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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
November 5, 2017
audio not available
A Reading from the Book of Revelation
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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 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, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 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. 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. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 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.”
Well, I guess that about wraps it up for Moses.
We spent September and October working our way through the Exodus story — ending last week as Paul Roberts brought us to the mountaintop looking over the promised land where Moses breathed his last breath — and now that our time with that journey is over we’ve overcompensated a bit, we’ve jumped from nearly the very beginning of the Biblical story here to the very end, from the very beginning of God’s story to its very end, here in the Book of Revelation, most everyone’s favorite pick for “Weirdest Book in the Bible.”
After all, despite whatever you may have heard from the late-night televangelists — I assume you all stay up watching the late-night televangelists — despite whatever they’re proclaiming this week, it’s not altogether obvious how we should go about pinning down the details of the Book of Revelation. This, as you may already know, is a strange book, a vision of the invasion of God given to a prophet named John on the island of Patmos, transcribed into a letter that John writes to a series of early Christian communities all around the eastern Mediterranean. It’s a letter full of profoundly strange imagery, hallucinogenic prophecy, and no small dose of blood and gore, even in today’s reading, with its oblique references to this Great Ordeal and this epic multitude washing their white robes in the blood of the lamb. I mean, everything else aside, who does that to a nice white robe? It’s not enough that this letter sounds like some sort of psychedelic fantasy, and now we have to throw in some really bad laundry instructions? Just, you know, regular detergent will do. Bleach, if you must.
But for the original audience of this letter, some of John’s references are less oblique than they might be to us. After all, the early church was itself already involved in something of a Great Ordeal, as these new Christian communities had to come to grips with the fact that they weren’t always welcome within the theological and political system of the Roman Empire. Being a Christian wasn’t always a safe thing to be or an easy thing to be; for some, the answer was accommodation — you just did whatever you could to blend in and survive; but, for others, the call was to something more drastic, something more public, something that would put your faith front and center in the public eye, even sometimes if that meant coming to a grisly end. All of which is to say that when these first churches read something about the great multitude going through the great ordeal and washing their white robes in the blood of the lamb, I think they know that story instinctively. I think they recognize: these are the folks who wouldn’t stay on the sidelines. These are the folks who got in the game.
I borrow this interpretation with heavy credit to Biblical Scholar and Union Seminary President Brian Blount, from whom I also am entirely stealing the following story. Blount talks about going out for the high school football team and getting an unlikely spot on the squad. It’s the JV squad, but still, he’s a high school football player, and he’s beaming with pride, and the whole family’s beaming with pride, and so on the Friday of the first game like all the other players he wears his bright crisp white new uniform to school. And of course that thing is washed and creased to perfection, it’s like Marine dress standards, like it might blind you if you catch the light wrong, just so he can walk down the hallway with pride, with confidence, with that strut that says, “Yeah, I’m playing tonight.”
The only problem was that even though Brian had made the team he wasn’t exceptionally good at football, and it turned out that he spent most of that first game sitting on the bench. And meanwhile his teammates are out there on the field and out there in the dirt and out there in the mud and by time the game ends their uniforms don’t quite look so crisp or so white anymore. And everybody goes home and all the uniforms go in the laundry but of course the next Friday when Brian’s back in the hallway with his perfectly white uniform some of the other ones don’t look quite so new anymore. Friday after Friday, game after game, every time, those other uniforms come back just a little bit dirtier and just a little bit more worn and after a while it’s pretty obvious when Brian’s walking down the hallway that those pearly whites aren’t really a sign of pride anymore. Now, it’s something different altogether. What any of us wouldn’t give right then for a uniform with some dirt on it. For a uniform with some grime rubbed into it. For a uniform where the detergent and the bleach can only do so much. For a uniform that tells the story of how well we played and how hard we fought and how we left it all on the field.
So give me one of those white robes, dipped in blood. No wonder this is the text that shows up in the lectionary for All Saints’ Day — “this great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” — all the saints that we recognize not because they kept their hands clean but rather because they got in the game. Because they got on the field. Because they weren’t content with the sidelines. Because they weren’t content with the bench. This letter is pretty suspicious of safe and easy ways to follow Jesus. It’s supposed to be a hard path. You’re supposed to get knocked around a bit. That’s what Saints do. Which means that our task on this All Saints Sunday is not just the veneration of those who have gone before but rather also a veneration that challenges us to go and do likewise. I want to be in that number. I want us to be in that number. I want us to leave it all on the field. I want us to be all in. I want this church to be all in.
So let’s talk a bit about what that looks like. What does it mean for University Presbyterian Church to be all in? Obviously it’s a luxury for us even to have this conversation: a year ago this church was in a budget crunch and had to make some awfully difficult decisions, but now with profound thanks to the good financial stewardship of your church leadership, we are on pace to bring in a balanced budget for 2017 and we are well-positioned to grow into the next year; six months ago you had a new pastor who still didn’t know his way around the building; and even though you’re still getting to know me and I’m still getting to know you, it’s clear that 2018 doesn’t have to be a year of getting to know each other. We are ready to turn the corner. We have the people that we need. We have the lay leadership that we need. 2018 can be a year of getting to work. And so for the last several months, your session has been gathering up some of its hopes and dreams for the next year, what we’d like to do, where we’d like to grow, how we’d like to build.
We claim to be rooted in worship, but we could still go all-in. For those of us who find our way into this service it is a time that feeds us and grounds us and nourishes us, but we still have work to do to help others find their way here. It’s hard to be a visitor. It’s hard to be our guest. And so your session wants to make sure that our church’s hospitality is as good as it can possibly be — that we have a website that meets all of the demands of the folks in 2018 looking for a place to root themselves in worship, that we have signage that meets all the demands of the folks in 2018 looking for a sanctuary. We claim to be growing through education and service, but we could still go all-in. Our classrooms need a technological makeover; we need to be able to equip teachers and classes with some basic level of audio-visual accessibility. Of course we want to grow our support of the service work of this congregation, through UPLift, through Micah 6, through our mission trips and service trips and basic church outreach. And we claim to be connecting to campus and community, but we could still go all-in. We could fund the kinds of speakers and events that would help UPC be the vibrant hub of west campus life that we all know it could be. We could support the kinds of maintenance and custodian support that our building needs in order to have the kind of use that we want it to have. We could go all-in.
And then, of course, there’s the staff. Over the last year the pastoral, program, and support staff at this church has gone above and beyond to welcome me and teach me and help me and help us all be rooted, growing, and connecting. Ara, Keith, Carl, Jan, Trudi, Barbara, Whitney — these folks have invested deeply in our ministry and the session would like to invest back in them, with a budget that includes funding for their continuing education and development. As for John and Krystal. John and Krystal have served this congregation through thick and thin with faithfulness and grace and courage and imagination. They deserve our thanks and more. But what’s at stake now isn’t just thanking them for the time that has been, though of course we should. What’s at stake now is imagining what it looks like for UPC to go all-in — not to overstaff our budget but rather to make sure that our staffing meets the mission goals of this church, that we have a campus ministry with a fighting chance to reach the 40,000 undergraduates across the street, that we have a Christian Education program with a fighting chance to serve the faithful, dynamic, and frantically busy families of this congregation, that we have the resources in place to sustainably staff this church, not just for 2018 but for years to come.
I want us to go all-in. Your session is ready to go all-in. We just need you. Everything I’ve just mentioned and hinted at: seed money for a revamped church website, better AV infrastructure in our classrooms; a variety of low-hanging upgrades around the building; better funding for mission and service; half a dozen things I don’t have time to go through; not to mention structural support for the staffing model that this church needs to grow and thrive — we think we’re talking about maybe $80,000 added into the 2018 budget. That’s not exact. That’s scratch math on the back of a napkin, and it surely won’t fix everything. But for 2018, that’s $80,000, about a ten percent increase over our 2017 budget, and it’s all-in. 10 percent. It’s not nothing, but it’s not impossible. And like I said, your session is ready to go, those session households 100 percent pledged for next year and right on target, about a median 10 percent increase in pledge amounts. That’s the most important thing I can tell you in this stewardship season — that your leaders are excited and engaged and backing up that excitement with their own contributions. We’re ready to go. We just need you.
That’s all this is, on this All Saint’s Day, on this day when we celebrate and remember and give thanks for the saints who have built this church and who have built this reformed faith and who have given themselves to following Jesus Christ in every time and place. Some of them gave of their treasure and some of them gave of their time and we all go all in in different ways. But if this church is going to go all in, here in its 126th year, if we’re going to go all in, we need you. I hope you will join us, with your time, with your talent, and, yes, with your treasure, big or small, be it a couple of coins or the jar of priceless ointment, I hope you will join us. I hope you will be as excited about what God is doing in this place as I am. I hope we can all get in the game. After all, there’s room on this field for everyone, and there’s dirt enough for everyone, and if it gets on your clothes, don’t worry. It’s a good sign. It just means you left something on the field. It just means you got off the sidelines. It just means you stood in the company of all the saints. It just means you got in the game, thanks be to God. Amen.