Bearing the Fruit of Generosity

Matthew 25:31-46      Christ the King     November 23, 2014

 

Are you a liturgical nerd?   Do you know that today is the last Sunday in Pentecost?  Then you might be a liturgical nerd!  The season of Pentecost begins with the Day of Pentecost.  This year, the Day of Pentecost was June 8.  It’s been Pentecost ever since.

Today, the last Sunday in Pentecost, is the last Sunday of the liturgical year.   Next Sunday is the First Sunday in Advent.   Advent begins a new liturgical year.   (Do you feel like a liturgical nerd yet?)

Today is the Sunday of Christ the King.   In fact, “Christ the King” is redundant!   “Christ” means “God’s anointed king.”  (The Hebrew for “Christ” is “Messiah.”)   In the Old Testament book of Samuel, you can read about Saul, who was God’s first anointed king.   The next king, David, was the greatest of God’s anointed kings.   King David and then his son, King Solomon, led Israel as a world power for about 80 years.   But then God’s people endured 800 years of military defeat and occupation and devastation.   For centuries, they longed for a new king David.  They looked for a coming messiah who would restore them to military and political power.

Who do we say the messiah is; the Christ?   We say Jesus is the Christ.   But was Jesus the king that God’s people expected?   Jesus did not come as a triumphant king.   In fact, the lectionary readings make this clear.   Next year, on Christ the King Sunday, we’ll read the gospel story of Jesus, beat up and bedraggled and standing before Pontius Pilate who asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?”[1]   Two years from now, we’ll read a story of Jesus hanging on the cross – with the inscription: “This is the King of the Jews.”[2]

In this morning’s reading, at least, there’s the promise of future glory.   We read, When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.   There’s an expectation that had grown up by the time the stories in Matthew were compiled.  Do you see it here?   The “Son of Man” was a figure who had been expected for more than 200 years by the time Jesus was born, one who would come from God in judgment, to end history and establish justice and peace.  Here the Son of Man is identified with Christ, who will come again – and who will bring power that Jesus himself never exercised!   We look for that.   “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”

However, on this Sunday of Christ the King, that is not the primary focus of the reading.   Instead, we are reminded that Jesus the Christ is intimately present with us – even and especially in human suffering!   Remember what he says to “the sheep at his right hand?”  Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”   When did that happen?   Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

What a stunning description of God’s presence in our human lives!

This morning’s passage ends with a warning of judgment.   Whenever there is judgment in the Bible, it’s because God’s people have not taken care of the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, those who are estranged, those without adequate clothing, those who are sick or in prison.   (I don’t know why religious people spend so much time talking about sex, when taking care of the poor is so much more important to God!)

Of course, a passage like this one can be frightening!   What if we haven’t done a good enough job of taking care of the poor?   As the Son of Man-Jesus says to the goats at his left hand: You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”  Is it according to our performance in taking care of the poor that we earn either the reward of heaven or the punishment of hell?

There are words that deepen the mystery and suggest that it’s not so simple.  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?  And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing?  And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”   Do you see what’s going on here?  The “righteous,” those who performed well, didn’t even know that they were doing that!   They didn’t calculate!   They didn’t check their checkbooks or their calendars first!   They simply gave of themselves.   Their generosity was spontaneous.

When is your generosity spontaneous?

You give of yourself spontaneously when your love is deep, right?   When you don’t have to think about it, when you don’t have to calculate, you’re feeling called to give of yourself and your money.   It’s God the Holy Spirit calling you to that response!

Generosity is fruit of the Spirit.   It’s in that list that Paul teaches the Galatians (and us!): the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.[3]  How radical this is!   Our volition is involved.   But that’s only our response.   We receive the very ability to be generous from God the Holy Spirit!

I do not hesitate to be specific about the need for all of us to bear the fruit of generosity – in giving our money, our time, and our abilities to support our congregation’s ministries in 2015.   That’s because everything that will be in our ministry budget will go towards caring for those who are in need, and bringing the presence of God to those who are suffering.   It’s why we do everything we do as church!   Why do we gather for worship and study, or even just to have fun?   It is to give thanks to God for the blessings of this day, and to receive nourishment from the Spirit to do the work God has given us to do.

That work is to embody Christ’s compassion to those who are hungry and thirsty and estranged and naked and sick and locked up in prison.   But Christ’s compassion is not limited to literal, physical suffering.   We embody Christ’s compassion to each other and to those we encounter who are spiritually hungry and thirsty; who are hungering and thirsting for God, for meaning, for hope, for joy.   We embody Christ’s compassion not only to those who do not have enough clothes to wear, but also those who are naked in any way: those who are vulnerable and at risk.   We embody Christ’s compassion to those who are sick, for instance, with “affluenza” – those who suffer fomr the hollow the pursuit of materialism, but who don’t know how to get to deeper meaning in life.   We embody Christ’s compassion to those who are imprisoned by regret or fear.   We welcome the stranger in this place – that’s why we built the Gathering Space out there, and why we wear name tags – but we also embody Christ’s compassion towards those who are estranged from family, or friends, or any kind of support group.

The reason for being generous in supporting the ministry program of our congregation is because here we provide community for each other as we learn from the Holy Spirit and from each other how to bring compassion to those in need, in the places of our ministries, where God has given us work to do.   It’s why we have a church staff and a building with all its expenses: so we can gather for worship and study; to be nourished by God the Holy Spirit; so we can scatter from this place to act with the compassion of Christ the King.

If you pick up your giving packets this morning, you’ll save us a boatload of postage!   I recommend a tool you’ll find in that packet, which I have used for years so that my generosity towards the congregation will be as spontaneous as possible.   I use this “Growth Giving Challenge” sheet.  It allows me to see the percentage of my income that I give to support the congregation.

Years ago I worked up to a tithe of 10% (and then a little bit beyond that!).   I worked up to that level of generosity year-by-year, increasing my giving by 1% of my income each year.   Now, I use this worksheet now to make sure I’m above 10%.   Then I fill out my “Estimate of Giving Card.”   And I don’t have to think about it anymore!   I simply pull out the card to see what I should write on the check.   It’s automatic.  I don’t have to calculate more than once a year!   I’m not like those who are righteous in the gospel story this morning, who didn’t even know they were bearing the fruit of generosity.   But it’s as close as I can come!   (And, yes, I’m old fashioned.  I still use checks.   But while I was on sabbatical last summer, I discovered that it sure is easy to use the on-line giving portal!   It even told me what I had to include to cover the 3% fee that’s charged to the congregation.)

I invite you to join me in generously supporting our congregation because God the Holy Spirit moves among us when we gather, to strengthen us for mission out in the places of our ministries, where God gives us our work to do.

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] John 18:33-37

[2] Luke 23:33-42

[3] Galatians 5:22-23

Faith Witnesses by Three College Students

 

Lectionary 33 Readings: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:14-30

November 16, 2014

 

I. Reland Happel spoke following the reading of the Zephaniah passage. (Reland graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2013 and is now working on a Master’s degree in Art Therapy at the Eastern Virginia Medical College.)

One thing that bothers me with reading bible passages like this is that we read it out of context.  Through my many years of Sunday school, youth groups, and Christianity classes, I have come to realize the Bible seldom makes sense out of context.  If you google “funny bible verses out of context,” you will find entertaining examples such as Psalm 137:9: “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”;  or 1 Timothy 2:12: “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent.”  It’s so crucial to understand both the historical context of the Bible and the context of what else is written in the Bible.

This was really reinforced to me a couple of years ago. A close friend of mine, who was at that time an agnostic but actively exploring different religions, said that his biggest problem with Christianity was that he could not get past the Old Testament passages.  Surely, he said, the loving God of the New Testament could not have any relationship to this harsh, angry God in the Old Testament!  When he asked me to provide a solution for this dilemma, I wanted to be able to pop out a lofty, theological response, but immediately wimped out and said “Letttttttttttt’s ask Pastor Ballentine….”

Pastor Ballentine simply told us that we need to read the entire Bible in the context of God’s love and grace.  At the time, I was rather confused about his meaning.  How could a passage like today’s reading from Zephaniah have anything to do with grace?  But if you read it in the context of the rest of Zephaniah, it has everything to do with grace. Whereas Zephaniah 1 & 2 sound more like text from Jonathan Edward’s famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” Zephaniah 3 describes the ultimate restoration of Israel.  Listen to what it tells us about God’s redemption:

“The Lord has taken away your punishment, he has turned back your enemy.  The Lord, the King of Israel, is with you; never again will you fear any harm.  On that day they will say to Jerusalem, “Do not fear, Zion; do not let your hands hang limp.  The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves.  He will take great delight in you; in his love he will no longer rebuke you, but will rejoice over you with singing…At that time I will gather you; at that time I will bring you home.  I will give you honor and praise among all the peoples of the earth when I restore your fortunes before your very eyes, says the Lord.”

Those are some pretty awesome promises!   And in the context of those promises, Zephaniah 1 & 2 just amplify how amazing God’s grace really is.  God’s not just going to deliver us from earth as it is right now; God’s going to save us from complete and utter destruction and chaos (which according to his law, is exactly what we deserve).  So the next time that you read a passage like this, it’s important not only to reflect on scary it sounds, but how amazing it is that God chooses to deliver us from this fate.

 

II. Abigail Kane spoke following the reading of the First Thessalonians passage. (Abigail is a sophomore history and anthropology double major at the College of William and Mary, and is Vice President of social activities in the Lutheran Student Association.)

The passage we read can bring to mind a lot of fear, with judgment coming like a thief in the night.  Paul asks us to question our readiness for this judgment, but in the end, I believe his message is a hopeful one.  Here is how I see it.

Have you ever tried to be someone you’re not?  Ever acted differently to get someone to like you?  Maybe you were trying to impress a boss to get a job or promotion, or you wanted that cute boy or girl to like you.  Maybe you just wanted to fit in in a crowd, to not stick out, to be accepted into a group.  Have you ever experienced that awkward moment when you are in a new place and you don’t quite know all the social rules or customs?  How are you supposed to act?  You desperately look around the room, copying what others do, defaulting to those more experienced than yourself, and trying not to mess up and stick out.  With Thanksgiving approaching, many of us may be experiencing this exact feeling, because every family has its own unique traditions.  Do you have Thanksgiving dinner at lunch time or in the evening?  Will you be having green bean casserole this year?  Do you pass the turkey to the right or to the left?  (My family still has not figured this out.)

But what if, you were just yourself, and it didn’t matter so much that you fit in with everyone else?  What if it was okay that you do things differently?  Paul writes in verse 5, “You are sons of the light and sons of the day.  We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.  So then let us not be like others who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.”  For God has called us “not to conform to the pattern of this world, but to be transformed.”  He has set us apart and claimed us as him own children.  Through our baptism into Christ, we have been made different.

However, being different can be scary.  Like really, really scary.  It can feel isolating and lonely.  The desire to be accepted and loved is so strong, and the fear of being different and left out is petrifying.  It is infinitely hard to be the only one to make a different choice in a group of people who you want to like you.  We have all been there, maybe even a hundred times.  But the good news is, you’re never the only one, and you’re never alone, as much as it might feel like it at the time.  God will always be with you, in good and bad, for verse 9 says, “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath.”  He loves us so much and he wants so badly for us to “receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  He gives us tools, in verse 8, to help us belong to the day and be self-controlled with “faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet,” protecting both head and heart.  This trio of faith, hope, and love are not just mentioned here, but you may also recognize them from 1 Corinthians 13:13, that “these three things remain: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.”  The New Living Translation of the Bible translates this verse as “these three things will last forever.”  With these we know that we can trust in God’s love always.  It is scary to not conform to the world, but we have faith, hope and love, and we have each other. Paul writes in the final verse of the day, “therefore encourage one another and build each other up,” so when it is scary, and you do feel alone, you can look to all these people sitting around you.  They are there to encourage you and support you, to stand with you when you stand out, to remind you of God’s everlasting love, and they trust that you will do the same for them.

Because God does not want us to experience his wrath and judgment that comes like a thief in the night, so “he died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him.”  He has already sent you salvation.  In Romans 5:8-9 we see proof that “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!”  God sees that it is hard to be different, to live in the light when the world seems filled with darkness, but he loves us so much and wants to live with us so badly, that he sent us Son to bring light to our darkness and sin.  So don’t be afraid to be different.  Paul calls you to be who God made you, to live in the light and accept the gift of salvation, even if it seems uncomfortable or scary.

 

III. Dalton Ruggieri spoke following the reading of the Gospel passage. (Dalton is a freshman at the College of William and Mary.)

If you’re like me, then listening to today’s readings might have had you on the edge of your seat, a little worried. First, in Zephaniah we hear about a day filled with death and destruction, and then we hear Paul telling the Thessalonians that day will come like a thief in the night. On top of it all, the gospel reading ends with a slave being thrown into “the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30). The slave only did two things to receive this harsh punishment. He buried his talent and called his master out saying, “[you] reap where you did not sow, and gather where you did not scatter seed” (Matthew 25:24). The literal talent the slave buried was a large sum of money – in fact, a talent was worth more than 15 years’ wages of a laborer.[1]  I think it is also important to keep in mind our current definition of talent as ability, which comes from this parable.[2]

 

Unlike the other two slaves, this slave did not want to risk losing his master’s belongings.  The other two slaves took risks by trading the talents entrusted to them. They took risks to work for their master. But, what if they lost everything? Well, they didn’t. Likewise, God has entrusted us with many talents, and He expects us to work for Him – to increase the talents that He originally gave. We cannot sit by idly – we have to work for God. The work God has planned for us is not easy. It will require us to take risks. But our life is not a parable – we really could lose everything that God has entrusted to us. Like the master, who distributed his talents “to each [slave] according to his ability,” God only gives the talents that we need in order to carry out his work (Matthew 25:15). The risks that we take for God will always work out according to His will. We only have to be willing to take risks.

 

Well, maybe the slave didn’t take a risk to work for his master, but he sure took one when he called his mater out. As I understand it, the slave is saying that the master exploits many people by forcing them to do difficult work, and taking all the benefit for himself. Basically, the master steals others’ work. Unlike the master, God does not need to steal talents. If God wanted more talents, then He could make as many as he wanted to, without ever having to entrust anyone with even a single talent, but God doesn’t do that. Instead, He entrusts us with talents and allows us to decide what to do with them. He wants us to work for Him, out of both fear and love, so that He can show His glory through us. We have to work for God in order to see His work. When we work for God, we may feel like we initiate the effort and are doing all the hard work, but the Holy Spirit is with us directing each and every step that we take, providing the strength we need to fulfill our work for Him. With this in mind, we cannot take any credit for the work we do, we can only give all the glory to God.

 

But still, the master threw the slave “into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth,” while the other slaves were directly rewarded for their work (Matthew 25:30). This seems to imply that you can work your way into heaven, and if you don’t, then you are going to suffer. But, as we have already heard, it’s impossible to understand the Bible out of context. Jesus told this parable and later, out of love, died on a cross for all of our sins, including inaction. God wants us to love Him, but as the readings today remind us, we also need to fear God, out of respect for His power and holiness. I believe that the Old Testament, which we generally associate with fear (but also contains love), comes before the New Testament, which we generally associate with love (but also contains fear), because we first must learn to fear God’s infinite power and holiness before we can fully understand God’s love. Because of our fear and love for God, we have to work for Him always.

 

[1] The HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Edition. Ed. Harold W. Attridge, et al. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. Print.

[2] Serendipity Bible for Groups

A Community of Encouragement

 

1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13     Lectionary 32     November 9, 2014

 

It was Wednesday morning.  It was the morning after the most expensive mid-term election in American history.  More than $1 billion was spent to run 2.2 million television ads, and the great majority of the ads were negative. [1]  “Don’t vote for that guy,” the Republican ads said, “he likes Obama!”  “Don’t vote for that guy,” the Democratic ads said, “the world will end!”  One story in the Richmond Times-Dispatch story was entitled, “Ad barrage hits disgusted and discouraged voters.”  One woman was quoted as saying: “I just don’t like all of the negativity.  The entire theme of this election is negative; all of the ads are negative.  It’s discouraging.”

This past Wednesday, thank God, I also took the time to read Morning Prayer.[2]  Listen to this first sentence of the prayer for Wednesday mornings: “God of all mercies, we praise you that you have brought us to this new day, brightening our lives with the dawn of promise and hope in Jesus Christ.”  “Promise and hope in Jesus Christ.”  As followers of Jesus, you and I are called to live in that promise and in that hope that is ours because of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ!

Are you hopeful?  If so, according to opinion polls, you’re in a minority!  Polls show that, even though employment is up and unemployment is down, people think the economy is deteriorating.  The stock market is at a record high – which only makes people afraid that next sell-off will be that much more devastating, according the prevailing opinion of discouragement.  And let’s mix in a large measure of cynicism!  For instance, you could tell that it was almost Halloween because of all the Christmas decorations in the stores.  Have you seen that the Williamsburg Pottery has declared this month to be “November Noel,” so desperate are they for a strong “holiday” sales season?  (The day of Thanksgiving, of course, is now important because it’s the beginning of “Black Friday.”  Do you remember when we used to take time to be thankful on Thanksgiving?)

Isn’t it easy to be caught up in the discouragement and cynicism and fear?  I wonder if an opinion poll among us would reveal more hopefulness than what is found in the general population, since we gather as a community of resistance, as a cadre of Jesus people, each day brightened with the dawn of promise and hope in Jesus Christ?

Here’s a phrase that catches my attention, in the excerpt we read this morning, from St. Paul’s first letter to the Jesus people in Thessalonica: “Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

The discouragement, among this tiny congregation of Thessalonians, was not something small – something like a negative election campaign, or discouragement about the economy, or cynical Christmas consumerism.  The Thessalonian Jesus people were discouraged because the promises of the kingdom of God had not been fulfilled!  Here’s where they were: Christ had died.  Christ is risen.  But had anything changed in the world?  They were still suffering.  They were still impoverished.  They were still oppressed by the occupation forces of the Roman Empire.

Did you know that this first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians is the earliest writing in the New Testament?  It was written only 10 or 15 years after Christ’s death and resurrection.  That’s only been a short period of time.  The community members have been expecting the Son of Man to return, any day, to bring the fullness of the kingdom, the fulfillment of promise and hope in Jesus Christ!  They have been hopeful, in comparison to others – who do not have faith in Jesus – that they would see that fulfillment during their lifetimes.  But now, there are members of the community who have died!  What does that mean?  Are they lost?  Are we lost, we who are still alive?

Listen again to what Paul writes to them.  But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died.  For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died.  For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.

“Continue to be faithful,” Paul is telling them.  “Continue to wait and to watch.  Continue to be a community of encouragement for one another, rooted in the hope-filled promises of the Good News of Jesus the Christ!”

Now, are you ready to move 40 more years?  Forty years after Paul wrote his letter to the Thessalonians, this morning’s gospel story was written down in the gospel of Matthew.  The end of history still has not come.  It will be a wonderful thing when it does come!  The fulfillment of the kingdom is compared to the great joy of a wedding banquet!  The gospel reading is a parable about staying prepared.  Who knows how long the bridegroom will be delayed?  We need to keep the oil replenished for our lamps.  (Without our lamps, there would be total darkness, in this world of discouragement and cynicism and fear!)  God the Holy Spirit uses the parable to ask: “What are your practices of the faith?  How do you keep your oil replenished?”

Christ “will come again to judge the living and the dead,” we will say, in a few minutes, in the Apostles’ Creed.  We will say this in the Holy Communion Prayer of Thanksgiving: “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”  We will hear Pastor Griffin speak these words in that prayer to God: “We praise you…at this end of all the ages [for] the gift of your son who proclaimed the good news in word and deed and was obedient to your will, even to giving his life.” (Did you notice the words: “at this end of all the ages?”)  In these liturgical words, don’t you hear the Biblical promise that God does have an end in mind for history?

Each week we print in the bulletin the Daily Lectionary for the coming week.  Have you been reading in that lectionary over these last weeks of Pentecost?  If you have, you’ve been bombarded by images of final judgment.  The readings from the Old Testament prophets have been describing God’s anger because the people are not taking care of the poor and the helpless.  The readings from Revelation come from a community suffering so much that they’re praying for God to bring an end!  Do those apocalyptic readings about the end of the world scare the saliva out of you?  It is good to remember that there are Christians, today, who would see the end of the world to be good news!  Deliverance!  (Think of the Christians experiencing genocide in Iraq, and in Syria, on this day.)

You and I gather together in this community of Jesus people to be a community of encouragement for each other.  “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”  This is good news, because we have been invited to the coming wedding banquet of the coming kingdom!

At this end of all the ages God’s new age has begun with the resurrection of Jesus the Christ. You and I have been baptized into the community of people living in the resurrection.  We have been drawn by God the Holy Spirit into a community of Jesus people encouraging each other to live in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control;[3] in compassion, kindness, humility, and patience, forgiveness and thankfulness;[4] transformed by the renewing of our minds, rejoicing in hope, persevering in prayer, acting with generosity and hospitality, blessing those who persecute us, feeding our enemies and giving them something to drink.[5]  In these ways, we witness the kingdom of heaven to those without hope, of what God will fulfill.

You and I have been drawn by God the Holy Spirit into a community of encouragement, practicing the faith, keeping the oil replenished in our lamps so God’s light will continue to pierce the darkness. Without each other, wouldn’t it be devilishly difficult to resist the discouragement and cynicism and fear?

“Therefore encourage one another with these words.”

In the name of God who is Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

 

Pastor Andy Ballentine

 

[1] Ad barrage hits disgusted and discouraged voters,”Richmond Times-Dispatch, Wednesday, November 5, 2014, page 6.

[2] From Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

[3] Galatians 5:22-23

[4] Colossians 3:12-17

[5] Romans 12

Visions of Comfort

Revelation 7:9-17     All Saints Day     November 2, 2014

 On All Saints Day, we in the church of Jesus Christ remember all the saints, the heroic ones and the ordinary ones. Frederick Buechner in his book, The Sacred Journey, has written of this day:

On All Saints Day it is not just the saints of the church that we should remember in our prayers, but all the foolish ones and wise ones, the shy ones and the overbearing ones, the broken ones and the whole ones, the despots and the tosspots and the crackpots of our lives who—one way or another—have been our particular fathers and mothers and saints and whom we love without knowing we love them and by whom we were helped to whatever little we may have or ever hope to have of some kind of seedy sainthood of our own.[1]

Today is a day of reflection on the lives of those who went before us, our ancestors whom we may know from stories passed down. Today, we also remember those who touched our hands and our hearts, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. They were both saint and sinner at the same time. We are both sinner and saint, too. This is what binds us together for now and evermore. We are bound together by our struggles as well. Our texts for today, for All Saints Day, reflect the struggles of those who have gone before us.

Our reading from Revelation begins, “After this.” “This” is a time of earthquakes, a blood moon, and a black sun. Depending upon how your week went, you may or may not feel like you have fallen into a bottomless pits, been deafened by the sound of locusts, poisoned by scorpions, or had visions of horses with lions head. These are all images encountered in the book of Revelation. If you’ve ever read Revelation, you know it sounds like a cross between a Tim Burton and a Quentin Tarantino movie. Martin Luther said his spirit could not accommodate itself to this book. Although difficult to understand, the book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ is included in the canon. In recent times, Revelation has sparked the imagination of writers, and books such as The Left Behind series have been born.

Lutherans do not interpret Revelation in this way. Our Monday evening and Wednesday afternoon Bible study classes have been listening to Lutheran Professor Mark Allen Powell talk about scripture, and Lutheran interpretation of scripture. Rev. Dr. Powell says that Lutherans should begin their study with what the text meant to the original hearers. Revelation presents some challenges, but there are things that we know.

The style of writing used is apocalyptic. “Apocalypse” in Greek means, “revelation.” This genre is full of visions and cosmic secrets. It does not predict detailed scenarios of the distant future, but affirms that the future belongs to God. Many apocalyptic writings have been born in response to a crisis. Their purpose was to give comfort and hope to people who were overwhelmed, confused, frighten, and beleaguered. Because the intended readers often suffered when their preconceived ideas about the world did not match their experience or situation, apocalyptic literature provided an alternative way of understanding the world. It assured the readers that God was ultimately in control of history, in spite of current appearances.

In light of this purpose of apocalyptic writings, it is no wonder that Revelation appealed to the early Christians. This book was written about the year 95, when Domitian was emperor of the Roman Empire. Described as cruel and ruthless, he demanded to be addressed as, “master and god.” Life must have been a daily struggle against oppression and forced loyalties.

After this, John writes in the book of Revelation. “This” was a chaotic time when people found no security in a strong national defense, in the rule of society, or in wealth. They found no security in life, for everyone will die one day. “After this” is a new vision. It is a vision of comfort. John writes, “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.” Not one nation is excluded, not one group of people is left out. There were so many there, no one could count their numbers. And “they were standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white…. Then one of the elders addressed me, (meaning John, the author), saying, ‘Who are these robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I 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.’”

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal.” These people are not only the early Christians, the saints who are robed in white or the saints gathered into the church triumphant. They are us. We are them. We who find no security in a strong national defense, in the rule of society, wealth, and no security in life, for all will die. We, too, are coming through ordeals, some small, some great. They are us–children caring for parents, parents caring for adult children, those who are unemployed or underemployed, those without medical insurance, children and adults fighting demons of addiction, and people whose bodies seem to be against them.

The book of Revelation envisions those who have been struggling, we who have been struggling,with a future that is not defined by our past. Hear again John’s words:  “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.”

Through Jesus’ sacrificial death, he became the Lamb. Through the shedding of his blood, Jesus defeated the forces of evil. When we are baptized, we participate in Christ’s life and death. We are, as Luther says, rescued from sin, death and the devil. We are washed clean in his blood. Our robes have turned white when we wash them, when we participate, in the blood of the Lamb.

This morning, we will hear this same story. “In great love, God sent to us Jesus, God’s Son, who reached out to heal the sick and suffering, who preached good news to the poor, and who, on the cross, opened his arms to all.”  We will come to Christ’s table, for the wine and the bread, Christ’s body and blood, shed for us and for all people. Given for us, and for all people.

God knows the grief that weighs down our hearts, the depression or addiction that oppresses us and the uphill struggles that push us back. There is a future that is not dominated by anguish, fear, sadness, weariness or loneliness. The one who is seated on the throne will shelter us. 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 the springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

~Pastor Cheryl Ann Griffin

[1] Buechner, Fredrick, The Sacred Journey, p. 74.

(If you would like a copy of an earlier sermon, e-mail Pastor Ballentine or Pastor Griffin and s/he’ll send you a copy!)