Sermon: “All the Saints” (November 2, 2014)

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“All the Saints” (Revelation 7:9-17)
November 2, 2014
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“For all the saints, who from their labors rest
Who thee by faith before the world confessed
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia!” (The Hymnal 1982, 287, verse 1).

All Saints Sunday is one of my favorite Sundays of the year because I am reminded of what we pray in the collect for today, that God has “knit together (his) elect in one communion and fellowship in the mystical body of (his) Son Christ our Lord” (The Book of Common Prayer, 245). When we proclaim our belief in “the communion of saints” in The Apostles Creed or in the “one holy catholic and apostolic church” in The Nicene Creed we are identifying ourselves as being part of something much greater than us, part of something that transcends our fragile earthly lives—we acknowledge that we are numbered with “all the saints” in the one Body of Christ.

In today’s reading from Revelation John recounts a vision he had of “all the saints” in heaven:

“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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Revelation 7:9-10).

Each year on All Saints Sunday I think about the impact various saints have made on my life—not just towering figures like St. Paul or Thomas Cranmer or Mother Theresa—but ordinary people like you and me. Today I am going to share a few stories of how these saints made a difference in my life.

The first saint I’d like to talk about is a man named Ken. He worked with my dad in the Department of Defense when I was a boy. And Ken had a major impact on my life because he did something very simple—he invited my dad to church. My dad accepted Ken’s invitation and our family began attending church in 1979 when I was ten years old. It was a charismatic Episcopal church—Church of the Apostles in Fairfax, Virginia—that at the time was meeting in an elementary school cafeteria—the building came later. I enjoyed going there because the people were so kind and friendly, and I loved all the snacks after the service. Our family was welcomed in and I was baptized in November 1979, thirty-five years ago this month. All the countless blessings I have received from being part of the church these past thirty-five years go back to Ken simply inviting my dad to church. Thank you, Ken.

When I was in middle school another saint impacted my life. He was a veteran of World War II and everyone called him “Maj” (short for Major). On Sunday afternoons any middle and high school guys from our church were invited to Shakey’s Pizza Parlor for the all-you-can-eat buffet—and when you are a guy in middle school, it really doesn’t get any better than that! And Maj would pay for all of us—all the food and drinks we wanted—and he would walk around the table and greet us all by name and cut up with us, and thank us for coming. There was no catch. Maj gave me an early glimpse of the grace of God that welcomes us as we are and pays for everything. Thank you, Maj.

Some saints have impacted my life in an odd way. When I was a senior in college I knew seminary was going to have to wait and I was trying to figure out what I was going to do for a job after graduation. I was so desperate for guidance I attended a 6:30 prayer meeting on a Friday morning at the Episcopal Church Steph and I attended—Church of the Holy Spirit in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The sanctuary was packed out—there were a total of four of us ☺ —the rector, me, an elderly lady and a middle-aged man (I do not remember their names).

After the service I was walking to my car and the elderly lady accosted me, pointed at me, and said, “You’re the one!” Although that is something that can be interpreted in a variety of ways I could tell by the tone of her voice it was not good. “Ma’am?” I responded. “Do you work at Skaggs Alpha Beta (grocery store)?” she asked. I nodded yes (I was a bagger and cashier there). “You squished my grapes,” she said angrily. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I’ll be more careful next time.” “I should hope so,” she huffed as she walked away.

I thought I was in the clear when suddenly the middle-aged man called me over. He asked me my name and what my plans were after graduation. I told him I had no idea. At first I thought he was just being a kind person, but then he popped open the trunk of his navy blue BMW and began showing me different personal hygiene products—soaps and shampoos and other cleansers—and then I realized he was recruiting me for a pyramiding scheme. I thanked him for his “help” and finally got to my car. I remember driving to campus for class, determined to be more careful with other people’s grapes and wondering if maybe I was supposed to sell personal hygiene products after graduation. Both of these saints taught me what not to do when talking to someone who is stressed out. Thank you, grape lady and personal-hygiene-product guy ☺.

On a more serious note, when I was in my mid-thirties I was befriended by a parishioner in his sixties named Gordon. Gordon was a mathematics professor at the University of Virginia and without doubt one of the most brilliant people I have ever known. But Gordon was slowly dying of cancer. And yet, for several months he met me for lunch every Friday, making the final rounds of his favorite local restaurants. We talked about sports and music and life—and he always asked me how I was doing, how my family was doing, how he could be praying for us. Even though he ate less and less as the weeks progressed, he always insisted on dessert and he always picked up the check. And we did that every Friday until he could not leave home anymore. Gordon showed me what it looks like to be more concerned about others than yourself and how to be generous even when you are suffering. Thank you, Gordon.

Sometimes saints make mistakes. Sometimes saints can completely miss opportunities to share the gospel.

When I was a youth minister I took about seventy kids on a ski trip weekend. On the last day of the trip I was riding the ski lift when I heard my name called over the intercom system to please come to the emergency clinic. When the lift reached the summit I skied down as fast as I could (which was not very fast), filled with anxiety about who had gotten hurt and how bad it was. When I arrived a medic shook his head and led me to a kid from our group named Josh, who was standing there with a puzzled look on his face. “Are you okay, Josh?” I asked. “Yeah,” he replied nonchalantly, “I just can’t find my ski googles. Have you seen them?”

I could feel my temperature rise, and I proceeded to tell him in no uncertain terms that I did not know where his goggles were and how inappropriate it was for him to have the emergency clinic call for me—on and on I yelled. When I felt like I had made my point I went back out to the slopes and continued to ski.

Later as we drove home I realized that I had totally missed the opportunity to share the gospel with Josh. I realized that if Jesus had been in that situation he would have responded very differently than I did. Instead of yelling at Josh, Jesus would have gently asked Josh to pick out a brand new pair of goggles, Jesus would have paid for them, and then Jesus would have gone skiing with him. Sorry, Josh.

One more saint who has impacted my life is Adrienne. Through all sorts of ups and downs she has been a faithful friend of me and my family for a dozen years. While we were in the process of selling our house in Virginia and moving to Valdosta she hosted all of us (and all of our cats) in her house for a few weeks—and Adrienne is Gordon’s widow. In short, Adrienne has shown me what Jesus is like. Thank you, Adrienne.

These saints are only several among “all the saints” who have impacted my life with the gospel of Jesus Christ—and I thank God for them.

And all you saints here at Christ Church, Valdosta are blessing me and my family in the same way—and I thank God for you too.

Think about your life for a moment. Who are the saints who have impacted you?

They are all among the “great multitude that no one could count” that John writes about in Revelation—and do you remember what the multitude was saying? “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

And in Jesus Christ God takes that salvation that belongs to him and gives it to you, as the prophet Isaiah prophesied about Jesus seven centuries earlier:

“He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed…he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:5, 12).

In other words, Jesus was “numbered with the transgressors” so that you could be numbered with “all the saints.”

Toward the end of her life the iconic Southern writer Flannery O’Connor wrote a short story entitled Revelation. At the end of this story she describes Ruby Turpin, a smug self-righteous woman who has a vision one night of “all the saints” as they head up to heaven. O’Connor writes:

“She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives… and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself… had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right… They were marching behind the others with great dignity… yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away… In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”

And waiting for all of us in the “starry field” is the One who gave his life for “all the saints,” Jesus. And in today’s reading from Revelation John gives us a glimpse of what Jesus does in heaven for them:

“The one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 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” (Revelation 7:14-17).

On this All Saints Sunday the good news of the gospel is that because of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, “all the saints” includes you.

Amen.