This reading from Revelation reminds me of a story about when we took our youngest child, Mark, to Purdue. By the way, I don't usually share my family's personal stories from the pulpit. It's a promise I made to the Rob and the kids years ago...no sharing without permission...but Mark said this was OK to share.
Now, I know it will sound like I'm bragging, but Mark has always been a very good kid. He is smart... and kind...and considerate...trust-worthy, reliable, loyal...an all-around great guy. However, Mark is also very, very, independent...almost to a fault. In fact, I think his first sentence was "Mark do it."
From a very early age he was one of those kids who wanted to figure things out for himself. By the time he was in first grade he was literally getting himself ready for school. He rarely wanted help...and usually, he did not need it. As a result, there have been times, especially during his high school years that I felt a little disconnected from Mark. I mean, the communication between a mother and her son is already sort of limited during the teen-age years, but there were times when I was worried that Mark would become a complete loner. This is why when he left for Purdue, I silently prayed that being away at college would help him realize and appreciate that he is part of something much bigger than himself.
Now, you know what they say about prayers? Be careful what you pray for...you just might get it.
Well... fast-forward to Purdue Family Day that year. Rob and I decide to go up and join Mark at the football game. It was a beautiful sunny day and we were sitting in Ross-Ade stadium watching the Boilermakers when Mark decides to break the news to me that he's decided to pledge a fraternity...which, having been to a few fraternity parties in my own days at Purdue...was my worst nightmare.
Trying to stay calm and not jump to conclusions, I replied, "Really? Tell me more." And he did..he told us which fraternity he had selected and why. He went on to talk about the house and the brothers and some of the pledge activities. Of course, there are always some things better left unsaid. Anyway, just as he was finishing up and I was about to express my concerns, he says to me, "Mom, I know you're a little worried. But the thing is...since I've joined this fraternity, I have this real sense that I am part of something much bigger than myself."
Really God? My exact words? Did you really have to answer my prayer with a college fraternity?
So, what does this have to do with today's reading? Well, first of all, rest assured that the things I imagine happening when one pledges a fraternity are equally as frightening as the metaphorical images in Revelation! Sealed scrolls, horses, dragons...fire and hail and blood. Oh Lord, have mercy on the mom's imagination.
The real reason, though, that this story comes to mind is that the truth is Mark's fraternity has truly served the purpose of connecting him to something greater than himself. I saw that quite vividly as he and his brothers biked across the US this summer raising funds and awareness for disabled adults. There is truly a brotherhood connection between him and a number of young men from all over the US. They are united in character, effort, and purpose.
This idea of connecting to something greater than our individual selves is one of the reasons we celebrate All Saints Day in the church. It reminds us that, through Christ, we are connected to God...and to each other. Our unity is not just with those of us who are living and breathing on earth at this moment in history, but with all of our brothers and sisters who have gone before us...all of those who have fought the good fight of this life and who now rest eternally with God.
I suppose that it can feel sort of pessimistic to say that folks have fought the good fight. I mean, life isn't really supposed to be a fight, is it? Nonetheless, I think all of us would agree that it's also not a rose garden either.
Life can be very difficult. It has its ups and down. Challenges are pretty much a given...eventually we all face them. We live in a world where bad things happen to good people and where justice does not always prevail. So, in a way, I do think it is safe to say that all who live and live well, also fight the good fight. Or, as the apostle Paul is keen to say, we persevere and run the race before us.
And isn't that what our saints have done? They have gloriously completed the race of this life...despite the rocks, bumps and puddles...faithful and true to God through Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. That's why we admire them so much. They show us how a life of faith is lived.
More importantly though...the saints remind us that we do not run alone. Saints are those who understand that they have always been part of something greater than themselves and share that with unity with us even now. In life and in death, both saints and saints-to-be know that they are part of the Body of Christ...members of the priesthood of all believers. They are one ecclesia...one church.
Some of you saw an article that I posted this week on Facebook about why 80% of Americans do not want attend a worship service on a weekly basis. Sadly that statistic is appalling but true. The reasons listed in the article were subjective and mostly matters of a person's own bias rather than the church's failing. However, the author did point out that one reason people have left the church is because we have forgotten what it means to be the church. Instead we have come to view the church as a either an institution which we chose to support or reject...or church is a weekly event which we choose to attend or not attend. The author's point was that many folks have lost sight of the church being church...of being God's family together. Sadly, the relational aspect has become optional even though the need for connection remains great.
Folks, saints past, present and future celebrate the good news that we all belong to God's family We are necessarily woven together by Christ. Therefore, our earthly lives are meant to be very much in tune with and connected to each other. As saints-in-training, we look to the saints who already are, and live out our faith in ways that the world can see...in the ways our saints have taught us. This is how we honor them and join in their legacy.
More often than not, the saint-forming life to which we are called looks like a lot like the reading from Matthew. The faithful live this life of blessedness...of humility and meekness, poor in spirit, mourning the ills of the world, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, pure in heart, peacemakers...all that...not so we can become a saint but because we realize that, as members of the Body, we are already on their way to being one.
Future saints...those of us becoming like the saints we remember, are blessed to live kingdom-like...here and now. Trusting the gospel of Jesus Christ...even when it is not easy...even in the presence of evil...even when life persecutes...even when society would try to convince us otherwise. In essence folks, living the kingdom life of mercy, justice, compassion and love --which Jesus proclaimed and modeled -- is the way saints are made, and the way God’s realm is made known. It is how ordinary folks like you and me are shaped into the next generation of saints and how the church becomes the city on a hill…the light in darkness.. Kingdom living is how we become part of something greater than ourselves. It is how we be the church family together.
So, on this All Saints Day, we remember the humble, average, mistake-making people who, by God's grace, have weathered the storms of life...those who, by living a life of faith in Christ, have "come through the great ordeal" and are now in the multitude gathered before the heavenly throne. More specifically, our minds and hearts are especially drawn toward the beloved saints in our lives who have inspired and encouraged us in our own faith journeys. People whose lives were not perfect...but who were faithful in their prayers and witness. Loved ones who may not have lived up to the world's self-serving standards of success and power and individualism...but who were instead, humble, compassionate, kind, merciful, and genuinely pure in heart.
Folks, I am convinced that every picture on display here today...or life represented by a candle...or those whose names are carried in our hearts...are remembered not because of their great accomplishments...not for their fame and fortune... not for the words on their obituary. We remember and honor them because their lives looked like Christ's and they inspired us to live the same. The saints we celebrate today are those whom the author of Hebrews describes as the great cloud of witnesses cheering us on in our race.
Speaking of cheering each other on. Yesterday was the Monumental Marathon in Indianapolis. 26.2 miles. Some of you may remember Andrew Peterson, the Special Olympic gold medal winner who spoke here a couple of years ago. He's a distance runner who was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, lived in and out of foster care, and was adopted along with his siblings by a single man. Andrew has persevered and overcome many challenges in life - physical, mental and emotional.
Just as he has in previous races, Andrew ran the Monumental Marathon in an attempt to be the second ever Special Olympian - the first one in 35 years - to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Unfortunately, for various reasons, Andrew has always fallen just short of qualifying. This year Andrew and his coach -- which is his dad, Craig -- decided that he it would be helpful if he had someone to run with him during the race. So, yesterday morning, a humble man whose name I don't even know, an unselfish man who put his own running strategy on the back burner and may have even sacrificed his own finishing time, chose to run alongside Andrew to help him keep pace. Of course, Andrew still had to run the 26.2 miles...but this time he was not alone. Someone was running with him, to encourage him when he was wearing down...to guide him if he got off track...to inspire him toward his goals...to be, Andrew's "saint" if you will, for the race.
The time required to qualify for the Boston Marathon is 3 hours and 5 minutes. I'm so pleased to say that yesterday, with his pacer running alongside, Andrew Peterson ran the Monumental with a qualifying time of 2 hours and 57 minutes! He will run the Boston Marathon!
Friends, I am not only thrilled for what this means for Andrew and for Special Olympians...I love how this metaphor speaks to our own lives. We do not run alone. Ever. No matter how challenging life gets...regardless of how frightening the world around us becomes...despite the many losses life can hand us... job, or money, or health, or even relationships...we, members of the church, have the Holy Spirit with us. And, we have each other...to encourage one another...to console one another...to inspire one another..and above all, to love one another. To love each other the way Christ has loved us.
What I find particularly beautiful in this Revelation passage is the image of the multitude gathering before God. The no-barriers multitude...coming together...not just surviving the ordeal of life...but rising above it. All nations. All tribes. All languages. No division over religious doctrine. No division over politics. No racial divides. No gender divides. No division based on socio-economic status...or race....or sexual identity. No division based on where you were born...or how you were raised...or whom you have loved or who has loved you. To me, this is what it means to be the church....past, present and future.
By grace, through faith, a great multitude of outsiders --and we are all outsiders -- is brought together and the church triumphant is formed. We come together no longer as individuals who have lived and died...but as this glorious oneness...spanning all space and time and history.
This is what it means to celebrate the All Saints Day. This is what it means to be united in one hope, one Lord, one faith, and one baptism. This is what it means to have all the saints who have gone before us, now alongside those of us who are…by God’s grace…becoming the saints remembered. Friends, life and and death and resurrection of Lord and Savior Christ has made us part of something so much greater than ourselves. Let us rejoice...let us praise...let us celebrate...let us remember. To God’s glory. Amen.