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Who are the Saints/Souls in your life?

What follows is a sermon I gave on All Saints Day, November 1, 2020 online at Spirit Song Church in Vistancia, Peoria, Arizona.

Good morning. It is an honour and a joy to be with you today. We pray that Pastor Misty will have a speedy recovery. As you know this is a special day, and no, NOT just the day after Halloween. To make sure I got it right, I went to google and came up with the following from Wikipedia.

All Saints’ Day, also known as All Hallows’ Day, Hallowmas, the Feast of All Saints, or Solemnity of All Saints, is a Christian solemnity celebrated in honour of all the saints, known and unknown.
In the Western Christian practice, the liturgical celebration begins at Vespers on the evening of 31 October, All Hallows’ Eve (All Saints’ Eve), and ends at the close of 1 November. It is thus the day before All Souls’ Day, which commemorates the faithful departed. 
The Christian celebration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day stems from a belief that there is a powerful spiritual bond between those in heaven (the “Church triumphant“), and the living (the “Church militant“). In Methodist theology, All Saints Day revolves around “giving God solemn thanks for the lives and deaths of his saints“, including those who are “famous or obscure”. As such, individuals throughout the Church Universal are honoured, such as Paul the ApostleAugustine of Hippo and John Wesley, in addition to individuals who have personally led one to faith in Jesus, such as one’s grandmother or friend.’_Day

So this is a day to

commemorate all Christians, living and deceased, to remember all Christians both past and present. In the United Methodist Church, All Saints’ is held, not only to remember Saints, but also to remember all those who have died who were members of the local church congregation.’_Day

Who are the Saints/Souls in your life?

First on my list are my parents, John and Laurel Buck. While, as it has been said, God has no grandchildren, I would not be here in front of you except for their lives and witness. 

I also owe a great debt to my in-laws, Warren and Mary Fairman who adopted my wife, Irene, when her birth father did not take responsibility for the child he caused to be brought into the world. 

I barely knew my paternal grandparents who both died a few years after I was born. My London, England born grandfather was a good provider throughout the Great Depression for my dad and his family. However, he was an accountant at brewery; whose open fridge policy turned him into an alcoholic who could be abusive.  

I did know my maternal grandparents who lived to see their great grandchildren born. They had a very positive and important impact on my life.  Despite my grandfather’s struggles with depression, he was ultimately triumphant. I also well remember my grandmother’s father, my great grandfather, William George Little. He was born in 1872, almost 150 years ago and died when I was 11. If I am blessed with a few more years, I may even live to see my grandchildren’s children, as my great-grandfather did. I, like him, will then have known seven generations. 

So, yes, today we are remembering the dead. But while the dead are solemnly remembered during worship today, the festival is ultimately a celebration of Christ’s victory over death.

And that leads us nicely to today’s scripture reading from

The Revelation of St John.

Also called the Apocalypse of John.

The final book of the New Testament.

The book about end times.

Watchman Nee, who was baptized as a Methodist, was a Chinese church leader and Christian teacher who worked in China during the 20th century. In his daily mediations, A Table in the Wilderness, he asks, “Who is qualified to study the end times?”

His answer? Only those, like John, whose first vision is not of events, but of Jesus Christ Himself. Nee writes, “for not until we see Jesus are we equipped for conflict.” 
The aim of Revelation is not to show us the gentle Jesus, meek and mild, of the Gospels, but to show us Christ Jesus as King on the throne.

Nee goes on to say, “In the book of Revelation, God shows us an aspect of His Son not shown to us in the Gospels. In the Gospels we see Him as Savior, the Revelation as King. . . . It is not enough that we know Jesus as Lamb of God and Savior of the world; we must know Him also as God’s King, God’s Judge.”

There are hints of this God the King in the gospels. Last Sunday Pastor Misty preached on Matthew 22 and the Greatest Commandment. Jesus was asked what commandment in the law is the greatest. He replied,

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

Earlier in Matthew 22, Jesus spoke to his followers about the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. Jesus said,

The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10 Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests.

Ok. So far so good. We are invited to the wedding banquet, to be with God. If we turn down the invitation, then he will go out to the wider world and invite everyone to the wedding banquet. Sound good? Then there is this in Matthew 22 starting at verse 11.

11 “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12 and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13 Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14 For many are called, but few are chosen.”

That set me back on my heels. If wearing a wedding robe means to be found worthy, what are the implications. The preacher of preachers and a 19th century Saint, Charles H Spurgeon writes,

True members of the church of God wear a distinguishing mark. If you are not different from other people, you have no right in the church of God. If a servant can live with you for years and never discover your love for God, I should think there is none to discover. If you are just the same as those you lived with in your former days, if you have undergone no change, and are like the rest of men, you do not have the distinguishing mark which authenticates your right to be in the church of God. There ought to be something about us which sets us apart — something which can be seen and understood by common people, even as a wedding garment could be seen, and its meaning at once perceived. Your religion must not require a microscope to perceive it, nor should it be so indistinct that few can discover any meaning in it.     

Of course, that leads us back to the two great commandments. Putting on your wedding garment means loving God with all your heart and soul and mind. And like unto it, loving your neighbor as yourself.

I want to introduce you to another man named John, a 20th century saint who wrote and sang about the Apocalypse of John and God’s judgement in his song A Man Comes Around

The song begins with Cash’s spoken words.

And I heard as it were the noise of thunder 
One of the four beasts saying come and see and I saw 
And behold a white horse 

Then that very distinctive music begins.

There’s a man going around taking names 
And he decides who to free and who to blame 
Everybody won’t be treated all the same 
There’ll be a golden ladder reaching down 
When the Man comes around 

Johnny Cash is very special to me. This song, one of the last he wrote before his death, makes numerous Biblical references, especially to the Book of Revelation. The first three spoken lines of are from Revelation 6:1-2. The ‘man’ he sings about is Jesus Christ who will one day come to pass judgement. 

The chorus echoes the celebration of the Lord’s Second Coming in Revelation. 

Hear the trumpets, hear the pipers
One hundred million angels singing 
Multitudes are marching to the big kettledrum 
Voices calling, voices crying 
Some are born and some are dying 
It’s Alpha and Omega’s kingdom come 

The next verse begins with a dream Johnny had, and the inspiration for this song.

And the whirlwind is in the thorn tree 

He dreamt that Queen Elizabeth II said to him, ‘Johnny Cash, you’re just like a thorn tree in a whirlwind’. He thought about that dream for a long, long time. He finally got a concordance down and found the reference to a thorn tree in a whirlwind in the book of Job.

The next line of the song is a reference to Jesus’ Parable of the Ten Virgins in Matthew 25:1-13.

The virgins are all trimming their wicks 

The parable tells about ten virgins who await the bridegroom, Jesus. The five who are prepared go on into the celebration. The five who are not prepared are left behind. 

The whirlwind is in the thorn tree 

Then we have a line from Acts 26:14 where Jesus speaks to Paul on the road to Damascus. 

It’s hard for thee to kick against the pricks 

This is a reference to a Greek proverb about an ox pulling a cart who tries to kick against a goad or sharp object attached to the front of the cart, meant to encourage the ox to move along in the right direction. Kicking against the goads will only cause the ox to injure itself. This represents the futility of resisting God. 

If the link above does not work, you can hear the complete song by googling ‘The Man Comes Around”. It was that same google that led me to Johnny Cash’s last interview just a few weeks before he died.  He was asked about death. Here is what he said.

I have great faith. I have unshakable faith. I never turned my back on God. I never thought that God wasn’t there. He is my counsellor. He is my wisdom. All the good things in my life come from him.

When asked, “Where do you think we go?” Johnny Cash replied, “Where do we go when we die, you mean?” “Well, we all hope to go to heaven.” 

So we are back to where we began. What is All Saints Day?
It is a celebration of Christ’s victory over death. The Revelations 7:9 – 17 passage that Ann read to us presents John of Patmos’ vision.

After this 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. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Who does salvation belong to?

I believe it belongs to Johnny Cash, even though he does not insist this salvation is his just for the taking. I identify with Johnny Cash, who like me is of English and Scottish descent. 

However, salvation does NOT belong to just my tribe, my people and those who speak my language. 

I was born in the French speaking part of Canada, Quebec. My first 12 years of life and every summer of my childhood were spent there. My brothers and I would play with the English speaking Roman Catholics who went to a different school. However, we’d throw rocks at the French speaking Roman Catholics. Hugh MacLennan’s novel The Two Solitudes exemplified the lack of communication between Anglophone and Francophone people in Canada. I atoned for this sin by sending both our children to French immersion schools. As a result our daughter is now comfortable living and working in the largest French speaking city in North America, Montreal.

In the mid 1960s my family and I move to Calgary in the western province of Alberta, just north of Montana. At this time the only people of colour lived on reservations or in Chinatown, but certainly not in our neighbourhood. That changed when I went to the University of Calgary and met Bethuel Okalla Okatch of Uganda who was completing his doctorate of education at the University of Calgary. Bethuel joked that with a name like Okatch, he was an African-IrIshman, but he was black as black can be. I came to know Bethuel as a Christian brother and part of the great multitude of believers. 

Years later here in Arizona I came to know another black man with an Irish name who taught me about white privilege. He had lived a variation of the Sandra Bullock movie, The Blind Side, where an African-American boy was adopted by a white family and became a football star. My friend helped me see a bit of what it is to be a black man in a white culture. I now can look into his face and see a brother and a member of that great multitude of believers. 

Our daughter and son’s generation are different. They did not have to wait for adulthood to see that people from all tribes and peoples and languages will be standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  

So what does Revelation 7:9-17 mean? I quote from a commentary at

John’s . . . vision is of a staggering number of people, from every race, ethnicity and language, dressed in white and shouting out praise to God. This is a poignant reminder of God’s love for all people, and the essential unity of mankind. Despite efforts to divide humanity based on appearance or heritage, Scripture is clear that all people, of all tribes and languages, will be represented in God’s eternal plan of salvation. 

So let us join all the angels who stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, as they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.

And who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?
These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and 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.”

Let us pray in silence as we rejoice and keep festival in honor of all the saints.

Let us remember: George Pankonin- Sanborn MN Sept 26, 2020

Let us remember:  Lorna Brecheisen

Let us remember: George Todd

Let us remember:  All who have passed from this life to everlasting life with God.

Almighty God, your saints are one with you in the mystical body of Christ:  give us grace to follow them in all virtue and holiness until we come to those inexpressible joys which you have prepared for us;  

Through Jesus Christ our Lord,  who is alive with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever.  Amen.