“For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name. I pray that, according to the riches of his glory, he may grant that you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.” – Ephesians 3:14-21
What are you thankful for? Over the next days/weeks leading up to Thanksgiving I’m going to try to put some good in the world, some light in the midst of the darkness and bitterness of the world. I have been slack on my 30 days of thanks for the 30 days of November on social media to cultivate a spirit of gratitude. I’m grateful for SO very many things. Like life, breath, my family, a roof over my head, good food to eat, living in a country where I have the right to vote, a calling and vocation that keeps me on my toes and continues to reignite and renew me as the Triune God refreshes my Spirit. If all is grace, then we are thankful.
On All Saints Day, I am thankful for the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us. These “saints” that have gone before are not just the heavy hitters like Mary or Paul or Mother Theresa. These saints encompass all of the people that have gone before us seeking to live as Christ. Some of these saints are ones that we read about in our Holy Scripture. Some are ones that we have read back and forth and still dig into their kernels of wisdom – CS Lewis, Jim Elliot, Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Love Jim’s “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain that which he cannot lose”). Some of these are saints that may or may not be seen as religious folks – love me some Jane Austen, Joseph Heller and Louisa May Alcott. Others may be the ones that we’ve personally known or been shaped by.
I think about some of the dear saints I’ve known in this life. Mr. Howard and Ms. Evelyn that we sat with as children on Sundays while Dad preached and Mom sang in the choir. Ms. Betty teaching our first and second grade Sunday school class. I still remember the felt board with the Bible characters. Mr. Tim and Ms. Bunny who proved to me that people want to minister to their minister and his/her family and they really care about each of us. They would take my parents out to eat every Friday night and then stop by Dunkin Doughnuts to get us a mixed box of doughnuts among many things. Ms. Pal Moore who taught the best VBS for youth that I’ve ever been a part of and continues to be an encouragement in my life. She actually made the stole that I’m wearing. There are so many that I could easily name, I have been blessed beyond measure by all the saints who lifted, taught, and undergirded me, those who have laughed, cried, and shared life with me and those whose example I try to follow every day.
I think about the saints in our family…and then I start to tear up and laugh. The thing that I love about them and any of our saints for that matter, is that they were real people – flesh and bone and not always perfect. There’s this thing about saints that we build up to be otherworldly with rose-colored glasses, but the thing that I like the most is that they were colorful characters who didn’t just do everything prim and proper perfectly, but they made a splash. They had spunk. They did not go gentle into that good night as the Dylan Thomas poem goes.
There’s always been an interest in connecting with the afterlife. Mediums are not new. I think there’s a great big part of us that wants to know for sure and for certain that we’re not alone here. There’s part of us that wants to know that our family and loved ones – both from long ago and now – those who are dear to us – are okay and it’s going to be okay for us too. When I’m channel flipping, even I get sucked into the story and it has me tearing up at parts because of the sincerity of people really wanting to know that we are all connected and we stay connected and that this beautiful network of love doesn’t just stop here, but continues on.
As the seasons in South Carolina start to change for real and things are turning and getting colder and Winter is coming, I’m reminded that death is not the end. Yes, there is grief. Yes, there is change. Yes, there is loss. Yes, there are those we miss dearly. But the great cloud of witnesses surrounds us, spurs us on, and still speak to us in big and small ways. As Dad likes to share – these folks are often our “balcony people!” Joyce Landorf writes in her book you’re either a basement person or a balcony person. Dragging others down or lifting others up. The loved ones that we have lost and still feel a wide, gaping hole for, we have Christ’s promise of eternal life. We read these words of grace at any United Methodist Celebration of Life.
The Word of Grace
Jesus said, I am the resurrection and I am life.
Those who believe in me, even though they die, yet shall they live,
and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last.
I died, and behold I am alive for evermore,
and I hold the keys of hell and death.
Because I live, you shall live also.
That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 3There are power in those words. It likens to the Revelation text in its broadening, yet definitive answer. As I look around my office and home to the things that I treasure – pictures with family, pictures at Ganny’s house, a beautiful picture painted by Robin, a shingle that my Gandaddy made with our pictures on it, Dad’s pottery, a “family tree” my Mom made for me….as I look into my heart to the things I treasure – both sassy grandmothers that neither minced words, had plenty of spunk, and weren’t afraid to use various words in their vocabularies, the amazing integrity and character of both of my grandfathers and their legacy of continuing to love people – whoever they are, whatever color they are or accent they have, wherever their family came from…these are the gifts that the communion of saints continues to give us as we wrestle with their words, their examples, their legacies and their authentic lives of faith. They leave lasting legacies and as Rafiki tells Simba in the Lion King clip I shared a few months ago, they live inside each of us. Louisa May Alcott writes, “Far away there in the sunshine are my highest aspirations. I may not reach them, but I can look up and see their beauty, believe in them, and try to follow where they lead.”
Thank you God for all of those that have touched us in such mighty ways! May we ever remember them and treasure them in our hearts and may we give thanks for their legacies.
Who are your saints? Who has shaped you? What do you hold dear from the ones that have gone on before us?
The flip side is true too. Who are you being a good example for? Who are you mentoring? Who are you showing, by your very life, the way they should go?
I’ll tell you one final story that will transition us to communion.
In fact, you never know the legacies you will leave. You may not know that Gator Wesley was a local church, University United Methodist Church before it gave birth to Gator Wesley in 2010. Carmen was one of the older members who never stopped coming. He always would talk to those sitting around him at worship. Ali wrote on her facebook page the morning that Carmen died, “If I’ve learned anything from working at a church, it’s that you make friends with unlikely people. One of those friends, Carmen (the older man on the left in the gray hoodie) passed away this morning. I met Carmen before anyone else at Gator Wesley. My first Sunday I sat in front of him, when he preceded to ask me about 10 minutes worth of questions about my life, my plans, and my dreams. Almost every Sunday since, he’s asked me about the stories I’ve done and the people I’ve I’ve done and the people I’ve met. Although he was confused about what I was doing (he was fairly convinced my dream was to be a TV anchor or a talk show host), he kept listening. Every week he told me how he prayed for me. His last Sunday before he entered assisted care, he told me that I was going to go out and change the world. I didn’t know that was going to be the last time I saw him not in a hospital bed. While Carmen never realized it, the love he has shown all of the students at Gator Wesley has been unending. Although he was stubborn and cantankerous, he was a good man. Gator Wesley became his family. Wesley is much larger than this photo taken on Easter, but it’s nice to see Carmen with his home. Everyone deserves a Carmen in their life. I’m glad that I met mine.”
Carmen smiled and waved to students at the student apartment where he lived. He touched countless lives. He wanted his life to mean something. He was so deeply concerned, that his life didn’t matter, I started to tell him in his last days, that the students were his legacy. The students are his legacy. He would light up when “the students” were mentioned. The hospice social worker saw it and I did too. He only wanted to see “the students” at the end. So we piled into his room on a Sunday after church. Four of the students went with me and our Associate Pastor Ryan to see him the Wednesday before he died. That Wednesday night we shared the Lord’s Prayer, Carmen’s favorite prayer, and he was able to say some of it with us. That was the last smile I saw on his face, when he noticed the 4 students we brought.
The students are his legacy. I’ll never forget when I had finished a sermon and Carmen stood up quick as I’ve ever seen him and said, “Gator Wesley IS going to change the world!” I’m so glad I got to hear and see that. You see Carmen was a deeply spiritual person and a follower of Jesus Christ. He had been raised in the Catholic Church, but he didn’t like what he called the “rules” or what he thought was the earning of salvation. He struggled with the concept of grace. Don’t we all do that? He was just honest enough to say it out loud. He joined the baptism class my first year here and he would read the Bible and all of the handouts and he wanted a copy of the Baptism service in the Book of Worship and so on and so on. He wanted to be prepared and he was excited more about the United Methodist Church that I haven’t seen. I would tell him over and over again and again, any time he came up to me after the service, and in his last few weeks. You’re a child of God. You were made in your mother’s womb. God’s grace was given to every one of us. You don’t have to earn it. There’s nothing you can do to earn it. It’s a gift. You’re ENOUGH. I would say it over and over again. One of our students says it was meaningful to her, “To see his face light up in a group when he was told that God loves him no matter what.” “Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” And in this table we celebrate that. We are all enough. We are loved by the Great God of the Universe, that came to Earth Emmanuel, with an abundant, passionate, ever seeking, ever reaching love. We remember our saints, our great cloud of witnesses, as we try to be “balcony people” for others so we too can leave a legacy.
As we celebrate this meal…
PS – Anytime I preach on legacies, I’m reminded of this Nichole Nordeman. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ah1COE39ARs