Imagining eternal life

Sunday after All Saints’ Day – November 4, 2018 – Song of Solomon 3:1-9; Revelation 21:1-6a – Trinity Church, Winchester, TN

“Give us grace so to follow your blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.” So says today’s collect. 

At Tuesday’s Bible study Geraldine asked, “Don’t you just love the word “ineffable?’”

Ineffable. Too great to be expressed in human words. More than magnificent. Surpassing sublime. Ineffable. 

That’s what the kingdom of heaven is. Ineffable. 

This portion of the collect is the petition and the reason–what we ask for and why we ask for it. It’s the meat of the thing: give us grace to follow the example of your saints already in glory, so that we may come to know that glory, too. That ineffable glory. That glory beyond description. That glory which we know not now, but which we hope for with with every fiber of our being. 

The feast of All Saints’ reminds us that this time of year is not about hiding from the reality of death, it is about embracing the hope of enteral life and the ineffable joy that awaits us all.  

Today we remember those whom the Church has set apart as particularly shining examples of life in Christ–our Saints. Apostles: Peter, James, John, and Bartholomew. Martyrs: Stephen, Paul, and Cyprian. Evangelists: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Even modern-day prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. They offered their lives as a sacrifice to show us what Godly living looks like, some even unto the point of death. As we sang, “These, like priests, have watched and waited, offering up to Christ their will, soul and body consecrated, day and night they serve him still.” 

All Souls’ Day, November 2nd, is traditionally the day set aside to remember all of the faithful departed: each and every Christian who has gone to glory. Often, we conflate the two days. We tend to remember everyone who has gone before us, our mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, on All Saints’.  Although that’s not technically the traditional intention, it’s not all bad. I’m certainly not trying to put parameters on who you remember today. After all, there is no hierarchy in heaven. 

The enteral life we celebrate on November 1st is the same eternal life we celebrate on November 2nd. Today, the Sunday after both of these important days, we gather to rejoice in the life of ineffable joy for which we all hope.

At least, I hope we hope for it. 

Sometimes, though, I think we are embarrassed of our Christian hope. Sometimes we make up excuses and invent distractions so that we can avoid hoping. This time of year, when we are reminded of death and dying, we tend play dress up instead of actually dealing with those hard realities. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fine to inject good humor into our lives–to pass out candy, put on a costume, or wear a mask. But we must be careful that whatever mask we wear–whether it’s Frankenstein or Richard Nixon–is not an attempt to disguise our mortality.

Our hope is often fragile, and never concrete, so sometimes we have to use our imagination to describe what it is we hope for. The authors of today’s scripture lessons are prime examples of this. 

The Song of Solomon says, “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God.” “…Their departure was thought to be disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” 

The prophet Isaiah, in the Old Testament option we did not read today, imagines this peace. He writes that on his mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all people a feast of rich food and well-aged wines.

I’ve heard people say that their number one vision of heaven is a banquet table. That makes sense, especially for Episcopalians who constantly gather at the table of the Lord, consuming bread and (not-so-well-aged) wine. 

Some of our best memories occur around the dinner table. Sunday afternoon with the whole family, or another weeknight, just you and a your spouse. Your guard is down, your mouth full of flavor, and your heart warm within you. That’s heaven alright. 

The author of the book of Revelation has a different vision for ineffable joy. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth . . . I saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . . and I heard a loud voice . . . saying . . . See, I am making all things new.” 

We know from history that the author of this book was living under Roman persecution. Perhaps his imagination was the only hope he had left. He knew there was a better life coming, so he tried to imagine what that would be like. This city will pass away, but the city of the Lord with come like a bride adorned for her husband. That’s heaven.

These are attempts to imagine ineffable joy.

Our tradition is filled with such imaginings, as well. In our sequence hymn today the saints in light are compared to stars who stand before God’s throne wearing crowns of gold. Is that what heaven will be like? Will we wear robes of purest whiteness, as the poet says? Or will heaven brighten like a golden evening where Saints like warriors finally find peace and rest? 

Well, we don’t know exactly, do we? It is beyond description. So, we use our imaginations. We imagine that which we cannot adequately describe but nonetheless know by promise.

This promise is perhaps best known to us through the covenant of our baptism. In just a few minutes we will renew our baptismal vows. This is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to doing Christ’s work in the world.

Our baptism is our initiation into a life of Christ, a life in which we are buried with Christ in his death, so that we can rise with him in eternal life. That eternal life is not conditional friends. Our baptism tells us that we have already entered into it. Eternal life begins at the font, not the grave. Even though we are not at rest, we are already participants in the life of Christ. So, let’s take a cue from our saints and act like it. 

What if people in our society used as much imagination envisioning the kingdom of God as they do planning their halloween costumes? 

And what if instead of denying death, we imagined eternal life? 

And what if our hope stretched beyond mortality? 

What if we imagined the glorious company prophets, apostles, and martyrs that awaits us?

What if our dreams were of saints and souls dwelling in “mystic sweet communion?”

What if what we know to be certain in this life, didn’t constrain our expectations of what is possible with God? 

What if our lives were infused with that kind of hope? 

What if we consider ineffable joy, an inevitable reality. 

What if? What if we did all those thing?

Well, then, I guess they’d call us Christians. Yes, they’d call us Christians.

Eve of Michael and All Angels

September 28, 2017 – Eve of Michael and All Angels – Genesis 28:10-17, Revelation 12:7-12, John 1:47-51

There is something poetic about angels. They are abstract, not easily explained, and depicted in myriad ways. We often cast them in the role of guardian, but even that is ambiguous. Maybe it means that God gives his angels charge over those who sleep. Or maybe it refers to those little white-clad creatures perched on the shoulder of your favorite sitcom character. I’ve even heard it said, “That woman must have had an angel with her to survive a car wreck like that.”

Perhaps when you hear “angel” you think of a quilt that your great aunt made or, God forbid, one of those “Precious Moments” figurines. The word is also used as a term of endearment. You have likely been called an “angel” by your lover or your grandmother.

On greeting cards, coffee mugs, or page-a-day calendars, angels are portrayed as cartoon characters, chubby little babies, and choir members. They represent the gentle, graceful, light, and airy. Even though depictions of angels are ubiquitous in popular culture, they remain somewhat of a theological mystery.

The poet Billy Collins points out that of all the questions you might have about angels, the only one you ever hear is, “How many can dance on the head of a pin?” Nobody ever asks how they pass the eternal time. Do they circle the Throne chanting in Latin? Or deliver crusts of bread to hermits on earth? Do they guide boys and girls across rickety wooden bridges? [1]

You and I know that they hasten to a tap on the roof of the car. What do they do in the meantime? Swing like children from the hinges of the spirit world? What about their sleeping habits, the fabric of their robes, or their diet of unfiltered divine light? [2] Collins is on to something. Angels may be a mystery, but they trigger our imagination.

Our interpretations of angels have always been fueled by imagination. Look at our tradition. Angels have been organized into a hierarchy: Seraphim, Cherubim, Thrones, Dominions, Virtues, Powers, Principalities, Archangels. In worship hosts of angels leap from brittle hymnal pages to the spring board of our tongues and then into the air where they briefly trip the light before gathering in throngs over the altar for the eucharistic prayer. Angels are important to our faith. Not because they are detectable by our senses, but because they feed our imaginations.

I’ve been pulling out my beard for two weeks trying to answer questions about angels. What are they? What do they do? What are they for? Where do they come from? I was seeking concrete answers instead of using my imagination. With cameras in our iPhones and Google Image results at our fingertips, we often forget to use our imagination, but angels remind us how.

Nathanael has no problem recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, but that doesn’t stop Jesus from giving him a little something to imagine, “You will see heaven opened and God’s angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” Such an image helps us imagine a God so beyond compare that his glory can only be depicted by thousands of heavenly attendants. “Glory to you Lord God of our fathers . . . glory to you seated between the cherubim.”

Sometimes during the Magnificat I imagine Gabriel illuminating the dark cave, his voice not quite as deep as you might think, informing Mary that she will bear a son. On Christmas Eve, I lean back in my pew and picture angels bringing good news of great joy: the flash of green light and the supernal noise, like no music on earth. During Lent I imagine the solace Jesus finds in angels attending him after his forty-day fast.

Imagine the relief Abraham felt when an angel appeared to him just in the knick of time and said, “Do not lay your hand on your son.” Imagine the apprehension Moses felt when an angel appeared to him in the burning bush. “Moses, the Lord has something to tell you.”

Angels ascending and descending a ladder to heaven are a sign to Jacob that God is with him. “I will keep you wherever you go.” Jacob went to sleep trying to escape, but woke up imagining a future with the God of his father.

The poor, persecuted author of Revelation practically has a Roman noose around his neck. He’s forlorn. He’s depleted. He’s angry. Imagination is his only refuge. He pictures a battle of epic proportions. Michael and his angel army crush Satan and upend the cosmic order. Angels are much more that ceramic dolls or kinds words. They are conduits for our imagination. Angels find us asleep in our humanity and wake us up so we can catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God.

There will be times when your prayer life suffers or when you visit the hospital that God’s glory will not be as apparent to you as it was to Nathanael, and you will need imagination to see the Kingdom of God.

There will be times when you are called an S.O.B. for doing what you think is right and you pray for an army of angels to overwhelm your accuser.

There will be times of declining church attendance when you can’t see God working in our life as clearly Abraham and Moses did.

There will be times of war, economic recession, and racist commentary when God’s promise does not feel as close to you as it did to Mary and the Shepherds.

There will be times when you need little imagination to see the Kingdom of God.

Take heart, angels are here to help. If you don’t believe me just remember: when you come to the garden expecting to tend to the dead, it’s an an angel who tells you to go back out and proclaim the one who lives.

[1] Billy Collins, Questions About Angels (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999), 25-26.

[2] Ibid.

I was also helped along in this effort by Sam Portaro’s book Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts, especially his reflection on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels.