“Who Belongs?”


All Saints

November 1, 2015

 

Text: Psalm 24; Isaiah 25:6-9; Revelation 21:1-6a

         

          As I observe the world we live in today, it seems to me a lot of the things people argue about have to do with the question of who belongs and who doesn’t. One sometimes hears people say things like:

  • immigrants don’t belong in this country
  • Muslims don’t belong in this country
  • gay and lesbian people don’t belong in the church
  • women don’t belong in the pulpit
  • mentally ill and homeless people don’t belong in my neighborhood
  • people whose political opinions differ from mine need to just go away

          And the list can go on.

          We actually use the word “belong” in two different ways. First of all, we use “belong” to indicate ownership, for example: “This book belongs to me.” But we also use the word “belong” to indicate something being in its rightful place, often using it in the negative sense to indicate that someone or something is out of place, for example: “Those dandelions don’t really belong in that flower arrangement.”

          Our psalm today, Psalm 24, actually uses the idea of belonging in both of these ways. It begins, “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants too.” This verse speaks of belonging in terms of ownership, declaring that the earth and all who live in it belong to and are claimed by God.

          A little later in the psalm we read, “Who can ascend the Lord’s mountain? Who can stand in his holy sanctuary?” These questions are about belonging in the other sense. They ask who can rightly be in God’s presence. The answer given is: “Only the one with clean hands and a pure heart; the one who hasn’t made false promises, the one who hasn’t sworn dishonestly.”

          Thus we have a tension between the claim that all people belong to God and the reality that only some seek to live in God’s ways and thus act as if they really belong in God’s presence. We come today to this celebration of All Saints recognizing this tension. For in this celebration we especially call to mind all those who have sought to live faithfully for God in this world. Yet we must also recognize that judgment of who is in and who is out belongs to God, not to us. In addition, we need to remember that even the noblest saint is still a sinner saved by God’s grace, and even the worst sinner is still in reach of God’s power to redeem through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

          In considering some of our other Scriptures, it becomes clear to me that God’s desire is to fulfill the reality that all people belong to him. Thus we read in Isaiah, “On this mountain, the Lord of heavenly forces will prepare for all peoples a rich feast….He will swallow up on this mountain the veil that is veiling all peoples, the shroud enshrouding all nations. He will swallow up death forever. The Lord God will wipe tears from every face; he will remove his people’s disgrace from off the whole earth.” The prophecy makes it plain that this heavenly banquet is intended for all people.

          Then we have our Scripture from Revelation. God reveals that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, where God will live with humankind and claim humankind as his people. God also reveals that he will make all things new, in the process abolishing death, mourning, crying, and pain.

          Since God claims all people as his own, could it be that our desire to try to define who belongs and who doesn’t actually is part of the realm of death, which God intends to abolish?

          Now to ask that question does not mean God has no standards. After all, the psalm does say that those who belong in God’s holy place are those who have clean hands and pure hearts, defining that further as those who don’t make false, dishonest promises, instead keeping the promises they make to God and others. Elsewhere in Scripture, those who have clean hands are described as those who don’t take bribes or oppress the poor and needy, instead dealing honestly and compassionately with others regardless of their wealth or station in life. And having pure hearts has to do with being devoted to God and his ways rather than being devoted to the counterfeit gods of this world, which in reality are disguised forms of self-worship.

          There are plenty of people God claims as his own who don’t act like they belong among God’s people, who do not deal honestly and fairly with others, whose primary devotion is to themselves. Indeed, sometimes this is true of me, and I would guess that sometimes this may be true of you as well. Whether inside or outside the church, most people sometimes act like they belong to God’s people, and other times don’t. Yet in spite of this, God still claims us as his own and invites us to live in God’s ways in all that we do.

          Today we remember and give thanks for all who belong to God and who have gone before us. We especially lift up those near and dear to us who have died in the past year, for these are the ones for whom our grief is freshest. These people were not perfect as far as how the world defines perfection. Martin Luther reminded us about 500 years ago that Christians are simultaneously justified by God and yet sinners. This is true of you and me, and of all who have gone before us. Yet God claims us, not only because he loves us, not only because he made us, but because Jesus died and rose for us, victorious over the powers of sin and death. We are sinners who have been redeemed, who are going on to perfection, going on toward becoming the people God means for us to be.

          As we give thanks for those who have gone before, let us commit ourselves anew to living according to who we are as people who belong to God. Let us commit ourselves to living God’s ways of love, justice, compassion, and mercy in this world. Let us spend less time making judgments on who belongs and who doesn’t and more time on making this a world where all people will know they belong to God.

                                                                             Amen.

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