Years after her husband died, Betty told me that she still goes to the cemetery, almost daily, to visit his grave. “And Jarrett, I need to ask you something,” she said. “Oftentimes when I go, I stand there and talk to him. Sometimes I even bring a chair to sit in so I can talk to him for hours. I talk about my day, the good parts and the bad parts, and, of course, I talk to him about how much I miss him. Jarrett, here’s my question: “Do you think I am crazy?”
I said, “I guess that all depends. Let me ask you this: Does he ever talk back?”
However, when one considers the response of Jesus in the gospels, perhaps hearing voices from the dead is not so crazy. The Sadducees, who did not believe in eternal life, were trying once again to entrap Jesus by questioning his teaching on resurrection. Jesus responds:
“The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20).
So perhaps Betty would not have been that crazy after all, if she heard her husband’s voice from the grave.
Now, of course, I am not talking about hearing audible voices from the grave. I am talking about the hearing voices from the dead the way the writer of Hebrews describes it when he writes:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,* and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…”
He is talking about being inspired by, encouraged by those who have lived before us. In the previous chapter, we read a list of those he is talking about: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Esau; Moses and each Israelite who escaped slavery in Egypt; Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, all of the prophets and every person had has ever been persecuted or martyred for their faith.
The writer to the Hebrews is saying, when life is hard, when the way is difficult, remember these, remember their voices, remember their actions, and especially remember how they point you to the way of Jesus, and be encouraged, be strengthened, and gain perseverance to continue not only life, but a life of courageous faith and selfless service.
I absolutely love worshipping in this place. Because every person that first worshipped in this sacred place that was built in 1909 ran their race and kept the faith long before us. Every time I gather here, I can hear their voices: voices of those who sang the great hymns of faith in these pews through World War One and the Great Depression. I stand behind and preach from a pulpit and hear the voices of preachers who preached the gospel amid World War Two, the Korean Conflict, Vietnam and the Cold War. I hear voices of those who preached for the rights of African Americans during the Civil Rights movement.
I hear the voices of those who have served the poor in this community and around the world for decades, those who have donated generously, and served sacrificially.
Every time I gather here, I hear the particular voices of those who served faithfully with me through Farmville Benevolent Ministries while I was the pastor of First Baptist Church. I hear the compassion in the voices of AC and Vivian Turnage for the poor of this community. I hear the love in the voice of Gay Johnson who would always have jars of Molasses in the trunk of her car to distribute to those in need.
Listen, can you hear them? Can you hear the voices of the saints echoing through this place this morning? When I listen carefully, I can hear the voice of Marie Allen. I hear great perseverance in the voice of an extraordinary mother who selflessly gave her all in loving her family. I hear the voice of an extraordinary mother who got up each morning, made everyone breakfast, packed lunches, and then went to work herself every day at her full-time job at the drug store or the dry cleaners in town. Then, somehow, some miraculous way, in a world without fast food and microwaves, still managed to prepare a hot supper and have on the family dinner table each night. And whenever little Pete or Donna needed new clothes to wear, with needle and thread and some material, Marie could always create whatever they wanted with her own hands. I hear the voice of a faithful mother who made a point to raise Pete and Donna in this church giving them a foundation for a faithful life that is being lived out today.
Listen, do you hear them? I hear sincere gratitude in the voice of William Meeks. I hear a voice that thanked God, even amid struggle and difficulty, for his opportunity to selflessly and sacrificially serve his country through military service during the Korean War. Although he freely admitted that those years changed him, affected him, not always for the good; in some ways it broke him; he was still very grateful for the opportunity to serve these United States.
William was also very grateful for his opportunity to serve through the First Christian Church of Farmville, especially as an electrician. And the First Christian Church is very grateful that we were able to give him that opportunity! When you worship in a church building that was built in 1909, you appreciate someone with the skills and the generosity of William Meeks. There is no telling how many hours William freely gave to the church doing all kinds of needed repairs. William loved his church. Like his love for his country, there was perhaps something deep within William that yearned to be a part of something that was larger than himself.
William always talked about how good his church was to him, especially when he needed the church the most. I don’t think I ever visited him when he did not express his gratitude to God for Jimmy Lethworth and for the many times that Jimmy picked him up and carried him to the VA Hospital in Durham for his cancer treatments.
Listen, do you hear them? I hear gracious hospitality in the voice of Kenneth Ross. One could say that Kenneth Malcolm Ross lived his entire life preparing a place at the table, preparing a home for others, for Marilyn, Amelia and Ken, and even for all Americans, each one of us, through his service to this country.
I think this explains why life was so difficult for him these last eight years. When Marilyn died in 2006, something inside of Kenneth also died. For Marilyn was such a large part of his purpose for living. And having been diagnosed with lung cancer himself, at the same time Marilyn was diagnosed, undergoing chemotherapy alongside of Marilyn, Kenneth did not only survive with a great loss of sense of purpose, Kenneth survived with the guilt associated with surviving. He also survived with severe physical limitations, COPD and other side effects from his battle with cancer that prevented him from living and breathing, preparing and providing for others as he had his entire life.
However, although he struggled much these last few years, although he was limited physically, it was evident through each of my visits with him that he never lost faith. Kenneth continued to love and care for the First Christian Church where he raised his family, served as a deacon and practiced the greatest commandment of loving God and neighbor as self. Each visit I had with him, he would always inquire about the state of the church and of the needs of the church.
Listen, do you hear them? I hear great hope in the voice of Marie White. I will never forget the confident faith in her voice that I heard from her the week she passed away. Each time I visited her in the hospital, although she was very sick and felt terrible, it was evident that she was never separated by the love of God. She was sick, but she was not despairing. She was neither eating nor drinking; neither was she giving up hope. Although she was in the valley of the shadow of death, she feared no evil. Although her body was tired and broken and in pain, she was at peace. Although she was near the end of her life, her cup runneth over. It was so evident, that although she was separated from her friends, most of her family, her youth, her health, she was not separated by the love of God through Christ Jesus her Lord. She was a living testimony to the truth that spiritual wholeness is more important that physical well-being, even more important than life on this earth.
Listen, do you hear them? I can. Thanks be to God that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. So let us set aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, [always] looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith. Thanks be to God that we clearly hear the voices of the saints that have lived before us.
And no, we are not crazy. We just worship the God of the living; not of the dead, for to God, all of them are alive.