Between Time and Eternity

All Saints Sunday Message
Rev. Scott Summerville
Revelation 7:9-17

7:9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.

7:10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God,

7:12 singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”

7:14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

7:15 For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.

7:16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;

7:17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

Wow!

In the book of Revelation, the last book in our Bible, there is never a dull moment. The book of Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse, is the most puzzling book in the bible. This book refers to strange beasts and mystical numbers, the throne of God and the river of life, human choirs and choirs of angels, the fiery pit and the blood of the Lamb. Much of the book of Revelation is not edifying, that is to say, it does not provide clear and meaningful instruction to believers today.

Martin Luther – the guy who kicked off the Protestant Reformation – did not care one bit for the book of Revelation. He said, “It reveals nothing.”

But there is a reason that this book is so hard to make sense of: the book of Revelation was written in a time when Christians were experiencing persecution. The writer of this letter tells us that his name is John – not to be confused with the writer of the gospel of John. John had to be very careful; there were things he could not say openly, so he wrote in symbolic and imaginative language. This makes it very difficult to interpret this writing for our own time, which is why I very seldom preach from this book of the Bible.

In today’s passage John has a vision of heaven. One thing that is clear in this book is that in John’s imagination heaven is a place where human divisions fall away: “Around the throne of God is a multitude too vast to be counted of human beings from every nation, tribe, peoples and languages.” When you think of the word, heaven, what image comes to your mind? Do you see choirs of angels and multitudes of saints in their white robes singing, “Glory! glory!” surrounding the throne of God, or is your image of heaven a more personal encounter with a loved one? Do you imagine heaven as a place of stillness; or are you musically minded, and is your vision of heaven a place where orchestras and jazz bands are banging out tunes?

Naturally we have many different ways of imagining heaven, but in every Christian conception of heaven there are people from all the corners of the earth, and the distinctions that we make so much of here – wealth and status, of gender and ethnicity, and all the other ways we divide ourselves – these divisions cease to matter there.

As we read the names of loved ones today, we will hear names that come from many places on the earth. There are names with origins in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. This church is a living community with family roots all over the world, and the names that we read reflect the diversity of our origins. A very wise older member of this congregation said to me, “Some people miss the good old days of our church, but I’m glad to be living now. In the old days, everybody looked like me. It’s much more interesting now.”

In recent years this congregation went through what we called a “discernment process,” Out of the time of exploration came the Welcoming Statement you see in our Sunday bulletins. We welcome all who enter here of every race, gender, culture, nationality, sexual orientation or gender identity, economic circumstance, age, physical and mental ability, family and marital status. The welcome extended here is meant to be a reflection of God’s welcome and a reflection of the heavenly gathering where the things that divide us now divide us no longer.

Every Sunday we pray the prayer Jesus taught, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus’ message is not simply about getting to heaven; it is about ordering our human life and our relationships in such a way that the kingdom of heaven becomes real here and now.

Today we are stretched between time and eternity. In the framework of human time and history, we are two days away from a momentous national election, set in the context of global crisis and war. History will be made in this week. It is exciting and scary to be living in such times.

We feel the urgency of the great issues that face us as a nation and as a world. Some members of this church have experienced directly the agony of war. All of us are feeling in some way effects of the current economic crisis. Increasingly I hear people tell of significant effects of the economic crisis on their lives: loss of jobs, reduction of income, loss of savings. In such a time those of us who do have jobs and health benefits and money in the bank, need to dig deeper and share more of our resources in the church and in the community.

In this historic week, in this historic time, we come here today in some sense to step outside of time. We remember those loved ones who long ago or perhaps a short time ago were immersed as we are in all of life’s challenges, worrying about family and work and money and health and politics. Then for them those worries ceased. We read their names; we share mementos of them; and we ache inside as we face that mysterious boundary, that chasm that separates the living and the dead.

Before we plunge back into all the things of life that are pressing upon us; before we leave here today to encounter the high drama of this week to come, we come together to remember those we love but see no more.

Even in the midst of all the crises and challenges and struggles of our life in this moment, we pause to acknowledge and to contemplate that which lies beyond this life and this moment and this Earth. We gather here in between time and eternity, to give thanks to God for the inexpressible gift of love and friendship and the bonds of family and the bonds of affection that join us together in Christ.

In the long list of names we read there is a chronicle of extraordinary loss: how can we begin to comprehend so much life that once was with us and part of us and now is gone from us? How can we begin to comprehend this loss?

We cannot comprehend it, but above and beyond this loss is an incomprehensible quantity of love, love that is not lost, love that is not forgotten, love that unites us still with those we have lost and through God unites us with the saints of every time and place. So, more than anything else, this is a day of thankfulness for all the love we have ever known and all the love we have, and this is day to remember that there is even greater love to come.

Thanks be to God.

Grace and peace to you.

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