All Saints’ Day(A): Holy! Holy! Holy!
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen
There’s a meme going around right now that makes me howl with laughter every time I see it. I feel like this woman and I are kindred spirits trying to figure out just what the heck is going on in the world and when it will be back to a semblance of normalcy.
This year we’ve dealt with a pandemic, hurricanes, wildfires, murder hornets, the death of Justice Ginsburg, political turmoil, economic turmoil, online church, and even the cancelation of our favorite summertime trash tv reality shows (RIP Bachelor in Paradise). Parents and teachers struggle to know how to care for their children, pastors struggle to know how to care for their parishioners, and none of us knows completely what the future holds. This certainly feels like the four horsemen of the apocalypse are riding into town, and we’re all doomed.
The struggles we are enduring are real, and the emotional, mental, and physical effects of those struggles also are real. I do not in any way want to downplay this reality through humor. I do, however, think that humor offers us a way to see that we are united in our struggles, and we are united in our mutual care for one another as we maneuver the challenges of what often seems like impending doom.
The Revelation to John often gets a bad rap as a book about doom and gloom. Indeed, there are horrific images in this text that are cause for fear. When we read the text as a whole, however, we see that the prevailing image throughout is one of hope—hope for a bright future in the presence of a God who never forsakes us. New Testament scholar Michael Gorman summarizes Revelation as “a theopoetic, theopolitical, pastoral-prophetic writing. It is above all a community-forming document, intended to shape communities of believers in Jesus as the Lamb of God into more faithful and missional communities of uncivil worship and witness.”
Gorman’s focus on the communal and political-boundary-crushing nature of Revelation comes right out of today’s appointed lesson. John has a vision not just of the Johannine community gathered around the throne of God, but of “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev 7:9 NRSV). The fullness of God’s kingdom only may be realized when everyone has a seat at the table. The Johannine texts present Jesus as the one who brings the Gentiles into relationship with the God of Israel, and we, as followers of Jesus, are called to proclaim that good news to all the world. Divisions end, and unity is found in God.
This proclamation links us completely to those who have come before. This text becomes appropriate for the feast of All Saints not only because it depicts a life after death, but because it’s fullness hinges upon the Good News of Jesus Christ as it has been handed down to us through the centuries by those who came before us and will continue to be proclaimed by us and those who come after us. Revelation reveals to us a reality beyond ourselves that we are called to share.
John sees this vision of the whole world praising God, and he is unclear exactly who they are. One of the elders provides this description: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). The “great ordeal” generally is interpreted to mean persecution and those who have come through it the martyrs. I accept this interpretation fully, and I also think we need not limit the vision only to the martyrs. Martyrdom is the fullest form of following the example of Jesus who “also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God” (Eph 5:2 KJV), but it is not the only form.
For those of us who have led worship in empty churches, for those who have faithfully attended church from their living rooms, to those who have kept daily prayers, to those who have lost jobs, freedoms, and loved ones to the pandemic, to all of those who go through our own great ordeal in 2020, God offers a vision and promise of community where no one is left out.
The woman in the meme looking to see what chapter of Revelation we’re doing today understands that the fullness of God’s kingdom only comes after many trials and tribulations. Jesus himself cried out from the cross the words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Out of that anguish and feeling of abandonment, Jesus suffered death, descended to the dead, was resurrected on the third day, and now sits at the right hand of God.
It is easy to live through this time of great suffering and feel like God has abandoned us. What today’s lesson can teach us is that suffering and death are not the end. They are symptoms of a sinful world crying out for healing. When we look to the wisdom of the saints in glory, we see the great cloud of witnesses who also suffered and now rally around the throne of God crying out, “Holy, holy, holy!” And that’s a vision worth sharing.
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish (Trinity and Old Swedes) in Wilmington, Delaware. He has a passion for studying feminist and queer readings of the Bible with a particular interest in the Pauline epistles. Charles spent over a decade as a professional actor, puppeteer, and director before completing his M.Div. at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas. He loves being in nature and learning new cooking techniques.
 Gorman, Michael J.. Reading Revelation Responsibly: Uncivil Worship and Witness: Following the Lamb into the New Creation (Kindle Locations 4211-4214). Cascade Books, an imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.