This morning as I am preparing for our All Saints worship service at St. Paul, I am remembering a gift I received in 2007 in the midst of a great loss. That was the year that my Papaw died and went to be with out Lord. At the time, I was taking a preaching/creative writing course at Duke. My assignment was to find a connection between Halloween and All Saints and explain it through story. I wrote this sermon on the evening of October 30th, reflecting on my Papaw's illness and planning to go visit him the following weekend. He died the morning of October 31. Below is the sermon, which continues to be a gift for me. Cherish the saints in your life, friends, those who have gone on to be with God and those who are still among you.
Papaw is like a garden grown vegetable. Sometimes he’s sweet, and he looks like he’s going to be real sweet; and sometimes he looks so sweet that he’s about to be rotten. He’s always worth the first bite. I sat in the yard under the tree with my sister and watched him poke around in the garden that he fought to maintain despite the rode that that receded closer to its border like a balding middle aged man. He hated that road, and always fussed if we got too close to it. But he loved that garden. My sister and I participated in our usual adventures of exploring the yard. Sometimes I followed him around stepping on things that were meant to be eaten, asking “Papaw why is the sky blue?”, picking up bugs, asking “if I pull this critter’s antennas off will he die?”, making mud pies, asking “Papaw, do you love chocolate more than you love me?”, and poking my fingers into the soft skin of the tender tomatoes. Mostly I got “mmhhmm,” and “what do you think, say-rah (that's how he said my name)?” I treated my grandparents like organic toys to be prodded and poked, and they treated me to cocoa puffs, playing in the garden, strange mixtures of foods, and the wisdom of the old people. It was like living a story, and I always tried to imagine the pasts that they painted of my extended family, of Cook’s valley, Arkansas, and my Papaw’s mom, Sarah Byra Gray Moody, who died shortly after his birth. Their world seemed different from my world, so much like that place between waking and dreaming, just barely painted across a mountain backdrop enough that I could see myself inside them, somewhere.
My Papaw was a strong man with several masks—husband, Father, Papaw, business manager, brother, church elder—and each bore with them a mask to represent a memory that remained fully present in a past sense. My masks include: student, daughter, preacher, oldest child, friend, girlfriend—some out of necessity and others out of natural progression. If ever one mask is removed, there is another beneath it. What will be left when I take them all off? I removed the Sunday school student mask one day to confess that I hadn’t read the whole bible. That for all fourteen years I had been alive, I never once read it like I did my extensive collection of other books. I have always been a reader. He told me that he read the whole bible more times than he could remember, and that when I learned to love the scriptures more than I loved the book world I lived in that I wouldn’t be able to put it down. He recited God’s Word back to me--which had become his words--and told me that he had been a Sunday School teacher for much longer than I was alive.
I always think of Papaw in the autumn when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees. The birds get quiet and the silence of the night becomes overwhelming. I’m captivated by smells that make me recall dreams, or even actual events in life that only seem like dreams swept up in the dew of the morning dawn. Who do I see when I look at my Papaw? Which mask that I place on his face is true? Can a mask be true?
I remember my first time tasting honeycomb sitting at the cash register at the short stop. It was like playing store, except that it was a real gas station/convenient store. I loved running back through the freezer and sifting through the numerous projects Papaw had going on in the corner that was his “shop” for knives and sewing machines. We played with his cane, the cane with a handle that smells like his hand—harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time foam shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees. In my own organized courtroom, I accused him of making holes in his mouth with the chewing tobacco that bulged out his bottom lip. I refused to allow him to make holes in his mouth that I saw in a video at school. I tore the mask away, stole his deadly candy and emptied it on the ground. I wore my stubborn mask, and I sat crying with the shame of being so forceful with my gentle Papaw. I was already a failed lawyer. He never stopped chewing, but on some level, I felt like I stripped him of one of the fairy tale masks that I used to cover his face. Who told him that was his story? Why did he start? Those were never questions I asked.
“Do what I say” he said, and my Mamaw whispered, “but not always what he does,” as he instructed me to pour grease into the skillet to make gravy. The gravy never did get thick enough, probably because he had calloused touch sensations due to years of hard work and diabetes. As we sat down to eat, discouraged at our ability to make things “just right,” he asked me to pray. “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food, Amen.” We tasted, and everything was sweet. The meat was sweet, the gravy was… sweet, the potatoes were… sweet, the cornbread was way too sweet. I was the first to giggle, and then we all laughed at Papaw’s mistake—powdered sugar instead of flour. The amount was right, but the substance was all wrong and it made our feast taste like a cavity waiting to happen. He took off the mask of Teacher, and became the student.
I always think of Papaw in the autumn when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time foam shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees. I remember when I told him I was going to seminary, and I knew that he didn’t support woman pastors. He told me a story. He told me the story of a capable woman who worked in the church because it was safe. He forgot to take off the mask of church elder to show his face as grandfather to a scared granddaughter who was a confident adult by paper, but really a child looking for assurance at heart. My story was his story, the story that he told me of a blessed redeemer that kept him going each day. The story of a God whose message to the world was one of Gospel to those trapped by sin and death, a message of healing and deeply loving… and of resurrection. He came to hear me preach one time—the word that he helped teach me to love—and I know he was proud.
Last time I saw my Papaw he sat in his chair watching one of his favorite Westerns. He muted the sound, but the action played on as though it was depicting the battle within his heart. I knew he was scared, and I knew he would die, and for the first time I saw him as a man—another child in need of God’s grace—a fellow beggar at the door of mercy. I hugged him and kissed him as I left and said, “I love you rascal, try to behave yourself,” and he said, “I never behave. I love you too, Say-rah.” Driving away from their home—I looked into the space that was once the garden—now an overgrown bunch of weeds long past harvest time, its last harvest being several years back and I painfully choked out the words: “Dear God, I trust you with my Papaw.”
Sisters and Brothers, what masks do we wear? How do we tell our stories? How do we live out our stories? When we see Jesus standing in the Jordan beckoning us home, will we recognize the songs of the saints? Our visible communion is incomplete and small compared to the invisible cloud of witnesses that surround our tables. God made us maskless and said we were good. My Papaw was a man of true faith, a man that did not live like a Pharisee; he did not live that others might see his good works, but lived so that if others were looking they would see his good God. So that a fellow traveler in this crazy world might see Jesus’ painfully visible fingerprints of blessing on his life. I will always think of him during the autumn-- when the air smells like its on fire, and the wind carries with a hint of harvest, sweet mint, chewing tobacco, old time shaving cream, and sleeping autumn trees. Merciful God, give him the courage to hear the wooing of your Saints as they sing the Hallelujahs into the depths of all your creation. Breathe into him eternity. Amen.
October 30, 2007