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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying,
"Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "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.”
Christianity has traditionally used the term saints two ways. In the New Testament, it is always used in its literal meaning, which is of someone set apart, in our case set apart in Baptism. In God’s eyes, Baptism is the way he definitively marks us as people called, chosen, and sealed as members of Jesus Christ. When God looks at a baptized person, he sees the identity we are given in Baptism; he sees us set apart from the world and marked as Christ’s own forever. If you are a Christian, if you have been wrapped up in that white baptismal robe, you are also wrapped up in the righteousness and holiness and identity of Jesus Christ, and so the New Testament recognizes that by using the term saint, or set-apart one, for all baptized Christians. So we hold on to one truth: God has already done what is needed for us to be completely his in Christ.
But the term saints is also used in another way, and that’s the way our feast today is observing. When we sing “For all the saints who from their labors rest, who thee by faith before the world confessed,” or “I sing a song of the saints of God,” we’re using the word in that second sense, which means, to quote one of our Episcopal teaching documents, “men and women of outstanding holiness, heroism, and teaching in the cause of Christ, whose lives and deaths have been a continuing, conscious influence upon the on-going life of the Church in notable and well-recognized ways.” That’s probably what many of us think of when we hear the word saints. And with that use of the word we hold on to a second truth: There is always room for each and every one of us to grow more fully into the identity God gave us as baptized Christians, and we know that because we have seen people do it.
Who are these, robed in white? We all receive that robe in our Baptism; however, some of us treat it as an inconvenience or pretend we don’t have it. A lot of us rather half-heartedly try, in various ways, to let our identity in Christ shape us. But some wear that robe over years so wholeheartedly, so humbly, with such love and discipline, that the dazzling, pure baptismal presence of Jesus that envelops them becomes second nature. And those, the women and men who took notable hold of what God gives us all in Baptism, are the people we celebrate today.
One of the things that comes home to you, I think, as you spend time with these people through their writings or visiting the places they lived or talking to members of communities they founded, or as you spend time with people in your life that you suspect may be well on the path to that kind of sainthood, is that holiness is a path that is open to everyone. It’s just that most of us don’t choose it.
The saints are signs of potential. Of yours and mine and of every Baptized person. In Christ, by grace, they prove that we can make the choices to live out the identity God gave us. I can choose to say Morning Prayer tomorrow, or I can choose to scroll through Facebook. I can choose to set aside a proportion of my income for God first, or I can choose to give away just what I think I can afford. I can choose to stop and listen for God’s guidance before an important decision, or I can do what seems best to me. I can choose to speak openly about Jesus Christ, or I can choose to skirt over being that specific. I can choose to confess my sins tonight and ask forgiveness, or I can let my head hit the pillow without meeting God’s eyes.
What choices we make in all those situations will not do one thing to change the fact that a person is baptized, that God has already chosen them in Christ. But every single choice to put God’s will first, or second or third or twenty-fifth in our lives, will make a difference in who we become, in how fully we reflect the dazzling beauty and purity of Jesus that is, ultimately, what we were made for and what we long for. We know that’s true, because in the saints, we’ve seen it.
They lived not only in ages past;
there are hundreds of thousands still;
the world is bright with the joyous saints
who love to do Jesus’ will.
And one was a soldier, and one was a priest,
and one was slain by a fierce wild beast:
and there’s not any reason, no, not the least,
why I shouldn’t be one too.
Not here for high and holy things
we render thanks to thee,
but for the common things of earth,
the purple pageantry
of dawning and of dying days,
the splendor of the sea,
the royal robes of autumn moors,
the golden gates of spring,
the velvet of soft summer nights,
the silver glistering
of all the million million stars,
the silent song they sing,
One of my personal joys during the past months has been to take the time to walk outside early in the morning and to listen to God’s creatures as they begin the day. In the spring birds of all types sang out. In the summer they were joined by the cicadas and crickets. And now it is the squirrels that make the most noise. They all have reminded me to give thanks to our creator for that particular day. Surely, these “common things of earth” which I may have overlooked in past years have made such joyful noises that have reminded me to thank God for everything. God has continued to give us much this year. Over the past weeks, I have enjoyed seeing Carlos, Elizabeth, Mary, and Mark tell how they have been affected by this year’s challenges and how they have experienced the love of God, often through Emmanuel church during this same time. Particularly I was touched by listening to Craig list the joys of the year. It would be a good spiritual exercise to list your own joys found since last November. God has given much to sustain us through these difficult months. Though, admittedly, we may have to change our focus to remember them. It is good that we have had these October weeks to think about how we have been loved by God and then to reflect on what would love do.
They usually call it a “gotcha question” – one posed not honestly to get an answer, but manipulatively to trick the respondent into saying something that can be used against them. The Gospels have more than one example of someone going after Jesus with a gotcha question, and today has to be one of my favorites. Matthew tells us:
The Pharisees… plotted to entrap Jesus in what he said, asking “Is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?” But Jesus, aware of their malice, said, “Why are you putting me to the test, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax.” And they brought him a denarius. Then he said to them, “Whose head is this, and whose title?” They answered, “The emperor’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” When they heard this, they were amazed; and they left him and went away.
Whenever someone asks Jesus a gotcha question, they are the ones who end up gotcha’d. The Pharisees want to trick Jesus into siding with one position on a currently controversial tax – we’ve got one of those on the ballot in Illinois this year, so you can imagine the situation, I expect. Jesus explodes the short-sighted partisan focus, and points out that anyone who calls themselves a believer in God ought to be thinking like one. A believer ought to have a wider perspective. Give to God the things that are God’s, he says, and the questioners slink away speechless.
Give to God the things that are God’s. Which begs the question, what things are God’s? Now that is, as I’ve said before, kindergarten level monotheism. Jews, Christians, and Muslims at a minimum should all immediately know the answer. What things are God’s? Everything. There is nothing outside his creative rule, nothing that cannot be traced back to his generosity. You and I may be taking care of some of his property for him, as Jesus has been pointing out to us in parable after parable this fall, but God owns it. We are his and everything we have is his.
Despite the fact that this is kindergarten level monotheism, it’s easier to say you believe it than to act as if you believe it. Of course, that’s the case for all kinds of Christian teachings. It’s easier to say you believe in forgiveness than to forgive someone who has hurt you. It’s easier to say you believe God is all-knowing than to act like he knows better than you do. It’s easier to say you believe that all things are God’s than to treat your things as God’s.
Jesus talks about all those topics, but he talks about how we use our resources more than almost anything else, because he knows how deeply it damages us to live as people who don’t know how broad and great and generous the involvement of God is in absolutely everything.
That faith – that there isn’t anything bigger than God, that all things are God’s, that his involvement is broad and great and generous – is what has kept me going through these past several months of having to reinvent nearly everything about the way we do ministry because of the pandemic. It has not been at all easy on any of us, but Emmanuel has kept doing our ministry because of who God is and what God’s like.
We have not missed one day of sack lunches. We have as of this week been out 115 times to take people contactless home communions. Every daily office since March has been prayed just the way it would have otherwise. We’ve gathered on Zoom and YouTube and Facebook for formation and worship several times a week as well as retooling our nave for in-person Masses that got an enthusiastic thumbs up from C-U Public Health.
Why did we do that? Because all things are God’s and they’re God’s now, not later. In this time, not some other time. Because at Emmanuel we want to be people who know how broad and great and generous the involvement of God is in absolutely everything and every season, not people who wait for some other season or some other situation to consider what God requires. We want to give to God what is God’s all the time.
There have been some discouraging things about this year, but I want to tell you one encouraging thing. We’ve sent out 2021 pledge cards, and, you know, please return yours soon. But as part of that naturally we look at giving for the current year, and of course some people are impacted by COVID such that they can’t do what they hoped. But what blows me away is in October to read down the column of the spreadsheet that lists the percentage fulfilled so far of the giving goals all of you set.
In that column, say, if someone pledged $4000 and gave $4000, it says 100%, right? So I look down that column and of course some people couldn’t do what they hoped. But what blows me away this year is to see in October a smattering of percentages like 112%, 245%, 150%, 650%. Ordinary folks, who gradually over these past months have kept doing more than they planned because they know how important Emmanuel’s mission and ministry are, and how broad and great and generous the involvement of God is in what we do for the sake of Love.
Give to God the things that are God’s. It’s kindergarten level monotheism, but do we live it out? I honestly think that in this area of the spiritual life, there is no more effective first step in learning how to do what you say you believe than to mindfully decide how much money you plan to give away, and offer that plan to God, who already owns all of it. Do that in prayer, do that in Love, do that with the God who already owns everything you have, and you’ll see.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”
This verse in Paul’s letter to the Philippians is loved by many people. It is a favorite to read over and over. In hearing the entire passage today I am seeing it in new ways. I especially identify with the opening words. “My brothers and sisters, whom I love and long for…” As this pandemic year continues, I expect you also can understand Paul’s sentiment. We long to see each other and to be physically together and yet we are not there yet. So how can we do this is, how can we always rejoice?
Of course, this year 2020 has brought some times of happiness, the births of new babies, being able to see family and friends even from afar, finding those rolls of toilet paper, getting an economic boost just at the right time, eating favorite foods, learning to use zoom, and so on. There have been happy times even though these are overshadowed by many more times of grief and unhappiness.
As we look at this particular scripture I think it might be helpful to make a distinction between happiness and joy. For my purposes today I will define happiness as something that happens to us or for us. While similar, joy is a deeper grounding, a state of being, a place of calm and peace which is always available to us. Joy comes from knowing to whom we belong. While happiness is external brought about by things outside of us, joy is internal. And yes, 2020 has brought much unhappiness and yet the joy found “in the Lord” is unchanged.