Friday, October 30, 2015

A People of the Last Word (Revelation 21:1-6a)

A few saints never make the official lists
 yet keep the Church and even you and me
honest before God and neighbor alike.
Graphic novels are a big seller in bookstores.  Most often the titles you find will be the more familiar adventures of Batman, the Avengers, Superman and other spandex clad super heroes.  But look more closely, and you will find a variety of works by illustrators who are telling an unique story, blending the conventions of a novel with a comic book.

Among these more unique graphic novels The Book of Genesis.  Long time comic book readers might be surprised to find out the illustrator is the “underground comic” artist R. Crumb, whose body of work makes an odd statement indeed to add the title of “bible illustrator” to his resume.  Crumb spent the past four years drawing the book of Genesis, taking care to read biblical scholarship to develop his take on Genesis. 

Surprisingly, for such an iconoclast, Crumb offers a fairly earnest depiction of Genesis, demonstrating his skill as an artist as well as the complexities of the actual text of Genesis.  For a book about God, creation, and humanity’s “origins”, Genesis does not R. Crumb’s help being controversial.  On its own, Genesis is a challenging set of tales replete with human failings, violence, and an “R” rating.  Sacred stories are closer to our lives than we sometimes want them to be.

On the other end of the Bible, we encounter a story of “the End”.  Ironically, some folks tend to sugarcoat Genesis, yet people tend to remember the Book of Revelation more for its violence than its scenes of great hope.  I grew up in Kansas churches that loved the rainbow over Noah’s ark yet lived in fear of Revelation’s scenes of “the End Times”.  (You would not believe some of the books I found in shopping mall Christian bookstores growing up out in the Midwest….)  

The book of Revelation is filled with stories of the nations of the world going into disarray, armies battling, and Evil’s forces battling it out with the heavenly powers.  To say the book of Revelation tends to be inscrutable and difficult to understand is an understatement.  Nonetheless, if you read the whole book, you see a different story at work, not like the version of Revelation you might hear preached about on many AM radio stations in parts of the Midwest and the South.  The violence, the battle between forces above and below, all of this is in the text, yet a powerful theme resounds throughout: not of fear, but of hope.

The end vision of Christianity is hope.  In the End God shall have the last word.  After much tumult, suffering and pain, the world described by Genesis shall pass away and a new heaven and earth, a new frame of reality, shall take its place.  Reading Revelation, the careful reader recalls T.S. Eliot’s poetic line:  “In my end is my beginning”.  The book of Revelation unveils the brokenness of our world and the transformation, the magnificent future, God alone shall bring about.  Revelation is a passionate book, calling the reader not to live in fear or speculation.  Rather, the Christian is encouraged to live in anticipation and hope.   We live as a people who already know what the last word shall be.  It will not be “anxiety”.  It will not be “fear”.  It will not be even “death”.  In the end, we shall hear “Behold, I make all things new”.  This is the story that Christians live by.  You cannot understand us without it.

Stories have a powerful way of shaping our lives.  Over the years, I still remember my Grandmother Hugenot reading the story of “Stone Soup”.  I have the book among my books, and I will never part with it.  The physical book is precious to me.  The story of “Button Soup”, a tale of a miser who learns to be generous by sharing of his abundance with his neighbors, is one that I claim as a “core story” I retain from my childhood.  I remember with great fondness my grandmother reading me many stories over and over, yet that particular story, a variant of “Stone Soup”, is the one that nestled down deep within me.  The story makes sense of the world, or the way the world ought to be.
 As a grownup, I find myself telling people another story, one that I find deep down in my bones just like “Stone Soup”.  You heard our lector tell that story to you a bit earlier, as told by the book of Revelation.  Where I tell this story as a preacher is less a matter of standing in a pulpit and more when I stand on a hillside.  It’s a quiet time when I tell this story.   It’s time for that final ritual up there among family and friends.  We have been telling stories already, sometimes told with rollicking detail during an eulogy delivered by a friend (clergy sometimes blanche at the stories of the deceased that get told at funerals).   Now it’s approaching time for that last word.  What will it be?

At the graveside, I tell one story.  It’s really the best one for times like these.  As the liturgy draws to a close, I am nearing the amen, but I still have this story to tell.  I say in the midst of the sadness and as that sense of finality hangs a bit thick in the air:
“We look forward to that time, when the one who has made us shall not leave us in the dust.  For as scriptures promise, there shall be an end to death, and to crying and to pain, for the old order has passed away”.

The Christian cannot speak of any other last word.  We sometimes forget when the anxieties of the day make us think things are otherwise contrary to our knowledge of the promised End.  Indeed, there are times when we lose sight of that which is promised, or we let another story take precedence.  Those who are able to stay the course, those who are able to keep “their eyes on the prize”, we have a word for these sort of folks:  saints.   The book of Revelation mentions saints quite frequently, the people who live a faithful witness on the earth, even in its broken down state, and once up in the heavenly choirs, just can’t stop praising the Lord.

The saints are those who live in this world with the same frailty and fallibility as any other human being, yet they are able to live a faithful and unshakable witness to Christ.  It does not happen overnight for these folks: the process varies, yet the result is the same:  people who are able to be the faithful and beloved of Christ.  They take the long view, knowing that God will have the last word, not the powers and ideologies of the day, or the belief that things will end in disarray or without meaning.  They see the world as a place where the gospel can indeed take root, no matter how tough and stubborn the soil appears to be.  The Baptist saint Clarence Jordan lived through the difficulties of mid-20th century racism as a witness to racial reconciliation and peace.  Only a saint could take the long view, despite the many forces against him.  Jordan spoke prophetically when he observed, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence and watching the evidence change”.  In other words, God shall have the last word, and it shall be one that is glorious and just.

Now the Church has various traditions and practices about counting the saints.  Some parts of the Church have quite a process to declare a person officially a “saint” of the Church.  The New Testament, though, takes a fairly broad definition of the term, depicting the saints of the Church as those who live a faithful life, one testifying to the gospel.  In other words, no list shall be ever exhaustive of the saints.  Saints are great and obscure alike.  Saints are plentiful, yet not all of them can ever be named adequately.  So, I want to make sure that we remember “All Saints” aright this day.  We are not just looking at the people known far and wide.  We are looking within the range of our own faith journey as well, recalling those saints who made the gospel come alive in your witnessing of their lives. 

Let us remember “all saints” this day, those who know how the story shall end, and remind ourselves that we are likewise called to be a people of the last word.

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