In Times of Trouble

All Saints Sunday, November 5, 2017

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Revelation is quite possibly the most misunderstood book of the Bible.  It was the last book of the Bible to be written, and it was written during the time of the worst persecution of Christians.  And when I say persecution, I don’t mean the kind of thing a lot of modern American Christians think is persecution, being asked to say “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” or things like that.  The persecution of the early church was of quite a different nature.  People were killed for being Christian, if they happened to be in the wrong time or place.  If they were really unlucky, they might get tortured to death, or thrown into arenas filled with wild animals for the entertainment of their pagan neighbors.  And in this time of trial, when everything was as bad as it could possibly be, a mystic named John of Patmos wrote the book of Revelation as a comfort for his people who were suffering and in grave danger.

Yes, comfort.  The book is violent, weird, gory, and pretty freaky, but it’s also a book dedicated to reminding all who read that God will win in the end.  Revelation does not sugar-coat anything.  It doesn’t try and sweep evil under the rug or downplay it or ignore it.  Revelation confronts evil head-on and shows it for what it is, but Revelation also insists that evil is only part of reality.  No matter how bad things get, no matter how much evil there is in the world, no matter how much it looks like the devil is winning, we know how the story ends.  And it ends with the devil being cast down, the resurrection of the dead and the judgment of all people, and heaven coming down to earth as all things are made new.  It ends with the water of life, and the healing of the nations.  It ends with peace, and joy, and love.  And yes, our world can be violent, gory, and freaky, and there is evil here even in our own hearts, but we know how everything ends.  God wins.  Love wins.  Evil is destroyed forever.  That’s the end of the story.

The other thing that gets misunderstood about the book is that it’s not a road map.  It’s not a history of the future.  It is a vision, a dream, full of symbolism that doesn’t correspond to nice, neat, timeline that we can pin down and understand logically.  It’s kind of like an impressionist painting, which shows the emotion and essence of a scene but would be absolutely useless for identifying the people in it.  God didn’t give John of Patmos this vision to share as a textbook or map applying to only one series of events, but as a comfort in all times of trial, big and small.

Our first reading, today, is not from the end of the story, where the final victory and healing is.  It’s from the middle.  Specifically, it’s from the middle of the seals, a period full of earthquakes, pestilence, and death on a pale horse.  But before the seventh seal is opened and more earthquakes and blood and fire spring forth, God takes time to show us where the great multitude from every nation are, the faithful good people of every time and place, the ones who have died in the Lord.  And the thing is, even in the midst of all this violence and war and pestilence, they are safe.  They are with God.  Everything is literally going to hell around them, and yet they are with God.  Nothing can hurt them now, and nothing can grieve them, because God supplies everything they need and protects them from all the evil around them.  They are not safe because of any particular merit or strength on their own, but because God has claimed and sealed them as his own.

It’s kind of like the Beatitudes, in our Gospel reading.  Because the people Jesus says are blessed—they aren’t really the sort of people we tend to think are blessed.  Jesus has just been healing and teaching the most wretched people in that part of the world, the sick and injured and lame and poor and sinners and outcasts.  And now he’s telling his disciples that they are blessed.  The poor in spirit, the ones whose faith is small and who are plagued by doubt and pain and grief and depression?  God’s going to give them God’s kingdom.  The people who mourn, who have lost so much?  God will comfort them.  The meek, the ones who get pushed around and abused and trampled on and society doesn’t even notice they’re hurting?  They’re going to inherit the earth.  Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who see all the hypocrisy and self-serving callousness and all the evil in the world that we just take for granted as normal and ache for a day when things will change?  They’ll get the justice and mercy and righteousness they so desperately crave.  And on, and on.

Jesus keeps picking out people who the world sees as unfortunate, and saying that they are blessed.  It’s not hyperbole.  It’s not a metaphor.  It’s not just a case of “well, if you look hard enough, you’ll see a silver lining.”  The word translated here as “blessed” could also mean “highly honored.”  It doesn’t mean material wealth, as we so often reduce it to, or reward, or something nice happening to you.  It means that you are honored, that you are seen and valued.  Specifically, that you are seen and valued by God.

And these people—these people that the world does not see, or that the world sees but disregards—these people are seen by God.  And loved by God.  And God is present with them, no matter what.  Even in the midst of death and pain and grief, God is present.  God brings healing, and consolation, and justice, and mercy, and hope.

Do you remember a few weeks ago, in my sermon series on the Reformation, when I talked about a theology of the cross, which basically means that God chooses to show up in unlikely places?  God chooses to show up in the middle of pain, and loss, and darkness, so that those who suffer are never alone.  So we should be looking for God’s presence in places where people are suffering, places where people are poor in spirit, places where people hunger and thirst for righteousness because there is nothing but selfishness and injustice to be had.  God shows up there.  God blesses people trapped in those places.  Not because they are better than anyone else, or deserve it more, but because they need it more.

Most people have times in their lives where they are poor in spirit.  Most people have times in their lives when they grieve, and grieve deeply, the loss of someone they loved.  And if you don’t hunger and thirst for righteousness right now, well, you probably haven’t been paying much attention in the last year or so to national and international news.  There are people who have it worse, true, but suffering is not a competition.  And when you are in pain, when you are grieving, when everything around you is falling apart, the good news of God is twofold:

First, God sees you.  The God who formed you in your mother’s womb sees you and knows you and loves you and will never let you know.  You are not alone.  No matter what happens, even if the very worst anyone can imagine happens to you—even if things are worse than you could have imagined before—you are not alone.  And God is working in you to bring healing and strength and hope, and God is working in those around you to bring you a supportive community.  But even when those around you fail or fall short. God will not.

And second, this is not the end of the story.  There is grief, and pain, and injustice, and evil, in the world today.  There are horrifying things in the world today.  But they will not win in the end.  We know what happens.  They will be destroyed, and all things on heaven and earth will be made new, and the dead will be raised, and all people will be judged, and God will wipe away every tear from every eye.  And there, when God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven, there will only be peace, and joy, and love, and faithfulness.

Those who have died in the faith, all those centuries of Christians from the earliest days after Jesus to those who died just this last week, they are safe in God’s arms.  And someday we will join them.  And the day will come when we will all awaken, when we will be resurrected and made new, and judged, and healed, and join the great cloud of witnesses around God’s throne.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Advertisements

To Be Blessed

All Saints Sunday, November 2, 2014

Revelation 7:9-17, Psalm 34:1-10, 22, 1 John 3:1-3, Matthew 5:1-12

 

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

This Wednesday, in honor of today being All Saints Sunday, I took the Confirmation class out to Basto Cemetery. Most of you probably don’t know this, but Birka Lutheran Church is not built on the site it was originally planned to be built on. In the 1890s, the Swedish settlers to this area built a settlement they called Basto, about three miles away from where Birka is now, on the bluffs overlooking the river. There was a post office there, a stage coach stop, and they planned to build a church. While the building of a church building could wait, a cemetery could not. So they started a cemetery there at Basto. But, by just a few years later, things had changed, and Birka was built three miles away. Some of the people buried at Basto were dug up and transferred to the new church’s cemetery. But not all. About a dozen are still buried there on the bluff, and while we know most of the names and locations of the graves, there are a few we don’t.

Of the dozen or so graves at Basto, the Confirmation students were most struck by the three infants buried there. Two died within a few months of their birth, and although they died in different years, they are next to one another. The other died at birth, and was buried with his mother—who died with him, in childbirth. He was her last child, but not her first … nor her first to die. We’re not used to tragedies like that, in our time. Yes, children die, but not often. We have medical knowledge and techniques the likes of which our ancestors at Basto couldn’t have imagined. Even more critical for those of us who live in rural areas, we have ambulances that can get a critically-ill person to a hospital quickly. We have better nutrition and safety to prevent problems before they start.

Yes, tragedy is far rarer now than it was a century ago. But sometimes all that means is that we aren’t as good at dealing with it. We are so used to be able to do something that we don’t know what to do when there is nothing that can be done. And so we avoid talking about death. We avoid thinking about it. We dress it up in euphemisms, we push it away. And as a society, we tend to avoid people who are grieving, because it makes us uncomfortable. A few months after someone has died, I sometimes hear people talking about the family. “Shouldn’t she be over it by now? I’m worried about her!” “You just need to stop dwelling on it—you’ll feel better.” We tell ourselves stories in which only bad people die, and good people always survive and thrive, no matter what happens. We try to ignore the possibility of pain and sorrow.

And yet, even in today’s world, tragedy happens. People die. People get sick, and injured. People get abused and violated. There are times when we can no longer hide from the reality that sometimes, life isn’t fair. Sometimes, tragedy strikes—and it strikes good and bad people alike. Ignoring it won’t protect us. And so maybe we should take a look at how our ancestors in the faith handled it.

Life was a lot harder a century ago, as the graves at Basto show. In fact, life was harder throughout most of history. They didn’t have what we’d consider basic medical care. If you broke a bone, anything more complicated than a simple fracture would probably cripple you for life. Famines were a regular part of life for most people. And, unless you were very rich, you would probably spend your life in backbreaking labor, day in and day out, from childhood until you died. There was no such thing as retirement. And in Jesus’ day, if you were a Jew, you could add political oppression to that, too. Judea was occupied territory, conquered by Romans whose favorite method of dealing with dissenters was killing them—by crucifixion, if they were slaves or non-Romans. So people in Jesus’ day understood death better than we do. They understood suffering; they saw it every day. They experienced it every day.

So when Jesus went up on that mountain and started talking about blessing, it was pretty shocking. We tend to spiritualize it or view it as a nice saying of Jesus, but really listen to his words: Blessed are the meek, the ones who get ground down by everyone and everything. Blessed are the mourners, the ones who have lost loved ones. Blessed are the ones who get persecuted and beat up for trying to do the right thing. Seriously? Every sad state we try to avoid, every horrible thing we try to ignore, Jesus pronounces a blessing on it. Now, sometimes when bad things happen, people will say something like “Oh, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle—God will teach you something, you’ll grow in faith through this experience!” Is that what Jesus is saying, here? That bad things are actually good because God’s trying to teach us something?

I don’t think so. For one thing, Jesus is not saying that those states are good. And he’s certainly not denying the pain and grief and hardship are horrible to live through! He’s pronouncing a blessing. He’s saying that even when horrible things happen, even when life really sucks, God is present, giving love and grace even in the midst of pain. Yes, life sometimes sucks. But we don’t have to face it alone, because God, who loves us, will be with us. God will give us blessing even when the world gives us grief and horror. It’s not that grief and pain and persecution are good, it’s that even in the worst that life can hand out—even when children die, one after another, even when there seems to be no hope, even when things seem like they can’t possibly be any worse—God is with us, giving us refuge and hope.

That hope isn’t always validated in this life. There are some people who think that having faith in Jesus will protect you from anything truly bad happening to you, that being a Christian means prosperity, that being blessed means something tangible in this life that anyone can see. If so, they need to read Revelation more closely. Revelation was written during a time of persecution. In our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about his followers being persecuted for his sake. Well, that happened to his followers, and it still happens in some places today. In the first few centuries after Jesus died, being a Christian could get you killed. It could get you crucified, it could get you fed to lions. Christians in this country sometimes talk about being persecuted when “Happy Holidays” cards are more common in stores than “Merry Christmas” cards. In the days when Revelation was written, persecution meant being tortured and murdered for your faith.

The book of Revelation was a dream, a vision, to give hope to people who were being tortured and murdered, who were suffering every kind of hardship imaginable. And the message was this: no matter what happens, no matter how bad things get, no matter what kinds of monsters and horrors you face in life, God is with you, and God gives life and love to all of God’s children. You may cry now; you have much to cry about. But God is with you, and at the end, God will bring you to a place where there is no need for fear, where there is no pain, no tragedy, no loss. It may not come in this life—it may not come until Christ comes again. But there is hope, no matter how dark things get, because this life is not the end of the story. As Christians, we know we are citizens of this world, but we are also citizens of the world to come. We are children of God, no matter what happens, and God will never abandon us. Even when all hope seems lost, God is with us. And God will take every horrible thing, every tragedy, every grief, every loss, and every tear, and heal us. God will make us whole in a way we can never be in this life. God will wash us clean from all the stains and mend all the holes, all the broken places, in our bodies and hearts and minds and souls.

We may not face the same hardships our ancestors faced; we may never know true persecution, or famine, or plague, or any of the things faced by the first Christians or our ancestors who first came to this prairie. But we have the same assurances they had: we have the same gift of God’s love that will never let us go. And we have the same promise that no matter what, the pain and grief and death of this life is not the end of the story. Not for us, and not for those who have gone before us.

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God, and that is what we are. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. Thanks be to God.

Amen.