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A Good Day

This week, in preparation for this Sunday, I wrote out a list of all the saints who have influenced me over the course of my life:  teachers, coaches, writers, roommates, rock stars, friends, neighbors, poets, babysitters, the girl who stood up to a bully on my behalf on the school bus when I was in first grade, cousins, aunts, uncles, and of course all four grandparents, even my maternal grandfather who died over a year before my birth but whose legacy of love, faith, and mischief-making has shaped my soul today.  It was an exercise of deep gratitude, profound love, and inspiration, writing in long hand on a legal pad, the pages and pages of people who have shaped my mind, heart, and adventures.  I encourage you to take time for this spiritual practice over this month of thanksgiving and gratitude.  Write down the names of everyone who has lifted your spirit, everyone who has supported you to be your best self, everyone who has offered a perfectly timed word or freshly baked cookies or a casserole…and see how the Holy Spirit shows up, filling you with gratitude and devotion during this season of giving thanks.

Now, with the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper coming, we don’t have time today for me to tell you all the stories of each name on my list, but I want to share the stories of two saints who touched my life.

Figuring out where to sit in church is a bit more complicated when both of your parents are pastors, and they always sit up front.  You may not be surprised to learn that I turned this challenge into a social exercise, moving around the church, sitting with various couples, widows, and buddies week to week.  My parents were never sure where they would spot me until the voluntary ended.  My brother, true to his nature, responded in a different pattern.  Every Sunday, for the ten years we lived and worshiped in Clemmons, Jonathan sat in the exact same spot, next to Mr. Tony Schwertfeger.  Now Schwertfeger is a tough name to pronounce when you’re three or six-years-old, so we both called him Mr. Tony.  Mr. Tony was a kind widower, a retired nuclear engineer, and he joined our table for Thanksgiving every year as well. After the meal and before the board games came out, Mr. Tony shared stories of growing up on a farm in frigid Minnesota, of proudly going to pay his tuition bill for one semester of college at the University of Minnesota (just $12!) in the 1920’s.  We marveled at his stories from way-back-when; Mr. Tony grew up without power, so before television and before cordless telephones.  We marveled at his hands, wrinkled with age, covered in sun spots from years of digging, planting, and moving NC’s red clay around. We marveled at the ways Mr. Tony was a master gardener; I have never met anyone who had such an affinity for tending the earth, such a gift to make all things bloom and brighten a yard.  Even when he was in his mid-nineties and wheelchair-bound, Mr. Tony took great pleasure planting new bulbs in raised beds and pruning the bushes and trees he’d planted years before.  He was the volunteer garden coordinator at his retirement home until the very end.  Mr. Tony was a quiet, unassuming man, whose wisdom and wit were revered, and we often requested that he share what he was thinking aloud.  He was slow to speak up, but he always had a word of compassion and thoughtful critique on the world’s affairs when asked.  Mr. Tony was my brother’s special saint at that church, and we all loved him and love him still, now that he has joined the heavenly chorus.

A second saint is another adopted grandparent from the same congregation.  In 1994, our church in Clemmons welcomed the Sarkisov family, Armenian Christian refugees who had fled their homes and lives in Azerbaijan with about 30 minutes notice.  Aleksandr and Inessa were a young professional couple, who fled with their son Boris, who was three when he joined our church family, and Alek’s parents, Theodore and Irina came too.  We called them Grandpa and Grandma.  Grandpa Sarkisov wasn’t much of a talker; he would smile and nod from time to time, so you knew he was listening.  And Grandma Sarkisov never stopped repeating the word, “Spasiba” (Спасибо), one way to communicate “Thanks” in Russian.[1]  Every Sunday as they walked through the church threshold, she would greet the ushers with “Spasiba! I love you!” and she would leave the mark of her bright red lipstick on the cheeks of everyone in the hall after a joyful kiss hello.  Her jubilant gratitude was contagious.  Beyond reciting her thanks, she showered us with pastries and dishes from back home as gifts from her hands and heart, cooked with love.  It was always a good day when she dropped off her Napoleon pastry, with an infinite amount of Bible-page paper-thin layers, with rich cream added in.  You could hear the knife cut through each crisp layer as you sliced off a second or third sliver.  The Sarkisov family joined our Thanksgiving gatherings and storytelling sessions for many years.  And after we moved away, Inessa and Grandma Sarkisov call my family every Thanksgiving.  For over twenty years now, “Spasiba! I love you!” comes through the phone line loud and clear every time, reminding us once again that gratitude has no language or bounds and is best experienced when shared and wrapped in love.

Now, I hope these two vignettes remind you of loved ones who have taught you how to say, “Thank You” again and again, of dear friends and neighbors who have shared the bounty of their garden and the delicacies of their kitchen, and the wisdom of their faithful lives with you.  I believe if every child, and every grown-up, if every single person had a long list of saints who had shared and shaped their lives and wrapped them in love, then our world would be a different place.

We find the descriptions of a different world in Revelation; John paints the visions he has of what God’s final judgement looks like, of what it’s like to live when God’s rule reigns and people of every nation, speaking every language, all come together in reverence, to glorify the one who created the earth and all that lives and pronounced it all good.  Today’s text for All Saints’ Sunday is one small snippet of the full picture, one snapshot of the multitude of often violent visions that John imagined would someday become truth.  According to John’s prophecy, God’s judgement does not arrive without wrath, death, and destruction.  It’s the kind of story that will keep you up at night if you read several chapters.  It’s not a surprise that you won’t find a Vacation Bible School curriculum based on Revelation any time soon. It’s the type of apocalyptic scripture that is scarier than both seasons of Stranger Things combined.  Truly, the Upside Down is a child’s playground compared to the Hell or Hades John describes, and the Demogorgon has nothing on the Devil or Death of Revelation.  John writes to seven churches in Asia, warning them of the danger of losing sight of their faithfulness to God, while acclimating to the Roman culture around them. But it’s not all fire and brimstone; the glorious ending describing a new heaven and a new earth offers good news.  And there is hope for the faithful woven throughout the warnings of what the future holds.

Today’s text begins with that hope, and four angels stand at the four corners of the earth, holding back the winds so that there is no damage to the earth, sea, or to any of the trees.  And just as destruction is held at bay, all the people of God are seen more clearly, coming from every nation, speaking all the languages of the world, declaring that salvation belongs to God who reigns, and to the Lamb.  These are the faithful; these are the ones who have remained steadfast even through persecution, corruption, and a war-torn world.  At first, they are numbered, the faithful children of Israel, God’s chosen people.  But then the multitude grows to include so many, counting is rendered useless, echoing God’s promises to Abraham that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars of heaven and the sand on the seashore.[2]  All the faithful, from all around the world, join their voices to sing praises to God and to the Lamb.

New Testament scholar, current President of Union Presbyterian Seminary, and my former boss, Brian Blount wrote an epic commentary on the book of Revelation.  Blount notes that the dazzling white clothing indicates “that they have been faithful witnesses and that their witness has contributed to the destruction of satanic rule as well as the liberation of those enslaved to it. … The members of the multitude earned their dazzling robes through their non-accommodating, conquering witness.”[3]  Blount also points out that the palm branches in their hands are “intended [by John, who authored Revelation] to be a symbol of adulation,” just as the crowds used palms in the Gospel of John when they greeted Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.[4]  This vast crowd of the faithful sing their gratitude to God, who created them with love, and to the Lamb, who redeemed them with grace and peace.  They join the heavenly angels in singing their praises and worshiping God in the posture of praise and reverence.

Apparently, this vision is confusing for John, so one of the elders asks a rhetorical question to help him understand the context of what he is seeing, to give him a frame of reference for what he is witnessing in his dream of the end times.  The witness and faithfulness of the members are lauded again, for they have withstood the great trial as envisioned by John earlier; they have remained faithful, no matter what.  As a result of their witness, God will dwell with God’s people forever.  Their worship will never cease; their union with God will never end. This good news is emphasized in the final verses of today’s text.

Blount notes,

In what many call the longest allusion to an Old Testament passage in the book of Revelation, John draws upon the vision in Isa 49:10 to assure his hearers and readers that those who faithfully witness, who resist accommodating themselves to Roman lordship and the benefits that go with it, will never again, even in the extended future that progresses beyond the end of time itself, experience hunger or thirst, or the heat of wandering and separation that their forebears once experienced in the post-exodus wilderness and the post-Babylonian exile.
John’s hearers and readers can be assured of this promise because the Lamb himself will shepherd the people.[5]

After the death and destruction have ended, John envisions the grandeur of a good day, a never-ending good day with God.  The joys of being a saint of the Lord are everlasting worship, shelter with the Creator, sustenance from the Lamb, and the end of all grief and pain.  John envisions a good day to be a saint of the church.

This church family celebrated two incredible saints this weekend.  We have gathered together for worship to celebrate their lives and the witness to the resurrection of two of the Lord’s faithful servants, who shared their love of God in quiet ways, with wisdom and abounding grace.  We take heart, knowing that they are now part of that crowd in dazzling white, singing and praising God after being welcomed to their eternal home.  Death of dear friends and family members often reminds us what is good, and beautiful, and true in our lives.  Death often leads us to treasure time together, to take stock of what is really important as we mark the days that fill our lives.

Perhaps you too are familiar with Dr. Atul Gawande.  Dr. Gawande practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He’s also a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health and at Harvard Medical School. He’s written a number of books and articles, about the importance of time, including Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, which was recently highlighted by our Stephen Ministers.  Dr. Gawande was recently interviewed by Krista Tippett for her show and podcast, On Being, about his book Being Mortal and what he has learned about the practice of medicine and the pursuit of health and hope in the end of life.  Gawande writes, “We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive.”  Dr. Gawande crafted “five questions to ask towards the end of life.  … A[nd the] fifth one … is, ‘What does a good day look like?’”[6]

Dr. Gawande shared the difference asking such a question can make in the final days.  He shared one poignant, personal story.

I wrote about Peggy Batchelder, who was my daughter’s [piano teacher] when she was 13, who had a meta-static cancer and was laid up in the hospital for weeks on end. She just was miserable and angry and, ultimately, went home on hospice. And then the hospice nurse had that conversation: What does a good day look like? And then: Let’s have a goal, one good day.
And then they worked on that, and at first it was, OK, we’re gonna get you in a bed on the first floor, so you don’t climb the stairs. We’re gonna arrange for getting dressed and bathed. And after two or three days of that, she lifted her sights. And then she wanted to teach piano again.
And the idea that that was possible — it was extraordinary. And my daughter had the most extraordinary piano lessons. And then there was a recital, and at the recital, they played Brahms and Chopin and Beethoven. And it reshaped my daughter’s life, and that was the legacy Peggy wanted to leave.
My daughter just entered the Berklee School of Music because of Peggy. They were together only a couple years, but it made that impact. And that idea that — that was beyond us.[7]

That idea of what is possible,

that idea of what is good, beautiful, and true,

that idea of what makes a good day—whether it’s teaching children to play the piano, tinkering in the garden, or creating a masterpiece pastry in the kitchen—

that’s how John’s apocalyptic visions of the battle between God and evil remind us that when God reigns, we will all have a good day.  When God is fully in control, every tear will be wiped away from our eyes by our Compassionate Creator, and we will find ourselves as one in the company of the heavenly chorus.

So, dearly beloved, you saints of the Lord,
you who have come out of the great ordeal,
you who worship a loving God day and night,
you who will hunger and thirst no more,
you who will be guided by the Good Shepherd to springs of the water of life,
Beloved people of God, make today a good day.
And here’s hoping you do the same tomorrow too.
Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

 

[1] http://masterrussian.com/blog/spasiba-how-to-say-thank-you-in-russian/

[2] Genesis 22:17

[3] Blount, Brian. Revelation:  A Commentary. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 150.

[4] Ibid. 150-151.

[5] Blount, Brian. Revelation:  A Commentary. Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 156.

[6] Gawande, Atul. “What Matters in the End.” Interviewed by Krista Tippett, On Being. 26 October 2017. https://onbeing.org/programs/atul-gawande-what-matters-in-the-end-oct2017/

[7] Gawande, Atul. “What Matters in the End.” Interviewed by Krista Tippett, On Being. 26 October 2017. https://onbeing.org/programs/atul-gawande-what-matters-in-the-end-oct2017/

Kate Fiedler , Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries

Email: kate@upcch.org

Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 130

Bio:

Kate joined the staff in November of 2014 as the Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries. She focuses her energy on strengthening the adult education program, coordinating congregational life events, and extending warm hospitality to new members. Kate grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, and she has moved back and forth across the state line seven times. She is a graduate of Davidson College and Union Presbyterian Seminary. Before arriving in Chapel Hill, Kate served as the Associate Chaplain at Trinity Episcopal School in Charlotte–teaching third through eighth graders–and then as the Director of Admissions at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Kate enjoys road trips, live music, reading, exploring new restaurants, and cheering on her favorite sports teams: the Bears, the Cubs, and the Tar Heels.