Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Last and Lasting Word: Notes on All Saints Day 2018

Stories have a powerful way of shaping our lives.

 Over the years, I still remember my Grandmother Hugenot reading the story of “Button 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.  And, thanks to corporate marketing strategies, I know it thanks to the Gospel according to Walt.  Daisy Duck outwits champion miser Uncle Scrooge to share his resources with his other Disneyland neighbors.

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 “Button/Stone Soup”.

The story I tell involves the very end of human existence, aka "the Eschaton" (for those wanting a cool Scrabble winning word).  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.

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