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Balcony People

A sermon delivered by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark., on November 4, 2012.

All Saints Sunday

Psalm 24:1-10; Revelation 21:1-6a

Heidi Neumark, a Lutheran pastor in New York City, explains that both her parents were scientists and not given to a poetic bent. And though she doesn’t put it in so many words, she conveys the idea that they believed only in what was observable, what was seen, and as often as possible, what was provable. That’s what scientists do. Yet, her mother read her poetry from the time she was very young. As Heidi puts it, her mother did this because she observed that they “gladdened” her daughter’s spirit.

Near the end of her life, Heidi’s mother coped with the ravages of Parkinson’s Disease. “Her conversation took strange turns,” Heidi explains, “…her brain bundled her off on hallucinogenic journeys.” One day, Heidi’s mother ripped a page from a magazine and asked her caregiver to tape the page to her daughter’s bedroom door. It was an ad for diamond earrings. It was a strange request, since Heidi does not have pierced ears, nor does she crave expensive jewelry. But the caregiver did it anyway because she was asked to do it.

When Heidi found the magazine ad taped to her door, she immediately realized that it wasn’t about the jewelry. Below the diamonds were the words, “Become a poet.” It was one of her mother’s more lucid moments, and Heidi knew immediately what her mother was saying to her.  “You, beloved jewel of my heart, be who you are called to be, do what you are called to do.”

It was, Heidi says, “my mother’s final gift to me.”1

Just about all of us here today have been touched, some quite recently, with the death of loved ones or friends. It is an inevitable, but still painful, way of going about this journey we call life. None of us is ever immune from the experience of standing next to an open grave, bidding goodbye to those we love the most, desperately clinging to the hope the scriptures give us – that John in his Revelation tells us – that we will one day be in a place where “God wipes away all tears from their eyes.”

But what do those who have passed the threshold that divides this life from the next… what do they have to say to us? In other words, do the dead still speak? I wonder… have you ever been asked that question in church before? Do the dead still speak? Do they have a final gift for us?

It has not traditionally been a “Baptist thing to do,” but many Christians throughout the world consider today as All Saints Sunday. It is the occasion for remembering those who have left us and moved beyond the veil to an existence we hope for but cannot prove. It is a time for us to remember, sort of like taking out the old family photograph book and reminiscing. Perhaps the best way to do that is not to reflect upon what we might have said to our now-departed friends and loved ones, but to ask what it is that they still have to say to us.

Carlyle Marney, whose name might be familiar to some of you, was a Baptist minister who commemorated All Saints Day. He said it is a time to remember, to give thanks, and to wave to those he called ‘the balcony people,”2 the ones who have left us to find eternal life in the presence of God. I think Marney would tell us that the dead do indeed still speak. After all, he is now counted in that number, and his voice is still heard.

As we do that, as we wave to our balcony people, what message have they left us? Heidi’s mother told her daughter, “Become a poet.” What message have your loved ones left with you?

I’m going to talk about a few of our church friends who have left us, and as I do perhaps you would like to consider those who have meant so much to you, who still whisper in your ear from time to time those encouragements that get you through the day.

Our friend Harry Broening died this past January. He speaks to me, not only through my memory of that heavy-throated, deep voice that was so familiar to us, but also through his mischievous grin. What do you remember about Harry? Perhaps that, more than anything else about church, Harry loved Vacation Bible School. Of course, it wasn’t Vacation Bible School so much as the children. He simply loved to be with the children, if for no other reason, perhaps, than there was a child-likeness about Harry.

When we held the funeral service for Harry, right here in this sanctuary, I likened him to David, as being a man who was after God’s own heart. Harry didn’t write psalms, as David was known to do, but he did write down in a journal, by hand, the scriptures that inspired him. It was his way of imprinting them on his heart.

That was Harry’s spot, right over there (at the west door by the piano). He loved to greet people as they came into worship by providing them with a worship guide. Harry used props – from the worship guides to a large jar in his home where he saved his change all year long to give to the Vacation Bible School offering so the boys had a chance at beating the girls in their annual competition to see who could give the most to our mission efforts – to express his deep and abiding faith. I too keep a change jar in my office, and I never see it without thinking of my friend Harry. He’s one of my balcony people, and he still speaks to me.

Linda Meek passed from this life to the next in February. It was not long after we came to this church that Linda was widowed. But by that time she had accepted me, not only as her pastor, but also as her friend. She asked that I participate in John’s funeral. That in itself was important because, you see, they did not share the same church pew. John was as staunchly Catholic as Linda was Baptist.

They married and lived together in a period of time in which these kinds of “mixed” marriages were highly frowned upon. But they made it work. Rather than compromise their convictions by choosing a church somewhere in the middle of Baptist and Catholic, they chose to remain devoted to their respective traditions. That devotion mirrored their commitment to each other, and they made it work.

At her service, held in the chapel at Parkway Village, I referred to Linda as a saint, and quoted Barbara Brown Taylor in doing so. Taylor says that “saints are not distinguished by their goodness. Saints are distinguished by theirextravagant love of God which shines brighter than anything else about them.”3 Linda remains one of my balcony people.

We lost our friend Joyce Van de Grift in April and buried her in a family plot in the rocky hills just south of Mountain Home. As Janet and I drove back into those hills last April, on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, I was reminded of the Scottish Highlands. Any moment, I thought, we’d see a flock of sheep rumbling down the road.

I referred to Joyce as “the seeker” because, perhaps more than anyone else I have ever known, she was never satisfied with what she had. She always wanted more. I’m not necessarily talking about material possessions, though she was not immune from collecting things. She always wanted more in terms of  friends, of meaningful relationships, of purpose and meaning, of faith and grace, of church, from her pastor… of it, as she defined it to be. Joyce was always wanting more than she had.

As you know, Joyce’s illness and passing took some time, and we, her friends, were all witnesses to it. In all my years of pastoral ministry, I don’t think I have ever witnessed anyone who had the support of friends as Joyce did while going through this experience. It is a wonderful testimony to the kind of person she was to us, that we would want to be there for her during her illness, and that testimony still fills the hearts of those who knew her, especially of those who gathered there that beautiful day we laid her in the soil of her beloved Arkansas hills.

At her service I read Joni Lee’s Facebook tribute to her friend. She said…

Things I learned from my friend Joyce: 1) Little things mean a lot. Just a kind word or thought goes a long way. Joyce always had encouraging words, quick to point out the efforts and talents of others and showing her appreciation for them. 2) Find beauty and good around you. How many things did Joyce pluck out of obscurity from a rummage sale, dust them off, shine them up, and add them to one of her collections so they had a second life? The same was true for people; Joyce saw the good in others. 3) EVERYONE can do SOMETHING. Even though Joyce’s physical limitations sometimes kept her from doing all she wanted to, she was always present. If she couldn’t do everything she wanted to, to help, she did what she could. Never heard her complain about what she had to do… only about what she couldn’t do! Act… Do something… that was Joyce. 4) People matter most. Joyce’s home was open to friends and family. She believed in relationships and kept friends and family close.

We keep Joyce close even now because she is one of our balcony people.

I was sitting on my back porch, going over my sermon that was to be preached later that Sunday morning, when Sue Cato-Gennings called me to tell me that Marlin had died early that morning. It caught us by surprise, of course, because we all thought he was getting better. I will always remember where I was when my phone rang and Sue gave me the sad news.

Marlin was one of the greatest men I have ever known. In fact, that it is the word I used to describe him at his memorial service held here in July. But we did not define the word greatness in the way the world does. Instead, we spoke of it in the biblical sense where greatness is wrapped and packaged in humility. Jesus spoke of those who were willing to take the lesser seat in the banquet hall, of those who humbled themselves without ever giving thought to being exalted. That is the kind of greatness that describes our friend Marlin.

And he was an encourager. If you knew Marlin Gennings, and not all of you did because he was a part of this church only the last three years of his life, you were encouraged by him at some point. And you knew that he spent his adult years as a minister of the gospel, encouraging people everywhere he served.

I commented on how we preachers can be pretty hard on one another, judging our colleagues as to the effectiveness of their ministries and how they conduct them. We listen to someone else’s sermon and think how we could have improved upon it… that sort of thing. Very often the preacher can find it in his heart to forgive others, but not necessarily when those others are preachers. It’s human nature, I suppose.

Not Marlin. Every time – every time – he heard me preach or lead a Bible study, he would look at me and without saying a word he would close one eye as if he was sighting a rifle and point his finger at me. It was his way of saying, in good Arkansas vernacular – if not with good grammar – “you done good.” No preacher receives a higher compliment than when a colleague says, “Well done.” Marlin made it a regular habit of telling me, without having to say a word, “Well done.”

Just a couple of weeks ago, after worship was concluded, Sue said to me, “Oh, Marlin would have talked about that sermon all afternoon.” And even on those Sundays when I feel the worship may have been flat or the sermon flatter, I still spy my friend Marlin pointing that finger at me. He’s one of my balcony people.

Of course, the irony of all this is that none of the people we have talked about, or perhaps the loved ones and friends you have remembered and have been thinking about during the time we’ve talked about them… none of them were saints, not in the traditional way we think of what a saint ought to be. No, they were like us. They struggled with life and they celebrated the good times. They carried a few bucks in their pockets and made do with what they had. They had mortgages and worked hard to keep the old clunker on the road. Their diets were inadequate and they drank too much coffee. They spent too much time thinking about the things that were just in front of them and didn’t reflect enough about eternal things. They came to church and offered their prayers, said the words of faith that held meaning for them, and every once in awhile they may have even had the opportunity to tell someone else about what Jesus meant to them. In other words, they were like us, you and me.

Maybe they were saints, if for no other reason than, while they were not perfect, they were touched by and filled with grace. And my guess is, that if we had to say just one thing about the people we have talked about his morning, as well as all the others we might have remembered, it is that they gave themselves to God in ways that stirred our hearts and to this day inspire us to walk in faith.

Yes, we have empty places in our pews this morning. That is obvious to us, not just today but every time we meet. But, to use Carlyle Marney’s imagery,  our balcony is filled… with the spirits of those who have gone before us. And if they have nothing else to say to us, it might just be this: continue on, walk by faith, believe with the hope that accompanies you in your journey, and know that in the grace of God you are loved and you are being redeemed to eternal life.

If that encourages you in any way at all, why don’t you give a wave to our balcony people, and let that be your way of saying thanks.

Lord, we give you thanks for the great cloud of witnesses that continue to fill our hearts and memories and encourage us on our way. One day, we too will be remembered by those who gather in this place. May our lives right now be an inspiration to them to be the presence of Christ. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Notes

1Heidi Neumark, “Living the Word: Reflections on the Lectionary,” The Christian Century, October 31, 2012, p. 20.

2Ibid.

3Barbara Brown Taylor, Home By Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), p. 209.