Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Pastor's Perspective: Will the Remember in November?

Pastor’s Perspective: “They’ll Remember in November.”
“The Righteous will live by faith.” Romans 1:17
The celebrated football coach and athletic director of the illustrious Arkansas Razorbacks, Frank Broyles, always liked to say to his team, “They’ll remember in November.” His point was that a team could gain the attention and accolades that would get them a bowl invitation if they played the last few games of the season (in November) strongly. I’ve noticed that we as Christians might take the same approach to the end of the year in our faith lives, and I hope it is again the case this year.
This summer, we had many people missing from worship, giving was down, and a general malaise took hold of our congregation. Were we particularly uninspired, or is this the general rhythm of faith life? It concerned the leaders of the church when we continued to see the “slump” continue into September, when things usually “pick up” again, and people resume the schedule that includes attending to faith life. Did we suffer because the habits of summer were harder than usual to shake off? Though our October attendance average of 69 is the highest it’s been since May, it is lower than 4 of the 5 months that began our year, and is lower than our average attendance from last year as well. Our Sunday school average attendance of 28 for October is the lowest of the year. Our district superintendant advised us at the church conference this past month that our report of a general malaise in the congregation reflects what she witnesses all over the district in other United Methodist Churches. While this is a relief in one way (“whew, it’s not just us!”) it is also more deeply troubling in another (“what is the matter with the general church?). It is generally true of us humans that we attend to our faith life and the “big, important questions” when things are troubling and uneasy, but when things are going seemingly well, we tend to put our faith life on the back-burner. If there were a terrorist attack or a natural disaster that afflicted us during the week, it would not surprise me to see the church packed to the gills. It is how we are. We turn to faith in times of crisis. This is why some critics of religion call faith a “crutch.” Just as you stick a crutch under your arm when you’ve suffered an injury to your leg or hip, some stick their church life under their arm only when they feel spiritually injured by the hostile world we live in. With this kind of approach, it is perfectly natural to use your faith to hobble along through the world as long as it takes to get over the injury, then you put your faith back in the closet. Is the declining attendance at church a sign that things are going well with our people? If so, I’m glad that your life is untroubled, please come back to church and give thanks to God in community.
The first Sunday of November is All Saint’s Day. On this day, we remember those who have passed away during the year and honor their memory. We believe that our loved ones are held by God in an eternal life beyond death. On Nov.1st we celebrate this “communion of the saints” that is a powerful reminder of God’s saving grace. This grace saves us from a destiny of decay and finality. As Christ conquered his grave, he also conquers ours, and so “gathers us in” to the great fellowship that transcends this earth and our earthly concepts. I’ve had the blessing of conducting many funerals where I have been given the honor of recounting the life of the person who has passed. Sometimes, I have conducted funerals for people for whom their own faith life was not a priority. Generally, the deceased’ loved ones assure me that though I never saw him or her in church, the person who died was kind and generous and loving, and perhaps even “faithful.” Other funerals I have conducted have been for the family members of people I like to call “spiritual redwoods.” They are those whose faith is literally “in fellowship” with others in their church life. As I prepare for these funerals, no “assurances” are necessary on the part of the family members or close friends. They know that I knew who the person was, as did the other members of the church. Their faith was “obvious.” It was “lived” and not only “recalled.” It was in relationship with others. That is how it grew to be a redwood.
So, this is my sermon to those of you who are connected to this church in some way, and who live in the area, and yet do not participate in our weekly gathering for worship and for tending the spiritual life through education and fellowship. If you want to call yourself a Christian, I hope you can be convinced that there is more to faith than what you believe. If you believe Jesus is the Messiah, then you will follow his teachings. His teachings aren’t just applied in your private life—they occur in the community that bears his name. We will indeed remember in November. We will remember the lives of those who have passed not “away” but “into” the everlasting on All Saint’s. When the pastor who conducts your funeral recounts your life, will he or she need to be “assured” that you were a person who was shaped by faith, or will it be obvious? Will your faith life be remembered? Will it be remembered by a community? Will the church in general be remembered by future generations as a powerful force of love and redemption and grace? Will it be obvious? Making it obvious begins with your participation. Let’s make sure they’ll remember November. Let’s finish strongly.

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