“Saints Below and Saints Above”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 4, 2018
All Saints Sunday
I wrote today’s sermon something like six times this week. For some reason I always struggle to find meaningful words for special days in the church year and today is one of those special days. All Saints’ Day is the day each year when we memorialize the men and women who came before us in faith and showed us the way to God. I struggle with these days in the church calendar because, like Christmas and Easter, the day really speaks for itself. Emulate the saints. Live like the saints. Remember the saints in all that you say and do. Persevere in your faith as they did, even when you face tremendous obstacles. Run the race with faith and courage and you will receive the crown of life when you cross the finish line. That’s what this day is about; what more is there to say?
But I also struggled to put my thoughts and words together for today this festive and holy day because I feel heavy, weighed down, fatigued, worn out. I imagine some of you here today feel a bit of the same. Some of my fatigue comes from parenting a 16-month old. But it also comes from the overflowing mailbox I come home to each day, stuffed to the brim with postcards and fliers and newspapers bashing this candidate, lying about that candidate, telling me why I’m right or wrong to cast my vote in this direction or that one. It comes from the endless cycle of bad news, sad news, untrue news that I can’t even escape by turning the television off. The weight I feel today comes from living in a society that is just shocked and horrified by the shooting last week in the synagogue in Pittsburgh, a society that will mostly forget about it come next week. I feel heavy and burdened by the sheer enormity of our world’s problems and the general apathy towards those problems, not to mention the problems that hit right close to home. I often seriously wonder what exactly God is calling his people to do at such a time as this.
I’m also fatigued by and tired and ashamed of people who claim that Jesus Christ is their Lord and Savior and yet turn their backs on Christ’s teaching and Christ’s people.
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells a parable about sheep and goats where the sheep are welcomed into the kingdom of God and the goats are condemned to hell. When the disciples ask Jesus why the sheep had such good luck he says, “For I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you helped me get better. I was in prison, and you visited me.” “But Lord,’ the disciples say, ‘we don’t remember doing any of this for you.” Jesus’ reply is chilling: “Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least members of my family, you did it to me.” That seems to be relatively clear—these are the defining actions and characteristics of followers of Jesus. And yet some of the loudest voices right now calling for an end to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, some of the loudest voices right now calling for a narrowing of medical care in our country, some of the loudest voices right now decrying immigration, and some of the loudest voices right now fighting against reforming our criminal justice system claim what? That they follow Jesus…the Jesus who commanded that we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and welcome the stranger and heal the sick and visit the prisoner.
Even if you don’t agree with some of the things I’ve just said, I hope you can understand the point I am trying to make. To be a human being right now, to be a person of Christian faith in the world today, it is an exhausting and tiring enterprise. Instead of being united by basic human needs for intimacy, meaning, and belonging we are divided by man-made constructs like political party, denominational affiliation, race, class, social status, and Scriptural interpretation. Instead of trying to find the things that we agree on, we are constantly pitted against one another as if only one person or one party or one church has the ultimate truth or ultimate morality. Instead of doing the hard but rewarding work of searching for the truth, we’ve just settled for lies because it’s easier and it requires less mental energy.
My friends, whether you recognize it or not, this is the boat we’re all in right now. And as the storms rage on and threaten to capsize the whole thing, I think we have a few options. The first would be to abandon ship, to toss in the towel, to turn the lights off, to lock the doors, and simply walk away. We wouldn’t be the first to do it, and it would be easiest thing. The next option would be to toss overboard anyone we disagree with. After all, it is much easier to pilot a ship through a storm if there isn’t a bunch of dead weight on board. Another option would be for some of us to get out of this boat, go buy another boat, and set sail on our own. Since about the time of Jesus, this is historically what the church has done in times of trouble. We could also just stick together, huddled shoulder to shoulder against the storm, praying that Jesus wakes up and takes the wheel from our inexperienced and weak hands.
I think I know what God wants us to do at this moment in time, and I think you do, too. Our best and really only chance for surviving the terribly complex and utterly perplexing times we live in is to do everything in our power to stick together. In order to stick together, to remain united and at peace with one another, to actually live as God intends for us to live no matter what tries to tear us apart, we must build our lives around our common hope in Jesus Christ. That is the tie that binds each of us to the other. Our common hope in Jesus, as it comes to us today from the word of God, is that when all is said and done, after the plagues of war and famine and disaster have done their worst, salvation belongs not to the generals and the dictators and the power mongers of this world, but to God alone.
The book of Revelation is the book at the end of the Bible that most of us wish would just stay there and keep to itself. It is one of the most studied books of the Bible, but it also one of the most misunderstood in all of the Scriptures. Yet it is the book that proclaims so much hope to us today. It is not a field guide to the end of the world. It does not contain the exact date and time of Christ’s return if we figure out the magic code. The book of Revelation is not even a preview of what is going to happen when Christ actually returns to make all things new. At its very core, the book of Revelation is a commentary by John of Patmos on how he understood the interaction between God’s heavenly kingdom and the earthly kingdom of the Roman government. The book of Revelation is a piece of theatre, it is a piece of art, and as all art and theatre is prone to do, it offers a sharp critique of how things are while also giving hope for how things will eventually be. In John’s vision, the kingdom of God clashes with the kingdom of Rome over and over again, and over and over again it is God and God’s kingdom that triumphs in the end.
In the part of John’s vision that we heard today, John is watching a worship service play out in the heavenly throne room of God. At first, there is a procession made up of a multitude from every tribe and nation, people speaking every imaginable language, robed in white, waving palm branches as they sing praise to God. Joining the procession is a great band of elders, a throng of angels, and even wild animals. In the center of it all is God who is seated on the throne. As the heavenly choir sings to God, one of the elders asks John a question: “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” “Sir,’ John says, ‘you are the one that knows.” Indeed, the elder does know. He says to John, “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.” In other words, these are the saints of God.
Their presence around the heavenly throne of God speaks to us the truth that in the end God’s justice, God’s mercy, God’s peace and love will prevail and it will prevail in and through those who stand firm when it looks like everything is going down the tubes. We might think that saints are heroes. We might think that saints have something different in their genes. We might think that saints have a better prayer life or a better relationship with God. We might even think that saints are people whose service to church and community are something we must spend our lives trying to achieve for ourselves. But that is simply not true. Saints are men and women who have endured the great ordeals of the world—and my goodness there are so many ordeals—and have remained true to their faith and to Jesus Christ. It is not about heroics or good genes, perfect prayer lives or perfect attendance at church. It is about faith, faith that even when it is most cloudy, God is making a way when there seems to be no way.
This is what it means to be saint and as a hymn from my childhood says, “For the saints of God are just folk like me, and I mean to be one too.” And you should mean to be one, too, as well. The good news of God today is that we can be saints, we can be saints below right here and now and we can be saints when it comes time for us to move on up above. We can be those white-robed, war-torn souls who have endured the trials and the temptations of the world and remained true to what is good and right. We can be members of the heavenly choir who sing endlessly before God even though we have been slandered, even though we have been denied freedom, even though we hunger and thirst for righteousness, even though we mourn. We can join the elders and the angels and the wild animals in a procession around God’s throne and our ticket to get in is not our money or our worldly awards or our self-righteousness or our judgment of others. Our ticket into God’s heavenly parade is the ‘yes’ we say to God and the ‘no’ we say to sin and darkness.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, its tough out there right now. I admit that at times I have a hard time seeing the light of Christ as it breaks through the darkness. But now is the time, more than ever before, for us to say ‘yes’ to God and ‘no’ to everything that might stand in God’s way. God is not done with us yet. God is not yet done with the church. God is not yet done with the world. With the great company of saints above, and with the great company of saints below—and that’s you and me—God’s good and perfect will will be done. So rejoicing with the saints above and saints below, let’s not give up hope. Rejoicing with the saints above and saints below, let’s run this race with faith and courage. Let’s go into the world in peace. Let’s hold fast to what is good. Let’s never return evil for evil. Let’s strengthen the faint-hearted, support the weak, and help the suffering. Let’s honor all people. Let’s love and serve the Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit.
And then we will know, and the world will know too, that what the heavenly choir is singing is true: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Salvation does belong to our God, our God alone, now and forever. Would you join me in saying Amen. Amen.