All Saint’s Day is one of my favorite feast days – not because my house is currently filled with candy – which it is – but because it is the day on which I can tell my children that their mother is a saint – and the whole church has to back me up! We are – as the hymn says – all members of the community of God and, God helping, we, like those we love who have gone before us – can be saints too. That is what our Christian belief tells us and for many of us it is the basis for our belief in life after death – in heaven – in the kingdom of God.
But what – and where – is the Kingdom of God? Many Christians believe that the end of the world will begin with a period of time when the elect are simply snatched into heaven – raptured – and those left behind will struggle to be saved as the ultimate annihilation of the world approaches. This understanding of the apocalypse, based on the biblical Book of Revelation that we read from today, is so popular that it is a foundational belief for many Christians. It’s the reason the “Left Behind” series, a novelized account of the “end times” which closely follows the outline of the author’s Revelation, has sold over 60 million copies. It’s the reason that many Christians believe that we don’t have to worry about cleaning up the environment – or cleaning up our own acts for that matter- because during the end times this heaven, this earth, this humanity will disappear. God’s coming back and he’s bringing a brand-spanking- new world along with him. That’s the primary benefit of being Christian you see – we have an escape clause.
But only if you are one of the elect – only if you have been tested like gold in a furnace and found to be worthy. Which means that professing the Christian faith is not enough to buy you a seat on the apocalypse express – because we all know that simply calling yourself a Christian doesn’t guarantee good behavior. In fact, for some people, the label, “Christian” may mean the exact opposite of good. We live in a world where for every Christian who works at a homeless shelter, there is another who makes a child homeless by murdering his father. Where for every Christian who feeds the poor, there is another who starves a family by subjecting them to underpaid and dangerous work conditions. Where for every Christian who builds a sanctuary for worship and peace there is another who burns one down. To be honest, when you’re looking at today’s news headlines it’s hard to know who the good guys are.
According to a recent article entitled, “Why can’t church be more like AA”?, there are those who refer to church membership with the same terms they use to talk about addiction – using words like confusion, fear, and powerlessness. Such people report feeling, “spiritually starved in what they experience…as a cold, judgmental, and unforgiving Church culture.” Instead of finding forgiveness and welcome at church, they get it at AA meetings. They say that at AA they can come as they are and experience “authentic connection to themselves and to others.” They feel heard. They don’t feel judged. In other words, people are getting what they should find in church in church basements instead.
That wasn’t the way it was for me. Many of you know that my husband served in the U.S. military for 27 years and that his career involved moving on numerous occasions. This was terribly hard on me. I am a homebody. I do not like to stray far from where my family is – from where my home is. I believe that one of the primary reasons I survived those moves comes in the form of an approximately two-foot tall red, white and blue sign that has the following words written on it, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” The Episcopal Church welcomed me in Virginia, in Maryland, in Massachusetts, in Alameda, and in Berkeley, California. The Episcopal Church welcomed me and my family with generosity, with joy – and with love. They welcomed me not because I gave them money, or because we had the same kind of job, or because we suffered from similar emotional or health issues, or because we liked the same baseball team. They welcomed me because they knew what it meant to be the community of Christ. They welcomed me not like, but as family. They were my home. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Those who believe that the end of the word will unfold quite literally as John’s revelatory vision suggests think that believing is the only key to salvation. But today’s readings tell us that the Kingdom of God is for those who are pure and worthy of it– and we all know that being Christian does not automatically make us either of those things. What it does make us is a community – a community based not on like interests or experiences, but on a shared confidence in the love of God and in God’s love of us. And I believe that it is as a community that we are tested. It is as a community that we are judged. And, God willing, it is as a community that we are saved. Mercifully, we are not dependent on our own strength of character for salvation. We are in this together.
That’s why we need to stop seeing sainthood as about the achievements and sacrifices of individual people. The saints of God are not simply figures you see depicted in stained glass windows. We honor those people because they represent the good that is possible in Christian community, of what can happen when individuals embolden the entire community of faith. Because it is in community that Christians affect the world. It is in community that we can dispel the darkness and chaos that threaten us. It is in community that we can bring about the Kingdom of God.
Today’s scripture does not say that the Kingdom of God is where a righteous few go after they are raptured. The writer of Revelation says that the home of God is among mortals – that the Kingdom of God will dwell among us. Not each of us individually, but all of us together. Our scriptures tell us that we have to bring the Kingdom of God to this reality – that the Kingdom of God is nothing more – and nothing less – than the fully realized community of God – the community of God as it should be- the community of God as it can be. This interpretation assumes not an escape from the world, but a realization about the world – the realization that the seeds of the Kingdom of God are already among us.
Today’s reading from Revelation is often interpreted as being about heaven – about a place of hope and comfort where we go after we die. But I don’t believe that the Kingdom of God is a far-off place. I believe that the Kingdom of God is, as James Alison puts it, “the collective living out of the opening of heaven.” The Kingdom of God is not about getting rid of mourning and crying and pain and death. It is about recognizing them. It is about sharing them. It is about sanctifying them.
That’s what Jesus did when he raised Lazarus from the dead. He didn’t go to the house of his beloved friend in time to save him. He didn’t arrive during the solemn beauty of a funeral service. Jesus showed up after Mary and Martha had given up hope. He showed up after Lazarus had been entombed. He showed up after Lazarus began to stink. And the first thing he did, the very first thing was not to blow a trumpet or declare a feast. The very first thing he did was to weep –to wail – over Lazarus’s death. Jesus acknowledged the fear and anxiety and pain that consumed his community of friends, just as God understands the sin and sorrow that engulf us. Jesus shared his friends’ grief -and only after he did that did he show them the power of God – how it was already there in their community – how it had been available to them all along.
It puts me in mind of the end of the “Wizard of Oz.” The Wizard has promised to take Dorothy home in his balloon. She has said her good-byes and is prepared to go when Toto jumps out of the basket. As Dorothy chases after him, the balloon takes off without her. “Wait!” she yells in panic. “I can’t,” cries the Wizard. “I don’t know how to stop this thing!” Dorothy is left bereft, believing she has lost her last chance to see her family again. But then the Good Witch appears and tells Dorothy that she already has the power to get home. She simply has to say “There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home.” Dorothy’s true home, like our true home in the heaven that is the presence of God, was in her heart all along. She just had to remember where her home was. She had to remember what her home was. She had to remember who her home was.
And that’s what we need to do – to find heaven in our hearts, and in our community. We are in this together. Our hope of heaven rests not in individual virtue but in how true we make the words of the same sign that always promised home to me. In the midst of the chaos of this world and the disappointments of our lives and the fear of the evils that lurk around us, the glory of God is here. It is in the ability of this community to live and to welcome others into a life in Christ. We are the home of God. The kingdom of God is in us. Indeed, we are all of us saints of God and I mean, God helping, to be one too. That is our true revelation – and it will be our resurrection. AMEN.
Kathleen Hirsch, “Why Can’t Church be more like AA?”, Crux, October 1, 2015
Kathleen Hirsch, “Why Can’t Church Be More like AA,” Crux, October 1, 2015.