All-Saints A: Thin Places

This Sunday we are using the Lectionary readings for All-Saints so that means that we are actually “skipping” the readings for Proper 27A this year.  The Feast of All Saints is one of the major festivals of the church. In our United Methodist tradition, while we have specific readings for this day, they do change between the lectionary years (A, B, & C)  All-Saints Day (actually dated November 1st), probably dates back as far as 373, when the festival was mentioned in the writings of Ephrem Syrus.  The original emphasis was to honor the saints and martyrs who had no specific commemoration day.  As the festival transitioned to Protestantism (who obviously do not have the plethora of saints of our Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters), it became a time of remembrance of those who had passed away in the last year. 

cliffs051FIRST READINGRevelation 7: 9-17
The Book of Revelation, which, despite its name, is the most veiled text of all in the Bible, makes great demands on those who read or hear it.  There is usually a temptation to move too quickly to interpret or translate its imagery into something that is more accessible and more easily understood.  To attempt to “decode” Revelation, as if it were Morse code, fails to take the medium that way it was given.  This is not a narrative.  It is not prophecy.  It offers instead a new view of reality.  Those with whom the Revelation was originally shared were much more comfortable with it and the mystery that it holds than we are.  There was not such a need to “prove” or to “figure out” every detailed meaning.  They were satisfied, rather, with the idea that God has been throughout history and will continue to be and that God has a greater vision of what is to come than any one of us can even attempt to imagine.  Isn’t that enough?
Albrecht Bengel was an eighteenth-century commentator, wrote this about Revelation: 
The whole structure of it breathes the art of God, comprising in the most finished compendium, things to come, many, various; near, intermediate, remote; the greatest, the least; terrible, comfortable; old, new; long, short; and these interwoven together, opposite, composite; relative to each other at a small, at a great distance; and therefore sometimes as it were disappearing, broken off, suspended, and afterwards unexpectedly and most seasonably appearing again.  In all its parts it has an admirable variety, with the most exact harmony, beautifully illustrated by those digressions which seem to interrupt it.  In this manner does it display the manifold wisdom of God shining in the economy of the church through so many ages.
In verse 4 (prior to this reading), the writer speaks of 144,000 from the children of Israel who are sealed.  (Just as an aside, this is where the traditions such as The Jehovah’s Witnesses get their number and their notion of “sealing”. But the number is thought to possibly refer to the twelve tribes of Israel times twelve times 1,000.  It connotes an infinite number.)  So, this is a much larger group, a great multitude.  They are identified and distinguished by their relationship with the Lamb.  Clothed in white, they hold palm branches (a symbol of victory) and they sing of salvation.  God is described as “hovering over them”, where God tabernacles and envelopes the people, as the Spirit hovers over Jesus at his baptism.  They are protected with a new freedom from hunger and thirst and the heat of the sun.  (Isaiah 25:8 is fulfilled)  Now this inclusive vision of the eschaton (the end) was a challenge to many late first century believers (when this was probably written) and it continues to be a challenge to many of us.  But these are meant to be words of encouragement.  They are meant to remind us of the ever-present God who walks with us through whatever comes and walks with us to whatever is waiting for us later in our journey.   And who knows?  God has surprised us with who has shown up at the banquet before!
The graciousness of God is evident.  The passage injects a theme of tenderness and comfort, and God’s sustaining promise of enduring witness to Christ in the midst of death and destruction.  The inclusiveness of the vision is striking (which is why it is used as a lection for All Saints Day.)  The multitude includes Jews and all those who have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb, thereby identifying themselves with the way of the Lamb.
For us, our struggle with Revelation probably has more to do with the fact that we are trying to “figure it out”.  It’s probably meant to be symbolic metaphor and as metaphor it is contingent upon the context in which it was written.  We do not live in the late first century.  Even those of us who are well-versed historians can not appreciate the nuances that existed politically, emotionally, and even spiritually during that time for those who were living it.  We have never met John of Patmos, or whoever the writer was.  It’s a mystery.  But in that mystery, in these things that we do not understand, that do not make sense to us, we might have the gift of ever-so-slightly brushing up against the holy and the sacred and experience even a momentary glimpse of what is to come.  That’s all it is.  And whatever happens between now and when whatever is to come is revealed to us, the Book of Revelation tells us that God walks with us.  The Ancient Celts would have called it a “thin place”, a place where the distance between now and what is to come, between our “earth” and “heaven”, between the ordinary and the sacred becomes so thin that one can almost see through it; indeed, that it is only thinly veiled.  It is those times when one realizes that he or she is indeed on holy ground and that eternity stretches before us. Now we just need to not worry so much about figuring it out and get on with the journey!
Where is God in this picture?  God is all over the place.  God is up there, down here, inside my skin and out, God is the web, the energy, the space, the light—not captured in them, as if any of those concepts were more real than what unites them—but revealed in that singular and vast net of relationship that animates everything that is.  God is the web, the connection, the glue, the air between the molecules…As of God’s plan?  You know, whether God has a file I can break into and find out what I should be doing ten years from now?  The more I learn about chaos theory, the more I favor the concept of life with God as a dance instead of a blueprint.  God makes a move, humankind makes a move, then humankind makes a moved based on God’s move.  (From “Waltzing With the God of Chaos”, by Barbara Brown Taylor, in The Life of Meaning:  Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World, ed. by Bob Abernethy and William Bole, p. 47, 48)
a.      What does this passage mean for you?
b.      What image of God does this reading leave for you?
c.       What does the holy and the sacred mean to you?
d.      What are those “thin places” in your life?
NEW TESTAMENT:  1 John 3: 1-3
John Wesley said of the First Epistle of John, “How plain, how full, and how deep a compendium of genuine Christianity!”  Very little can be said with great confidence about the author of these three letters.  The First Epistle of John is written anonymously.  There is some similarity between these epistles and The Gospel According to John, but some point out that it lacks evidence of Semitic style characteristic of the Gospel and appears more “Greek” or Hellenistic in nature.  While most agree that 2 and 3 John are actually letters, the First Epistle of John is not as clear.  They really don’t know how to classify it.  It may even be some sort of commentary on the Gospel According to John itself.
The third chapter is part of a continuous expression of confidence in Christ’s coming.  It expresses a kinship in Christ, a relationship to God.  It encourages a present endurance as preparation for the future and a calling to become perfect in Christ.  There is clear evidence of God’s grace, bestowed freely and undeserved.  And, again, there is the reminder that we do not know everything about God, that we CANNOT know everything about God.  (I mean, really, would you want to?  Where would that leave God then?  Where would that leave our faith?)
There exists in this passage the notion that God’s presence and God’s love is both present and future, already realized and not yet revealed.  So which is it?  Yes…that is the point.  This is the Alpha and the Omega and everything in between.  It is the love that we know now and the love into which we are growing.  Again, don’t try to figure out which it is.  Just live it and live into it.  It has to do with who we are AND what we will be.  Those are not separate things.  In this passage, the writer reminds us that we are God’s children now and always.  God loves us and God wants to be with us.  The earth is God’s family.  We are all God’s children.  We are all growing into what we were created to be—the very image of God—pure and loving and holy.  And when we see that Love in which we were created and in which we live, then it all comes together.  THIS is the sacredness and the holy.  THIS is that wonderful “thin place” where we can see things the way they are meant to be seen.
a.      What does this passage mean for you?
b.      What does it say to you about that becoming perfect in Christ?
c.       So what are we called to know about God?
GOSPEL:  Matthew 5: 1-12
Well, this is the only Scripture this week that we have even a remote idea who the author is!  Most scholars agree that the core of what is known as the Beatitudes goes back to Jesus.  It is essentially a reversal of the usual value system that was in place in the first century.  The Beatitude was present in the Jewish tradition as a form of proclamation found in wisdom and prophetic writings.  They declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act.  Here, the opposite of “blessed” is not unhappy but cursed.
One thing to note is that the form of these Beatitudes use two verbs:  are and will.  Each beatitude begins in the present and moves to future tense.  They are, then expressions of what is already true in the Christian community not, necessarily, for individuals, but in community.  The move to the future tense indicates that the life of the kingdom must wait for ultimate validation until God finishes the new creation.  There is a resistance, then, against Christianity as a philosophy of life that would make one healthy, wealthy, and wise.  It is not a scheme to reduce stress, lose weight, advance one’s career, make one financially successful, or preserve one from illness.  It is, rather, a way of living based on the sure and firm hope that one walks in the way of God and that righteousness and peace will finally prevail.
In Year C of the Lectionary (which we looked at last year), the Lukan version of the Beatitudes are used. There are several differences in the two versions.  In Matthew (the more familiar one), there are nine beatitudes; in Luke, there are four.  The Matthean beatitudes are spoken from a mountain, probably since, as one writing to the Jewish community, this would depict that it was something important.  (Reminiscent of Moses on Mt. Sinai.)  The version told by the writer of Luke is spoken from a “level place” (sometimes called the Sermon on the Plain.  Matthew’s beatitudes are spoken to a “crowd”.  When Jesus speaks in the Lucan version, he speaks specifically to his disciples.  Matthew’s version has no corresponding “woes”.  In Luke, there are four “woes” corresponding to four “blessings”. 
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:  Humanly speaking, we could understand and interpret the Sermon on the Mount in a thousand different ways.  Jesus knows only one possibility:  simple surrender and obedience, not interpreting it or applying it, but doing and obeying it.  That is the only way to hear his word.  He does not mean that it is to be discussed as an ideal; he really means us to get on with it.
We read this in this week of All-Saints Sunday because it is about that New Creation that God has shown us.  It is a Creation that, again, is both already and not yet.  It has already begun and we are called to its work (to, as Bonhoeffer said, “get on with it”).  It is different from the things of this life—a Holy Reversal, of sorts.  And there is a future tense to it.  We walk in hope.  Blessing is just up ahead.  But blessing here is not meant to be something that we get as a reward for doing all these things.  As you know, God is much more nuanced than that.  It’s, rather, undeserved, unmerited.  Blessing is grace.  This is not God dangling some sort of treat in front of us to make sure that we run the right traps.  This is God revealing a vision of what will be—a life of comfort, abundance, mercy, and God’s ever-abiding Presence.  It’s what is here for us now and what we will always have.  We just have to learn to see things in a different way.  Once again, it’s about paradox.  We read it and we think we have it figured out.  In this world, “blessed” often means having wealth, or security, or ease of life.  It often means that things are going well.  But “blessedness” for Christ has nothing to do with the quality of this life at all.  It is about being one with God and one with others.  Perhaps being Christian, itself, is about being paradox, about looking at the world in a different way and being open to seeing things one has never seen before.  Perhaps being Christian is about daring to call oneself “blessed”.
                                                              i.      What does this passage mean for you?
                                                            ii.      What is the most difficult Beatitude for you to grasp?
                                                          iii.      How does this passage speak to our world today?
                                                          iv.      What does it mean to you to be “blessed”?
                                                            v.      Why do you think this passage is appropriate for our All-Saints reading?
Some Quotes for Further Reflection:
The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope. (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)
The saints are those who, in some partial way, embody—literally incarnate—the challenge of faith in their time and place.  In doing so, they open a path that others might follow.  (Robert Ellsberg)
The past takes us forward.  (Diana Butler Bass) 
As we discussed, All-Saints is about both today and tomorrow.  And we are thankful for those who have come before us, who have walked this same journey that we travel now.  We are all part of the same conversation that began when God spoke Creation into existence.  As we celebrate the memories of those who have gone before us, let us also honor their memories by journeying with hope and courage toward the one that we have been called to be and the One that calls us home.
For those who walked with us, this is a prayer.
For those who have gone ahead, this is a blessing.
For those who touched and tended us, who lingered with us while they lived, this is a thanksgiving.
For those who journey still with us in the shadows of awareness, in the crevices of memory, in the landscape of our dreams, this is a benediction.  Amen.
                                                                        (Jan L. Richardson, in In Wisdom’s Path, p. 124)