Life in the Beautiful River

In celebration of the festival of All Saints we sing in this wonderful hymn: “Yes, we’ll gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river, Gather with the saints at the river that flows by the throne of God.”

Herman Hesse’s novel named for his main protagonist, Siddhartha, tells of a young man who wanders the wide world in search of the good life: happiness, peace, and meaning.

Siddhartha acquires and loses wealth, he tastes love and finds it unable to satiate his deepest longing, he travels until he becomes an old man and finally, having lost hope of uncovering his ultimate purpose, he sits down by the river he has crossed many times in his life and really looks at it for the first time.

He gives the churning water his attention, and in watching the water pass by he finds enlightenment.

He is illuminated.

He understands his place in creation and comes to know deep within that every person is given the gift of being only momentarily and yet we are all found in God.

Today, on All Saints Sunday, the Triune God gathers us at his river of life. We stand by the baptismal river that claims us as sons and daughters of God and we give thanks for those who are far downstream:

For Daniel and Paul who bring us words of life, and for our mothers and fathers in the faith on whose shoulders we stand.

And today we God thanks, in particular, for Ellen, JoAnn, Bob, Ron, Bradley, Eddie, and Flo, and for all the ways they gave themselves for Christ’s ministry and for all the ways they blessed us.

These sisters and brothers who have gone to be with God were founding members of our congregation, Sunday school teachers, men and women who served on church council, people who blessed us with their gifts, who raised up children in the faith, and who were examples of God’s love.

Today we give God thanks for their lives and their ministry and remember that God has done and continues to do wonderful things thorough the lives of his people.

The gift of baptism, the river of God’s love that comes from the source of God’s deepest longing to make us his own, means for us that we don’t have to search for God. God has searched for us and found us, and as Paul says, God has marked us with the seal of the promised holy spirit, the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.

God has blessed us with a rich inheritance.

When Paul spoke of an inheritance, he had his readers’ full attention, because no one in the ancient world would ever have received an inheritance except for royalty and the aristocracy, but Paul impresses upon the first generation of Christians that they stand to cash in handsomely because of what God has done in Christ:

Paul shares the vision with them that as they come to know Christ, with the eyes of their heart enlightened, they will see what is the hope to which he’s called them, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power. Hope. Riches. Power. An inheritance that changes their perspective on what’s possible.

I have a friend in Charleston, SC, named Bob. He is a bit older than me but we grew to be close friends in my time there. Every time we went to lunch, he would pay for it.

Nothing I could say would change his mind. Every time we ate together, I offered to pay and every time he’d grab the check, smile, and explain: “My wife and I received this in inheritance from her side of the family.” And then he’d do this funny shrug as if to say, I don’t really have a choice do I?

The inheritance had changed his life and given him a sense of generosity that seemed beyond his control.

In our baptism we have been given the inheritance of God’s love and favor. It comes as a free gift, not because of who we are but because of who God is, and God means to fill us with a sense of generosity toward each other.

We belong to God and have received the riches of his mercy and friendship and we don’t really have a choice in the matter.
Paul writes his letters, and this letter to the Ephesians, almost as if he has little choice in the matter. Jesus has appeared to him and changed his life with an inheritance that Paul finds to be so valuable he has to share it.

So he writes to this little church on coast of the Aegean Sea, which was surrounded by pagan influence and the Cult of Artemis and all sorts of cultural forces hostile to God as a plea to treasure the gospel, to imitate God, and to share the news of the riches of Christ that are for all people.

Interestingly, we know of no other group in the ancient world besides the young Christians that imagined all the world should be gathered into one community and worldview.

The Romans did not believe all their citizens should worship the roman gods and didn’t try to force them to do so.

The Jews didn’t proselytize and try to bring pagans to the synagogues.

But with the infant church, for the first time, we have this community with the starling notion that God has a plan to untie all things and that plan was laid out even before creation began.

Today we are surrounded by as many different worldviews as the Ephesians. Some say the world is a zero-sum game of politics where if one party gets anything the other necessarily stands to lose everything.

Some people imagine this world to be a place where everything is for sale and you and I are primarily consumers of products that advertisers promise will fill a void we didn’t know we had until they tried to convince us of it.

A secular world view today says that God isn’t active in the world, all truth is relative, and any enlightenment and illumination come from finding our “true self” by building our own identity from scratch.

The truth is that we inherit our identity as a gift from God.

Part of the glorious inheritance we receive from God are the saints — those women and men of faith who have come before us as examples of how to live as disciples of Jesus.

We had some friends over to the house on Friday and Samuel had two little boys to play with. These boys are in the stage of life of looking for archetypes to base their own lives on. It actually has nothing to do with Halloween that they pretended to be cowboys, policemen, robots, and spacemen. For hours.

As we grow and mature as women and men, we learn to become ourselves and discover who God has made us to be, but we always need to have someone to look to in order to imagine who our best unfolding self can be.

We are always being influenced by the people and things around us so we would be wise to ask: who are we learning from and who do we look to as an example?

God provides people, doesn’t he?

Saints at rest and saints among us who show us how to live.

Don’t you know people of faith that you would like to emulate?

I see them all the time.

If fact, I’m looking at them: Fathers who inspire me to be a better father, mothers who show me a picture of the God who shelter and protects the ones entrusted to him, young people who inspire me with their desire to get their hands dirty and risk great things for God, children who come to God with a spirit of open vulnerability and curiosity that I believe resides in all of us and I sometimes wish we older folks could reconnect with.

When Samuel and his friends are playing, constantly changing identities, they have to repeatedly ask each other, “Who are you?” Their identity is changing so frequently they have to ask one another explicitly to stay abreast of the situation.

We learn who we are in community – asking questions, trying on different roles, and taking risks together, and the saints are the ones who point us towards Jesus in whom we find life.

The gift of Jesus is the gift of eternal life with God and all the saints, but the gift of Jesus is also that God comes among us to show us and tell us what a good life, well-lived looks like.

Jesus words and actions in the gospels make it clear that he’s after our heart and our entire person. Martin Luther famously said you could sum up all Christ’s teaching and preaching in the words: Do to other as you would have them do to you.

If we could keep this one thing in mind: Be toward others as we’d have them be toward us – we’d be less lonely, more connected, more joyful, and more at peace.

Jesus made this little statement short enough and memorable enough that we can hold it in our mind and heart, but we often can’t do it.

Jesus asks us to identity with the other person so deeply we imagine they are us and we are them. He asks us to take his lead and bless those who curse us, love our enemy, do good to the haters in our lives.

My best friend Jonathan who really is a gift from God to me – we didn’t like each other when we first met each other. He thought I was aloof and I thought he was a know-it-all. Somehow God brought us together.

God wants us to connect with each other, to find friendship, to take care of each other, to learn to grow in maturity as his disciples, so he shows us how: do to others as you’d have them do to you.

Jesus shows us how: he forgives his betrayers from the cross, he comes from the empty tomb to search out and reconnect with those who stood by and didn’t help him. And that his risen life goes on and on, bringing God’s forgiveness and healing to us today.

Because we are baptized into Christ we receive the promise that the same power that brought Jesus back from the dead is at work in our life.

Because we belong to God, he has gathered us around his table and today we will lift our voices with all the saints so that with the church on earth and the hosts of heaven we praise God’s name and join them in their unending hymn.

I have to say that in this moment around the table, as we sing to the holiness of God, I often find such joy and relief because I know at that moment, we are all in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

I wonder if you are like me. If like me, your life is filled with so many moments of wondering if we’re in the right place, if we’ve prioritized the right task, if we’ve said the right thing. In this moment of total praise of God at the table we have no doubt. We have been joined to the whole creation’s awe and wonder that the creator would take on flesh and come to us in kindness, mercy, and love.

In this moment the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have gathered us in praise to recall and sing the truth that God has filled all creation, that the Lord is the name above every name, that our inheritance from God is that we get to live for the praise of his glory, and that the fulness of his life fills all creation and makes every cell and atom of creation hum with the sacred presence of God.

This table is meant to raise our vision for all the moments of our lives to this level.

It is meant to give us the means of grace to live in the joy of Jesus as saints of God ourselves and put on our baptismal identity as Christ in the world.

With this identity comes hope, riches, and power – and the ability to see life from the perspective of eternity.

Today we give God thanks for the community we share with all the saints – all those people of faith who have now received happy hearts, quivering in the rest of God – even as we await the day when Christ returns to set all things right.

Come Lord Jesus!

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