Paul Knitter’s Sermon from November 4, 2018

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All Saints/All Souls Sunday

Nov. 4, 2018

Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21: 1-6a; John 11: 32-44


What Are We Waiting for?!


  1. When I’m in the throes of preparing a sermon, I like to give myself at least a working title to keep myself focused. The title I’ve chose for today’s homily – appropriate, I hope, for today’s feast of All Saints and All Souls – is “What are we waiting for?!”


  • The first two readings are pretty clear about what we’re waiting for. Today’s first reading is taken from the section of Isaiah, chapters 24-27, called the “Little Apocalypse of Isaiah.” The second reading is from the last book of the Bible, which Catholics used to call the Apocalypse.


  • So we’re dealing with apocalyptic, or what is called eschatological, literature: such literature describes “the final things” for which we are waiting.
  • Our readings paint a pretty nifty picture of these final things: in both readings, there’s almost identical images and wording:
  • Isaiah: God will swallow up death forever…. Revelation: death will be no more.
  • Isaiah: God will wipe away the tears from all faces … Revelation: God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
  • These two readings are separated historically by about seven centuries. Yet they contain the same picture of the final things, and the same waiting for them to happen.


  1. Such pictures of what we are waiting for at the “end times” have led to two very different understandings of the future among the Christian churches. In one understanding, Christians are focused on what we can call “the next-world-future,” and in the other, Christians are concerned about a “this-world-future.” Each leads to very different ways of living one’s Christian life.


  1. For those Christians who believe in (or were taught) a next-world understanding of the future, what counts most is the next life – heaven or hell. Life in this world is a testing or proving ground where we gain, or lose, our admission tickets to heaven.


  • Also, according to this other-worldly understanding of the future, this present world is a valley of tears in which, human nature being what it is, we will never overcome greed and violence and economic inequality and dishonest governments. Things can get better, really better, only after we die.


  1. In the second understanding of the future as the “this-world-future” – the images that Isaiah and the Book of Revelation use are not taken to be literal descriptions of the world to come. Rather, they are symbols meant to stir our hearts and imaginations and feelings to trust, as the Jewish people trusted and as the Jewish Jesus trusted, that we are held by a Holy Mystery that Jews call Jahweh or Shekinah (Presence) and Jesus called Abba or Mother/Father. And this Holy Mystery, this abiding Abba-love, is what makes a different and better future possible.


  • No matter how many tears we find ourselves shedding, no matter how many loses due to our own weakness or to the weakness of others, no matter the persistence of violence, no matter how messed up our government and its leaders – if we trust in this loving presence we call God, if we allow ourselves to be a conduits of that love-energy, we will be able to deal with whatever there is to be dealt with.


  • The beautiful, symbolic images of the future are meant to enable action in the present. The images of the final goal, with its fullness of life and wiping away of tears, tells us that it is possible to move a little closer to that goal tomorrow than where we are today.


  • This is what scholars of religion tell us is distinctive of the Jewish religion and of the Jewish Jesus: Jews believe in a God of history, a divine Energy that is up to something in history. And so Jews are committed to the project of “tikun olam,” – fixing the world. And they are committed to that project even despite horrors such as the Holocaust, or such as happened last week at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburg.


  • The Jewish Jesus was also a “fixer of the world.” This, New Testament scholars tell us, is how Jesus understood the Reign of God – his vision of a society of justice and compassion. It was “already/not yet” – still to come but taking shape right now.  Such trust in the coming Reign of God enabled Jesus to try to make that Reign real in his own lifetime.


  1. So, what are we waiting for? What will the “end of the world” be like? What is life after death? Will we live on as individuals? Or will there be, as many Jews believe, a communal life, beyond individuality?


  • May I suggest that we really don’t know what we’re waiting for. And may I suggest further that we don’t need to know. 


  • We seem to forget St. Paul’s reminder to the Corinthians: “No one has ever seen this. No one has ever heard about it. No one has ever imagined what God has prepared for those who love God [and neighbor].” I Cor 2:9


  • Or as a friend of mine reminded me: “Life after death is God’s concern; life after birth is our concern, with God.”


  1. So, if we have to remind ourselves that we don’t clearly know where we’re going – we can assure ourselves that we do know how to get there; we do know the way.


  1. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth shows us the way. We believe that in this Jesus we see what a human life looks like when a woman or man trusts in a God, a Holy Mystery, that is seeking to fix the world through them, a God who assures us that no matter what happens, we can – held and sustained by Abba-Love – make a future out of it.
  • What that means concretely, or practically, we can see in today’s Gospel.


  1. John’s Gospel stresses the divinity of Jesus more than the other three Gospels. And yet in this passage we see how distressingly human Jesus was.


  • Confronted with the sufferings, the tears of his dear friends Martha and Mary at the death of their brother Lazarus, the text repeats twice that “he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved.” And like Mary and her friends, it says that Jesus wept. But the Greek verb that John uses for Jesus’ weeping is different from the one he used for Mary and friends. My Greek dictionary tell me that it means: Jesus “burst into tears.”


  • This is how Jesus shows us the way to walk into an unknown but assured future: We are on the way when, in the face of suffering we become, like Jesus, “disturbed in spirit and deeply moved”, “when we shed tears of compassion for others. And then, disturbed by such compassion, we act, we do what we can – even when we’re confronting the stench of death, or the stench of hatred and violence, or of political dishonesty.  We are on the way when, moved by such tears, we do what we can, even when all we can do at the moment is just weep, but knowing, trusting, as did Jesus, that the Mystery of Abba-Love “always hears us” and is always with us.


  • On this Feast of All Saints and All Souls, we are encouraged by the memories of so many others, whether officially canonized or not, who followed the way of Jesus in responding to suffering with tears and efforts to help. I think especially of the recently recognized St. Arnulfo Oscar Romero who was converted when he found himself shedding tears at the stories of El Salvador compesinos exploited by landowners and persecuted by the military. Those tears moved him, as they moved Jesus, to speak and act and risk his life.


So with the communion of saints, we can now gather around this Eucharistic table and bring whatever deeply disturbed feelings we may have had this past week about the divided and violent state of our country; we can bring any tears we may have shed at the sufferings of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh, of the two African Americans shot dead by a white racist in Kentucky , of refugees, of people without adequate housing or health care.

  • In the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, may we feel the true presence of the living Christ within us, calling us and enabling us to carry on his task of fixing the world.


Paul Knitter

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