Sunday, November 4, 2018

Visions of Saints

A Sermon preached on All Saints’ Sunday, November 4, at St. Augustine’s Church, Wiesbaden
Wisdom of Solomon 3: 1-9, Revelation 21: 1-6a , John 11: 32-44

I had a vision this week. Before you start getting worried about me or wondering what I’ve been smoking, this wasn’t a dream or a mystical appearance … and it was in Frankfurt. I was there for a joint meeting of the boards of the German and Finnish Council of Churches and we visited the Greek Orthodox Church of the prophet Elijah for a tour and a reception. The whole church had been recently and beautifully painted with icons. Where we were standing, Christ, surrounded by the prophets and the evangelists, watched over us from the dome. The open doors – or in this case curtains – to the altar area allowed a glimpse of the richly decorated table that symbolizes the heavenly banquet. And all around the walls of the church, almost at our level, icons of saints surrounded us.
This was a physical vision of the meeting of heaven and earth that we heard about in the reading from Revelation this morning, and of the great cloud of witnesses who we think of on this feast day of All Saints and All Souls.  I was reminded of the Dancing Saints icon in the Episcopal Church of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco, there was a picture of part this monumental painting in my weekly email. Completed in 2009, it wraps around the entire church rotunda, showing ninety larger-than life saints, proclaiming a sweeping, universal vision of God shining through human life. 
And even here in St. Augustine’s we are surrounded by our own six saints in the stained-glass windows: St. Augustine, St. Gregory, St. George, St. Martin, St. Boniface, and St. Michael: each one standing for some aspect of our history and identity. St. Gregory is the pope who sent our patron saint, Augustine, to bring Christianity back to England. St. George the patron saint of England, St. Boniface the missionary from England who brought Christianity to Germany, St. Martin an example of Christian service and sacrifice, and St. Michael the patron saint of the military. Saints are not always better people, but they are examples of people through whom God acted in some special way and on All Saints, we are called to “follow (the) blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living.[1]
But All Saints is also about the second half of that prayer, about us coming “to those ineffable joys that you have prepared for those who truly love you.” It is a feast day that lends itself to visions of what that future – for us – and present reality – for the saints who have gone before – might be and feel like.
We heard two visions this morning. In the reading from the Wisdom of Solomon, written we think in the first century BC so not actually by King Solomon, we have the first explicit mention in the Old Testament of the hope of immortality, of a life beyond life. The author is convinced that “God created us for incorruption and made us in the image of his own eternity.” (2:23) “The souls of the righteous,” those who love and seek God, and live accordingly, are therefore “in the hand of God.” (3:1) Any suffering that they experienced in their previous lives is to be seen more like an education or purification and will be far outweighed by their lives with God. At the core of his dream is the presence of God: “The faithful will abide with him in love, because grace and mercy are upon his holy ones, and he watches over his elect.” (3:9)
The core of the vision of John of Patmos as described in the Book of Revelation, is similar. In his image, not only are the people made new, but also heaven and earth. Not only are they renewed, they are no longer separate. In Jesus, in the Incarnation heaven and earth, God and humanity were joined together. In this vision of the future, all of creation is one, and “the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.” All that is good about God’s creation will be kept, and all that is bad – death and evil, the forces of chaos for which the sea stands – will be gone “Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” (Rev. 21:3-4)
In the Wisdom of Solomon, in the verses just preceding the passage we heard this morning, the ungodly are reported has having “reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves, ‘Short and sorrowful is our life, and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end, and no one has been known to return from Hades.” (Wisdom 2:1) The events recorded in John’s Gospel almost sound like a rejoinder. Lazarus is brought back from the dead, he does return from Hades. Jesus brings his friend back to life for two reasons I think.
One was his love and compassion, for Lazarus and his sisters Mary and Martha. We are told twice that Jesus was “was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved” (John 11:33) and that he “began to weep.” (11:35)
The other reason was to act as an example. Jesus’ very public prayer before he calls to Lazarus to come out tells us what this sign stands for: “Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.” (John 11:42) Believing that God sent Jesus means believing in his power and promises, including and especially in the promises of new and abundant and eternal life – starting now – and to see the glory of God. Trying to imagine what that new life will be like, and what the glory of God looks like, is what the other readings we heard this morning both try to visualize in their visions.
I started this morning by talking about the vision I had or saw in the Greek Orthodox Church in Frankfurt. And churches should be visions of the meeting of heaven and earth, and places where we feel surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Churches offer glimpses of the new Jerusalem through their architecture, painting, and windows. In our worship we connect heaven and earth, God and humanity, and God is really present, especially at this table. But most of all a vision of God’s new creation needs to shine forth in our own transformed and re-created lives, in our witness, our deeds, our service, and our community, just as it shined forth in the lives of those we call saints and who we celebrate today,

[1] Collect for All Saints, BCP, 245

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Lower than angels

Sermon preached at the Family Sevice on Sunday, October 7, at St. Augustine’s, Wiesbaden
Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12, Mark 10: 2 – 16

We heard angels mentioned three times in the reading from Hebrews this morning.

  1. God’s Son was described as being “as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited,” (Hebrews 1:4)
  2. “God did not subject the coming world …. to angels,” (2:6)
  3. “You (God) have made them (us humans) for a little while lower than the angels,” (2:7) and
  4. “Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels.” (2:9)

Angels appear about 20 times in the New Testament, in most cases as messengers: the angel Gabriel to Mary, the heavenly host to the shepherds. The Greek word angelos just means “messenger.” But that’s not what these ones the author of Hebrews is thinking about. In the Old Testament angels are the heavenly beings that surround God, God’s court, and the author of Hebrews is referring back to the OT, to Psalm 8 (4-9):
“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars you have set in their courses, what is man that you should be mindful of him? The son of man that you should seek him out? You have made him but little lower than the angels; you adorn him with glory and honor; You give him mastery over the works of your hands; you put all things under his feet: All sheep and oxen, even the wild beasts of the field, The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.”
Psalm 8 is, as you can hear, full of wonder and joy. God who created everything cares for us, God thinks of us and seeks us out and made us only a little lower than heavenly beings. Not only that, the Psalmist writes, God made us humans the masters of all creation, and not his angels.
The author of Hebrews seems a little less enthusiastic. “God left nothing outside their control,” he writes, only to follow this with “as it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them.” (2:8)
If we go back to the beginning, to the creation stories in Genesis, we hear how God created us in God’s image and to act as God would, bringing order and justice to bear on the whole of creation. In the second creation story (Genesis 2:15) God places Adam in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Humanity may have been set in authority over the world. But we don’t seem to be making a very good job of it. The oceans – and the fish we eat – are full of plastic. We really have enough food to go around, but still people starve. We continue to pollute the atmosphere so much that we are changing the climate, and as a result some island nations will probably disappear entirely, not forgetting the coastal areas of many of our countries. Obviously, the author of Hebrews did not see these particular threats, but he did see the selfishness, greed and separation from God and one another that was preventing the people of his day from fulfilling God’s commission, as they still do today.
So what did God do? Write us off? No, God never writes us off. First “God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son,” (1:1) Jesus made human “for a little while lower than angels.” (2:9) Jesus came to speak to us, to show in his person – as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (1:3) – who God is and what God wants. Jesus came to demonstrate in his life and dying what selflessness, generosity, and being in relationship with God are like. Jesus came to renew our relationship as his brothers and sisters and therefore also God’s children.
As the one through whom all things were created, the Son has a particular interest in caring for and nurturing that creation, which is something we who follow him must share. For Anglicans, creation care is one of our 5 Marks of Mission: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation, and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”[1]
And all the mainline churches, Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant have set apart a whole season, ending today, both to celebrate creation, to repent of our sins against creation, and to renew our promise to care for creation. This season of creation began on the first Friday in September, the Night of the Churches. At the closing service here, we used as intercessions prayers from a service for the Ecumenical Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation. And I want to finish with those petitions[2]:
God, our father, you have given us the world to be a blessing to us. Grant us the gift of insight, that we may always perceive this anew. Grant us the gift of repentance, that we may turn away from a lifestyle of selfishness and destruction. Grant us the gift of hospitality, that we may share it together with all people and bear responsibility for everyone. Grant us the gift of moderation, that we may live in it and not exploit its resources ruthlessly. Grant us the gift of perseverance, that we may use it sustainably – preserving it for ourselves and all future generations. Grant us the gift of joy, that we may serve in it as your stewards. Grant us the gift of gratitude, that we may praise you for it every day.

[2] From the “Order of Service for the Ecumenical Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation 2018: Your fruit comes from me,” Copyright: Arbeitsgemeinschaft Christlicher Kirchen in Deutschland e.V. │ Council of Churches in Germany