have been and how we have lived our lives. Children of the resurrection are beyond such human boundaries, Jesus explains. And just in case you doubt such a thing as resurrected life, Jesus throws Moses back at the dis-believing Sadducees. He quotes the very name of God revealed to Moses at the burning bush. This is YHWH – the Holy One of Israel who IS God of all the ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God of the living; for in God, those who have gone before are not dead. They still are alive to God.

That is the great Mystery we may never fully understand. How it is that those whose hands we held at what we believed to be their end, still are alive to God. It is as if death does not exist to God. Or at least does not hinder the connection God has and always will with each one of us. It’s like God doesn’t see the casket. Doesn’t let the last breath mean one thing. Though our own eyes cannot see what lies beyond a physical death; at least according to the words of Jesus as recorded in the gospel of Luke’s 20th chapter, God sees us only alive. Alive. Alive “for to God, all of us are alive” forevermore (Luke 20:38).

A few years ago I learned a song I may have told some of you about. It’s from a rendition of Singing the Hours and is based on words from the Song of Solomon. It goes like this: “Arise, my darling, beautiful one; my beautiful one, come with me. Arise. See the rains are over and done, my beautiful one, winter is passed; come with me. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Arise, my darling, beautiful one; my beautiful one, come with me. Arise. See the rains are over and done, my beautiful one, winter is passed; come with me. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Beautiful you, my darling, O how beautiful. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one; come with me. Arise, come my darling, my beautiful one; come with me. My beautiful one, come with me” (“Arise, My Darling – Lauds [Morning Prayer],” Joy Yee, Singing the Hours, 2011). It’s a song for Lauds, the earliest of morning prayer. And something about the tune is this elixir of fresh morning dew when first the birds begin to sing. It’s easy to imagine these words to and from Solomon and his lover in the backdrop of an abundant garden. But often when I hear it, I imagine what I suspect the composer had in mind: The Great Lover singing to us all. When each one of us exhales our last, there at our side is the Holy One. God waiting to whisper into our ear: “Arise, my darling, beautiful one. My beautiful one, come with me. See, the rains of this life are over and done; my beautiful one, winter is passed – the strife of your life is behind. Come with me.” Those seem to me the words of the One in whose eyes we never die. The Voice of our God calling us out of the slumber of our death to awaken to a whole new life. “Beautiful ones, darlings: arise and come with Me.” It’s the next great adventure – one we cannot fully anticipate, that moment when we pass from life as we’ve known it into God’s everlasting embrace. And for each one we will name here today – though sadness may remain in our hearts at what of them we have lost – ahh! What a gift. What a miracle. What an incredible adventure of an eternity in which they remain forever alive to God! . . . In this is our hope. Our comfort. Our peace.

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.

© Copyright JMN – 2016  (All rights reserved.)