Editor’s note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was preached at the Memphis Theological Seminary Chapel on Nov. 2, 2011.
Revelation 7:9-17; Matthew 5:1-12
Night before last, we had quite a crowd on our front porch. You should have seen it. We had ghosts in white sheets floating up the steps. Devils with horns and pitchforks stomping through the flower beds. Skeletons dripping blood out of the sides of their mouths. Werewolves howling.
It was awful. There were witches and wizards. A couple of supermen who were clinging to their mommas’ pants legs with all that ghoulishness going on around them. Cinderella looked a little overpowered, too. The night belonged to Frankenstein in chains and the grim reaper, who demanded candy or else. Shoot, I was scared half to death.
But then I calmed down a little bit, watched all that stuff, and I started thinking to myself, “Hey, this looks and sounds a lot like the book of Revelation. This stuff is straight out of the Bible.”
I mean it. A lot of them had on white robes. Some were wearing crowns. There were beasts and a couple of angels. I didn’t see any lambs, but there was a T. rex. Lions. Bears. Eagles. Flashes of lightning and peals of thunder were going off up and down the street. Flaming torches. Bloody moons. Dragons with horns and a two-headed monster.
It was all there. Characters straight out of the Revelation to John on my front porch.
That’s what these days are all about, see. These days of Halloween, All Saints’ and All Souls’ Day. In Latin America, November 2 is known as the Day of the Dead, Dia de los Muertos.
Christians come out en masse on these days to dance upon the graves. To shake our collective fists at death, laugh in death’s macabre face and say, “You can howl at the moon if you want to, but we worship the risen Son. And he has already put you in your place among the tombstones and darkness. So you might scare us, but you will not defeat us.”
So don’t cancel All Hallows Eve, All Saints’ Day or the Day of the Dead. Let the little devils come. They remind us of who is in charge of life and death. They help us see God’s revelation.
There is this line between life and death, you know. A thin line. Most of us live as if it isn’t really there until we are confronted by it through the death of a loved one, the horror of a tragic accident, violence, brutality or war. The Roman Catholics and the Orthodox have a stronger sense of the thin veil than we rational Protestants. They never quit praying to the departed saints, because in a very real sense, in Christ, these saints are always with us. But we’re coming around, the Protestants. John the Revelator helps us to see it.
In his stunning apocalyptic vision, John blurs the lines between the daily grind and the evermore. He draws the future of God into the present of our lives. He brings heaven to earth and shows us how things really are in God’s world, not the way we have come to think they are.
Some folks know who these are robed in white around the throne in the seventh chapter of Revelation.
Like Nathan at St. Paul United Methodist Church in Atlanta, where my wife, Mary Leslie, and I were co-ministers for nine years. Nathan cleaned the church sanctuary every Saturday evening so that it would be ready for worship on Sunday mornings. One Saturday evening, I went to the sanctuary to collect the Bible that I had left there the previous Sunday. But just before I entered the sanctuary, I heard Nathan’s voice coming from inside. He seemed to be having a conversation, but I could not hear anyone else talking. I peeked into the sanctuary and saw Nathan working away and talking out loud -- to no one. I thought about leaving but decided I really needed the Bible, so I eased on into the worship space while coughing to signal my presence. Nathan looked up.
“Oh hi, Reverend,” he said. “Hello, Nathan,” I said. “Just came by to get my Bible. Heard you talking in here.” “That’s right,” Nathan said. “Uh, Nathan, who were you talking to?” I asked tentatively. “Oh, that,” Nathan said. “I was talking to the ghosts.” At which point, I am sure, Nathan registered my readiness to make a quick exit. “But don’t worry, Reverend,” he chuckled as he attempted to calm me down. “They’re good ghosts. They’re the saints of St. Paul.” The good ghosts. Some folks know who these are robed in white around the throne.
We are surrounded, you see, as the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews says, by a great cloud of witnesses. They are all around us, cheering us on. But their cheers are not simply for us to be good little witches and ghosts and not eat too much candy, or to be sure to say, “Thank you, ma’am.”
No, these saints, these dearly departed ones, they are urging us on to run the race of faith as those who understand the stakes. They are the ones who have passed through the great ordeal, the trials and tribulations of living a Christ-centered life that costs something. They are the ones who have been transformed by sharing in the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
They are those faithful saints saying to us, “Listen, and take to heart the way of Jesus, who says,
‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
‘Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
‘Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.’”
You see, for those late-first-century and early-second-century Christians, it’s not that John the Revelator was offering pie in the sky by and by. Yes, he was extending the hope of glory. But even more, he was offering hope for the here and now.
Hope for those marginalized, impoverished, weak and starving communities that Rome, the T. rex of the world, was gobbling up. And John is saying, in this fantastic vision of a new earth and heaven, with all the tribes on the face of the earth gathered around the throne, John is saying, “Take heart. Be of good courage. That wild thing death -- that thing running around your porches, slipping under your bed at night, hanging out in your hospitals, tormenting your cities, wrecking this good earth -- that thing death, Jesus has already put a stake through his heart. We call that stake the cross. All that blood, all that has been made as pure as the driven snow.”
The saints remind us, you see, that we live on the other side of death. As theologian Dorothee Soelle puts it, Christians are those whose death is already behind them. We are free to live in the victory scene of Revelation 7, because death cannot touch us, not really.
Oh, it rears its ugly head all the time. Cancer, Alzheimer’s, domestic violence, hunger in this very city and in all parts of the globe, the insanity of war. I’m not saying death has given up. I’m just saying that John the Revelator is saying, that Paul the evangelist is saying, that Jesus the Christ is saying, the last enemy to be defeated is death, and he’s already down for the count.
So we can live free from the gripping fear of all that ghastliness, because we know the real story. We live how we live and do what we do, as Kimberly Bracken Long says, “because the world envisioned by Scripture is the real world. The real world is not the one of suffering, and pain, and death. That world has been swallowed up in victory -- the victory of Jesus Christ.”
So as we worship and live today, we can pray to God for all the saints, those living and dead from this earthly life, that their witness to Christ might embolden our witness to be the true church in these troubled times. A church that draws near to the poor, the hungry, the refugee, the imprisoned, the unemployed and the underemployed, and says, “Take, eat; this is my body, full of good news, my cup, full to overflowing.” And we can ask those saints to labor on for us.
I heard Saint Andrew Young (longtime leader with MLK Jr. of the civil rights movement, former mayor of Atlanta and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) pray many years ago at the funeral of Saint John Wood, a longtime leader in the ecumenical movement, from New York to Atlanta, a tireless advocate for social justice on a local, national and international scale. A Christian whose life was a shining reflection of the good news that God loves every last one of us.
Andy Young prayed, “Do not let him rest. Do not give him peace. We need his tireless efforts on behalf of the rest of us. We need his gentle but relentless agitation. His fearlessness in the face of corrupted power. His hope in the midst of despair. Do not let him rest, O God, until your heaven meets earth.”
Until we all hunger no more, and thirst no more, and the sun will not strike us, nor any scorching heat.
Pray like that, my brothers and sisters, for all the saints. And know that your prayers are being heard by the Lamb at the center of the throne, who will be your shepherd, and who will guide you to springs of the water of life, and wipe away every tear from your eyes.
Pray like that for all the saints.