Multitudes

a sermon for All Saints Day [Year A]

Revelation 7:9-17

Multitudes. It seems like every time we turn on the news these days we’re hearing about the multitudes, multitudes of people. Multitudes have had to evacuate from their homes in the American West as record-breaking forest fires sweep through various states. Multitudes of engaged and perhaps even anxious voters have already submitted their ballots in the next election—over 61 million—and it looks like turnout will be higher than ever since far more than that will actually stand in line on Tuesday. There will be all kinds of people in those lines— young and old, red staters and blue staters, Democrat and Republican and independent.

long lines at 2020 voting booths

And then there are multitudes we shudder to think about but which are reported daily whether we like it or not. At last count over 45 million across the world, and just over 9 million in the United States. They are the multitudes who’ve received a positive coronavirus test result. And then the grim multitude no one wants to be a part of: well over one million deaths from the disease worldwide, over 230,000 of those in our country. This multitude, too, includes all kinds—members of this congregation, even, families and friends of people we know, teachers, nurses, garbage collectors, construction workers, students. Dave Ottaway’s brother, and Allan Neergaard’s too. My own grandmother. We put on our masks and wash our hands and hunker down because many experts are saying this multitude’s number is about to grow even faster. And, despite the political disagreements surrounding it, the reality is those numbers keep looming throughout our newsfeeds and none of us want to be counted in it.

And then on this day in worship we hear about a different multitude. There are so many of them they cannot be counted—cannot be graphed, registered, or divided into different colored states. They are of every nation and every tribe and language. And they are together and united, dressed alike in white and singing together with one voice. This vision from Revelation gives us such a striking image of unity and glory that we have a hard time imagining it in our present circumstances. Just so hard to imagine.

One reason we have a hard time imagining it is because they’re singing, and that’s one thing we just can’t do right now since it’s a high-risk activity for spreading the coronavirus. Much of Christian worship, in fact, is based on the hymns and songs we find in the book of John’s Revelation, songs like we hear this morning. Worship of God is not grounded in the work of solo singers, but in groups of people, multitudes, raising their voices together because God has redeemed them together out of every tribe and nation. In praise and thanksgiving they sing to the Lamb on the throne, “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and power and might be to our God forever and ever!” And yet today we sit in the confines of our homes or silenced in the pews, unable to join in the choir. Don’t you wish we could just hear our voices together? Again, we’ll have to imagine it.

Another reason we can’t envision this multitude is because it’s so different from the world we live in now, a world that is filled with all kinds of divisions, conflict and…ordeals. We inhabit a world that is broken by human sinfulness and suffering of all kinds and yet this multitude in John’s vision is beyond all of it. They’ve been rescued out of it, and they stand redeemed in glory.

I heard a story once that Jimmy Valvano, the late, great basketball coach of the NC State Wolfpack who led the team to the 1983 National Championship started his first practice each season by having his team cut down the nets, an action only reserved for the coming national champion. Before they underwent hours of grueling drills, before they practiced their first free-throw shot, before they had played their first game, Valvano had them imagine and feel themselves as victors, claiming the glory.

That is kind of what John asks his readers to do with these strange and perplexing visions in his Revelation He tells his readers, “Imagine God’s glory and triumph at the end of all time. It will come to us. After the ordeal it will be real.”

We often don’t know what to make of John’s Revelation, but it is basically a book about power. It is a book about who has ultimate power and how that power shown. It is about how the powers of sin and death and chaos in the world often create ordeals we have to ensure—ordeals like disease and oppression and riots and prejudice and dying. Through all of it, John’s Revelation is clear about one thing: the power of God in Jesus Christ will have the final say. The Lamb is seated on the throne. The power of God in Christ triumphs over all the evil and over every ordeal we encounter.

As these multitudes wash their robes in the blood of Christ we hear God’s power is used to cleanse us. We learn the Good Shepherd uses his power to guide us to the water of life. We discover, to our surprise, God wields his power save people of all tribes and nations, not just people who are like us. It is helpful for us to remember how powerful God’s mercy is. It is good for us to speak about and sing about how powerfully good and gracious Jesus is, because we are in need of hope. The multitudes of sad and grief-stricken hearts that we know now will become the multitudes who sing God’s praises eternally around his throne.

Today we remember several of our own who have been through their ordeals and have gone to rest in God’s power. We give thanks for their witness and now place them in that choir that is cutting down the nets and singing the full triumph of Jesus’ sacrifice. We don’t know all of the struggles that these faithful departed endured, but we know they are now over. The heart failures, the cancer, strokes, the lives of hardship—they’ve come through them now and are in God’s care. Four of these people which we name today died during the time of COVID, which means the congregation has not been able to gather as one and lay them to rest and give thanks for their life in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. I’d like to take a moment now to do that.

Joe Meindl was a gift from God, as his wife of almost 60 years, Peggy, calls him. Together they attended the later service almost every Sunday from the time they joined Epiphany in 1965. Originally from Chicago, Joe spent his career as a ceramics engineer. He was a kind man, easy to talk to, and always quick with a smile. He listened to everything you said. Joe was a patient and loving father to daughters Elizabeth and Christine, and he served in a number of capacities within the congregation, including as a teller, usher, and member of the finance team. Joe liked everything in church to look really shiny, and he was famous for fastidiously polishing all the brass candlesticks and offering plates after worship each week. I guess that was the ceramics engineer coming out in him. Metals should not just be cherished but relished. Joe himself now shines with the full brightness of Jesus’ light.

Wanda Umlauf was a southern lady of eminent charm, grace, and kindness. Possessed of a beautiful voice, Wanda spent many years singing in our choir. Her influence was felt throughout the congregation for many years as a member of the Margaret Miller Women’s Circle and as Sunday school Teacher. Together with her late husband, John, she provided the leadership and vision and energy for much of our congregation’s earlier expansions. Strong faith had Wanda, and a giving heart. Everyone baptized here is baptized in the font that she and John gave, and the columbarium was blessed by their generosity too. Their daughters Pat and Ginny grew up here in the warmth of their love, and Wanda was proud to know that Ginny had almost completed seminary before she died.

Lunette Edwards was an artist, a gentle but very perceptive soul who drew and painted the most beautiful pictures and portraits. Her husband, Bob, is a retired professional illustrator. He often worked in pen and ink; Lunette was all color, in both style and substance. Born to share her faith and talent, she taught art to many people in the greater Richmond area. She served on Council here, and was even Secretary for a term, and she also taught Sunday School and VBS. Their sons, Russ and Drew, thrived in her love, and Russ and his family are members of Epiphany. Everyone I’ve talked to who knew Lunette remarks on how she never had a bad word for anyone. We give thanks to the eternal Creator who receives Lunette the artist into his kingdom.

Today, we may number Lunette, Betty, Wanda, and Joe in the multitude. Today, we may give thanks for how God’s power embraces them—a power that gives preference to those who hunger and those who thirst, a power that blesses those who are vulnerable and those who are outcast:the meek, the peacemaker, the poor in spirit. And anyone who has passed through the waters of baptism can rest assured that Jesus, the victor, has already vanquished death, the foe. He has cut the nets down already and the game is won. One day we will know that vision and claim our own place in the host that is robed in white.

The other day I was speaking with Betty’s widower, George, and he shared that every Sunday morning he sits down all alone in his apartment and watches our online service just like he did with Betty for years and years. He tries to sing along with the hymns, he told me, but it’s a little lonely just being one voice. A few weeks ago his daughter purchased him a recorder, the kind you learn to play in 4th grade, in order to provide a type of therapy for the neuropathy he is experiencing in his fingers. So now he plays along with our on-line worship because we print the actual music notes on the screen. “I haven’t read music in thirty years,” he told me, “but I’m getting better every week. And then he added with a chuckle, “It would go a lot better, if I had a whole group singing around me.”

You do, George. You do. Just imagine them. Multitudes.

Amen.

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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