November 1, 2020 Worship Sermon - "Saints and Sinners"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 34, I John 3:1-3; Matthew 5:1-12
2020 has certainly been a tumultuous year. So was the year 95AD, the year many Biblical scholars believe the book of Revelation was written. In the years prior to 95AD, John, who wrote the book of Revelation, would have heard about earthquakes that flattened major cities in the region. He would have heard about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which spewed so much ash into the air that the climate changed and the sun turned the color of blood. He would have heard about major famines that resulted in starvation. He would have seen the rise of an emperor, Domitian, who considered himself God.
Having witnessed all of this, it’s no wonder John thought the world was coming to an end. In Revelation chapter 6, the chapter just before our reading this morning, John writes about the four horsemen of the apocalypse who represent war, and famine, and pestilence. He writes about earthquakes and the sun going dark. But in the midst of all this tumult, John shares with us this beautiful vision of people from every nation, language, and tribe gathered around the throne of God. The God who sits on the throne is like a shepherd, guiding the flock to streams of living water. The God who sits on the throne is a comforter who wipes away tears from grief-stricken faces.
John puts together these two images - the image of a world spinning out of control and the image of a multitude worshipping before the throne of God - to show us that even in the midst of cataclysmic events God is working to bring about a new and better world… a world where there is no longer hunger… a world where people are no longer divided by race and ethnicity… a world where the thrones of self-centered tyrants are replaced with the throne of a lamb, who lays down his life for his people.
Whenever I think about this vision of the great multitude from every language, nation, and tribe, I think about our little gathering in Upper Darby. It’s harder to see now that we are gathering virtually, but on a typical Sunday we would have people from many languages and nations gathered together in this sanctuary. I always think of this little gathering in Upper Darby as a glimpse of that great gathering that is taking place before the throne of God. This little gathering is just one small segment of a gathering that stretches around the world and across the centuries.
On All Saints Day we celebrate the saints who gather before the throne of God. This gathering of saints includes you and all who have been washed in the blood of the lamb. You are saints not because you are better people than anyone else. You are saints because you have been claimed by Jesus Christ and washed in his righteousness.
In some religious traditions, saints are like super-Christians, people who do a better job of being Christ-like than the rest of us. We Lutherans tend not to look at it that way. Martin Luther said that, while we are in this world, we are both saint and sinner: sinner because we continue to be torn apart by the forces of hatred and death; saint because we have been joined to the resurrected body of Christ. Sin and death may continue to grip us, but the Holy Spirit is transforming us into the image of Christ.
Realizing that we are both saint and sinner gives us the freedom to examine our lives honestly and admit where sin still has its pull. We can look at events like the death of Walter Wallace last week and recognize the tragic complexity of it. There is no way to look at that event and figure out who was the saint and who was the sinner. A lot of people are trying to do that, but that approach isn’t even helpful. Rather, we see how both the police and Walter Wallace were caught in this horrible web of sin, sin that is bigger than any one person, sin in the form of racism that distorts how people understand each other, sin that prevents a person with mental illness from getting the help he needs.
Yet, even in the midst of sin and death and a world that seems to be spinning out of control, we catch a glimpse of a new world that God is calling into being. Like the writer of Revelation, we catch a glimpse of a world where sin and death are being overcome by reconciliation and life.
This new world is what Jesus called the Kingdom of God and Jesus said it is coming into being now. I know how hard this is to believe. In the wake of everything that has happened this year, hope in a better world seems naive. Who can be blamed for cynicism? And yet, along with the writer of Revelation, we dare to hope in the Kingdom of God. We hope that wildfires and hurricanes will lead us to better stewardship of our environment. We hope that events like the shooting of Walter Wallace will lead us to greater justice and a more compassionate response to mental illness. We hope that we will turn away from political polarization and recognize that we are all in the same boat, the boat that we call planet earth.
Not only do we hope for the Kingdom of God, our hope inspires us to work for the Kingdom of God. We saints who have been washed in the blood of the lamb and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit are called to be agents of reconciliation. God takes sinners like us and offers us forgiveness and healing and freedom so that we can offer forgiveness and healing and freedom to someone else.
Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby