Courage

Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday
November 2, 2014
Revelation 7:9-17

190555_566074869340_1281_nThe sun had set early on that late summer day. Being, as I was, in the far reaches of northern Maine, early afternoon slid quickly into dusk, and nightfall came right on its heels. The camping season was over. I had taken six crews on whitewater canoe adventures of ten days each all over the state, but on that particular day I had hung up my paddle for the last time. Perched on a densely wooded hill, overlooking an abandoned camp, I climbed into my tent alone that night. All alone. The darkness was settling in, the chill of early autumn drove me to my sleeping bag, and the birds had all migrated south. It was cold, and quiet, and dark. I was all alone. And let me tell, it was spooky. I mean, it was downright creepy spending that night by myself in an abandoned camp in the woods. And I mean abandoned. The only way to reach the camp was by boat across a lake. It was spooky. This is not a Halloween sermon. I didn’t see any goblins or ghouls. I was more likely to run into a bear or a moose, but still, yikes. I was really glad when morning came.

Now, I really don’t mind being alone. Believe it or not, I’m actually quite the introvert. But on that particularly cold, quiet, dark night, I did not want to be alone.

See, humans are hard-wired for connections. We were made as social creatures. Our lives are defined by our relationships. I know who I am by virtue of who others are in my life. I’m a son, a father, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, a friend. We were not created to be alone. We were created for relationships. And when our relationships sour, we find ourselves faced with depression, and isolation, and abandonment. We’re afraid of being alone because relationships are as necessary for human thriving as food and water.

The ancients knew this too. Perhaps they recognized this even more than we do. Even though we think we’re so connected with our friends in a vast web of relationships, we’re really not. We’re actually quite isolated. I have one thousand and thirty-eight “friends” on Facebook. Believe me, I’m not that popular. Or that friendly. This only shows that we are lost and alone even in the midst of a vast crowd. While we are caught in this world of instant communication we are devoid of actual relationship. So we turn back to what the ancients said.

St. John the Divine catches a glimpse, as if through a thin veil, of the heavenly throne room. He looks, there is a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands (Rev. 7:9). These are the saints who have died, those who have passed through the great ordeal. And now they stand together, in perfect unity and in undeniable relationship with the Lord God. With the Lamb. With Jesus.

This is why we hear these strange and wonderful words on All Saints’ Sunday. Today we remember the saints of God who have gone before us. And we celebrate those who are joining that great company of all the faithful through the waters of baptism: Audrey, Hayes, and Mikey. It’s as if the Church is reaching far back into its memory, and looking far into its future. And taking both of these realities and holding them together on this holiest of days. These three who are to be baptized will never be alone, for they are being joined, eternally, into a joyous union with God and all of God’s people who have come before.

All of God’s people. From every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages. No one is excluded from relationship with God. The categories that we humans dream up are just that – dreams. Our paltry divisions and squabbles vanish in the blinding light of God’s love for all people. All people. The reality is so much more glorious than the dream. Nothing, no human institution or inclination or happenstance of birth precludes you from relationship with God. For today is All Saints’ Sunday, not some saints’ Sunday.

And palm branches. Why does the great multitude carry palm branches? They are signs of victory. Palm branches were the gold medals, the trophies of the day. They hold their palm branches before the Lamb because those branches are signs of the victory that Jesus has won for them. Victory over our petty divisions. Victory over the spiritual forces of wickedness. Victory over the powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. Victory over sin. Victory over the feelings of abandonment, and isolation, and depression which pervade our lives. Victory over death. These are the victories that Jesus has won for us.

See, the whole point of the book of Revelation is courage, and a reminder that, at the end of the day, God is victorious. I know, I know, Hollywood and the publishing industry want you to think Revelation is about the end of the world and war and rapture and beasts and dragons. As if the book of Revelation was made just for Halloween. But look, they’re just trying to make a buck. The truth is that the vision given to St. John the Divine, the vision that we call “Revelation,” is a book of encouragement. This weird little book was written to the second and third generation of Christians as they faced tremendous pressure to cave in, to give up their faith. They were tempted to live comfortably and without persecution rather than under constant threat of torture and martyrdom. The whole point is courage. Because Jesus is with them. And Jesus has already won the victory. The saints are not alone.

You are not alone. By virtue of your baptism, you are part of a great multitude of witnesses that no one can count. All the saints. All the souls of the faithful. Audrey, Hayes, Mikey – in your new life as baptized Christians, at some point, you will feel alone. Sometimes it will feel that God is not there. Sometimes you will want to abandon your faith, in exchange for a more comfortable life. But take courage. You are not alone. Every saint that has gone before, has had that exact same feeling. Every single person in this church has had that exact same feeling. And every single person in this church is about to take a solemn vow before the Lord God Almighty that they will help raise you in the Christian life and faith. You are not alone. The saints who have gone before, and the saints in this church are now your partners. And when things get tough – because they will – we are here to hold on to each other.

And together, we wave our palm branches in defiance of death. That if we die, we die to the Lord. And if we live, we live to the Lord for we are the Lord’s possession. Or as the poet put it, the saints are “content to live, but not afraid to die.” (John Keble, All Saints’).

If you have not already spent that lonely night on an abandoned hill, the time is coming. When, not if. The dark night of the soul awaits each one of us. When we lose sense of God’s presence, when we wonder if this whole thing is real or not. When we just want to cash in our chips and call it a day. When you are overwhelmed by feelings of loneliness, and depression, and doubt, and helplessness, like you just want to run away. That’s the dark night that you have spent alone on an abandoned hill, when it feels that help is a boat ride away. All Saints’ Sunday reminds us that in the midst of all of that – we are not alone. The darkest night will always end. The eastern sky will turn from darkness, to whispers of grey, and then to the full rising of the sun. As the hymn puts it, “But lo! There breaks a yet more glorious day; the saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of glory passes on his way. Alleluia, Alleluia!” So take courage. You are not alone. Alleluia, Alleluia! Amen.

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