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Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34:1-10, 22; 1 John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12 Bigfork Community United Methodist Church November 1, 2020
It is All Saints Day, a day when we are called to give thanks for those who have come…and…served and gone on before us. They show us the way to live and serve, not just one who is greater than they are, but the greatest one of all time.
It began as a celebration of the lives of the martyrs of the church. While we may think that belief in God and Christ and the Holy Spirit is a way to live a good life…a way to assure that the meaning of our lives will be everlasting…we forget or overlook the hardships that the early church risked and suffered to pass the story of the Christ forward from one generation to the next.
The stories of the early saints were told of great women and men who “washed their robes in the blood of the lamb,” a phrase that John’s Book of Revelations lifts up for us today.
People have long understood that those who suffer and die for doing good things, sharing healing words and seeking a better life for all people…are remembered in a special…even holy…way.
We want to think that those days have passed, but sectarian strife is still alive and well and flourishing everywhere people feel hunger or want or injustice and want to find someone to blame for it.
France has suffered three brutal terrorist attacks since September. There was an attack in Quebec City last night. Dissident leaders in Russia are poisoned…or simply disappear.
One of my classmates at Course of Study in Washington, D.C. was an Egyptian Christian who finally moved to the United States after he and his family received repeated death threats because of his faith.
It has happened since the earliest days of human history. It still happens. We may never stamp it out…but we cannot give in to it.
So it is even more important for us to pause and give thanks for those who have made our lives better, and for those who have picked up the story of Jesus in childhood and have carried it forward to a day we could hear it.
The saints serve in prominent positions and in the background. They are giants of the faith and people who sacrifice their time to serve on local church committees.
They are rich and poor, old and young, men and women, powerful and weak. We overlook them, take them for granted and criticize them harshly… until they are attacked for trying to do the good they can.
Then we can finally see what they have done for the church…and for us…and we give thanks for them.
We have to read about Abraham Lincoln in some depth before we gain a decent appreciation for how much he was reviled in his lifetime. It is hard to think of a President that was more hated in his day.
But then, just three days after Lee surrendered to Grant…he was shot by someone who attacked him from behind in the presence of his wife.
Only then was the nation able to see not just a man from the wilderness in the west, but someone who had saved the Union, freed the slaves… and who had spoken some of the clearest, simplest and most powerful words about freedom and democracy that the world has ever heard.
Maybe most of us can remember how greatly we venerated the life of President Kennedy after he was shot. We didn’t know what we had in him until he was gone.
And then there was the day the world felt sympathy for the people of the United States after the attacks on September 11, 2001.
This sudden change of views about those who come out of great hardship is what John refers to as washing our robes in the blood of the lamb.
This change is probably as much of a surprise to those who change their minds so swiftly…as it is to those who are honored after a long, lonely travail.
It is not so much a matter of forgiving them or forgetting the ways we have been offended or slighted by them…or disagreed with them. It is more a matter of putting those things in the proper context.
We are here for only a little while. The world waited for a long time for us to get here, and it is going to be without us even longer. Why do we spend time in anger or jealousy?
We are all prone to do this. We are human. It is only when we step through the looking glass to see things in the long view…in a transcendent way, as John has today, that we understand how great a gift each life is to the world and how great a gift each day and everyone we meet is to our life.
Mark Twain wrote about this kind of an epiphany in Tom Sawyer. Tom and Huck Finn and a friend run away, “borrow” a raft and go out to an island in the Mississippi and spend the night. They have run away from home…for a while.
The next afternoon they here a cannon fired in the town and realize people are looking for someone who has drowned. Then they realize everyone thinks they have drowned.
They go to their own funeral and hide in the gallery and hear everyone who ever knew them admit that they were too harsh with the boys and they sure wish they had it to do all over again.
The clergyman “drew such pictures of the graces, the winning ways and the rare promise of the lost lads, that every soul there, thinking he recognized these pictures, felt a pang in remembering that he had persistently blinded himself to them, always before, and had as persistently seen only faults and flaws in the poor boys.
“The minister related many a touching incident in the lives of the departed, too, which illustrated their sweet, generous natures, and the people could easily see, now, how noble and beautiful these episodes were, and remembered with grief that at the time they occurred they had seemed rank rascalities, deserving of the cowhide.”
This is when the boys decided to come down from the gallery and walk into the church to receive a greeting they would never have received if they hadn’t run away, stolen a raft and hid out for a night on Jackson’s Island.
While they realize, at last, how dearly they are loved, I suspect that their love for the mourners grew at the same pace…to the same degree.
Because of the civilization that has been built by all of those who have gone before us, we have so many stories of so many great people…and so many ordinary people…who have done great things.
Maybe this helps us see the same great stories in the lives of the people who have…at crucial points in our lives…given exactly what was needed to deliver us to this amazing time and place.
By taking time to give thanks for other lives that have touched ours, we can deepen our appreciation for the gift of days we have received. This is true of good days and bad, happy moments and sad.
It is this multi-generational perspective…this grasping of what a precious gift we hold in our hands today…gives us hope and peace to face whatever it is that needs our attention today. We need hope to get started and we need peace to see us through to the end.
I remember the first day I held my grandson, Oliver. He was born on Mother’s Day. We sang only first and last verses of our hymns that Sunday. I got to the hospital a little after he was born. Everyone else got to hold him but then he was tired, so I waited until the next morning when I stopped in on the way to work.
There was such a feeling of energy swirling through me as I pressed him under my chin. I could feel him getting bigger and littler as he breathed.
It was my 62nd birthday. That moment was the best present I got that year, by far. I knew how precious he was and he reminded me how precious my life had been.
Does it get easier? I think it gets more interesting. Jesus tells us this morning that the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the merciful and peacemakers are all blessed.
We grow into an understanding that every day is a gift from God. We find the grace that has always been in our hearts to be thankful for the life of another…and for every day we have walked above the sod.
Step into this space. Hold a small child in your arms. Remember how someone held you lovingly once.
Think back about how you might have responded more lovingly in a difficult situation…and how you might have another chance to do so today…or tomorrow…or some day.
We read in the First Letter of John this morning that “now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. We know that when he appears we will be like him because we will see him as he is.
All that we have done is part of who we are. What we do going forward is another part. But the best part is that we can stand here now and see how important…how world-changing…everything we do and every word we speak.
Those everyday people we knew when we were young or met along the way or have just come to know now…were and are world-changers.
And so were…and are…we.
All who hope to see Christ clearly one day purify themselves even as he is pure. May we one day find ourselves singing – without masks – in that faithful chorus.
O Lord, what is it that you want to accomplish in the world through us …through me…today? Amen.