Worship 11/1/20

Call to Worship/Psalm 34:1-10, 22 (NRSV)

I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.

My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.

O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.

I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.

Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.

This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.

The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them.

O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him.

O fear the Lord, you his holy ones, for those who fear him have no want.

The young lions suffer want and hunger, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.

The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned.

Opening Prayer

Let us pray: We seek and find you in Creation, O God, in the world you have made and the people you have called. Your vulnerable, powerful Lamb is our shepherd and guide, leading us to share the shelter of your abundant life. Let us recognize you here in the beauty of this morning and in its challenge. May the Risen One, Shepherd-Lamb, lead us to act for your justice and peace: so that all may drink from your springs of the waters of life, and find their tears of sorrow and pain wiped away. In the name of the Risen One we pray, Amen.

Scripture Lesson/Revelation 7:9-17 (NRSV)

9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”  11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, “Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever!  Amen.”

13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”  14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”  Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.  16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Message/No More Tears

Author Michael Malone often shares nuggets of real wisdom about faith in his books.  Some years ago, his mystery thriller, First Lady featured a minor character who was an Episcopal priest.  At one point, the priest reflects on what makes a saint, saying, “If stars are the light, then I’d say saints are people the light shines through.  Light shines through them and illuminates what they see.  The light just goes right through them to what they love so that we can see its beauty.  They don’t get in the way because they’re looking, too.”

Saints are the people the light shines through.  All Saints’ Day invites us to look way back to the earliest days of the Church and at people whose lives inspire our own.  It also invites us to remember those whom we love who have gone on through the gates of larger life.  It calls us to notice those in our midst who show us a brighter way to live.  In some mysterious way, we are gathered with all who have gone before us, with those whom we love here and now, and even those generations to come as yet unborn—something we affirm every time that we recite the Apostles Creed—even now, we stand as part of the “Communion of Saints.”  From its earliest days the Church has rejoiced to recognize and commemorate those faithful departed who were extraordinary or even heroic servants of God and of God’s people for the sake of Jesus Christ.  By this commemoration, their devoted service endures, even as their example and fellowship continue to nurture the pilgrim Church on its way.

I’ve always been intrigued by the ways we speak about death.  The word “dead” has so much finality.  So, we often soften our grief and pain by choosing the words “pass away,” or “went on.”  I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, at least when we look at death through the lenses of our Christian faith.  We believe that our departed have “passed away,” “gone on to glory,” and thus, death is as much a beginning to celebrate as it is an end to mourn.  Because this life is not all that God has in store for us, we live on in a way that we can’t fully comprehend, but in a way that God has assured us will bring us great joy.  We are born, we live life, we die, and then, by the gift of God’s grace in the miracle of resurrection, we shall live again.  This aspect of our faith sustains us through life’s trials and hardships, through pain and illness, and so it deserves our focus for at least one day out of the year.  On this day, we give thanks for the individuals in our midst who have “gone on” to the great cloud of witnesses.  That’s the rich and wonderful biblical image with which the Book of Hebrews gifts us—an image we often use to define who the dead have now become to us.  They are a part of “the great cloud of witnesses” who surround us, encourage us, and help us to persevere in this life.

Most of us have several mental images that come to mind whenever we hear or think of the word “saint.”  We may think of some of the famous saints of the past, like the writers of the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or the earliest Christian martyr, Stephen, or maybe St. Ambrose, St. Augustine, St. Nicholas, or St. Francis, or perhaps even a more modern Saint Mother Theresa.  Though she seems to be universally loved and appreciated by Catholics and Protestants alike, it wasn’t long ago that some of Mother Theresa’s writings have surfaced that may cause us to take pause.

In the book, “Come Be My Light,” those whom she provided care for and corresponded with over the decades revealed that she felt a deep and abiding emptiness when it came to her experience of God.  She privately referred to Jesus as “the absent one,” and wrote about the hardships of “keeping up appearances” while the world watched.  What is most shocking is that these feelings of emptiness began almost immediately after she obtained the patronage and blessing of the church to begin a new order of women dedicated to the service of the poor in India.  She felt God pull her toward realizing the goal of beginning a ministry and then, after she had gotten there, it was as if God disappeared.

This darkness didn’t go away, either.  She didn’t just “get over it,” but somehow carried on despite of it.  She remained in the trenches, so to speak, living among the destitute and the dying, until she died.  This may be a heartbreaking realization for us, and yet it is also hopeful.  It is heartbreaking because those of us who feel the absence of God’s presence in our lives may take note and assume that it will never get better for us, especially because it never got better for Theresa.  But it is hopeful for us, because even after sixty years of the felt absence of God, Theresa “went on” with the charge she was given.  She remained faithful to the truth that God cared for the least, the last, and the lost, and that her love for them was showing God’s love to them, even if she sometimes didn’t feel it herself.  She was willing to stand by her commitments and finish the course that was set before her because that is what she had heard Christ call her to do.

Perhaps these revelations about the absence of a felt sustaining presence are a testament to us about the importance of God’s call on our lives.  Perhaps we place too much emphasis on “feeling” in our society and need to understand that God stakes a claim on us whether or not we feel “moved” to be a good Christian, or come to church, or give to the poor.  Maybe, especially when the experience of giving to others leaves us feeling drained or unsatisfied or even used—perhaps Theresa’s witness to us is partly that.  It doesn’t really matter how it makes us feel—when God calls us to action, we should give it all that we have.

The great spiritual writer Thomas Merton reminds us: “We can only become saints by facing ourselves, by assuming full responsibility for our lives just as they are, with all their limitations and impediments, and submitting ourselves to the purifying and transforming action of the Savior.”  Saints are people through whom God’s light shines through so brightly that people say they have seen salvation in them.

A remarkable thing about the saints is that many were scapegoats early in their lives, bullied and called contemptible by folks around them.   For example:

St. Francis of Assisi’s father dragged him into court in the town square, enraged because his son had secretly arranged to steal his father’s valuable assets and had given them to monks to sell for support of the poor.  He was found guilty of theft.  Then, as a monk himself, he angered the local bishops by saying Mass without being ordained, creating his own liturgies, even including animals in his congregation.

St. Teresa of Avila was considered off her rocker, so to speak, and way too outspoken for a woman of the middle ages.

Julian of Norwich lost her entire family to the plague and had visions so extraordinary no one knew what to make of them.

Oskar Schindler, who saved Jews from death in World War II Germany, was a Nazi, womanizer, and an alcoholic who used his reputation as a scoundrel as a cover for what he was doing.

Nelson Mandela was considered a public enemy by the government of South Africa, which put him in jail for twenty-seven years, during all of which he was a beacon of hope for black South Africans during the apartheid era.

These saints, and so many others, defied public conventions in ways that were painful for them, but also allowed them to let God’s light into this world.  When we look at the life of Jesus, we find that he often holds up those whom we think of as scoundrels and scallywags—lost sheep, prodigal sons, tax collectors, and others, urging us to look into them and discover their saintly light.  Most of us prefer our saints to be heroic.  We spin their stories so that they appear larger than life, polishing out their flaws, allowing their faults and frailties to fall to the wayside.  But what Jesus treasured in the despised was their ability to persevere, to hang on, to survive with a part of their own humanity intact despite the way they had been treated by the world.  Their relentless witness becomes a guiding light for all who tread the path of faith.

By choosing those who had been despised and rejected, Jesus is teaching us that the saints do not come into this world apart from their suffering.  Nor will we be able to find the light of God in our own lives apart from our own sufferings.  The saints are not among us to show us the way into easy, comfortable lives.  What they do show us is how to keep going in the darkness, how to survive the punches life often throws at us, how to have hope even when the candle seems to be running out of wick.

And so, even filled with the darkness of God’s perceived absence, Mother Theresa “went on” with her calling and now she continues to “go on” to us as a member of that same “cloud of witnesses.”  And those others whom we will name today who have “went on” in the past year to the great cloud of witnesses also push us to “go on,” in our own witness of Christ in the world.  As the author of Hebrews has said, “they have died, but by their faith they still speak.”

Leonard Sweet, in his book A Cup of Coffee at the Soul Café, shares the story of Gavin Bryars, one of England’s leading musicians and composers.  In 1971, Bryars agreed to help his friend Alan Powers produce the audio for a film Powers was making about street people.  The setting for the movies was an area around London’s Waterloo Station where Powers filmed various people living on the streets, catching their daily rituals, trials, and joys.  Some were clearly drunk, some mentally ill, some articulate, and some incomprehensible.  As Byars made his way through the raw audio and video, he became aware of a repeating sound that always accompanied the presence of one older man.  At first the sound seemed like gibberish.  But after removing the background street noise, Byars discovered the old man was in fact singing.

Ironically, the footage of this old man and his muttered song didn’t “make the cut.”  But the filmmaker’s loss was Bryars gain.  He could not escape the haunting sounds of this homeless, nameless man.  So, he did some research on his own into who this homeless person might be.  From the film crew, Bryars learned that this gentleman did not drink, but neither did he engage others in conversation.  His speech was almost impossible to understand, but his demeanor was always bright and sunny.  Though old and alone, filthy and homeless, he retained a certain playfulness.  For example, he took delight in teasingly swapping hats with members of the film crew.  But what distinguished this man from the other street people was his song.  The song he sang under his breath was a simple, repetitive Sunday school tune, but for this man it was a mantra.  He would sit and quietly sing it, uninterrupted, for hours on end:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, never failed me yet.

Jesus blood never failed me yet

There’s one thing I know for he loves me so…

Like a film loop, the song’s final line fed into its first line, starting the tune over and over and over again.  The man’s weak, old, untrained voice never wavered from pitch, never went flat, never changed key.  As a musician, Bryars found this man’s song compelling and began thinking of ways he could arrange and orchestrate around the repeated lines the old man sang. 

One day, while playing the tape in the background, Bryars left the door to his sound studio open while he ran downstairs to get a cup of coffee.  When he returned several minutes later, he found the normally buzzing office environment eerily stilled.  The old man’s quiet voice had leaked out of the recording room and transformed the office floor.  Under the spell of the stranger’s voice, an office of busy professionals had grown hushed.  Those who were still moving around walked slowly, almost reverently about the room.  Many more had taken their seats and were sitting motionless at their desks, transfixed by the voice.  More than a few were silently weeping, tears cascading undisturbed down their faces.  Sitting in the midst of an urban wilderness, this John-the-Baptist voice touched a lonely, aching place that lurks in the human heart, offering a glimpse of unexpected faith and hope in the most impoverished of conditions.  Indeed, this nameless, homeless saint let the light of God through…

Listen!  Do you hear them speaking?  Wendell and Delorous, Dolan, Wyatt, Donna, Marlene, Mart, Jenny, Carolyn, David, Harry, Jim and Annette, Norma Jean, Louise, Shirley, Robert, F.B., Esther, Nellie, Josef, Bernice, and Ron,and all who have gone before who were once a part of this family of faith.  If you can’t hear their voices, then listen with your hearts.  If it’s too hard to honor them with your words, then honor God with the words of your actions and let their memory live on.  We are called to make their faith complete—and, as the author of Hebrews challenges, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us—with our eyes firmly fixed on Jesus.”  Let us thank God for their work and witness and pay tribute to these recent additions to the “great cloud of witnesses” who encourage us to “go on” living for Christ no matter what difficulties face us.  It is in this way, we too shall “go on” in the life of the community of faith after we have “went on” ourselves.

Prayer of Remembrance

Let us give thanks to God for all the saints of our lives and the witness they have shared with us even as we continue to walk the journey of faith and make our way to the glory that God is preparing for all of us.

Eternal God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, we praise you for the saints of all times and places who have walked the road of faith before us and beside us. For their witness to your love and their commitment to your justice, for their trust in your mercy regardless of the circumstance, we give you thanks and praise.

God of all creation, we praise you for all your servants who have witnessed to your truth, who have shown us your love, who have inspired us to have hope. By their example of faith, hope, and love, remind us of your calling to join in making your new creation real in this world and the next. God of grace and peace, we praise you for women and men and children who reflect your love into our world. Guide us to continue their faithful work as we too walk in the light of your love.

God of all saints, today we especially remember the saints from this community who have departed our company over the past year. We thank you for the faithful witness of Wendell Porterfield for his courage amidst strife hope in the face of death. We remember so many other saints who have walked this road with us, whom we name before you aloud or in silence:  _____________________.

Continue to inspire us by their faithful witness, that we too might bring your justice, mercy, and peace to our world. Eternal God, as we walk this pilgrim way, make our faith firm, our hope clear, and our love pure, that we might join the saints of all the ages in praise eternal, through Jesus Christ our Lord who taught us to pray with one voice:

The Lord’s Prayer

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.  Amen.

Commission & Blessing/Jude 24-25 (NRSV)

Now to him who is able to keep you from falling, and to make you stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with rejoicing, to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever.  Amen.