We can all think of momentous occasions that we might like to attend—events that invitations or tickets would be hard to come by, either because we are not “in the loop”—don’t know anyone influential or simply cannot afford the asking price. Such events might be a presidential ball, an installation of a pope, a World Series, such as was going on this past week in Kansas City and New York. In fact, when we arrived in Kansas City this past week, we teased our daughter about whether she had secured tickets for us to the opening game and we were informed that if there were even any to get, it was standing room only at $200.00 or more a ticket!
Today we celebrate the most momentous gathering we will ever be invited to—the gathering of the saints of heaven—where we will see God as God is. It will be more wonderful than any of the above events mentioned or any others that we might think of. What’s more, the invitation has been extended to all women, men, children—everyone from every nation, race, people and tongue—no exceptions! What kind of ticket do we need to get in, we might ask? The reading from Revelation says that we must be marked with the seal of the servants of God—the seal we are told is the blood of the lamb. To our minds, I think this simply means that we are all included because our God’s love is all inclusive.
Nadia Bolz-Weber in, Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People puts an unusual spin on this “gathering of the saints,” which I find, as she says, “something like Jesus would do.” She sees the Jesus of her belief as one lavishly extending blessing on all gathered on that mount not because of what they have done, but because of who they are! She especially sees Jesus extending blessing to those who get forgotten—so her beatitudes sound something like the following:
- Blessed are the agnostics
- Blessed are they who doubt—who aren’t sure—who can still be surprised
- Blessed are those who have nothing to offer
- Blessed are the mothers who have miscarried
- Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore
- Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it all together for everyone else
- Blessed are those who no one else notices
- Blessed are the closeted
- Blessed are those without documentation
- Blessed are those without lobbyists
- Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people
“You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you,” she says. She truly sees our brother Jesus as one who includes all, sees all and loves all.
We are not only called to be people who include in this way, after the model of Jesus, but should know that we too, when we may feel that we have nothing to give, are blessed by our God who loves us lavishly as well.
The reading from Revelation today, in its entirety, may present a problem when we try to understand its meaning. The book of Revelation is one huge symbol, so to take it literally, which of course, we should never do with Scripture, would be a mistake. The number, 144,000—those who will apparently be saved, is a symbolic number. It is 12 squared, multiplied by 1,000 and is meant to signify a number impossible to count for the writer of this book. In other words, the invitation is extended to all—God’s love and inclusion is limitless, just as Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount.
This gathering will take place before God, seeing God face to face and in the presence of Jesus who gave us, all of himself, so that we would know and experience the love of the Creator for each of us. Quite powerful stuff, we might agree—better and grander than any ball, any sports event, any installation.
The terminology used in the psalm reading today about climbing the highest mountain to be near God comes out of near Eastern mythology—these people believed that the major god would have lived there. Scripture scholars tell us that the Israelite people then took over this belief and placed their one, true God there on the highest mountain, eventually placing the temple in Jerusalem on the highest hill calling it the holy mountain.
We also know that the Israelites came up with all kinds of codes for ritual purity to determine who was worthy, who was not—they basically were about physical wholeness and proximity to blood. As a result, the lame, the sick (lepers), anyone bleeding (women mainly), children (imperfect adults—not fully formed), were considered unworthy. To us; there would be a problem with this kind of thinking. And the psalmist writing would have had all this in mind in the answer given about whom was worthy. Seems important then, with this kind of thinking afoot, to exclude many considered unworthy, that Jesus had his work cut out for him in including all. Our brother Jesus, taught that being “worthy” has nothing to do with ritual purity—what is on the outside, but, what is on the inside. Jesus’ stinging words elsewhere to the Pharisees about being “white-washed sepulchers—all whiteness without, but inside dead bones and all corruption,” comes to mind.
What our loving God wants of each of us, demonstrated so wonderfully by Jesus is a clean, pure heart. Pastor Nadia, in her modern day beatitudes basically says the same—trying to do our best even when it seems we can do nothing right, or even have any energy to try, is still looked on with love by our God. We are to be “beatitude” people—our disposition and response to people and our world must be one of concern for all, no matter how distasteful we might find someone initially. We must remember that each person is the beloved of our God, ourselves included—each considered a saint—one chosen, in God’s eyes. Our attitude toward the world must be, simply must be, one of respect and care with the mindset of protecting this beautiful gift for future generations.
Looking into the beatitudes closer; we see that their challenge to us is not about keeping laws, even good laws, because we all know how empty a practice that can be if there is no engagement of the heart and mind, but mere sheepish following, without question. No, the challenge is to take these sentiments to heart—being cognizant of the abuse of power that can come with the accumulation of wealth, to be people who look with mercy upon all of God’s creatures, to be people who hunger and thirst for justice for all. We must remember that we are not just being asked to think that justice for all is a good thing, but to “hunger and thirst”—a real primal instinct, for this good. This is part of the real challenge that Pope Francis is making in Laudato Si—this change must come from within ourselves in a way that changes in fact, how we do things—how we live our lives.
We must be people of peace—we must abhor war and all the empty lies about the ultimate good of it. We must strive for this seemingly, at times, unattainable good. I was encouraged this week to stumble upon a discussion between men and women on Facebook talking about their heartfelt desire for our country that we would sometime, soon, realize that war and violence as solutions to living with others in this world are not the solutions that make us great.
The book of Revelation clearly tells us today that this type of action, this type of disposition for our fellow human beings is our coveted ticket to the great gathering of saints before our living God. And our brother Jesus goes a step further as Pastor Nadia teaches, to include all those who are forgotten, passed over, not seen by many of us in our seemingly best efforts to extend mercy. The First Letter of John names us all as children of God—we come from great stock!
So on this day of all saints, a good reflection for each of us might be to think about ourselves as saints, remembering Pastor Nadia’s instruction, “What makes us saints of God is not our ability to be saintly, but rather God’s ability to work through sinners,” which we all are! The church she has founded in Denver is entitled, “House for All Saints and Sinners.” So, in other words, we must allow God to do that work in us—God will never force change upon us, only through our openness can it happen.
We all admire many saints of our Church–those who have been canonized and those who have not, some even unchurched who are doing good and beautiful work in this world. We can name them beatitude people—blessed ones among us, blessed and loved by our God. It is such as these, ourselves included that we celebrate today. Tomorrow is an equally special day—All Souls—wherein we remember all those who have lived and loved and gone on to a new life, awaiting us one day. We will have the opportunity to pray for all these loved ones throughout this month and to add names to our book of life that have died this past year. Friends, let us pray today for them, and for ourselves that we might first know that we are loved and do our best to love in return, extending the mercy we have been so graciously given by our God in having this human experience to enjoy!