A sermon preached by the Rev. Beth Maynard on All Saints Sunday
I’ve seen two or three places this past month a story about a church trend called “Mass Mobs.” Maybe some of you have too. Mass Mobs began at Roman Catholic parishes in Michigan as a way of taking off on the “flash mob” trend, and the idea is to recruit large numbers of people to show up for one Mass on one day to fill a church to capacity. The media seem to view this as a heartwarming success story, which is no surprise since when the topic is religion, the media often miss the point.
But it bothered me that the quotes from the people at the churches seemed pretty off-point too. In the coverage from NPR, one priest said how moved he was that a Mass Mob let attendees briefly recapture “this feeling of what it was so many years ago, when the churches were filled." A layperson at that same parish said that even if people didn't get involved at her church, she hoped they’d at least “send some money sometimes, just to keep these old parishes surviving."
Now I've heard that kind of talk from leaders in a wide variety of denominations, including our own, and it always makes me think: What a way to view the Christian enterprise! Imagine, in any other area of life, someone taking that kind of attitude. Imagine, say, a restaurant that didn’t focus on excellent cooking or service, but wanted you to eat there so it didn’t have to close. Imagine a team who didn’t strategize about how to win the upcoming games on their schedule, but spent its time reminiscing about past victories. Imagine a doctor who said, “Don’t bother coming for checkups, just send me some money sometimes.” Yet somehow when churches articulate those kinds of things as if they were all we had to hope for, nobody blinks. ....
I’ve never been to a Mass Mob, but over the past let’s say 10 years, I’ve certainly worshiped in Episcopal churches whose pews were filled with people. But they were filled because, basically, word had gotten out that these were places where you could get in on very important stuff: encountering God, or finding your place in the world, or helping change the life of a person or of your neighborhood, or being healed yourself. In short, over the past let’s say 10 years, the only Episcopal parishes I’ve been to whose pews were filled were parishes who didn’t focus on filling the pews: they focused on Christ and living the way of Christ.
One of the wonderful things about our liturgy and our lectionary is that when we pay attention to them, they do focus us right there. Now I’m not claiming attending liturgical services will automatically make someone an effective disciple of Christ. There wouldn’t be so many liturgical churches that are struggling if that were so. But I am claiming, to steal a phrase from the 12-step programs, that the liturgy works if you work it.
The liturgy works if you work it. If we digest these prayers, ruminate on these Scriptural texts, ask them our hard questions, and put them into practice, they will work -- on us, in us, and through us. They will keep turning us, over and over, away from our small preoccupations, away from both self-doubt and self-promotion, away from anxiety, away from chasing easy answers. They will keep spreading before us the fascinating reality of Jesus, the breadth of the Christian vision, and the possibilities for healing and transformation that God holds out for us and all creation.
Those possibilities in our liturgy and our lectionary are so beautiful and vast that we wouldn’t have time to lay out even all the ones we glimpse in today’s Mass for All Saints. So let’s just skim one reading, the first. This famous passage from Revelation shows us where we’re headed: to join a renewed community fully alive to the New Creation, finally having reached the place of fulness which Jesus won for us.
What does that vision look like? It’s right there on your insert. The members of the community God is grooming us for are “a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages,” – so all those human divisions of race and culture are overcome. We all long for that. They are crying out in exultation and singing for joy, falling on their faces, waving palm branches – so their whole beings are fully engaged now, there is no longer any disconnect between mind and body or between thought and action. We all long for that too What they’ve found in God is so rich there don’t seem to be enough nouns to describe it: “blessing,” it says, “and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might.”
Who are they? They’re us, eventually, but specifically here they are “those who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” We were talking about this last week – the liberating realization that we no longer have to take ourselves to the cleaners day by day, trying to do better, but that we can rely on the beauty and perfection of Jesus. They have “come through the great ordeal,” it says. We all know what it is to face ordeals large and small, and we all need to know we can come through them. But finally they are free; they can “worship day and night" – their lives are consistent now, seamless, no longer torn between one priority and another; again, we all long for that kind of integration.
And then these profound promises: “They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; 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.” And once more, this is what we all want. Satisfaction for our thirst, rest in our restlessness, endless food for the intellect and the heart and the spirit, deep personal healing for the losses and the grief and the wounds every one of us has had to endure. These are promises big enough to answer the human heart in all its complexity. And that’s just one reading! And we skipped parts!
So, look: Instead of gathering people around beginning to taste promises like that and share them, somebody’s plan is to boost the numbers one week with Mass Mobs? Somebody thinks the main goal is institutional survival? I can’t imagine being willing to settle to that point. That’s not settling for second best or third best, it’s settling for something way, way down the list. It's settling for far less than what God offers.
This particular day in our calendar, the feast of All Saints, is sort of the feast of not settling. It lays before us both those exemplary Christians who have reached the fulness of life God offers, and then the rest of us, who are equally called by God but uneven in our experience of that fulness. We’re all on the same road, we all get tastes of these promises at different times and in different measures, we often have different ways of talking and thinking about them, but we’re all headed the same place, into God’s New Creation where we will be whole and reconciled and he will be all in all.
I hope, in some small measure, that how we live our lives together in this wonderful parish will help us help each other down that road. I have heard from some of you stories of the many ways that has already happened here, and I don’t think it’s going to stop now. I hope that as we walk with those who are grieving or in pain, we will together meet that God who wipes away all tears. I hope that we can drink together of those springs of the water of life, over and over, because we’re all thirsty.
I hope that you can help me, and I can help you, not just during Mass but in every aspect of how we live together, to keep our gaze focused on the matchless gift of Jesus Christ. I hope we can inspire each other to settle for nothing less than his full generosity towards us and his world.
Mark and I are making a financial pledge to Emmanuel today first and foremost because we have learned how generous God is. But we’re also pledging today because we love this place, and we are proud to be one small part of the community God is using to make his work possible here. We want to join him as he works through all of us. We are pledging because we aren’t willing to settle – we want the privilege of having our resources, our energy, our time moving down the road towards the New Creation. And we want to do that with all of you beside us, in Jesus’ Name.