Sunday, November 1, 2015

Phil Kniss: A midstream memorial

All Saints Day 2015
Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6

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Parties—I mean real, festive, all-out, celebrations—
    pop up in the most unlikely places.
        I’ve been to a few
            in places of utter poverty and suffering.
        One that comes to mind was an all-weekend wedding in 2003,
            in a remote, impoverished village in Swaziland,
            where food and drink flowed for days,
                and singing and dancing and gift-giving went on and on.
        Others I recall were in rural Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, and India.

Don’t know if you picked up on it,
    but the two scripture readings we just heard,
    were about parties in unlikely places.

The prophet Isaiah was writing to a suffering people.
    Foreign armies were storming their city walls,
        armies that took delight in destroying sacred places,
        and carrying people away.

Isaiah writes to them about a party.
    “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
        a feast of rich food filled with marrow,
        and of well-aged wines strained clear.”

    “This mountain” refers, of course, to Mt. Zion,
        home base for the people of God.
        The location of the temple,
            the center of religious life and political life.
        Where everything that mattered to Israel, happened.
        And where everything good is being threatened.
    On “this mountain” Isaiah announces a party,
        a feast with abundant food, fine wine, the best cuts of meat.
        Because, God “will destroy on this mountain
            the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
            the sheet that is spread over all nations.”
            He’s talking about a death shroud,
                that covers a deceased body.
                That shroud is metaphorically, spread over Jerusalem.
                But God is going to destroy the shroud,
                    “swallow up death,”
                    and wipe away the tears and disgrace.

And then we heard a reading from Revelation 7.
    When this was written, the Roman Empire was trying to
        exterminate Christians who refused to worship the emperor.
    John, the Revelator,
        had a vision of people around the throne of God
            singing and dancing like it was a wedding,
            in a huge “marriage supper of the lamb.”
    That party John saw was a far cry from the earthly reality.
    Those who read this excited letter from John
        were currently being imprisoned, tortured,
            executed, and thrown to the lions as entertainment.

    When they felt most abandoned by God, John wrote,
        “See, the home of God is among mortals.
            He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples,
            God himself will be with them;
                he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
            See, I am making all things new.”
        So, John says, party on!!

We could look at these, and other Bible stories,
    about heaven throwing a party,
    while unspeakable suffering is going on in the earth,
    and conclude, God is removed from human suffering—
        remote, distant, uncaring, dis-passionate.
    If that’s our conclusion, we miss the point.

Yes, there is a big party in heaven.
    But all that rejoicing in heaven
        does not draw God’s attention away from the suffering on earth.
    From the biblical viewpoint,
        it does not distract the saints and angels.
        It does the opposite.
    Heavenly rejoicing is tied directly to earthly suffering.

        There is rejoicing because the saints
            have “come through the great ordeal.”
        There is rejoicing because the robes once red with blood,
            are now a victorious white.
        There is rejoicing because the lamb that was slain, Jesus Christ,
            has now become the victor.
        The lamb whose body was broken,
            who willingly laid down his life,
            who was humiliated, tortured, killed,
            who never resorted to the violent ways of his enemies,
                that lamb has defeated all the powers of evil and death.
        And that lamb now sits on the throne.

        No, God is not numb to the suffering of God’s people.
            In fact, God has a heart of compassion for those who suffer.
        God notices. God is pained by it.
        God’s heart is for our wholeness and healing.
        God’s desire is for peace and for justice.
        God’s vision is the vision of John and Isaiah—
            all the inhabitants of heaven having a big party,
            because the saints have come through the “great ordeal,”
                and have now taken up positions as our cheerleaders,
                our “great cloud of witnesses.”

    Heaven’s joy is not just about celebrating
        those who made it out of the suffering.
        It is tied directly to us here and now.
    Put on, as it were, for the benefit of those still in the great ordeal.

I vividly remember a gathering in Ethiopia,
    that must have been, somehow, fed by the joy of heaven.
    It happened 15 years ago when I was there on sabbatical.

    Evangelical Christians in Ethiopia
        went through terrible persecution during the Marxist regime.
        Church leaders were threatened, beaten, imprisoned,
            some tortured, some even executed.
        They worshiped under the cover of darkness,
            for fear of their lives,
            not unlike stories we hear about 16th-century Anabaptists.

    But 15 years ago, the persecution was long over.
        The church was worshiping freely,
        and growing exponentially.
    So did the church look back on that persecution with bitterness?
        Did they lament those wasted years?
        Not at all.

I arrived one evening in the village of Hagamsa in the Wollega district.
    There was a Bible School located there,
        where Park View helped fund a new classroom building.
        And I wanted to meet them.

After being greeted by the local pastor,
    he invited me to join a worship service
        just getting started in another building nearby.
    It was a modest-sized, mud-wall building,
        smaller than this sanctuary, by a lot.
    It was a Monday night, and already dark.
    As we walked toward the building, things were fairly quiet.
        I expected to find a dozen or so faithful worshipers there,
            ready to pray and sing and hear the scriptures.
        I had been asked to give the group my greetings.

    I walked in to find it packed, wall-to-wall,
        with 500 men, women, and children.
    This was more than the population of the village.
        I found out most had walked for miles, after dark,
            from other villages, to be there.
        And what a worship service!
            What joyful singing!
            There was no electricity in the village.
            But that didn’t stop them from figuring out
                how to hook up an electric guitar and amp
                    to a 12-volt car battery.
            A couple light bulbs hung from the ceiling,
                powered by a generator.
            The children all sat in front, on the ground, in 10 rows or so,
                in rapt attention till the end,
                including the sermon.
        I asked the pastor about it after the service.
            What draws all these people out for a night-time service?
            Are there always this many people?

    Oh, yes, he said, this once-a-week night service is always full.
        Many people prefer the night service
            to the Sunday morning service.
        Why? I asked.
    He explained. It reminds them of the persecution years,
        when they had to meet after dark.
    Worship during the persecution
        had deep spiritual significance to them.
    So they purposely recreate the atmosphere,
        so they can remember that time of spiritual vitality,
        and in some way relive it.
    They do all they can not to forget the days of suffering,
        and their former leaders who died.
        Even children are taught the stories.
        They believe those former leaders now look on from heaven,
            are cheer them on.
        And the church draws great courage from them.

    The vision of Isaiah and John may seem strange to us,
        but our sisters and brothers in Ethiopia
            are intimately acquainted with it.
    They know those people in white robes,
        singing and dancing around the throne of God.
    And they know why they are singing and dancing.
        Because the lamb of God—Jesus Christ—won the battle.
        They may not know how they will get through
            the next months and years of life on this earth.
        But they know how the story is going to end.
            Because heaven is having a feast—
                “of rich food and well-aged wines.”

We don’t think about that often enough, seems to me.
    We muddle through the mess of life here on earth.
        In our struggles, we act like we’re alone.
    We don’t stop to think that we are surrounded,
        by persons who’ve already made it.

    We are not the first ones to face challenges in life.
        And we won’t be the last.
    There is a great stream of history—
        that stretches back before the scriptures were written,
        and flows ahead of us farther than we can see.
    And we are midstream, just at one bend in the stream.
        But the water has been flowing for ages.
        And we are wise to remember that.

That’s why we celebrate All Saints’ Day.
    We thank God for, and name, the saints who have gone before us.
        We honor them not to enshrine them,
            but to identify with them in their humanity.
        For many of these,
            we know the suffering surrounding their deaths.
        But the picture of their death
            is not the last picture we see.
        We have a biblical picture
            of persons dressed in finest party clothes,
            worshiping a God who says to them and to us,
                “Behold, I am making all things new.”

—Phil Kniss, November 1, 2015

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