November 5, 2017 All Saints Sunday Rev. 7: 9-17; I John 3: 1(a) Matthew 5: 1-12
Prayer: Dear Lord, We pray this morning for all of us who grieve the saints who have gone before us. Help us to understand the tension between the future kingdom of heaven and the one partially realized right here, right now. In Jesus’s name we pray, Amen.
Then and Now
When we have visitors to Triune for a Back Yard Mission Day – like our JustFaith group today -- we like to show them a worship service, a meal, the rooms where our ministries take place, sometimes the neighborhood where we operate.
But the most important thing we can share is the opportunity to meet and talk to and spend time with someone who has experienced homelessness.
Over the years, many of our parishioners have spoken to these groups. All have shared their personal stories, their struggles, their pain.
Eddie Jackson spoke to some young people from Gardner-Webb University recently. And here’s part of a letter that one of them sent him afterward:
“Dear Eddie, Your work, story and spirit have opened my eyes to the world of homelessness. … More often than not, it gets ignored. Homelessness is not something our world should accept….
“You are doing great work with Triune and picking up your life. It’s amazing the difference you made in how I see and approach homelessness….
“Hope to see you again soon! Kassidy”
And her friend Claire wrote, “You blessed our tiny group of students with your testimony. … You are loved, cared and prayed for daily.”
My hope for Triune has always been that in the meeting of housed and homeless, rich and poor, black and white, there will emerge something positive, something Christ-like.
Those who are willing to teach about the homelessness they have experienced are the experts. I hope they will gain dignity and acceptance and will thrive with the knowledge of their expertise.
Those who are willing to listen are potential problem-solvers. I hope they will gain an appreciation of our shared humanity, our shared struggle, and will be part of creative solutions to this nation’s affordable housing crisis.
Because homelessness has its roots in public policy. The Washington Post reported just last week that the number of affordable apartments for very low-income families nationwide fell by more than 60 percent between 2010 and 2016.
Our social workers could have told you that: Low-cost housing is hardly available to us anymore.
And so those of us in this struggle continue to hope that there is magic in the melding of the two worlds. That when college students like Kassidy and Claire come face to face with Eddie, a spark will flare.
Today is All Saints’ Sunday, a day to think about the tension between a future kingdom of heaven and a present kingdom of God. As Christians, we have hope that there is a future “then” – a promised dwelling place with our Lord.
But as Christians, we also have a responsibility to make this world more hospitable – right “now.”
Our Scripture readings today will address both these ideas. If you’d like to read along, we are going to start where the Bible ends. The book of Revelation.
This is a rather fantastical vision by a man named John, exiled onto the island of Patmos. Reading from Revelation 7: 9-17:
9 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. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
11And 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 worshipped God, 12singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.’
13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’
14I 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.
15 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.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the centre 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.’
I preach a fair number of funerals. And I always read a similar passage from Revelation 21. “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” That’s a promise we Christians take seriously, isn’t it?
I also love this picture of the Lamb, once the sacrifice, now becoming the shepherd of all those people he died for. The shepherd who shelters his flock.
Mostly this scene in Revelation is a picture of comfort. That was the case, in fact, for a lot of apocalyptic literature. A comfort in times of trouble and upheaval.
Many years ago, a family we knew well lost their college age son. My grandmother and my parents and my sister and brother and I all went to the funeral service. Afterward, as dusk gathered, we all came back to our house for beef stew and hot buttery rolls and sweet iced tea.
It was the thickest, fattiest, sugariest comfort food I could think of. Because comfort was what we needed.
Comfort is important to us. And this vision of John that we know as Revelation is a picture designed to comfort persecuted Christians.
There will come a time, John assures his first-century readers, when hunger and thirst and scorching heat – very real hazards in the first century, very real hazards among our homeless citizens – will be no more. “God will wipe every tear from their eyes.” This is a promise he repeats more than once.
We will dwell with God and with the Lamb in a place of comfort.
This is an important promise and premise of Christianity, and one that I imagine has been clung to quite fiercely at various times in history.
But following Christ is so much more than awaiting a future kingdom of heaven. In loving our neighbor, there is much to do here and now.
Our second reading comes from I John 3: 1(a)
See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are.
We are God’s children. We say that on the front of our bulletin every week.
But what does that mean? It means that we have a parent who loves us no matter what. And it means that we have brothers and sisters with whom we share our experiences, our struggles, no matter what.
In this place, especially, that means no matter our station in life.
Fifty two years ago, Joanne was born on the border of England and Wales . Both of her parents had known poverty, but they were able to provide a stable upbringing for Joanne and her sister.
Joanne’s mother developed multiple sclerosis. She died when Joanne was 25, and the young woman recalls that it was the worst day of her life.
Afterward, Joanne moved to Portugal to try to make a fresh start. She married a Portuguese man, became pregnant and moved into her mother-in-law’s house. The marriage didn’t last, and Joanne and her newborn daughter moved to Edinburgh, Scotland.
Edinburgh was expensive, even in the early ’90s, and Joanne and her baby girl lived in a cramped apartment. She was jobless and penniless, and soon couldn’t pay her rent even though she was on public assistance.
She was as poor as it was possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. “By every usual standard,” she said, “I was the biggest failure I knew." She grew depressed, even suicidal.
“Rock bottom,” she said, “became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
If you haven’t guessed by now, Joanne went into The Elephant House and other cafes in Edinburgh, primarily to keep warm. With her baby in a pram by her side, she wrote in longhand Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.
Even then, she went through rejections by 12 publishers before Bloomsbury Publishing accepted it and tweaked her name to J.K. Rowling. And Joanne became Britain’s bestselling living author … and one of the world’s wealthiest women.
If J.K. Rowling had lived in Greenville, she might well have pushed that baby carriage into our dining hall to eat. She might have had Alec and Dwight do her laundry, might have swept the floor while I tried to peek at what she was writing. Give her some good advice.
And that is how I know that our dining hall is filled with potential, too.
A lot of hurt and brokenness comes through our doors, and always will. But rock bottom can be the foundation for a rebuilt life – right now – when we all treat each other as children of God, as brothers and sisters of Jesus.
And as I tell every group that comes through here, it’s not going to happen through the incessant and indiscriminant giving out of “stuff.” It’s going to happen through long and steady and patient relationships. Through work with Robin and Kathy and David and Beth and Don and Hal, through work with our attorneys, through the Round Table, through Triune Circles.
Today’s third Scriptural reading comes from the gospel of Matthew. It is the Beatitude section which opens Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. The word “beatitude”means a condition or a statement of blessedness, happiness.
These Beatitudes are placed side by side with the passages from Revelation and I John for All Saints’ Day. That’s because this Christian life they describe is all of a piece, all of a continuum.
The way we live in this world will have an impact on our residence in the future kingdom. But when we live in a certain way, that kingdom is also partially realized right here.
These Beatitudes show what life in the kingdom looks like. This is the behavior and attitude of people who will make up the kingdom – both here on earth and in the future.
Reading Matthew 5: 1-12:
5When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. 2Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:
3 ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 ‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
5 ‘Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
6 ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
7 ‘Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
8 ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
9 ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of
10 ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
11 ‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
I read from the New Revised Standard Version, but there are many other translations. Some of them use the word “happy” instead of “blessed.”
“Happy are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.”
“Happy are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of
Children of God. That’s exactly what the writer of I John calls us.
That’s exactly what we call each other at Triune.
The important thing to realize is the Beatitudes are both descriptive and prescriptive. In other words, they aren’t things to do so much as descriptions of things that are.
The poor, the gentle, the mourners of justice, those hungry for righteousness are promised a place in the kingdom described in Revelation. But by behaving with gentleness, a concern for justice, a hunger for righteousness, we partake in that kingdom right now.
The merciful, the pure-hearted, the peacemakers, those persecuted for righteousness are promised a place in the kingdom described in Revelation. But by behaving with mercy, a concern for peace, a hunger for righteousness, we partake in that kingdom right now.
That’s why we read the Beatitudes and Revelation together on All Saints’ Sunday.
Scholar John P. Meier sees Jesus’s most important task as introducing the kingdom of God. The Beatitudes, he says, don’t provide a road map for how to get there so much as they describe a people responding to the kingdom with surprised joy.
And so we receive comfort from Revelation, and joy from the Beatitudes. The promises for God’s children are comfort and joy.
If we truly act as if we are all God’s children, as if our hurting brothers and sisters are truly our siblings, we can realize an earthly kingdom that approximates the heavenly one.
One replete with comfort and joy.