Words matter. And the last words we remember from loved ones matter in particular. In the lead up to All Saints’ Day, I’ve pondered about the importance that we often attach to the last words of our beloved ones, of the saints who have gone before. Sometimes the words are a cry for help, sometimes they are words of a deeply committed hope and faith, sometimes they are words of blessing upon the family or loved ones who are at the side of the dying person, sometimes they’re just random. In many cases, of course, we aren’t sure what the person’s final words were. But in all of the varied cases, one thing remains the same: for the survivors, the future is uncertain and sometimes downright scary. The new reality that will unfold in the aftermath of a loved one’s death is one that is largely unpredictable. How will I…how will we move on without him or her or them? The beast of death and of the uncertain future is so scary.

And it works for more than death too. To speak to other current events (ahem, Election Day)…what will I/we do if my/our ideal candidate is not elected? We’re so prone to be trapped in fear about what we hear might happen if the worst thing occurs and the beast on the other side of the political aisle gets elected? Or perhaps there is more than one beast on the ballot? The future is so uncertain. How do we move on when the beast will surely rise from the earth and claim us, one way or another (or both)?

Daniel has a vision, a dream of sorts, which though it has a nice resolution at the end is filled at first with monsters who evoke fear and terror and death on the rest of the world who would dare stand in their way. Daniel admits that he is deeply troubled by these four beasts and asks for an interpretation by one of the angelic attendants in the dream. And did you notice the angel’s response? It’s almost nonchalant. The angel in a matter-of-fact way just says those four beasts represent four kingdoms. The angel doesn’t put as much significance on that part of the vision as Daniel (or we) would wish, but moves rather swiftly to point out that the eternal kingdom belongs to the “holy ones” of the Ancient of Days, or as other translations put it, the “saints” of the Most High God! If you continue reading the rest of Daniel 7, you’ll notice that Daniel is not satisfied with the lack of specificity about the nature of the vision and what all is represented therein…particularly those beasts. You see, living with ambiguity and the temptation to fear is not a new predicament for God’s people.

The angel, and thereby God, is inviting Daniel, and thereby us, to take a longer view than to be merely caught up in the temporal realities and kingdoms and powers that will one day pass…and yes, Tuesday (Election Day), too, shall pass. We are invited to take a view that, rather, is one that has stood the test of time and remains throughout kingdoms and empires, across crusades and dark ages, through times of persecution and exile, and even survived the times of enjoying popularity which was probably the most threatening temptation to the preservation and deliverance of genuine faith. The communion of the saints. It’s a part of the Creed we confess…a creed that has been around longer than any of the political candidates up for election, a creed that is older than the United States, older than the British empire, than the Holy Roman Empire, older than the dark ages, older than when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman empire, even older than when the Church established which books would be within the canon of the New Testament. “I believe in…the communion of saints… (or the communion of the holy ones)…” and this forever and ever “…life everlasting.”

The last words of our Creed, the last words of the angel to Daniel in our passage. Congruent with the last words of our movement’s founder, John Wesley, who on his death bed proclaimed several times: “The best of all is, God is with us.” That statement – “God IS with us” is not a statement bound by a particular time period but is an eternal statement that stands the test of time…God was, God is, God will be – or as God revealed God’s self to Moses, “I am.” That is the one to whom the saints ultimately give their allegiance – not to the beasts that emerge from the earth, not to the kingdoms that come and go, not to the political parties or any temporal reality – but to the One who sits on the Throne, who has conquered the realm that ruled over all the kingdoms of the earth. For you know what the beasts all have in common? They all died: the reign of death. And this One, the one who appeared “like a human being” or “a Son of Man” established at the funeral of one of his best friends that, “those who believe in me, though they die, yet shall they live.”

stole-from-papaw-ties

Last words. My wife, Carrie, made this stole (see above) for me. The symbols of eternity and the Trinity that are intertwined are made from the materials of some of my Papaw’s neckties. When I think of the communion of saints, he is one of the first ones who come to mind. The reality is that I don’t know what my Papaw’s last words were. I don’t know what he uttered as he died, if anything, for he was alone building a fence around some hay bales for his cattle. But even though his last words are unknown, he actually left a message loud and clear for his loved ones in positioning himself the way he did when he died. Granny found him lying in the field, his glasses in his shirt pocket, his right hand holding a hammer, his left hand holding a fence post. He died sending a message that said: “Until the eternal kingdom comes in fullness when God wipes away all tears and death and crying and pain will be no more…until that day, I will not stop working.” No temporal reality, no setback, no fear, no temptation would hold him back from his task. Papaw’s favorite hymn was one called ‘Yield not to Temptation,’ #191 in the All-American Hymnal that resides in the pews at Oscar UMC. Almost every time there was a hymn sing and my dad (the song leader) opened the floor for requests for congregational hymns, Papaw would holler out, “Number 191!” The final verse is so fitting for Daniel 7. Yield not to temptation…yield not to fear of the beasts…death will not have the final say…

To them that o’ercometh, God giveth a crown,
Through faith we will conquer, though often cast down;
He who is our Savior, our strength will renew;
Look ever to Jesus, He’ll carry you through.

Yesterday was the homecoming & memorial day service for Liberty UMC. Below is the script from which I shared.

Scripture text – 2 Corinthians 3:16-17

“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…”

I sat down and read a lot about the history of Liberty UMC this week and have found myself chuckling at some stories, scratching my head at others, wondering about some of the missing details, and weeping tears of empathy at those confessing deep pain and loss. In a world of brokenness like ours, any story worth telling will be filled with the message of redemption that is brought through pain.

But one story that stands out in particular is the story of the roof of the church catching on fire one cold Sunday in March of 1928 when Liberty was a wooden building. The details of how certain people went to great lengths to keep the fire and damage to a minimum are awe-inspiring in some parts and kind of comical at others. But I thought the closing reflection of the story said it well…

“Some members had thought it much too cold to walk to church on that day, but somehow before the fire was brought under control, the church yard was full of people and in those days, communications was limited to just a few battery operated phones. Someone made the remark, ‘Maybe we should set a fire to the roof every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large’.”

Well, as I look out over this crowd I just might say, “Maybe we should have a homecoming & memorial day every Sunday if it will draw a crowd this large!” I really am not interested in setting the roof on fire.

“…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty…”

Have you ever just paused and thought about the name of this church? It’s really a great name. Liberty. What comes to your mind when you hear the word “liberty”?

I asked this question to F.W. and H.P., two of our most faithful members who are now home-bound or at the nursing home. Before sharing a story or two about their experience at the church, they both said the same word came to mind when they hear “liberty” and that word is freedom.

In fact freedom is the word that is used in most English translations of our passage this morning: “…where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom…”

But what else comes to mind when you hear the word “liberty”? Perhaps the infamous Liberty Bell. What is the distinguishing mark of the Liberty Bell?

Liberty Bell (photo credit: wikipedia)

Liberty Bell (photo credit: wikipedia)

The crack in it, right? Of course, that mark can serve as a good reminder that what is required for liberty, or freedom, comes at a great cost and often leaves its scars. Even the resurrected body of Jesus still had the scars from the nails in his hands and feet as well as from the spear in his side.

Or maybe you’re a wordsmith and famous lines containing “liberty” are more likely to stand out. Like famous statement by Patrick Henry? “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!” Or perhaps what is found in the Declaration of Independence? “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among them are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

What other sounds or images of “liberty” come to mind for those of us living in the U.S.? Probably the Statue of Liberty. She really is a fine statue, but have you ever considered the irony, the contradiction, in the title? Think about it. A statue is something that is permanent, something fixed, something that is not living, that is, something that is not really “free” yet the word “liberty” itself means freedom. But as I pondered the apparent contradiction of that term, “Statue of Liberty” my mind was taken to some words offered by John Wesley.

Wesley wrote a collection of prayers for individuals, families, and children for morning and evening, each day of the week. His Thursday evening prayer for families begins this way: “O LORD our GOD, thy glory is above all our thoughts, and thy mercy is over all thy works. We are still living monuments of thy mercy; for you have not cut us off in our sins, but still give us a good hope, and strong consolation through grace. You have sent thy only Son into the world, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish in his sins, but have everlasting life.”

I like that. We are “…living monuments of God’s mercy…” or to put another way, “…living monuments of liberty…” I looked out over our cemetery this week and saw all the monuments identifying who is buried by each one. The stones and their engravings are there for our remembrance, that we may recall the faithfulness of God in the lives of our forefathers and foremothers. That is, we remember that God is faithful to bring liberty, or freedom, to God’s children. And as I looked over those monuments of God’s mercy, I realized that the act of remembering our past is an extremely important task for we who seek to follow Christ. Consider that in establishing the meal of the new covenant, Jesus said, “When you eat this bread and drink this cup, remember me.” Remembrance is a necessary act for Christians. For if we look or move toward the future without acknowledging God’s faithfulness in the past (and present), then we would be performing an exercise of futility.

This day, we remember and celebrate the liberty that God has wrought in the great work of our redemption in Christ. Liberty is at the heart of Jesus’ mission statement. In Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke (4:16ff.), he is reading from Isaiah in worship in the synagogue and he applies this statement to himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed…”

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” That would be a great vision for a church, wouldn’t it? “…to proclaim liberty to the captives…”

Hobart & Hazel Hargis were one of four couples who had been married for over 50 years when a history of Liberty UMC was written in 1984 for the Bicentennial celebration of when the Methodist Episcopal Church was established, which was in 1784. For the bicentennial, each couple that had been married over 50 years was asked several questions about their married lives, what advice they would pass onto younger couples, etc. They were also asked what their biggest crisis was over the course of their marriage. To this question, Hobart & Hazel responded that theirs was the long illness of their baby and being able to finally hear its cry.

I’m unsure of exactly the nature of that illness as there were no further details of the story in what I read, but it sounds to me like the type of longing expectation to be fulfilled like one who has been captive to be set at liberty. Ever had a nightmare where you’re trying to cry for help but have no voice? Then when you wake up, there is this great sigh of relief…you’re free. This baby’s voice and health was seemingly held captive, but after a long struggle, was set free. That’s an image of liberty.

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” More recently, we’ve had people join the church in the past few years who in the past were held captive in various ways: by addictions, by debt, by guilt. And they have found a home in liberty, both in this church that bears the name and in the glorious liberty of knowing the freedom in Christ from being held in bondage.

“…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” I look out over this congregation and I see living monuments of God’s mercy and Christ’s great act of liberty. I see the Spirit of the Lord, that is the Spirit of Christ, and Paul says wherever that Spirit is, there is liberty. And we have been set at liberty, that is, we have been set free to join Christ’s great mission “…to proclaim liberty to the captives…” If God has been faithful thus far, imagine what greater things God has in store if we will but live into this mission of proclaiming liberty to the captives.

"...my chains fell off..." (photo credit: @chainsbroken on twitter.com)

“…my chains fell off…” (photo credit: @chainsbroken on twitter.com)

I close with an image of liberty that I have found quite powerful. My favorite hymn by Charles Wesley is ‘And Can It Be That I Should Gain’ which is #363 in our hymnal. It is filled with some of the greatest language describing God’s free(ing) grace. Verse 4 has long been my favorite and it goes like this:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.

We had been locked in a dungeon, bound in darkness and sin. But when we allow Christ to shed light to pierce the darkness and to break those chains that have held us in bondage, then we will know what liberty truly means as we will be free to follow this Christ who has set us free.

It was sometime around the ninth century that a hymn for the Holy Spirit was believed to be written by Rhabanus Maurus, Archbishop of Mainz. With today being Pentecost, the day we celebrate the pouring out of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in Acts 2, I wanted to share the lyrics of the hymn with you. The English translation below is taken from Raniero Cantalamessa, an Italian Catholic priest who has served as the preacher to the Papal Household since 1980. Cantalamessa shared this translation in his excellent book of meditations upon the hymn in Come, Creator Spirit.

Come, Creator Spirit,
visit the minds of those who are yours;
fill with heavenly grace
the hearts that you have made.

You who are named the Paraclete,
gift of God most high,
living fountain, fire, love
and anointing for the soul.

You are sevenfold in your gifts,
you are finger of God’s right hand,
you, the Father’s solemn promise
putting words upon our lips.

Kindle a light in our senses,
pour love into our hearts,
infirmities of this body of ours
overcoming with strength secure.

The enemy drive from us away,
peace then give without delay;
with you as guide to lead the way
we avoid all cause of harm.

Grant we may know the Father through you,
and come to know the Son as well,
and may we always cling in faith
to you, the Spirit of them both.

Amen.

Happy Pentecost, sisters and brothers!

Photo credit: Deacon Greg Candra on patheos.com

Photo credit: Deacon Greg Candra on patheos.com

Latin lyrics of the hymn:

Veni Creator Spiritus,
mentes tuorum visita,
imple superna gratia
quae tu creasti pectora.

Qui Paracletus diceris,
donum Dei altissimi,
fons vivus, ignis, caritas
et spiritalis unctio.

Tu septiformis munere,
dexterae Dei tu digitus,
tu rite promissum Patris
sermone ditans guttura.

Accende lumen sensibus,
infunde amorem cordibus,
infirma nostri corporis
virtute firmans perpeti.

Hostem repellas longius,
pacemque dones protinus,
ductore sic te praevio
vitemus omne noxium.

Per te sciamus da Patrem,
noscamus atque Filium,
te utriusque Spiritum
credamus omni tempore.

Amen.

For several years now, I’ve been drawn mostly to Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus’ during Advent. I’ve tried to suggest that it’s the best hymn of Advent, but Jerry Walls, my philosophy professor from seminary, has rebutted that while Charles’ lyrics are rich in theology, it does not carry quite nearly the narrative richness nor the robust pathos as his favorite, ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel.’ And I’m beginning to be convinced that he might be right.

I was so looking forward to preaching this Gaudete Sunday. The third Sunday in Advent, whose candle is typically pink, or rose colored, contains the theme of joy, and usually sparks a little more of an upbeat than the other themes. After all, joy is a hallmark of the season that focuses on happiness: it brings a smile to our faces as we share beloved memories with our faith and biological families, as we say ‘CHEESE!’ for family photos, and receive more mail (i.e., Christmas cards) during any other time of the year. (Who doesn’t love getting good mail like that?)

Joy filled the air with the evangel message brought by a host of angels to a group of lowly shepherds, saying, “I bring you good tidings of great JOY, which shall be for all the people…”

This Sunday, I was ready to burst out singing ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come’ at such a volume that would’ve put to shame Clark W. Griswold’s prelude to his first failed attempt at turning on the lights on his house.

My heart and mind were tuned to the songs of joy, the notes were lined up, the outline was all typed out. I was ready to preach by mid-week. Then…Connecticut…

How am I supposed to talk about joy in a world, in a time, like this? It would come out rather hollow, it seems. And if I had talked about joy the way we tend to think about it, then yes it would have.

But then I realized that the joy that we discover in Advent is not a happy-go-lucky type of joy that ignores evil and darkness that exist in our world. Nor does this joy focus on us “holding on” long enough until God takes us out of this seemingly crappy world so that we can enjoy heaven on the other side. For as I read the pages of Scripture I find that the curse (Genesis 3 and thereafter) is not the beginning; that something joyful existed before then; that the world wasn’t originally crappy, but good, “very good” in fact; that the Advent of Christ’s Incarnation has begun the work of undoing that curse

I realized that ‘Joy to the World, the Lord is come’ are not the only lyrics of the hymn, but that it also proclaims that Christ “comes to make his blessings known far as the curse is found“…and might I add, “and even farther”? Isaac Watts, in penning these lyrics, knew that the curse was hanging around. And so do we. And it hangs around by paralyzing and captivating its victims with fear.

In the final stanza (3:14-20) of his book, Zephaniah gave us a melody of hope, and it found itself in the image of God singing over God’s people with joy, removing disaster from them (note: NOT removing them from disaster). But this final stanza is really the only bit of good news that Zephaniah offered the people. The rest was just bad news upon impending judgment upon bad news upon…well, you get the picture. Upon hearing all this, it would seem to be rather easy to be held captive by a fear that they (or we) wouldn’t be able to make it. But even this final stanza still wasn’t the fulfillment of that joy…just an invitation to believe that disaster would not ultimately be victorious over them but would be removed one day.

Musically, it would be like that moment when, in a song filled with dissonance yet concludes with a consonant chord, the instability is just about to be overcome by the final note, which provides the stable resolution we most long for.

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

A dissonant chord (Photo credit: wikipedia.org)

When I first heard ‘O come, O come, Emmanuel’ as a child, there was something, musically, I didn’t like about it. It sounded dissonant to me. Like it didn’t seem to fit one of the few lyrics I then understood in the song: “Rejoice!” How could a song telling me to “Rejoice!” sound so…off? But perhaps that is why it is so appropriate, because the feeling is so familiar to our world, which is still cursed with dissonance…with evil that often holds us captive in fear. But this ‘joy’ we talk about, especially in Advent, is not identified with hollow happiness nor shown by fake smiles. Instead, it is of an expectant variety that in recognizing evil, is not held captive by it, for we believe that evil’s defeat has been guaranteed, and that we can pave the way (tune our instruments?) for the harmony to come “on earth as it is in heaven.” That’s not escapist theology…because if it was about going away from the earth, then the music would stop. God created the world in harmony with the creation responding appropriately. And God intends to take the dissonance away, so that beauty prevails. That’s what we long for.

As a later verse of (maybe) my new favorite Advent hymn says, “O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer; Our spirits by Thine advent here; Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, And death’s dark shadows put to flight. Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!”

Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!