The Balcony People

westminster

This image comes from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and can be found on their website here.

This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Howell, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Hebrews 12:1-2. An audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.

Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota has a stunning balcony. It’s a balcony in the round.

Most churches, if they have a balcony, have that balcony placed on one side of the sanctuary, as it is in this sanctuary today. I attended a conference in Minneapolis years ago, hosted by this particular congregation, and I was so touched to see how their balcony nearly encircles the sanctuary. When it was full, it seemed like an image of that ‘Great Cloud of Witnesses’ before us, above us, with us, and worshipping alongside us.

Scripture speaks to us so beautifully at the beginning of the 12th chapter of Hebrews:

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…

Since we are surrounded by so Great a Cloud of Witnesses…

Today is the first Sunday of November, and each year on this day, we celebrate All Saints Sunday together. We remember those who have gone before us — those who have surrounded us, and those who continue to witness to us through their lives, reminding us what it means to run this race, what it means to love deeply, and what it means to belong to one another. They teach us how to live fully, following Jesus, loving our neighbors, and surrounding our neighbors with compassion, mercy, belonging, protection, and dignity.

Today, we remember those who taught us to live this way.

In scripture, the word ‘remember’ means ‘to make present.’ That’s what we do every time we eat our sacred meal and say, ‘Do this in remembrance of me.’ We experience Jesus as present.

In a similar way, on All Saints Day, we experience a time that calls forth the presence of our beloved, departed ones, and the entire Church of every time and place. Their love and light are present, and we are emboldened once more to follow Jesus with all that with have, and with all that we are, to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Years ago, I encountered a beautiful quote that was being passed around quite a bit on social media. It’s a quote from author Linda Hogan. Take this in and know that this is true for us today. She says,

“Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me.
‘Be still,’ they say.
‘Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.’”

Isn’t that an incredible thing to ponder?

I’m just going to read it again:

“Suddenly, all my ancestors are behind me.
‘Be still,’ they say.
‘Watch and listen.
You are the result of the love of thousands.’”

And that’s true, isn’t it?

That may call forth our grief as we miss some of these loved ones. It may call forth our awe, as we continue to embody a sense of connectedness with them, and as we open our minds and hearts to discover that we are each connected to every person who has been and currently is a part of the Church, in every nation, and at every time, over many centuries. We are the result of the love of those thousands, and many more than thousands, also. Our faith has been formed by each of these. We are truly surrounded by a Great Cloud of Witnesses.

In 1997, Fred Rogers — Mr. Rogers— won a Lifetime Achievement Award Emmy. As he walked on stage to receive the award, the room was filled with so much appreciation, and before he ever said a word, there were smiles and tears.

But that appreciation grew even more when he began to speak. In his acceptance speech, Fred Rogers moved the spotlight away from himself toward the people who have shaped us — not only those who had shaped him, but people who have shaped all of us — people unseen, yet people with names known especially to us.

He said,

“All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, ten seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are — those who have cared about you and wanted what was best for you in life? Ten seconds of time. I’ll watch the time,” he said.

People giggled at that last part.

But then, you could see everyone’s minds go to very loving places. People sat in silence with tears in their eyes, remembering the presence of people who have loved them into being. It was a beautiful span of silence, filled with many memories.

And so, today, I would also like to take about ten seconds of time to invite us to think about the people who have loved us into being, and also the Church across the world, the Church across time — the Church of the past, the worldwide Church of this moment. I’ll also watch the time.

(10 seconds)

And now I’m wondering we would like to say some of those names aloud all at once. It can be a cacophony of remembrance, making names present.

(10 seconds)

Once he finished the silence in the Emmy Acceptance Speech, Fred Rogers responded, saying, “Whomever you’ve been thinking about. . . how pleased they must be to know the difference you feel they’ve made. You know, they’re the kind of people television does well to offer our world.”

And here in Church, we say that the people you’ve been thinking about must also be so pleased to know the difference you feel they’ve made. And it is these people who are shaping our faith in this moment, inviting us, encouraging us, empowering us to be the Church now, in this place, and in this collective moment. It is sacred.

When I think about the people who have loved me into being, the people who have shaped my faith, and the people who call forth my own calling in this moment, I have to think about David.

David Roth was my pastor growing up. (I always make a little distinction here and say that it’s David Nelson Roth, not David Lee Roth!)  And more than a pastor, in many ways, David was a father to me. He was deeply influential upon my life, and on a number of different occasions growing up in Church, I remember him using language about ‘Balcony People’ to talk about those who have gone before us in the way that we have just honored them today.

That term comes from Balcony People, a book by Joyce Landorf Heatherly. She discusses the importance of being in relationship with people who encourage and affirm us. David often extended this term to talk about the Communion of Saints. After his death, nearly ten years ago, David Roth is one my many Balcony People.

When we come to All Saints Sunday, I often recall a particular memory concerning David, which took place a little more than year after he died. Believe it or not, my extremely old car — it’s 21 years old! — still plays cassette tapes. And all the way back then, in April of 2010, I was driving around in Austin, Texas, where I lived at the time, and I decided to listen to one of David’s sermon tapes. It was the last sermon he ever gave at my home church, and it took place on he day he retired.

In that sermon, he began to talk about his Balcony People and named a litany of individuals and communities that had shaped his life in the Church. At one point, he said something so powerful, and I’d like to share that with you. On that tape, he said,

“They all participated in giving me birth, as there are people here who even now, participate in giving all of us birth, re-birth. . . Christ has told us that wherever we are, even if we think we’re all alone, as the Apostle Paul at times felt all alone, we are surrounded by so Great a Cloud of Witnesses.”

Then he pointed to the communion table and said, “I never come to this communion table — never! — without feeling surrounded by the ‘Balcony People.’”

As you can imagine, it moved me so deeply to hear David Roth speak these words in his own voice after we had painfully lost him to a cancer diagnosis. Even beyond death, he still speaks. He is a Balcony Person, for sure. Quite intentionally, I think of him and my other Balcony People every time I come to that communion table. When you come to the table in other weeks, I invite you to do the same as well.

So consider your Balcony today.

  • Who has loved you into being?
  • Who still speaks?
  • Who cheers you on with encouragement – perhaps beyond you in time, yet so near to you in the present?

And consider that this Great Cloud of Witnesses is calling us to run the race that is set before us now, laying aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. These Balcony People are not calling us backward but forward — calling us to be the Church in this time and place, loving God, and loving our neighbors as ourselves; serving as one congregation in a worldwide Church with neighbors all around the world; serving this neighborhood and loving our neighbors here.

With their encouragement, may that be!
Amen.

Renee Roederer

4 thoughts on “The Balcony People

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