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Sermon: Waiting for God

October 30, 2009

Isaiah 25:6-9

It was 1943 when Walter lost his wife at the age of 64.  Walter and Bessie had been good Presbyterians for many years, and so he was shocked when a bishop of the Roman Catholic Church arrived on his doorstep.

“Sir,” said the Bishop, “I would like your permission for some of our nuns to hold a special prayer service in memory of your wife and all she has done for us.”

“You must have us confused with someone else,” said Walter.  “We’re Presbyterian.”

“No, I’m speaking with the right man.  Do you mean to tell me you don’t know what your wife had been doing for our hospital?”

“No, I don’t believe I do.”

“Every week, your Bessie sent flowers to the infirmary with the instructions that they should be placed in anyone’s room who didn’t receive flowers from their own families.”

“She did that every week?”

“Yes, sir.”

That is how Walter Bellingrath learned what his wife had been doing for people in their community—they were strangers, but they were also neighbors (Bellingrath Gardens and Home, Theodore, AL.).

*     *     *     *     *

One of the dominant images in the Bible of God’s ultimate salvation, that time beyond Time, when God’s kingdom will have come in all its fullness and splendor, is the image of the banquet.  The prophet Isaiah described it as a Thanksgiving feast of rich food and clear, well-aged wine.  But this isn’t just a private family meal; it is for all people.  Everyone is invited to God’s banquet of abundant grace.

Isaiah also describes how God will sweep away the cloud that hangs over us all—the cloud of sin, the cloud of ignorance and hatred, the cloud of death.  God will sweep this cloud away forever, and there will be no more tears of sorrow.  Isaiah says that God has spoken this promise, and we can depend upon God’s promises.

This promise given to us is not completely fulfilled now.  We know by looking around at the millions of hungry people in the world that God’s great banquet is not yet here.  We know by the violence and hatred and prejudice that seem to have free reign in this world that the cloud still hangs over humanity.  We know—because today we are remembering those beloved saints who have gone before us—that death and sorrow are still with us.  But Isaiah says that we can trust God to keep God’s promises.  God has spoken, and we put our trust in God’s word.  Our scripture looks forward to that ultimate salvation and imagines what we will all say in that time: “We have put our trust in [God], and now we are happy and joyful because [God] has saved us!” (Isaiah 25:9, Today’s English Version)

It is our faith and trust in God’s ultimate goodness, in God’s desire for each one of us to be completely whole, healthy and free, that gets us through the times of hunger and bitterness, death and sorrow that we face as a part of our human condition.  We wait for God in faith.

In the Bible, faith is not a noun.  It is not the same thing as belief.  I can believe in God.  I can even believe in God’s promises, but that is not faith.  Faith is a verb.  It is a way of living because of our trust in God.  I live my life in a certain manner because I trust that someday we will all pull up our chairs around the table of God’s banquet.  And there, we will feast on rich food and well-aged wines with all the saints who have preceded us and who will go after us (Adult Crossings video Bible study).

The main characteristic of that life of faith that looks forward to God’s promises is hope.  Faith in action looks a lot like hope, and people recognize it when we live our lives in faith-hope.

Bessie Bellingrath life was shot through with hope.  She became a beacon of hope to her community, and that’s why the Roman Catholic bishop showed up at her door and asked permission to hold a prayer service in her memory.  The flowers she sent each week to the infirmary were concrete signs of her hopeful faith in a God who will make all things new.

But that wasn’t all that Bessie did.  Bessie and Walter Bellingrath were very well off.  They owned one of the most successful Coca-Cola franchises in the country.  They also owned and developed Bellingrath Gardens, a 65 acre estate filled to the brim with flowers and water features.  They opened the grounds to the public free of charge in 1932.

During the years of the Great Depression, Bessie always kept on the lookout for families that were in need.  She would visit them at the home, often with the story that they azaleas the family had in their yard were unique, that the Bellingraths were having trouble finding that variety, and she would pay the family hundreds of dollars for a single azalea bush.  She also offered handsome sums for afghan rugs and other handcrafts her neighbors had made.  She bought dozens upon dozens of unneeded “antiques” she discovered in the homes of her needy neighbors.  These acts of mercy helped people to survive a difficult time and even enabled some young people to go to college.

The garden the Bellingraths offered to the public free of charge is a visible sign of hope.  The flowers Bessie sent to patients in the hospital were visible signs of hope.  The money Bessie offered to her neighbors for their azaleas and “antiques” was a visible sign of hope.  She had a faith in the promise of God mediated by Isaiah, the promise of a rich banquet for all, the promise that death would be swept clean away.  That faith became visible to all in the signs of hope she shared with her community (Bellingrath Gardens and Home, Theodore, AL.).

This morning, we remember our loved ones, our own saints who made hope visible in this world.  I encourage you to bring to mind the signs of hope that your loved ones offered.  Remember what they did make faith a verb.  Our purpose is to thank God for who they were, for the love and hope they shared with us, and for God’s continuing care for them as they are welcomed home.

A second reason we remember our saints is to remind ourselves that we are to be people who offer hope to the world.  Your life and mine can become signs of hope to everyone who is hungry or sorrowful or sick or angry.  Like Bessie Bellingrath and like each of the saints listed in your bulletin, we offer concrete signs of hope that tell the world that there is more to come.  God is not finished with us.

The Church offers many signs of hope, but one of our most powerful is Holy Communion.  It is a mini banquet.  Communion gives us a small taste of that great banquet promised by Isaiah.  Jesus Christ welcomes us all to his table here in preparation for that banquet to be held at the end of all things, where the saints will all gather in God’s presence and will celebrate in their thankful joy.

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