A sermon for All Saints Sunday [Year A]
Revelation 7:9-17 and Matthew 5:1-12
In 2005 National Public Radio featured a short essay by a New York attorney named Deirdre Sullivan that went on to become one of the most popular pieces National Public Radio has ever featured. It’s something I return to time and time again. It’s called “Always Go to the Funeral,” and in it she relates how her father’s greatest gift to her and her family was how he ushered them through death. She talks about how he instilled in them the importance of expressing sympathy to people who are bereaved by always going to the funeral or the visitation hours, no matter how much it inconveniences you or how uncomfortable it makes you.
Sullivan goes on to explain that always going to the funeral is actually a philosophy she has expanded and adopted in the rest of her life. It means rather than waiting for the chance to make some grand, heroic gesture, she looks for the “small inconveniences that let her share in life’s calamities.” She explains how most days the battle isn’t between good and evil. It’s between doing good versus doing nothing.
Her short piece then movingly concludes with her own father’s funeral and a particular moment that takes her breath away. Numb for days from her grief, she remembers turning around briefly and taking a look at the church, packed with people, behind her. She says, “The most human, powerful, and humbling thing I’ve ever seen was a church at 3:00pm on Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral.”
Perhaps some of you have experienced that, and exactly like Deirdre Sullivan says. I have seen it, too—even here this year—and had my own breath taken away. Crowds of people coming on a Thursday afternoon, a Saturday morning—some larger than others, of course—but always containing at least two or three you didn’t expect to see, people you didn’t think could or would make it—to support a grieving family and lean on the promises of God as they gather in worship at one of the hardest moments of their life.
I have seen some of you wear choir robes, too, on those days, often not that personally close to the deceased, but still bound by duty and by love to be numbered in the crowd, to sing praise and thanksgiving in the face of death. Others of you make cucumber sandwiches and chocolate macaroon bars, fill up the lemonade dispenser and coffee carafes and wash them out once the reception is done. You set the tables in Price Hall and take down the chairs, sometimes when you don’t even know who the family is.
Or you’re a member of the marching band at Atlee High School, and although you may not have known fellow bandmate Dylan Murtagh all that well, you put on your band uniform anyway like everyone else and squeeze into the church for his funeral so that his parents see that he was one of you, one of the gang.
Like Sullivan, I’ve seen these crowds—or I’ve heard of them and read about them—and of the miraculous and meaningful presence of people you didn’t count on.
Right or wrong, that’s my handle for making sense of what we have written for us in the book of Revelation this morning: miraculous and meaningful presence of crowds you didn’t count on. Revelation is such a strange book, and we often don’t know how its truth has any meaning for us in these days. Its visions and images sound so fantastical with things like thrones and Lambs and four unnamed creatures, and they don’t speak to us directly. Yet there he is, John, the writer of Revelation, standing amidst a huge crowd and he doesn’t know where they have come from. It’s like he’s glanced back at the church pews behind him, and sees they’re filled with a multitude from every nation, every tribe and language. They are singing and worshiping, holding palm branches in their hands, an ancient symbol of victory.
An elder who is there witnessing it with him seems taken aback. He turns to John and asks, “Who are all of these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” as if to say, his breath taken away, “Who are all of these, bearing cucumber sandwiches?” “Who are all of these, dressed in their band uniforms?” One of our members sent me photos yesterday of the lawn at Hatcher Memorial Baptist Church, which is blanketed this weekend with white crosses, one for each person in Virginia who has died this year as a result of addiction. It too, is breathtaking, but in a somber way. The elder might ask of us, “Who are all of these, dressed as white crosses, and where did they come from?”
We learn that in the case of John’s revelation vision, the crowds are not there to see him. In fact, they are looking upon the crowds of those who’ve died. The elder tells John they are the ones who have come through the great ordeal.
Now, in the time John wrote this and got it aired on NPR, people would have known exactly what that meant. They would have known that the great ordeal was the time of great persecution that followers of Christ were undergoing in parts of the Roman empire. Those who professed that Jesus was Lord of all were being thrown in jail and exiled and being made into lion food. That’s a large part of why Revelation is so inaccessible to us in these days of unparalleled comfort. But when you have no ability to rely on your own powers to make a way for yourself, your perspective on the world and your place in it becomes very different, something many of us I doubt can identify with. You begin to look to other sources of hope and salvation outside your own intellect and strength.
In John’s vision, the crowd robed in white is a bold reminder of that hope and salvation—they are those martyrs who ended up witnessing to their faith in the handing over of their life. This crowd is the group of fellow believers who died before Jesus could return to claim them for his eternal kingdom. They are the ones who sacrificed it all, their tragic lives lost to the records of time (or so they once thought) and yet here they are in John’s vision, waving palm branches and singing praises. They are not gone forever! They’ve taken their robes made them pure and white by washing them in the Lamb’s blood. He’s the one they’ve come to see and support, as he sits on his throne of triumph. And because he is risen and triumphant over death and the grave, they can worship him in the knowledge that one day there will be no more hunger and no more thirst. He will shelter them. He will love them and provide for them, his own grand, heroic sacrifice covering their sins and making them clean again.
John’s Revelation says something we need to hear, even if we are not living in the time of its original audience: God is able to bring his people through their great ordeals. That is God’s standard operating procedure, in fact. We don’t know how God manages, but he counts out every soul he has created, he reclaims each and every one of them from the tragedies of life, and brings them to himself through the throne of the Lamb. God was present with his Son as he died on the cross, and so we know He is present with us in our ordeals of life, no matter how insignificant or magnificent they may be. God is ultimately victorious over it all, which is something that all who undergo suffering and trial at some point must wonder.
God is establishing a kingdom where there is no more hunger, no more thirst, where every sheep will know the loving care of the Shepherd. It is a kingdom where the humble are blessed, not the ones filled with pride. It’s a kingdom where those who make peace and those who show mercy are blessed. It is a time and place where those who understand their need for God are the blessed ones, not those who are sure they can do it all on their own.
A few Sundays ago my colleague was sitting in his office, staring out his window worrying about the quality of his sermon (as we do) when he caught sight of an elderly man helping another elderly widower button his sleeves. No more worrying about the words of the sermon. The kingdom’s being established right there—the kingdom of the the meek, the pure in heart. Where every loose sleeve cuff is buttoned, and every tear is wiped away from every eye.
So often we tend to label as saints only those who’ve used their life to make some grand, heroic gesture for the good. However, today we remember again that the saints are that crowd too numerous to count, that crowd that takes our breath away, the saints who live beautiful sermons in the life of the world each day. Today we name our dearly departed, and we remember them as saints, too, because God showed up and supported them in their ordeals…the ones everyone knew about and the ones they struggled with privately.
We remember those who showed us that real decision of faith more often lies between doing something good versus doing nothing.
We remember those who struggled with the ravages of cancer, with the worry of unemployment and what it was like to stand in the bread line with your children, those who dealt nobly with the breakdown of their marriage. We remember those who suffered with the estrangement of family members and the death of a child, the terror of depression and unresolved anger. We remember those who waged a war with addiction.
And today we have hope they’ve all come through the ordeal because God has loved them and knows he first claimed them in baptism.
And we look for that day when we, too, will turn around and look back for a moment and see them all standing with us, all in our white band uniforms, sleeves buttoned, eyes dry. All of us, marching for our Savior. All, counted out because he’s brought us through the ordeal, our lives sheltered in the shadow of the cross. Palm branches in our hands, and maybe cucumber sandwiches, too, before the throne of the Lamb, who saves us by his grace.
Rejoice. Be glad. For ours is the kingdom of God. And we will always go…we will always go to the victory feast of the Lamb.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.