November 4, 2018 All Saints’ Sunday (Year B)

Isaiah 25:6–9, Psalm 24, Revelation 21:1–6a, John 11:32–44

The Rev’d Dr. Jeffrey S. F. Nelson+

In the Name of Jesus, who is Resurrection and who is Life. Amen.

In a new poll taken after the horrific shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh last week reveals that roughly 80 percent of voters say that they are concerned that the negative tone and lack of civility in Washington will lead to violence or acts of terror. Now there is not a consensus as to who is to blame for the incivility. Some lay the responsibility squarely at the feet of the president. Others blame the news media. Still others cite the bickering between Republican and Democrat members of congress as the reason for their fear. My guess is that each of you has an opinion on this, as do I, and that the differences of opinion are as diverse as those revealed by the poll, both on the issue of whether our incivility as a nation will lead to violence, and who is to blame for the incivility. But my guess also is that the results of our straw poll would be similar: that 80 percent of the people in this room, if polled, believe that the current incivility in our public discourse will likely lead to violence or even acts of terror.

It does not take a poll for us to know intuitively that there is a great divide in our country that often translates into divisions among friends and in families, and that these divisions are themselves sometimes devastating, leading to anger, resentment, and even estrangement. My own life is a case in point. I post many things on my Facebook page concerning the divide in our country, particularly how religion either contributes or has the potential to heal the divide. I post not with the expectation or insistence that people agree with my point of view, but to begin a conversation. I am very open to respectful and heartfelt differences of opinion, but I do not tolerate unsubstantiated and unsupported claims. In order to be in true dialog, each person in the dialog must be well informed and willing to discuss the issue at hand. Often, however, people respond having not read the articles I post, expressing opinions that are not supported by facts, or by becoming accusatory, rude, or sarcastic. As a result, I have had to stop following the Facebook posts of some friends and family members, and recently, I had to tell a beloved family member point-blank not to respond any longer to my posts if she couldn’t be thoughtful and respectful (which she most decidedly has not been). She has honored my request, but now I never hear from her at all much less engage in honest and open dialog about the divisions in our country.

In two days, “midterm elections are being held after one of the most divisive and contentious presidential elections in United States history.” Some “will view this time of voting as a referendum on the administration’s policies and agendas.” Many people “have been wading in a pool of political rhetoric that serves to foster the us-them dialectic that dominates the media from day to day,” resulting in breaches in relationship, interpersonally and nationally, that can feel like death to us—like we have irrevocably lost someone or something dear to us. (Benjamin Ahles-Iverson, “November 4, 2018, All Saints Sunday: from a Preacher,” in, Sundays and Seasons Preaching: Year B 2018, p. 281.) Such loss can launch us into grief and mourning and a search for comfort and hope. But, “[w]hat if, on All Saints Sunday, we have the opportunity to proclaim what brings us together and makes us whole?” What if our texts “can be seen as calling us to envision our neighbors across the nation more complexly?” What if “we are given the chance to call on the body of Christ to envision how God sees us and use that vision to see all of our brothers and sisters of the human race as people God loves deeply and unendingly”? (Ibid. pp. 281-2.) Further, amid our grief and mourning at the estrangement we feel both interpersonally and nationally, can we find comfort and hope? Our texts for today are, after all, funeral texts—each suggested by the Prayer Book for the Mass of Christian Burial because of its ability to affirm and proclaim the power of God even over the last great enemy, death. In so doing, each text has the power to bring comfort in our loss, yes, but even more so, hope for life that cannot be snuffed out by death.

The prophet Isaiah sets forth a vision of a great banquet of rich food and fine wine on Mount Zion, the mountain on which the holy city of Jerusalem sits and on which the glory of the presence of God dwells. At this banquet, all the people of all the nations will be gathered to feast together. The prophet tells us that God “will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations,” and that God will “swallow up death forever.” Isaiah likely means that the shroud or sheet that will be removed, and that he later refers to as “the disgrace of his people,” is death, the cause of tears, despair, and brokenness; and the prophet’s vision is a proclamation of God’s power even over death. But the prophet is also envisioning a time in which the God of Israel is acknowledged for what this God has always been: the God of all the nations, for this God created all the peoples of the earth. The envisioned banquet, therefore, is a gathering of all people in their wondrous diversity. It is not a vision in which all people are the same, but rather in which all people celebrate their differences as brothers and sisters of the same God. No one will be asked to set aside their differences or renounce their diversity; rather, all will join in the feasting despite their differences and amid their diversity. In this light, I think the shroud and sheet and disgrace that is to be cast off in the eschatological banquet is not our differences and diversity, but rather the fear, the hatred, the suspicion, and the stereotypes we harbor about the other that renders the differences and diversity that is a part of the creative genius of God as part of the brokenness of our world. In the heavenly banquet, the shroud of the disparagement of our differences and diversity will be lifted and we will feast together in the fully glory of our differences and diversity.

We already have a pattern for such feasting: the Eucharist. At this Table, we are given a foretaste of the feast to come—the feast of which the prophet speaks. At this Table, we feast with one another amid our differences and diversity. We do not require others stop being who they are before we will eat and drink with them. We do not require that they stop being Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive, gay or straight, black or white, male or female, old or young, American of Honduran. Nor do we pretend that these differences do not exist among us or merely tolerate our diversity for the sake of peace. Rather, at this feast we come in the fullness of who we are and kneel with others who may be quite different from us, for we know that our unity as brothers and sisters in the faith is in the Lord our God, who has wondrously made and celebrates us in all our diversity. At this feast, we are invited into this celebration. Further, at this feast with gather with all the saints who have gone before—the great cloud of witnesses—and anticipate that time when we will join them in the heavenly banquet on the mountain of the Lord of hosts.

This is a wonderful theological vision, but as people of faith, we are called to celebrate our differences and diversity now, amid this life, in this time and place. The reading from Revelation is an eschatological vision like that of Isaiah. It is a vision of a time when God will “wipe away every tear” from our eyes; when “death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.” But it is not a vision of a heavenly banquet in another world after this world has been destroyed, but of a feast here in this world after it has been renewed. John’s vision in Revelation is of the new Jerusalem, the city of God, coming down out of heaven and being planted on earth, for “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” This vision certainly gives us comfort and hope for renewal after this life, but it also inspires us to work for renewal now in this life—to bring God’s vision of unity amid difference and diversity alive now, for we believe that God dwells among us here, now, in this world.

This means, of course, that in this life we must foster community. We must nurture the gifts of deep listening and careful speech; we must think the best of others, especially those with whom we disagree, speak well of them and seek to understand them; we must willingly forgive when we have been wronged and repent when we wrong another; we must be committed to seeking the truth and being its champion especially when it is not what we want to hear or believe; we must seek unity not division; we must be willing to compromise for the sake of a greater and common good and so must be willing to let go our rights and privileges so that others might thrive; we must embrace love, not fear, for love is of God and love casts out fear.

This is a tall order, and we will at times fail to believe that anything beyond the partisan divide is possible. We will, on occasion, lash out as Mary lashed out at Jesus and accused him of failing her in her hour of need when her brother, Lazarus, died. But then, amid the brokenness and division, we remember the words of Jesus, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” Jesus needed to remind Mary and her sister Martha of the power of God even over death. So we need to be reminded as we grieve amid the fear, hatred, and estrangement of this time—that if the power of God is stronger than death, then the power of God can surely overcome our divisions, differences, and fears. And as we experience our fear melting away, we are freed to celebrate our differences and diversity as a community of people gathered at a feast of rich food and fine wine, as a community gathered with those who have gone before, the great cloud of witnesses, in the presence of our God, as a gathering of “brothers and sisters of the human race” whom “God loves deeply and unendingly.” (Ibid. p. 282.)

Come to the feast! Amen.

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