All Saints Sunday, 2016

Luke 6:21-30
Ephesians 1:11-23

Beginnings are important. How a story begins can dictate how well a book or screenplay will hold our attention. There is that moment in a baseball game right before the first pitch is thrown-- anticipation, excitement is tangible-- then as the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand the announcer says, “We are under way.” Listen to how one of my favorite books of the Bible, Hebrews, begins:

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.


Or the Gospel of John:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

As Bill and Ted would say in one of their excellent adventures, “Whoa.”

Or what about the Gospel of Matthew:

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Wait, I was expecting Bethlehem or angels or shepherds and I got genealogy? The other day in my devotional reading one of the assigned scriptures lessons was another genealogy, buried deep in the Old Testament. When I started reading those ancient names I became frustrated, looked to the end of the passage, and seeing only names I jumped to the next scripture. Then I remembered: All Saints Sunday is coming up. Remembering names is important. So I jumped back to the first text and carefully, thoughtfully, read each name.

All Saints Sunday is a day of remembrance. It began as a day to commemorate the lives of the saints of the church, then over time the focus of the day evolved. Christians began to remember the lives of those individuals who taught the faith, or influenced our lives in some significant way. Churches began to remember the lives of members who had died in the last twelve months. Later in the service we’ll read the names of folk who have died in the faith here at Grace during the past year, and remember the impact each of them had on us. It’s important, vital, to remember those names and express our thanks.

I read this scripture this week:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’
And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God, singing,
‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honour
and power and might
be to our God for ever and ever! Amen.’

Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’ I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘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.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
  and worship him day and night within his temple,
  and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
  the sun will not strike them,
  nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd,
  and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes’ (Revelation 7.9-17).

You’ll notice Pastor Leon and I are wearing our white robes today. I bought this robe several years ago to celebrate earning my doctorate. When I first wore it in church, someone remarked, “You look like an angel!” I shared that with someone else in the church and she replied, “You’re no angel.” But on All Saints Day the white robes remind us of the vision of heaven, where the saints worship around the altar of God in their white robes.

Earlier I mentioned the remarkable Book of Hebrews. Chapter 12 gives us language to articulate the meaning of this day: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfector of our faith…” It is because of the great witness of the saints that our minds and hearts focus on the faith of Jesus. Their impact on our lives, the challenges they faced, the grace they offered to others, are all because of the faith of Jesus. Jesus embodied this faith we call Christianity, and the saints of the church, from the matriarchs and patriarchs of the Old Testament to the apostles of the New Testament, to the martyrs to our Sunday school teachers and pastors, owned faith in Christ and lived it for us to see.

So we gain from those who went before us, as they gained from those who preceded them in faith. And every Christian for all time gains from the faith first exhibited by Christ himself. What do we call it when we gain from those who lived before us? An inheritance. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. We are part of the family of Christ. We have an inheritance; and not the kind where you receive a check in the mail from an unknown great uncle in Montana. Our inheritance is our life in faith and the living presence of Christ in the world. As our epistle text proclaimed today,

“In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance…”

“In whom you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of his promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance…”  

“So that, with your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious riches among the saints…”

Our inheritance is based on one of the most important characteristics of Christianity: hope. What do we hope for? The realization of the faith of Christ and the saints. The Beatitudes are the embodiment of hope, unseen but promised:

‘Blessed are you who are poor,
  for yours is the kingdom of God.
‘Blessed are you who are hungry now,
  for you will be filled.
‘Blessed are you who weep now,
  for you will laugh.

‘Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice on that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets….

‘But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
Bringing about this vision is our purpose. Its upside down reversal of current values means it may be difficult to realize. But Jesus’ life, and the witness of our remembered saints, testify to God’s making the impossible possible. When the lectionary was organized no one could have known that we would be talking about loving enemies and doing good to those who hate you, blessing those who curse you, praying for those who curse you, doing to others as you would have them do to you, and all this “blessed life stuff”  just 48 hours before the end of an exhausting, emotional, difficult election season. I’ve prayed for November 8, 2016 for a long time, but it’s probably more important to pray for November 9th!  

When I read those genealogies in the Bible earlier this week, it was easy to skip through them. But those names are remembered in order to give a context to the story. The Temple was built during the lives of those specific people. Jesus’ ancestry can be traced through those specific men and women. What is the context in which our names will be remembered?

May the faith of Christ give us courage. May the lives of the saints give us inspiration. May the inheritance we have received from Christ and the saints give us hope, that we will see Christ’s vision for humanity realized. And everyone will experience the life of blessing Jesus promised-- the blessed lives our saints continue to live in, through the power and hope of resurrection. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.