Monday, November 2, 2009

Hearing God's Song

Sermon for 11.01.09, All Saints’ Day
Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10; Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12

Please pray with me: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

From today’s New Testament Lesson: After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

Today is All Saints’ Day, a day to remember our departed and to consider our own lives. It dates from the 4th century and it celebrates all Christian saints, those known to us and those unknown. I love the unknown part because we just don’t know all of those who have served or in what way—and we’d better not try to second-guess God. The passage from Ecclesiasticus reminds us that “of others there is no memory. But these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.” The Roman Church has a complicated and very careful way of canonizing saints, and that is fine for what we call the Church Expectant—the church in process. None of us knows who will be included at the end of time in the Church Triumphant.

It’s probably for that reason that even books compiled by Roman Catholic authors now include other categories: prophets, witnesses, those who were spiritual giants. Who would have thought, in the thick of the Civil Rights struggle, that Martin Luther King would become an “official saint.” On various lists, we find Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Gandhi, Johann Sebastian Bach, Kierkegaard. These and many others are those who mediate—who are connectors—between this world and God.

One of my favorites is a man simply known as Brother Lawrence. He became a lay brother of a monastery in Paris in the 17th century where he spent 40 years working in the kitchen. We know of him only because a visitor happened to begin a conversation with him and was so astonished that he needed to talk with him again and again. For Lawrence, things were quite simple. God, he said, “regards not the greatness of the work, but the love with which it is performed.”

For hundreds of years, All Saints’ Day has been followed by another, called All Souls’ Day. This day is meant to commemorate “the souls of the faithful departed.” Protestants choose not to rank or grade the faithful, and so we tend to combine the two days. For us, the term “saint” may indeed refer to an extraordinary person—a spiritual giant—but it may also describe someone as modest as a Brother Lawrence. Thus we use it as the New Testament does, for all Christians serving a community and serving Christ. And we leave it for God to judge.

There are so many saintly paths. There is the deep love of God to which Brother Lawrence refers. Two others are perhaps less obvious but thought-provoking: The English writer G. K. Chesterton defines a saint as one “who exaggerates what the world neglects.” On a different tack, Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that he must struggle “to be more than his weakest qualities.” (All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, Crossroad Pubs) To a greater or lesser extent, each of us—with all our faults—is sometimes capable of both of these things: lifting up what no one else has noticed and managing to be better than we could be.

Last week I asked what it would be like if we tried imagining our church as a song. I had an answer sooner than I expected. On Sunday afternoon, I went to a concert that I had been told not to miss. The program was Bach’s Art of the Fugue, performed on two pianos. For an hour and a half, without a break, the two musicians each played his own melodic lines (his own piece, if you like), but always listening for the way in which a similar melody was being repeated or imitated or changed by the other. The pianos were placed so that it was possible for the two to be aware of one another, by a slight nod or by eye contact or even by their breathing. In ways that became more and more complex and intense as the concert progressed, the two independent voices interwove to form a richly layered whole, greater than either of the parts. The last section was never finished by Bach and so it stops, unresolved, in the middle of a phrase.

There I sat listening as dusk gathered. Suddenly I realized that this is the way church can work and the way in which the saints work together with God. We each are singing our own melody and God is singing God’s. At our best, we realize that we are not alone. God certainly knows this. And so, while being ourselves, we are also making our song with God. At times, through a prayer, a sigh, an action, a meditation, tears, or a moment filled with love, we are aware of a connection. The result is awesome. And our work need not be finished—all of our songs need not have been sung—before we are called away.

Our own music here at church echoes this interweaving when the instruments play different parts, or when one plays a descant melody over the others, or when we sing a round. Our sermon hymn will allow us to experience this. First we’ll hear the basic melody that we all will sing. Then we will hear the descant. Finally we will put the two together. Saints in training!

And what of those whom we no longer see? Later in the service, we will have a chance to name, either silently or aloud, those loved ones who have gone to their reward. In the Scripture for today, there is much to reassure us. The Beatitudes tell us of the comfort the departed will receive: They will be filled with good things and they will see God. So too in Revelation, we must not miss God’s tenderness for those whom God now fully shelters. God’s graciousness responds to the most elemental human needs: “They will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb…will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

In different way, we each know hunger and thirst; we are scorched and stricken. We long to be understood and to be guided to living waters. We struggle to be better than we have been and to realize a vision with which we are sometimes graced. With our Hope in God as well as our failings, we want to be of that number when the saints come marching in.

Let us pray: Dearest Lord, we give thanks for those who have died and are now at rest in your presence. By your grace, count us as one with them. Stir up in us, by the power of your Holy Spirit, a love for singing in harmony with you. Enable us to learn by the example of your saints in glory, that we may proclaim to all the world that nothing can separate us from your love. AMEN.

*** BULLETIN ***
Morning Worship with Holy Communion - November 1, 2009
Additional reading for today: Psalm 24
Lectionary for next week: Ruth 3:1-5; 4:13-17; Psalm 127 or Psalm 42; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Instrumental Prelude
Greeting by Pastor
Invocation (in unison):
We bless your holy name, O God, for all your servants who, having finished their course, now rest from their labors. Give us grace to follow your holy saints in all virtuous and godly living, to your honor and glory and so that we may come to those joys, which you have prepared for those who sincerely love you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Introit #64 “Holy, Holy, Holy! Lord God Almighty”
*Call to Worship #652 “Canticle of Remembrance” Response 1
*Opening Hymn #711 “For All the Saints” (v. 1, 2, 5, 6)
Prayer of Confession (in unison):
Merciful God, we confess that we have not loved you with our whole heart. We have failed to be an obedient church. We have not done your will, we have broken your law, we have rejected your love, we have not loved our neighbors, and we have not heard the cry of the needy.
Forgive us, we pray. Bring us to joyful obedience, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Words of Assurance
Time for Children of All Ages
(Children 3 and older may proceed to Children’s Church.)

Proclamation of the Word of God
Old Testament Reading: Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 44:1-10
Instrumental Music
New Testament Reading: Revelation 7:9-17
Instrumental Music
Gospel Reading: Matthew 5:1-12
Sermon “Hearing God’s Song” Pastor Dora J. Odarenko

Response to the Word of God
*Sermon Hymn #405 “Seek Ye First”
Offering of Congregational Joys and Concerns
Silent Prayer followed by Pastoral Prayer
The Offering of Our Gifts
Prayer of Thanksgiving

Holy Communion
The Sacrament of Holy Communion
The Pastor will be using The Great Thanksgiving for All Saints Day, but the people’s responses are found as usual in the Hymnal, pp. 13-14. After the Consecration, you will be invited to name, either silently or aloud, those who have died in the past year.
The Great Thanksgiving UMC p. 13
The Lord’s Prayer
Giving the Bread and Cup
*Post-Communion Hymn #614 “For the Bread Which You Have Broken”

Sending Forth
*Dismissal with Blessing
Organ Postlude

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