Sunday, November 3, 2013

Phil Kniss: Those of Whom Heaven Is Fond

Holistic Stewardship: Relationships (All Saints' Day)
Hebrews 12:1-2, 11-15; Revelation 7:9-17

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This is the 18th All Saints Day I’ve celebrated with you at Park View.
    And it was going on years before I arrived,
        so I have no idea how many years we’ve been doing it.
This morning, I could easily make a good argument
    for not recognizing All Saints Day.
    Most Mennonite churches I know, don’t.

    It’s risky business for Christians, especially Mennonite Christians.
    Like walking a tightrope, finding the right balance
        between the holy on one side, and the earthly on the other.
    We hold the balancing pole, and wobble between these two realities,
        hoping our feet don’t slip.

We have a history of falling off the rope, on both sides.
    Before the Reformation the church venerated the Saints so much,
        that it bordered on idolatry, and magic.
    Saints were not like us.
        They were holy and perfect
            and set apart from the messy realities of earthbound life.
        They had special access to God we didn’t have.
            Icons and statues and images of them,
                were thought to have special powers.
            In other words, we fell off the rope on one side.

    So Protestant Reformers,
        including our Anabaptist-Mennonite ancestors,
            cleansed the sanctuaries.
        We ripped icons off the walls, burned them,
            pulverized the statues,
            stripped the worship spaces of all religious art
                we could get our hands on.
        We scorned these images of the saints.
        We repudiated it all, and walked away from it,
            and we missed out, I’m afraid, on the spiritual benefits
            of remembering and honoring the faithful ones
                who have gone before us,
                and whose lives still have the power to teach us.
        We fell off the rope on the other side.

Fast forward 500 years.
    Here we are in a Mennonite congregation,
        descendants of the icon-destroying Anabaptists,
        celebrating All Saints Day,
            with a table front and center, full of candles,
            and icons on display of those of our number
                who died in this past year.

    Why give a Sunday to honor the cloud of witnesses in heaven?
    Sure, it’s wonderful to have a memorial service,
        if that’s what this is.
        Reading people’s names, remembering their lives,
            no one can argue with that.
            It’s moving, inspirational,
                and healing to those still grieving loss.
            It recalls the legacy of people in our history.
        That’s great, but it doesn’t have to be on All Saints Day.
    We wouldn’t have to add this extra element,
        with its theologically suspect traditions,
            of venerating the long dead,
            of edging toward the slippery slope of magic and idolatry,
            of focusing on the mysterious veil
                that separates this life from the next one,
                and speculating on what, if any, role
                    these persons long dead might have,
                    in piercing the veil,
                    or interacting with us in this realm.
    We could just have an annual memorial ritual,
        and be done with it.

As a matter of fact,
    we just did a summer-long worship series,
        focusing on the God of Ordinary Time.
    We affirmed that the greatest truth of the Gospel
        is that God is with us here and now,
            in the ordinary stuff and mess of life.
    If that is the greatest truth, why make a deal about saints in heaven?

    See, I just made a credible case for not celebrating All Saints Day.
    As a matter of fact, I could live without it.
        Especially if we had another memory day to take its place.

But now let me make the other case.
    All Saints Day has a long and honorable tradition in the church.
        True, some traditions have taken it well beyond
            what our theology allows as Anabaptists.
        We are not, nor should we become,
            so comfortable venerating the saints,
            that we forget who we really depend on for our lives,
                who we really owe our lives to,
                who has been, is, and will be, our salvation.
            The one and only Savior and Mediator, Jesus Christ.

But . . . there is something life-giving, courage-giving, about
    making a real connection between the messy realities of this life,
    and the life beyond where God lives and reigns with all the saints.

Of course, this assumes some form of belief
    in resurrection and life hereafter.
    But if this life is not all there is to life,
    then it behooves us to find some points of connection
        to whatever is beyond.

John, the Revelator, saw value for the early persecuted Christians
    to look, and see, what was beyond their present, ugly reality.

The church was being horribly, brutally persecuted by the Empire.
    John himself was in exile on an island prison.
    Others had been tortured and executed,
        or fed to the lions for entertainment.
    John saw a vision of
        the “multitude [of saints] that no one could count . . .
            from all tribes and peoples and languages,
        standing before the throne and before the Lamb,
            robed in white . . .
        praising God, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God
            who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
        And when the question was asked, who are these people,
        robed in white?
    The answer came,
        “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.”

Understand now.
    This is not . . . by a long shot,
        some escapist theology at work.
    This is not about painting a pretty Hallmark picture
        of angels in the clouds,
        strumming their harps,
        so as to take our minds off the drudgery and sorrow and injustice
            of this temporary earth we live on.
    This is not, by a long shot,
        a short-cut around costly discipleship,
        biding time until we get whisked away into heaven,
            so we don’t have to suffer,
            or don’t have to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of this world.
    Not in the least.
    John would be absolutely befuddled,
        by Christians today who read Revelations,
            and think the main point is the rapture,
                getting out of the world,
                so we don’t have to deal with it anymore.

    This was a word of hope for those who were dealing with it.
        For those were in the thick of it, the worst of it.
        For those who were paying the ultimate price for their faith.

    The good news was not, “Take heart,
        because we  will soon be whisked away from it all.”
    The good news was, “Take heart, because we are not alone in this.”
        We are not the first, we will not be the last.
        The lamb of God himself,
            understands sacrifice and suffering.
        The followers of the lamb,
            those who have already gone through the great ordeal,
            who died and crossed over into the next life,
            who came in with robes red with the blood of violence,
                now washed white with the blood of the non-violent lamb,
                are rooting for us, John says.
        They are intimately connected to us.
        They are us.

That is why we need an All Saints Day.
    We need to be reminded that we are not alone in the struggle.
    There are those who have gone before,
        who have been welcomed into the presence of God,
        and who are cheering us on.
    They are saints not because they are sinless and holy and elevated
        to some rare status before God.
    They are saints because they are just like us.
    They are ordinary human beings who already finished the race,
        and needed just as much grace as we do, to run it.

We reject the notion that the saints we honor,
    both the saints of old—St. Paul, St. Peter, St. Francis—
        and Park View saints—Anna Marie, John, Ethel—
    were fundamentally different from any of us.
We honor them, precisely because they were just like us.
    They were our friends, our neighbors, our fellow church members,
        who lived ordinary human lives
            made holy by God’s grace.

    Today we celebrate the holy grace of God
        revealed in the very human lives
        of those who have gone before us.
        We call them to mind.
        We name them aloud.
        We honor them.
    But we don’t put them in a holier place than we are.

We don’t do All Saints Day because it reminds us of heaven,
    to where we will some day go.
We do All Saints Day because it brings heaven to us.
    It connects us to God’s world, God’s reality, God’s work,
        here and there,
        now and not-yet.

I don’t know, in any concrete way, the nature and geography of heaven,
    so I speak in metaphor.

But it seems to me that heaven itself has more at stake
    in All Saints Day than we do.
    Heaven (and by that I mean,
        God, and all the people of God who preceded us)
        is invested in our lives here,
        and is eagerly awaiting our successful finish.
    It’s not so much that we are looking forward to heaven,
        as heaven is looking forward to us.

We are called to live in such a way
    that we advance the purposes of God, and God’s Kingdom.
    And every time one of us safely arrives into God’s embrace,
        having run the race and completed the course,
        heaven cheers, because God’s agenda has advanced.

Life here, life there, it’s all God’s deal.
    Heaven—meaning God, and the people of God before us—
        is reaching for us, in love.
    Heaven is fond of those who name the name of Christ,
        and sign on to God’s agenda.

I think that’s what the preacher, scholar, song-writer John Bell
    meant, when he wrote the poem, “The Last Journey,”
        from which I took my sermon title.

The first stanza reads,
    From the falter of breath, through the silence of death,
        to the wonder  that’s breaking beyond;
        God has woven a way, unapparent by day,
        for all those of whom heaven is fond.

He goes on, writing about death as a journey we are taking,
    with which heaven is directly involved and invested,
    as if actively guiding our boat to shore.
At one point he writes,
    “God the Spirit is sent to ensure heaven’s intent
        is embraced and completed.”

I have heard that sometimes when a ship enters a strange harbor,
    someone from shore, who knows the water,
        and the situation at the dock,
        will go out to meet the ship,
            climb aboard,
            and help guide it safely into port.

Maybe that’s the image John Bell had in mind,
    writing as he was, from Iona, Scotland,
    surrounded by wild and dangerous sea waters.

As if God’s Spirit climbs on board the boat as it nears its destination,
    just to be sure that last maneuver is made safely and securely,
    “to ensure heaven’s intent is embraced and completed in love.”

And a side note about this poem, which the choir is about to sing,
    John Bell commented,
    “Legend has it that this tune was used as ancient Scottish kings were,
        after death, rowed to their resting place on the island of Iona.
        It would be a pity is such a fine tune
            were reserved solely for the use of royalty.”

That’s kind of the spirit of All Saints Day as we observed at Park View.
    It’s not for royalty.
    It’s not for untouchable sinless holy people.
    It’s for the likes of us,
        those of us engaged in God’s agenda on earth,
        those of whom heaven is fond.

—Phil Kniss, November 3, 2013

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