07 Nov, 2021

Building Community (3): With All the Saints

07 Nov, 2021

Building Community (3): With All the Saints

by Louise Westfall

Rachel Held Evans was a best-selling author and provocative Christian thinker who challenged evangelical ideas about the exclusivity of the gospel message, inclusion of LGBTQ persons, the role of doubt in faith, and other fundamentals (I knew her best from her book for young children “What Is God Like?” that I gave to my grandson, an early step in his faith formation). A rare and sudden infection took her life two years ago at age 37, leaving a husband and two toddlers; a heartbreaking death of someone so full of promise, wisdom, and grace. Last week I saw an article announcing publication of her final book (the manuscript she’d left completed by a trusted friend and fellow author). The article quoted a single line “With God, death is never the end of the story.” [NYTimes, 10/31/21, p. A16]  

Today’s text offers a reason why Evans could conclude that there is more life beyond the grave. It offers a vision, a revelation of a whole new reality where death and human suffering, brokenness and disappointment and pain are no more. In God’s hands are all human beginnings and endings and God is making everything new. Death is never the end of the story–our stories, the stories of these beloved ones who died this past year, and others we have loved and lost. A reading from the Revelation to John, in the 21st chapter, verses one through 6. Listen for God’s Word to the Church, the community comprised of saints, both living and dead. [REVELATION 21:1-6]

He was still a kid in many ways:  kind and impulsive, curious and a bit irreverent. He had found a niche in a job with the steel company involved in our construction, among co-workers who mentored and befriended him… Her compassionate heart took her to New Orleans on a Central mission trip following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. One evening after a hard day’s work the group gathered for dinner at a restaurant with live music. When the band struck up a jazzy zydeco tune, she turned to my brother and said, “Let’s dance!”  And they did, much to the delight and laughter of other patrons… He held one of the highest elected offices in the Presbyterian Church (USA), chairing the General Assembly Council during a particularly tempestuous time in the church’s history, when congregations were leaving because of increasing support for LGBTQ persons’ presence and leadership. Navigating those roiling waters with grace and faithfulness, he is remembered as a justice-seeker AND peacemaker, not to mention a loving husband and devoted father and grandfather … she was a Sunday school teacher with a heart for the rowdy and disruptive kids, convinced they just needed a little understanding. Her own patience in the face of serious illness and family legal troubles testifies to deep faith and resilience … his thousand-watt smile lit up every room he entered and made you glad you were there, whether to discuss the church’s finances and endowment use or the fortunes of the Colorado Buffs. He dispensed wisdom with kindness and firmly believed in Central’s mission to serve others … she was an ardent advocate for children, volunteering for years with Central Visitation Program. In assisted living during the pandemic, her niece hired a fork-lift operator to raise her up to the second-floor window to have an outdoor visit with her beloved aunt … this Renaissance Man had insatiable curiosity from the star-strewn heavens to the mysteries of the mind. He lived every one of his days open to what he could learn and put into practice … we called her Central’s matriarch, the widow of a former beloved pastor, and so much more. Reader, thinker, Leader of Bible studies, adored mother and grandmother, a woman who listened with empathy, led with love, and skied until she was 90 … these are a few of the saints we remember today, represented by the candles on the Communion Table, men and women who have shaped our community by their very presence, and the web of relationships and connections they represent. We always add one more candle to remember other beloveds who have died and whose loss we grieve, and I invite you to consider who that might be for you. I’ll be remembering one of my dearest mentors, the Rev. Roland Perdue, who preached at my installation service here more than 10 years ago and who died last Friday following a stroke. Roland was larger-than-life, a story-telling preacher who was as likely to quote a country western song as he was the letter to the Philippians. Roland was senior pastor of the Michigan church where I served as associate as a newly-single parent. His unflagging support of me often took the form of attention to my young son and he and his wife Jane gave me the gift of weekly child care so I could sing in the church choir. To this day, my son holds no minister (including his mother!) in higher esteem. He was Jesus, had Jesus been born in west Texas instead of Bethlehem.

Right here in the craziness and heartbreak of earthly life God chooses to dwell.

I thought about inviting us to share with each other about these saints, but it might be Rachel Held Evans was a best-selling author and provocative Christian thinker who challenged evangelical ideas about the exclusivity of the gospel message, inclusion of LGBTQ persons, the role of doubt in faith, and other fundamentals (I knew her best from her book for young children “What Is God Like?” that I gave to my grandson, an early step in his faith formation). A rare and sudden infection took her life two years ago at age 37, leaving a husband and two toddlers; a heartbreaking death of someone so full of promise, wisdom, and grace. Last week I saw an article announcing publication of her final book (the manuscript she’d left completed by a trusted friend and fellow author). The article quoted a single line “With God, death is never the end of the story.” [NYTimes, 10/31/21, p. A16]  

Today’s text offers a reason why Evans could conclude that there is more life beyond the grave. It offers a vision, a revelation of a whole new reality where death and human suffering, brokenness and disappointment and pain are no more. In God’s hands are all human beginnings and endings and God is making everything new. Death is never the end of the story–our stories, the stories of these beloved ones who died this past year, and others we have loved and lost. A reading from the Revelation to John, in the 21st chapter, verses one through 6. Listen for God’s Word to the Church, the community comprised of saints, both living and dead. [REVELATION 21:1-6]

He was still a kid in many ways:  kind and impulsive, curious and a bit irreverent. He had found a niche in a job with the steel company involved in our construction, among co-workers who mentored and befriended him… Her compassionate heart took her to New Orleans on a Central mission trip following Hurricane Katrina’s devastation. One evening after a hard day’s work the group gathered for dinner at a restaurant with live music. When the band struck up a jazzy zydeco tune, she turned to my brother and said, “Let’s dance!”  And they did, much to the delight and laughter of other patrons… He held one of the highest elected offices in the Presbyterian Church (USA), chairing the General Assembly Council during a particularly tempestuous time in the church’s history, when congregations were leaving because of increasing support for LGBTQ persons’ presence and leadership. Navigating those roiling waters with grace and faithfulness, he is remembered as a justice-seeker AND peacemaker, not to mention a loving husband and devoted father and grandfather … she was a Sunday school teacher with a heart for the rowdy and disruptive kids, convinced they just needed a little understanding. Her own patience in the face of serious illness and family legal troubles testifies to deep faith and resilience … his thousand-watt smile lit up every room he entered and made you glad you were there, whether to discuss the church’s finances and endowment use or the fortunes of the Colorado Buffs. He dispensed wisdom with kindness and firmly believed in Central’s mission to serve others … she was an ardent advocate for children, volunteering for years with Central Visitation Program. In assisted living during the pandemic, her niece hired a fork-lift operator to raise her up to the second-floor window to have an outdoor visit with her beloved aunt … this Renaissance Man had insatiable curiosity from the star-strewn heavens to the mysteries of the mind. He lived every one of his days open to what he could learn and put into practice … we called her Central’s matriarch, the widow of a former beloved pastor, and so much more. Reader, thinker, Leader of Bible studies, adored mother and grandmother, a woman who listened with empathy, led with love, and skied until she was 90 … these are a few of the saints we remember today, represented by the candles on the Communion Table, men and women who have shaped our community by their very presence, and the web of relationships and connections they represent. We always add one more candle to remember other beloveds who have died and whose loss we grieve, and I invite you to consider who that might be for you. I’ll be remembering one of my dearest mentors, the Rev. Roland Perdue, who preached at my installation service here more than 10 years ago and who died last Friday following a stroke. Roland was larger-than-life, a story-telling preacher who was as likely to quote a country western song as he was the letter to the Philippians. Roland was senior pastor of the Michigan church where I served as associate as a newly-single parent. His unflagging support of me often took the form of attention to my young son and he and his wife Jane gave me the gift of weekly child care so I could sing in the church choir. To this day, my son holds no minister (including his mother!) in higher esteem. He was Jesus, had Jesus been born in west Texas instead of Bethlehem.

I thought about inviting us to share with each other about these saints, but it might be difficult with masks and spread out as we are. So instead, I invite you to write the name of someone you love who has died on a green card and place it in the offering plates later–Tim will read those names in the prayers. (If you’re watching Facebook Live, you can put the name in the comment section).

Fact is, friends, every one of us has experienced the grief of loss. We are missing someone or someones.  Death is the universal outcome to human life, and it is necessary to name the terrible losses and weep.  In a Bible verse made popular by its brevity, we learn that Jesus wept. At the grave of his friend Lazarus, the reality of human mortality dissolved Jesus to tears.

But the story didn’t end there. Jesus made a quiet assertion that re-opened the book of life. Your brother will rise again. In an account that is almost certainly metaphorical, the rising takes place right there and then upon Jesus’ command. But I think this is a symbolic way to identify Jesus as the “resurrection and the life” and that the finality of death has been broken forever. The story is not over.

Friends, death is real and the hole it breaks open in our hearts, in our families, in our community, calls for grief and acknowledgement. No amount of faith can –or should—cancel that.

But that is not the whole truth. In a memorable scene from the delightful TV show Ted Lasso, the hapless soccer team is discouraged by yet another loss and increasing ridicule by the public and press, along with some personal struggles and disappointment of team members, staff and coaches. Ted calls them all together and says:  I promise you there is something worse than being sad. That’s being alone and sad … and there ain’t anyone here who is alone.

In this saying, Ted Lasso witnesses to the truth. For there is more to the story that God wrote. A new chapter that creates an additional narrative line, one that we can begin to read now. The home of God is among mortals … the promise is not of some heaven light years away. Right here in the craziness and heartbreak of earthly life God chooses to dwell. Among people like you and me, and the lives represented by these tiny lights. We are not alone. God is with us as we struggle with the pain and revel in the glory of mortal life. God weeps as we weep at the grave of our beloved dead and rejoices as we celebrate the exquisite beauty of birth. The picture of God we are given in this text is not a royal deity working remotely from a throne in heavenly majesty. No, this God looks a whole lot like those Deacons in Black churches who serve at funerals, passing out Kleenex and pouring glasses of water to comfort the mourners. God on the ground, grieving alongside us, yet with a bigger view toward a day when death will be no more so mourning won’t be necessary, and sadness and suffering will vanish. We are not alone, because we are in the company not only of God, but of the community of saints, living and dead.

Friends, God is writing a new story even as we speak. And do not miss that its location is earth. The ending of mortal life is edited by the One who is making all things new. Building a Kindom, a community of people nourished by love until it is on earth as in heaven.  O taste and see it in the bread and cup we eat and drink in this meal! Experience the “communion of the saints” –an unbreakable bond of love with those dear ones whom we sense only dimly now, but in the coming day, we will see face to face.

Thanks be to God.

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