Sermon, November 1, 2015

A Feast for All Peoples     Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
The Congregational Church of the United Church of Christ,
Bradford, Vermont
November 1, 2015   Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost,
All Saints Day
Psalms 23 & 84; Isaiah 25:6-9; Mark 12:28-34

At the end of this sermon we will be singing a hymn based on Psalm 84. Here are the words of the hymn written by the poet Jean Janzen:

How lovely is your dwelling,
O God, my hope and strength,
My spirit longs for shelter,
my flesh cries out for home,
where even swallows nesting
beside your altar resting
are ever praising you.
How blessed are those whose travels
are strengthened by your hand,
who pass through shadowed valleys
and find refreshing springs.
Your rain falls soft as kindness
on all your faithful pilgrims
until they come to you.
Look on me, God of goodness,
you are my sun and shield.
One day within your household
is what I most desire.
O guide me in your mercy
along my lonely pathway;
O bring me safely home.

All Saints Day is a day of celebration, but also of longing and missing, as we think of people we have loved who have died or left home or left our church.

Sometimes I have dreams about my boyhood home in Ohio. My parents are both alive in the dream, and my brothers are all there. Often it is Christmas, or another family feast. It feels so warm and secure, a lovely dwelling, and when I wake I miss it so much. My flesh cries out for home, as the hymn says. I feel like a pilgrim passing through shadowed valleys. One day within that household is what I most desire, but no matter how far I travel on my lonely pathway, I will never again arrive in that beloved home.

The sadness of all that passes away can feel almost unbearable, and it would be, if not for the other part of the hymn that answers our lonely longing by singing of our home in God.

Really, God is the only true home. God is the source of everything we associate with home. When we feel at home anywhere, it is God’s embrace we are feeling. The hymn calls God “my hope and strength,” and says, “How blessed are those whose travels are strengthened by your hand.” We find refreshing springs, and rain falls soft as kindness on us. God serves as our sun and shield, and God guides us, mercifully, and brings us safely home. God is the source of all that goodness, all that comfort. When we long for home, it is God we are hoping for, it is the unconditional and all-forgiving and always welcoming love of God that defines the home of our dreams.

Isaiah pictured true home with these words: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food…. And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever. Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces.” The home we long for is one that nothing can take away from us.

I had a friend in college whose family was wealthy. They owned a summer house in an expensive and exclusive beach community. One night I was having supper with them when we heard a man running down the street screaming, “I hate money! I hate money!” My hosts were embarrassed, and quietly explained that the man’s parents had died leaving their home to the man and his siblings. The man could not afford to pay his share of the taxes and upkeep and his siblings were forcing him out. He was losing his idyllic childhood home and all the security and comfort and happy memories that it represented. It was understandable that he would scream “I hate money,” but behind that hate was the grief that Isaiah referred to as “the shroud that is cast over all peoples.”

We long for security and comfort that poverty, conflict and loss cannot destroy. The vision Isaiah had was of a holy mountain where God would make a feast for all peoples. This is known as the eschatological feast, eschatology referring to end times. Throughout the Bible there is a vision of a time when God will turn earth into that perfect home for which we long. It will be a feast like a Thanksgiving meal where the living and the dead will be united forever, where the poor and all who are now at war or divided by ideology or race or religion will sit together in plenty and peace.

Then our grief will come to an end. God will wipe away the tears from all faces, because we all have tears, sooner or later in this life. Isaiah envisioned a worldwide beloved community where we will mourn no more.

Think how powerful that image has been for the Jewish people throughout history. The people of Isaiah’s time saw Jerusalem and the temple destroyed, thousands killed, and most of the survivors carried off into Babylonian captivity for fifty years. The longing for home and the feast for all peoples must have been heartbreaking.

Twenty-five hundred years and countless sufferings later, the Nazis were systematically committing genocide against the Jews in Europe. In Warsaw, Poland, they forced all the Jews into a small section of the city and completely shut it off to the world. Then the Nazis began rounding them up and sending them to the Treblinka extermination camp where over 250,000 were killed.

In desperation after three years Jewish leaders organized what became known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. It lasted only a short while, and then the Nazis retaliated by burning every home to the ground and killing outright or sending to the death camps the remaining Jews.

A survivor and former leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising said that they knew they were doomed, but they fought “to protect the people in the ghetto, to extend their lives by a day, or two, or five.” They were fighting just to live another day at home.

Right now many nations around the world are in a similar situation, Syria for example, and there is no end in sight, except…except for this powerful vision that Isaiah holds out, this hope that God is working right now to establish the feast for all peoples, the dwelling place where even the swallows nest in peace and sing God’s praise, the peaceable kingdom on God’s holy mountain.

This hope is heightened by the gospel vision of God incarnated in Jesus Christ, a man who walked this world in the flesh teaching and healing and doing all he could to establish God’s realm on earth. If we can imagine Jesus beside us, or if we can feel his presence within us and around us, we can feel at home in this world even when we are estranged from it or grieving the loss of our home or the death of those we love.

In today’s gospel passage Jesus ends by saying to a scribe, “You are not far from the realm of God.” This was a shocking statement because Jesus had been under attack by scribes and other religious authorities, and they were plotting to kill him. Today’s passage takes place in the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus knows he may be about to lose his home on earth. But he blesses this member of the enemy camp and says the scribe is near to that home that is eternal, where death has no dominion.

Why? Because the scribe sees the truth of the core message that Jesus has for us. There is one God for us all, and the greatest commandment, the thing that this one God wants from us more than anything else, is for us to love. Love, both love of God and of one another, is how we enter that home that we long for so deeply.

Anywhere we find people who love God with all their heart, mind, soul and strength, anywhere we find people who will forgive, accept and love us unconditionally, we find home, we find the feast for all peoples, we find our tears wiped from our faces, we find strength for our journey, we find springs where we can drink in the valley of the shadow of death, we find peace, and we also find power, the power to go out from that home and carry that love into other parts of our lives so that God’s realm grows wherever we go.

This church is just such a home when we consciously choose to be as loving as Christ calls us to be. The home we long for, the one that overcomes all loss and death and grief, is within our reach. It is as close as the person nearest you in the pews. Turn to one another after worship with Christ-like love, and you are home.

Let us pray in silence …