Rev. 21:1-6 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; 3 and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people,[a] and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”5 And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6 And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
The first testimony is from Karen Kropf: “This theme right now is certainly on my mind right as we as a family are coming together and preparing as a family to honor the life of our Dad [Joe Beachy, of Kalona, Iowa]. How do you squeeze 100 years of a life into a 1 hour service? Jesus called to Dad when he was a young man and Dad choose by faith to follow. That choice and choices along the way directly affected my growing up years. In these later years his faith remained strong even as his body grew weaker and weaker. This faith not only spoke to me but to our children and grand children. It was not a faith that was only between him and God but exemplified itself in his life. It is often spoken of him with tenderness of his accepting others and their value no matter their circumstances. Jesus called to him Friday morning, a call he was waiting for and welcomed. I will miss him greatly but believe he is now complete and in the presence of God. “
Pastor Swora’s recollection:
We are doing a subversive, counter-cultural thing this morning by observing All Saints’ Day. It’s a tradition that the church developed over the last 1500 years. As I said last week, to be Mennonite and Anabaptist doesn’t mean that we reject all church traditions just because they are traditions. Instead, we measure traditions by the Bible, and if they clash, the Bible gets preference. One of the more common words in the Bible is the verb, “Remember.” But remembering is counter-cultural and subversive in an age like ours, so oriented toward now and the future, and with technology shrinking our attention spans.
The Bible also tells us, in Ecclesiastes, that “there is nothing new under the sun.” I remember believing that my generation had found the exception to the rule, that we had discovered, or that we had done, something truly “new under the sun.” Technology changes rapidly, yes, but God is timeless, and human nature too. Human community, to be truly inclusive, must include the voice of the dead, as well as the living, to hear what wisdom they have to offer. Until the Lord returns, true community must also consider the unborn, the generations to come, so as to know what wisdom is for. That’s why I want to keep observing All Saints’ Day.
This morning I’d like to testify about a saint who has joined the ancestors, but whose life and testimony still bear fruit in my life: Robert Moorman, born in 1955, in Fort Worth, Texas. When Robert, was about four years old, his parents, Evelyn and Warren Moorman, began to suspect that something was wrong. Robert had trouble running or going up and down stairs. Tests over the next few years would confirm the diagnosis they feared most: Robert had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. That form of Muscular Dystrophy causes muscles to atrophy, beginning with the voluntary muscles in in our limbs, before moving to the involuntary muscles, like the lungs. It is rare for its victims to live beyond the age of 25.
Imagine then what it’s like, at the age of 12, to realize that you have probably already lived half your life. Grief, anger, depression, and resentment marked Robert’s early teen years. How could they not? But something changed for Robert when a woman from church visited regularly with him, and gave him a copy of the devotional classic, The Christian’s Secret Of a Happy Life, by Hanna Withall Smith, written in 1875. Reading it made Robert realize that his only choice was to face his disease and death with God, or without God. The one choice risked growing despair and resentment, the other offered a glimpse of hope and even joy, joy that not even a long, healthy life, could give him. He also decided that he didn’t need to understand why God would let him have this disease if he was to tap into the joy of which Hanna Smith wrote. God could explain it all to him later.
And that was the Robert Moorman I came to know in my junior and senior years of college, when I had a part-time job as Robert’s personal aide and assistant. But working for him was not just a job: it became a matter of deep friendship.
He had just graduated a year before from the school where I met Becky: Texas Christian University, so I knew of him before I took the job. By then, his disease had advanced to the point where he could only get himself around in a motorized wheelchair with a toggle switch on the handrail. If his hand fell off it, someone would have to put it back for him. He could drink through a straw, but couldn’t eat without help. I came to get him out of bed every morning, bathe him, dress him, help him with bathroom duties, and would sometimes return to help him with similar tasks at bedtime.
The Americans with Disability Act could not come soon enough for Robert. In his wheelchair, he had to enter most school buildings, concert halls, restaurants and even churches through loading docks, past smelly dumpsters, through busy, cluttered kitchens or dusty, dark heating plants. That was not only difficult; sometimes it was humiliating. By the time the ADA had made significant national changes in accessibility, Robert had died.
Robert was not always a perfect, plaster saint. He had an ornery streak. Whenever people would stare at him too long or too obviously, he would sometimes say, “Yes, it’s extremely contagious, in case you’re wondering. But since you’re already this close, you might as well not spend the little time you have left worrying.” He could come up with a sharp word too if he sensed he was getting much pity, or that someone was lowering their expectations of him, because of his disability. He rarely conceded a point in an argument, even though I’m pretty sure I was right most of the time. Spanish was his college major at TCU, and he was proud of his fluency in it, especially the classical Spanish from Spain. He worked part-time as a Spanish language translator for a Museum in Fort Worth. If ever he was frustrated but afraid to hurt someone’s feelings, he might let go in Spanish. He had a ready stock of Texas Aggie jokes, which I’ll confess, I swapped with him. I have different feelings about them, now that I have actually known some graduates of Texas A & M.
After Becky and I married and moved to Wyoming, then to Minnesota, Robert would call us in February or March and say something like, “Hey, Matt, it’s 62 degrees and sunny here in Texas today. What’s the weather like where you’re at?”(Usually 10 degrees, or colder) Or, “Matt, the Indian Paintbrush and Bluebonnets are blooming all over the hillsides between here and San Antonio; everywhere you look there’s this beautiful riot of red, blue and green. What color are you seeing now, mostly?” (White, of course.)
“Tell me again just why it is you both live way up there.”
Though we shared a common faith, we only rarely discussed the question of why a good God would let him suffer as he did. But each time the disease revealed another step in its brutal progress, each time it took away more strength and another capacity, Robert repeated his choice to suffer with God, rather than without God. It’s such a terrible disease, the choice did not get easier with time. To the few people who told Robert that, if he only had enough faith, he could get up and walk again, Robert’s response was, “I believe that, but I’ll let God decide if my first steps are down University Avenue or on streets of gold.”
One highlight of Robert’s life, about which he reminisced often, was the wedding of Becky and myself. Three mutual friends drove him up from Forth Worth in his van to Kansas City, MO., where Becky and I said our vows. The night before the wedding, after the rehearsal dinner, we all went back to the one hotel suite which the five of us guys shared that night, and got Robert to bed by 9:30. That was a complicated process that involved his portable hydraulic lift. The rest of us were out like lights by 10 PM, after a time of prayer together. And that was my “stag party.” And I’m fine with that. It felt as peaceful and right as did the ceremony and the vows the next day.
Robert got a chance to share his faith with a national audience during an annual Muscular Dystrophy Telethon, broadcast from nearby Dallas. Robert was invited to come on the show and talk about his work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and its effect on his life. Previous to his appearance, pledges had been coming in pitifully slow. But in his interview, Robert said he didn’t know why he had this disease, and No, it didn’t seem fair, but God was bringing some good out of it, and what mattered most to him was that God be glorified, especially by us helping people who suffer. The phone banks then lit up like lightning, and the pledges came in like a Texas gully-washing rainstorm.
For a few months before Robert’s death, in 1981, at age 26, I’d been hearing from friends that he was getting uncharacteristically irritable and sharp-tongued, in English as well as Spanish, when he was talking sense, that is. That happened less and less as the disease weakened his lungs and starved his brain of oxygen. He was also talking aloud to his grandmother who had died a few years before. One of the last things Robert said to his parents was, “I’m going to where the colors come from.” The very last thing he said, after he went into respiratory arrest and the paramedics were putting an oxygen mask over his face, was, “It’s okay; it’s no one’s fault.”
If ever you’re in the Texas hill country come March, and see the Indian paintbrush and bluebonnets blooming along the hillsides, think about Robert rejoicing at the very source of those colors, and not from a wheelchair anymore.
Another church tradition, going back to the Middle Ages, speaks of two churches: the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. The Church Militant is so-called because it is in battle, struggling, fighting to carry out its mission, against the determined opposition of its enemies in this life. Not enemies in the form of people, for if it has flesh and blood, it’s not our enemy. The church’s enemies in her struggles are Satan, our own sins and indifference, our sufferings, temptations, false teachings, persecutions, doubts, divisions and distractions, and finally, our own death and dying. Such as what Robert endured and overcame. We never arrive to where we’re done with the struggle in life; the church militant is therefore all the members of the church visible, alive in the here-and-now.
The Church Triumphant is the church of those who have kept the faith, who have endured and overcome all of life’s sufferings and struggles, to arrive, through death, at the city, the New Zion, which John foresaw in the Bible passage we heard earlier, especially the words, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people and God himself will be with them; 4 he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.”
The more I read John’s Revelation, the more I wonder, Are this book, and its images, only about the future, or are they about the here-and-now? Do they speak of unseen things to come, or of unseen things already around us and within us? Yes. Yes, to the future reunion of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant and Yes to the present unity of the Church Militant and the Church Triumphant. For now, death seems to separate these two churches, the Church Militant from the Church Triumphant. And that separation hurts. And yet, from the time-free perspective of God, what’s the difference between now and forever?
When I talk about the unity of the The Church Militant and The Church Triumphant, I’m not talking about ghosts, nor do I pray to the saints in heaven. I wouldn’t want to distract them from the joy they know and the beauty they behold just to help me find lost car keys or a parking spot. And we in the Church Militant don’t need their help to relate directly to our common Lord. But I still can’t help but wonder, when Robert was talking to his deceased grandmother just before he died, was that a hallucination induced by his growing oxygen deficit? Most likely. Or was God giving him glimpses of “the great cloud of witnesses that surrounds us,” The “Church Triumphant,” as he drew nearer to the edge of this veil of flesh, so as to comfort him through his last battle? I’ll hold that question for the Pearly Gates.
A tradition like All Saints’ Day reminds us that we are not self-made, self-defined people, hard as that is for post-modern Americans to accept. We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us, their influence lives on is us for good and bad. Paul wrote the Philippian Christians, “Our citizenship is in heaven, from which we await our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” For Christians, then, the past is never over; it’s not even past.
No, there are no perfect plaster saints in either church. Yes, our ancestors made plenty of mistakes before they went on to join the Church Triumphant. Future generations, should the Lord tarry, will say the same of us. The power and point of our testimonies is in Christ’s merits, not ours.
Robert’s testimony got me to thinking about the book that changed his life, The Christian’s Secret Of A Happy Life.” Because of him, there’s been a copy of it on my bookshelf since I don’t know when. But I confess, this is the first week I’ve ever read it all the way through. It’s a quick read. I was afraid that it would be more of the health/wealth/and prosperity self-help fluff and stuff that just tells us to name it and claim it in Jesus’ name. It was anything but. The book read me even while I read it. Hanna Smith’s vision of happiness would fit right in with that of great saints and mystics, like Augustine, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. The happiness she writes about is less about ease and success in this life, and more about love, virtue, obedience and union with God. As I read it from what I think might have been Robert’s perspective, I wonder if he resonated most to words like these: “All the dealings of God with the soul of the believer are in order to bring it into oneness with Himself…This divine union was the glorious purpose in the heart of God for His people, before the foundation of the world, accomplished in the death of Christ.”
The members of The Church Triumphant, like Robert, now know the fullness of that union with God.
Or was it these words, about how God can use our sufferings and setbacks to raise us toward union with himself, by making them, “his chariots, sent to take souls to places of high triumph. They do not look like chariots but like enemies, sufferings, trials, defeats, misunderstandings, disappointments, unkindnesses….Take each thing wrong in your lives as God’s chariot, no matter if the builder of the wrong be men or devils.”
Taken together, Robert’s example and Hanna’s words catch me up short whenever I catch myself indulging in some personal pity party, or in resentment. The power of their words and example, today, is another way in which the Church Triumphant and the Church militant overlap.
To some, eternal life in The Church Triumphant, the New Jerusalem, is a reward we earn for having right faith and right conduct. To others, eternal life is a right or an entitlement that is only fair or equitable for all, as though eternity was coded into the DNA of everyone’s bodily cells. But in John’s vision of eternal life, the New Zion is, rather, God’s dream, God’s desire and God’s gift of union with us, because “the steadfast love of God endures forever.” It’s also God’s dream and desire for the reunion of heaven and all creation, as well, the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The Church Triumphant no longer needs to pray that prayer: they are living the dream already.
Eternal life is also God’s dream and God’s desire for the reunion of us, The Church Militant, with The Church Triumphant. We experience already something of that coming reunion with The Church Triumphant whenever we pray, worship, show love and testify to our Lord. And if ever we feel any loss, love and longing for friends and family who have gone on to eternity and have joined The Church Triumphant, it is no sign of weakness; it is a God-given homing instinct, the sound of our Heavenly Father calling us, the Church Militant, home to the New Zion, the Church Triumphant.