All the Saints

“All the Saints”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 9:7-28 (9:7) – November 5, 2017

Today, we commemorate All Saints Sunday. The first Sunday of November, that day we remember all the saints who are now in heaven, worshiping God in that great cloud of witnesses. We also remember familiar people, relatives and friends known to us, dear to us, who died since last All Saints Day last year. What is it about these formal occasions of remembrance? Often, we remember those who have sacrificed much, displayed tremendous bravery, or were persecuted—even died—at tremendous risk to themselves.

What is it that causes you and me to be listed in among a great multitude of saints like these? Or, aren’t we even to be worthy to be listed on the same page as these rarefied superstar saints? These women and men who followed after God, no matter what?

One of our Scripture readings today comes from the book of Revelation, starting at verse 9: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”

We break into the narrative as the elderly John has another vision, this time a scene of heaven. And, instead of seeing a predominance of Jews and only a sprinkling of other tribes and people groups, John sees a great multitude of all colors, all ethnicities, all languages and dialects, from every place on the globe.

I am blown away by that vision, the more I think about it. I am in awe, because the great multitude is of every possible description, every possible people group under the sun. Not just me and my family, not just me and the people from the neighborhood where I grew up. Not just people from one region, or one country, or one ethnicity. But, people from everywhere.       These people of the vision are called “saints,” and many people today have only one specific idea of what a “saint” is. St. Francis of Assisi, or St. John of the Cross, or St. Martha—the patron saint of our neighbor Catholic church, or the newly beatified saint, Mother Teresa.

Robert Louis Stevenson, writer of Kidnapped and Treasure Island, has a different definition of “saints.” “The saints are the sinners who keep on going.” And, both apostles Paul and Peter call their friends “saints” in the greetings, to all of the people who receive their letters.

But, we know very well that life often does not go smoothly. Not for us, not for our friends and families, and certainly not for the multitudes who lived in centuries past. Interesting, that “because we sinners are made holy by God’s grace, and not by our own actions, we are able to keep on going as Stevenson says.  Our keeping on in life often involves suffering.” [1] And, if we know anything about history, we know that believers in Christ often had to deal with grief, pain, suffering, and even persecution.

When John received this grand series of visions that he wrote down in the book of Revelation, he was often puzzled. He had to ask the people or elders or angels around him what it was he was seeing. As is the case here: “Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” 14 I answered, “Sir, you know.”

Leading question, you may say! John persuades the elder to answer the question himself. ““they are before the throne of God and serve God day and night in His temple; and He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His presence. 16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat.”

It sounds like to me that these people in heaven, who are identified as “saints” in other places in the book, no longer have to go through that valley of the shadow here on the earth, where God walks right by their side as they are in difficulty. They no longer need to face challenges of health reversals or job loss or crushing poverty or horrible accidents, or various calamities of one sort or another. They are at God’s side in heaven, and never have to experience those trials, losses, hunger and anguish any more.

But we are still left on this side of the veil. On this side, on a troubled world where suffering and loss and fear and anxiety rear their heads all too often. Especially grief, where we mourn the loss of loved ones, friends and relatives who left us too soon.

Rev. Janet Hunt talks about a sad situation like this: “And yet, for all of those for whom I light a candle and remember each All Saints Sunday, there is still really just the one I carry closest of all. One whose dying has me yearning most deeply for the promises of this day.

“It came to me again last week when a beloved cousin came to visit. He had stopped to see his folks the night before he flew out and as he sat with them he told his dad he was going to see Kathleen. “You remember Kathleen, don’t you dad? She was Tommy’s wife.” (Kathleen is my mother.)

“Now in these recent years my dad’s brother does not remember as he once did. For a moment last week, though, there was clarity as he remembered his only brother and as he registered all over again the fact that he had died and with that remembering, his face fell along with his tears. And mine did, too, to hear of his remembering.” [2]

Grief, sorrow and loss are like that, sometimes. We can be fine, content, living our lives. Then, out of nowhere it seems, the thought of that special loved one, that dear friend who is no longer with us in this world, comes to mind.

And then, Janet Hunt reminds us, “nothing makes us more grateful than the gift of that time and place so vividly described in today’s words from Revelation. A time and place:

  • where the whole world will gather and join together in song and where we will be washed clean,
  • where hunger and thirst will no longer hold sway,
  • where there will be shelter from all that would harm,
  • where the very water of life will sustain us,
  • and where God Himself will bend low to wipe away our tears.” [3]

Is such a place even possible? In those times when you or I are grieving anew, remembering with sorrow or longing in our hearts, the apostle John assures us that “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” And, ““Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

In plainer words, from his first letter to the scattered believers in Christ, John gives us further assurance: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”

Today, we have a foretaste of heaven from both Scripture readings. Revelation tells us of the wonderful worship service in heaven, where everyone is praising God. And 1 John lets us know that when our Lord Jesus appears to each of us, we shall be like Him in glory.

“So with all of you, I will light the candles this All Saints Day. In memory and in powerful hope we will light the candles. Standing confident in the very promises of God we will light them.[4]

Amen. May it be so. Amen.

[1] https://preachingtip.com/archives-year-a/pentecost-year-a/all-saints-day-all-saints-sunday/

[2] http://dancingwiththeword.com/all-saints-day-in-memory-and-in-hope/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

A Great Multitude

“A Great Multitude”

Rev 7 multitude white-robes

Revelation 7:9-17 – April 17, 2016

This past Friday, April 15, 2016, I convened a Peace Breakfast at Kappy’s Restaurant, here in Morton Grove. We had a diverse group assembled! Not quite as diverse as this great multitude that John talked about in Revelation 7, but still, diverse. Culturally, ethnically, and religiously different from one another.

Let’s step back, and think about the book of Revelation. This is not your typical bible passage to read on a Sunday morning. Not your usual sermon text, either. The book of Revelation is a series of interconnected visions alerting believers to the last days of the church.

Chapter 7 comes towards the beginning of John’s visions.

I’d like everyone to think of an old-fashioned radio or television serial, in multiple parts, or episodes. Here we have yet another fantastic episode of this amazing book.

For centuries, many preachers, teachers, and bible interpreters have read Revelation, and completely pick it apart. Find all types of supposed references to actual people, places and things. Use it as a guidebook for the End Times. It sounds like the political hype we lament but can’t quite seem to escape. (Let me say—bible interpreters have been “identifying” people, places and things in Revelation for centuries. Different anti-Christs, different identifications for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and all the rest—every century, every era, every place.)

If John wrote this book to bring hope to his readers, how in the world can this passage of Revelation provide a different, more life-giving vision to us, today?

Our bible passage today opens with a great multitude. It’s like John has a huge video screen in front of him. He’s watching this fantastic vision play out in front of him.

I encourage you all to get into the spirit of this passage. Shut your eyes, and imagine yourself seated in a heavenly theater (an iMax theater, if that helps you). John is seated right next to you, and suddenly, you see a great multitude on this massive screen in front of you. Every racial group, every ethnicity, every language spoken. All of them! All the things, as the young people say today.

Yes, in the larger picture, all of these people in the great multitude are going to go through a time of great trial. However—I would like to focus on this multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual multitude of people.

We are all aware of other separations and designations for groups of people. Upper class, working class. City folk, country folk, North side, South side. With all of this fantastic stuff going on in the book of Revelation, on that huge theater screen in front of us, who has time to think about these divisions? Who would be concerned—in heaven? Standing before the throne of God Almighty, in the full sight of God.

Yet—here in this world, here in the United States, in the Chicago area, those things do matter. As a pastor, I talk to a number of people many times in a week. Some of these people share about their fears and hopes for the future. More and more, I notice a shift in the mindsets of people—a shift towards deeper feelings of uncertainty and general anxiety.

I am distressed and dismayed at the overt anger, undisguised racism, and blatant xenophobia that is increasingly happening in this country. The shouting, yelling, name-calling, and general mud-slinging in this political primary process, just for an example. Note: I am not taking sides, but I am truly dismayed by the marked increase in such attitudes due to people’s ethnicity, culture, or religion. That is what I see as a big problem today.

Perhaps I am an idealist, but I would like to believe that we as a nation are truly a melting pot. This country is one of the most like this image, this part of the vision that John saw. That is such a strength of the United States! Yay! Go, us!!

We are going to switch gears. Let us look at the beginnings of the church.

In Acts, shortly after the day of Pentecost, a disagreement came up in the church. As Rev. Findlayson mentions, “The Jewish world was divided between Aramaic-speaking Jews from Palestine [Hebrews—home grown], and Greek-speaking Jews from the dispersion [or Hellenists—who had grown up outside Palestine]. Racial tension, often focused on religious purity, existed in the wider Jewish community and found its way into the New Testament church. [The tension] revealed itself in a dispute over the care of widows. The [Greek-speaking Jews] claimed that their widows were not getting a fair share of the church’s welfare budget.”

Do you hear the problem? Two separate groups of people in the early Church—all Jews, and one group—a minority group, no less—claimed they were being overlooked. Discriminated against. Now, multiply that 100 times. No, 1000 times. And, you begin to see the problems we all have today with rampant, widespread hatred, racism, fear, and xenophobia.

I guess I was one of those people who wanted to believe that we as a country and maybe even as a human race were becoming more open, integrated, and generous. I wanted to believe that humans were moving past this kind of hatred, fear, and violence. I thought we were on the way towards making it as difficult as possible for anyone to intimidate or harm others simply because they are of a certain religion, or racial background, or culture.

What can conquer such deep set feelings?

John 3:16 is a wonderful verse. So much promise, so much love, so much grace. And—so much power!

Let us consider John 3:16. I suspect many of you can say it with me. We are just going to quote the beginning of the verse: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” I wondered: let’s unpack this verse. God loves? With a God-sized love. We all agree. God gave His Son—God’s ultimate Gift. Again, we all agree.  

The last phrase of this sentence? God so loved—the world.

Who is not part of the world that God loved? Let us consider racist feelings. Does God love the racist person? Yes. How about the person who is racially profiled? Yes.

Let’s consider xenophobic fears. Does God love the person who is so afraid of people who look different from them, or speak another language, or come from another part of the world? Yes, God does. God loves everyone. No matter what.

That is the hope we can gather from this passage in Revelation 7 today. God loves you. God loves me. Even though we may be flawed, and make mistakes, and do or say bad things. God still loves us.

The Peace Breakfast was a beginning, a chance to continue the conversation. We all live and work together, in community. Let’s promote positivity and friendship, not distrust and alienation. Here, in Niles and Morton Grove—and in Des Plaines, Glenview, Skokie—all over the Chicago area—we have such a multitude of diverse people! And it’s an opportunity to shine forth as a light of the Gospel, right here on this corner of Shermer and Harlem.

Finally, we can all praise God along with the great multitude from Revelation, and say, “Amen! Praise and glory and wisdom and thanks and honor and power and strength be to our God for ever and ever. Amen!”

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)