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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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All Saints Sunday - 11/05/2017

The book of Revelation doesn’t show up a lot in the lectionary and when it does I usually avoid it even though I have a greater appreciation for Revelation than I once did. Regarding Revelation, the trap to avoid is the one set by, pardon the expression, “religious crazies” who make Revelation an end of the world scenario and come up with time lines and explanations for who all the creatures and characters are, who and what they represent and when all this will come to pass. Being as strange as it is, Revelation does invite such analysis, but a more useful way to approach it is with imagination seeing it as a dream or a vision of what goes on eternally in the presence of God. It’s a dream or vision that is then described poetically through the imagination of the author, John of Patmos, as he dreams and as he considers the world around him.

Today is All Saints’ Sunday. It’s a day set aside not to recall the canonized saints of the tradition because they all get their own day. Today, it’s about all of us, the communion of saints both living and dead, and today, especially those who have died since All Saints’ Day last year. It’s not only those that we remember but especially those. When the names are read it always includes some who are known to lots of people here, some perhaps only to a few, often at least one or two perhaps known only to me because I did their funeral or graveside service and I want to make sure their names are read somewhere today.

As I said in my newsletter article for November, I think it’s important that events like this take place because they witness to the fact that someone’s death doesn’t mean that they are no longer a part of our life. As part of every communion service we say that “with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven” we join together to sing and praise God and that acknowledges a community including those who have gone before, the hosts of heaven.

Today’s reading from Revelation then imagines this saintly host of heaven. There are three scenes described, the first being that multitude from every nation and every tribe, standing before the throne, robed in white and waving palm branches. And what are they doing as they stand and wave palm branches? They are singing, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen,” words that should sound familiar because they’re the words from which the Hymn of Praise we sang a few minutes ago were adapted.

That might make it sound like that for the multitude of saints gathered in heaven life is one long worship service and maybe it is, because they’ve learned that life isn’t about the worldly pursuits of producing and consuming. They’ve learned that being truly human is about glorifying God and enjoying God…forever.

So Revelation gives us this image of the communion of saints from every tribe and nation, not just our tribe and nation but every tribe and nation, with no racial or ethnic divide, no arrogance of one nation or group toward another, but everyone together, singing and offering praise in God’s presence. As we remember our personal saints today we undoubtedly remember them in a lot of ways, but John of Patmos gives us this image of all of them together, healed and whole, offering their best to God which is the destiny of all the saints.

That’s the first scene; but then the singing is interrupted by one of the elders asking, “Who are these people robed in white, and where have they come from.” I guess even in a vision of the realm of heaven you can’t escape the gatekeepers who want to make sure everything is in order, making sure that no one snuck in the back door, so we get this question. An answer to the question is given and it becomes an important part of what is imagined. Those robed in white are “the ones who have been through the great ordeal.”

Let’s back up for a moment though. As I said, while John dreams and experiences this vision, the reality of the world around him is part of the mix as is usually the case with dreams. Dreams can be strange, but if you remember them and think about them, there is usually some connection with what’s going on in your life.

This verse about the great ordeal does get picked up by those who want to make Revelation an end of the world prophecy. For John though, the great ordeal that is part of his reality has to do with the persecution of Christians in the late first century. They were persecuted by the Roman Empire for their failure to worship the emperor as God. Those robed in white are the ones who persevered, those who did not cave in to the empire but remained true to their faith in Jesus while many others took the easier path of accommodation. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” is about the cleansing water of baptism. The saints who make up this heavenly choir are those who have remained strong in their baptismal identity and have come out of the great ordeal.

On All Saints’ Sunday, that’s one definition of a saint; those who have remained faithful in the face of religious persecution. However, it’s a definition that doesn’t exactly fit our time or place. The saints we remember today, those named, those pictured, those in our hearts and minds, didn’t all experience an ordeal of religious persecution; that’s not who they are. In fact, if the elder asked today, “Who are they?” it might be that we couldn’t come up with any experience that they all had in common.

For most of today’s saints though, maybe all of them, but certainly most of them, in language I like to use, they were on the journey. For some of them, their journey included lifelong involvement with the church, for others church wasn’t such a big part of their life. For some their relationship with God was central to who they were, for others they may have struggled with that relationship, yet today they are all named and remembered.

Personally, I’m thankful for the canonized saints and their contribution and witness. I’m thankful for those for whom church was a big part of their life. I’m also thankful for those saints in my life who have witnessed to their faith in words or in actions or just in their presence. This is a day I always think of some of the people in the church where I grew up and in all the churches where I have served or worshiped regularly who were just there, every Sunday, quietly witnessing to their faith.

But…I have also come to appreciate others, whose journeys are different, different enough that some might even want to write them off as not very saintly. They are those who want to believe, who do believe but who struggle with questions, maybe struggle with the church and some of its teachings but who don’t give up on God. It’s just that their journey doesn’t exactly fit the mold. I do think such people miss out on not being an active part of a church community but in many cases their journey is an honest one, you could even say a faithful one, and, questions and all, they continue to walk the walk of faith, taking to heart Jesus’ teachings and acting on them even if they don’t necessarily think of what they do as following Jesus.

The Beatitudes of today’s gospel lesson from the beginning of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are chosen for today because they represent a central piece of Jesus’ ethical teaching. The embrace of that ethic is another characteristic of that multitude robed in white. It’s an ethic summarized by “Love your neighbor” and when carried out it’s increasingly countercultural in a world often dominated by “me first” and “what’s in it for me?” Jesus though, saw things differently with his vision of “love your neighbor.” John of Patmos also saw and imagined things differently with a vision of worship and praise before the throne of God. The combination of worship and love of neighbor give us a compelling vision of sainthood.

Sainthood though, even for those who act on the vision of Jesus and the vision of John, is still about God’s grace, grace on which we all are dependent. As we now move into Reformation 501, another of Luther’s insights worth remembering is that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. By grace, we are saints in God’s eyes even while being unable to free ourselves from sin.

The third and final scene of this part of the vision from Revelation describes some of the gifts of God’s grace for those gathered, that multitude robed in white. The one seated on the throne will shelter them; they will hunger and thirst no more; the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, guiding them to the waters of life, wiping away every tear. That’s what is imagined and it’s a comforting image as with John of Patmos, we see the saints we love as part of the multitude and we join them in worship and praise before the throne of God.    

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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