the sermon i delivered for commissioning and reworked for conference office chapel this morning.
hymn: let us gather at the river
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands 10 they cried out in a loud voice saying: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the lamb!” 11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,”Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might to be our God forever and ever amen.” 13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white and where have they come from? 14 I said to him, “Sir you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “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. 15 For this reason they are before the throne of God and worship him day and night within his temple and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them 16 they will hunger no more and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat 17 for the lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Let us pray: Holy God we thank you for this new day and for the honor to worship you here together. Send your Holy Spirit to be among us, to comfort and guide us. Help us to hear your voice this day and always. And may the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, o lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
There is great suffering in this world. Some places and people are experiencing crippling drought, or rising floodwaters, a scarcity of food or skyrocketing commodities prices making the purchase of food nearly impossible. Family members and friends all over the world go off to war, embassies and civilians are attacked…we all feel the pain of the unknown, of the possibilities. At times it seems that pain and loss lurk around every corner plaguing humanity. And this suffering is not just out there somewhere in the world, but there is great suffering within our community, as well. Each and every one of us as human beings, living in this broken and sinful world, feels pain. We suffer from our own personal demons or life circumstances.
In this community, we have all known great loss, great conflict, great pain.
A great day in the life of the church is All Saint’s day. A day of remembering and celebrating the Communion of Saints: saints of old whom we never met nor knew, and who were faithful servants of God. All Saint’s is also a time to remember those saints we have known, and loved and held with our own hands. Those whose voices have been added to the great cloud of witnesses singing praises to God for eternity, joining the uncountable number dressed in white. All Saints is not typically observed until early November, however we can remember the Saints any day. In this reading from Revelation we find those who have been “through the great ordeal” waving palm branches and singing praises to God.
In whatever way one interprets the phrase “the great ordeal” one thing is fairly clear: anything referred to as “the great ordeal” was probably not a lazy Saturday afternoon having a picnic in the park, but something of a difficulty, where perhaps suffering was involved.
It was on the Thursday of Easter-week in 1994 that the horrific events of what is simply known as the “Rwandan Genocide” started to become reality. I will not go into too much detail on these events in this context, suffice to say that the people and land of Rwanda endured over a hundred days and nights filled with terror, brutality and death. There are stories of pastors letting their congregations be locked inside the church, and the building then being set ablaze; stories of trusted family friends turning on those who they had promised to protect. Communities that were seemingly tight-knit were plunged into a new reality of suspicion and mistrust. Friends were violently turning on friends and blood ran through the thousand hills of a beautiful country. Rwanda has known great and deep suffering.
Just over 13 years later, in the summer of 2007 I was traveling with a group from seminary in Rwanda. Over the course of the previous semester we had learned the history of the genocide, discussed the political and religious climate of the time and struggled theologically to understand how human beings could behave this way. Our studies culminated in a pilgrimage to the places we had been reading and hearing about. One Sunday morning began at the Gikongolo Genocide Memorial in southern Rwanda. Located in a former vocational school, and sight of large massacre, the Memorial is an attack on the senses that viscerally forced my body to deal with the physicality of death. Our guide and storyteller was a man who had survived this massacre–he narrated the story and then invited us to walk around the school. All of the victim’s bodies that had been haphazardly buried in mass graves and doused in lye, but after the genocide were unearthed and placed back into the classrooms. Thousands of murdered bodies, mummified by the lye lay silently on wooden pallets in classrooms.
After spending some time wandering in and out of the rooms, contemplating and praying individually we loaded back on our bus, silently, and were taken to a Sunday morning church service. In the twenty-minutes it took to reach Butare Free Methodist Church I do not remember one person speaking. It was clear as we began descending the hill to the already-in-progress church service that we were uncomfortable. More often than not, church services in East Africa are not quiet affairs. The music is loud, the preaching is loud, and the speakers are turned up as loud as they will go. Church can get quite loud. And Butare Free Methodist Church was no exception. We were shocked from our quiet reverence into loud singing and dancing.
It was not until after the service that the beauty of this particular jarring juxtaposition began to revel itself. As guests to the church, we were invited to stay for lunch with the choir members and clergy. The reverend, without dicing words, said that the members of this church and community were the same people whom only years before were slaughtering each other.
These very same people. Someone in this congregation may very well be sitting next to the sibling of the person who murdered their family, or even tried to murder them. Yet, here they are sitting next to each other in church, week after week, and singing together.
One of the Rwandan choir members, in a moment that I can only say was truly Holy Spirit inspired, stood and began singing “Soon and Very Soon.” Soon and very soon we are going to see the King, Hallelujah! Through the shock of the reality of the genocide, and through the shock of the reality of this worshiping community, we tentatively, then boldly, began to sing along: No more crying there, we are going to see the King, Hallelujah! There was a lot of dancing and clapping going on in that little room–and a lot of tears– we all danced and sang together with perhaps more gusto than I have experienced before of since: No more dying there, we are going to see the King, Hallelujah! We’re going to see the King!
What I have described and what we experienced in that little room in that church in Butare, Rwanda, was a glimpse of what the author of Revelation is talking about in this passage today. Those saints who have been through “the great ordeal” gather around the Lamb who promises to shelter them, and they in turn sing praises to God. Through all of the pain and suffering, loss and tears; through all the unanswered questions and despite of the horror of part of their collective history, these saints sang praises to God. It was like catching a glimpse of the massacred bodies from Gikongolo in their new location, gathered around the throne of God and singing praises!
Now, I suspect that most of us do not know what it feels like to have escaped genocide. However that does not mean that the pain and suffering that we personally feel is negated by such a tragedy. The deepness of the pain that each of us feels in our own belly, our own chest our own heart is as real as anyone else’s pain.
Even though the pain of loss can at times be all encompassing, this passage from Revelation serves as a reminder that regardless of the “great ordeal” each one of us bears individually and what we bear together as a community, the Lamb is seated at the center of the throne. While we struggle and suffer in the human predicament of being in and yet not of this world, we can be assured that God does not abandon us in our time of suffering, because “the one who is seated on the throne will shelter” us.
This is not to say that we will not suffer, that we will not feel the pain of the reality of sin and evil in the world. But it is to say that we have the promise of a Holy and Almighty God, in whose image we are created, who is madly in love with each of us despite our sin and downfalls. No matter what our “great ordeal” the Lamb, Christ, is still seated at the center of the throne. It is because of Christ the Lamb who is the shepherd who leads us that we can have the audacity to sing praises to God in spite the suffering we may endure in this life.
After the singing subsided in Rwanda and lunch began, our group and the choir of Butare Free Methodist mingled and shared lunch together. Speaking through a translator, I mustered up the courage to ask one of the members what “Soon and Very Soon” meant for her. She told me that it meant that God is bigger then genocide. God is bigger than the pain she and her country had endured. She kept her faith not because she managed to survive but because she believes deeply that all of those she lost– those saints whose lives were cut short–were singing that song with Christ, forever, she was anxious one day join those she missed and to sing with them.
Let us remember the saints who are gathered around the throne of God, singing songs of praise–where there is no hunger, thirst, or pain. Whose “great ordeal” has ended and are worshiping the lamb for eternity. Let us remember that this is our destination. When the pain and suffering of this world reach the unbearable point let us remember that because of Christ we are gifted with the audacity to sing praises to God in the midst of our trouble. Let us remember God’s promise to shelter us.
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands 10 they cried out in a loud voice saying: “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the lamb!”
Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King, Hallelujah.
hymn: soon and very soon
(then i came to my office and listened to ‘when death dies’ by gungor)