“Heaven and Earth”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 5, 2017 (All Saints Sunday)

Revelation 7:9-17


The place:  the divine throne room, glittering and gilded, full of cherubim and seraphim and all kinds of winged angels.

The time:  once upon a time, and last year, and right now, and tomorrow, and many years hence, all wrapped up into one eternal moment.

The scene:  a great multitude is gathered, more people than anyone can count.  More than the crowds that descend upon us for the Woodstock Fair every Labor Day Weekend.  More than the Women’s March that many of you attended in Washington back in January.  More than those that line the streets of Boston for a Red Sox victory parade.

There are people there from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.  Every variety of skin color and hair texture and facial structure.  Every accent and dialect.  Every gender identity and sexual orientation.  Every ability or disability.  Every age.  Every kind of people you can think of—painters and professors, athletes and agricultural workers, prostitutes and priests, businesspeople and bus drivers.

There are many faces you don’t recognize, and many that you do.  The people whose names we read in the pages of scripture are there.  The martyrs and saints of the early church are there.  The people who founded this congregation, and the ones whose hands built the sanctuary in which we sit, are there.  The ones you and I have known and loved and lost are there.  And those who will come after us, even though we do not yet know them—they are there, too.

They are clothed in white robes, long and flowing, made of the softest fabric you’ve ever felt.  No itchy seams, no fraying hems, each one just the right size and shape, perfectly tailored for the one wearing it.

They are so, so happy.  Eyes beam; mouths smile; arms embrace; hearts leap.  They are waving palm branches in the air and singing songs of praise to God.  Any suffering they may have known has come to an end; any pain they may have known has been healed; any sorrow they may have known has been wiped away by God’s own hand.  All is well with the world, so well that the people have nothing more pressing to do than to give thanks and celebrate all the goodness that surrounds them, the blessings that pour forth constantly from God’s very heart.


This is the way the author of the book of Revelation imagined heaven, the afterlife, the world to come.  We know him as John of Patmos, a Palestinian Jewish Christian who lived during the latter half of the first century and was sent into exile because his faith and testimony were considered a threat by the Roman imperial powers that be.  While exiled, John reported having a series of visions, which are recorded in the book of Revelation.  It is a book full of symbolism, full of dramatic imagery.  It is a book that is often dreadfully misinterpreted by those who read it as a literal forecast of the end of the world.  It is a book that was intended, for its original audience, to bring comfort and hope to people who were experiencing severe persecution and suffering.

To people who probably lived much of their lives in dirty garments of rough burlap, those flowing white robes would have sounded, well, heavenly.  To people who had lost far too many loved ones—people who, perhaps, feared being martyred themselves—the vision of that great multitude gathered at the throne of God would have brought a great deal of comfort and strength.  To people who got into serious trouble because of their Christian witness, the idea of singing songs of faith loudly and proudly, without fear of reprisal, would have been a source of relief and joy.

But John’s vision is not the only one.  Authors from Dante Alighieri to John Milton to C.S. Lewis have painted pictures of heaven with their words.  Artists across the millennia have enshrined their imaginings on fresco and wood and canvas.  Musicians like Franz Joseph Haydn have helped us hear their images of heaven.  And each of us may have our own vision, too.

Maybe you see a quiet pastoral scene rather than a crowded, clamoring multitude.  Maybe you imagine green pastures and still waters, or tables set before you and cups that runneth over.  Maybe you hear the sound of birds, the babble of brooks, the whisper of wind in the trees.

Maybe you find the vision of all those white robes a bit boring, and instead, you see a rainbow of color and texture, a multitude of fabrics to match the multitude of people wearing them.

Maybe the palm branches don’t do it for you, and instead, you see confetti, or balloons, or fireworks.  Maybe you hear organs or guitars or banjos.  Maybe people alone would be insufficient, and you picture furry and feathery friends frolicking alongside.

Maybe you don’t imagine it visually at all.  Maybe it’s more of an ethereal, spiritual thing—golden light, or a feeling of warmth, or celestial music, or an indescribable unity.


However it is that you may imagine heaven, the afterlife, the world to come, there is a detail in John’s telling that I think is important.  And that is this.  John pictures a great and diverse multitude, and in his vision, the people proclaim, “Salvation belongs to God!”  Which means this:  it is not up to us or any human group to set the conditions on who gets in.  It is not for you or me to determine who qualifies.  That is up to God alone.

I happen to be very firmly convinced that everyone gets in, because my understanding of God is of One who loves all of creation with a fierce, forgiving, self-sacrificing love…  One who never gives up on the children she cherishes, no matter how much we screw things up…  One who will, in the fullness of time, sometimes in spite of us and always in partnership with us, bring this world to its fulfillment and all creation to wholeness and joy.  And if that is who God is, then it is inconceivable to me that God would condemn any of the works of God’s hands to perdition.  For God, no one and nothing is irredeemable, even if it is far, far beyond my comprehension to grasp how that can be so.

Thanks be to God that God is God and I am not, that salvation belongs to God and not to me and you.

But what does belong to us, what is up to us, is this:  how we choose to connect ourselves to that promised realm to come.  Because salvation is not just about the afterlife—it is about this life, too.  Jesus promised his disciples that the kingdom of God is at hand.  The realm of God is even now breaking forth into this world.  It is not fully here yet, as anyone who has so much as glanced around at the state of the world these days will know… but it is real, it is there, it is here, and we get to live into it.  We get to tug at the invisible threads that bind this world to the next and bring them ever closer together, bring the joy and the light and the love of that world ever more fully into this one.

We do this when we love our neighbors as ourselves.

We do this when we care for children, our own and others’, with the same love God extends to us.

We do this when we extend that love to all of creation.

We do this when we try to reconcile with a person from whom we are estranged.

We do this when we try to make amends for mistakes we have made.

We do this when we work for peace and justice on this earth.

We do this when we offer of ourselves for the life, ministry, and mission of this congregation, when we give of the resources that are in our trust to build up the common good.

We do this when we remember our beloved dead, when we speak their names and picture their faces and hear their voices and learn from their lives.


I don’t pretend to know exactly what happens after we die.  Maybe John of Patmos was exactly right, or maybe the details are a little bit different.  But here is what I believe:  that heaven and earth coexist somehow, and the space is thin between them.  That our beloved dead are not gone, but are with us still, somehow, in the great mystery of God.  That God’s love is even now triumphing over all that would separate us.  And that every faithful step that you and I take brings us nearer to that promised day when all will be well, and all will be one.

May it be so.



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