All Saints Sermon

November 5, 2017

Bible Text: Revelation 7:9-17 |

Series:

Traditionally this is a day to remember the saints of the church – those noteworthy women and men through the centuries who have shown us in their lives what it looks like to follow the way of Jesus. They are the ones who have risen above the vanities of our world and the hypocrisies of our institutional church. They have revealed for us that the gospel of Christ is no unattainable ideal, but the very solution for the wounds of our humanity, that we know all too well.

It is a day to celebrate Saints Francis and Clare, Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and Julian of Norwich and hundreds and hundreds more. It’s a day to remember the greats who have shown us the way, and become for succeeding generations, the face of God in Christ.

In its earliest days, the Feast of All Saints was especially mindful of the martyrs in the church – those who retained their faith, even in the face of persecution and death. For those first generations of the church, who were always aware that another wave of persecution might be coming, the martyrs were their heroes, giving them hope and strength and resolve.

And so their memory is rightly recalled in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount:

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you (Matthew 5:10-12).

Their reward is great in heaven, and their memory blessed by those on earth. Such is the tradition of the Feast of All Saints.

And yet, this year as the Worship Committee planned for this day, they chose a different tone and a different way of considering the saints. The organ didn’t swell with “For all the saints.” In fact, the congregation didn’t sing at all. We simply stood witness and listened as the choir made their procession through us, singing something far more gentle and serene:  “I saw water flowing from the temple. All to whom the water came were saved and shall say: Alleluia.’

There are no gilded icons of saints with radiating halos behind the altar. No abundance of candles lit in their memory. Instead, just this unexpected flow of water streaming over the altar and pooling around the communion rail.

Our liturgy this year was formed around just one small verse at the end of the first reading. It’s found in Revelation and depicts the heavenly worship, where all the martyrs and saints are gathered in the throne room of God, worshiping night and day. At the end it says,

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.

And it was this vision of the spring of the water of life that captivated us. From before creation began, as the story is told in Genesis, water has always been. Through story after story in the Bible, it is water that has been a constant symbol of God’s life-giving presence in this world. And so it has found its central place in the church in the sacrament of baptism.

And on this feast of All Saints we remember that it is through our baptisms that we have all been made saints in the Kingdom of God. Whether you’re St. John the Evangelist or just a quiet, irregular worshiper at St. John’s, Gig Harbor, we have all been cleansed by God’s grace from every single thing within us that is contrary to the nature and purpose of God. We have been made clean. We have been made saints. Saints above and saints below, sharing our common song of gratitude and praise for the one who makes us whole.

And we are made clean together, joining the unity of our Trinitarian God in whose image we are made. That is why we handed you these rocks when you arrived at church today and asked you to dip them into the baptismal font. Each one is inscribed with the name of a St. John’s parishioner. It’s been many years since we used them in worship. Since that time some have died. Some have moved away. Others have simply stopped worshiping at St. John’s. But we didn’t weed out any of those names. Instead, we added more – all those who have since joined us. Because it is only together that we can be the people of God: Present or absent; living or dead; official saint of the church or one whose memory has been completely forgotten. God is gathering all things together. Gripping these rocks is an affirmation and a reminder that we are not living this life alone. We are not living our faith alone. We are the Body of Christ throughout time, “from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages” (Revelation 7:9) gathered from wherever sin and division has scattered us, baptized by God’s healing water, and brought together into the throne room of God.

This morning when I got to church, the first thing I did was to go and – with eyes closed – grab two rocks that would be mine to hold today. When I opened my eyes I saw that I was holding Jamie Jackson and Mike Brokaw. And my heart was warmed – not because I love them most, but because I love them, and in holding their rocks in my hands, I held them – their stories, their struggles, their hopes. And the sermon I’d been writing, with its universal truths, suddenly became incarnate. It took form and shape and became the truth and the hope for their lives and mine. If you don’t know the people whose names you received, pray for them anyway, knowing that their lives are as concrete and complex as your own, and equally cherished by our God.

A friend of mine told me a story the other day. He isn’t an Episcopalian – which gave the story a certain degree of authenticity. That’s not to say that Episcopalians are liars…well just listen and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

The story came from a friend of his who’d had a dream. And in his dream he got to talk with his mother who was in heaven. She’d been a good Catholic in this life. And he asked her what heaven was like and she told him that she’d been assigned to pray for a little Episcopal parish in Los Angeles. And that’s as much as I know about the dream.

Now please hear me, I’m not claiming that this second-hand story of someone else’s dream is at all authoritative in defining what heaven is like. Who knows, maybe it is. It’d certainly be nice, because there’s so much about this dream that is utterly appealing.

I was caught off guard by the story – by this image of saints in heaven being given jobs to do – that heaven’s not just some ethereal place of “mystical whatever,” but that there’s real, specific work that needs to be done. And I love the ecumenical spirit of it all – that this devout Catholic woman is now spending her days in glory devoted in love and attentiveness to the Episcopal Church – to a specific church, an actual little parish in Los Angeles, that now has a saint in heaven totally committed to its well-being. Maybe there’s someone up there praying for St. John’s!

Everything about this dream resonates with what we desire from this life. It might not be true in any literal sense, and yet I believe it is depicting an absolute truth of the nature of the Kingdom of God: that our particularity matters – to God and to God’s people; that the greatness of a saint is found in her modest, prayerful love and attentiveness for those who aren’t even related to her, and that this is the very work of heaven.

St. John had a vision of heaven. He describes the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city, its banks flourishing with trees that bring healing to the nations (Revelation 22:1-2). It’s reminiscent of the prophet Ezekiel’s vision, so many centuries before. In his vision, he saw the stream of God flowing out from the altar in the temple. It flowed and flowed – from the altar, through the temple, and on through Jerusalem, eastward down the mountain. The further it flowed, the deeper it became until it was a massive river, pouring into the Dead Sea. But such was the power of God’s river, that where it entered those brackish and stagnant waters, the sea began to swarm with life – with schools of fish, and fruit trees flourishing on its bank (Ezekiel 47:1-12).

This river that the prophets of God have perceived through the centuries is the very water of our baptisms. When you come to communion, behold this river flowing from the altar towards you. Kneel as you can in the water that pools beneath the rail. And carry your stones and place them there, that they would remain for us a testimony and symbol of our fellowship of the redeemed. For this is a sacred place. It is at Communion that God invites us to the wedding banquet of the lamb, where saints below and saints above are joined together in mystical union as guests and family at the table of God.

Though the waters of death have divided us from the generations of the church that preceded us, by the waters of life, “we join our hands with those that went before, and greet the ever-living bands on [heaven’s] eternal shore.”[1] Amen.

“[1] Let Saints on Earth in Concert Ring” by Charles Wesley, verse 4.

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