Will the Circle be Unbroken?

All Saints Day (Transferred), Year B.

Track I

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. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”

And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

Revelation 21:1-6a

The end is nigh and now upon us. Heaven and earth tremble as the end of days swiftly approaches. The sun is passing into darkness, budgets are due, travel plans are being made, and the passing of all hallows eve marks the waking of the great beast rising once again out of the earth. Once awoken and the shelves changed, all now are compelled to buy and sell by its name [Revelation 13:17]. I looked, and saw the eighth seal breaking, and I heard from on high the sound of bells; ringing and clamoring everywhere above my head. The bells proclaim the great ordeal that is coming, and I heard a great cry from the servers and retail workers asking for deliverance, but there was none. They are forced to hear the terrible clamor thrice an hour. I looked upon the scroll with the broken seal and saw the names and titles, ever changing in order and temperament, but one name and title that had been made low was now rising. And I saw the name leap up, clutching and climbing back to top 100 of the list. And I know now that the days are surely upon us where it has returned, Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas is You has once again returned to the top music charts.

Once again as of November 1st, All I Want for Christmas is You entered the top 200 on all the charts. When I first beheld the vision and looked upon the scroll with the broken seal and heard the clamoring of bells everywhere above my head it had already leapt to 53. I was surprised to learn that whether we wanted it or not, All I Want for Christmas is You re-entering the charts has been our All Saints’ Day gift for years. And as much as preachers like myself love to shake our fists and tear our clothes wailing over the capitalist takeover of Christmas, and point to this completely inoffensive and agnostic hymn to ironic consumerism as its harbinger, it is in fact a gift to us. Or at least we can make it so.

The fact that it returns to the charts and our collective consciousness on All Saints’ Day is a gift because it is yet another example of how Jesus bears all our trials and tribulations. Because the moment the beast of consumerism and commercialization turns its gaze toward Christmas, we and All Saints’ have been spared. At least in North America, All Saints’ is one of the few principal feasts of the Church that has not been overtaken by some form of commercialization. You will not see All Saints’ cards, sales, or billboard hits, but hymn sings, baptisms, and memorials of life. There is no pressure, no awkward office parties, no gifts to wrap, or enormous meals to plan and prepare. For us, All Saints’ is still very much a family holiday; so much so that it is the only principal feast day of the church that we can transfer to the following Sunday, because it is our time to celebrate our family here together in Church.

We celebrate on this All Saints’ Sunday all the saints: the saints that are to come, us, the saints present here, and those who rejoice with us, but on upon another shore and in a greater light. It is a day where we remember those who have gone before us, and what it means to be a saint.

Most of us are keenly aware of the greats, those heroes of our tradition that we all so admire and have become the stuff of legend. The great names who by their virtue and faithfulness seem almost unreal to us, so holy that they were always stories and sermons rather than people we could know. Because of this we think of saints as somehow other, like the angels in heaven too perfect and unblemished to be relatable. But the marker of sainthood is not moral perfection or heroic deeds, for there are many counted among the saints who were cowards, liars, and shared all the flaws of fallen humanity. The marker of sainthood is belonging to God; something not earned through mighty deeds and or wondrous acts, but freely given to all who believe that the world is being made new.

All of us here are counted among the saints not in spite of our flaws, nor by our own merit. We are counted as saints by our promise. Our promise made to God and neighbor in baptism, and the promise that God sees in each of us. We are counted among the saints as we carry on the work of the saints before us, and make way the path for the saints who will follow. In that work and in that promise, we are given the freedom to see all directions of time. We are comforted knowing that for all our trials and tribulations, we carry this mission not only on our shoulders, but together with the whole communion of saints in all times and in all places. And in that solidarity, we believe that all things are being made new. Because we no longer live as isolated individuals, but as the family of God, we have the courage to believe in humanity and the coming kingdom. Even if our work does not come to fruition in our lifetime, we know that we are laying the foundation for the New Jerusalem, justice and righteousness, brick by brick.

Though we have faith and know that we do the work of God with the whole communion of saints, there is a touch of sadness on All Saints. While we know that the saints who have come before us are still with us, we still love them and miss their earthly presence as part of our family.

This is All Saints, that we rejoice in our freedom and solidarity with all of God’s people, and at the same time, we mourn those who have gone ahead of us. Yet this joy and sadness reminds us that in Christ, all things are redeemed and made new. Following Christ, we can transform our pain and our sorrow into joy and song.

So instead of letting the song of commercialized Christmas be our hymn on All Saints’ Day, let us choose a new song. Rather, let us make one new. Let me suggest a hymn that celebrates the uniquely Christian conflation of joy and sadness that we share this day: Will the Circle be Unbroken?

I first encountered Will the Circle be Unbroken? when visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. It is written in magnificent metal letters over the bronze images of stars and legends, many passed on to the heavenly shore. It is impressive and mysterious. After my visit I sought out the hymn, and found what has become the most well-known version, written by the Carter Family. The Carter version is moving, as it describes the all-too real experience of burying a loved one, but I was left with questions. I felt that there was still some mystery that I had failed to grasp. The phrase “Will the circle be unbroken?” seemed separate, almost cosmic in scale compared to the rest of the song. I wondered: “What is the circle that they are referring to?”, “What does it mean?”

It never made sense to me until I learned that Will the Circle be Unbroken?’s lyrics were not originally written by the Carter Family, but by an English Baptist and Old Testament Scholar, Ada R. Habershon in 1907. She was commissioned to write hymns for a Revival tour in America. While she wrote over 200 hymns for the tour, Will the Circle be Unbroken? became the most popular. The inspiration for the hymn came from the memoir and sermons of Ada’s friend and colleague, Charles Spurgeon, known in his day in Baptist circles as “the Prince of Preachers”. In his autobiography, he recalled a trip he took through the Alps, where he witnessed a complete rainbow,

“… [We were] surprised to see a rainbow making an entire circle…It was a fair vision to gaze upon, and reminded us of the mystic rainbow which the seer [John] of Patmos beheld, which was ‘round about the throne’ [Revelation 4:3], for it strikes us that it was seen by John as a complete circle, of which we perceive but the half on earth. The upper arc of manifest glory we rejoice to behold; but the lower arch of the eternal purpose, upon which the visible display of grace is founded, is reserved for our contemplation in another world.”

-The Autobiography of Charles H. Spurgeon 1856-1878

The image of the rainbow, and its ties to the Revelation to John, served as the inspiration for the hymn. Will the Circle be Unbroken? expresses joy, sorrow, and hope all together through the sign God gave to Noah, the rainbow [Genesis 9]; the first covenant that no matter what, God will make all things new and save humanity. The Circle is the faithfulness of God, the connection between heaven and earth, the Communion of Saints, and the joy that one day, the circle will be complete.

1 There are loved ones in the glory
Whose dear forms you often miss,
When you close your earthly story
Will you join them in their bliss?

Refrain:
Will the circle be unbroken
by and by, yes, by and by?
In a better home awaiting
in the sky, in the sky?

2 In the joyous days of childhood,
Oft they told of wondrous love,
Pointed to the dying Savior,
Now they dwell with Him above.

3 You remember songs of heaven
Which you sang with childish voice,
Do you love the hymns they taught you,
Or are songs of earth your choice?

4 You can picture happy gath’rings
Round the fireside long ago,
And you think of tearful partings,
When they left you here below. 

5 One by one their seats were empty,
One by one they went away,
Now the family is parted,
Will it be complete one day?

Apologies for publishing so late, I thought adding the recording would be a fun addition to the post. It ended up taking me a bit longer to sit down and record a performance than expected! I appreciate your patience and hope the result was worth it.

This sermon was written and delivered with special consideration for the wisdom offered by my homiletics professor who always said: “Nothing is never and nothing is always in preaching. Don’t sing.”

I’m sorry

-Joseph+

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