Sunday, October 30, 2011

Lord, how I want to be in that number . . .

Texts: Revelation 7:9-17 (blessing, glory, wisdom . . .) and 1 John 3:1-3 (children of God)

Halloween, the evening before All Hallows or All Saints Day, is a time for thrills and chills. And this Halloween, researchers at the United Nations have given us an additional reason to be scared. They estimate that sometime tomorrow the world's population will pass the seven billion mark for the first time.

Perhaps the UN deliberately chose the date October 31st to scare us. After all, their science is not an exact one and the United States Census Bureau estimates that the seven billion mark will not be passed for a few more months. But regardless, the milestone is coming. The world's population continues to increase in dramatic fashion.

A focus on population fits well, I think, with the celebration of All Saints Day on Tuesday and All Souls Day on Wednesday. For more than 1,000 years, November 1st has been set aside by Christians as a time to remember the heroes of our tradition. And November 2nd is a day where we are urged to remember and honour all of our ancestors whether we think they were saintly or not.

This year, there are clearly more of us alive than ever before to celebrate our ancestors. But have you ever wondered how many ancestors we have? Just how many human beings have ever lived and walked on the face of the earth? Well, I did a search this week on the topic, and found an informed guess in an article from the journal Population Today. The article speculated that there may have been as many as 100 billion humans born over the last 50,000 years . . . though perhaps only 50 billion of those people survived beyond infancy.

The Population Today article was written to counter an urban legend from the 1970s. That legend suggested that 70% of all the people who had ever lived were alive at that time. Not so, says this article. If the figure of 100 billion is close to being accurate, the percentage is more like seven than seventy. Still the legend had a ring of plausibility to it because of the huge growth in human population in the modern era.

When I was born, the number of people alive was less than 1/2 of what it is today. And when my parents were born, there were fewer than 1/3 as many people alive then as  now. The population increases of the past few generations -- despite the many deaths caused by wars, starvation, and epidemics -- have been startling.

Here are some milestones. There were only a few million people widely scattered across the earth 8,000 years ago when agriculture first began to replace hunting and gathering. By the time of Jesus, that number might have risen to 200 million. The half billion mark was reached by 1650; the one billion mark by 1800; two billion by 1930, three by 1960, four by 1975, five by 1985, six by 2000, and seven billion now. If current trends continue, the earth might see 10 billion people by 2050.

So when the saints finally do go marching in on the Day of Judgement, it could be a very long line!

On the other hand, we live in Saskatchewan, which has struggled with population declines for much of its 100+ year history.  Saskatchewan's population boomed in the first three decades of the 20th Century and had nearly reached the one million mark by 1930. But with the dirty 30s, the population shrank. By the 1960s, the one million mark was nearly reached again. Then after some dips in the 1970s, it was finally passed in the mid 80s. But our population declined again in the 90s and has only now passed the one million mark for the second time during the last few years of economic boom.

And then there is the movement of people from the countryside to the cities, which is as much a part of Saskatchewan's reality as any place else. So even as Saskatoon, Regina and other cities grow, towns like Big Beaver or Killdeer teeter on the brink of the ghost town status that has overtaken so many other places across rural Saskatchewan. Still, regardless of our size, the church urges Christians across the world to celebrate our saints and ancestors this week.

The texts we focus on today for All Saints Day are from First John and  Revelation. Both talk about our future hope in God. But while the reading from First John is vague about the details, Revelation contains nothing but vivid detail.

The Church used to think that the Gospel of John, the three letters of John, and the book of Revelation were all written by the same person. But today, scholars no longer believe this. And the big differences between these texts help to make their argument.

I love much of the imagery of Revelation. And when I hear our reading today, it brings to my mind the glorious final chorus from Handel's masterpiece, the Messiah. This chorus, "Worthy is the Lamb," uses the words we just heard from Revelation in a repeated line that sounds like this: "Blessing and honour glory and power be unto him, be unto him, that sitteth upon the throne and unto the Lamb." And later, "Blessing, Honour, Glory, and Power be unto him." This long chorus concludes with a five minute fugue where the the choir repeatedly sings just one word, "Amen." Most people know the Hallelujah chorus from the Messiah and some of the Christmas parts. But my favourites are the choruses based upon Revelation.

And it is a glorious vision, don't you agree? However, my attitude to Revelation changes when I look at the verses that immediately precede and follow today's reading. The first eight verses of chapter 7 describe a mark placed on the forehead of 144,000 people, 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, to protect them from God's wrath. Despite its strangeness, I am OK with this passage -- except when some Christians use it to argue that out of the 100+ billion people who have ever been born, there may be just 144,000 of us who are to be saved from eternal damnation.

And then in the next two chapters of Revelation, Jesus opens the final seal of the Day of Judgement and all hell literally breaks loose on earth. Vast numbers of people are killed in a succession of attacks and calamities, and those not slaughtered are tormented. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 9: "From the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions. They were told not to harm grass or any green plant or tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. The locusts were allowed to torment these people for five months, but not to kill them. And their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die but death will flee from them." Hmm. Is this the Word of the Lord?

So while Revelation contains glorious images of a New Jerusalem flowing with living water and lit by God's glorious light, it also contains horrible images of mega-death, torture and eternal torment.

Revelation is the work of a passionate, pain-filled and angry man. He is John of Patmos and he has been imprisoned on that island because of his Christian beliefs. John has an understandable hatred of the Roman Empire. And so he writes an Apocalypse about end times and about heaven and hell. And with some controversy, early church fathers included his book as the final one in the New Testament.

But if I, like him, believed that upon Jesus' return, God would mercilessly torture people who did not have a mark on their foreheads, I would be unable to worship. So even as I treasure certain passages from Revelation, I discount other images from it of death and torture. But is this a legitimate move for a Christian minister?

Well, I am glad that the Lectionary readings for All Saints Day include not only a reading from Revelation but also a reading from First John. First John also talks about life at the end of the age. He says, "we are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is." And that is it. Now we are God's children. What we will be has not been revealed – despite the sometimes wonderful and sometimes lurid details of Revelation.

Perhaps the author of First John did not own a copy of Revelation, otherwise he would not have claimed that the future has not yet been revealed. Who knows? But I am glad that First John is in our Bible, just as I glad that Revelation is there too. Like much else in the Bible, the two help bring balance to each other.

First John says that we are children of God, which we symbolize in the church by baptism. We don't know, he writes, about the future except that it will be in God. His words echo those of St. Paul who wrote "We know only in part . . . but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end . . . now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known." (1 Corinthians 13)

In distinction to Paul, the author of Revelation claims to have seen the future clearly. But I don't believe him. I believe that he sees the future dimly, like St. Paul, like the author of First John and like the rest of us. He sees it as through a mirror.  And while I trust in our tradition and in God, I don't trust in either the gory or the glorious images that John of Patmos so vividly paints.

Which leads me to two questions: what has become of our departed ancestors, and what does the future hold for us? Will we be in that glorious number when the saints go marching in? And will we be joined by the billions of other people, Christian and non-Christian alike, that have come before us?

The passage from Revelation that we heard today presents an image of a wide, perhaps universal salvation. Multitudes from every nation, tribe, and language gather around God's throne. Would this multitude only include Christians? I for one would argue not.

Of the 100 billion or so people that have yet been born, only a small fraction have ever heard the name Jesus let alone embraced Him as their personal Saviour. For this reason alone, I imagine that non-Christian people would be part of any uncountable multitude such as the one John imagines in front of the throne of God.

Those of us gathered here embrace Christianity as our spiritual tradition and as a path to salvation, and for that I give endless thanks. But the big majority of our ancestors who never heard the name Jesus also sought God's healing. And I trust that they found it, just as non-Christians today aso find it.

On weeks like this when we stop to remember, thank and honour our ancestors, I imagine that their souls flicker briefly again in us. We also trust that their spirits have gone where we all originated; to the One Spirit that animates and sustains the universe.

The assurance that I find in our Scripture and tradition does not take a detailed form like that found in Revelation. Instead, like St Paul and First John, I perceive dimly as through a mirror that our baptismal life in Christ is a movement away from individuality and towards union with all the spirits who are now striving or who have striven for love.

I trust that our ancestors have found ultimate safety and fulfilment in the arms of God, as will we all. Further, when we want to taste now the eternity and the healing that is promised to us, we need only open ourselves again to the grace of our baptismal vows. They are vows of death to an old way of selfish life and promises of resurrection to a timeless and selfless life within the Spirit of Christ.

With Grace, we can taste this communion with Christ now and see our salvation as through a mirror darkly. Soon enough, we will see God face to face in the communion of all the saints and then know completely the glory that is to be found by dying to an old way of life and rising to new life in Christ.

Thanks be to God, Amen.

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