A Sermon for All Saints; Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9, (or Isaiah 25:6-9), Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1-6a, John 11:32-44
Winston Churchill planned his burial down to the minute details. His burial began with bugler from the west end of the cathedral playing Last Post which is the same idea as Taps in the U.S. A full minute of silence followed. That sounds like a short time, try it sometime, it feels like infinity. Then a bugler from the east end of cathedral played Reveille. Remember east is where the sun rises, and the east end of all churches is where the altar is (no matter what the compass says). Joslyn Schaffer notes that in that minute of uncomfortable silence we find ourselves waiting for God to descend among us, hoping God is preparing a feast for folk we miss but see no more and folk we never knew. That infinite minute, when we wait, hope, and trust, is the moment where we meet the Lord (Schaeffer).
Today, in this infinite moment we remember:
and those others who we love but see no more.
In this infinite minute of silence all sorts of questions about resurrection, and the last day come to mind. Questions like Mary’s Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died? Our question might well be
Lord if you had been here there would have been no shooting in Pittsburg, or a riot in Charlottesville, or killings in Charleston, no death and destruction from Michael, Florence and other storms, fire etc.?
Such questions stand in contrast to this morning’s reading from Revelation.
The phrase I’m thinking of is and the sea was no more (Revelation 21:1). In the Bible the sea is equivalent to chaos; remember Genesis 1(2) the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.
The sea is where evil empires operate, where Satan takes his stand, and where the wicked beast arises from.
When the sea is no more; death, and mourning, crying, and pain are no more; imperial war and commerce that oppress the peoples are no more.
When the sea is no more, there is a new river, bright as crystal, (Rev 22:1) flowing from the divine throne, evoking the river of life in paradise.
When the sea, when chaos is no more, creation is purified, the transformation of the earth and all life is complete (Keener and Walton).
When the sea is no more God’s sovereignty is absolute (Gaventa and Petersen). When the sea is no more creation is in the control of the creator (Rowland).
These verses run counter to the popular thinking about The Rapture, where those who are saved are taken up, and rest are left behind to live in the abyss for all eternity (Carey). The new city comes down to us, as a blessing, a place which welcomes all. Its arrival ensures that creation is not replaced but redeemed. Its arrival is the sign of God’s eschatological, God’s final act, fulfilling the divine purpose, that is offered to all peoples, not a selected few (Rowland; Gaventa and Petersen). Its arrival paints a picture of life in God’s eternal presence, where there will be no more mourning, crying, or pain (Gaventa and Petersen; Rowland) Its arrival is all-inclusive, all creation, all nations, tribes, and people are invited. Its arrival does not exclude the choice that is before us to make. It is that choice that Bp. Benfield speaks to in his letter How Will We Respond?
Bp. Benfield had attended a memorial service at Temple B’nai Israel, in Little Rock, to remember the people killed by an anti-Semitic terrorist at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.
In part he writes:
It did not register with me until I walked out of the building in the midst of police officers that it now has to be frightening for our Jewish cousins here in Arkansas to pray in their holy spaces. They can clearly see what evil looks like in this country, the sort of evil that many of their forebears fled in Europe.
Sadly, we are all beginning to see what evil looks like. Honesty, integrity, and compassion for one’s fellow humans are no longer virtues that are even thought about outside the doors of religious houses;
I pray that seeing such evil makes us change how we live … [and become] a strong witness that evil in the form of racism or bigotry or naked greed is not the currency in which we will trade … [and inspires us]to see the risen Christ in all people [such that we] must act in consonance (harmony or agreement) with what we pray … [which means] to pray is to dare to act (Benfield).
To act on those things, we pray for because we’ve no idea what to do, or are afraid to act on, resonates with Solomon’s wisdom we read a bit of this morning. He wrote Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; which draws us back to Job’s leaning; not that he was tested, but that God is present in the darkness and chaos, that God holds back the sea, and the behemoths that dwell there. The Jobs amongst us, and they are here, act, not because they are more courageous than we are, but because they now know that God is present, which generates trust, a belief, that reveals the glory of God; the same glory that Jesus assures Mary and Martha they will see.
A path to that glory that arises from such belief, born of trust found in the presence of God is through All Saints day. The Holy Day for All Saints is intended for the remembrance of all the named church Saints; however, there is also All Souls Day, right afterward, which is intended for the remembrance of all who have died. It is a thread of ancient Jewish burial rights in which the community surrounds the family. After a death the community sits shiva with the family; the body is never alone, the community prays with the family every day until the burial, and several days following. The prayerful visits of remembrance gradually decline from daily, to weekly, to monthly, to once a year on the anniversary of the death. Some Christian congregations read the names of those who have died in the last year, some read the names of those who the congregation wishes to remember. All this helps families in grieving their dead, but also in remembering their dead, which in our ancient Jewish roots is a form of immortality.
This ancient notion of immortality links to our belief in Jesus’ resurrection in which our immortality, or eternally being in God’s presence, is assured which is the same knowledge, the same belief Job’s journey brought him to. It should not be so surprising that remembering those who live in God’s presence, should bring us to God’s presence in such a way that we can act to challenge evil whenever it and however it presents itself, not with a ho-ra bravado, but in the quiet confidence of those who live in the new city, drawing life from the crystal river of life that flows from God. In such remembrance we are unbound, we are let go.
Benfield, Rt. Rev. Larry. “How Will We Respond?” Communiqué #832. Ed. The Episcopal Church in Arkansas. Little Rock, 31 10 2018.
Carey, Greg. Commentary on Revelation 21:1-6a. 4 11 2018. <workingpreacher.org>.
Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 6 9 2015. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly>.
Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.
Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.
Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.
Rowland, Christopher C. “Revelation.” Keck, Leander. The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Vol. X. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. X vols.
Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.
Schaeffer, Joslyn Ogden. “The Surprise of the Resurrection, All Saints’ Day.” 4 11 2018. Sermons that Work.