Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Partying with the cloud of witnesses . . .

     We had another one of those lectionary screw-ups this week.  I did not realize it until last night, and it is one that falls squarely on my shoulders.  As most of you all here know, we celebrated All Saints’ Day and the Feast of All Souls Friday and Saturday, respectively.  Since Friday was All Saints’, we also celebrate it today, as it is a movable feast under the rubrics of our Prayer Book.  The problem, of course, is when the priest forgets to tell the church secretary where to find the readings for the feast day on the computer program.  As I got here for the Celebrate Recovery Eucharist, it dawned on me what had happened.  All Saints’ Day, for those of you who do not know, is one of those Seven days of holy obligation.  It is one of those feast days, like Christmas and Easter and Pentecost, when all Christians are expected to be in church celebrating God.  As such, our readings are always the same.  But, I did not think about it when Robin asked the invariable this or that questions.  So, we are left with the readings as if this was the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost and not All Saints’ Sunday.  
     Part of the reason for the hectic week was the Showers-Martin wedding.  Those who are my friends on Facebook know that Robin and I were just a tad annoyed that Kim and Joe were so late getting names and readings into Robin for the Orders of Worship.  I love weddings, though.  More often than not I am preaching to you all.  And, I am a bit sorry to say this, but preaching and teaching to you is much like doing it to the choir!  Oh, I’ll get a “that was a good one, Father” or “Not much sermon prep time this week, huh?” comments from you all.  Those who are unchurched or seldom-churched, though,  will wrestle with a good sermon or liturgy, particularly when they have enjoyed some liquid courage and/or think the numbers are on their side.  I found myself on the receiving end of a lot of that this past Thursday and Friday.
     A few of the comments and questions dealt with our celebratory attitude.  There was some concern that I might be shocked and ashamed at some of the partying that might go on, as if the coolers of alcohol weren’t a tip off.  Those who were concerned that I needed to fuss at the wedding party or to absent myself quickly were worried that God would somehow be dishonored by a good time.  For some of the comments, I was gentle.  I told them how I had reinforced among the wedding party that they were to be sober for the wedding.  I didn’t worry too much about the drinking on the bus on the way to the reception--no one was driving drunk.  I even teased that I had threatened to give a full-on Baptist sermon if they showed up drinking or drunk.  I must have looked convincing given the stress of the last couple weeks and the tardiness of Joe & Kim’s required information because most of the party behaved themselves.  After a few of those questions, I resorted to humor.  I reminded them I was an Episcopal priest and that where three or four are gathered there is always a fifth.  Sadly, humor seemed to confuse a few of them even more.  I even resorted to reminding them that we are all invited to the Lord’s Wedding Feast.  I assured them that no matter how good they thought this party was going to be, it would pale beside our Lord’s.  “There’s no drinking around God, Father.”  What about the wedding Cana?  “We are gonna get down on the dance floor, and God might frown on that.”  Really, I’m betting David’s in his loincloth still hopping around.  Needless to say, I had a fun time.  I had a ton of unchurched or infrequently churched or burned-out-by-church people asking lots of questions.  I even received some praise for choosing the best parts of weddings from television and movies for the service.  Just for the record, Hollywood takes our service; we don’t take theirs.
     Many of the comments were rooted in an understanding that we in the church are a dour people who serve a somber, scowling God.  Most had reason to believe that.  Heck, given the opinions expressed by a few of those present, they knew “Christian” people that lived as such.  I know we are few in number, and I know we do serious work around here, but I want to remind you of two important aspects of our worship.  Turn in your orders of worship to Psalm 32.  Notice the first two verses.  If you have been redeemed by Christ, God expects you to be joyful!  Hear that again, just in case you have dour Christian friends who tease you about being too playful.  The one who is redeemed is supposed to be joyful and happy.  The psalm is attributed to David.  As you all know, he had some big sins.  Yet, despite his sins, God chose to swear a covenant by him.  Because of David’s penitent heart, God chose to cause Jesus to enter history through David’s family.  David was an adulterer and a murderer and he wasn’t always the king he was supposed to be.  But whenever David was confronted with his sin, he repented.  He did not argue; he did not try and justify his actions.  He simply repented.
     Each time David repented and God accepted his repentance, David was overjoyed.  Having witnessed firsthand the reign and demise of Saul, his predecessor, David knew first hand what could happen if God withheld His mercy and His grace.  In reality, there was very little difference between Saul and David.  Both committed horrible sins.  Both let power go to their heads.  Both forgot they were to serve God’s people and, at times, used those whom they were supposed to serve for their own ends.  God withheld His grace from Saul, and Saul became a byword for failure.  Though the same covenant was available to Saul that was offered to David, Saul chose poorly.  Worse, he chose not to repent and found himself no longer in God’s graces.  And the Lord removed His Spirit and gave him over.  That informed David’s awareness.  That is why David is so excited, so overjoyed, whenever God forgives him his sins.  That is why David asks the “who am I, Lord, that you should permit me all this?” question.  It is also why David dances before the Lord, plays his lyre, and composes these psalms, or songs, to God.  He, like us, is a redeemed sinner.  God no longer counts his sins against him.  
     How many of us act like those Christians who are dour?  How many of us have driven the joy from our lives?  Have you ever considered the impact that a lack of joy might have?  If we have been forgiven, and all of us here have made that public proclamation of faith, why are we not more about joy?  Yes, God takes sin seriously.  Yes, we are all sinners.  But we are redeemed!  Our sins have been removed from us.  The blood stain of our sins, to use the words of Isaiah today, have been washed clean!  We should be happy!  We should be excited!  We should be joyful!  It is perfectly acceptable before God is we sing or play music or dance.  The bonds of our sins have been removed, and we should revel in His love and mercy and grace.  We should be as excited as when Nicole’s favorite football team snatches victory from the jaws of defeat when playing Northwestern.  After all, we have been snatched by Christ from the jaws of death.
     Now, that is not to say that we are not without understanding about events in the world.  Just because we choose to be baptized, just because we choose to follow Jesus does not mean we get a pass on the difficulties of life.  Nor does He instruct us to be unmindful of our suffering or the suffering of those around us.  Looking around today, I know there is much suffering among us.  Some of us are touched directly by health issues.  Death has come close to one of us this week.  Some of us are battling terrible financial problems.  Others are battling relationship issues.  Others are struggling with parents or children.  Many of us are engaged with pain and suffering in our various ministries.  Life really is a struggle.  Paul compares it to a weightlifter straining in agony to lift a heavy weight or to running a marathon.  We can face those struggles certain of our redemption, but they are struggles nonetheless.  Even then, of course, we are not without His mercy and Grace.
     David reminds us that our Lord surrounds us with songs of deliverance.  Have you ever thought about the singers of those songs?  I reminded you all at the beginning of this sermon that we have been in the midst of All Saints’ and All Souls’ days as well as a wedding.  All Saints’ Day is supposed to call to mind those who have gone to their reward with the Lord.  Many outside the Church believe we celebrate only those “famous” saints, but we really are called to celebrate all those who have gone before us, whether or not they are famous.  All Souls’ Day, by contrast, reminds us that we should miss those whom we love and see no longer.  Yes, we will see those who died in the Lord on the day of our appearing before Him, but it acceptable for us to miss them.  Jesus, after, wept at the death of His friend Lazarus.
    So who is cheering and singing us on, as we continue this struggle?  That company of heaven with whom we lend our voice each time we remind ourselves of the Marriage Feast to which He invites us.  Each of us is surround by a cloud of witnesses whose stories inspires us, whose love of the Lord encouraged us, and whose faithful witness enticed us to accept His invitation or to continue to follow Him in difficult as well as good times.  It may be your parents, your grandparents, Sunday School teachers you have forgotten about, neighbors, spouses, friends, and maybe a clergy or two who make up your cheering cloud.  Each of us has a witness or group of witnesses who first shared Christ love with us and who now joy the throng encourage us to finish the race, to complete the struggle of this life.  They know the promises to which we are called.  They know the eternal joy we are offered.  And in their love for us they want to see us there with them!  They realize the fullness of the mere pledge we experience each time we gather in worship.
     And, thinking to yourself, you might think you have only one or two people cheering you on and surrounding you in songs of victory.  If so, you forget the nature of His call on all of us.  Each of us is adopted by the same Father.  Each of us is promised a firstborn inheritance.  Each of us is a true brother or a true sister.  Those great saints, about whom we read, are every bit meant to cheer us on as those whom we knew in life.  I have no idea how the cloud really works.  It remains, in the end, one of those mysteries about which we cannot be certain this side of the grave.  Certainly, our loved ones who believed in God are with Him now.  And I would imagine that the awe and wonder and glory and majesty are not something from which they wish to avert their eyes.  But I can also imagine a scene in which our loving Father looks down and smiles or nods or in some way shape or form points out those on earth who are worthy of the witness of those gathered around Him.  Perhaps it is a grandmother’s elbow to the ribs of St. Peter, maybe it is a Sunday School teacher’s beaming visage next to St. Thomas, maybe it’s a parent’s “that’s my boy / girl,” or even a child’s “that’s my mom / dad,” maybe it is a stranger whom we have forgotten who lifts their drink from the Cup of Joy and toasts our efforts.  And as those ribs are poked or our saints gloat a bit about our faithful effort, those other brothers and sisters whom we will day meet take up the song, take up the cheer, rooting us on to the finish line, encouraging us to persevere.
     And, as if all that weren’t enough, were not far more than we deserve, still there is more to this story.  You and I are called to take up that song, to learn that cheer.  Such is the treasure that is entrusted to us that we are tasked with sharing it with others.  This is done, of course, with a sobering thought: if we run this race with endurance, if we fight the good fight, if we struggle to the end, you and I may one day be the saints about whom future generations look to in their earthly struggles.  It’s the ultimate pay it forward.  We are tasked with loving others into the kingdom just as our spiritual ancestors loved us into the kingdom.  And we are graced with the certainty of knowing that, if we do our jobs well, if we discharge our responsibilities faithfully, those who follow us will mourn our passing on All Souls’ Day and celebrate our final victory on All Saints’ Day, trusting that we are cheering them on and singing that wonderful song of victory!
     Brothers and sisters, it is going to be alright.  In fact, it is going to be better than we can ever imagine.  Whatever is weighing you down, whatever is causing you to struggle, He will redeem.  That is His promise to you, just as it was His promise to all those who came before.  Let’s make sure, as we finish out this church year, we focus a bit more on the redemption promised us, on the cloud that inspires us, and the Lord who drew all of us and them together into one big crazy family.


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