All Saints B: A Vision of Home

OLD TESTAMENT: Isaiah 25: 6-9

To read the passage from IsaiahHouse-On-The-Hill

This reading, which we also read on Easter Day, comes within the block of material (Isaiah 24-27) which many refer to as The Isaiah Apocalypse. The view of the future here is universal and speaks of God’s power in the cosmic realm as well as the earthly realm. It is probable that whoever wrote this material truly thought that the crucial event in world history was about to dawn. This material is probably dated about the last quarter of the 8th century BCE, probably late in the Babylonian exile or perhaps even after it was over.

All Saints’ Day is, of course, that Sunday that we set aside to remember those who have walked before us.  But with that, it is also a time to look ahead, to realize that we are all connected in an eternal chain of witnesses.  Our chapter in the story would not make sense without the chapters before us and the future is dependent on our chapter being well-written.

The text that we read envisions a significant role for Jerusalem, the city set on the mountain of the Lord. Here God will offer divine hospitality to all people. Both the food and the wine are described in superlative terms. Through this divine welcome, the shroud of destruction and horror will be lifted off all the peoples of the earth. Death itself will be swallowed up. The sadness of tears and the shame of disgrace of God’s people will be removed. These promises of restoration are the word of the Lord. The salvation of God and God’s hospitality can only lead to one thing: ‘let us rejoice and be glad’.

This Scripture is about waiting. It is looking forward to a different time. Keep in mind the context of this lesson. The people were in the wilderness. The Babylonians had swept in, had captured the Israelites, destroyed the temple of God, and scattered the people of God into the wilderness. In the wilderness, the people were asking that desperate question, “Where is God?” Many have lost their faith. There were desperate cries, desperate questions in the wilderness, and it was there in the despair and in the wilderness that God came to the people of Israel (but not in the way that they would have expected!). Never could they have predicted what they heard from Isaiah and would soon see. God was using Cyrus, king of Persia, to lay the groundwork for their return home. “I will give you the treasures of darkness,” says the Lord God. Cyrus, king of Persia, would capture the Babylonians. It was Cyrus that God was using, the king of Persia who didn’t even believe in God. Marduke was his god. Still, God was using this surprise to make it possible for the people of God scattered in the wilderness to return home, which they eventually did.

For us, too, it is a vision of home. All Saints’ Day is always full of some psychological and spiritual tensions as we walk between profound grief and joyful remembrance and between what is and what will be. But this passage tells us that death shall soon be no more, “swallowed up forever” as the text actually says, overtaken by life everlasting. It brings comfort but it also brings a bit of heartache. There is a part of us that wants that now, wants to be with those we love now. There’s a part of us that wishes that we had some means of understanding or overcoming what happens on this earth. We believe; we try hard; we try to patiently wait. And the storms continue to come. And yet, even waiting, is part of our faith journey. And in the waiting, we come to learn that life is there all along.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What stands in the way of our waiting for God?
  3. What would your reaction to this vision have been in the context in which it was written?
  4. What is your reaction to this vision now?

  

NEW TESTAMENT: Revelation 21: 1-6a

To read the passage from Revelation

In spite of its veiled images and difficulties presented in interpretation, the Book of Revelation presents some beautiful depictions of hope and promise. Here, using Old Testament imagery (some borrowed from the Isaiah passage that we just read), we are presented with a veritable tapestry of hope. We are not just looking to the past; we are also looking ahead. And it is not some far off place to which we are looking, but to a time when the here and the now will be renewed. Notice that it is not just heaven that is renewed but the very earth itself. All that we see and know and all in which we have our being will be and is being recreated before our very eyes.

And all this happens because of God. Finally, God will make the divine dwelling place among us. Do you remember that cloud that followed the Israelites around, the sign of God’s Presence? The Ark of the Covenant symbolized this sort of removed image of God actually dwelling with the people. Then in the Gospel of John, we are told in very similar language that God lived among us in Christ. And the story of the Festival of Pentecost is the sign of continued Divine Presence. But here…this passage takes it even further. God will be fully with us. God, the Creator, the Divine Presence, will now dwell with mortals. And God’s very Presence will be enough to wipe away tears and mourning, banish death for good, and make everything new.

The writer of this Revelation passage finishes with the most amazing thing. “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” There will finally be established the truth which has been peeking out at us since the very dawn of human history—that God, indeed, stands before, in, and after all of Creation. It is a metaphorical glimpse at the end of the story as we know it and, yet, it is the very beginning of life to come. This reading gives us a glimpse of what the author thought that might look like.

What a great Scripture to read for All Saints’! At the same time that we are remembering and perhaps still grieving those who are gone, we are given this reminder of what’s to come. It is an affirmation that this story that began when God breathed life into Creation is not quite finished. And we are part of it, part of the ongoing conversation that began long before we got here and will continue long after we are gone.

The point is that the past and the future connect us all. I think that’s what the Scripture is reminding us—not that there is some promised land out there where we all come out OK, but, rather that we are part of it now. We, like those that came before us, are part of building that future city, building the Kingdom of God in its fullness. The story is not yet finished, but it’s definitely worth the read!

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. How does this speak to you within the context of All Saints’ Day?
  3. What does the idea of our connection to the past and the future mean for you?

GOSPEL: John 11: 32-44

To read the Gospel passage

In this week’s Gospel lesson, a man dies and is restored to life, sisters complain and weep, and the crowd comments, weeps and complains. Front and center, however, is Jesus. He is really the focal point of the story, not Lazarus. He determines what will happen. He says, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” So it is with our own understanding of life and death. People weep and commiserate. They wonder what happens next, to them and to the one who has gone ahead. But Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, the way, the truth and the life, is the focal point at the moment of death. He says, “Peace be with you.” Jesus is the assurance that there is always something more. When we have Jesus, we are prepared for anything that follows.

For many, this is one of those odd, somewhat problematic texts. After all, people don’t usually get up and walk out of tombs into the land of the living. This story challenges norms and even reality, to some extent. Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps it sort of jolts us into the realization that God is capable of more, that God will go beyond what we plan, what we think, even what we imagine. And yet, “Jesus wept.” In the older translations, it is supposedly the shortest verse in the Bible. Jesus’ tears remind us that grief is real and that God realizes that and truly cares what happens to us.

Ironically, this is the act that would ultimately cost Jesus his life. Bringing Lazarus to life would end his own. After this, the Sanhedrin’s step in and the journey to Jerusalem, mock trial and all, escalates. There is no turning back. Perhaps it should be our turn to weep. But we are given a new hope and a new promise. Jesus said, “Unbind him, and let him go.”…He will do the same for us. “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”

The truth is, on some level, we are all lifeless at times. We are all bound by things in this world that literally suck the life out of us. Think about it. This is also an account of the raising of Martha and Mary and all of those who loved Lazarus, raised out of grief to hope and life. And, for us, Christ is there breathing life into us yet again. We are always in the process of and actually becoming a new creation. The story of this raising is more than a miracle; it is the stuff that we are made of. Jesus probably weeps for us too—weeps that we hurt, weeps that we get so wrapped up in the minutia of life that makes us forget who we are, weeps that we are not who we are called to be. This is a story about the in-between. Some things don’t make sense. Some things don’t go like we plan. Some things we just miss. Creation groans towards its ultimate promise. And so we wait…But in the meantime, we can always get up, come out of our tomb, and let Jesus free us once again. Fred Craddock said that faith is first generation (From “A Twofold Death and Resurrection”, The Christian Century, available at http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=710). In other words, we do not inherit it. Oh, maybe we inherit a knowledge of it or the culture to rely on it, but this belief thing has to be ours. For that is the way that we see the glory of God for ourselves.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does this say about faith?
  3. Where do you find yourself in this story?
  4. From what lifelessness do we need to be freed by Christ’s lifegiving breath?
  5. What do you think of the notion of faith being “first generation”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Joy is the most infallible sense of the presence of God. (Teilhard de Chardin)

Let us plant dates even though those who plant them will never eat them. We must live by the love of what we will never see…. Such disciplined love is what has given prophets, revolutionaries, and saints the courage to die for the future they envisaged. They make their own bodies the seed of their highest hope. (Rubem Alves quoted in There Is A Season by Joan Chittister).

The note we end on is and must be the note of inexhaustible possibility and hope. (Evelyn Underhill)

 

 

Closing

 

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships so that you may live deep within your heart. May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace. May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war so that you may reach out my hand to comfort them and to turn their pain into joy. And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that, through your love, you can make a difference in this world so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Amen. (Franciscan Prayer, Author Unknown)

Proper 16B: Living in the Cloud

CloudOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Kings 8: (1,6,10-11), 22-30, 41-43

Read the Passage

This week’s passage occurs some eleven years after the setting of last week’s reading. Solomon’s kingdom is solidified and is entering its second decade. The previous chapters tell of the seven years that it took to build the temple. Solomon uses the finest building materials and the most talented and experience craftsmen. The building is magnificent. When the temple is ready, Solomon brings up the Ark of the Covenant, which has been in the Tabernacle, and installs it in the Temple, in the innermost sanctuary, the Holy of Holies, under the wings of the cherubim. As soon as the priests put the Ark in its place, a cloud fills the Temple and the glory of the Lord inhabits it.

This cloud has appeared before—when the Israelites were escaping the Egyptian army, when they were given the Commandments as a gift from God and a symbol of the covenant, and then the cloud settled on the Tabernacle. The cloud represents God’s Presence to the writer of this account. It represents continuity. The same God who brought them out of danger now dwells with them in the land.

For us in our Christian understanding, it is difficult to understand the significance of the Temple in Jewish theology. The Temple is the place of which God says, “My name shall be there.” It is the place where heaven meets earth and where God’s glory appears. And yet, Solomon’s prayer does not confine God to the Temple. He acknowledges that the “house”, the Temple, cannot contain God. For this reason, even though the Temple is central to Israel’s worship, it is not essential. When it is destroyed (twice to come), God is still present and attentive to the people.

By including “foreigners”, Solomon is also asking God to heed the prayers of others. We, then, are included in God’s mercy and have access to God even at this early stage in history (and, for that matter, realize our own calling to include others beyond our own traditions and beliefs). The Temple is a sign and a means of Communion with God. It is not the only place God is, but is still a sign of God’s mercy and God’s presence which is available to all.

Solomon’s prayers are, once again, not limited to himself. Before, rather than asking for riches or success, remember that Solomon asked for wisdom. Now he asks for justice and God’s presence with the people. Praying for justice should not be construed as praying for destructing of the unjust, but rather a prayer for us to realize our own role in the realization of that justice, whether it be a change in how we view the world or courage to speak the truth in love.

Solomon’s words bring us an important understanding of prayer. The Lord is not just the property of Israel (or, for that matter, any other one group of people). Solomon alludes to the incomparable and magnanimous grace of the Lord which extends beyond the imaginations and beyond any disagreements with neighbors that we may have, which extends into the world, the just and the unjust, the wise and the unwise. Realization of this and prayers for wisdom and justice drive home the notion that God is God, that God is not our property or our agent, that God is not on our side or on the other side or even on some side that a third party is inventing. It is finally getting us to the point where we figure out that the way we connect with this God is to leave our alliances, our riches, and our own sense of who we think God is on the ground beneath us, repent, and then, finally, turn toward a new perception of reality that we cannot control or contain.

Maybe we systematic, dogmatic, and pragmatic followers of Christ have it wrong. Perhaps there is a cloud after all. Perhaps when we understand faith not as belief or knowledge but as gaining the insight to walk into the cloud, then we will finally be on our journey toward Communion with God.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What is your understanding of God’s Presence? How does the Temple or other spaces play into that for you?
  3. How does this speak to you about the inclusion of others in our understanding of God’s Presence?
  4. What does this say about our understanding of wisdom? About our understanding of justice?
  5. How does this speak to your own understanding of God?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Ephesians 6: 10-20

To read the passage, click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=306301785)

This passage is familiar to most Christians. So familiar, in fact, that it is often used to justify violence or retribution in God’s name. But, really, does that even mesh with what we know of the message of Christ or what Paul and his own disciples (such as the writer of Ephesians) were trying to espouse?

These verses form the climax of the letter, and the word “finally” connects them with what has preceded (and what we have read the last few weeks). The writer’s imperatives to “be strong” in the Lord and “put on” the armor of God imply a realization of our human inadequacy for spiritual “battle”. The struggle here, though, is not meant to be a “flesh and blood” struggle, but one against the powers of this world. This is not intended to imply some sort of personal fight against “Satan”, the devil, or any other “other-worldly” influence. This is a call to abide in God in the face of the powers of this world—the powers of greed, political power, materialism, selfishness…you name it.

The “armor” is meant to be a metaphor. (Once again, taking this literally is not only a misinterpretation but could produce dangerous consequences.). Here, the “belt” is truth; the “breastplate” is righteousness; the “shoes” are the “gospel of peace”; the “shield” is faith; the “helmet” is salvation, and the “sword” is the Spirit or the Word. These weapons are indeed meant for “war” but it is a different kind of war. “Putting on the whole armor of God”, taking unto oneself the things that are of God, readies one to live the Gospel, to live and speak a “battle” for peace, and justice, and mercy for all. It is a call to employ the “weapons” of the Spirit of God. (Quite different from “going to war” in the name of God!)

The readers of the letter are exhorted to “be strong”. The Greek here is actually a reflexive tense. In other words, we are told to “strengthen ourselves” and “clothe ourselves”. There is an acknowledgment here of God’s power within us. There is work to do.

This passage and, for that matter, all of Ephesians, is a call to abandon any sort of Christian naiveté that fails to recognize the forces that bring destruction and division in our world (and those that bring destruction and division even within our communities, our families, or ourselves). It is not a call to appease them, but to stand up against them.

The final call to serious prayer echoes the emphasis with which this passage began: the need to have a grounded and solid spirituality as a basis for living with Christ’s vision and power in the world rather than an agenda served up by those that see change as a threat. This spirituality is subversive. It warrants change, rather than a type of Christian triumphalism and hate-mongering. When spirituality is subversive, peace has a chance. So, there…”Onward, Christian Soldiers”. (Good grief I hate that hymn when it’s not explained! J) But, really, there’s nothing wrong with the words of the hymn themselves. They are meant to echo the call of Ephesians. But popular culture has seemed to turn it into a processional of Christian triumphalism. And then you add the military language and it gets completely usurped into something that in no way resembles what the Christian message entails. But I don’t think this hymn is meant to call us to either triumphalism or militarism, but rather a call to enter into God’s ongoing redemption of all of Creation. So here are the words to the familiar hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers, written in 1864 by Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, keeping in mind the way the writer of Ephesians framed this passage:

 

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before.

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle see his banners go!

 

At the sign of triumph Satan’s host doth flee; on then, Christian soldiers, on to victory!

Hell’s foundations quiver at the shout of praise;

[people] lift your voices, loud your anthems raise.

 

Like a mighty army moves the church of God, [people] we are treading where the saints

have trod.

We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope and doctrine, one in charity.

 

Crowns and thrones may perish, kingdoms rise and wane, but the church of Jesus

constant will remain.

Gates of hell can never ‘gainst that church prevail; we have Christ’s own promise, and

that cannot fail.

 

Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng, blend with ours your voices in the

         triumph song.

Glory, laud, and honor unto Christ the King, this through countless ages [we] and angels

sing.

 

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before!

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. In what ways is this passage misused in our society?
  3. What does this “armor” of God mean for you?
  4. What are your thoughts about the words of the familiar hymn, “Onward Christian Soldiers”?
  5. What does this passage, taken in this way, call us to do?

 

GOSPEL: John 6: 56-69

(To read the passage, click on http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=306301700)

For the fifth week in a row, we are in the sixth chapter of John. Throughout the chapter, is the discussion of the bread that gives life. The words have been greeted with misunderstanding, confusion, and rejection. In today’s reading, we hear the disciples’ reaction, those closest to Jesus, those who have been handed all of the explanations. These are not just the “twelve” disciples, but rather “the many” probably refers to some of the periphery of Jesus’ other followers, those who have joined Jesus and the Twelve as they have made this journey through the region. But these disciples are one of “us”. They are not limited to the “them” about which we keep hearing.

So the fact that they don’t get it is uncomfortable. The point is, though, that they probably do understand it and just cannot believe it or accept it. Perhaps they understand it so well that they see the writing on the wall as to what it means for their own lives. Jesus’ reference to the “flesh” as useless is not a rejection or a condemnation of the body or a denial of God’s goodness. “Flesh”, here, refers to the “normal” way of seeing. Faith is presented as the work of God. We need faith, we need the Spirit, to believe (and God, in God’s incredible mercy and grace, offers it to all!) It is because of this that our calling is not just to belief, but to “abiding” in Christ, to entering Christ, even with our unbelief.

The truth is, again, that these hearers wanted something that was easily understood, something that they could put their arms around, so to speak. And they wanted something that was convenient, something that they could put in their pocket and carry away. Do you mean following the old traditions, the old laws, or do you mean writing new laws? Which is it? Tell us the easiest way to understand. Tell us the fastest way to be part of this. And what are you talking about, with words of blood and bread. That makes no sense. Which is it? Either it is the way we know or it is against what we know. Which is it?

Jesus’ answer over and over again was “neither”. It is not the old way of the traditional religion and it is not the way of the more and more prevalent powers of the society and the government in which they live. It is, you see, not a way that necessarily fits in with any of the ways of this world. Jesus calls us to “abide in these ways”, not just by believing or blindly accepting what he said but by entering the way of Christ, even in the midst of our unbelief. Because even in the midst of rejection and unbelief, God still works, continually calling all into life. Abiding in Christ is not a matter of picking which way of being is right and which way of being is wrong; it is about looking at life differently and entering a new life and a new way of being altogether. It is, in essence, proclaiming “neither” and beginning to live in a new way—a life lived within God’s vision of mercy, justice, and peace.

In this world in which we live, we are always presented with choices–good versus bad, healthy versus unhealthy, saving versus spending, conservative versus liberal, violence versus sitting back and letting things overtake us. We live in a sort of black and white, “paper or plastic” society. But God calls us to a different way. Walter Wink coined the phrase “the third way”. It recognizes both that power and systems are not God but also that every power and every system is redeemable. Rather than a distinction between good and evil, perhaps it is one between the already and the not yet. “Nothing”, Wink claims, “is outside the redemptive care and transforming love of God.” You see, redemption is not just a personal gift to us, but, a gift to the world. It is an invitation to every aspect of this world to abide in God, to live in a way that is different, to live in a third way.

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does God in the midst of unbelief mean for you?
  3. How does unbelief affect your faith journey?
  4. What are some of our stumbling blocks to our faith?
  5. So, why do you stay?
  6. How would you depict that “third way”?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Christians are people who, because we know something about the end, the final purposes of God, heaven, we don’t “settle in”. We keep up a holy restiveness. We keep moving, keep standing on tiptoes, expectant, because we have been offered a vision of a new heaven and a new earth where God at last gets what God wants. (Bishop William Willimon)

 

Human beings may separate things into as many piles as we wish—separating spirit from flesh, sacred from secular, church from world. But we should not be surprised when God does not recognize the distinctions we make between the two. Earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars. (Barbara Brown Taylor in An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, p. 15.)

 

Good and evil, then, cannot be a pair of opposites like right and left or above and beneath. “Good” is the movement in the direction of home, “evil” is the aimless whirl of human potentialities without which nothing can be achieved and by which, if they take no direction but remain trapped in themselves, everything goes awry. (Martin Buber)

 

 

Closing

 

To see Thee is the end and the beginning, Thou carriest us, and Thou dost go before,

Thou are the journey, and the Journey’s end. Amen.

(Boethius, c. 480-524)