Devotional – Luke 19.1-2

Devotional:

Luke 19.1-2

He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.
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In a few weeks many churches will celebrate All Saints Sunday. In the United Methodist Church we use it as an opportunity to prayerfully give thanks and reflect on the lives lost in the local church over the last year. Some churches will ring bells and read off the names of the dead, others will cover their altars with belongings from the deceased, and others will invite grieving family members to come forward and offer thoughts on those who died.

But when we think of the Saints of the church, we tend to think about incredible figures from church history: Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, etc. We think that to be saintly requires a life of such profound faithfulness that most of us will never come close to it. Therefore, the saints we daydream about are the ones also found in stained glass windows and famous paintings.

Saints, however, are the people who inspire us to be totally different. And more often than not, the truest saints are those who were once a lot like us, and were radically changed by an encounter with the living God.

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Zaccheaus is a beloved and often overlooked person from scripture. The wee-little tax collector, despised by the town, wanted to catch a glimpse of Jesus, so he climbed a tree. Jesus, upon seeing the man up above, called him down and invited himself over for dinner. This interaction fundamentally transformed Zacchaeus’ life and propelled him to return what he had taken “even four times as much.”

Some of God’s truest and most peculiar saints are much more like the little tax collector who recognized his weakness enough to climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the Messiah. Zacchaeus was a strange man and his interaction with Jesus was equally strange. The result of sitting together for a meal was enough to radically transform his life forever. But even in his strangeness, we catch glimpses of the truth; we begin our journeys of faith by recognizing our need, but doing something in response to that recognition, and then discover that the love and power of Jesus has transformed our lives in ways that we never could have anticipated.

Zacchaeus is the kind of saint who could inspire us to change our lives precisely because he is so much like us. If we were only inclined to confront our brokenness, climb a tree to catch a glimpse of the Lord (or walk into a church on Sunday morning), we might just hear Jesus say, “I’m going to your house today,” and our lives would be transformed.

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Devotional – John 11.35

 

Devotional:

John 11.35

Jesus began to weep.

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In Eugene Peterson’s memoir The Pastor he recounts the death and funeral of his mother after having buried countless church members throughout his life. As he stood before the gathered people his emotions came to a precipice and he could no longer contain himself. He writes:

“While I was reading the scriptures, tears erupted. I tried to hold them back, then gave in. I remember thinking, ‘All these people get to grieve, now it’s my turn,’ and let it come, sobbing uncontrollably. After thirty seconds or so, I recovered my composure and finished what I was doing. After the benediction, I didn’t want to see anyone and slipped into a room just off the chancel. My daughter, Karen, came in and sat beside me, without words, putting her hand on my thigh. And then a man I didn’t know came in, put his arm across my shoulder, spoke for three of four minutes in preacher clichés, and prayed. After he left I said, ‘Oh Karen, I hope I have never done that to anyone.’” (Peterson, Eugene. The Pastor: A Memoir. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 294)

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Across the great scope of Christianity, many churches will celebrate All Saints Day this Sunday. In the United Methodist Church we will use this particular opportunity in worship to remember the Saints of the church as well as all Christians both past and present. It is a time set apart to reflect on the many people who have shaped our lives, the grief we still feel regarding their deaths, and the hope of the promised resurrection.

All Saints is not a time for “preacher clichés.” It is not a time for churches to claim that God “just wanted another angel in heaven.” It is not a time for us to seek out those who are grieving and tell them how they are supposed to grieve (or worse: telling them they are supposed to be done grieving).

All Saints is a time for tears. Just like when Eugene Peterson’s wept over the death of his mother, and just like when Jesus wept over the death of Lazarus, it is good for us to grieve those who have died. This Sunday is a moment in the life of the church where we do well to let our emotions get the best of us and offer up our losses and sadness. Because it is in our grief that we really begin to appreciate those who have died and the ways they continue to shape our lives.

This week, as we prepare for All Saints Day, let us take time to reflect and pray for the people who have died in our lives. Let us thank God for their witness to God’s grace. And let us strive to sit alongside those who are grieving and bless them with our presence more than our words.

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Sinners and Saints – Sermon on Psalm 34.1-8

Psalm 34.1-8

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.

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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.

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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.

For instance:

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?

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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.

Amen.

Devotional – 1 Thessalonians 2.9

Devotional:

1 Thessalonians 2.9

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

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All Saints’ Day is a strange celebration in the worship life of church. As United Methodists, we will gather together next Sunday to remember those who have gone on to glory; we will honor their lives, deaths, and promised resurrections. For a young pastor the celebration of All Saints is one that I look forward to in order to help the still grieving families mourn appropriately, but it is also a sacred day of privileged preaching that cannot be taken lightly.

I have been a pastor for 1 year and 4 months. It has been a tremendously rewarding experience thus far, and I continually feel that I am exactly where God has called me to be, and doing what God has called me to do. Throughout the first year, no one died in our church community. (They tell you in seminary to prepare yourself for a funeral your first week in the church; but for me that did not happen) We celebrated some incredibly special moments together in worship: baptisms, professions of faith, weddings, confirmation, the Eucharist. But we did not gather together for a funeral. While so many of my clergy colleagues felt fatigued under the tidal wave of death that was striking their local churches, I felt guilty for making it through a year without having to do a funeral.

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Over the last few months, however, we have lost 6 church members in quick succession. While sitting with families in the deep and dark moments of planning a funeral after the loss of a loved one, I was also worried about someone that had just entered the hospital, or received a bleak diagnosis. Death, it seemed, had caught up with us.

Church is often made out to be a place of sacred happiness where people can discover an element of joy and grace that they might not otherwise find. Yet at the same time, the church is one of the last arenas of reality. It used to be that people feared having a quick death. They did so because they feared dying without having the time to be reconciled with their enemies, who were often members of their family, the church and God. Today we fear death. They feared God.

All Saints is a time for us to remember the great promise that God made with us when Jesus was resurrected from the dead: that we are not alone and that Christ has defeated death. This does not mean that we will not die, but it means that death is not the end.

As we prepare for All Saints’ Sunday, let us remember the “labor and toil” of those who have gone on to glory, those who “worked night and day, so that we might not be burdened while we learned about the gospel of God.” Let us remember our own finitude and give thanks to God for not abandoning us. And let us praise the Lord who defeated death so that we might have life.

Then and Now – Sermon on Ephesians 1.11-23

Ephesians 1.11-23

In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory. I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put his power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

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Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a particular fixture in the Christian liturgical calendar, often celebrated the first Sunday of every November. All Saints is a time and opportunity to name the death of our saints over the last year. And for us, as United Methodist in particular, “saints” refers to all Christians past and present, so we celebrate the church universal as well as those we have lost. Today is a day about remembrance and honor.

Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, “In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory.” What is this inheritance that he is referring to?

Bob Foley. Bob Foley was a long time usher at the church where I grew up. As a kid I can remember Bob handing me some of the children’s bulletins that I doodled over throughout the church services, and I can remember him patiently waiting on Christmas Eve’s services with candles in his hands. The first time I ever talked to Bob was when I was fourteen, the first Sunday that I ever ran the sound-system for our services. Bob fulfilled his usher obligations, handing out bulletins, helping new visitors and families find a pew, when he finally stood behind me looking over my shoulder. Now imagine with me if you will, a fourteen year old standing in front of a mixing board with hundreds of knobs, lights, and volume controls, at a church with a large sanctuary with hundreds of people prepared for worship. So with fear and trepidation defining my inner struggles Bob leaned forward and whispered in my ear, “good luck.”

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I’m sure I messed something up that morning, perhaps I forgot to turn off our minister’s microphone so everyone wound up hearing him horribly attempt to keep the tune to “Be Thou My Vision,” or I turned the volume too high and there was feedback in the sanctuary, or no one heard the prayer over the Tithes and Offerings because I forgot to turn the microphone back on. I’m sure I messed up, but Bob walked over to me after the service ended, shook my hand, told me to call him Bob, and smiled while telling me how proud he was.

Thus started an incredible friendship that played itself out every Sunday morning as Bob and I would joke around in the back. He was old enough to be my grandfather but he never treated me like a child; he was encouraging, and respectful, but above all he was a happy man. Whereas many people would drag themselves into church on Sunday mornings, wiping away the sleep from under the eyes and trying to find a trash can for their coffee they had just chugged, Bob was always standing by the door with a smile because he genuinely cared about the church, he loved being there, and he loved God.

When Bob passed away it crushed me. I’ll never forget the feeling in the pit of my stomach when my mother called me during college to let me know what had happened, and I’ll never forget the awful feeling of walking back into the church for the first time without having Bob there with his customary smile.

Paul talks about an inheritance from Christ, something we receive through his mighty acts in the world. There is something special about getting to share the stories of the bible with someone, young or old, to talk about what God did with God’s people, but there is something indescribable about the way God is working in the world right now.

Bob Foley was a saint in my life. But what Bob offered for me and my Christian life was more than the typical church friendship. Bob never sat me down with scripture or told me how to live my life. He never criticized my decisions or offered unwarranted advice. What Bob did for me, was demonstrate how important faith is in the now. He might’ve loved to hear those old stories from scripture, but Bob felt God living in the world in the immediate, thats why he committed to being in church and sharing his smiles with everyone else; to him there was nothing better than being a Christian because he felt God’s presence.

When we read from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, its as if he’s saying “It is such a great thing to be a Christian!” But, I wonder if that is the first thought that comes to our minds when we think about our Christian heritage today. May it be that the joy and excitement of the gospel has grown stale for many of us? Is living out our Christianity filled with images of too many commitments and disappointments? Have we grown complacent with what it means to be the church in the world? Perhaps a lot of us here are like the elder brother from Christ’s great parable, we see our wayward younger brother return home for a celebration and we are envious. Maybe we hear the words from our Father saying, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours,” but the thrill and glory of these words have seemed to vanish.

Why are we here? Why did we wake up this Sunday morning and come to church? What brought us, what drove us to ever join together in the first place?

All of us are here because someone loved us enough to bring us, to invite us, to nurture us. Who was that person for you? Who was that saint in your life?

Paul writes about a “love toward all the saints” present in the community in Ephesus. That same love may, in fact, be half-present today in our lives through the casual “hello” at the Food Lion, in the wave as a car drives by in the neighborhood, and in the church fellowship activities in which we participate. But there is a temptation to take all of these things for granted, to live into them everyday, and never value them for what they really are.

I’m not proud to admit that I never realized how important Bob Foley was to my life until after he died. It was only in his absence that I began to appreciate the joy that he taught me every Sunday morning. I took my relationship with Bob for granted and I wish that I had lived into our friendship more while he was still here with us.

Like our relationship, it has taken me some time to discover what made Bob’s faith so worthy of emulation. I have wondered what it was that made him excited about the church, when so many others arrived more out of obligation than expectation.

Have you ever noticed that Paul almost never writes about the actual life of Jesus in his letters? Do you find it interesting that as a leader for the blossoming church in the first century, Paul rarely referenced the exciting life of Jesus Christ? He paid little attention to the Sermon on the Mount, the parables, the miracle stories, or other moving elements from the gospels. It seems, therefore, for the first Christians, what was most important was not what had happened in the past, but how Christ was living in and through them in the present. They most certainly remembered the words and actions of Christ in their worship, but their Christianity was exciting because Christ was still moving in their world.

Paul wrote to the church, “I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power.” The key word in this whole passage is “power.” When the first Christians appealed for conversion to the new faith they did not just talk about what had happened on a hill outside of Jerusalem in the year 33, but they witnessed to what Christ had done for them in their own lives.

Christ is a present power, rather than simply being an admired person from history, Christ transcends time and is with us in the present; that was the paramount miracle for the early church.

On this All Saint’s Day we are called to remember the saints of our lives, the Bob Foleys of the world, to be thankful for what they did for us, but to also live in the present. Be grateful for what they did, and live out our faith today. The saints and Christ are not just some historical influences in our lives but continually live and move through us in the ways that we continue to be faithful in the world.

Do you know God? I don’t mean some sort of dense theological knowledge, but real and tangible and simple. Do you know God in your life? We cannot have knowledge of a person until we see them in action and we shall not have faith in God until we trust and experience his divine love in the world.

There is a difference between the Word of God (Jesus Christ) and the word of God (scripture). Our knowledge of God in this community rests upon God’s Word as Jesus Christ. The Bible is not a textbook in the ordinary sense as a collection of facts that need to be checked and memorized but it is instead a story. In contains the majestic drama of God’s interaction with God’s people. The climax of the story is God’s coming down to dwell among us in the form of flesh, dying for us on a cross, rising again from the grave, returning to glory, and leaving behind a people of God endowed with knowledge of him.

When we remember the saints, when we gather together to read and proclaim scripture, it is important for us to remember God’s mighty acts in the world. However, what makes church and faith compelling, what moves us toward excitement, is God’s present power in the world! Today is the day that we can celebrate the lives that we have lost while also living into the exciting faith of what it means to be Christ’s body for the world.

Today we are called to remember those saints from our lives who shaped us into the people we are now. It is the time to remember disciples like Bob Foley who lived out his faith in his relationships with others, who felt the joy of Christ in his own life and in his own heart.

We remember those who have gone on with joy and with longing, for they are being held in the arms of our great Lord and we anticipate with joy the great reunion of all the saints of the church in God’s time.

Christians are not called to be motivated by the question: “what happens to me when I die?” but rather ”what am I doing with my life right now?” What we do in the here and now, how we live out our faith in the world, is what makes being the body of Christ an exciting and wonderful thing.

Jesus Christ is not a man of the past, a person to be remembered and recorded in history. Christ is alive! Christ is with us here and now in the gifts of bread and wine. Christ continues to live and breathe and change the world because we partake of him when we gather at his table.

If you are looking to find Christ in your life, if you want your faith to move from remembrance to lived reality, and if you want to find a joy worthy of celebration, then come. Come to Christ’s table and discover the inheritance that will change your life forever.

Amen.

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