“Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
The prayer book gives us two options for celebrating this Sunday. We may either observe it as the twenty-second Sunday after the feast of Pentecost or we may celebrate it as All Saints’ Sunday, one of the seven principal feasts of the church. We have chosen to celebrate today as All Saints’ Sunday because we will baptize two children today, who, by virtue of their baptism, will become saints, infants set apart for God as his adopted children, to be used by God for his special purposes, just as you and I are saints by virtue of our own baptisms, set apart by God as his beloved children to be used by him as priests, men and women who, in one way or another, mediate God’s presence and kingdom to those around us.
We are especially blessed at Good Shepherd to be surrounded by stained glass which has itself been sanctified, set apart for God’s special service, and is therefore “saintly” glass, glass that, in turn, has been used to depict many of the saints whose lives point beyond themselves to the kingdom of God. Everything in our sanctuary is also saintly: the oak, the linen, the brass, the silver, the wool, the bread, the wine, the water, the oil. God uses it to bring his kingdom to life in us each week. Consider, if you will, the ordeal that each of those things must pass through before they can be put to use in this special way: the oak trees, the flax, the ore, the sheep, the wheat, the grapes, the olives. Become a saint, being sanctified, whether animate or inanimate, is an ordeal. Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? They are those who have gone through a great ordeal. Everything that has a place in God’s kingdom has that in common, including the King himself.
In this window we can see Hannah keeping her promise to surrender her son, Samuel, to Eli, the priest, for God’s service in the temple in Jerusalem. She had promised that if God gave her a child, she would not hold onto him as a cherished possession, but would give her back to God in thanksgiving for sparing her from what for her would have been a tragedy, to remain barren and childless, a hope and a prayer that she had nurtured and repeated every year when she came to the temple.
Whether they fully appreciate it or not, this is what the parents of McKinley and Sadyjane are also doing this morning. They are allowing God to set them apart for God’s family and for his service, becoming budding saints. Just as Hannah could only imagine how God might use Samuel, so we can only imagine what God has in store of McKinley and Sadyjane. In Samuel’s case, he became a great prophet and helped his country make the difficult transition from a confederation of tribes to a united monarchy, first, under the flawed kingship of Saul, and then under the unlikely but divinely blessed reign of David and his descendants.
This process and act of being set apart for God is not an easy one. Indeed, it is a painful ordeal and even a life-threatening and even life-ending and life-changing tribulation. We say that McKinley and Sadyjane are buried with Christ in his death, because it is only in dying that we can be raised to the new life of God’s grace. Cutting the chord can be heart-wrenching, but we also know that it is the only way we can continue to grow and to experience life in all its fullness.
God cut the chord with my father one last time earlier this year, and he made it clear to me over a year ago that it was time for him to cut the cord between you and me as your rector. Both losses are real and painful, but that is why Jesus reminds us in his beatitudes and as he reveals himself to John, we can’t enter his kingdom unless we are willing to go through the ordeal of surrendering the life we know and love for the larger life that God promises us.
When Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he is saying that we must be willing to become poor for him to make us rich. When Jesus says, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted,” he is saying that we can only experience the depth of his comfort if we acknowledge the depth of our losses. We can only hope to laugh if we first weep. There’s no other way to find ourselves robed in white around his throne. Going through a great ordeal is what every saint has in common.
The story that resonates with me in this time of transition in my life is the story of Abraham and Sarah, and I would suggest that it may be relevant to you as well. When people ask me what I am going to do in my retirement, the best I can do at this point is to say that I am taking my wife, Anna, and we are going to leave behind the life we have known and loved, a loss that will leave us painfully impoverished, but one we are taking in obedience and with the promise that there are still babies to be born and promised lands to be discovered. My babies may take the form of a photograph or a piece of music or a homemade dress or a piece of cross stitch as I explore further the worlds of photography, music, sewing and needlework. There may be other worlds as well that, like Abraham, I know nothing about as yet, but I believe what Jesus is saying to me and to those five thousand who, in the first instance, readily left their homes and followed Jesus out into the wilderness because they sensed that he had something to offer them that they had hungered and thirsted for, something that they were able to recognize he could give them as the very Messiah that their nation had longed for for centuries.
And I believe the same story may apply to you. God has many more babies and many more promised lands waiting for you to discover under the leadership of a rector who can see what I have failed to see, or who has the strength and the courage to lead you there that I can no longer muster.
But you can be sure I will be rooting for you and perhaps even celebrating with you, if it is appropriate, if the time should come, those new babies and new lands of promise.
Both journeys will be arduous. Calling a new rector may very well be an ordeal, especially because, at least from my perspective, we have grown so close that cutting the cord will be painful. But if we want to be saints. If we want to eventually be reunited in white robes that have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, the blood that makes our entry possible and strengthens us each week as we drink from the cup of his own suffering, when the cord was cut for the first time between Jesus and his Father for our sakes, so that the Father might glorify him in his utter poverty, when his life was poured out completely, as the only way of receiving the kingdom and the crown. We hunger and thirst for his Body and Blood so that we can face and pass through whatever ordeals are necessary for us to become saints fully and completely, that the world may know, even when it is tempted to persecute us for the hope that is within us, that we have not hoped in vain, and that God has used us to demonstrate in our own poverty, in our mourning, in our hunger and thirst for righteousness, in the purity of our hearts, in the meekness of our actions, and in our acts of mercy the very blessing of God’s presence in the world now and in the world to come. AMEN.