Note from CM: Today’s sermon is not a message from a text, but a testimony from my life. We celebrated All Saints on Sunday, and it is right up there as one of my favorite Sundays of the year. Not only do we get to sing “For All the Saints” and other great hymns, but we speak also the names of the faithful departed in the context of worship, praise, and prayer. The day allows for tears, and there were many this morning. But it is also a celebration of Christian hope and a call to imitate those who have shown the way in faith, hope, and love. In my children’s message I spoke of the “great cloud of witnesses” surrounding us, using the image of a sporting event in a stadium with packed grandstands. The communion of saints means that, as we play out our lives on the field, a sold-out crowd of fans is cheering us on and praying for us. The “saints” we remember this day are not relics of the past, but those who have departed “to be with Christ, which is far better” (Philippians 1:23). The book of Revelation imagines them both before the throne, giving worship to God and to the Lamb, and crying out “How long, O Lord?” for those of us experiencing life’s trials.
Today, I remember one such saint.
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SERMON: One who gave me great gifts
All Saints Sunday 2016
Nov. 6, 2016
As we celebrate All Saints Day today, I would like to tell you about one of the saints “who from their labors rest” who has had a great impact on my life. My grandmother Annabelle was a giver, and I have been and continue to be a grateful recipient of her many gifts.
Annabelle is my mother’s mother. She was raised my great-grandmother Grace, whose husband died in his thirties after a farming accident. She raised five children and lived until age 103. Her daughter Annabelle didn’t fall far from the tree. She also lost her husband at a young age, and like her mother before her, she made the choice to embrace the challenge of overcoming her loss.
For example, she lived in Chicago and had never driven an automobile. But after my grandpa died she got her license so that she could be self-sufficient, involved in her church, and able to visit her friends. She blossomed into an active, generous woman who followed her Lord and served her neighbors. This is the Annabelle I remember most: one who served others. She had a group of elderly women she saw regularly, assisting them with their needs, transporting them around the city, being their friend and helper.
Annabelle cared deeply about her family too, but we had all moved away from Chicago by that time, so we communicated primarily through phone calls and letters. I know for a fact she prayed for us on a regular basis too. I saw her once during college when she had her pastor invite us for a concert, and our gospel team sang in her church. After I graduated, she traveled east to attend my wedding and presented my bride and me with a generous check so that we could have a nice honeymoon. We moved to Vermont and once hosted her and my other grandmother during fall foliage season, and I think she was pleased that I had entered the ministry. Until last year I still had the books about Jesus she gave me when I was baptized as an infant, books she hoped I’d read as I grew up. I have now passed those on to my grandson, who was baptized last year. The seeds of her loving generosity in my life were planted early.
I returned to Chicago for seminary several years later, and this gave us a chance to see my grandma Annabelle more often. Her generous financial support toward my schooling was a great blessing, and she also helped us furnish our modest home. Each year, on Halloween, we all piled in the car and picked up Annabelle in Chicago. Then we’d travel around the Lake Michigan to see her mother on her birthday. Our kids will always remember those trips.
A few years after seminary our family moved to Indiana, and Annabelle relocated to Maryland, to a continuing care community near my parents. She meant this as a gift. She didn’t want to be a burden to her children or grandchildren, so she set herself up in a place where she could live and be cared for, and no one would ever have to worry about getting a call one day to fly to Chicago and take care of things. So Annabelle left her home and made a new start late in life where she could have her own life and activities but be close to my mom and dad as well.
Through the years, my grandma Annabelle continued to bless me with gifts. When Gail and I began taking mission trips to India back in the mid-1990’s, she was one of our biggest contributors. In fact, it was while I was on one of those trips, half a world away, that Annabelle died. This was a shock because my grandmother was such a strong woman—and after all, her mother had lived to be 103! Nevertheless, the heart of this kind woman who spent her life giving to others simply stopped beating one day, and we were all the poorer for it.
The morning after I heard of my grandmother’s passing, I needed some time alone, so I got up early and walked around the large courtyard next to our hotel there in eastern India, where workmen were constructing a lavish stage for a Hindu wedding. It was one of the few times in my adult life that I openly wept. But I took comfort in the fact that I was right where she wanted me to be, doing something that she had given generously to support.
We had a family memorial service for Annabelle when we returned and the family asked me to lead it. I barely made it through describing what her life had meant to me.
I would say today that Annabelle’s giving to me continues to this day. It has been twelve years now since I left parish ministry as a pastor, and at the time it was a hard leaving. I was lost and in a spiritual wilderness and I wasn’t sure what I would do. But soon an opportunity came for me to take the hospice chaplain position that I have held ever since. Over time I have come to see this as a perfect vocation for me, and I think I know where that comes from. I have reflected on my grandmother’s example often while doing this work. As she found her greatest joy in visiting and befriending her elderly friends, so now I get the chance to do similar work each day all around Indianapolis and the surrounding counties. Annabelle’s spirit lives on, and I feel that in some way she imparted a portion of it to me. I pray that I will be as faithful and giving as she was.
In her life and in her death, my grandmother gave me gifts. Spiritual teachers that I respect suggest that one of the great questions in the final season of life is: “How can I live now so that my final days and death will be a gift to my family and those around me?” How can I give, not only my life, but also death away as a gift to others? A time will come when we are no longer as active in life, working hard and expending energy to make the world a better place. Is there still a contribution we can make? As we enter the final season of life, can we even make our diminishing and dying a blessing to others? Can our lives go on being a blessing, even after we have departed to be with Christ?
You see, on All Saints Day, we face our own mortality as well, and it provides us a good opportunity to remember that we too shall one day rest from our labors. How will people remember us, in our living and in our dying? I believe we all have gifts to pass on. Don’t wait to share them.
When I returned to the U.S. from India after my grandmother Annabelle died, I learned more about the circumstances of her death. She had gone to the dining hall at her continuing care facility to eat lunch and sat down at her usual table with some folks she had befriended. She had had such an impact on them, that it had become their habit to ask her to say grace before the meal. They bowed their heads together and my grandmother Annabelle was blessing the meal and her friends when her heart stopped beating and she died.
Even at the end, she never stopped giving, and the gift goes on.