Sunday, November 27, 2016

Hope Sunday - Be Prepared

Matthew 24:36-44 Common English Bible (CEB) 

36 “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows. 37 As it was in the time of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Human One. 38 In those days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark. 39 They didn’t know what was happening until the flood came and swept them all away. The coming of the Human One will be like that. 40 At that time there will be two men in the field. One will be taken and the other left. 41 Two women will be grinding at the mill. One will be taken and the other left. 42 Therefore, stay alert! You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. 43 But you understand that if the head of the house knew at what time the thief would come, he would keep alert and wouldn’t allow the thief to break into his house. 44 Therefore, you also should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.

This morning I felt like I used to feel on Christmas morning growing up.  You see, we weren’t allowed downstairs before our parents on Christmas day, and it was all I could do not to sneak down just a couple of steps to see what Santa had brought.  I didn’t have any parents telling me not to come and peek this morning, so when I got here at 6 am, armed only with the flashlight in my phone, I crept down the stairs from the office and gasped at the beauty I could see in the dimness of that light.  So I need to say something right away about the way our sanctuary  looks this morning.  It is awesome!  Thanks, as Laurie said in her email, to all the Christmas elves who came in to set everything out and to Elf Number 1 (aka Jeffrey) for spending all day Friday here at the church creating Christmas magic.  Advent purists may find some details to criticize, but I don’t.  I am simply overwhelmed by the beauty that has been created here.  I think maybe next week I will spend some time going over all the symbolism involved in the wreaths, the evergreens, the poinsettias, the orbs hanging from the trees, and all the other decorations.  Even the woodland creatures watching our service, the wooden soldier standing guard, and the sparkly reindeer taking flight over the gifts of food we will contribute to Selma Cares, as well as the table set for a feast in the library, all say something about the way we approach this holy day.  Oh, there will be so much to say next Sunday.   

 And now, back to your regularly scheduled programming.

You don’t know what day the Lord is coming. . . You should be prepared, because the Human One will come at a time you don’t know.”   Advent is all about preparation.  We prepare for the coming of the Human One - the Messiah.  Not for his birth, because that is a historical event.  That is something that actually happened in the past, and isn’t questioned.  At least, not by historians, who know from documents other than the Bible that there was such a person as Jesus from Nazareth who was crucified while Pilate was governor of Judea.  If such a person existed, then obviously, he was born.  Thus, his birth is a historical event.   But his return, that is something we aren’t sure about.  We are sure it will happen, but we don’t know the circumstances that will bring it about and we don’t know when, exactly, it will happen.  The rabbis say that the Messiah will come when either the world is so bad that he has to come straighten us out, or the world is so good that he is inexorably drawn to be with us.  (I like the second option better.)  Oh, there are prophecies, and signs, and formulae that have been carefully worked out by all sorts of people, but we cannot possibly know the answer.  After all, Jesus himself said, “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.”  If we are to believe Jesus about other things, then we kind of have to believe him about this, I think.  Since none of us are God, (for which I give thanks daily!), none of us can possibly know, for sure, when the end will come, no matter what prophets may have said or mathematicians and physicists have worked out.  And because we don’t know exactly when the end will come, we must always be prepared.  

I kind of like the homeowner symbolism Jesus uses.  If you knew when your house was going to be robbed, you could be ready for the thieves when they arrive.  Your house would be locked up securely, you would be standing just inside the door with your trusty shotgun (or with your cell phone all set to call 911 while taking a picture of the thief breaking in for evidence).   You would have no fears or worries the rest of the time.  You could leave all your doors wide open every day and night, not worrying at all.  But on that day when you knew you would be robbed, you would be ready.    However, reality tells us that thieves seldom advise the homeowners in advance, so we have to be prepared all the time.  

Thus is it with the coming of the Lord at the end of days.   We have no idea when that will be. We don’t know when our own individual end will come, and we don’t know when the end of days for all the people of the earth will come.  And so, we must always be prepared, ready for the end.  

Can I tell you how terrifying this passage always was for me growing up?  It was preached in such a way that my understanding was, “If I am not perfect, I will go to hell.”  If I had misbehaved and not had an opportunity to confess and be forgiven, I was going to hell.  If I had missed a chance to do good for someone, I was going to hell.  God was always watching to make sure I was behaving perfectly, and if I messed up in any way, I was going to hell.  And since there was no way to know for sure when the end was coming, I was pretty sure I was going to hell, whenever.   I could never understand how God was always so judgmental and angry and punishing and yet “Jesus loves me”, while both being equally God (along with the Holy Spirit, who was somehow always left out of these conversations).   As Philip Gulley and James Mulholland note in their book, If God is Love, it is as if God is the bad cop and Jesus is the good cop.  As long as we  respond to Jesus, all is well. If not, well, we wouldn’t want Jesus to leave us alone in a room with God  (pg 21)   I grew up fearful of God.  At about age 7,  I learned a prayer of confession which said in part, “I regret my sins because of the loss of heaven and the pains of hell.”  The prayer went on to say, “but mostly because they offend you, O God, who are all good and deserving of all my love,”  but really, I was sorry only because I was afraid of hell. I didn’t actually believe in a loving God.   I only knew about the angry one.  And so, I was always afraid.

This year the theme we are using for Advent is “Do not be afraid.”  We have heard Christian talk about the fear he had about his trip to Italy to study opera last summer, and how God helped him through that fear.  Each Sunday during Advent, someone will come forward with a story of something they faced fearfully, and light a candle in gratitude for God’s help.  We will learn, I hope, that we need not be afraid, for God is with us always.

It took quite a long time for me to learn that.  I mean, I knew the “God is watching you” part really well, but it never occurred to me that God was watching over me in love rather than to catch me doing something wrong for which I could be punished.  But eventually, and with the help of loving people in 12 Step meetings, I learned about God as I understand him to be today - merciful, caring, and forgiving.  I learned about the God that Jesus spoke of when he spoke of his Father, who was there for him always, who stood with him in good times and bad, who wept with him in times of sorrow, and rejoiced with him in times of gladness.  And, to quote Gulley and Mulholland, “The longer I was in relationship with God, the less I feared.” (pg. 22)   These days I understand that previously incomprehensible statement in that prayer, “I am sorry for the mistakes I make because they offend you, O God, who are all good and deserving of all my love.”  These days I do not fear.  Well, I don’t fear God, and I don’t fear outcomes as much.  I still fear fire and snakes and stuff.  But not God.  I know that no matter what happens, I will be ok because God is with me.

It is a scary time right now for some of us.  We are watching the news and wondering what the coming years will mean to those of us who are LGBT folks, or poor, or dependent upon Social Security and Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.  We are concerned about what the future will bring for family members and friends who are refugees, or undocumented, or Muslim.  Some friends of mine who are female and clergy are getting even more hate mail than they already were.  I, thank God, have received very little over the years, and none of it about me personally.  More like form letters than personal threats.  But scary, nonetheless.   I sat in a restaurant the other day listening to a man at another table rant loudly about what was going to happen now to all of “those people,” and about the laws that will be now passed to make America pure again.  It was scary.  And yet I say to you, fear not, for God is with you.  

Fear not, and be prepared.  Be prepared at all times for the coming of the Lord, for none know when that time will be.  And yes, it will be like the days before the flood, when everyone is behaving as they normally do, eating and drinking and marrying.  Working.  Getting water.  Gathering food.  But some will be prepared in their hearts for God’s embrace.  Some will be able to live without fear of what might come, because they know that God is with them.  Others, who do not know God’s love, will be fearful about what is to come, the way I was always fearful.   

And here is what we must do to be prepared. We must love one another.  We must work very hard at not being judgmental, but rather at loving the person who God has created.  Even those who threaten us. Even those who make us fearful.  Even those who rant loudly in restaurants about the people they hate.  We must forgive them, and pray that they will find love, the kind of love that we know in Christ.  The kind of love that calms hearts, and soothes souls.  The kind of love that sends us out to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked, and comfort the comfortless.  The kind of love that impels us to stand with our friends who have reason to be fearful.  The kind of love that allows us to see Christ in every person, and to reflect the love of Christ back upon them.  

We do not know when the Lord will return, but we do know how to live in expectation of that day.  We know how to invite him into our hearts, even before that day has come.  We know how to live as if every day is that last day.  My brothers and sisters, when we go from this place, let us go out to live in love as we await the coming of our long expected King.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Thank you, Lord.

Isaiah 12 Common English Bible (CEB)

12 You will say on that day:
“I thank you, Lord.
Though you were angry with me,
    your anger turned away and you comforted me.
2 God is indeed my salvation;
    I will trust and won’t be afraid.
Yah, the Lord, is my strength and my shield;
    he has become my salvation.”
3 You will draw water with joy from the springs of salvation.
4 And you will say on that day:
“Thank the Lord; call on God’s name;
    proclaim God’s deeds among the peoples;
    declare that God’s name is exalted.
5 Sing to the Lord, who has done glorious things;
    proclaim this throughout all the earth.”
6 Shout and sing for joy, city of Zion,
    because the holy one of Israel is great among you.

Thank you.  Such a simple phrase.  For some of us saying thank you is almost automatic in response to any act of kindness or service.  The waiter brings our meal.  “Thank you.”    Someone says “Bless you” when we have sneezed.  “Thank you.”  Someone holds a door for us.  “Thank you.”   We do that, usually, because our parents have taught us that Please and Thank You are magic words.  They make things happen for us that wouldn’t happen without them.  “I want a cookie!”  “What’s the magic word?”  When we receive a gift, we are prompted with, “What do you say?” and hopefully we will remember that “Thank you”  is the correct response.    

The Prophet Isaiah tells the people of Israel that there will come a day when they say to the Lord their God, “Thank you.”   And that day will be after all of Israel has been reunited, when all of the tribes are reconciled with one another, when Israel and Judah are again one nation, when “the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.”  (Isaiah 11:9b)  It will be the time of the Peaceful Kingdom, when the lion lays down with the lamb, and the child will put his hand on the snake without being bitten.  Imagine.  After all that God has done for the people of Israel, Isaiah tells them they will finally get around to saying “Thank you” only after the entire earth is at peace with itself.   Only after the Messiah has come.  Only after there is justice for the poor.  Only after there is equity for the low in status.  Only after righteousness and faithfulness have become the order of the day.  

This is the part where we pat ourselves on the back because we’re always appropriately thankful, right?  We pray prayers of thanksgiving in worship.  We say prayers of thanks before our meals.  We sing hymns of thanksgiving after the offering is collected.  We even have an entire day once a year called Thanksgiving, a day we traditionally spend giving thanks to God for our freedoms and for all the good things we receive throughout the year.  (I will not say a single word about our tendency to spend Thanksgiving Day engaging in conspicuous over-consumption, watching televised sports and parades obsessively, and planning our forays into consumerism at the Black Friday sales events.)  We are seriously thankful people!  I mean, we say “Thank you” for everything, right?   

Well, you see, the Hebrew people to whom Isaiah spoke that day did all those things, too.   Well, except for TV watching and Black Friday sales, of course.  They had days of celebration and thanksgiving.  They spoke words of thanks before meals.  They prayed thankfully to God in their worship services, even as we do.    What they didn’t do was remain thankful even in adversity. What they didn’t do was remember that God was blessing them even when bad things were happening.   They put their faith in humans and not in God, and that is why God became angry.  They neglected to trust that God would bring them through even the most difficult times.  That is why they felt estranged and deserted.   

I love reading Geneva's posts on Facebook.  I love them because even when she is talking about a less than wonderful thing that happened, something that's painful or irritating or frightening, she always also names something in that is a blessing.  A co-worker is being a pain in the neck, but Geneva is grateful she has a job.  Her car breaks down, but she is able to get it fixed.  She is exhausted and in pain, but she gets to spend time with her family and that energizes her.  Her gratitude is a constant, her faith in God's grace and goodness shines forth in every post.  Geneva’s posts always lift me up when I am down, and for that I am  very grateful.  

I think I have mentioned before that one of my spiritual practices is a daily gratitude list.  Every morning I sit down and make a list of 10 things I am grateful for.  Coffee often makes the list.  So do Cats.  All of the things one would expect to see are there.  A comfortable home.  Friends. The ability to pay my bills. Good health.  Warm socks.  Fall leaves.  Wind chimes.  Rain.  My gratitude list also  includes things that might not be expected.   Having God in my life, which is something that was lacking for many years. Having the flu, which forces me to rest.  Pain, because that makes me pay attention to what I am doing.  When I have finished my list each morning, I send it to a friend, a person to whom I am accountable to make sure it gets done.   When she receives my list, she gets motivated to write her own.  It's similar to the idea behind the CWF’s Blessing Box.  We put money in the box every time we are blessed so that our blessing can help others.  That is much more than just a collection box for charity. It is gratitude in action.

In many Twelve Step Groups, November is known as Gratitude Month, a time during which every meeting has gratitude as the topic for discussion.  We are often directed to think of things that we are grateful for that could not have happened if we were still drinking and using drugs.  So people talk about things like going back to school, keeping a job for more than a couple of months, reconciling with family, improved health, and being of service to others.  Being of service is a huge source of gratitude.  Some, for example, will talk about the gratitude that overwhelms them every time they walk into a prison to carry a message to the inmates there.   We are taught that gratitude is an action word.  It’s not just something we say.  It is something we do.  “My gratitude speaks when I care.”     

Speaking of things we do . . . I would like to take a moment to talk about tomatoes.  Over here you can see a table with cans of tomatoes on it.  These tomatoes are going to be our contribution to the Selma Cares annual holiday food distribution event.   Selma Cares hopes to collect enough food to fill 550 boxes for families with children and for elderly folks in need.   Now, I don’t want to cause any of you to feel guilty when I tell you that the Church of the Redeemer has already collected two pallets of green beans, or that First Baptist is on track to getting enough corn to put four cans in every one of those 550 boxes, but . . .  What I am going to tell you though, is that collecting enough tomatoes to add a couple of cans to each of those boxes is not an act of charity.  It is an act of gratitude.  It is a very visible way of saying, “Thank you, Lord, for all that I have received.”   It is a prayer made physical.  I would make two suggestions about the tomatoes.  One, you could buy extra cans of tomatoes every time you go to the grocery store between now and December 11th.  Or you could put some money in an envelope, write “tomatoes” on it, and we (somebody) will purchase tomatoes to add to the congregation’s donation to Selma Cares.   

Isaiah told the people of Israel, when the time comes, you will say “Thank you, Lord”.  You will finally realize that God never deserted you, never left your side, never left you orphaned or alone.  Even though you made bad choices. Even though you trusted in human governments instead of in God.  Even though you tried to run your lives on your own instead of relying on God to guide you.  God was always there, always waiting to comfort you, always waiting for you to turn back to His ways.  There will come a day when you begin to understand what it means to love all of God’s children. There will come a day when your greatest concern is for all persons to be treated with justice and righteousness.  When you will stop worrying so much about your own well being and seek to serve those who need your help.  There will come a day when your greatest desire is for all persons on earth to be reconciled with each other and with the Lord. On that day your exile will be ended for all time.  On that day you will say, “God is indeed my salvation; I will trust and won’t be afraid.”   On that day you will truly say, Thank you, Lord.”

As we enter into this week of Thanksgiving, let each of us find ways and places to make our gratitude felt.  Let each of us serve as the hands and feet of the Lord, our God to the best of our ability, so that all who we encounter will see God’s love through us.  Let each of us say, “Thank you, Lord,” with our lives.   

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Because of your faith . . .

Luke 21:5-19 Common English Bible (CEB) 

5 Some people were talking about the temple, how it was decorated with beautiful stones and ornaments dedicated to God. Jesus said, 6 “As for the things you are admiring, the time is coming when not even one stone will be left upon another. All will be demolished.”

7 They asked him, “Teacher, when will these things happen? What sign will show that these things are about to happen?”

8 Jesus said, “Watch out that you aren’t deceived. Many will come in my name, saying, ‘I’m the one!’ and ‘It’s time!’ Don’t follow them. 9  When you hear of wars and rebellions, don’t be alarmed. These things must happen first, but the end won’t happen immediately.”

10 Then Jesus said to them, “Nations and kingdoms will fight against each other. 11 There will be great earthquakes and wide-scale food shortages and epidemics. There will also be terrifying sights and great signs in the sky. 12 But before all this occurs, they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will provide you with an opportunity to testify. 14 Make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance. 15 I’ll give you words and wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to counter or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you. 17 Everyone will hate you because of my name. 18 Still, not a hair on your heads will be lost. 19 By holding fast, you will gain your lives.

Last week I mentioned that there were very few times in the church year when I would have the opportunity to wear a white stole - Christmas, Easter, and All Saints Sunday.  You will have noticed, I think, that today is none of those.  But today is another time of great joy and celebration.  Today is the day we baptize a new Christian.  Will Thompson is sitting right up front here in a white baptismal robe, anxiously awaiting the moment when I call him forward to make his vows and go into the water of forgiveness.  

Will is probably happy that we no longer do baptism the way the early Christians did.  The picture on the screen is an ancient baptistery located in the Negev - a desert region of southern Israel - and was likely built sometimes between 250-600AD.  Early Christian baptistries were shaped like a cross, so, if Will was being baptized then, he would stand at the foot of the cross, remove all of his clothing, and walk into the water.  This symbolized his willingness to give up his old life, his old ways of understanding the world, and entering an entirely new life in Christ Jesus.  He would have spent a year or more studying the faith before the church elders agreed he was ready to become a member.  He would have attended worship services, but he most likely would have been required to leave the service before Communion, as that was restricted to baptized Christians only.   Once he was in the water, he would have been pushed under the water by the leader of the congregation, baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, and given an entirely new name - his Christian name.  The old Will would have died - symbolically - under the water, his old life gone forever, wiped clean by the waters of baptism.  Emerging from the water a new person, with a new name, he would be anointed with oil, given a new robe to begin his new life, and would then join the congregation for the Lord’s Supper for the very first time.

If you all will excuse me for a few minutes, I need to talk to Will.   Things are a bit different today.  We don’t do that whole naked thing anymore.  We don’t give you a new name.  We don’t anoint you with oil.  We don’t even give you a new robe - although we do lend you the very nice, white robe you are wearing right now.  And because you are a member of this church, you’ve probably been sharing the Lord’s Supper with the congregation ever since you could eat solid food, so when you join us in that meal today it won’t be for the first time.

But it will be for the first time as an adult member of the Church universal.  You see, that’s what baptism is for you.  Your decision to become a Christian through baptism is the decision of an adult.  From here on out, you will be held to the standard of any adult Christian.  I know that is what you want. I know that you want more than anything to be a Christian - a baptized Christian, fully accountable to Christ.  I know that you want more than anything to dedicate your life to Christ publicly.  And that you want to do that in this church, your home church.  You have no idea how happy that makes, not just your family, but the entire church family here present today.  

I hope that you do understand what it means to be Christian.  I know that your parents and grandparents have taught you well.  I know that you pay close attention to what you are taught in church and Sunday School and Youth Group.  But now that you have made the decision to be baptized, to dedicate your life to Christ, to follow his commandments in your every day encounters, when the rubber hits the road, you will be required to act.  

Jesus said to his disciples, “they will take you into custody and harass you because of your faith. They will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. . . You will be betrayed by your parents, brothers and sisters, relatives, and friends. They will execute some of you.  Everyone will hate you because of my name.”    You may think this can’t apply to you, but it does. It applies to all of us, to all Christians.  In this country, we won’t be arrested for being Christian, and we are very grateful for that, as there are some countries in the world where you can be arrested or even executed for preaching your faith.  But even here you might be harassed by classmates and other people who think that all Christians are like the folks from a church that pickets military funerals, and think gay and lesbian folk ought to be executed, and openly practice racism, and say women aren’t allowed to be leaders.  There are a lot of churches like that, and unfortunately, many people don’t know that not all Christians believe those things.  So it is up to you to show them what Christians are really like.  You might find yourself in a situation at school where someone is being bullied, and as a Christian, you have to do something about it.  It doesn’t matter who the person is or why they are being bullied.  You cannot stand by and watch someone else be oppressed.  You have to keep from using ugly language, or speaking hatefully of other people.  From here on, and for the rest of your life, you have to demonstrate the primary commandment we have been given by Jesus - to love God and to love your neighbor - with every word and action.    Jesus said we should be grateful when people oppose us, because “This will provide you with an opportunity to testify.”  Sometimes we get to testify to our faith with actions.  Sometimes we get to testify to our faith with words.  Sometimes we get to testify to our faith with silence.  

All of this is a lot to ask of anyone.  It’s difficult, very very difficult to do.  Maybe close to impossible.  But it is what is required of us, so we all have to try, all the time.  

But here’s the Good News.   Even when we fall short, even when we do what is wrong and we know we are doing wrong, even when we don’t do the right thing and we know we haven’t done the right thing . . . God will forgive us.   We don’t have to carry the weight of that guilt for yelling at our little sister, or disobeying our parents, or shoving the dirty clothes under the bed instead of cleaning our rooms . . . not that you would do any of those things, but even if you did.   We do have to make amends to anyone we have hurt, intentionally or unintentionally, but no matter what our sin may be, God will forgive us.  Even though it is really, really hard to love one another the way God loves us, God will forgive us when we fall short.   God will wash us clean of our sins over and over again, forgive us over and over again.  And all we have to do is love God, love one another, and follow Jesus.   Are you ready?  Do you want to be a Christian?  Then come forward, Will Thompson, and present yourself as a candidate for baptism.

Let us pray:  
Creator Sprit, who in the beginning hovered over the waters,
Who at Jesus’ baptism descended in the form of a dove,
Who at Pentecost was poured out under the sings of fire and wind,
Come to us, open our hearts and minds,
So that we may hear the life-giving word
And be renewed by your power
In the unity of the Father and the Son, now and forever,  Amen.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

For All The Saints

3:1-9. Common English Bible (CEB)

3 The souls of those who do what is right are in God’s hand. They won’t feel the pain of torment. 2 To those who don’t know any better, it seems as if they have died. Their departure from this life was considered their misfortune. 3 Their leaving us seemed to be their destruction, but in reality they are at peace. 4 It may look to others as if they have been punished, but they have the hope of living forever. 5 They were disciplined a little, but they will be rewarded with abundant good things, because God tested them and found that they deserve to be with him. 6 He tested them like gold in the furnace; he accepted them like an entirely burned offering. 7 Then, when the time comes for judgment, the godly will burst forth and run about like fiery sparks among dry straw. 8 The godly will judge nations and hold power over peoples, even as the Lord will rule over them forever. 9 Those who trust in the Lord will know the truth. Those who are faithful will always be with him in love. Favor and mercy belong to the holy ones. God watches over God’s chosen ones.


It may seem a bit odd to see me up here wearing a white stole today.  After all, white is generally only worn at times of great celebration:  Christmas, when we celebrate the birth of the Christ; and Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection, the re-birth of our Lord and Savior.  Today is All Saints Sunday.  We have lit candles in memory of those who have gone before, saints of the church, our beloved family members, and dearly missed friends.  It may feel sad.  It may not feel like a day of celebration, yet here I am, wearing white.  Because today is a day of great celebration - the day we celebrate their new life.   The day we celebrate their rising up with the Holy Spirit into the arms of our God.

This week, here is Selma, there were Day of the Dead altars on display at quite a few downtown businesses.  People wandered from altar to altar all week, admiring the different ways in which people were remembered and celebrated.  To tell you the truth, when I first came to California and learned about the Day of the Dead, I was quite confused.  I couldn’t understand the concept, really, of feasting in a graveyard, or building altars filled with things that were loved by  deceased family members.   While I was at Chapman University I attended several Day of the Dead events, to try to understand better.  Well, that and the fact that I went to all the multicultural events on campus, because there was always lots of food, don’t you know.  But even after that, I still didn’t quite get the celebration of life aspect.  In the tradition in which I was raised, we went to church on All Saints Day, and yes, the priest wore white, but it didn’t feel like a celebration.  It felt depressing.  Until, that is, I was in seminary.  In my very first preaching class we a local preacher come in to teach us about funeral preaching, an African American pastor who saw every funeral as a celebration, and who taught us to do the same.   After that, when I noticed the families having picnics in the cemeteries on All Saints Day I understood so much more.  

That’s not to say we shouldn’t mourn the loss of our loved ones.  One of my classmates in seminary told us about a conversation he had heard while sitting in on a meeting with his supervising minister and a family who had just lost their mother.   While the two sisters spoke eagerly of their plans for the funeral service, their brother simply sat there weeping.  Suddenly, one sister turned to him and said, “If you were really a Christian you would be happy!  She is with Jesus now.”   The pastor spoke to them then, of the need to grieve, using the words Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, reminding them that we do grieve, but not like those who have no hope.  His words - well, Paul’s words, really - comforted the brother and gave the sisters permission to allow their grief expression when they felt the need.  

Long before the birth of Christ, King Solomon wrote the words we heard earlier.  “3 The souls of those who do what is right are in God’s hand. They won’t feel the pain of torment. 2 To those who don’t know any better, it seems as if they have died. Their departure from this life was considered their misfortune. 3 Their leaving us seemed to be their destruction, but in reality they are at peace. 4 It may look to others as if they have been punished, but they have the hope of living forever.”   We tend to think of writings like this as being specifically Christian, but this is actually what Jesus and the other Jews of his time were raised to believe.  That those who were obedient to God’s will who have gone before were not truly dead, but that they would be at God’s right hand when the end of days came.  That death is not the end, not a punishment, but the beginning of something too amazing to understand.  “Those who trust in the Lord will know the truth. Those who are faithful will always be with him in love. Favor and mercy belong to the holy ones. God watches over God’s chosen ones.” 

God watches over God’s chosen ones.”  It there is one thing that gets us in trouble on a regular basis, it’s that whole idea of chosen, and the elect, and who is righteous and who isn’t.  One of the earliest groups of immigrants to these shores took that idea to a disturbing degree.  The Puritans, who were Calvinist in their beliefs, believed that each of us was destined for heaven or hell before we were even born.  They said that no one knew for sure, so it behooved one to behave properly, but what they actually believed was that it would be easy to tell who the elect were by the way their lives played out. Unfortunately, we can also look to Solomon for this concept.  He wrote, “10 The ungodly will get what their evil thinking deserves. They had no regard for the one who did what was right, and instead, they rose up against the Lord. 11 Those who have contempt for wisdom and instruction will be miserable. People like this have no hope. Their work won’t amount to anything. Their actions will be worthless. 12 They will marry foolish people. Their children will be wicked. Their whole family line will be cursed.”   So the Puritans believed if someone was very successful in business, or had a prosperous farm, and all his children lived, and all went well in his world, then he was certainly one of those destined for heaven.  The poor and the unsuccessful, on the other hand, were almost certainly going in the other direction.   

Jesus disagreed with that concept.  In the 6th chapter of Luke’s Gospel he tells us that right after Jesus selected his first disciples, he stood in front of a large crowd who had come to be healed, and to hear him preach.  And then,

20 Jesus raised his eyes to his disciples and said:
“Happy are you who are poor, because God’s kingdom is yours.
21 Happy are you who hunger now, because you will be satisfied.
Happy are you who weep now, because you will laugh.
22 Happy are you when people hate you, reject you, insult you, and condemn your name as evil because of the Human One. 23 Rejoice when that happens! Leap for joy because you have a great reward in heaven. Their ancestors did the same things to the prophets.

24 But how terrible for you who are rich,  because you have already received your comfort.
25 How terrible for you who have plenty now, because you will be hungry.
How terrible for you who laugh now,  because you will mourn and weep.
26 How terrible for you when all speak well of you. Their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

There is a reason Jesus was not born to a royal family.  There is a reason he was raised by an ordinary family, near the bottom of the social scale in an oppressed nation.   Unlike King Solomon, who was raised in great wealth and privilege, Jesus understood what life was like for ordinary people.  He spoke as did the prophets of old. He said the same things that Isaiah and Zechariah and Micah and Jeremiah said.  But where they were prophets to the royal court and spoke primarily to the rich and powerful, most of whom didn’t listen, Jesus, a poor and ordinary man, spoke them to ordinary people who desperately needed to hear his words of hope.  Oh, the rich and powerful were there, and some listened.  Some heard what he said and took it to heart.  Some changed their ways, and their understandings of God’s will for them.  But his true message was to those who were considered less than.  His real message was to those who were outcaste and broken.  To the poor and disregarded.  To the powerless and unimportant.    Blessed are you who have nothing.  Who are depressed.  Who are frustrated.  Blessed are you, on the bad days.  On the days when you cannot see the point in going on, working day after day just to keep a roof over your head. Blessed are you, who are alone.  Whose children have left.  Whose family is gone.  Who have no one to turn to in times of trouble.   Blessed are you, for God is with you. God loves you.  God carries you through those times when it seems impossible to go on.  No matter who you are or what you have done, God loves you.  God doesn’t judge by your appearance, your relative wealth, or your status.  

Even his disciples had some trouble with all this.   “Who was the sinner, Lord, that this man was born blind?  Him, or his parents?”   No one!  It’s not anyone’s fault.  It just happened.  Stop blaming people for things they cannot help.  Stop chasing the children away. Let them come to me.  Let that woman who is crying my name come closer.  Stop thinking of them as unimportant.  Stop thinking of anyone as unimportant, or less than you.  All of you, you need to change the way you look at the world.  He told them they had to behave in exactly the opposite way to what the world taught and expected.  

I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good to those who hate you. 28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer the other one as well. If someone takes your coat, don’t withhold your shirt either. 30 Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. 31 Treat people in the same way that you want them to treat you.”   

I think perhaps it is at the time of death that we can see most clearly the different ways the world and the church look at people.  In the public view, in the media, we read a about the death of important people and the description is usually about where they worked, and whether they had achieved success in that work.  We read about who their family is, and if they are related to anyone noteworthy.  The media will tell us about their generosity in endowing charities, universities, and so on.  And then we hear how the church speaks of people, of the saints of the church.   Often not terribly important in the eyes of the world, but very important to us.  The words used to describe these people tend to be about relationship, about who they touched with joy and love, how they moved others with laughter, how they taught others to be better people.  The world thinks that death is a loss, that it is a punishment.  As Solomon said, “To those who don’t know any better, it seems as if they have died. Their departure from this life was considered their misfortune.”  

But we know better.  We know, that the saints who have gone before are blessed.  We know that those who have lived by God’s will are with God.  Those who have asked forgiveness are forgiven.  Those who are faithful will always be with God in love.   We come here on All Saints Sunday to celebrate them, knowing that the Holy Spirit has carried them ahead of us to be by God’s side until we meet again.

May we live well and faithfully, with mercy and compassion for all others.  Without judging.  Treating all others as we wish would to be treated.   May we work hard to love everyone, even the people we dislike or who dislike us, even those who mistreat us and threaten us.   And one day, we too will join that great crowd of saints, shining with glory, celebrating our new life in God’s presence for all eternity,