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.

There is a promise

The 17th Sunday After Pentecost – October 1, 2017 – Matthew 21:23-32

I preached this sermon at St. John’s parish in Decatur, AL where I am doing field work in preparation for graduation and ordination. You can listen to me preach this sermon by clicking here.

Today’s gospel comes from the beginning of the Holy Week narrative. Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey, throws the money changers out of the temple, and struggles to convince the chief persist and elders that his authority comes from God.

“What do you think? he asks, “A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” His audience answers, “The first.”

The answer is obvious. That’s the only thing they can say. The first son doesn’t want to work, but he changes his mind and does what his father asks. The other son just flat out lied. It’s not quite that simple, is it?

We really want to root for the first son, but we tend to overlook is that his words matter, too. A story about a son who said no to his father would have shocked Jesus’ listeners. Even if he did change his mind! It simply was not done.

The priests and elders are in a bind. Jesus asks them a rather simple question for which there was no easy answer. Neither son did the will of his father. One says no—a big slap in the face! The other says yes, but he lies. Both sons disobey their father.

We all understand this. Once my father asked my sister to cut the grass. She said, “No.” That did not go well for her. (But let me tell you, the grass got cut.) Once I lied to my dad about feeding the dog. He found out. (And let me tell you, the dog got fed.) Sometimes we screw up because we give the wrong response. Sometimes we screw up because we lie.

Many people through the centuries have read this parable as an allegory describing God’s chosen people. The first son represents the Gentiles—those in Israel who came to believe in the Messiah though they did not at first. The second son represents the Jews—those who knew they should believe, but don’t.

It’s not hard to see why it would be read that way. Instead of hearing this story as an allegory let’s hear it more strait-forwardly as a parable.

It is not about which group we fall into. It is not about prejudicing one group over the other. It is about realizing that everyone gets it wrong sometimes—no matter who they are or what group they belong to.

On a recent trip to the Holy Land I learned about the political strife of the Israeli territory. Some Israeli citizens forcibly annex Palestinian land because they believe it belongs to them. Their actions are often violent and illegal. Some unfairly treated Palestinians retaliate by killing Israeli soldiers. Soldiers who in turn gun down Palestinian teenagers in the street. None of this is okay.

There is right and wrong in the world, and as Christians we are called to name it. It is our Christian duty to denounce hate, injustice, and oppression whether it’s in Charlottesville or Sewanee or Decatur.

It’s just easier when other people are doing it. But what happens when sin creeps a little closer to home?

What about those things we do in our daily lives that contribute to the tragedy of the world? What about the pounds and pounds of food we waste every week? What about the recyclables we throw away? What about the clothing we buy that was made by children in sweat shops?

What happens when we find ourselves getting angry when we listen to the evening news? Sometimes I hear stories about neo-Nazis and wonder if I haven’t become one myself. I’ve even said stupid things like, “They should all just be taken out back and shot.” We all get it wrong sometimes.

It’s easy to think others are in need of grace, but it’s harder to admit when we are. But there’s hope. Listen closely to Jesus. “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”

This is not damnation. This is a wake-up call.

Jesus does not say that the tax collectors and prostitutes will go instead of you. He says they will go before you. They will be there when you get there. And they will stay there alongside of you.

In this parable Jesus challenges us to understand that there is hope for all who sin, including you, including me.

Friends, it’s hard to fathom. If you are the one in the wrong, is there a chance for you? A chance?! There’s a promise for you! If you are the one in the right, is there a chance for the one who wronged you? A chance? There is a promise.

This is hard for us because we have been conditioned to believe that for us to be included somebody else has to be excluded. We expect that there are some who are too far removed to ever be included. Sometimes we might even feel that we are the one who is too far gone.

Let’s get really clear about what Jesus said. “Truly, I tell you, those who repent of their violent and illegal actions will go into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

“Truly, I tell you, those who repent of their desire to condemn others will go into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

“Truly, I tell you, those who repent of their wasteful and unethical habits will go into the Kingdom of God ahead of you.”

There was a young woman who was away at college. She fell on hard times, dropped out,and started selling her body just to survive. She was drug addicted and living in the gutter. You don’t even want to know what her parents thought when they found out. You don’t even want to know the words that came out of their mouths. I bet you can guess.

They said, “You are never welcome in our house. You are never welcome at our table. We do not even know you.”

The good news is that God knows her. The good news is that God knows her parents. The good news is that God knows you and God knows me.

There is a table for her. There is a table for her parents. There is a table for you. There is a table for me.

Thank God there is a table for all.