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Waiting for You
May 25, 1975

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

HEBREWS 11:39-12:2


“In Memoriam” by Nina Serrano,

The death of you, has still not come.

Although your old body doesn’t fill the shabby spaces, they allotted it.

I feel you with me, as I live my history,

rubbing against love sunlight to moonlight,

flowers pushing up through your grave,

memory is eternity.

Memory is an ancient dance.

How do you think of the dead? Where are they? What kind of a relationship can there be between the living and the dead? What can be the meaning of that relationship for you and me as we live our lives?

The author of Hebrews and we read a portion in the New Testament lesson this morning, gives a very vivid and a very exciting picture of heaven, a vivid picture of the relationship that can exist between the living and the dead, the meaning of that relationship for us as we face the future, a meaningful direction and focus that our lives may take. This relationship between the living and the dead can be expressed in two words, memory and communion.

On this memorial day Sunday, what does it mean to remember? Memory is a very important aspect of the Bible, especially in the Old Testament. The ancient Israelites remembered the heroes of the past and recounted their deeds. They remembered the mighty acts of God in order to better understand who they were and where they were going. We remember in order to get a clearer picture of what’s happening to us. Memory is more than just thinking about the past, more than just thinking about the deceased. Memory in the Bible was a conscious act that led to a clearer understanding of the present situation. Memory gave direction for the future as they as they made decisions.

So we remember. We remember the meaning of our names. We remember our ancestors in order to better understand who we are and where we’re going. We remember the heroes of our country in order to better understand what our country is, what our country is about. We remember in order to make better decisions for the future. Memory is the earth out of which bricks are made, bricks which we use to build. Memory is the composition that the organist uses. And to the composition, the organist brings his talent, his training, his feelings, his personality, and in a very real sense, that composition then becomes his. But he began with the memory.

On this Memorial weekend, remember to decorate the graves, to stand at the graves; remember to tell your children the story of your grandparents and great grandparents of how we came to this land. To remember is to honor the past, and that past is very much alive in us today. Your ancestors are very much in you. The great heroes of our nation are present in our situation today. To remember, to honor the past is to pronounce it good. To honor it is to preserve it is and proudly claim it as our heritage. We are part of a great people. You’re not alone. You belong to a great people. You belong to several great peoples. You have a proud surname, a family name that extends way back into history. You’re part of a great company. You bear the name of Christ; you’re a Christian. As a Christian, you’re part of a great people extending back for centuries. You’re United Methodists. You’re part of a great people. We are Americans. We are part of a great people.

In the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, part of which was read in our lesson, the author of Hebrews lists some of those great heroes of the past and recounts some of their deeds. He listed Enoch, Sarah, Abraham, Moses, David, so forth. And to that list, we could add people of the New Testament—Paul, Peter, Luke, John. We could add some of the heroes from church history: Remember St. Augustine, St. Thomas, St. Francis. Remember Martin Luther, John Calvin, John Wesley. We could add to that list heroes of our nation. Remember George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln. We could add to that list the heroes of California. Remember the Indians, the Spaniards who colonized the coastal areas. Remember the priests who traveled up and down the El Camino Real ministering to the Indians and to the Spaniards. Remember the settlers who one hundred years ago came to this part of California; some came for gold, but all came for a new opportunity to make a new life or adventure. Remember those farmers who settled Manteca and who made this a community. Remember those early people who built this church, who built this congregation. Remember those people who federated in the 1920s—the two congregations that came together.

Add the people of your own family, the heroes who have made you what you are and your family. The list is endless. Remember their dreams. Remember what gave them impetus, what gave them motivation. It’s a beautiful list.

And what did they receive? What was their reward in life? No doubt they received some kind of satisfaction. No doubt they received some kind of compensation. Hopefully all these heroes had a vision that their life was not lived in vain. But what was their reward? The completion of their lives, the fulfillment of their lives, the perfection of their lives, was not realized. The author of Hebrews says that the fulfillment of their lives, the completion of their lives is not even found in heaven. Not even found in the next life. Their reward, according to Hebrews, was to be told to wait. This is what he wrote. “And all these all these heroes, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised. Since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us, they should not be made perfect.” Wow! Apart from us, they should not be made perfect. They are waiting for you and for me to complete their work. All that they lived and all that they died for all; all that they dreamed, hoped, envisioned, now rests upon us. Their perfection, their completion, their fulfillment, is now in our hands. They are waiting for you to complete their work.Kazantzakis in the book The Saviors of God wrote, “Where are you going? How shall you confront life and death, virtue and fear? All the race (meaning all your ancestors) takes refuge in your breast. It asks questions there and lies waiting in agony. You have a great responsibility. You do not govern now only your own small insignificant existence. You are a throw of the dice on which for a moment the entire fate of your race is gambled. Everything you do reverberates throughout a thousand destinies.” That’s pretty heavy. You are a throw of the dice on which for a moment, the entire fate of the race is gambled for you and I have in our power to undo the work of the past. Or, to bring it further along on its road to completion. Perhaps those words are heavy and lay a great weight of responsibility on your shoulders and you feel like crawling under the pew.

On the other hand, these words are very freeing, because this concept that we are completing the work of the past adds significance to our lives, gives us our reason for living. You are not small and insignificant. You are not a nothing. For upon you and in you and through you bring to completion all that the heroes of your past came to bring. Your life has great value and your life has great meaning for you are a link in the chain from Abraham to the kingdom of God. You and I are a link in that chain. To remember is more than a nostalgic, sentimental thinking about the past. To remember in the biblical sense is a conscious act that gives clarity to the present situation and direction for the future.

There’s another word that characterizes the relationship between the living and the dead— communion, or fellowship. The author of Hebrews wrote, “We are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.” Where are the dead? Where is heaven? Not in some far off distant abode, not in some far off distant city, not in some far place beyond the stars and the planets. Heaven is surrounding us. Heaven is all around us.

Two images of this concept, two analogies: First, a baseball game in which the stands are crowded with cheering spectators witnessing the performance of their players—watching every pitch the pitcher throws, watching every time the batter swings his bat, witnessing their performance but not just sitting there watching; but participating with their support, with their cheering. In this image, the dead heroes of our past, the dead heroes of our families are sitting in the stands and you are on the pitcher’s mound or you are in the batter’s box. And they’re witnessing, watching your performance, cheering you on, encouraging you. That’s an image of heaven. They’re all around you.

Another image: We have friends back in Menlo Park—the Hunts, Every time you enter their living room, you’re confronted with half of their living room wall completely covered with pictures of their ancestors. From the ceiling to the floor, a collage of photos of the Hunt family is staring them in the face. Every time they enter that living room, they’re confronted with witnesses of their past. They are constantly reminded of their people, of who they are and where they came from.

The relationship between the living and the witnesses is more than waiting. It’s communion, fellowship and a sense of participation. We recite in the Apostles Creed, “I believe in the communion of saints.” Through the centuries that has become distorted, so that many Protestants have shied away from the whole concept, and have lost a beautiful meaning. Communion of saints, fellowship with the saints does not mean that we are to attempt direct communication with the dead. The word is communion, not communication. Communion of saints does not mean we are to pray to the saints, but rather, to pray for them. Communion or fellowship in the biblical sense is always grounded in God, centered in God.

A Christian marriage is one in which the spouses relate to each other through God and in God. A Christian friendship is one in which friends relate to each other in the deep love of God. True fellowship is always triangular with God, ourselves, and the other. The relationship to God is through other people, with other people, and in other people. The relationship with other people is in and through God. It’s a triangular relationship that cannot be separated. And what happens in this triangular relationship when one of the people die, when one of the people leave? Does this break the triangle? No, never. Paul has written those powerful words in the eighth chapter of Romans, “Not even death can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” Not even death. Within this triangular framework, we are encouraged to pray for the dead, not to the dead, but for the dead. Early Christians found this practice very meaningful and then superstition almost ruined it for us. But we can pray to God for our dead loved ones because love transcends death. The Holy Spirit is not confined to this physical temporal Earth. The Book of Revelation pictures the saints surrounding the throne of God singing, rejoicing and praying. And for whom are they praying? They are praying for you and for me; they are praying for us. An ancient tradition says that whenever you think of a dead loved one, it is because he/she is praying for you. That’s a beautiful tradition. A prayer can keep a relationship alive.

Consider Mrs. x. She was married for many years. Throughout their married life, she constantly prayed for her husband. She prayed that he’d be well, successful, happy, a good husband, a good father. Then he dies. Then he leaves. Should she no longer pray that he be happy, that he know joy, that he know peace? In a very real sense, surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses we are never alone. Some of you have to live in a house all by yourself now, or in an apartment all alone. But in a very real sense you’re not alone. You’re surrounded by the presence of God. You’re surrounded by the presence of those witnesses. By recounting past experiences, by reading words of the past, by praying, you can experience a deep sense of communion.

You are not alone. You are not insignificant. You have a great task to do to finish their work, for they are waiting for you to complete their work. To remember and to experience this kind of communion does not make us dependent, grief stricken and sentimental for it frees us to face the future. The author of Hebrews ends this particular passage by saying, “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and sin which clings so closely. And let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” Lay aside every weight which holds us down. Cast off that self pity. Cast off feeling sorry for yourself because someone died and left you alone. Discard that inferiority feeling that you are inadequate or that your life doesn’t count.

Get on with living. The purpose of memory, the purpose of communion is to get on with living. Face the future. Run the race. Bring to fruition the completion, the fulfillment of their dreams, all that they died for.

© 1975 Douglas I. Norris