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“For All the Saints, who from their labors rest…”
I was 36 when my husband Steve died of cancer. Our daughter was just weeks shy of 7. Steve was a pastor (I was not at that time), and he had chosen the Scriptures and hymns for his memorial service. The last hymn was “For All the Saints,” and I was singing it with gusto, and perhaps a few tears, when the usher appeared beside my pew in the next to the last verse, to escort me out to the parlor to greet folks after the service. I did not know he was coming then, and I remember thinking, “No, not yet! I need to finish singing this hymn!” But I did not say it. I dutifully took his arm and was led out.
I like to think that, even in my grief, I grasped the theology of the moment through that service and that hymn, that I understood that God, through Christ, stands above “earth’s wide bounds, from oceans’ farthest coast, through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,” that I knew that Steve’s suffering had ended and he had entered the eternal life that Christ secures for us all. I’d like to think that I processed all that at that moment, but maybe I was just reacting to some instinctual need, as a good choir member, to complete the hymn. But whatever was going on, Steve is, for me, one of the saints that have gone before me to guide my faith.
As you may know, Protestants and Catholics see saints a bit differently. To be a saint in the Catholic church is a big deal. A bishop researches a person’s life and submits the information to a Vatican committee. The committee can declare the person to be blessed, but to be a saint, two miracles, usually healing, must be proven. Saints, for Catholics, are clearly above the rest of the populace.
But for lowly Protestants like us, who believe in “the priesthood of all believers,” all the saints are not only just like you and me, they truly ARE us. We are all the saints (like the song and book I read to the children says). When we revere the saints of Westminster who have died in the last year, we do not lift them up as perfect and infallible, or as those who have done miracles. We lift them up as those who have gone before us striving to live faithful lives. “…who thee by faith before the world confessed, thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed…”
We base our beliefs about saints, about the resurrection, about the kingdom which the saints attain, on Scriptures like those we read today, plus many more, as such things are frequent topics of the Bible.
The text from Revelation is a vision of the heavenly kingdom to come. There is a lot of symbolism in this apocalyptic writing, and it reflects a view that sees the world as basically corrupted and evil, with redemption coming in eternal life after death. But the vision also gives us a clue as to what the kingdom, or realm of God, should look like here and now, on earth. And we see here “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes, peoples and languages.” The kingdom of God is bigger, then, than any one church, any one denomination, any one nation. The kingdom of God is big enough to welcome everyone, which tells us that we too should be welcoming of all.
Everyone in this vision is dressed in white, no matter the color of their skin, because white clothing in the Bible symbolizes purity, victory, and celebration. And that they have been “washed in blood” shows that the sacrifice of Christ, who died and rose for us, has made all clean and pure. The people sing a song of victory because in this kingdom, God has overcome all evil and even death. And they sing those praises to God because they know that it is God who has accomplished this great feat, not any human being or group of human beings.
But the text tells us that God has brought the saints safely through an ordeal. They came through an ordeal. They were not spared from the ordeal, but, with God’s care and love and guidance, they made it through the ordeal. The Shepherd who was once on earth is the Shepherd still, comforting and guiding and refreshing all. And the people worship. The Greek word for worship here also means “service,” so worship involves serving. So in this imagined picture of the future peace, we see hope for the present ordeal, and we see images that tell us to worship and to serve now. This grand community that welcomes and cares for all gives us hope to make it through the present ordeal until we see the fulfillment of the kingdom in time. Such prophetic visions have comforted many oppressed people through the centuries, as they look for redemption perhaps not as much in this life as in the next. Yet there is also hope for the present when we choose to follow Christ now in the way we live. The saints who have gone before us show us how to live faithfully here and now. And we await the future glory, when no one will go hungry or thirsty, no one will feel the ravages of the sun, of climate change, when no tears will be necessary because there is only worship and praise, justice and peace, grace and love. This is a vision of the future, but it is also a hope for the present, if we choose to help make it so.
The Matthew text is part of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ teachings about what the Kingdom of God is like.. We as Christians live out the kingdom when we follow the example and the teachings of Christ in our daily living. What we quickly realize in reading the Beatitudes is that God values differently than the world. The world values people who are strong, successful, assertive, powerful. The kingdom of God values the poor in spirit, the meek, the hungry, the peacemakers, even those who are persecuted. We see both signs of the present and the future in this passage too, as most of the statements start with “Blessed are…” but end with, “for they will be…” Many who read the Beatitudes think that none of these can apply to them, except maybe “peacemakers.” But what if the “poor in spirit,” for instance, are not just those who may live in poverty, but also those who are struggling with mental health issues, or who are marginalized by society because of the color of their skin or their religion or their sexual orientation? What if they are those who are abused in their homes or work places? What if they are discouraged by the world’s and nation’s events? Maybe we are then among the “poor in spirit.” And what if “those who mourn” are more than those who grieve for a family member or friend who has died, but also are those who grieve over acts that hurt whole segments of the population – immigrants arrested and families divided, mass killings, healthcare and other rights and privileges denied? What if they bemoan the human destruction and disregard for the land and waters that God created? And what if “the meek” and “those who hunger for righteousness” are those practice non-violent protest, or those who have been ostracized because they choose to live more simply in a world that values abundance? What if the “reviled and persecuted” are those who know the deep pain of hate and prejudice? Maybe we can see ourselves more among these saints who are trying to live out God’s purpose on earth.
Reading and identifying with a list like this, and watching and reading the current news can lead us to despair that things are not going well, that there is little we can do. I read an article by Craig Barnes recently (the president of Princeton Seminary) in which he quoted W.B. Yeats’ poem written just after World War I, that said, “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” Barnes went on to say that the world is always falling apart, really, if we look through history. He says that our natural human response to such ordeals is to hunker down with those who look and think and dress and talk like us, and to close out others, because we are afraid. “The problem,” he says, “is that even when we know who threatens us, labeling them as dangerous does not make us more secure. What we need is someone who can intervene in the world, destroying the power of evil. We need a Savior. At a time when the world is again falling apart into combative factions of us and them, let at least the church believe that all things are centered in a Savior. And that this center will hold.” “We cannot lose hope,” he says, “because we are witnesses to a Savior who is still at work.”
The communion table tangibly reminds us of the center that will hold in Christ. John Pavlovitz, a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina, has become quite popular with the blogs he has written in recent months, and has also written a book called A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. In it he says, “When the only people around you are just like you, then your table is going to be small.” (Pavlovitz, p.5) “I want the table,” he says, “to be big enough. I still seek a Church that is not the least but the most diverse place on the planet. I still dream that the life of Christ can be fully incarnated in the people who bear his name….I am holding out hope for true communion. But it’s not really up to me alone. It’s in the hands of YOU who claim faith in Jesus…” So, he says, “show up in the middle of the noise and the mess out there and bring something redemptive….The only way the table around us is ever truly going to be big enough is if we all make more room within us. God has always worked this way. The kingdom has always started within. Love has always been an inside job.” (Pavlovitz, p.173)
Those whom we count as saints this day have shown us how to live starting within themselves, with love. The table of our Lord is big. It is wide open. On this All Saints’ Sunday, as we gather around the table, may we sing with gusto and true belief (and tears are okay too): “O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle; they in glory shine. Yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia, Alleluia.” Amen.
Barnes, Craig M., “The Center that Can Hold,” Christin Century Magazine, October 11, 2017 (p. 59)
Pavlovitz, John, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community (WJKP, KY, 2017)