Jan Brittain's Sermon for Celebration of Life Service
June 23, 2018
This is from a rough transcription provided by Loveeta Baker, Realtime Captioner.
Altars of Faithfulness
Sometimes when I step into a pulpit I cannot honestly make this statement to the people seated before me, I know exactly what it's like to be where you are. But today, I can. Just 20 days ago I met my father and my brother in Greenville for the SC Annual Conference. To attend the memorial service where my mother, along with countless other faithful servants would be remembered and honored.
71 years a minister's wife, since the age of 19. I know exactly what it's like to be where you are today. I know the mixture of feelings, the great pride, and what has happened. The regret over what never quite came to be. I know the joy of reunion with family members in celebration. I know the wonder of what God accomplished, and the regret, sadness, over what will never be again. But more than anything, I know the thankfulness of the gift of salvation, and the power of the cross and a resurrected Lord who has promised us a shared eternity. I know the love and what it is to sit where you are sitting today. I know exactly how you feel. And of course, you wanted to be here. You wouldn't have missed it. The chance to gather with this magnificent family of faith, to celebrate and give thanks for your loved ones. And yet, nobody wants to sit where you are sitting today, where we sat marking the absence of one who was loved so dearly.
I know exactly what it's like to be where you are. I do not have the words to express to you how honored I am to share this sacred and significant experience with you. We have been talking a lot around here the last couple days about going. Bishop Steiner Ball reminded of Jesus' command to go teach and Tom bridges and the laity address challenged us to go through the open doors God put before us. Last night bishop Gwinn asked those being commissioned if they were willing to go to Nineveh or anywhere the bishop might send them. Maybe that verb, "to go" is the verb of faithfulness. It's interesting, Walter Brueggerman said the faith of our father Abraham and mother Sarah could be summarized by the simple powerful words from Genesis 12:4, so Abram went. Same thing could be said about the persons whose lives we are honoring today. From one end of this conference and a few other places, those names will be read, pictures in the service, so too may their faith be summarized by such simple yet powerful words. They went.
God called, the bishop sent, they went. Sometimes welcomed, sometimes tolerated. Sometimes rejected. Still they went. That beloved is why we are all hear today. That is why we would not want to be anywhere else. We celebrate, we give thanks, we remember with joy because hallelujah, they went, they went! But before they went, and they left something behind.
It's what they left behind that can continue to shape our lives, your lives, the lives of the church, the individual local congregations where they served and yes, even the life of our great denomination. It's what they left behind that can guide us and direct us. Like so many of the faithful that have gone before, stretching all the way back to father Abraham and mother Sarah, these servants left behind altars. Altars of faithfulness, to mark their own faith journeys and give encouragement to those who would come after. I am hoping you will travel with me today to stand for just a moment at some of those altars. I believe we can find something there that will give us yet another reason to celebrate these lives. I believe we can find new strength, perhaps even new purpose for our own faith journeys. Truth be told I suspect some of us have already stood in altars left by those who have gone before us and chances are we pass by a few without even knowing we were actually standing on holy ground.
I am hoping that taking the time to name these altars and claim the power for living today will help us recognize them in the future and use them when we come across them to be the guide guides that I believe God intends them to be.
To do this we have to take a bit of a journey moving from altar to altar remembering how these have shone up in the lives of our loved ones, reflecting on how we have left altars behind along the way and seeking both the peace and the power to keep on going on our own spiritual journeys.
I think I found a couple of good guides for us. I hope you will join with me as we travel with Abraham and Sarah, they went and we are going to go with them. Abraham and Sarah had no idea where they were going or when they would get there. When the donkeys were loaded, supplies gathered, tent prepared, they took the first step on a journey with an uncharted course and no particular end in sight. I don't know, sounds a lot like anybody who answers the call to ministry to Methodism to me.
No real idea where we will be sent and when it will happen. None of the folks we honor today knew exact lie where God would take them when their ministry journeys began, but still, they went. They went. What they did have, just like Abraham and Sarah, was a divine promise and before they had traveled very far, I suspect they had reason to pause and build an altar, an altar of promise and praise, what Abraham and Sarah did. Remember, the Lord appeared to Abraham and said to your offspring I will give this land. He built an altar to the Lord that had appeared to him. That's the first step in faithfulness, don't you think? To accept divine promise and praise God for giving it. Reading through these I found myself wondering about the different places where these folks built their altars of promise and praise.
Some of you probably know, you know where your spouse or your parent or your grandparent first heard the call and the promise of God, where they first accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior and promised to serve him and his church with their whole life. Some of you know, but I can only imagine. I suspect the list would include a summer revival in a small country church. The gathering of youth at what we used to call youth assembly. I bet quite a few heard the call in and around this holy place on the grounds of Lake Junaluska. Maybe during a week at church camp, perhaps while overseas in the service as a student at one of our conference colleges, on a spiritual retreat or while participating in a small group Bible study. The list is as varied as are the names we are lifting up today. But make no mistake about this, friends, visible or not, those altars are there. They are there, they mark the places where women and men heard God make a promise, a promise that they accepted and clung to through the years. I will give you what you need. I will give you the words to say. I will give you the grit and the grace, I will give you my power, I will give you my peace. They heard the promise, and they clung to it.
Somewhere along the way they left an altar to mark the moment, the mystery and the memory and then, thank you Jesus, they went. But it wouldn't have been long before they found themselves building another altar, like Abraham and Sarah built time and time again. From there he within the to the hills east of Bethel and pitched his tent.
It was a desolate place, at least it was when I visited the holy land. I remember standing on a Rocky Mount looking out over the sight with nothing but sand, rock and scrub brush as far as the eye can see. Maybe it was different in Abraham's day, but I doubt it. I know this for sure, the people we honor today, they found themselves in many desolate places throughout the course of their ministries and their lives. Everyone does. Beloved, we will too. There will be losses, failures, betrayals, disappointments in our lives just as there have been in the lives of our loved ones. There will be times when God feels terribly far away, where we wonder if we really do belong on this journey of ministry, when our own spirits seem dry and barren. It's true for all who walk the way of faith, but even then, especially then, maybe there's a reason to build an altar, an altar of petition, of plea, this altar, Abraham called out to the Lord.
There are many, many many of those altars scattered around our conference. Often I suspect they were built when news of the next appointment came. They are sending us where? When tears of sadness were being shed over leaving treasured congregations and precious friends, when parsonages were, let's say, be not quite what they were supposed to be, when salaries were insufficient, when congregations refused to change. When fatigue and weariness were overwhelming and beside a hospital bed and beside a grave, these folks whose lives we celebrate today built many altars of petition through the years. Time and time again they called out to the Lord and in some way they left altars to mark the moment, majesty and memory. They cried. They struggled, they spent a little time with Jesus and then they went.
Along the way they would find reason to build another altar, an altar of place and purpose. Genesis 13.
Abraham went to live near the great trees of Mamre ‑‑
As I read through the places where these men and women served I thought about ‑‑ not the first official visit bishop, I am talking about that other first visit. When we drive through the church at a parking lot at a time we don't think anybody will be there, then we find the parsonage and check out the neighborhood, all incognito, we have all been there, baseball caps, sunglasses on.
Ducking down, you know, at some lone sole that comes out of the sanctuary on a Saturday afternoon, who is at the church then? We have done it. As I thought about the countless unofficial first visits made by these folks, I thought about it, giggle a little and I thought, well, you know, those visits were really the first step in building altars of place and purpose. You could say we were actually doing exactly what God told Abraham to do, walking the length and breadth of the land God had given us.
So it's okay, folks, go ahead and make those unofficial visits. If you get in trouble just say hey, Abraham and Sarah.: Those first visits, meets and greets, then reception, ice cream socials, all of those were opportunities to add the early stones to altars of place and purpose. That first year, more stones would be added, the first funeral, the first wedding, at least the first one where no former pastor was called back to participate.
I mean that's when you go you have been accepted as the pastor, we don't have to invite ...
That's a big stone to get into the altar of place. The first resolution of a potentially damaging conflict that ‑‑ the relief that came when the bishop said they decided to re‑do the bedroom that ‑‑ if you are a preacher's kid, not just here at the front but anybody in the building who is a preacher's kid would you stand where you are, that includes me. I want to see all the preacher's kids. We need to thank you.
God bless you. We weren't planning on moving. We didn't ‑‑ how many times have you said that? We didn't know we would be moving. We had only been where we were six and a half years but then the parsonage committee said they decided to re‑do the bedrooms to be more suitable for our boys. Our boys always shared a room, now they were going to get a room of their own. Down came the 25‑year‑old wall paper, the furniture was repainted, one was white splattered with red, green, blue, yellow, wall paper chosen by the kids that went up in the bedrooms, they were so excited about it all. About ‑‑ they had been in the room about four months when we found out we would be moving. We have all been there.
We talked about our new home I explained they would each have a bedroom there of their own and in time we would be able to fix those up. Sixth grade ‑‑ Riley took ahold of that, started planning. I said slow down, we will need to give it a little time before we ask too much. His response revealed the subtle teaching given many a preacher's kid. "I know Mama, we will have to wait until they love us."
Ever the optimist, but he it is "that won't take long." I began to think how might I make this happen more quickly. I said Riley, if you could paint your room any color what would you paint it? Black. Son, they ain't never going to love us that much. The stones kept coming.
Every time someone shared their love for, their concern for the parsonage children, there was a new stone to go into the altar of place. Finally there was that moment when the new house actually became a home and the new pulpit became the very favorite place to preach and at that point the altar was well on its way. Those are the stones that form the altars of place. We weren't sure at first but then we see this is exactly where God wanted us to be, and the altars of purpose. I can see what Jesus wants us to do.
Over time most of those altars, not all ‑‑ but most, would grow bigger and stronger as these servants came to love their church families and as their congregations accepted and valued their leadership. New churches would be formed, new buildings built, new ministries developed, spirits nurtured, disciples made and of course, hurting people cared for, the hope was by the time the next move came around, those altars of place and purpose would be complete. Some still needed a little work, some had been a bit damaged along the way. That's just the reality of ministry. With each stone we fit into the altar of place and purpose we hope and pray for positive outcomes and thankfully, God does much good work through us so we find ourselves building more altars of praise, but there are also failure and we find ourselves in those desolate places ones more building an altar of petition and plea.
That's how this altar building business works. It's never one and done. Altars of promise and praise, altars of place and purpose, marking the ups and downs of ministry and life. Our loved ones found their place all over our conference and beyond. They found their purpose in the pulpits of the parsonages, in classrooms and counseling sessions alongside laity, colleagues, they left an altar to mark the moment and majesty and mystery. They knelt, they prayed, I don't know, they are Methodists, probably sang a song or two, but spent a little time with Jesus and then they went. They went.
But such faithful living required something that is, I fear, vastly under rated by most folks. Obedience. Abraham and Sarah were obedient. God called, they responded. Today we are celebrating the lives of men and women who chose the same course. They were obedient. Even when obedience was hard, when it was costly, when obedience was painful, like Jesus, who Paul said emptied himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross, yes, just like Abraham, our loved ones built their own altars of obedience somewhere along the way, and the truth is we all will if we are going to be truly faithful.
But here's the thing to remember, beloved, altars of obedience can only be built with a very special kind of stone, that stone is called trust. That's right. The old hymn got it right. Trust and obey for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.
It is not easy, it's never easy, but it's true. It was true for Abraham. You heard it read a few moments ago.
In a moment filled with grace Abraham's altar of obedience is transformed into God's altar of provision and that, my friends, is what the faithful always discover, what we celebrate in the lives of these faithful people today, in the lives of your loved ones, our colleagues and our friends. If we can just find the trust we need to build an altar of obedience we too will hear the angel's voice and discover God transformed our altar of obedience into his altar of provision. But that kind of trust depends on one very important belief. We have to believe that God's motivation is always love. If we believe that, then we will obey God, we will obey Christ's teachings, knowing they are all motivated by God's love. We will trust that obedience will always bring blessing. That's what the folks we celebrate today discovered and in some way they left an altar to mark the moment, the majesty, the memory and then, hallelujah, they went. They went on to glory. They claimed the crown of righteousness, took their place, that lined the streets of heaven. They went.
Today we celebrate their place in the church triumphant. We celebrate the faithfulness marked by each of their altars but we have yet another reason to celebrate. We can celebrate what we have learned about building our own altars by watching them build theirs. Today we add all these faithful servants to our own cloud of witnesses and now it is time for each of us in the words of Hebrews 12 ‑‑ the race set before us, in other words, friends, you and I have some altars to build. Here's what I believe. If we will just spend a little time at the altars they left behind and left by countless other faithful servants before us, we will discover the strength we need to build our own altars of promise and praise, of petition and plea, of place and purpose. I believe we can even find the strength to build our altars of obedience, trusting that the sound of the angel's voice will come and God will provide. Then our good and gracious God will be able to use even our altars to give guidance and strength to others and perhaps, if we are particularly blessed, we too will be remembered with those simple yet powerful words, they went, thank you Jesus. They went.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, amen.