A vision you can count on
(I preached this sermon for All Saints Day – November 1, 2020. It is in response to two readings – Revelation 7:9-17 and Matthew 5:1-12. You can find the full recording of the service on the church website – ststephenlc.org.)
As many of you know, I have a long history in campaign politics. Prior to seminary, I ran campaigns of people running for a variety of offices, did strategy for campaigns, and got people elected. One of the keys things that any successful campaign does well is convey a vision – a candidate paints a verbal and imaginative and hopefully inspiring picture of where they see a nation, or state, or municipality going. Some candidates have been very gifted in this – Think Reagan with his Shining City on a Hill, or Clinton with his building a bridge to the 21st century.
A vision lays out what people can hope for. A vision shares what is valued. A vision gives people a sense of purpose and belonging.
So, what does this have to do with All Saints Sunday anyway? Don’t we think that All Saints Sunday the least political Sunday on the church calendar? Isn’t All Saints Sunday about looking back to those who have died and remembering them? Remembering their lives and how we have loved these dear ones in our life and the impact they have had on our lives? Yes, but it’s so much more than that. What’s so visionary about All Saints Sunday anyway?
A lot actually. You see religion and politics are really the same thing – we may not like to think of them as the same thing or even related to each other, but they are. Both religion and politics offer us some important things – a vision of where we are headed, values that we hold in community, origin stories, definitions of success, how we are to relate to others, and they offer the ways of salvation – the only question is salvation for who and what.
If you look at the lectionary readings for today, you see this pretty clearly. The Revelation passage paints a picture, a vision. It starts right off telling us the vision, “After this I looked,” The entirety of Revelation is a vision – a path forward to where we are headed. It spells out what we know to be true – that following Jesus is about heading somewhere. We’re headed to the end of history, the culmination of the Kingdom of God. God is standing at the end of history, reaching out God’s arms to us and drawing us in to a loving embrace.
In Revelation we hear God’s campaign promises. “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more. The sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” But these aren’t just empty campaign promises. These are previews of where we are headed.
In verse 13, we hear about those robed in white. Scripture tells us that “these are they who come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” They are the martyrs who suffered at the hand of the empire. They died. But notice, this passage is forward looking. Death isn’t the end for them. Rather, we are told that “they are before the throne of God and worship him day and night within his temple.” And then it goes on, with what we can all expect – no more hunger, no more thirst, no more scorching heat or sun. No more sorrow. No more mourning. God is always looking forward, presenting the vision of where we are headed and how it is unfolding in our midst right now.
All Saints Sunday is so much more than looking to the past and memories. It is an opportunity to see where we are headed. To see the vision of where we are going and where God is taking us.
And why is that? Well, to quote Drew Hart in his book, “Trouble I’ve Seen,” he states, “Only through a long journey would I discover that the gospel is much more comprehensive, subversive, dangerous, and even undermining of everything that I knew and took for granted in life. It is a divine intervention in history and a life-altering reality.” Wow. What separates what we are doing today from any other time we remember our loved ones who have died, is that we are not just looking back to remember them, we are looking forward to being with them again. We have this hope because of the vision that is laid out for us in Scripture. The promises that are made. What we have is the full campaign of God being laid out for us. And God promises something no other campaign can ever deliver on – resurrection. Real hope.
When we hear Jesus proclaim the Beatitudes, they are exactly as Drew Hart says – comprehensive, subversive, dangerous, and even undermining everything that we knew.
Jesus lays out his campaign vision for us. Telling us who is blessed.
And this term for blessed, it’s not just a passing blessing that someone may give to someone else and then it goes away. The Greek word is Makarioi. It is translated as Blessed, and can also mean happy, or to be envied, fortunate, well off, or supremely blest. It’s a different kind of blessed than what shows us later in Matthew’s Gospel. This blessed expresses something far greater – a permanent state of blessedness or happiness.
This is Jesus, God Incarnate, who is proclaiming for all to hear about a divine intervention in history that changes everything permanently.
And especially today, as we celebrate All Saints Sunday and remember our loved ones, this is vitally important. We mourn the loss of our loved ones. Death sucks. It drains us of life itself. And we mourn, as we should. These are people who mean a lot to us, who impacted our lives in innumerable ways. We miss these people’s presence in our lives. We miss hearing their voices. We miss seeing them face to face.
And do you hear what Jesus is saying here – Blessed are those who mourn. Jesus isn’t dismissing the loss we feel. Jesus isn’t telling us to just get over it. Or telling us how we need to mourn and how long it takes. No, he’s acknowledging that mourning is a part of life. And he turns the table on the world and calls those who mourn blessed. No one else has ever presented a vision like this.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. That’s a promise. A promise we can count on. If Jesus is who he says he is, God Incarnate, God who takes on flesh to walk amongst us, God who also has lost loved one to death (We hear those stories the Gospels), and who knows what death is like, very intimately, then we have been given a promise that will never be abandoned or broken. A promise that is more real and believable than any candidate for any office has ever made. It’s a promise of divine intervention in history that changes everything about what we thought we knew. It’s a vision for the future that we are headed to.
All of the beatitudes are this promise, this vision. Blessed – Jesus is altering our permanent reality in this very phrase. Jesus isn’t ignoring what we know and experience. Rather, he is taking us on a visionary journey – from where we are right now, blessing it, changing it, and transforming it to something greater.
Isn’t that what we proclaim all the time? Life, death, and resurrection is all about this. And you can’t get to resurrection without going through death. And death leaves us with mourning. But Jesus takes that mourning and blesses it. Blessed are those who mourn because they know what real loss is. They know what love is. They know how they have been changed by the loss of a loved one. They know they are can’t do anything to change this situation. They are blessed because it is in this loss, that they gain everything. In the loss of a loved one, and in our mourning, Jesus blesses us with a sense of our own mortality. Jesus blesses us with comfort in ways we might not expect. Jesus blesses us with emotion and feeling so very powerful that the person we love stays as a part us. Most importantly, Jesus blesses us with a promise – a promise that we can count on. Jesus blesses us with a vision – a vision of the future that is coming, a future we are all heading towards.
The Italian Renaissance Artist Rafael was a prolific painter and sculpter. He painted and sculpted for the Vatican and has some of the most beautiful paintings that were ever created. He spent his life creating what could be considered holy visions. His last piece was titled Transfiguration. On a simple level, the piece shows the contrast between the redemptive power of Christ and the flaws of humanity. Rafael would never finish this piece, but it was considered his supreme masterpiece and was the most well-known piece of artwork from the mid-16th century until the mid-20thcentury. His artwork has endured well beyond him and influenced so many people – artists and just ordinary people the world over. When Rafael died, he was 37 years old. It is said that his last word was this – Happy. How ironic that a man who died while still working on his masterpiece and would not see it through would say happy. But then again being happy and being blessed doesn’t require us to experience first-hand the completion of a masterpiece. Jesus paints the full picture for us. Jesus lays out the masterpiece for us. Amen.