Artwork: FESTIVAL OF LIGHTS, by John August Swenson
Copyright 2000 John August Swanson Trust, used with permission
Serigraph, 30. 75” x 24” www.JohnAugustSwanson.com
This morning’s scripture gives us a vision of the saints – this vast multitude standing before God, singing. All Saints Day gives us a moment to catch that vision as we look back. Today, we look back and remember those we have loved and lost this year – and not just this year, we look back and give thanks for all those we have ever loved – all of us, together in the communion of the saints, singing with the vast multitude. We remember and give thanks.
As I mentioned earlier, I spent this past week on retreat at a Benedictine Abbey. Throughout the week, I had the opportunity to pray and worship all through the day in community with the monks there and alongside the other guests staying at the retreat house. We gathered five times a day, at the fixed hours for prayer – as the monks led us in singing the prayers – in singing the Psalms.
So on Wednesday – November 1, actual All Saints’ Day – I got to experience All Saints’ Day in a very Catholic way. As the All Saints’ mass began that morning – the monks processed in on both sides of the church – wearing their black hooded monk’s cowls (or habits), the priests among them, dressed in white. They were led in by someone with a thurible (or a censer) that spread the aroma of incense throughout the place. They encircled us, and then walked down through the midst of us – while all together, we sang the prayers.
For the Eucharist – for communion – there wasn’t just one priest celebrating – but all the priests who were there – about 17 of them by my count. Imagine instead of Grace, Jessica, and me – 17 voices saying communion together. With all those sights and sounds and smells – it wasn’t a stretch to imagine the vast multitude of this morning’s scripture, gathered around the throne singing: Salvation belongs to our God! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and power and strength!
Now, different from our tradition, Roman Catholic tradition leans into the sense of saints as the heroines and heroes of our faith – particularly holy people, filled with extraordinary good. Think of saints like St Peter and St Paul. Saint Teresa of Avíla, Saint Teresa of Lisieux, Saint Teresa of Calcutta (Mother Teresa). They name these kinds of saints, as inspiration and encouragement to live lives of good.
Similar to our tradition, they also draw on an even older understanding of saints that reaches back into Scripture and the early church. It’s how we understand saints – as all believers in every time and place – everyone of us a saint – made holy by God in our ordinary lives to embody God’s love for the world. And so, along saints like Mother Teresa, on Wednesday, we named mothers and fathers and parents; wives, husbands – spouses; children and friends – as we will do today. On that day – and on the next, All Souls’ Day – and today – we remember those we have loved and lost – our longing for them – and their presence with us even now. (I’ve heard someone say it like this: We long for those who long for us.)
After the last prayer service on All Saints Day, I walked out into the night, and thought I’d take a walk. Now, it was cold. Like 34 degrees cold. But there was no wind. The sky was clear. As I walked into the dark, I saw movement on down the path, and realized I was seeing yet another procession – at a distance – folks dressed in black carrying candles through the night. By the number of them – a small multitude – I figured it must be the monks, along with the seminary students who study there.
They walked into the night, and I followed at a respectful distance. When I figured out that they were processing to the little graveyard where the monks are buried. I stopped and didn’t go any further, but watched from a hilltop as they filled the graveyard, silently, with candlelight. And in the still, chill of that night, I could just hear the prayers – as they prayed that God would grant their brothers a holy rest – and as they prayed for that day when they would all be reunited in Christ. They left their candles on the gravestones, and silently walked back to the monastery – the graveyard filled with light.
All Saints’ Day gives us a moment to look back, to remember.
This morning’s scripture also gives us a moment to look forward – to look forward with its vision of the saints – this vast multitude. Now, this is Revelation, a book of the Bible we don’t visit often. Revelation closes out the Bible, and speaks of the completion of time – with its wild and often violent imagery. We progressive Christians – particularly white progressive Christians – we pretty much leave it alone – it can be disturbing and unsettling. As a result, in the vacuum we have left, some rather harmful interpretations have emerged from other parts of our the Christian world – interpretations that emphasize judgment and warfare and hellfire and separation.
So, as we turn to it today, maybe we should start by remembering that Revelation was “written not to scare people, but to comfort them.” The folks for whom the visions of Revelation were written down were an oppressed community, persecuted by the Roman Empire. Revelation rolls out in its lavish, often violent imagery, declaring as expansively as possible God’s victory over empire and over every power that does us harm. Big imagery for people who need big hope. Revelation was written not to terrify people any further, but to comfort them.
For the first seven chapters of Revelation, the visions announce judgment against Empire and every power that oppresses. God is casting into the sea every power that harms. And then, there’s a pause, and this scene opens up with this vision of a great multitude.
Notice that they are everybody. John – the one who has this vision – describes a multitude too numerous to count – from every nation, all tribes, all peoples, all languages. And standing around the vast multitude – the angels join in the singing. And all creation. It is as one writer calls it, “a crowded cosmos.” No separation – everyone, all together – singing.
Just before this passage, there had been a smaller gathering – 144,000 people to be precise – but now, we see this multitude too numerous to count – and so someone asks – actually, an elder asks – “Who are these and where have they come from?” John bounces the question back to the elder, “Sir you know.” And the elder says, “These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal.” These are the ones we didn’t expect.
The ordeal could be the persecution they’ve all endured. They’ve lived their lives with systems of oppression grinding away over their bodies, and here they are, this multitude, come out on the other side, free.
And there’s that strange bit – their robes have been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Revelation loves the image of Jesus as a lamb. Folks start to think in terms of sacrificial imagery – but the vision doesn’t quite go there – just that the Lamb is slain, not sacrificed. The Lamb has gone through the same suffering as this multitude – and the blood they have shed together in this ordeal has now been washed away – all suffering is ended – here they are – free.
And listen, they are singing. Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and strength! Salvation belongs to God – to God - not to any Empire - not to any other power that does us harm.
Notice in the midst of this power – the intimacy. They are all together – all the saints – everybody – in God’s presence. Our English translation says that God will shelter them – but it’s really that God will pitch God’s tent over them – they will dwell together. Hear the echoes of the Psalms: They will hunger and thirst no more. The sun will not harm them by day, nor any scorching heat; the Lamb will lead them to springs of the water of life.
And then, in one of the most beautiful images in all of Scripture – God will wipe away every tear. In this vision, we come through all the suffering that life brings – and all is made clear – and we have one last good cry at the suffering we have caused and endured – and God wipes away every tear – as we look forward together in joy.
After worship on the morning of All Saints’ Day, I ended up walking back to the retreat lodge with Sister Paul, a Catholic nun whose room was down the hall from mine. I struck up a conversation, and we started talking about the beauty of the service, when out of a quiet pause in the conversation, she said: “You know, I have this vision of heaven. It’s based on John 14 – “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” So – she went on – I see heaven as just full of houses, everyone has a home, all of us living there together, in peace. And we walk around, and go up and knock on a door. And someone answers, and they invite us in – and they introduce us to their whole family – not just their family of origin – maybe they’re Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist – and they introduce us to everyone in their tradition – everyone who has ever lived in their tradition all the way back to the beginnings. And every day, we get to know more about each other – forever, there’s just no end to how much we get to learn from each other, and no limit to how we can grow more closely together, in love, forever.
Anyway, she said, that’s just what I think.”
A few moments later she very nicely let me know that she was actually there on a silent retreat – and there I had come talking. I apologized, we laughed, and I thanked her for sharing her vision with me, and we walked the rest of the way together, in silence.
All Saints’ Day and this Scripture give us a vision of the saints – a moment to look forward to the day when all is complete.
One of the more provocative visions of the saints I heard this past week comes from a Buddhist teacher – Lama Rod Owens – who describes himself with more particularity as a Black, Southern, queer, Buddhist teacher. Now, he wasn’t there at the Benedictine Monastery – I listened to a podcast interview of him on my drive there. Lama Rod Owens has written a book called The New Saints. When he talks of “New Saints,” quoting Tina Turner, he says “we don’t need another hero.” What we need are people who are showing up, in ordinary lives, to do the work – to do the work of liberating ourselves and all people from everything that does us harm. Owens describes New Saints as folks who are ready to be engaged in the present moment in all its mess and fullness; folks who are willing to take risks, realizing that “real liberation only happens through the discomfort of change — not through the comfort of staying safe.”
Lama Rod Owens gives us a vision of the saints that invites us to look around in the present moment – at ourselves, at the folks sitting next to us in the pew, in the communities all around us, at the systems in which we live and move and have our being, at the people harmed by those systems – to look around and to live from a deep desire to help free all people from suffering – to move through every present ordeal – into freedom. This vision of the saints give us a moment to open our hearts, in all their fullness, to the here and now.
The morning after All Saints’ Day, the morning after the monks had processed in the dark down to the graveyard with their candles, after worship that morning – the monks invited us all to process with them again, out of the church, down to the graveyard. We walked down the frost-covered hill to the graveyard, and found all the candles still burning. And the monks led us as we sang our prayers together—all those candles still burning bright in the growing light of a brand new day. Afterwards, I walked back up the hill, next to Sister Paul, this time in silence. But I sure could hear the saints singing.
Like Sister Paul, and this Scripture, and those monks, and Lama Rod Owens, I have my own vision of the saints. Maybe you do too. For me, it’s a vision of a table not unlike this one – maybe bigger. And to this table – folks are flowing from east and west and north and south – to feast. Everyone. And as we all gather there, someone asks, “Who are these? And where have they come from?” And we answer together: “We are the ones we didn’t expect.”
And yet here we are, gathered together out of our imperfect lives – where we have tried to do the best we can, stumbling and fumbling our way through.
Here we are – gathered out of the deep suffering of the world – where we have harmed each other in so many ways – yet striving to tell the truth, to learn together, and to embody together God’s liberating love.
Here we are – a vast multitude – a crowded cosmos –
Here we are – at this table – together – healed and whole.
© 2023 Scott Clark
 For general background on the Book of Revelation and this passage, see Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation,” New Interpreters’ Bible Commentary, vol. xii (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1998), pp.620-26; Barbara Brown Taylor, Commentary in Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 4 (Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), pp.218-23.  Barbara Brown Taylor, p.219.  See Anna M.V. Bowden, Commentary in Working Preacher at https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/all-saints-sunday/commentary-on-revelation-79-17-10  It’s a great interview! See https://www.tenpercent.com/tph/podcast-episode/lama-rod-owens-new-saints  See Lama Rod Owens, The New Saints: From Broken Hearts to Spiritual Warriors (Boulder, CO: Sounds True Publishing, 2023).  Id. pp. 13-14.  Id. p.24.