The Rev. Rhoda Montgomery, D.Min.
All Saints' Day, November 6, 2011
My back has been bothering me this week. So much so that a good friend pulled an unmarked pill out of her purse and said, “here, take this”…and I did…twice. I hope there is not an undercover DEA agent here today because you really aren’t supposed to do things like that, but I was desperate.
Apparently there is some scientific corollary which mandates the more your back hurts, the more stuff you have to do that week. Stuff like lots of long meetings where you need to be clear headed enough to do math. So between the mysterious back spasm medicine, the usual allergy medicines and the long meetings where I had to do math I drank even more Diet Cokes than usual this week which meant by the time I finally got home each night I was wide awake and there was the leftover Halloween candy…suffice it to say I’ve had some crazy dreams this week. Dreams that involved lots of running. Now some of you are more adept than I at discerning the hidden deeper meaning in dreams, but the code to the ones I’ve had this week is pretty easy to crack. Medicine and caffeine and budgets….o my….that combination easily adds up to some nights of wild images.
But once those images are examined in the light of day they simply melt into funny little anecdotes that reveal nothing more than a warning about too much caffeine, sugar and mysterious medicine.
But today’s words from Revelation…words about robes made white after they are washed in blood, a multitude of people too numerous to count standing before a throne waving palm branches, elders and the four living creatures and angels singing blessing and glory and wisdom to our God forever and ever….THAT my friends….is a dream…a dream that won’t fade in the light of day… a dream that has nothing to do with stress or sleep or caffeine and everything to do with worship and sacrifice and hope. And it’s a dream that has everything to do with the feast we celebrate today…the feast of All Saints.
The author of Revelation knew a thing or two about dreams. And while this final book of the Bible is weird enough to make you think the author was wacked out on painkillers and sugar, the dreams in the book of Revelation give a glimpse into a glorious future…a future when good will triumph over evil. They are the kinds dreams that only people who hunger and thirst for justice and peace can dream. The kinds of dreams only people who have held on to hope in the face of unspeakable despair can dream.
The visions in this wild eyed book have baffled scholars and captured the imaginations of the faithful for centuries. In fact the book of Revelation has become its own sort of growth industry inspiring countless books and movies and nightmares. And all of those books and all of those movies focus far too much on a few verses badly translated and taken completely out of context and they miss the point of Revelation entirely. But it’s a lot easier to sell fear of the future than the transformation of the future. It’s a lot easier to sell scorekeeping and the notion of I’m safe but you’re left behind than it is to sell “Some day we’ll all be free of suffering”.
But the popular culture has laid claim to the book of Revelation in such a way that most of us, myself included, have ignored it or feared it or discarded this book as simply the stuff of weird movies with nothing good to say, and I want us to take it back. If I may be so bold as to misappropriate a phrase from the current news of our day, I want us to “occupy Revelation”. We are the 1% who use Revelation beautifully in our liturgies and I want us to be proud of that. The whole book of Revelation and particularly this portion we heard today, was meant to encourage and inspire. By the time the words of Revelation had come along those who would declare Jesus Lord were suffering more than ever in the increasingly bloodthirsty Roman Empire.
So the graphic surreal images found throughout Revelation…images of battles and seven headed beasts and robes washed in blood would have been images of inspiration to that first audience…an audience literally dying for their faith…an audience clinging to every shred of hope. Things will get better, Revelation promises, because God is on the throne, not the Emperor. This isn’t the stuff of nightmares and death…it’s the stuff of life…the stuff of salvation…a glimpse into a hoped for future when at last all people will be free…free of suffering…free of death.
The words of Revelation…the words of this one who saw a vision of a bright and glorious future these words were meant to shore up the faithful in the face of unspeakable suffering and persecution. This poetry from Revelation was meant to be heard and memorized and chanted by a whole community…a community of the faithful…a community that would draw strength from being together. We live in a culture that not only manipulates the words of Revelation into being nothing more than a cartoonish horror movie, but we live in culture that prides itself on individuality . And such a culture of individuals is completely foreign to the first audience…and foreign to the praises found in Revelation. The praises offered to the Lamb once slain those praises are offered by a community. And the praises we offer to God together are magnified infinitely by the power of us…the power of the community.
Does that mean you cannot praise God on your own? Does that mean that God does not hear the voice of one lone petitioner? O goodness no. God loves me…God hears my prayers. God loves you--in the singular and hears your prayers. But that love is magnified again and again because God loves us. What Revelation has to teach us…what All Saints’ Day has to teach us…is that we are never alone.
Because the praises I offer…the praises we offer are joined by the countless throngs of those who went before us. Those who witnessed the time when Jesus walked on the dusty roads of the ancient world…and those who only heard the stories but passed them down again and again from generation to generation…we are joined by those who bore witness… those who died in horrible ways in order to bear that witness…and we are joined by those who died peacefully in their sleep those who taught our grandparents in Sunday school or who taught some anonymous woman down the street who taught another person you never knew but who somehow influenced your life so that you are present here today, once again hearing the story of Salvation offering your praises to God in the midst of whatever circumstances are befalling your life right now…sorrow or joy… boredom or loneliness…all of us lifting our voices in praise together right now to the Lamb who was slain.
The book of Revelation shouldn’t scare us…it should inspire us to remember that the work of the Lamb who was slain is not finished yet. Our praises are not finished yet. Our community is not finished yet. We have joined with one another and with all those who went before us and all those who will come after us. And on those days when I forget…when I don’t feel like praising…when I’d rather sit in my house alone and cry and hunt for more back medicine…when my throat is too parched even to whisper let alone praise God, your voices will praise the Living God and I will be carried on that…and I’ll do the same for you on those days when your voice is so dry and your lips are so cracked you cannot praise God…I’ll remind you that we are all carried on those voices that went before us.
We are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses. You and I together… carried on the praises through the ages. And you and I together are loved right now by the Lamb who was Slain...the Lamb who still lives …the God who one day will wipe away every tear.