Tag Archives: all saints

The Great Multitude and Declining Churches

 

Revelation 7:9-17

After this I, John, 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… (Read the whole passage)

 

All Saints Sunday is an ancient yet often unfamiliar festival of the church for many of us. It has only been in the past few decades that some Lutheran churches have begun to observe the feast day on the first Sunday in November.

But we all know of a tradition related to All Saints Day, and that is Halloween or All Hallows Eve – Hallowed being another word for saints. In other words, the Eve of All Saints.

All Saints is the tradition of remembering in prayer all those in our community who have died during the past year since last All Saints. In the Roman Catholic version of the festival, the official list of approved saints is recited and prayed on Nov 1st, and then on Nov 2nd, All Souls Day is marked when those who are still in purgatory are prayed for.

As Lutherans, we mash the two together in a sense, praying for all those who have died on the Sunday of All Saints as we dropped the notion of purgatory 500 years ago with the Reformation.

And so, many churches today will be praying for loved ones by name, or lighting candles as a part of worship and as a way to observe All Saints. In that sense, All Saints Sunday can be a bitter sweet day – one where grief is remembered but also one of hope pointing us to the coming end of time when God will gather all the saints into the Kingdom.

As we hear Matthew’s beatitudes and how they speak to the idea of the saints, they certainly speak to the definition of blessedness. In that way they point us to the Reformation idea that we are sinners AND saints… saints not because we have been blessed by good fortune, health and conflict free lives… but because God has declared us holy and blessed, even in the midst of the struggles of life.

And while unpacking the ins and outs of what it means to be a saint and what it means to be blessed is not a bad idea on All Saints Sunday… it is not the beatitudes that truly show us the vision of All Saints. The idea that we are all joined together in faith to the saints who have gone before and who will come after us.

Rather, it is John’s vision in Revelation, and the great multitude coming before the throne of God, that gives us a true glimpse into what All Saints is all about.

The setting of this vision from John found in the book of Revelation was that is was written for an early church community experiencing persecution. Christians in the decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus found themselves clustered in small communities scattered across the Roman Empire. Island of faith in a sea of imperial paganism.

These small churches of sometimes only one or two dozen people lived in a world that didn’t give them too much mind. They were surrounded by a pluralistic society that prioritized the empire and its success beyond any particular religion. Early Christians communities stood out because they insisted, like their Jewish cousins, on worshipping the one true God. Most of the time Christians were largely ignored by this world, but when they were noticed by Roman society, they were oppressed and persecuted. As the first generations of the faithful began to pass by, these early church communities started to wonder about the imminent return of Jesus… Some, as we hear in Paul’s letters began to doubt the point of keeping the faith at all.

As John’s Revelation writings came to these early church communities they would have sounded radical, absurd even. To small communities used to be ignored or forgotten, or remembered only to be used as lion food in the gladiator games, John’s vision promising hope in a God who would correct all things, end oppression, destroy evil and bring the world to right would have sounded crazy.

Imagine being a church of a few dozen people, in some forgotten and ignored part of the world, trying your best to keep the faith. And as the world around you seems to pay little attention, you receive this letter of encouragement. A letter proclaiming a future where the Kingdom and reign of God is dramatically breaking into the world. Where God gathers up the little group of a few dozen into a great and uncountable multitude, robed in white, signifying the fact that they are not alone in following the risen Christ. And there in that crowd they march with joy to worship at the throne of God singing the very same songs that had been sung week after week in the worship of faithful:

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!…

Blessing and glory and wisdom

and thanksgiving and honor

and power and might

be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

It sounds incredible, unbelievable.

It sounds nuts.

And it sounds familiar.

1900 years on from those small church communities hearing the Revelation of the John for the first time, we aren’t in that much of a different space than they were. Things have changed for us, we used to be the biggest show in town and the world used to care about who we were and what we did. But now we are not much more than small islands gathering to keep the faith in a world that has mostly forgotten we exist at all.

No group of Christians is immune to this reality today. Churches are declining across board, we are no longer the big deals that we once thought we were.

And we wonder how the great multitudes will ever come back, how the grand worship before the throne can ever be a thing again. Especially on a day like All Saints Sunday when we remember all those who have gone before us faith, it is hard to imagine who will come after us.

It is almost like the vision itself plays out the same conversation that we are regularly having. As John stands there with the elder watching the great multitude of the saints go by, he asks,

“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

And along with John we have no idea. We cannot imagine or understand this world where God is bringing all creation to worship before the throne.

And so we too shrug our shoulders…. we don’t know. We only know small gatherings of hopeless peoples… or so we think.

“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.”

This is the great uncountable multitude, from all tribes and all nations, worshipping God and the lamb.

And in case we missed the memo, this great uncountable multitude is us.

You and me and all those gathered here… we are part of that multitude.

When the name of the triune God and the communion of the Holy Spirit is invoked, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When sins are confessed and forgiveness received in the body of Christ, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the word is proclaimed, and the good news is heard, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When the faith is confessed, prayers are offered up for the world, the church and those in need, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

When body of Christ is placed in our open empty hands and when we take in the blood of Christ swirling with the cloud of witnesses, God is gathering us into the great multitude of saints.

You see, this scene from the vision of John is not just a vision of the end of world… it was a vision of those tiny churches without hope scattered across the Roman empire, it was reminder of who God was forming them to be.

And John’s vision is a reminder to us, of who God is making us. Each time we gather, even though we may feel small and forgotten…

God is making us into the great multitude of the saints, past, present and future.

God is reminding us that we are not alone in carrying the faith.

God is showing us that here in this moment, in this community, as we worship…

That the great multitude is gathering here, before the throne, singing the praises of Christ the lamb,

And here we will hunger no more, and thirst no more;

the sun will not strike us,

nor any scorching heat;

for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be Our shepherd,

and he will guide us to springs of the water of life,

and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”

Amen.

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The Beatitudes According to Trump

Luke 6:20-31

Jesus looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,for yours is the kingdom of God. (Read the whole passage)

We find ourselves coming near the end of church year. All Saints Sunday is a herald of the closing year and the coming of Advent. In only two weeks, comes Christ the King Sunday, the final Sunday of this church cycle. And so in this regard, All Saints takes us to places of beginnings and ends, birth and old age, life and death.

In the past two weeks, we have already marked the occasion of All Saints as we laid to rest members of our community. And today, we will broaden the occasion. We will remember both with joy and grief, those saints who have gone before us, those loved ones who have died. But it is not just the saints whom we have buried in the ground, but also those whom we have drowned in the waters of baptism this past year that we remember and pray for as well.

Saints, so to speak, can be a fairly broad category. The Church of Rome, has compiled their list of saints under strictly maintained standards. Other protestant churches often avoid saint talk all together. Lutherans have a favourite phrase to identify ourselves: ‘ Sinner and Saint’.

All these different definitions of who and what saints are, muddy our understanding of what a saint is. But probably we could agree that a saint is someone holy, or in other words a blessed person. And blessings is what Jesus is talking about today.

For All Saints Sunday, we hear Jesus’ famous Sermon on the Plain. It is a sermon that is well known and often quoted. Blessings and Woes. And these are not the heavenly minded blessings of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount which reads: Blessed are the poor in spirit.  Luke is concrete and direct. Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God. These are concrete blessings that have to do with rich and poor, hungry and filled, laughing and weeping, hate and respect. And more specifically, they have to do with you… and me, and us… they are not about some abstract group of people.

The thing is, that lately, the version of the blessings and woes that we have been hearing in our world are quiet different than Jesus’. As the US elections looms over the entire world, we all know the version of blessings and woes that one particular candidate seems to be preaching. But just for fun, maybe we could imagine them going something like this:

“The poor are a bunch of losers,
for they deserve to be poor. Get a job! Which I alone can give.

“The hungry, what a bunch of lazy bums,
just get some food, I mean c’mon.

“Sad people, the worst, the worst,
sad poeple haven’t done anything for the world, let me tell you.”

“But rich people, I love rich people,tremendous.
I love just ‘em. I am really rich, by the way.

“And people with lots to eat,We gotta protect people with lots to eat.
We gotta do something for them.

“And happy people, happy people are the best
I will be the greatest president for happy people. No one else will be a better president for happy people”

“Now listen, we are going to make things great again, trust me.”

The beatitudes according to today.

But before we feel too smug because we would never preach this version, this perspective on what it means to be blessed and cursed is one that we all have the capacity to believe. The old sinner within each of, the part of us that carries our fears and anxieties and desire for security and control, that part of us want to hold on to what we have, even if that means those around us go without. The part of us is controlled by fear and anxiety worries that sharing with others who don’t have as much might make us miss out.

And yet, the world’s version of the beatitudes are held up to us like a mirror,  and we start to see how destructive they truly are. We begin to see that a world that operates according to this version is not a world we want to live in.

And so when Jesus offers his version of blessings and curses, it challenges this accepted version of things that exists in our world. It challenges the idea that the rich and happy are blessed, while the poor and persecuted are cursed. So what are we to do Jesus’ version?

Unlike the world’s version of the beatitudes which tell us what should try for – try to be rich and avoid being poor.

Jesus’ beatitudes are not a prescription on how to be blessed. Rather they are descriptive. They are poetic words about life. They are a painting of joy and suffering. They are music that speaks to our hearts and minds. They are reminders of where God is through the blessings and woes of life.

When Jesus talked about blessing, he is naming God’s presence. Jesus is telling where God shows up in life.

We can hear what it means to be blessed in the words that are proclaimed at the end of every service:

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord’s face shine upon you with grace and mercy.
The Lord look upon you with favour and give you peace.

We bless each other to say that God is with us. We pronounce blessings at baptisms, confirmations, weddings, funerals, on normal green Sundays, on Christmas Eve and Easter Morning, at the beginning and end of the day. We bless each other in times of joy and sadness, in times of celebration and grief. Because God goes with us at all these times.

Yet, God does not stop there. God does not simply promise to be with us. God shows us the way through the blessings and woes of life. God, through Jesus, comes down from heaven and into flesh to be blessed by us. To bring us close to the divine. As Jesus preaches blessings and woes, he points to the cross. He points to the cross, as he foreshadows the weeping and mourning and persecution to come. The cross is where Jesus earns our sainthood. Our sainthood is earned in Christ’s death and resurrection.

On the cross, Christ declares us saints. Because to be saints, is not really about being holy as far as God is concerned. It is not about being rich or full or happy. It is not about security and power and control. Because one of the truths about the world’s beatitudes is that the longer and louder they are preached, the more obvious it becomes that no amount of wealth, power and security will actually make us feel blessed enough. And in fact, it becomes clear that we all belong to the cursed group. We all need to be blessed, we all need something, someone bigger than ourselves to bring us real hope and real grace and mercy.

The truth of the Beatitudes is that they are are not about blessings as we usually think of them. To be blessed by God, is to be loved. And it is divine love that we discover on the cross. It is the Crucified God who blesses us and claims us as his own. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, the persecuted… they are blessed because God is with them. God is with us.

The beatitudes of Jesus that we read today are the true hope of All Saints Sunday. As we remember, and as we continue to grieve all those who have died, God blesses us and keeps us. As we struggle with being poor or being rich, with being blessed or being cursed, God shines his face upon us with grace and mercy. As we search for peace in a troubled world, God looks upon us with favour.  And God promises peace that will carry us and all the saints until the end.


Header Image: https://onehundredbillionsuns.com/2016/08/05/the-beatitudes-by-donald-trump/

Colliding with All Saints – Making All Things New

John 11:32-44

When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus began to weep. (Read the whole passage)

Sermon

Last night children everywhere wandered the streets in costumes, going from door to door for Halloween. There were ghouls and goblins, superheroes and villains, princes and princesses. Almost everyone takes part, whether it is handing out candy, providing scary decorations or accompanying children on their pilgrimage for the biggest hauls of chocolate bars and sweets. In many ways this mirrors the practice of medieval Christians making pilgrimage for All Saints. Dressing up, lighting candles, journeying on the road was all part of the belief that spirits would often wander the earth until All Saints Day, and the costumes would be to scare away vengeful haunting spirits, and the candles, often lit in each room in a house or door way that would guide good spirits home.

As the end of the middle ages saw the Reformation, our forebears sought to reshape the feast of All Saints. Rather than praying to the Saints on November 1st and then praying for all souls still in purgatory on All Souls Day November 2nd, Lutherans and other protestants have mashed the two together, recognizing that saints are not special or holy people. But that all those who have died in faith are made Saints by God’s Holiness poured out for us.

On All Saints Day, we gather to pray in thanksgiving for those who have gone before us in faith, and we pray to God that we too may join the saints and heavenly hosts in the always ongoing great high feast. We recognize today, that our worship is not something that we create, but rather something we are invited to join with the heavenly hosts. We are like thirsty pilgrims who approach the always flowing river of heavenly worship and we wade into the water again and again, week after week, briefly pulling back the veil between heaven and earth until one day we too will be swept up into the great worship of all the saints and we too will join the heavenly hosts.

And yet today is not all sweet visions of heavenly worship and dreams of joining those beloved saints who have gone before us.

Today, we also face the reality death. Like Jesus on the road to Bethany, we are confronted with the real, messy, emotional and overpowering experience of grief. Our spirits are disturbed like Jesus’ is. We churn and twist deep in our beings with Mary.

As Jesus makes his way to Bethany to mourn the death of his friend Lazarus, we are not meant to see a doctor calling a time of death, nor a pastor leading prayers at a funeral, nor a funeral director guiding a grieving family through grief. Jesus is going to Bethany as a friend, a brother to Lazarus, family to Mary and Martha.

On this grieving journey to Bethany, Jesus meets a desperate Mary. “Lord, if you have been here my brother would not have died” she pleads. And Jesus is disturbed, Jesus is moved. The greek is points to a deep churning passion, even anger within Jesus. He doesn’t just recognize and acknowledge the grief in the Mary like a therapist would. But Jesus feels it too, but Jesus loves Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Even knowing what he is about to do, Jesus feels the depths of grief too.

The kind of grief that we all know. The kind of grief that always comes with death. Whether it is the grief of a community witnessing an overturned boat near Tofino, the grief of world citizens who are watching people choose the risky waters of the Mediterranean because they are safer than home in Syria, the grief of families who keep vigil at hospital bed knowing that death long awaited is soon to arrive, the grief of empty spots at dining rooms tables, vacant passages seats in cars, or beds meant for two with only one to sleep.

The grief that Jesus feels today is the same personal, raw, churning grief that we know in our lives. And while grief makes death feels so personal and lonely, death is also transcendent, cosmic, universal. It is found on the road between two friends grieving a dead brother and it also the great darkness hanging over all creation:

See, the house of God is far from mortals

Death hovers over them as their master;

they will all suffer the same fate

and death will spare not one;

Life will be no more;

there is nothing but mourning and crying and pain,

for the first things reign over all.

This is the old heaven and the old earth, this is what All Saints pilgrims carried with them on their journey, this is the personal grief that we bring today for loved ones.

This is death.

This is death, and Jesus stands in front of the tomb, tears running down his face and defiantly says, “Take away the stone.”

And grief, personal and cosmic says, “But Lord there will be a stench” because death is too strong, too powerful, too overwhelming.

Except for God.

Except for the God who created something from nothing.

Except for the God who is creating a new heaven and a new earth.

And out walks a dead man, out walks Lazarus alive again.

The very last thing that Mary or Martha expects is to see their brother alive. Grief cannot imagine that there is an answer to death. That is why Jesus meets Mary and Martha in their grief. That is why God’s spirit churns with anger, that is why God grieves with us on the road to the tomb, that is why God, even knowing that the stone is about to be rolled away, weeps along with us.

And there walking out of the tomb, the personal and cosmic realities of death collide into the personal and cosmic promises of God. The reality of stinking rotting dead flesh that we know too well suddenly smashes into the loving, heart-pounding, passionate love of God for all creation.

As Jesus stands at the tomb, calling for the stone to be rolled away, beckoning forth believed brother and friend, Mary, Martha and Lazarus finally see the the reality of Jesus promise, of dreams and visions of Revelation made tangible:

“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 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.”

Our All Saints pilgrimage this morning is the same mixture of personal and transcendent grief. We acknowledge that death comes for our loved ones and us, death comes for all.

But with Mary, Martha and Lazarus, we discover that in our grief, God in Christ meets us on the road. God in Christ churns with anger and grief, with sorrow and sadness weeping with us just as if death had the last word.

Yet Jesus has also come to meet us with that great Revelation promise,

“See, I am making all things new.”

As Jesus stands there, tears running down his face, disturbed in spirit… He commands the stones be rolled away from all of our tombs. Jesus enacts the cosmic and transcendent promise of resurrection, Jesus declares that God has come to live with mortals. Jesus declares that death is not the end for those whose names we will read today, not the end for those whom light candles for… Jesus declares that death is not the end because,

“See, I am making all things new.”

As we gather on All Saints, with hearts full of both grief and thanks, of joy and sorrow, we discover a God who is deeply and powerfully and intimately involved in the affairs of mortals, who sheds real tears for Mary, Martha and Lazarus out of love.

We discover a God who cannot help but love us. A God who cannot help but love us in our grief and a God who cannot help but make all things new in our world.

Today on All Saints we confront grief and death, we confront the personal and cosmic and we make pilgrimage to tombs and graves, sealed shut forever.  But then we see a passionate and loving God, weeping with us AND calling us out of our graves into new life.  And all of a sudden, those great promises of resurrection, those promises of a new heaven and a new earth collide into us.

They collide and smash into us as the creator of all things stands before us and says,

“See, I am making all things – including you – new”

Amen.