This sermon was preached on Sunday, November 2, 2014, All Saints’ Sunday at Centenary United Methodist Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Scripture used was Revelation 7:9-17.
The American gospel hymn turned jazz standard “When the Saints Go Marching In” was arguably one of the biggest hits of the 20th century. It’s hard for me to believe that it was written in the last 100 years, because it seems like one of those songs that has always existed. Whether you are Christian or not, whether you know jazz or not, it is extremely unlikely that you’ve never heard this song.
“When the Saints Go Marching In” sometimes shows up in a strange place: at funerals—usually at jazz funerals, common in New Orleans. The band will play the song as a slow, sad dirge while the coffin is being carried to the cemetery, but when they turn to leave after the internment, they switch to the upbeat Dixieland version. And so a single song bridges the tension between mourning the one who has passed and celebrating the promise of resurrection and the new life to come.
In today’s Scripture reading, we see countless people streaming to the throne of God, shouting and singing and falling on their faces. I can imagine them waving their palm branches, dancing, and belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the top of their lungs.
Today is All Saints’ Day. Today, we remember those who have gone before us in the faith, those whose journey in this life has ended. This reading from the book of Revelation is commonly used to celebrate All Saints’ Day—the great multitude represents for us the saints, that great cloud of witnesses, the body of Christ that is not bound by space or time, not even by life or death.
“Who are these, robed in white?” The color white carries a great deal of symbolism. It might make you think of weddings or baptisms or a general concept of purity and innocence; in the church, white is the liturgical color for Christmas and Easter.
Many other religions use the color white in particular ways. In Judaism, it is the custom to wear white on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. On Yom Kippur, white symbolizes purity and reminds worshippers of the promise in Isaiah that our sins will be made white like snow.
In Islam, simple white garments are to be worn on the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. This again symbolizes purity, but it is also a sign of shedding wealth, social distinctions, and vanity for the sake of the pilgrim’s devotion.
In Asian cultures, including Hinduism and Buddhism, white is the color of mourning. This might seem odd to us, since the Western world tends to make black the color of mourning. But if you have ever been to a funeral here at Centenary, you may have seen white paraments just like the ones we’re using today.
In The United Methodist Book of Worship, there isn’t actually anything called a “funeral”—it’s “A Service of Death and Resurrection.” White, for us, represents the resurrection, the new life to come. It holds us in the tension between mourning and celebration in the same way that a jazz funeral might.
“Who are these, robed in white?” They are the ones gathering around God’s throne to sing and to worship, but not before going through “the great ordeal.”
One of the tricky things about the Christian faith is that it promises new life, but not before the passing of the old. Resurrection—living again—requires first that one must die. In our society, we tend to look at death as the end—and it is, in fact, the end of many things. But death is not the end of all things.
If we believe that, even subconsciously, we will find ourselves sorely disappointed in our understanding of God’s providence. Often, we think of providence as safety, as protection, as God preserving us and the people and things we love just the way they are. But this is not the witness of Scripture. Scott Bader-Saye says this: “Providence does not guarantee protection; rather, it assures us of God’s provision (making a way for us to go on) and redemption (restoring what is lost along the way).”
Whatever is lost along the way, it is not the end, for there is always a way for us to go on. Death means the end of relationships as we have known them, of daily habits of living, of practices and feelings and experiences we once depended on. But it is not the end of all things. Bader-Saye says, “Christian trust in God’s providence tells us that if things haven’t ended well, then, well, they haven’t ended.”
The book of Revelation falls into a genre known as “apocalyptic literature.” This kind of writing is found throughout the Bible, and it represents the revealing of things not formerly known. Often its subject is the end times.
Many Christians over the centuries have used the book of Revelation to try and parse out the details of the end of the world—when it is coming, how we can recognize the signs, and most importantly, what different people’s fates will be when it arrives.
Revelation does seem to provide some specifics. For example, in the verses at the beginning of chapter 7, before the passage we read today, we read that 144,000 names are sealed in the scroll of the Lamb: 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel. Some readers have taken that number to heart, saying there is limited space in heaven. One article about the song “When the Saints Go Marching In” even points to that verse in reference to the line “O Lord, I want to be in that number”—that is, I want to be one of the 144,000.
But such a narrow reading of Revelation is a mistake. For one, numbers in the Bible almost always have a symbolism of their own. But more importantly, it misses the fullness of the vision in Revelation 7. It would be easy to look for “that number” and stop when you see 144,000.
But if you keep reading, you come to these words we’ve already heard: “After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.”
When we use the word “saint,” we are often referring to someone we see as particularly good or holy, more so than the average person. But the image in Revelation 7 is not one of excellent Christians being rewarded for their good Christian behavior; it is of those who have suffered finding comfort and shelter in the God who provides the way through if not always the way out.
This is not a select, elite group chosen for their many brilliant qualifications. This is a motley crew, a gathering of all different kinds of people from many different places. The image of the multitude challenges our narrow definition of the word “saint.”
American writer Flannery O’Connor penned a short story about a good Christian woman whose narrowness was broken open by a strange experience and a bizarre vision. The story is appropriately entitled “Revelation.” It invites the reader into the world of Mrs. Turpin, a clean, well-to-do, God-fearing woman who is thankful for her good husband, her good home, her good disposition, and most of all that God made her neither a black person nor white trash.
You see, Mrs. Turpin is very attached to differentiating people by class. She often rehearses the hierarchy in her head: blacks and white trash occupy the lowest rung, then homeowners, then those who have more than they need (that would be her and her husband), and above them the very wealthy. Mrs. Turpin is kind to all sorts of people, but the reader knows her kindness is always a little patronizing. It comes more out of pity than out of humanity or compassion.
After a jarring experience in the waiting room at her doctor’s office, Mrs. Turpin finds herself rethinking her identity and status before God. A girl in the waiting room flies into an inexplicable rage and attacks Mrs. Turpin, calling her “a warthog from hell.” Mrs. Turpin is rattled by this, because she believes the girls’ words were a divine message meant just for her.
And so she asks God, what was this about? How could she be both a good Christian woman and also a warthog from hell? If she really were that bad, why hadn’t God just made her white trash or black to begin with? Her categories turned upside down, her faith shaken, Mrs. Turpin goes out to take care of some chores on the farm, and it is then that she sees a strange vision:
“There was only a purple streak in the sky, cutting through a field of crimson and leading, like an extension of the highway, into the descending dusk. […] A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black [folks] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized as those who, like herself and [her husband] Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away. […] In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile. […] In the woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah.”
Theologian Brian McLaren suggests that there are two different ways of thinking about the Christian community. The first way, the most common, is to think of it as a bounded set—that is, the community is defined by the lines and boundaries drawn around it. The question when considering a bounded set is, Are you in or are you out?
But McLaren pushes us to look at things differently. He says that the Christian community is not a bounded set but a centered set. A centered set is not defined by its outer boundaries but by its center—in this case, by its relation to God. So the question is not, Are you in or are you out? but, Are you moving toward or away from the center?
Mrs. Turpin’s vision shows her that her bounded set pales in comparison to the centered set that is God’s kingdom. When the identity of the saints is revealed to her, it does not come in the form of a membership roster; rather, it is embodied in the chaotic movement of all the saints marching in, moving toward the center, rumbling toward the throne of God.
Our new vision here at Centenary is “Go—The Kingdom of God Is Right at Your Doorstep.” The kingdom of God is not defined by borders but by movement toward the center. Entrance into the kingdom does not require a citizenship test or a photo ID but movement toward the center. For salvation belongs not to us or to a particular social class or even to the church; no—“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
A few weeks ago, I had the honor of joining a mission team from Centenary on a trip to Haiti. We experienced wonder and horror, inspiration and despair, beauty and suffering. We learned that in Creole, God is called “Bon Dye,” which means “Good God.” It’s never just “God”—it is always “Good God.”
We got to have the incredible experience of worshipping with our Haitian brothers and sisters on Sunday morning of our trip. We came into the church at Terre Noire and found our seats in the sanctuary. The church seats 1,000, and it was packed by 6:00 in the morning.
The entire service was in Creole, so we understood very little of what was happening. But the spirit of worship was palpable, inviting, and infectious. We all felt that it didn’t matter that we didn’t understand the words—we were truly worshipping with our Haitian brothers and sisters.
But there was a remarkable moment for me where I understood something—not the words, but the music. The congregation began singing, and I suddenly realized—I know this song! And so, with a thousand Haitians singing in Creole all around me, I joined my voice in singing in English:
Jesus, be the centre
Be my source, be my guide, Jesus
“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Jesus is the center, and among that great multitude where I was the one from a different tribe and language, we were all moving toward that center together. Our citizenship in the kingdom of God had no regard for our ability to speak a certain language or to be a certain color or class or nationality—it was defined solely by our movement toward the center.
Those who have gone through the great ordeal take solace in God’s ruling from the throne. This rule does not consist in conquest but in comfort, not in drawing lines but in drawing us all in.
Our Methodist membership vows provide us with tools for moving toward the center. When you join a Methodist church, you promise to support it with “your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness.” This is not a checklist or a test. These are ways in which we bring forth the kingdom, ways in which we move toward the center together.
And whenever we take even the smallest step toward the center through prayers, presence, gifts, service, or witness, we never do so alone. We move in the footsteps of the great multitude that has gone before us, that “vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven,” “shouting hallelujah.” Amen.