Among the Great Company

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
November 6, 2016
All Saints’ Sunday

Revelation 7: 9-17 (CEB)
After this I looked, and there was a great crowd that no one could number. They were from every nation, tribe, people, and language. They were standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They wore white robes and held palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out with a loud voice:
“Victory belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
11All the angels stood in a circle around the throne, and around the elders and the four living creatures. They fell facedown before the throne and worshipped God, 12saying,
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always. Amen.”
13Then one of the elders said to me, “Who are these people wearing white robes, and where did they come from?”
14I said to him, “Sir, you know.”
Then he said to me, “These people have come out of great hardship. They have washed their robes and made them white in the Lamb’s blood. 15This is the reason they are before God’s throne. They worship him day and night in his temple, and the one seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, 17because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Hebrews 12: 1-2 (NRSV)
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, 2 looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

I know many of us are sitting here this morning thinking of people we love who aren’t with us today. Maybe our parents, or a sibling, or our spouse, or even a child, died a long time ago, or maybe it was just a few days ago. But however or whenever we experienced that loss, there is still at least on occasion a sense of sadness. There are still so many memories; for every person there is a treasure trove of stories we could tell.

On this day, in particular, we remember people who have died since our last All Saints’ Day observance. Indeed, we are thankful that these people now rejoice with the great heavenly throng. But for us, this is also a solemn time. Here is an observation of this day from a book in my office:

“Life is full of sorrow as well as joy, of tribulation as surely as triumph. If all sorrows can indeed be borne by means of stories, how much more true this must be for Christians if the stories are drawn from the pilgrimages of those who have gone before us in faith and finished the course. For these persons bear testimony to us concerning the One of whom it is written, ‘Surely he has borne our griefs / and carried our sorrows’ (Isaiah 53: 4). Their stories point us to his story. And it is his story that enables us to bear all our sorrow, for the joy that is set before us through him. His story is the sole source and focus of” everything we do as a church.

I want to tell you a story. That book in my office that holds that quote, it’s called Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, and it was written by my professor for Preaching and Worship in seminary, Reverend Doctor Laurence Stookey. He died on September 16. So, so much of how things happen in our worship together on Sunday mornings is because of what I learned from Dr. Stookey. He’s the reason I know the difference between the pronunciation “prophecy” and “prophesy.” He taught me how to administer communion: he’s the reason the table got moved forward soon after I got here—because Dr. Stookey taught me that communion is central to everything else we do as Christians. He’s the reason I break the bread after the Great Thanksgiving instead of during, he’s the reason I always give a pretty generous helping of bread when you come forward to receive the elements (because God is generous), he’s the reason I always receive communion last (because a host serves everyone else first). He listened to some of my earliest sermons and with firm compassion critiqued my work to help me grow as a preacher. I had him for a grand total of two classes, but his teaching dramatically shaped the work I do.

And you may or may not realize it, but his work has touched you as well. You will find his name on page vi of the Preface to our United Methodist Hymnal, and on several pages following. He was on the Hymnal Revision Committee and chaired the Worship Resources sub-committee for this hymnal that we use each week. The liturgy we use for baptism—he was heavily involved in shaping those words. The Great Thanksgiving that will guide our communion later, as it does every time we join in communion, was greatly influenced by his work. Prayers that we pray, the words of some of our songs like “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” they were written and adapted by Larry Stookey. He was integral in shaping the liturgy of the United Methodist Church, the words that we use corporately to praise God. It would be easy to name Laurence Stookey among the saints of God.

Let me tell you another story. When I made the Junior High basketball team at my school in seventh grade, I had only been playing basketball for one season. I was so far behind. My teammates had been playing team ball for years, and in some pretty competitive leagues, too. I did the best I could that season, and over the summer, my parents signed me up for two basketball camps, one at the high school in our town, and one at UT; the Pat Head Summit Basketball Camp. That was 1992, the year after the Lady Vols basketball team won their third NCAA Championship. I was already a huge Lady Vols fan, and two summers at the Pat Head Summit Basketball Camp sealed the deal. I faithfully followed the Lady Vols through the 90s and watched as they won five more National Championships. I was there in Thompson-Boling Arena when Pat achieved her 1,000th win and the court was named “The Summit.” And what I came to realize as I followed the Lady Vols through the years was just how instrumental Pat Summit was to their success, and how little of it was really about basketball. She accomplished so much for women in the field of sports. She always put academics first. Pat Summit coached the Lady Vols for 38 years and maintained a 100% graduation rate of her players. That’s a stat to lift up! But even more importantly, she cared about her players for the people they were. Many of them thought of her as their mother. And through it all, she maintained a strong and active faith and was a longtime member of Seymour United Methodist Church up near Knoxville. Pat Summit died on June 28. Many would name her among the saints of God.

Laurence Stookey and Pat Summit were giants in their respective fields. They faithfully walked as disciples of Christ from beginning to end. When we think of saints, it’s often these sorts of people that come to mind; the “big names,” the gospel writers, the Church fathers, Popes, Bishops, the Mother Theresas, and so on. We have equated the word “saint” with perfection, with achievement, with righteousness. But you know, what’s interesting is the Bible doesn’t really talk about saints; instead, we have these images of “a great company,” multitudes that “no one can number.” The Bible tells this story of God’s people; of imperfect people who were faithful, not saints who were perfect. Whether weathering the storms of their own stupid decisions, or the chaos of exile, or the torture of persecution—these are the people who remained firm in their faith, resilient in their declaration of God as Father and Jesus Christ as Lord. Revelation tells us that “the great crowd” were those “people [who] have come out of great hardship.”

Do you know some people who have faced hardship and tribulation in their lives? In the midst of that, did those same people keep the faith? Did they “fight the good fight?” We remember and lift up today nine members of this congregation who through it all lived a life of faith—who faced the ups and downs of this world always pointing to the glory of God. They may not have been world-renowned, but they faithfully and humbly offered their gifts in service to God. Even as they endured the Great Depression and the Great War, their faith was firm. And over time, they chaired committees of the church, they taught Sunday School, they sang in the choir, they raised their families in the faith and directed others to do the same. Now, they rest from their labors. But even in their rest, that living faith remains, as these nine and so, so many others we know and love are among that great company of heaven; standing around the throne in worship, singing and praising God day and night.

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith….” Friends, we are certainly not perfect. We are likely not at the pinnacle of our respective fields. Many of us have even dealt with doubt in our lifetimes. And we have all probably faced hardship—if not yet, then experience says we likely will. But we have before us this amazing example of how to live in the midst of all of that stuff! We are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, a great company that no one can number; these people that were a part of our lives, people that we know and love who through it all followed their faith, and who now stand in the heavenly throne room worshipping God ceaselessly. Our celebration of these saints is empty if we do not follow the example they have set for us, if we do not lay aside the weights that bring us down and run the race that is before us. We have to look “to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”, and as that great company sings “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and always,” our worship must join theirs; not only in this moment, but every single day. That is faith.

And here’s what we know. For all who follow the faith no matter what, “the one seated on the throne will shelter them. They won’t hunger or thirst anymore. No sun or scorching heat will beat down on them, because the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them. He will lead them to the springs of life-giving water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

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