I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad. O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears. Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them. O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those to take refuge in him.
Tomorrow will be my 6th funeral. Betty Lancaster, Georgeanna Driver, Brandy Garletts, Russ Wisely, Dick Markley, and now Chris Harris. I can remember the way my heart raced when I got the phone calls when each of them passed, I can still see their families in tears during the funeral, and I can still remember the sensation of the dirt in my hand when I dropped it on the caskets at the cemeteries. Without a doubt, preaching and presiding over funerals is one of the greatest privileges, and most difficult challenges, that I have as a pastor.
I am invited into one of the most sensitive aspects of a family’s life when I find out that someone has died. Those moments in the car on my way to a home or hospital, are filled with prayerful silence as I ask God to use me as a vessel of his grace and peace with a family who is in the midst of grief. You never know what to say, because there is nothing to say. You sit and listen, you provide the loving comfort of presence, and you pray for everyone you can think of.
Today is All Saints’; a day for us to remember those who have gone on to glory over the last year from our church, and from all of our families and friends. It is a hallowed time where we reflect on the ways that our friends and families shaped us into who we are today. It is that precious day when we give thanks to God for putting them in our lives, and then welcoming them back into his eternal arms. All Saints’, like funerals, is a time for us to speak truths about the lives of those close to us, with the hope of the promised resurrection.
No matter what, funerals are always difficult. Funerals are a remarkably sensitive time for families and you have to be very careful about what you say, and how you say it. Yet even with the fear and trembling that comes with proclaiming someone’s life and death, I do look forward to sharing stories that help to reveal the character of the person’s life that we are remembering.
The first time I met Brandy Garletts was early in my time here at the church. She was older and had been moved to a rehabilitation center when I went to visit her. I spent way too much time worrying about what I would say to this stranger for the first time, what her impression of me would be, and how could I speak words of hope in her situation. When I made my way to the facility, after finally finding her room, she motioned for me to sit across from her to lean in closer. Before I could even open my mouth to begin speaking all the prepared thoughts that I had, Brandy asked me a question that I was completely unprepared for: “Are you a registered voter?”
There I was sitting across from an incredibly sweet woman, someone that many people from our church have admired and looked up to, prepared to talk about God, faith, and grace, and she wanted to find out if I was a democrat or a republican.
Brandy was a fiercely strong woman and fought for what she believed in. Asking me about my political ideology was indicative of the life she lived; always looking for new opportunities to make the world better for others.
Or I could tell you about a story that Russ Wisely shared with me in my office: “Many years ago,” he began, “we had another young pastor. Fletcher Swink had just graduated from Duke Divinity School and was sent to Staunton for his first appointment, just like you. In the beginning everything was great. Fletcher provided strong leadership, the church was growing, and we started to build the property that we are now sitting in. However, one day, Fletcher called me because he had a problem and had no idea what to do. He had performed a wedding for a young couple in Staunton, his very first, and only after signing the marriage certificate did he realize that he had not filled out the proper paperwork to legally marry people in the state of Virginia. He was at a loss for what to do, so I told him to come with me to the courthouse; I knew the judge and figured we might be able to work something out. When we brought the matter to the judge he looked at me and he asked ‘Russ, what do you think we can do?’ and I told him that we could sign the paperwork and just change the date to have happened before the wedding, to which he replied, ‘sounds like a good idea to me.’
I sat there in my office stunned. Here was this older man telling me a story about how he had manipulated the legal system just to cover for a young pastor who had made a mistake. Was he telling me this story to make sure that I didn’t make any mistakes? Was he trying to scare me about the responsibilities of leading the church? I sat there in my chair, unsure of how the story would conclude. Russ then looked at me right in the eyes to finish, “That happened nearly 60 years ago. I helped Fletcher because it was important. I want you to know, young man, that I am here to help you as well. If you need anything I want you to call me.” And with that he stood up and prepared to leave my office. Only then did I realize that I never said a word.
Russ Wisley sacrificed for others and was willing to work behind the scenes to make things happen. Whether here at church or in the community, Russ would help anyone he could, because he believed in the importance of supporting others.
What has struck me most about the lives we have celebrated over the last year, the people who we are remembering today, is that they understood the words from Psalm 34; their lives were a reflection of God’s goodness and they lived as saints for others to follow.
“I will bless the Lord at all times; his praise shall continually be in my mouth.” Saints are those who can speak and live in such a way as to point to the Lord in all that they do. They give thanks to the Lord their God for the blessings they have received and give back to others from their abundance. Saints recognize the presence of God and do whatever they can to share that experience with others because they know how life-giving it can be.
“O magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt his name together.” Saints do what they can to benefit the greater community and not just their own lives. They are not content with having a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” but see the great gift that the community of faith can be. They worship together to praise the Lord of hosts, and exalt his name. At church they sing from the depth of their being, and greet others in Christian love. At home they pray fervently for their lives, for their friends and family, for their enemies, and for their church. They strive to magnify the Lord in all that they do so that others can know how life-giving it can be.
“I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” Saints understand that God has continued to seek them out throughout the years, and take the time to respond to God’s great calling. Instead of remaining complacent with their faith journeys, they seek out the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the knowledge that in doing so, the Lord will answer. Instead of just hoping for good things to happen because they live good lives, they take leaps of faith to encounter the living God who will deliver them from fear. Saints believe that going to the Lord reorients all expectations and priorities and they encourage others to go to the Lord because they know how life-giving it can be.
“Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed. This poor soul cried, and was heard by the Lord, and was saved from every trouble.” Saints know that life is not always easy, and that there will be times of suffering. To follow the commands of God, to live by the beatitudes, implies a willingness to see the world turned upside down where the first will be last and the last will be first. They do not let their sufferings get the best of them, but instead they remember that suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint. They encourage others to not give in to the suffering in their lives but to firmly place their hope in Jesus Christ because they know how life-giving it can be.
Our saints have lived lives worthy of emulation. The more I learned about their discipleship as I prepared for their funerals, the more I wanted to live like them. I was struck over and over again by how deeply rooted they were in their faith, and how much they worked to live like Jesus. However, that’s not to say that our saints have been perfect; even Jesus’ family tree is filled with broken and battered branches.
On All Saint’s Sunday, we remember the saints, and let us be sure to remember all of them. Not just the wonderful and psalm-like moments from their lives, but the bruised and blemished moments as well. Not just the saints from our church family that have died, but all the saints who have witnessed to God’s love for us.
Who do you think of when you hear the word “saint”? Do you picture Mother Teresa, Augustine, or John Wesley? Do you think about people who lived perfectly pure lives? Or do you think about the people in your life who have simply encouraged you in your faith?
Those who we remember today were both sinners and saints. There were times that they fell short of God’s expectations, there were times that they did not practice what they preached. There were moments that they neglected to praise and and magnify the Lord. But God has a crafty way of turning sinners into saints.
God almighty, maker of heaven and earth, has done, and will continue to do, some incredible things through the sinners in our midst. You might remember those that have died for all the negative, bad, and embarrassing things that they did, but God saw them in their sinfulness and saw potential. God has used our saints to change our lives for the better by shaping us into the disciples we are today.
The pulpit is a wonderful vantage point. From where I stand I can look out on the gathered body of Christ and take in the view in one fell swoop:
When I look out from here I see a church full of sinners. I see the brokenness that many of you have shared with me, but have refused to share with anyone else. I see the fights, frustrations, and failures that haunt so many of you on a regular basis. I look out and see the doubts that cloud your faith, the temptations that draw you away from God, and the selfishness that drives you away from one another.
But at the same time, when I look out from here I see a church full of saints. I see the body of Christ praising the Lord through prayer and song. I see the humble souls that are thankful for the blessing of life. I see the love, life, and vitality that invigorates so many of you toward wholeness. I look out and see the radiant faces that shine with God’s glory. I see a church that is full of people willing and excited to work for God’s kingdom.
So, like the psalmist says, let us come to the God’s table; see and taste how the Lord is good. Remember all of those who have gone before us to a table such as this, to take refuge in the Lord.
Let us also give thanks to the Lord for putting the saints we remember into our lives. For helping to shape and mold them out of their sinfulness and into saintliness. For their desire to share the Good News with us so that we might know what grace is really all about.
And let us hope and pray that God would continue to give us the strength to be saints for others in spite of our sinfulness. So that one day, God willing, the church will get together to worship the Lord and give thanks for us after we die.