Lift, and open the gates!

I reacted with sadness and sympathy looking at the photo of my friend’s dog whose entire face, chest and front legs were pierced with dozens — maybe even hundreds — of the sharp quills of a porcupine.
The photo was taken of the dog in the back of the car on the way to the vet, and she seemed stable enough — like the look of someone who knows they’ve been stung and know they just need to hold it together for a bit longer.

I felt sorry for that dog because it was simply being true to its nature — maybe motivated by a natural impulse to be friendly and play with another creature. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always yield the desired results in relationships. Often, expressions of love and care are misunderstood. And the response can sting — just like this poor dog! I wonder if this dog will ever approach another porcupine again with such exuberance. 

On All Saints Sunday, Christians remember not only those who have gone before us who now taste and see the glory of God in eternity. We also reflect on the “communion of saints” on earth. And, like we did last Sunday during the celebration of the Reformation, we ask the good question: Who are we? Who are the saints? What qualifies a Christian for sainthood, beginning in this life?

Psalm 24 may suggest that no one living can belong to this glorious, virtuous group of people. Only those with clean hands and pure hearts who do not swear deceitfully (v.4) can qualify. A sharp tone of exclusivity rings throughout our tradition. Since I am not good enough, and will never be good enough, I have nothing good to offer. And so I will grovel in the dirt, turned in on myself and my sins.

Such negativity dominates our way of life. We don’t see abundance, we see scarcity. We don’t see forgiveness of sins as much as we love to talk about and dwell on our sinfulness. We don’t see the good, we see the bad. It’s a dangerous world out there, after all, and so we need to build closed, protective fortresses around us. And therefore, we get stuck in a self-centred, self-inhibiting style of life. Who am I to be able to offer anything of value? Let alone be counted among the saints?!

The bible’s poetry, today from the Psalms, offers insight into this problem. The Scriptures reveal a way of emphasizing what is important. Really important. We see this method most in the Hebrew scriptures — the Old Testament Psalms and prophets: Repetition.

Repetition of words and phrases underscores a sense of urgency or jubilation. In the Psalm for today — 24 — certain phrases are repeated. The context is a massive procession coming up the road to Jerusalem; God is returning to the temple being restored in the city of God. 

And as the people ascend to the walls, the cry goes out not once (v.7-10), but several times: “Lift up your heads, O gates! and be lifted up, O ancient doors! that the King of glory may come in.” (x2) The general image of ‘lifting up’, in fact appears almost half a dozen times in this short Psalm. What emphasis is being sought by the Psalmist, here?

The insistence of lifting up the gates mounts beyond the request to raise the gate just high enough, or the doors just wide enough, for the King of glory to enter and then to be slammed shut in the face of the others in the procession. Rather, the intent is for the gates to be raised so high above the walls that they will never need to be shut again. The intent is for the doors to be flung off their hinges, in order that the seekers and followers of the Lamb may follow him, redeemed and welcomed, into the courts of God. (1)

“The barriers to paradise, like the stone rolled away from the empty tomb in the garden, have been pushed aside to give us unfettered access to behold the smiling face of a gracious and accepting God, whose mercy, rather than our own merits, enables us to pass through the open door.”

We need to remember and appreciate who our King of glory is: A man, named Jesus, who encountered in his short life on earth all that we must endure and suffer. Our God is a God who became one of us in order to fully appreciate our own station in life. God understands our human weaknesses, suffers and endures with us on the road up to Jerusalem, and longs to welcome us into the divine presence. 

Ours is a God who bears the scars and wounds of crucifixion, even in his resurrected form. God is one who identifies with us seekers and wanderers who bear the scars of life, the woundedness of sin — and yet who long for something more: a deeper communion with God and the saintly procession going to Jerusalem together.

If we want to know God, we must know and accept ourselves; if we want to accept ourselves, we must know and accept God. Who are we? Well, perhaps we first need to ask: Who is God? Clean hands, a pure heart, a humble spirit, integrity and honesty — these are infinitely more difficult and subtle a list of characteristics suggested by this Psalm than the mandates against theft and adultery and the taking of another life (as in the Ten Commandments).

The qualifiers for sainthood are not a cut and dry check list easily accomplished like completing a shopping list. Rather, the qualifiers for sainthood are worked out in a life-long journey and sometimes seesaw struggle with the One who despite bearing the scars of suffering is the only One with clean hands and a pure heart.

Who are we? Well, then, Who is God? In Jesus, God is the One who welcomes us all into the holy city, whose cry goes out to lift up those gates — I mean, really lift up those gates — forever — in order to let in that whole procession of rag-tag, diverse, wounded, broken followers!

Knowing who we are, appreciating fully the grace and acceptance of us by a God who knows us, what do we have to lose? We can offer what little and what much we have to help others. We can use the gifts we have been given for the sake of the other, and with others, on this journey. We don’t have to be afraid. We can take the risk to reach out — not worried about the results but only convinced of the value of what we do.

Whether we have been stung by the quills of disappointment; whether we have been hurt by the failures of our lives; whether we have been weighted down by the pressures of performance in work and play; whether we endure the pain of physical, mental, emotional illness; whether we grieve through the losses of life — we are still on the way! And will always be!

The highlight for me during the clerics cycling challenge (clericchallenge.com) was the finish line, when we all crossed together. This experience symbolized for me what the culture of Christian community ought to feel like and be like.

   
 We are part of a holy procession led by the King of Glory whose destination is sure. We have nothing to lose. If God’s grace is extended even to the generation of seekers (v.6), then we have nothing to lose. If what we are about is not a competition, then we have nothing to lose. If we don’t need to find fault in the other to prove our own self-worth, then we have nothing to lose. If it’s not about one-up-man-ship, then we can go for broke and not worry about it. If we don’t need to question who our Saviour is — who already accomplished for us our salvation — we don’t need to doubt our final destination. Then, why not share now what we have with others on this road?

All the saints on earth, despite the scars of life we bear, have gifts to share with other seekers on that journey. What gifts and blessings of God reflect in your life? In discerning this, remember: It’s not up to you alone! We don’t need to be perfect. We gain the gates not by our own merit or even hard work. Ours is the victory only because of the One for whose reason the gates are lifted in the first place.

Thanks be to God!
(1) — Michael Morgan in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. of “Feasting on the Word Year B, Volume 4” Fortress Press, 2009, p.228

Alpha and Omega

All Saints Sunday – B (Revelation 21:1-6)

If you listen to CBC Radio One, you might have noticed that Jian Ghomeshi concludes most of his daily talk-shows, ‘Q’, by saying: “To be continued.”

He says this despite having completed all the interviews, listened to all the songs, and said everything he was planning to say that day. This is not a case of one of those suspense-filled, climactic endings that leave us hanging at the end of a show. This is not about coming to the end of a TV season finale when we are desperate for some resolution to a crisis, and those annoying words flash on the screen: To be continued …

No, at the end of ‘Q’ there’s no suspense, no feeling of in-completion, no loose-ends to tie up – as if Jian Ghomeshi should say something more. In fact, I often feel satisfied when he signs off. And yet at the end he still says, “To be continued”. Why?

Presuming his statement “to be continued” is something good that will be continued, could that expression be sitting on an underlying hope? That he’ll be around tomorrow to do whatever good thing all over again? Is he expressing a need to state in the present moment, despite having to end his show today, that there’s something worth betting on in the so-called ‘unknown’ future tomorrow? Is he implying that the story of his life and work as a radio-broadcaster is destined somewhere good?

I believe each of us can relate, to some extent. Because beneath all our activity and work, isn’t there a desire to see our lives as meaningful, as worthwhile? So, how do we establish meaning?

We tell stories.

We tell stories about our past, about events growing up when we were younger; we tell stories about the people we’ve met and places to which we travelled; we tell stories about loved ones – our children, our friends and relatives. We tell stories about things we’ve accomplished for which we are proud. We tell stories to make sense – good sense – of it all.

No wonder people are really into tracing their ancestry and genealogy these days – like never before. Web sites like ancestry.ca are getting huge hits for meeting a real human need. These are designed to help us tell our stories of origin – where we’ve come from. We have a beginning, to be sure. It’s worth telling.

I think, though, we have an easier time identifying where we’ve come from. Because we’re less specific, normally, about where we’re going. I was looking through some old history textbooks from high school, and noticed the typical depiction of historical events: an arrow going across the bottom of the page. Along the line are marked significant points in time, certain events worth noting.

But there’s no definite end. The line just points vaguely into the future, suggesting merely that “time marches on”. And I suppose with the hope that the future will resolve itself in subsequent beneficial events in history. Or at least history will move forward in a benign sort of way.

But where, exactly, are we headed? The dominant story of our culture seems to suggest we are headed “everywhere at once, which means of course we are headed no where in particular” (p.234 Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol 4).

T.S. Eliot wrote, “In my end is my beginning” (East Coker in Four Quartets, New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1943, p.32). The answer to both questions – where we are from and where we are headed – is the same: God. Our ultimate origins are in God, and our ultimate destination is in God as well. Our final destination is the same as where we started.

The book of Genesis begins the Bible – it helps us in broad terms to understand our origins. The book of Revelation ends the Bible – it helps us in broad terms to understand our ultimate destination.

We started ‘good’ with God. When God created everything, as recorded in the first chapters of Genesis, the first thing God says is, “It was good”. Then the Fall, then sin, then our brokenness, suffering, division and violence. We know that story intimately – the in-between parts.

But how well do we appreciate the beginning and the end – the bookends of history, so to speak? Do we choose to have hope that our story does not end in the present, sometimes crappy circumstance of our lives? Do we affirm by our attitude and behavior that the story will continue to its ultimate ending? We affirm at funeral services: “Death has not the final Word”. So it must be back to God – back to union in the goodness of ourselves in God. And not only in some netherworld fantasy. But in a real, meaningful, concrete way ….

…. should we live our lives today ‘as if’. What if we lived today from the perspective of both our origin and final destination in Christ? What if we lived in the moment in the sight of God who is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and end? Who sees us as we were originally purposed, originally created? What if we lived today to regard ourselves and the world as God originally intended and to whom we ultimately will return?

What if we embraced our true identity as the “saints” of God? What if we had the gall, the courage, the faith, to affirm daily – especially in the midst of some suffering, even – “to be continued” – towards a good resolution?

One way we affirm our lives “to be continued” in Christ affects our life together — in family, in church, in business.

Wherever now there is division and conflict, we can make decisions based on viewing our existence from the perspective of eternity. We can choose to be bold and make choices however difficult and risky to forge ahead building relationships and communities that work toward a common good.

And I believe deep down we know this to be true. Last week, I was speaking with a Roman Catholic lay person and she mentioned that our Lutheran services of worship are so similar. Even the words we say in the liturgy were familiar to her. After a pause to let her observation sink in, I added: “We really should get our act together as Christians”.

The creation of a new community in communion with God is not the result of history but the purpose of it. Our beginning is our end and our end is our beginning.

Through it all, God’s home is among mortals. God and humans dwell together. This means that our ability to work with others is a part of creation. We have the capacity to cooperate, enabling us to achieve that which would be impossible to the lone individual, to the lone congregation, to the lone denomination, to the lone branch of Christianity.

The book of Revelation is at heart a book of consolation and a vision of comfort for a people in distress and suffering great loss and conflict. The visions in the book point to a particular and hopeful destination for people of faith. That implication alone is power to order and direct our lives in the here and now – to stay on the path, together.

These days, let’s not just be about claiming our individual ‘personhood’; let’s claim our sainthood in Christ Jesus, Lord of all.

Amen. To be continued ….