A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sermon (November 1 All Saints' Sunday) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "The Grand Finale"

     Whenever I attend a concert that has classical music, I have to sit on my hands so that I don’t clap when I’m not supped to.  There’s nothing worse than being “that guy” who claps at the wrong time.
     The same thing happens in church. People want to give a standing ovation even before I’m done with the sermon. I’m very flattered, but it’s just not the appropriate thing to do.
     If you think of the Bible as one incredibly long piece of music, there are many times when we are tempted to applaud or even to offer a standing ovation before we get to the conclusion of the story.
     I can understand why. It’s because each passage of scripture and each book of the Bible builds upon itself in telling the story of the incredible and surprising ways that God is redeeming the world.
     This is very understandable. Even after hearing someone read the creation story from the Book of Genesis, you just want to stand and applaud God for that amazing display of being able to create and bring order into a very chaotic world.
     When God creates human beings, you just want to turn to the person sitting next to you and say, “That’s genius. Pure genius!”
     Same thing is true when God enables hundreds of thousands of slaves to escape from Egypt. We hear the story about how mighty Pharaoh wouldn’t let the Israelites go. God sends plague after plague and Pharaoh finally relents.
     God even parted the Red Sea so that they would be able to escape Pharaoh’s army. It’s at that point that you instinctively want to applaud, but the person sitting next to you motions for you to wait. God’s story is far from over.
     That was one of the bigger events, but there’s more to this story. Much more. You think that was awesome, just wait to hear what God will do next.
     Even the Psalmists find it difficult to refrain from clapping before the final notes of God’s salvation history are played. The person who wrote Psalm 47 begins his Psalm with these words:
     “Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. For the Lord, the Most High is awesome, a great king over all the earth.”
     And then when we enter the New Testament, this amazing story of God’s love for the world surprises us with the birth of God’s own Son. Even in our society which is becoming more and more secularized, there’s something about this part of God’s story that captures our attention.
     We want to stand and applaud just after Jesus is born in a lowly manger, but even the gospel writer reminds us that as Mary was holding the Christ child in her arms, that she treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  Mary knew that God’s song wasn’t over. It was reappearing in a new and fresh way.
     And then we walk with Jesus through the gospel accounts and we again are attempted to applaud whenever Jesus heals people and performs miracles. We want to stand up and applaud especially after today’s Gospel reading where we heard how Jesus brought Lazarus back to life.
     We wonder how the story can get any better, but then toward the end of the gospel, we read about some women who came to the tomb where Jesus had been laid, and they found that it was empty. Jesus appears to the disciples and even shows them his hands and his side. Certainly, this is when a standing ovation is in order.
     OK, actually, it is acceptable to clap at this point in the story. The story of Jesus’ resurrection is really, really amazing!
     This is why we celebrate Easter every year. It’s why we consider every Sunday a little Easter. Sundays are always to remind us of this great part in the story of God’s salvation for the world. And we are known as an Easter people.
     But even after the celebration of Easter, the final notes of God’s song have yet to be played. The song is almost over, but we’re not quite there, yet.
     And you think, but how could anything top Easter? Isn’t Easter the grand finale of this magnificent composition?
     Which brings us to today, “All Saints’ Sunday.” Now, I know that there are many people in Athens who partied all night long last night, thinking that Halloween is the true grand finale, but if they miss out on church today, they will miss out on the best party of all.
     The grand finale of God’s story isn’t Halloween. It’s this day. All Saints’ Sunday. This is the day when we hear the conclusion of where God’s story was headed all along.
     We heard it read for us a little bit ago. Appropriately enough, it’s a reading toward the very end of the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation.
     Just listen again to God’s grand finale:
     John, the writer of Revelation gives us a glimpse into the future when all of God’s people will be gathered for a great big party that won’t include even one arrest. Yes, this will be a very different kind of party, but it’s the best kind of party.
     Listen to John describe this party:
     “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”
     But wait, this party is just getting started. Just listen:
     John goes on to say, “I heard a loud voice from the throne say, ‘Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’
     “Then the one seated on the throne said, ‘Look! I’m making all things new.’ He also said, ‘Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.’ Then he said to me, ‘All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.’”
     Friends, this is the party of all parties. This is a party like no other party because it has God at the center of it and it includes all of God’s people celebrating together. This is the party that the biblical writers had been pointing to over the many centuries.
     On this All Saints’ Sunday, we think of God’s people who are no longer with us but who are now celebrating in this party of all parties. And today, we join them in their celebration by receiving the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Today, we join all the saints in one great big heavenly party.
    The good news of our faith is that one day, heaven and earth will join together and all of God’s people will party together. One of the ways that we anticipate that future party is by celebrating in worship on this All Saints’ Sunday, but there are some other creative ways, too. And since we just observed Halloween, this story appropriately takes place in a graveyard.
     Chip Hale is pastor of Ashland Place United Methodist Church, located in Mobile, Alabama. Just listen to his party in heaven story. He writes,
     In life, the moment arrives when the children must become the parents.

     My sister and I accepted the responsibility for our aging father and mother.  As his only son, I took charge of caring for Dad in his last few years. We laughed together much more than we cried.

     After my father's death, my sister and I sat down with our mother to have “the talk.”  My mother had recently fallen trying to get up the steps to her home, hitting her head and breaking her pelvis. The incident had been frightening for all of us.

     With her health and safety in mind, we broached the subject, saying something like, “Mother, after your fall, and as you get older, we think it is time for you to move into a retirement community in Birmingham, near your daughter.”  My sister and I spent virtually the whole conversation trying to formulate just the right words to convince Mother that the move was in her best interests. 

     The negotiations got difficult since Mother felt uncertain about how to begin a new life in Birmingham after living in Mobile for many years.  I told Mother I would do whatever she asked, if she would make the move. She finally acquiesced.   

     Just before her move, Mother asked me to take her to Dad’s grave.  Of course, I readily agreed, and at the graveyard she asked me to kneel beside her as she said her goodbyes and prayed. 

     Just after her “amen,” Mother asked if I would promise to call her from Dad’s graveside on my cell phone, every week or so, in her exile city of Birmingham, so that she could talk to him. 

     Riddled with guilt and wanting to make her happy, I agreed.  That moment began a strange comedy of attempting to live out my faith in a very unusual way.

     As clergy, I continued to officiate at many funerals at this same graveyard. Families tend to linger after these services, and clergy usually leave before they do.

     After my final condolences on many of these occasions, I began to make a hasty detour by my father's grave to make the phone call to Mother so that she could talk to him. 

     Each time, I was carefully instructed to hold the phone over the grave, and not to eavesdrop as she talked to Dad about her life.  Unfortunately for me, my father’s grave is very close to the graveyard’s main entrance.

     Families would leave after their final goodbyes and pass where I was standing, observing me leaning over the grave, cell phone in hand, trying to look nonchalant.  Their horror and disbelief is burned into my memory.

     In spite of my promise to Mother, it became impossible not to eavesdrop.  I was privy to her rather one-sided conversations with Dad. Many of their phone calls were reminiscent of their past.

     She often included hilarious stories from her life at the retirement village.  Sometimes I had to stifle a laugh; sometimes I had to choke back tears. 

     The conversations were poignant and beautiful.  Invariably, she told him about my sister and her family, and she included stories about my life with my wife and children. In essence, she kept my father informed about everything that occurred to her.

     Bless her heart, she was especially long-winded when the weather was below 30 degrees or above 90.  For six years, this favor to my mother was what I deemed “Conversations with the Dead.”

     As Mother experienced several health crises and became increasingly frail, her worries about her impending death caused her understandable anxiety.  One Saturday, a week before she died, I was doing a funeral at the graveyard in Mobile. 

     Before I left, I called and said, “Mother, would you like to talk to Dad?”  I had tears in my eyes, suspecting that this would be their last conversation in this way.  

     I knelt over my father's grave and held the cell phone down to where I supposed his head would be.  Then I turned on the speaker phone so that I could hear her words. 

     She said, “Charles, I think I am at the end of my life.”  There was a long pause, as her emotions overwhelmed her, as did mine. 

     She continued: “Charles, if you are in heaven, tell Jesus to come get me.” 

     She paused again, and then, with trepidation, added: “If you are not in heaven, don't mention my name to anyone.” 

     In my preacher’s suit, I fell to the ground laughing.

     Pastor Chip Hale, concludes by making this observation, “God gave us the great privilege of expressing our faith by loving best our families.  How precious those memories are to me now.”

     Those memories are with us on this day as we give thanks for our loved ones who are part of the great cloud of witnesses.

     My brother who is a Music Minister and I attended a large church in Kansas City a few years ago. This church had invited a large African American Choir to sing at their worship service.

     If you ever want to feel like you are part of the great heavenly party, listening to an African American church choir will probably be all you need. This choir sang an anthem that began ever so slowly, but then started to build in excitement after each passing note.

     My brother, who is not an introvert, looked around at the largely white congregation, he then glanced at me, and said, “Well, somebody ought to start clapping, c’mon, put your hands together.”

     He stood up and started clapping to the music. Pretty soon, the thousand or so people in that great big sanctuary were now clapping and singing along with this choir. 

     We were singing about that time in the future when God will make all things new.  We were singing about that grand finale that John talks about where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and where sin and death will be no more.

     When you get that many white people clapping, you know that it’s the party of all parties.  I’m just glad that I sat next to someone who knew when it was OK to begin the applause.

     Happy All Saints’ Sunday!

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