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All Real Saints

A sermon on 1 John 3:1-3; Revelation 7:9-17, and Matthew 5: 1-12.

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Anne Nygård on Unsplash.]

Today in worship, when we reach the time for the Prayers of the Church, we will have a chance to commemorate, by name, the loved ones of members of this congregation who died in the past year.

This is a beautiful and sacred ritual, one that I wish I had had in my prior church communities when I suffered my deepest losses. There is a healing power in bringing the names of our lost loved ones into worship. It communicates God’s blessing on our need to remember those we have lost and to name the hope that they are now held in God’s love.

I deeply value this powerfully personal All Saints Sunday tradition, but I will confess that I sometimes struggle with the petitions in the weekly prayers that lift up the departed saints as a generic category.

You see, one part of my responsibilities for worship preparation is to edit the prayers from our Lutheran worship resource so that they speak effectively to our particular community and context.

And I often find myself hesitating with this particular petition dictated by our worship rubrics.

It’s not that there is anything particularly wrong with the provided prayers… they just often feel a bit disconnected from everyday experience.

They lift up “the saints of every age who have sung your praises and shared your word,” or they give thanks for “their faithful witness that guides your church,” and I don’t feel like I know who we are talking about in these phrases.

I mean, I know – of course – that we have a received faith… that every person in this room is able to know God as revealed in the person of Jesus because the people who went before us have carried on the story and handed it down to us. And I am grateful for this witness.

It just feels like these prayers are describing idealized caricatures of the people who have gone before, not real flesh and blood humans who have had the same doubts, and screw-ups, anxieties as the rest of us. Not people whose witness was imperfectly real.

And because of that I don’t feel like they are really describing any of MY personal dearly departed… people whom I have loved and give thanks for, but who were mostly muddling along and just making their best stab at a life of faith the same as I am.

These are the people’s whose witness to God’s love and presence have nourished my faith… but it’s a complicated witness.

A witness that sometimes helped by showing me the way I did NOT want to follow.

A witness that does not fit easily into a succinct two-line prayer of thanksgiving for the saints.

I had a somewhat similar reaction in contemplating our first reading for today, the description of the great multitude gathered around the throne to worship the Lamb of God in the vision from Revelation.

It’s a beautiful vision of unity and promised consolation; and it’s a powerful call to the kind of whole-hearted worship into which we are invited to join.

And maybe, if we were reading this passage on a different Sunday, I could feel inspired by those themes to preach a very different sermon.

But today, when the loved ones we have lost are so present in our awareness, this vision just feels a bit disconnected.

It’s not that I think our loved ones are NOT basking in the glory of God’s presence, or that the promise of God to wipe away every tear is not for them.

But this vision is not intended as a picture of what heaven is like in general. It is a very specific claim about the reward of those who have gone through “the great ordeal” – those who have suffered deeply explicitly because of their witness to Jesus.

It is still an inclusive vision: affirming that people from every nation, tribe, people, and language are part of this multitude (in direct contrast to the description of the 144,000 from the 12 tribes of Israel that comes immediately before this scene)… but it is also specific.

That specificity was important for John’s original audience.

They were members of the persecuted church, anticipating what they expected to be the imminent return of Christ for the great Day of Judgement.

The question of whether or not they would be faithful witnesses to Jesus was an urgent one.

They were not living in a pluralistic society where you can practice whatever faith you want as long as you aren’t a jerk about it (and often, even if you are).

They were facing the real possibility of martyrdom. And this vision of glory and promise was a comfort they very much needed.

But what are we to do with this vision, and the way that it holds up an idealized standard of those who have sacrificed everything for their witness to Christ in order to stand before the throne of God, worshipping day and night?

I don’t know that it actually offers us much comfort or encouragement.

In fact, I worry that it can actually do harm… can make us feel like the vision of heavenly glory does not include us or our very real and therefore very NOT idealized loved ones.

It can make us wonder where we and they fit.

I have the same worry about the gospel reading, actually.

The worry that it presents us with a standard of righteousness that feels unattainable in the reality of our relatively comfortable, suburban lives.

We can certainly be counted among those who mourn at times…

but I’m not sure about the rest of the descriptions of those who are blessed.

And I am sure that we should NOT take these descriptions as goals we are supposed to reach for anyhow. I don’t think God wants us going out LOOKING to be persecuted, not even for righteousness’s sake.

These blessings are offered as an assurance for those experiencing the hard things – and especially the hard things that society does not value or reward – that Jesus sees them, and that God will make things right.

But there’s still the question of what this teaching speaks into our worship today. What do we do with these blessings, on All Saints Sunday, if our loved ones do not match-up with an idealized image of God’s suffering witnesses?

Well, I suggest that we turn to our second reading… because this reading does not present us with anything that we can problematically interpret as an unreachable ideal from which we and our loved ones have fallen short.

Instead, it just offers us two unearned promises:

The promise that we are God’s children NOW.

And the promise that eventually, when we see God, the ideal will come as a result of that encounter.

The first promise is a promise of identity; a claim about who we are that has nothing to do with what we do.

We are God’s.

We are loved.

We are children, and like children, we still have things to learn.

There is no expectation of perfection. No idealized image that we can compare ourselves or our loved ones to and come up wanting.

There is the reassurance that we are on a journey, and God is leading into a future revelation where we will be changed, but we don’t have to try to get there now.

We also don’t have to try to worry about the reality that our loved ones didn’t get there during the time that they shared life with us.

We have the promise that they ARE there NOW.

In God’s presence.

Seeing God’s full revelation.

And being transformed by that revelation.

And for me, that might be the most important witness that they can offer us:

– a witness I wish I could find a way to describe in a two-line responsive prayer for inclusion in our weekly worship, because it’s the kind of prayer that would truly call forth spontaneous gratitude from my heart –

It’s a witness that God has called us and claimed us just as we are.

That the ways we struggle are not disqualifying.

That God is not comparing us to some idealized saint that suffers through the great ordeal, or some perfectly meek and peacemaking disciples who gets no blessings on earth, so God promises blessings after death.

That just as our loved ones have lived REAL lives, and found their stumbling way through them, and been scooped up at the end by the God who calls them “Beloved Child,”

So we, too, share that identity.

And that’s all we need to know.

The rest will be revealed later.

Thanks be to God.


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