This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Mikang Kim about the readings for All Saints’ Sunday [C] (Daniel 7.1-3, 15-18, Psalm 149, Ephesians 1.11-23, Luke 6.20-31). Mikang is the pastor of Epworth UMC on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Our conversation covers a range of topics including proper pronunciation, perseverance, communal reading, saintliness, the difference Christ makes, directions for singing, courage, blessings and woes, sermon introductions, and Kingdom work. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Praying Our Goodbyes
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned. By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace. And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets – who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flowing, and evens chairs and imprisonment. They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented — of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. 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, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.
Few, if any, of us plan to come to church in order to be astonished. Sure, we might be moved to tears or clapping by a song, there might be a line in a prayer that lingers in our hearts, we might ooh and ahh over the wayward comment of a kid during the children’s message. We might even say “amen” out loud in the midst of a sermon.
Miracles do happen after all.
No thank you.
We don’t have time for astonishment in our manicured machinations on Sunday morning. We like our church, just like we like our God, within our control. We appreciate boundaries and expectations and predicability.
And yet, we come to church today, we gather before the throne of God, we open up and the good book, and what do we find?
“By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.”
How dare the writer of Hebrews! We’ve got the young, and the restless, present in worship. This isn’t the place for such vulgarities!
Other translations soften the blow by calling Rahab a harlot, which is what my grandmother would call her. Whereas other translations up the ante by calling her a, well, I can’t even bring myself to say that word.
But there it is. Clear as day in the strange new world of the Bible: Rahab the prostitute and her faith.
Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, they’re all good and fine, we can handle their stories and we can even understand their faith.
Do you know her story?
Listen: Joshua has guided the people Israel to the edge of the Promised Land. He sends two spies into occupied territory to assess the situation. They approach Jericho, big city, and they wind up, of all places, at Rahab’s in the red light district.
I wonder why they went there…
Anyway, the king receives word that foreign spies have infiltrated his domain, and he dispatches some rough and tough foot soldiers to weed them out. They knock on Rahab’s door, she knows everyone after all, and she lies right to their faces.
“Sure,” she says, “I saw some fellas like you’re describing, but they paid their tabs and left.”
Meanwhile, our little hardworking harlot has actually hidden the spies within the thatch of her roof. She returns to them and says, “I’ve heard of your God and I would appreciate a little mercy begin flung my way when the walls come down.”
She hangs a scarlet thread from her window as a reminder to the spies and their people and, sure enough, when Joshua and the army of God enter Jericho, the red threaded house in the red light district is the only one spared in the entire city.
So, to be clear, Rahab is a prostitute, a lair, and a traitor to her own people.
And the writer of Hebrews includes her in the faith hall of fame!
It’s downright astonishing!
But maybe it isn’t. At least, not really. Because if you spend even the slightest among of time in the strange new world of the Bible you quickly discover that Rahab’s story isn’t unique. Noah gets naked, Abraham abandons, Moses murders, David deceives, Peter perjures, on and on and on.
Apparently, faith is the recognition, oddly enough, that no matter what we’ve done or left undone in the past, God can still use us now and in the future.
The writer of Hebrews is calling to our attention the astonishing fact that if someone like Rahab can be used for the purposes of the Kingdom, just imagine what God can do with someone like you, or even like me.
But then everything shifts. We read of these heroes from the faith, some of whom don’t really seem like heroes in the first place, we read about the abject terror and suffering that the faithful experienced in their response to God, we read of extremely serious and staggering details of the cost of discipleship and and then they all vanish into the great cloud of witness.
We are addressed. Across the great centuries of the church, the writer address us. You and me.
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Their stories come to fruition in us. We are the fruit of the seeds planted long ago.
Look to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who mounted the hard wood of the cross on our behalf, and who now rules at the right hand of God.
In short: you and me, we’re not alone.
We are bound to those from the past, those in the present, and those in the future in ways we can scarcely imagine. We are caught up in the triumph of the Trinity and are no longer defined by our sins and our shortcomings, but only by the grace and peace made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ.
All these verses in Hebrews, the faith hall of fame, they ring out for everyone to hear: our faith is not in us.
What rotten luck it would be if our faith was in us.
Have you watched the news recently? Paul is right, none of us is righteous, no, not one.
We are not the pioneers and perfecters of the faith. Jesus is.
And what wondrous Good News it is to hear of Jesus as our pioneer and perfecter. Particularly at a time when we spend most of our time thinking about, talking about, going backward.
Jesus is ahead of us, beckoning us into a new and astonishing reality.
What we might call, the church of tomorrow.
Christianity, contrary to how we might understand it, isn’t actually a religion. Religions are systems of beliefs and rituals that get the divine to do something for us. Whereas Christianity is the story of the God who does the unimaginable for us without us having to do anything in return.
The Lord is not waiting with arms crossed until we get our acts together. Instead, God condescends to our miserable estate and gathers us together and says, “follow me.”
To be the church in the world today is a strange endeavor. If we find ourselves concerned only with matters of life after death, or if we are consumed only by thoughts of holy figures and sacred rituals, we are not the church. We may be and do those things, but to be the church means being part of an alternative way of being in the world right now.
Put simply: we’re different.
We’re different in terms of space because we are geared in an outward matter. We are different in terms of story because we understand who we are not as something we earn or achieve, but instead a gift received. And we are different in terms of time because we believe God’s future is already overlapping with the present.
We are people who have received new pasts, in which our faults and failures no longer define who we are, and we have receive new future in which impossible possibilities rain down for nothing.
We are different. We are like Rahab: with the tiniest pinch of faith, we step into a future, God’s future, and everything is changed.
It’s too easy, at times, to lose sight of how weird it is to be part of the church. For many years we have endeavored to appear as appealing as possible to those outside. Whereas the real test of whether or not the church is the church is if we are sufficiently unacceptable to the world.
We are not yet another club or social gathering that provides a needed distraction from all that is wrong in the world.
We are the body of Christ for the world – we model God’s future in the present.
We live, oddly enough, by grace. We practice trust and honesty and forgiveness in the midst of a time in which those things sound like fairytales.
The church is God’s parable for the world.
We are the wild and weird story for a time and place that is desperate for a new narrative, albeit one that leaves people scratching their heads.
The kingdom of God is like a woman walking down the hallway at the hospital in the middle of the night, having just received word that her husband needs emergency surgery in order to survive. And as she walks, all alone, and the terror of the moment starts to sink in, she steps into the waiting room with nothing but fear, until she realizes the room is full to brim with the people from church who have come out in the middle of the night, simply to make sure she knows she’s not alone.
The kingdom of God is like a parent in the midst of Vacation Bible School who approaches a certain bald and bearded pastor, incredulous that the church would be willing not only to watch her children for a week, but that we would also love them, feed them, and teach them about Jesus for free.
The kingdom of God is like the man who shuffled down the center aisle last week, and approached the aforementioned pastor, with tears streaming down his face and his hands outstretched for the gifts of God. The same man who, when the pastor approached him after worship to make sure he was okay, declared, “Tears of joy. They were tears of joy!”
I don’t know if you knew what you were getting into when you walked into the church. Whether you’ve been here for decades or this is your first Sunday. The truth is, none of us really knows what’s in store once we hear the call of God.
The Gospels make it wonderfully clear that the disciples had not the foggiest idea of what was going to happen next. With a simple, “follow me” Jesus invites ordinary, if not awful, people to come out and be part of an adventure, a journey, that astonishes at every turn.
You and me, we’re not alone. We are all surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses, people like Rahab, who brought us to where we are right now. And because we are caught up in their story, because it is being perfected in us, we can do wild and wonderful things, we can cast away the works of darkness, we can be the place where loneliness is eradicated, we can befriend the friendless and love the loveless, we can do all these things because the grace of Jesus Christ really is the difference that makes all the difference.
Welcome to the church of tomorrow – it’s astonishing. Amen.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
I love Halloween. There’s just something about people, both young and old, getting dressed up in costumes that draws forth a feeling of frivolity that feels almost completely absent in the world today. This Halloween, in particular, felt like a great pause and retreat from the never-ending horrible news cycle; rather than having all of the same conversations about the same stuff over and over again, for one night, people put on the masks and let it all go.
And nowhere was this more present than in our parking lot for the Trunk or Treat. We had over 200 hundred children from the community make their way from trunk to trunk and our property was filled with laughter, wrappers being ripped to shreds, and the monster mash. But perhaps the thing I enjoyed most, even more than watching kids go down the Bouncey house slide, or my son dancing in his Luke Skywalker costume, was watching the parents.
I recognized a number of people from the neighborhood, and some of whom regularly gather in our lot for the Flea Market or for the food distribution, but during the trunk or treat they seemed different. Instead of the normal anxieties and frustrations, they appeared at ease. I saw smiles, and giggles, and even the occasional sleight of hand removing a Twix from a kid’s bucket for a quick treat.
Halloween is awesome, and it is good for kids and adults.
Underneath the costumes and the candy, beyond the Butterfingers and the “Boos!”, Halloween contains a recognition about the complicated nature of life, and in particular that life doesn’t last forever. On Halloween both the young and old are forced to come to grips with the often avoided truth: death is real.
But for as important as Halloween is, particularly for Christians, All Saints is even more important.
All Saints is the set apart liturgical day when we pause, remember, and give thanks for the dead. Some churches will highlight the Saints in their community, others will offer time for silent reflection, and other will simply name the dead and leave it at that.
There are lots of liturgical moves that can be made on this day, but All Saints also raises a lot of questions, in fact some of our most profound questions: Who and what are we really? Is there anything permanent in the universe? Do our lives have any meaning?
And those questions can be far more spooky and frightening than anything we might’ve encountered on Halloween.
Here’s a frightening thought to put it all in perspective: When was the last time you walked through a cemetery? What did you make of all the countless names you didn’t know or even recognize? Have you ever though about how many people will walk past your grave one day not knowing or caring at all about who you were?
Or mull on this: I have lost track of the number of families that have come to me with questions about what to do with the stuff of a person now dead. Sure, the big pieces of furniture will eventually find new homes, but what about the random box of newspaper clippings? What should we do with all the old notes and the brief sketches? Who wants all the sentimentalities that mean nothing to those who are still living?
Or still yet this: On Wednesday we drove our son to his godparents’ house so we could trick or treat with them around their neighborhood. Elijah loaded up on gobs of candy and he rejoiced in screaming “Happy Halloween” while he was still walking up the driveway before knocking on the door. But at the end of the evening, we loaded him and all of his gleanings into the car, and while driving home we encountered 5 different rescue vehicles with all of their lights and sirens blazing, all on their way to horrible accidents on what is supposed to be one of the most magical nights of the year.
Did you know that more pedestrian traffic fatalities occur on Halloween than any other day during the year? The majority of which happen to children under the age of 8…
No matter who we are, no matter what kind of life we’ve led, we all want to know the answers to some ultimate questions: Is death all there is? Do our lives have any real meaning? What happens if we die with things unresolved? Are we going to be separated forever from the very people who meant the most to us?
Contrary to the Hallmark channel, or any of number of institutions and industries, the biblical view of humanity is that if we were left to our own devices, if this was all there is, then our lives would all end in emptiness and we would truly and irrevocably return to the dust from whence we came.
No amount of power, or wealth, or resources, can stop the inevitability of the end of our days.
And so it is here, from this spooky, frightening, and terrifying vantage point that I want to read our passage once more:
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
I hope it gave you some goosebumps, or at least some divine comfort made manifest physically and tangibly, particularly after thinking about graveyards, leftover items, and ambulances on Halloween.
Because the true depths of God’s promise in Revelation can only felt when we’ve actually considered the alternative.
Revelation can appear wild and weird but it is also wonderful. In addition to visions of beasts and flaming altars, it also offers moving images of comfort and hope to people like you and me who live in troubled times.
Though, of course, what we might consider “troubled” would pale in comparison to the early Christians. John’s letter was written from a place of exile to a growing community who were experiencing horrific persecution. The letter, in different ways, claims that despite all appearances to the contrary, the Roman Empire’s power was not absolute – it is only God who reigns supreme.
The differing visions and divine battles between good and evil offer a lens into the penultimate victory of God over and against everything else. No amount of physical abuse or religious persecution, no number of graveyards, or leftover belongings, or even ambulances on Halloween have the final word.
Sure, they will sting like nothing else on earth, they might derail everything we thought we knew, they can even bring our lives to an end, but they are not the end.
There’s a reason that this text, these words from Revelation, have been associated since ancient times with the rites involved with Christian burials.
There’s a reason we read these words when we bury our friends, our families, and even our children.
They are words of hope for a people who feel hopeless. And, of course, it may be difficult for some of us to image what the persecution that necessitated the writing of this letter looked like – lives of fear and trembling, always on the run, always faithful, but never sure of tomorrow. It was a life of utter terror that the Roman emperor inflicted on the early Christians who passed this letter around.
They were the very first saints of the church, brothers and sisters who lived by faith, without whom we would not have these words. Those saints risked it all for one name – not the name on their emperor, but Jesus the Christ – the name above all names.
But maybe we know some of that suffering. Maybe it doesn’t come from some megalomaniacal leader who suppresses the words we read here today, perhaps we won’t ever fear for our lives because of our faith, but we’ve got plenty of things to be afraid of, we’ve got plenty of questions that keep us awake at night, we know what it means to be spooked.
And the normative response to this fear is a desire for control – we want to be the masters of our own destiny. But, to be very real, control is exactly what the Roman Empire wanted over the first Christians – it’s what led them to harm, and persecute, and even kill in the name of the country.
But the first Christians, they didn’t want control – they just wanted Jesus.
Brokenness is all around us, its in our schools, our churches, our government, our businesses, our national institutions – all of those things that we normally look to for stability, and hope, and even control… all of them fall short of the glory for which they were created.
And thus John has a vision where all things are made new.
And when he says all, he means all.
That includes the countless and unknowable bodies buried in our cemeteries.
It includes the families and friends and spouses and children that we placed in the ground.
It includes those who lives came to their end because of accidents on Halloween.
It even includes us.
To read and hear these words on a day like today is to be re-communed with every saint that has come before us, with those who risked their lives to get us these words, with every saint will will come long after we’re gone, with those who will hold onto these words in the face of as of yet unimagined persecution.
We belong to and believe in the communion of saints, past-present-future.
And so we can be afraid, we can lay awake at night asking those deep and profoundly existential questions, but being a Christian isn’t about adopting a certain set of ideas or beliefs that prevent us from ever suffering or wondering or even doubting.
Following Jesus is instead about being included among his friends.
In baptism we are washed with with the same water the Jesus washed his friends.
In communion we are feb by the same meal that Jesus shared with his disciples.
Our stories, whether long or short, whether filled with joy or pain, are taken up and become part of the great story that is God with God’s people.
And it is in recognition of the great and cosmic scope of what our stories become in the person of Jesus that our lives acquire a meaning that extends far beyond us.
And, most importantly, it is at that profound moment of new discovery that we know, or at least strangely remember, the end of the story!
When we know the end, everything that appears mundane or frustrating, the trivialities that keep us awake, and even the spookiest notions of our lives are outshined by the glorious Alpha and Omega who is, and was, and is to come.
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Chenda Innis Lee about the readings for the 11th Sunday After Pentecost (2 Samuel 11.26-12.13a, Psalm 51.1-12, Ephesians 4.1-16, John 6.24-35). Chenda is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and she serves as one of the pastors at Annandale UMC in Annandale, VA. Our conversation covers a range of topics including crumbs at the table, putting God in God’s place, the underrated prophet, losing agency, sharing passwords, reconciliation, Paul’s lack of gentleness, equipping the saints, being lost, and breaking pedestals. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Pedestals Are Meant To Be Broken
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
What is the most important thing in America? As in, if you could take a step back from it all, what do you think has the greatest priority in this country?
Some might say, after a week like the one we just had, that the World Series is the most important thing in America. Baseball is, after all, the great American pastime. Or at least, drinking a beer while eating a hot dog at the World Series is what being an American is all about.
Or maybe the greatest thing in America is the willingness to fight against tyranny and terrorism. This week there was yet another attack against innocent civilians in New York City and the response in condemning the attack was universally accepted.
What’s the most important thing in America? I would make a case, that for Americans freedom is the most important thing in America. Think about it for just a moment: freedom to chose, freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to vote. Nothing is more important to Americans on the political left and right than maintaining the freedom of the individual. We hear about our freedom all the time.
As such, we’ve created a culture where privacy is sought more than community, where no one should be asked to suffer for anyone else, and where we get to say whatever we want, and others can say whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t offend us too much.
In a strange and weird way, our bondage to political realities and political choices has resulted in our bondage to freedom.
When we moved here a handful of months ago, after we finally unpacked most of the house, we set up our TV and signed up for cable. It took a long time to get used to watching commercials again after not seeing them for the majority of the last seven years while I was at my first appointment and while I was in seminary.
I liked watching a narrative from start to finish without interruption, and because the commercials were now interrupting my viewing I started paying more attention to them. During the first two months of cable television, just about every single advertisement had to do with bodies. If you take this pill your body will feel stronger, if you use this cream you will look ten years younger, if you use this shampoo you will get the man of your dreams, if you use this deodorant you will get the woman of your dreams.
And whenever I saw two middle age individuals holding hands while sitting in separate bathtubs, or just being overly affectionate with one another, I didn’t even need to listen to the voiceover to know what they were selling.
But then something changed.
Almost without warning, there was a not a single commercial break without an ad for the gubernatorial race that comes to its fruition this Tuesday. And the more I witnessed the ads the more I realized something bizarre: I never saw an ad describing what either candidate stood for. Instead every ad was dedicated to attacking the other.
At this point, I’m sad to say, I can tell you far more about what’s wrong with both candidates than I can tell you something constructive about what each of them are hoping to accomplish.
Today we celebrate the saints of God. Since nearly the beginning, the church has set aside a day to remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us in the faith, stretching across the centuries and all around the world. We take time to read their names and pause for a moment of praise to the Lord for the many ways those saints shaped our faith even here and now.
And we don’t get to choose our saints, much like we don’t get to choose our politicians. I mean we do in the sense that we get to vote on them, but more often that not we just get the politicians we deserve.
Today, our culture has been separated into two divided categories: Donkeys and Elephants. Just about every fabric of our lives can be whittled down to one of the two dominant political ideologies such that we can’t watch TV, or read a newspaper, or get online, or even drive down the road without being bombarded by one of the two political animals. The suffocating political atmosphere of today is oppressive and often forces us to identify what camp we’re in.
And, sadly, because we have total and ultimate freedom, the thing we hold dear, we can surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, and perhaps most importantly, vote like us.
But saints are the people who gave their lives not to a donkey, and not to an elephant, but to the Lamb.
Revelation is one of the weirder books in the bible, and one not often read in church. In it you can find the kind of stuff that some people shout from the street corners of life. In it we can read about beasts and dragons and lambs. And, often times, it is used by those of a more fundamentalist leaning to detail the coming wrath and destruction of God in such a way that it scares faith into people.
But for as much as Revelation is about a time yet to come, it is also about what the faithful life is like here and now.
The vision contains a great multitude that no one could count, people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. And they’re singing!
This group that is beyond all groups is gathered around the one Lamb at the throne. They are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
In God’s time, all people will be washed by the blood of the Lamb; through the death of Christ on the cross salvation has entered existence.
Here and now, we are washed through the waters of baptism, something that gives us more identity than any donkey or elephant ever can, something that frees us more than any declaration of independence ever can, and something that saves us better than any politician ever can.
Baptism is the beginning of the journey that leads to sainthood. Because in baptism we enter into the revolution of God where the Lamb at the throne determines our lives more than anything else. Where we can find a unity through the waters that is almost completely absent in every other part of existence.
Church, thanks be to God, is one of the last remaining places where we willingly gather with people who don’t think, look, act, and vote like us. Church is the place where we believe our baptismal identities are more important and more determinative than the political sign in our front yard and the person whose name we choose in the voting booth.
Whenever we gather in this space, we are brought before the throne with the Lamb at the center. This thing we call worship is our best chance to be reminded that God is the One guiding us to springs of water, and that God is the One invested in the work of wiping every tear from our eyes. Church is where we come to meet the saints with hope that someone might call us saints when we’re gone.
We live between the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. We rest in the time between when we hear the beautiful tones of God’s final Word that stretches into eternity and reaches back into the farthest moments of time itself.
And, like the saints of Revelation, we sing.
The music of the saints, the very music of salvation, gives a different sound and understanding to what we prioritize in this life. When we sing with the great cloud of witnesses from the past, present, and future, we boldly proclaim that it is always the Lord and not the empire that liberates. When we lift our voices to the sky we do so in declaration that the Lamb is more important than a donkey and an elephant.
It is through the music of God, the sounds of the saints, that we receive the endurance necessary to make it through whatever trouble springs up in our lives.
That heavenly choir of revelation, a choir that we harmonize with here on earth, invites the revolution of God that will not let division have the final word.
Almost a year ago I woke up and drove down the road from the parsonage to the local Seventh Day Adventist church, which was my polling station for the presidential election. For the better part of two years, with billions of dollars raised and spent by both campaigns, the time had come for the country to decide who would be our next president.
I pulled into the parking lot before the Sun had peaked over the horizon, and with a coffee mug in my hand and my clergy collar around my neck, I walked into the fellowship hall to cast my vote.
I remember the polling operators looking dreadful and depressed, as if the previous months had sucked the very life out of them, and I walked passed to my booth.
There before me on the table was a piece of paper that countless individuals have fought to protect. There, with big fonts and circles to fill in, was the very freedom our country was founded on. I filled in my circle and walked over to the machine, which ate my decision, and rang a little bell for completion.
And then I looked up. On the wall above the voting machine was a giant painting of Jesus. Not Jesus dying on the cross, nor was it Jesus praying in the garden, nor was it any of the miracles Jesus performed through his ministry. No, it was a giant painting of Jesus laughing his butt off.
And it was perfect.
Salvation belongs to God alone. Even though all nations, and races, and creeds, and languages are pictured in the divine vision of revelation, salvation does not belong to any of them. All of them are guilty of promising something to a particular group while damning another.
The donkeys and the elephants can’t and won’t save us. They exist to instill a sense of freedom that isolates us from one another rather than binding us to one another. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise salvation that only brings division.
But the Lamb of God is at the center of the throne. The saints of God, those who came before, those who are with us now, and those who are yet to come sing with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Amen.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
Revelation is full of some of the most bizarre imagery in all of Christianity. Pick up the bible; flip all the way to the end, and what you find sounds like the stuff that some people will scream out from the street corners of life. In Revelation we read about beasts and dragons and lambs, we catch a glimpse of the bowls of God’s wrath, and the destruction of the world.
It is an often-ignored book of the bible, and for good reason. Revelation has been responsible for countless deaths throughout the centuries, as zealous Christians believed they were seeing the images of the book before their eyes and acted accordingly. It rests at the foundation for some of the strangest modern Christian literature. And it accounts for the never-ending amount of fundamentalist preachers who claim to know the exact day of calamity that will bring about the end of the existence.
Growing up in the church, I can barely remember ever hearing about Revelation. On Sunday mornings we were more inclined to hear about the miracles of Jesus in the gospels, or the great narratives of Genesis, than we were to hear about visions of God’s power and destruction. Even today as a pastor, I am ashamed to admit that after leading worship for two and a half years, I have only preached on Revelation once, and frankly it was to talk about the writer of Revelation more than the text itself.
Yet, if regular worship ignores the power of Revelation, funerals are the place where it is most needed.
It is no accident that the text we read this morning has been used and associated with Christian burials for nearly as long as the church has existed. When faithful disciples gather for services of death and resurrection, Revelation 21.1-6 needs to be read precisely because of what it proclaims. This handful of verses offers evocative and moving images of comfort to those of us who live past our friends and family who die, and for those of us who live in troubled times.
John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, saw a map of the future; a description of what God will do in time. From his vantage point John witnessed a new heaven and a new earth. All that we have come to know had passed away from recognition, and even the sea was no more. But there in the sky John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven adorned like a bride for her husband. Like the wonderful moment of a bride walking down the aisle in church, with all of the joy and expectation of a new and beautiful future, God’s city came to rest with God’s creation.
And then John heard a loud and booming voice declare, “See God’s home is now with mortals. God will live with them and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will cease to exist; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things have passed away and God’s divine reality will reign forever.”
And the one seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new! Write this down because it is trustworthy and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”
John’s words are a consolation, a vision of hope for a people in distress. These words have brought comfort to countless Christians throughout the centuries, from the earliest disciples persecuted for their faith to those who still live in fear because of what they believe. And at funerals, they help to remind each of us about God’s love in the past, present, and future.
It was freezing outside as we all gathered around the grave. We had gone through the funeral service in the sanctuary, we had praised God in spite of loss, we had remembered the saint’s life that were now about to bury in the ground, and we had somberly marched into the cemetery with our heads hung low.
There is a strange thing that happens between the sanctuary service and the graveside. The finality of death takes on an entirely new and deeper meaning as you witness a casket or urn prepared to be lowered into the earth. Gone are the familiar smells and sights of the sanctuary only to be replaced with the sounds of nature and the smell of dirt.
We stood there and patiently waited for the family to gather as close as possible, and then every eye turned to me. When we mourn the dead, we become helpless and rely on someone to guide us through the right words and actions, hoping that the pastor will be true to the life and death of our beloved while declaring the hope of the resurrection.
Every person shivered in the wind. I offered prayers and scriptures reflective of the person’s life, I made time for silence so that we could all properly reflect on what we were doing, and then I walked over the casket. I reached down to the ground, and like I had countless times before, I grabbed the loose soil and dropped it onto the wood. And then with my hands resting on the casket I began to sing, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling for you and for me. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O Sinner come home. Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner come home.”
The beauty of Revelation 21 is in the discovery that God will dwell with us, and the home of God will be with us. The hope of the text is the fact that God will call for all of us to come home at one point or another. The bell will toll for us all, but death has lost its sting because of the gift and grace of Jesus Christ.
Since becoming a pastor, I have had to bury a lot of saints, those faithful servants of God’s kingdom who witnessed in their lives to the love of God. While I have sat with numerous friends and families as we mourned the dead I have been brought back to this passage in Revelation that describes the beautiful future in store for us. And though we weep here and now on earth, we wait for that glorious day when death will be no more, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and we live and with the One who reigns forever.
Today we honor the saints who have come before us, whose examples we wish to follow. God has gathered us in this place to remember what the saints did with their lives, and give thanks for their witness. The saints of faith are our brothers and sisters who risked in all for the sake of Christ.
Today we remember those from this church who have died in the last year, and we join in mourning with all of their friends and families. We remember George Harris, Howard Cassidy, Ray Lancaster, John Taylor, Sam Folkes, Jerry Pangburn, Jo Anne Berg, Dick Dickerson, Lucy Wisely, Frances Pack, Frank Rankin, and Steve Wisely. Some of us have the privilege to recall the life lessons they shared with us, we can remember admiring them for their faith, and we can even picture where they used to worship in this sanctuary.
To hear their names while hearing the words of God from Revelation is to join in solidarity with the saints of our lives and be strengthened by their witness; we too can be saints if our lives become examples of God’s love and compassion toward others.
Being a saint is not something that just happens when we die, but is a worthy goal in the here and now. Instead of lazily watching the days of life pass by, we can embrace God’s call on our lives to start bringing about glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. This vision of the new heaven is available to us because God continues to make all things new, even us.
So where do we begin? We begin by looking to the place where God dwells with mortals: worship. We start our saintly lives by mirroring the saints who have come before us. We give thanks for their witness remembering that they modeled their lives after Christ and we start doing the same.
We look for the living saints in the pews next to us. We ask for their prayers to give us the grace to be better Christians, we seek them out for advice, and we rely on their teachings. We begin seeing the pews not as walls of division, but instead as avenues of connection.
And then we come to the table and feast from the bread and the cup being strengthened for the work of ministry in the world. We start seeing this table as the connection between past, present, and future, as we remember all who have feasted before us and that this is a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom.
We can start living like saints because we belong to a communion of saints. We can start living like saints because Jesus gave his life to destroy the powers of death. We can start living like saints because God makes all things new. Amen.