Sunday, November 6, 2005

All Saints Sunday or Twenty-Five Pentecost
Revelation 9:9-17
Psalm 34:1-10, 22
1 John 3:1-3
Matthew 5:1-12
Amos 5:18-24 or Wisdom 6:12-16
Psalm 70 or Wisdom 6:17-20
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
Matthew 25:1-13

Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen.

In the past month I have been personally affected by the death of four different people. First my father died after five weeks of illness. I arrived home from his funeral to the news of the death of a military friend. A few days later I learned my sister-in-law's mother passed away. Finally, a friend's mother died after weeks of hospice care. Too much death.

It is too much death, but in the midst of our mourning we learn about the grace of God. I can't imagine what it would have been like if I did not know about the mercy and forgiveness that comes from God. I rest assured in my suffering that God's promises are real and that He is faithful. Each person, in their own way, had faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Though I mourn I also rejoice because I have hope that reaches beyond this world into something I can only see with cloudy vision.

In today's Gospel lesson, Jesus tells us "Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted." We are comforted by the Word of God that tells us this life is only a momentary journey on our way to an eternity in heaven. We believe and we are blessed. We find comfort in the promise that our mourning will one day come to an end forever as God Himself wipes away our tears.

The greatest blessing is that the kingdom of heaven is not just a future hope. The Gospel lesson is a list of blessings – beatitudes – that are hard for us to see in our world today. Where is the blessedness in poverty, mourning, meekness or hunger? In a world that seeks wealth, fame and power it is hard to understand mercy, purity of heart and peacemaking. These are not seen as strengths, but weaknesses. Finally, it is impossible to rejoice in persecution. Yet, Jesus says, "Blessed are they…" They are the blessed ones, the ones who are receiving the mercy and grace of God.

The hope of faith is framed in this passage by the assurance of God's presence. In verse three, Jesus says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." In verse ten He says, "Blessed are they that have been persecuted for righteousness' sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Notice that in these two verses, the gift is present – theirs is the kingdom of heaven. IS. In verses four through nine the gift is future. Jesus tell us that the blessed will be comforted, will inherit the earth, will be filled, will receive mercy, will see God, will be called sons of God. A time will come when all our suffering will cease and we will be with God for eternity.

In the passage from Revelation, John writes, "They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; neither shall the sun strike upon them, nor any heat: for the Lamb that is in the midst of the throne shall be their shepherd, and shall guide them unto fountains of waters of life: and God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes." This is the future hope. Yet even now we live in the kingdom of heaven.

Death does not only come to us when the physical body fails. We go through all sorts of deaths in our lives. We suffer the grief of unfulfilled dreams, the pain of loss when friends move, the sting of sin that touches all our lives. We live in a transient world, especially those who have jobs with mobility. It is not only true of military families, but many people find themselves moving regularly. This is true also of clergy. How many churches have suffered the loss of a favorite leader because it was time for him or her to move on? Congregations go through a mourning process, especially difficult when the move was related to conflict or hurt feelings. Even within the walls of the church we face the difficulties of this life.

People die. Injustice exists. All too many people have no problem stepping on anyone to get ahead in this world. We will suffer. We would like to think that the promises found in the beatitudes will be fulfilled in this life – and they sometimes are. I have found great comfort in the love of my family and friends. I have experienced mercy. Though I have not seen the face of God, I've known His presence and seen His face in the faces of my brothers and sisters in Christ. I've shared in the waters of life and God has indeed wiped away my tears. Yet, I know that I will hunger, thirst and cry again before I pass into life eternal.

The place where we come closest to experiencing the future kingdom of heaven in this world is when we join in the feast of the saints. We do this at the communion table, when we share the Lord's Supper. The Lutheran liturgy, and I'm sure similar words are spoken in other liturgies, says, "Join our prayers with those of your servants of every time and every place and unite them with the ceaseless petitions of our great high priest until he comes as victorious Lord of all." Our worship is timeless and the fellowship numbers in the multitudes.

The last move we made was a difficult move; we knew that we would miss our friends a great deal. The one thing that gave me peace was the knowledge that we are not bound just by geography. Through faith in Christ Jesus we are bound by something even greater – the power of the Holy Spirit and the hope in that which is to come. When I kneel at the communion rail, I know that I am not alone – I'm not even there with only a dozen or so people. The communion of saints from every time and every place are with me at that moment. In receiving the blood and body of our Lord, we are not in this place or time, but we are in the kingdom of heaven. We are kneeling with our brothers and sisters around the world. We are feasting with our loved ones who have already joined the heavenly chorus. We are joined with all those who have already passed through death into life eternal. We are also there with the saints yet to come – the children not yet born and those who have not yet come to know the love and mercy of God.

That's what All Saints Day is all about. It isn't about just counting the martyrs who have died in faith. It is about being surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses who have shared the Gospel with us and being part of that great cloud as we too share the love and mercy of God. The passage from Revelation gives us a glimpse of heaven, strange images unless we see them through the eyes of faith. John writes, "And all the angels were standing round about the throne, and about the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honor, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen."

How odd it is that all they will do for all of eternity is fall on their faces in worship. Yet is it odd? When we are stuck in the confines of time and space, eternity seems like an awfully long time. The final verse of "Amazing Grace" speaks to this very idea. We sing, "When we've been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we've no less days to sing God's praise than when we've first begun." Eternity is timeless. We won't get bored praising God because time will not pass and there will be nothing better waiting for us around the bend. It is for this very reason that we need not fear for those who have passed from our lives. They are already enjoying that for which we long – a life in Christ that knows no limits.

We can't help but mourn, however, because their lives meant something to us. Our parents, our family, our friends and our neighbors had an impact on the life we lived. They taught us, touched us, comforted us, fed us, showed us mercy and shined the light of Christ. They will be missed and it is good for us to take a moment to join together in this time and place to remember them, honor them and thank God for their witness in our lives. We stop on this day to take a moment to see their witness and learn from it. For by God's grace through the lives of those we loved, we were brought into the fellowship of believers as they shared the Gospel with us. We are called to live as they lived, as witnesses so that those who are yet to come will have the opportunity to hear God's Word and believe. Though the life that awaits us after death is greater than anything we can experience in this world, we have work to do. In faith we are sent out into the world to be witnesses.

It isn't easy. We will face those difficulties of life, but we can stand firm in the promise that God is our refuge and our strength. The psalmist writes, "Oh taste and see that Jehovah is good: Blessed is the man that taketh refuge in him. Oh fear Jehovah, ye his saints; for there is no want to them that fear him." No matter what we face, the kingdom of heaven is a present reality that we will one day experience in its fullness.

John writes in today's epistle lesson, "Beloved, now are we children of God, and it is not yet made manifest what we shall be. We know that, if he shall be manifested, we shall be like him; for we shall see him even as he is." We have to wait until that day, but until that day we live in the hope of that which is to come. This world is filled with sin and death. We mourn all that has been lost because a piece of us dies every time we suffer. Yet every time we suffer and die a little, we are raised to new life in Christ. We grow ever closer to that time when time will no longer exist and we will join in the multitudes praising God forever.

Until then, let us remember those we love, whether they are in this time and place or elsewhere. Let us join in that eternal worship every moment of every day and let God's blessedness shine through our lives, even our pain. The gift is not only in the comfort, mercy and grace we receive in the midst of our suffering. The gift is not the blessedness that comes from our being poor of spirit, mournful, meek, hungry or thirsty, merciful, pure in heart, peacemaking, and persecuted. Instead, it is because we are blessed children of God that we experience the opportunities to be His witnesses. God has brought us to this time and place to shine His light to the world in the midst of our suffering so that the world will see His grace. Thanks be to God.

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