Sunday, November 3, 2013

November 3, 2013

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC

PRECIOUS SAINTS

Psalm 116:5-19

You’re sick.  Not just feeling under the weather.  You are really sick.  You are under a doctor’s care.  It’s hard to get a straight answer out of your doctor so you can’t be real sure, but you’re pretty sure this is serious.  By what your doctor has told you and by your doctor’s evasiveness when you ask questions, you have a good idea you are not going to get better.

It’s hard to get used to this idea that you are dying.  Very hard.  On your good days you can still convince yourself that you are just fine.  There is nothing wrong with you.  But on your bad days you know better.  Slowly, painfully you adjust to this strange new idea that what happens eventually to all people is actually going to happen to you.  Still you pray, as Jesus prayed, “God, if there is any way, any way at all that I can go on living, I want so much to go on living.”

As the days go by it dawns on you that your good days are outnumbering your bad days.  In fact, it’s been a long time now since you’ve had a really bad day.  You don’t want to get your hopes up, but you’re feeling so good.  Something is changing.  It’s time to see your doctor again.  He runs the standard tests.  This time there is a smile on his face as he enters your room.  “Good news,” he says.  “I can’t find anything wrong with you.”

The Psalm we read today was written by one who had had just such an experience.  Recovery from a life-threatening illness.  You read this passage and you can almost feel what the writer felt — relief, joy, gratitude.  Some of you have been there.  You have experienced just such a miracle.  You know that it’s more than a cliché — you don’t know how precious life is until you have almost lost it.  You know how precious life is, and so does the writer of this Psalm.

In fact this word “precious” appears in Psalm 116.  It appears in verse 15 — the verse that drew me to this passage in the first place, the verse that seems to make Psalm 116 so appropriate for this All Saints Sunday.  “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints” (vs 15).  But wait.  This is a Psalm about the preciousness of life.  So what a strange verse this is:  “Precious . . . is the death of [God’s] saints”!  So I took the commentary off my shelf.  It says, “This Psalm is marked by some minor literary blemishes.  For example verse 15 does not seem relevant to its context.”  I read that and I said to myself, “Great!”  Here I have scheduled a sermon built around this one verse, not entirely sure what the verse means but confident the verses around it would make its meaning clear.  And now the Bible experts are telling me that “verse 15 does not seem relevant to its context.”

Many Bible translators agree.  They change the wording of this verse to make it more relevant.  So we have the Today’s English Version:  “How painful it is to the Lord when one of his people dies.”  The Living Bible:  “His loved ones are very precious to him and he does not lightly let them die.”  The Contemporary English Version:  “You are deeply concerned when one of your loyal people faces death.”  The Message:  “When they arrive at the gates of death, God welcomes those who love him.”

There is great reluctance to translate these words the way the original Hebrew actually reads:  “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”  I can understand that reluctance.  After all, this is a Psalm about life, not death.  It’s about answered prayer.  It’s about a near death experience.  It’s about the new eyes through which it is possible to see life after one has almost died.

Anna Quindlen has a book out called, A Short Guide to a Happy Life.  She talks about this very thing — this tendency to sort of sleepwalk through life and not wake up to how wonderful life truly is until we’re about to die.  She said the ministers at memorial services she has attended all seem to say the pretty much the same thing:  “It was only after Mary was told her diagnosis was terminal that she came to a new understanding of what really matters in life.”  Anna Quindlen said she finds that distressing.  Why can’t we live a full and a happy life right now?

She was interviewed about her book.  She was asked about this part of her book.  And the interviewer interjected something I thought was most profound.  “The final gift our loved ones give us is their death, because it’s their death that wakes us up to the brevity and the preciousness of life.”

It’s life that is precious, not death.  That must be a typo in this morning’s text.  A child wrote this letter:  “Dear God, Instead of letting people die, why don’t you just keep the ones you have now?”  It’s a good question.  It’s an age-old question.  Leo Durocher was 89 when he was given baseball’s highest honor, a place in the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.  He said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality by being inducted into the Hall of Fame.  I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”  I agree with Leo Durocher.  The late Leo Durocher I’m afraid I must add.  Because he didn’t achieve immortality the way he wanted to.  And we won’t either.

God is good.  God answers prayer.  God works miracles.  God delivers people from death.  God has done that for me.  Maybe God has done that for you.  Maybe more than once.  Maybe you’re like that cat with nine lives.  But even cats don’t get ten lives.  Eventually all of us are going to come to that moment when it is time to die.

When we do, that moment is going to be precious to God.  Maybe it isn’t a typo after all.  “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints.”  We are precious to God.  Our lives are precious.  That’s a word you would use for your children or your spouse or your parents or someone who you love more than words can say.  Precious means priceless.  It means infinitely valuable.  God’s saints are precious to God and to us.  We can say that for each of the seven we have remembered today.  We can say that for each of the saints beyond these seven who we have loved and still love so much.  We can say their lives are precious, but can we also say that their deaths are precious?  That’s harder to say.  Can we say that and mean that?  I think the person who wrote Psalm 116 said that and meant that.

Perhaps the ultimate gift that comes from a near death experience is the realization that not only is life an infinitely valuable blessing but so too is death.  And so when death comes, when God heals us by taking us home to be with him, we can know that even that moment we so fear and dread is really nothing to fear.  It is nothing to dread.  What is death from our frame of reference is birth from God’s frame of reference.  It is not an ending.  It is a beginning.  And so our tears today for those who have left us are not just tears of sadness.  They are also tears of joy.

Terry Beck writes about her mother’s death*.  But she starts her short story long before her mother died.  Terry was six when she remembers the signing of the Jubilee Agreement.

Mama had been out of sorts for weeks.  Tiny wrinkles suddenly framed her gentle green eyes and her glorious auburn hair lost its luster.  Nathan, her firstborn, was the second-grade star of the top soccer team in the local league.  Twice a week she would load 4-year-old Jordan, 18-month-old Ben, and me into the van with Nathan and his teammates.  We’d traipse around the county to games, practices, support meetings. Mama was worn ragged.  “Mothers”, she told Papa after an exhausting day, “should be rewarded with an occasional vacation all to themselves.  A sabbatical.  A Jubilee, like in the Bible.  A chance to get away.”  Her voice lapsed into a wistful sigh.

Papa agreed.  So did the children, though they knew life would be chaos by the end of the first day without Mama.  Thus began the Jubilee agreement.  The terms were simple.  Every three years Mama had a week away from her family.  She could go wherever she wanted to go.

The trip to the train station that first year was tense.  Mama, Papa, and children all were having second thoughts.  On the drive home no one spoke a word but each one was thinking the same thought:  How will we manage a week without Mama?

When they got home they found the gift their mother had left for them.  It was a two-foot-tall teddy bear dressed in swimming trunks and tennis shoes, her reminder that her destination was a health spa.

Tucked under the bear’s arm was an envelope.  Inside was a card with a blue-gowned angel wearing a cockeyed halo and blowing a slender gold horn. Inside the card were two messages.  On the left:

My Precious Children,

That I should leave you now for this Jubilee is hard, I know.  But our separation is only for a short time.  This bear symbolizes my promise that, unless an act of God intervenes, I shall come home to you.  Talk to the teddy when you miss me and take care of Papa for me.

 

And on the right:

Darling John,

I’m hoping this will be a special time for you to get to know our children in a deeper way.  Thank you for the gift of Jubilee.  Be assured that neither time nor distance can keep me from loving you with all that I am.

Always,  Beth

 

The week went surprisingly well and the mother who ran from the train to greet her squealing children was slimmer, tanner, and more youthful than the one they’d seen off.  “How I missed you!” she exclaimed to each of her four children with her hug.  And then she threw herself at their father and they kissed just like in the movies.

Nine months later the teddy bear appeared dressed in diapers, a tiny T-shirt, and snuggling a purple rattle.  Papa phoned from the hospital to announce the birth of Laurel Christina, their fifth and last child.

Papa had a little tradition each time a baby was born.  He wanted to claim the first dance in each child’s life.  And so, newly home from the hospital, Papa waltzed around the house holding tiny Laurel close to his chest.

Laurel was two when Mama started planning Jubilee Two.  She traveled 40 miles on a reenacted wagon train crossing in eastern Nevada.  Even before her car pulled out of the driveway, they searched the house for the Teddy Bear. They found him riding Laurel’s rocking horse, wearing a cowboy hat and a red bandana tied over his nose.

Jubilee Two had the same magical effect on their mother as Jubilee One.  She was again refreshed and renewed as wife and mother.  The Jubilee Agreement they concluded was good for the whole family.

The years passed.  The family took yearly vacations but it was their mother’s Jubilee that defined their lives.  Jubilee Three was spent at the Seattle World’s Fair.  Teddy Bear was dressed in a raincoat.  Jubilee Four was Hawaii.  Teddy Bear was sprawled on a beach towel wearing a grass skirt and a lei.  Jubilees Five, Six, and Seven were Los Angeles, a Wyoming dude ranch, and the Grand Canyon, respectively.  Papa joined Mama on Jubilee Eight.  They went to Acapulco.  All five children now were married so there was no one home to see whether Teddy Bear was wearing a sombrero.

It was early that next year that Mama began to experience fatigue and stomach pains.  Blood tests ordered by the doctor led to exploratory surgery.  The final diagnosis of advanced cancer left them all devastated.  Papa, crushed, refused to talk about Mama’s condition.  His silence became her biggest concern.  For months, she functioned normally, though slowly, putting her affairs in order.  She spent time with each child, laughing, crying, reminiscing.  Loving.

Papa waited on Mama like a devoted servant, but refused to accept the finality of her illness.  Distant even through the funeral and burial, he was tearless and detached.

In the months following, every joy and victory seemed muffled without Mama to celebrate, too.  Laurel broke through her grief when she gave birth to her first child, Bethany Jubilee, named for the agreement that had something to do with Laurel’s own conception.  But even holding his enchanting, curly-haired grandchild did not seem to penetrate the wall of pain wrapping Papa’s heart.

Hoping to lift him out of melancholy, they agreed to congregate at the house for a traditional family Christmas that year.  On Christmas morning all the gifts had been opened except one.  It was a rather large box.  It had no tag.  Puzzled, they asked Papa to open it.

His hands trembled as he pulled out Teddy Bear, dressed in a flowing blue robe, wearing a cockeyed halo, and with a slender golden horn tucked under his arm.  There was a card in Teddy’s hand.  One of the grandchildren took it out and began to read.

My Precious Children,

That I should leave you now for this Jubilee is hard, I know.  But our separation is only for a short time.  This bear symbolizes my promise that, unless an act of God intervenes, I shall come home to you.  Talk to the teddy when you miss me and take care of Papa for me.

 

Darling John,

I’m hoping this will be a special time for you to get to know our children in a deeper way.  Thank you for the gift of Jubilee.  Be assured that neither time nor distance can keep me from loving you with all that I am.

Always, Beth

 

A groan ripped loose from somewhere deep within Papa.  Shaking, tears streaming down his cheeks, he stumbled out of the room.  They sat in silence until one of the children asked a question about the first Jubilee.  Breaking from their sorrow, they took turns retelling the childhood stories.

When Papa returned, he smiled bravely. “Forgive me,” he said, voice trembling, “for trying to deny your Mama her final Jubilee.”  Then, the grandchildren giggling at this feet, Papa picked up baby Bethany and gingerly waltzed her around the room.

Precious are God’s saints. Precious their lives.  Precious their deaths.  To God be the glory.

 

Dear God, it is so hard for us to accept death as a good part of your plan for our lives.  The greater the love, the greater the grief when death comes.  But God, help us to see even through the tears of our grief that love goes on, that life goes on, that wonderful as this life is, the life beyond this life is going to be even better.  And that perhaps the best part is your promise to wipe away every tear from our eyes because death and tears and pain and parting shall be no more.  May we live better today because we hold that promise for tomorrow.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.

 

*   “The Jubilee Agreement” is found in its entirety in

Christmas in My Heart, volume 3, edited by Joe L. Wheeler.