The Eternal God Is Our Dwelling Place
We are never alone. It was five years ago that my dad died. He was young, but he was not well, and so his death, although too soon, was merciful. This congregation surrounded my family with care in amazing ways. You gave us time to be together. You turned out in droves for the memorial service. Your kindness made a deep impression on us.
It was not long after dad’s death that I began to have dreams about him. The details of the dreams changed. They took place in different locations, and there were different situations. The one thing that remained the same, though, was that dad was always just out of sight. He was there, but he was just around the corner, or in the other room.
The dreams still come, though not as often. And what I’ve learned from them is that my dad may be out of sight, but he’s still right there.
I don’t know that I would’ve said that ten years ago. Denominational dividing lines between churches don’t matter as much as they once did, but I’m enough of a cradle Presbyterian that I squirmed a lot at the word “saint”. For me, it was akin to ancestor worship. I could never understand why people would rather pray to the saints to intervene on their behalf when they have direct access to God. If you’ll forgive the flawed analogy, if I could have lunch with the President, why would I settle for coffee with a congressional aide?
The first chip in that theological armor came when a friend pointed out that the word “saint” is in the Bible. That was enough for me to know that I needed to take the word seriously, and that it deserved a closer look. And that led me to texts like the one read just a few moments ago from the letter to the Hebrews.
The letter to the Hebrews is unique, in that it is the only book of the New Testament that claims no author. Its primary purpose is to encourage early Jewish Christians. Jesus had not yet returned, as expected, and so their faith had begun to wane. After all, they reasoned, the Hebrew Scriptures had predicted the Messiah to be a military crusader in the line of King David. What the author does is return to those same Scriptures as evidence that the Messiah was promised as the suffering servant of Isaiah’s prophecies. The early Christians had not yet seen the fulfillment of the promises of faith, but, the author says, that put them in some excellent company. None of the greats of the Hebrew Bible lived to see the Messianic promise fulfilled, but they trusted in the promise enough to live lives of faith anyway.
And so, the author says, run that race of faith before you – not because you will necessarily see the finish line, but for the sake of that great cloud of witnesses, the ones up in the stands, cheering you on!
In short, you are never alone.
Church is one of the places where we are reminded of this truth. And one way that we have chosen to acknowledge that is through the establishment of our Memorial Garden. Some time back in the 1990’s, we set aside the courtyard between the sanctuary and the chapel as a place to inter the ashes of our beloved departed. Today’s sermon title comes from the words inscribed out there, just below the cross: “The eternal God is our dwelling place.”
The decision to consecrate such a place speaks volumes to me about who we are as a people of faith. I have seen this congregation rise up, time and time again, to surround people in times of death. We do it for our members, yes, but we do not dare to draw lines to limit God’s gracious care. We have opened up our facility countless times for those who grieve in our community. In fact, we did just that yesterday for the family of a young woman, a recent graduate of Oglethorpe University, who died far too early at age 23. You may not know this, but we have become known as a community that knows how to care for those who grieve. And I believe that this is because we know that hope always gets the final word, no matter what.
This is an important lesson to keep in mind when we look at our text today from Hebrews.
There is too much there to go into detail today, but what grabs me is that none of the people in the long list of the faithful could be described as perfect examples. They are flawed, many of them deeply so.
My favorite one is Gideon. Gideon came along at a time when the Israelites are thoroughly defeated and oppressed, and God calls Gideon to lead his people in throwing off that yoke of oppression. Gideon demurs, so God decides to give him a sign. As directed, Gideon takes meat and bread, puts them on a rock, and pours broth on them. An angel of the Lord touches them with a staff, and they are instantly consumed by fire. A pretty good trick, right?
And so Gideon, of course…asks for another sign. He puts a wool fleece on the floor overnight, and asks God to cover the fleece in dew while the ground stays dry. And in the morning, it is just as he asked for. And at that point, Gideon is ready to…ask God to do it again. The next morning, the same surprising result.
So let’s get this straight: spontaneous combustion wasn’t good enough for Gideon. It’s not even enough for God to do the exact sign he asks for, but twice! How nervy can you be?
The thing is, the same thing is true of every single name in the list from Hebrews. None of them lived perfect lives. And yet, somehow, they are commended for their faith, this catalogue of Hebrew Bible All-Stars.
And that’s just the thing: the word “saint” means “holy one”; but that holiness has nothing to do with them. There is no official canonization process in order to decide who is a saint and who is not. Saints are not necessarily moral paragons of virtue. The saints are, quite simply, those faithful who have died before us. It has little to do with human ability and everything to do with God at work. The saints we celebrate today are those who are now fully in the presence of God.
In a few moments, we will gather around this table. There is nothing magical about it. It’s an ordinary table that holds ordinary items. And yet, it is a powerful reminder that God uses the ordinary to accomplish extraordinary things. That’s the lesson of the faithful, of the saints who have gone before, who surround us now and always.
We are never alone!
That’s one reason our Memorial Garden has become a sacred place for me. Even more than the sanctuary or chapel, our Memorial Garden has become the place where I spend time in prayer. And when I pray, stunning my ten-years-ago self, I ask the saints there to pray with me. It’s not that I think God somehow gives me a better hearing if they chime in. I don’t think that’s the case. What I do believe is that prayer makes a difference. That’s why I might ask someone else to pray for me, or why in worship I invite us to pray together. So if I believe that, and if I really believe that death is not the end, why would I not ask the same of those who are there, but just out of sight?
My friends, we are never alone! And ordinary though we might be, let us live extraordinary lives, supported by that great cloud of witnesses.