Nov2MonA sermon for All Saints Sunday 2020 November 2, 2020
Grace to you and peace from him who is,
and who was and who is to come. Amen.
Our first reading today on this All Saints Sunday is from the last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation.
One of my favourite memories from 2018,
was when I attended one of the most important Classical concerts of that Fall in KW,
the Canadian Premiere by Jan Overduin of Donald Knuth’s “Fantasia Apocalyptica” at First United Waterloo.
This massive, difficult and complex piece for organ,
an hour and a half long, is a musical description of the entire book of Revelation.
At the First United performance,
Jan’s playing on the organ was complemented by a slideshow with drawings of key moments in the Book,
alongside another slideshow which showed the Biblical text as the piece progressed.
Besides giving myself an opportunity to reacquaint myself with the complete book of Revelation (which I haven’t read through since Seminary) and admire Jan’s incredible technique and musicality in this endurance test, it helped me gain a renewed respect for this book of the Bible,
which previously I basically disliked.
In the context of the music and the poetry, and the allusions, images and humour, the book since has found new meaning for me.
Frankly, Liberal Christians don’t like the book of Revelation, because it makes us feel uncomfortable with its sensational and gory parts, bloodshed and warfare, all within the framework of a prophecy or vision that too many evangelical Christians take literally and use to guide foreign policy, esp. in the US.
Revelation is a book that has been abused by cult leaders, and charlatans peddling their latest “the end is near” fantasy.
But perhaps it can be redeemed, and perhaps there still is good use of this book, depending of course on how you read it.
The book of Revelation is a letter written to 7 Christian communities in present-day Western Turkey.
It attempts to reveal, or it pulls back the curtain on a play of cosmic proportions, with vague allusions to historical characters and events likely familiar to the readers, but unknown, or at least heavily debated today.
What is clear is that both the author of the book, known as “John”,
and his audience, are suffering from some form of persecution.
Perhaps they are being marginalized, in socio-economic ways, perhaps they are being threatened by violence.
In the Roman Empire, not following the official Roman religion was not a good idea, it was not good for your job prospects,
and it might cost you your life, although recent research suggests that widespread official persecution was far less prevalent that random outbreaks of mob violence against Christians.
To illustrate this, the 20th century probably had far more persistent officially sanctioned or tolerated terror against Christians than any other century previous.
We only have to think of the dire situation of Christians in China, North Korea, and certain Muslim countries like Pakistan or Indonesia.
Christians experiencing active persecution today would definitely have a different way of reading the book of Revelation than we in the tolerant West would have.
And we in the West, comparatively, broadly speaking,
haven’t suffered that much in the past 80 years.
But now, with the global, inescapable pandemic upon us,
suddenly such texts rooted in profound communal suffering,
can speak to us in ways that even a year ago, we could not comprehend.
I see the book of Revelation as consoling us and comforting us today amidst these troubled times.
And esp. passages like our first reading today…
Which begins as a bit of an interlude,
a pause in the proceedings of the unsealing of the 7 seals in the heavenly throne room.
In this vision, the seer recalls:
“ a huge crowd, too huge to count. Everyone was there—all nations and tribes, all races and languages. And they were standing, dressed in white robes and waving palm branches,
standing before the Throne and the Lamb and heartily singing:
Salvation to our God on his Throne!
Salvation to the Lamb! (MSG)”
For those of you who like singing,
it might be comforting to think of this heavenly choir,
where a hymn of praise can be sung directly to the object of praise,
Who are those robed in white? The question is asked.
They are those who survived the tribulation, the “great ordeal.”
Life was a struggle for them.
But they survived.
They transcended the challenges, without compromising their faith.
They have been steadfast in following the Lamb of God.
And because of this, God will shelter them,
he’ll pitch a tent of mercy for them.
He’ll spread a canopy of love over them.
God’s presence will be with them in a fuller, more complete way than ever before.
And their sufferings are over.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center 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.”
In this new envisioned order, there will be no longer any suffering,
there will be no sorrow, no hardship or distress,
no worries about illnesses or pandemics or conflict.
All that remains is God’s gratitude for lives lived,
and an existence in peace in the presence of God who was, who is,
and who is to come.
As we read these words of a comforting future for those who have passed through the trials of human existence,
We perhaps think of our own loved ones who have passed on,
as well as our own trials we have gone through.
And are we ever going through a tribulation, a great ordeal,
as a world population now!
While we haven’t yet reached the pandemic proportions of October 1918, at the height of the Spanish Flu,
where Pastor Schmieder buried 20 St. Matthews members
in a single month,
The current figures are sobering: 120 COVID deaths in Waterloo,
3000 in Ontario, 10,000 in Canada, 1.2 Million worldwide,
and steadily climbing.
Many of us are crying out with longing:
How long O Lord!
When will this mess be over?
Amidst the changing business practices and realties,
working people are extremely busy and stressed on the one hand,
While the unemployed, high-risk and elderly are very lonely and bored.
Mental illness, opioid addiction and other substance abuse problems have climbed in the past 8 months, and experts are warning that the "pandemic's health consequences extend well beyond the coronavirus itself.”
Furthermore, people of colour in Canada have suffered disproportionately.
Death is on our mind, with every news update,
and public health announcement.
Many are suffering from complicated, delayed grief,
as normal death and funeral practices have been changed, cancelled or postponed.
Gathering around a dying one’s bedside is difficult, if not impossible.
Many people are opting for cremation of their loved ones, postponing a memorial service and burial until 2021 or beyond.
This doesn’t help, as the natural human response to death is to gather round with loved ones, huddle and hug, cry, sing and scream:
All things forbidden by health regulations.
You can’t process your grief well these days!
You can’t say a proper good-bye now when someone dies.
And this has profound implications.
It increases our suffering, and our need for comfort and consolation.
But where will that come from?
Our reading today provides that answer:
From the shelter and canopy of God’s enduring presence with God’s people.
God will wipe away every tear and provide all who suffer with the water of salvation, of eternal life.
That is the promise we must cling to you in these times of trouble.
We need to picture in our mind’s eye: God’s sheltering presence accompanying us in these dark and troubling days.
Also important to remember from our reading:
is that the multitude who had suffered so much turned to praise!
Amidst all their scars and broken memories,
they responded with a song of praise and thanksgiving!
This song of gratitude is a countercultural song:
Not a song of praise to America the Beautiful,
or Facebook, Apple or Disney.
But a song of praise to God!
As our Psalmist put it this morning: I will bless the Lord at all times.
Not just times where the going is good,
but at times where it’s hard to get out of bed in the morning,
in times where small annoyances can wreak havoc with your entire day,
in times where the slow downward pull of this never-ending crisis is testing the patience of even those whose optimism seemed boundless.
It’s not easy,
but we must take an example of this huge crowd from John’s vision,
to be grateful, and acknowledge,
well, we’re still standing (looking like true survivors!)
(with God’s help) we are able to stand!
To perhaps be grateful, like some are, that the dead aren’t suffering through the loneliness and isolation of COVID anymore,
While holding space for proper lament and grief, as best as we can,
for those who are no longer with us.
And do our best, with no regrets or self-blame,
Along with the saints in glory who have gone before us,
to sing the resurrection song:
That blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving,
honor and power and strength,
Be To our God forever and ever and ever!