Sermon for November 4, 2018: I mean to be one too (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
Updated: Aug 14, 2021
All Saint’s Day is one of my favorite feast days - because it is the day on which I can tell my children that their mother is a saint – and the whole church has to back me up! We are – as the hymn says – all members of the community of God and, according to scripture, we, like those we love who have gone before us, can be saints too.
The question is, though, gone before us where exactly? The most popular term for the place where we shall all meet again and dwell in the shadow of our most high God is “heaven.” Jesus often refers to it as “The Kingdom of God.” When asked by non-believers where God lives, some of us simply point upward (and downward to indicate the place we don’t want to go). What all of these descriptors have in common is the idea that the home of the saints – the home of God - is somewhere else. It is not here.
Some Christian denominations purport that the end of the world will begin with a period of time when some of us are simply snatched into heaven – raptured - and those left behind will struggle to be saved as the ultimate annihilation of the world approaches. This understanding of the apocalypse, based on the biblical Book of Revelation that we read from today, is so popular that it is a foundational belief for many Christians. It’s the reason the “Left Behind” series, a novelized account of the “end times” which closely follows the outline of the author’s Revelation, has sold over 60 million copies. It’s the reason that many Christians believe that war in the middle east is a good thing and that we don’t have to worry about cleaning up the environment - or cleaning up our own acts for that matter- because during the end times the earth we know will simply cease to be. Why should we care about this creation, the thinking goes, if God’s going to take us to better one?
Our denomination does not endorse the idea of a premillennial rapture, but Christians who do believe that you will only be among the chosen to be the first taken “to” God and “from” the earth only if you are one of the elect – only if you have been tested like gold in a furnace and found to be worthy. Those who believe that the end of the word will unfold quite literally as John’s revelatory vision suggests think that saying you believe is the key to salvation. But today’s readings tell us that the Kingdom of God is for those who are pure and worthy of it– and we all know that calling oneself a Christian does not automatically make us either of those things.
What it does make us is a community - a community based not on like interests or experiences, but on a shared confidence in the love of God and in God’s love of us. That means that when scripture says we will be judged, it means that it is as a community that we are tested. It is as a community that we are judged. And, God willing, it is as a community that we are saved. Mercifully, we are not dependent on our own strength of character for salvation. We are in this together.
That’s why we need to stop seeing sainthood as about the achievements and sacrifices of individual people. The saints of God are not simply figures you see depicted in stained glass windows. We honor those people because they represent the good that is possible in Christian community, of what can happen when individuals embolden the entire community of faith. Because it is in community that Christians affect the world. It is in community that we can dispel the darkness and chaos that threaten us. It is in community that we can bring about the Kingdom of God.
Today’s scripture does not say that the Kingdom of God is where a righteous few go after they are raptured. The writer of Revelation says that the home of God is among mortals – that the Kingdom of God will dwell among us. Not each of us individually, but all of us together. Our scriptures tell us that we have to bring the Kingdom of God to this reality – that the Kingdom of God is nothing more – and nothing less – than the fully realized community of God – the community of God as it should be- the community of God as it can be. This interpretation assumes not an escape from the world, but a realization about the world – the realization that the seeds of the Kingdom of God are already among us.
Today’s reading from Revelation is often interpreted as being about heaven – about a place of hope and comfort where we go after we die. But I don’t believe that the Kingdom of God is a far-off place. I believe that the Kingdom of God is, as James Alison puts it, “the collective living out of the opening of heaven.” This means that we cannot ignore the suffering of the world. It means we must embrace it in order to change it. The Kingdom of God is not about getting rid of mourning and crying and pain and death. It is about recognizing them. It is about sharing them. It is about sanctifying them.
That’s what Jesus did when he raised Lazarus from the dead. He didn’t go to the house of his beloved friend in time to save him. He didn’t arrive during the solemn beauty of a funeral service. Jesus showed up after Mary and Martha had given up hope. He showed up after Lazarus had been entombed. He showed up after Lazarus began to stink. And the first thing he did, the very first thing was not to blow a trumpet or declare a feast. The very first thing he did was to weep –to wail - over Lazarus’s death. Jesus acknowledged the fear and anxiety and pain that consumed his community of friends, just as God understands the sin and sorrow that engulf us. Jesus shared his friends’ grief -and only after he did that did he show them the power of God – how it was already there in their community – how it had been available to them all along.
It puts me in mind of the end of the “Wizard of Oz." The Wizard has promised to take Dorothy home in his balloon. She has said her good-byes and is prepared to go when Toto jumps out of the basket. As Dorothy chases after him, the balloon takes off without her. “Wait!” she yells in panic. “I can’t,” cries the Wizard. “I don’t know how to stop this thing!” Dorothy is left bereft, believing she has lost her last chance to go home. But then the Good Witch appears and tells Dorothy that she has had the power to get home all along. She simply has to ask for it: “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Dorothy’s true home, like our true home in the heaven that is the presence of God, was in her heart all along. She just had to remember where her home was. She had to remember what her home was. She had to remember who her home was.
And that’s what we need to do – to find heaven in our hearts, and in our community. We are in this together. Our hope of heaven rests not in individual virtue but in how true we make the words of the words we put on our banners and in our bulletin: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” In the midst of the chaos of this world and the disappointments of our lives and the fear of the evils that lurk around us, the glory of God is here. It is in the ability of this community to live and to welcome others into a life in Christ. We are the home of God. The kingdom of God is in us. Indeed, we are all of us saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too. AMEN.