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.

Any of them

Alfred the Great – October 26, 2017 – Wisdom 6:1-3, 9-12, 24-25; Luke 6:43-49

It’s hard to preach on our more legendary saints. It’s hard to know which parts of their stories are purely myth and which parts are not. Alfred is no exception.

It’s even harder to preach on a saint who is not named something like Luke, Andrew, or Thomas. It’s easier to explain apostles and evangelists. We know them through scripture that is sacred and inspired.

Alfred doesn’t have scripture. He has a Netflix series, but that doesn’t quite cut it.

Honestly, I get uncomfortable preparing to preach on saints like Alfred. I was once outside of this tradition. I thought, those people let their worship of saints get in the way of their worship of God. Nowadays, I know that’s not true. My faith has been enriched by a tradition filled with saints.

But somebody like Alfred? Really? He’s a king for crying out loud! How very Anglican it is to remember a monarch who revived the arts and promoted education.

But didn’t Jesus come for the poor? Wasn’t he born in a barn? Didn’t he ride on a donkey instead of a dazzling white horse? And wasn’t he constantly telling his disciples, “I’m not that kind of king, and this isn’t that type of kingdom.”

There is no hierarchy in heaven. So why celebrate a king?

The God that I worship casts down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. The God that I pray to fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty. The God of my ancestors challenges my assumptions.

What was dead is alive. What was old is new. What had fallen away has been restored. So, why don’t we remember the innkeeper, or the drummer boy, or the third century goatherd whose life did not have any meaning until he heard the story of Jesus?

Those kinds of folks exist too, right? So, why do celebrate a king?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s plenty to admire about Alfred. I have no doubt that if Jeremy Carlson met Alfred, he’d say, “Man, what a good dude.”

King Alfred kept his people safe. He promoted an educated clergy. He founded monastic communities and saw to it that classic theological works were translated into English.

The Book of Wisdom tells us that a king who listens to the Lord will profit and be the stability of the people. By all accounts, Alfred was a devoted, Jesus-loving churchman. Jesus tells us that only good trees bear good fruit. Alfred certainly fits the bill. That’s why we remember him.

But perhaps Alfred is just history’s low-hanging [good] fruit. There were others: soldiers, footmen, cooks, dish washers. Teachers, postal workers, custodians, and bus drivers.

It’s important to remember that we don’t come tonight to celebrate King Alfred. We come to celebrate God. We’re not glorifying Alfred. We’re commemorating what Alfred did to glorify God. And what we all can do to glorify God.

We hear about Alfred, not because he was a king, but because he’s a good example of life in Christ.

His good works were inspired by his faith in God. He bore good fruit because he treasured God in his heart. He built his house on a solid foundation of rock because he listened to Jesus.

So tonight, for good reason, we’ve got Alfred. But don’t look at Alfred to see God. Look at Alfred’s example to see yourself, not as a king, but as a person who seeks to do God’s will.

I saw a church sign the other day. It said, “There are no saints in church, only forgiven sinners.” I thought to myself—well, what do they think saints are?

Alfred was one of God’s own. A sinner like you. A sinner like me. And a sinner just like the goatherds, innkeepers, cooks, footmen, and dish washers. Just like the teachers, postal workers, custodians, and bus drivers.

Any of them can show you how to glorify God.

There is a former president who builds houses for the people who need them most. And there is also an old sunburnt mailman living pension check to pension check and still tithes ten percent to the church.

There is a university president who gives a third of her income to student scholarships. And there is a custodian who volunteers to sit up all night at the homeless shelter.

There is a billionaire CEO who leaves all of his money to charity and there is a destitute desk clerk who leaves all of his money to charity.

There is a movie star advocates against human trafficking, and there is a gardener who works overtime just to be able to feed the kids.

There is a professional athlete who coaches the special olympics, and there is a single mom who coaches inner-city youth.

There is a high-powered attorney who does pro-bono work for illegal immigrants, and there is a public defender who stands up for the most heinous offenders.

The same God who defies our expectations, who says that the last shall be first and the first shall be last…The same God who scatters the proud in their conceit…The same God who brought again Jesus Christ from the dead…That same God is telling us that we can learn from any of them.

Even a king.