Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Book of Revelation meets Stevie Wonder, Part II

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.

“Where I am going, you cannot come.” I start off with that only because some of you may not know that next Sunday afternoon I begin a four-month sabbatical. And, as Jesus tries to communicate to his disciples in these last weeks of Easter season, wonderful things are in store for all of you while I’m gone.

RevelationLast week, I preached about the Book of Revelation and its aim as a source of comfort for disciples under persecution. I talked about Revelation as the literature of God’s people in their powerlessness.  At the church door I got a comment from a very faithful person, the kind of person I describe as a mature Christian —not because of age but because of temperament. It was the kind of comment that clergy hardly ever get and which I, for one, truly appreciate. She leaned into me and she said: I beg to differ with you. I have to say, on behalf of all of my preaching colleagues, lay and ordained, we really do love it when you tell us, on the way out the door, how much you love our sermons. But when someone has a bone to pick, I love it just as much. It lets me know they take themselves seriously as a theologian, and I know they’ve really been listening.

“I beg to differ,” she said, and then she said: “being a true disciple means being Christ in the world, and thus you are not powerless but all powerful.”

And—being a person occasionally able to think fast on my feet—I said: “It’s a good thing this was only Part I of my sermon on the Book of Revelation. Just you wait until next week.”

So here we are with another chance to look at what this complex and oft-overly-reduced book of the Bible has to say to us about discipleship.

Last week I talked about powerlessness, as I said, and about suffering. To be a disciple is to suffer, and to be the Christian church is to suffer. And I don’t think anyone back then thought about suffering in terms of an unbalanced budget or the lack of air conditioning in the sanctuary. So where is the good news, in the reality where we live right now at this moment? The good news is that if we are truly Christ in the world, the principalities and powers of the world need not have any more power over us than they ultimately had over Christ. Or, as I heard at the church door last week, “being a true disciple means being Christ in the world; thus you are not powerless but all powerful.”

So where is powerfulness in the Book of Revelation? Well, all through it. In all its psychedelic glory, Revelation is the place where power and powerlessness meet and dance together. Today’s reading gives us a vision of the New Jerusalem, the place where God’s power and our power as disciples intersects. The New Jerusalem is the author’s way of talking about the Kingdom of God. If you’ve heard me preach more than once or twice you know I believe the kingdom is within our reach, and that our job as disciples is to point to it, proclaim it, and reveal it in how we live our lives.

The Holy City, the New Jerusalem is not “up there” somewhere, but comes down to us. One reader imagines it like the Emerald City, floating on the horizon in the land of Oz. I imagine something much less ethereal and more real. Imagine if the new Jerusalem is all around us. God’s kingdom is here, where we are, in all of our broken, fallen mortality.

God is in the alpha and the omega—the beginning and the end—but also in the middle. The home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God, says our text this morning. The middle is where we experience powerlessness and suffering, conflict and grief. Right now. (Well, not right now, I hope, but you know what I mean.) And this middle, between the alpha and the omega, is where we experience the power of Christ within us, the power of being Christ in the world.

Jesus tells us about this power in today’s gospel: I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples. It is simple, and yet, easier said than done, right? But love is the how for Christ’s power in the world, and for the transformation of the world into the Kingdom of God. Love one another, love the world, love the work and the play of the world, the mundane and the mystery. Love our neighbors, love our enemies, love our bodies, love our collective soul with all its dark and confusing places.

If we interpret the Book of Revelation as only about end-times, about the elect 144,000 who will actually get to the New Jerusalem, then we can say we are in the world but not of it, with our sights set on what some might call “pie in the sky.” But this would be to deny the text and all of Jesus’ teaching. Our response to the suffering in the world and in our own lives is not to imagine an alternative universe beyond our grasp, but to engage the world where God is. The home of God is among mortals.

These past few weeks I’ve been meditating on a passage of poetry from one of the great soul-searchers and soul-proclaimers of our time, Stevie Wonder. What has caught me, as we’ve been reading hearing these Easter snippets from the Book of Revelation, are these lines from his song “As”:

We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles 
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
 
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
 
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
 
so make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
 
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
 
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
  

This is my last sermon for some time. Next week I’ll be here with bells on, but the Bishop will be our preacher. So, as is my wont, I’m leaving you with a few questions: Where do you see God making a home among mortals? How will you live out the power of Christ within you?

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The Book of Revelation meets Stevie Wonder, Part I

And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

In my first or second year of seminary—I can’t remember which, and the whole period is fading into the past much faster than I’d like—but somewhere back then in the very early 2000s there was tragic death on campus; a young man who had everything going for him died suddenly of an aortic embolism. I don’t know about you, but I live in terror of that exact kind of thing happening to me or someone I love.

My seminary was in New York City in the time right after 9/11 where every bad thing that happened in our pressure-cooker, fishbowl community reminded everyone of every other bad thing that had ever happened. The faculty member scheduled to preach the next community Eucharist after his death was one of the scripture professors. She titled it “Mulholland Drive and The Book of Revelation.”

Anyone remember that movie? It’s a David Lynch film made in 2001, American “neo-noir” about an aspiring young actress who meets a young woman with amnesia and tries to help her figure out her story. There are many surreal and bizarre subplots that all come together in the end, kind of, but not in any way I could ever figure out. When I came home from seeing that movie, I lay awake for hours trying to make sense of it all.

revelationThe professor who preached on “Mulholland Drive” in connection with the Book of Revelation was making two points: one, one oughtn’t try too hard with the Book of Revelation to turn it into linear sense. And two, human experience is full of horrible inexplicable things that sometimes we simply cannot piece together.  We certainly know this latter truth from the experiences of the past week and the unfolding story of the two young men who engineered such a violent and tragic attack. People who live in parts of the world where this kind of violence is a daily occurrence live constantly with the struggle to make sense out of surreal experiences with subplots they will never understand. And for them, the incomprehensible experiences just keep on coming.

This would have been the life experience of the people for whom the Book of Revelation was originally written, who were the first martyrs, victims of the earliest persecution of Christians.

My New Testament professor was not the first person to link the Book of Revelation with a movie. A generation ago (at least), a preeminent scripture scholar with the unfortunate name of Eugene Boring wrote about Revelation in terms of the 1967 American classic, “The Graduate.” How many of you remember that one?

Boring writes about how the Book of Revelation talks of the end-times but contains no closure, and he makes a connection to the end of the Graduate. The Dustin Hoffman character stands behind a stained glass window during a church wedding shouting “Elaine!” The Graduate leaves us with an image rather than a conclusion. And Revelation is nothing if not a collection of images, without a conclusion in sight. Ending without closure.

We tend to dismiss the Book of Revelation as hopelessly incomprehensible. Some people have speculated in all seriousness that the author must have been writing under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs.

Because Revelation contains some of the most creative and powerful images in all of scripture, I’d like to try to rescue it from its exile.

Revelation is the literature of God’s people in their experience of powerlessness. It is written to a particular people in a particular time: early Christians learning, first hand, not just from Jesus’ earlier preaching, that to be a Christian is to be a martyr. Revelation reminds us that God does not prevent suffering, even for faithful Christians. Like many good sources of comfort, the book provides images and poetry, rather than parables or history. It is not a code for us to crack to predict our own future, but a lens through which to see the transformation of the world that has not yet come and is always becoming, where the powerless are granted full life with God.

In and among all the psychedelic aspects of Revelation are words of comfort. If the passage we heard this morning sounds familiar, it is because it is often read at funerals.

So why do we read Revelation during Easter season? I have a couple of theories. One is that it’s an important complement to the book of Acts. In Acts, we read about the earthy day-to-day on-the-ground life of the apostles on the other side of the cross, figuring out what it means to be disciples, what it means to be the church. Revelation reminds them that what it means to be the church is to suffer. We do well to remember that, especially when we find ourselves complaining about aspects of first-world, twenty-first century parish life. Revelation reminds us that for us, triumph is to be found in the symbol of the utmost powerlessness, the Lamb.

I think another reason we read Revelation during the Great Fifty Days of Easter is to remind us that Easter begins with death. My guess is that most of us are more comfortable with the world of Acts than with the world of Revelation. Revelation reminds us—quite frankly—that death is a part of discipleship. No wonder no one wants to read the thing! Revelation also reminds us, over and over again, that God and the Lamb have the final victory, not death.

Anyone who reads the history of the early church knows they just don’t make martyrs like they used to. In the first centuries after the resurrection, to witness to one’s faith meant to be willing to die. This witness became, in fact, a form of evangelism (also a word for witness). The second-century author Tertullian famously said “the blood of martyrs is seed,” meaning that with every Christian cut down, many-fold more will grow up. In the nineteenth century, as they were marched to their death, the Martyrs of Uganda sang and prayed for forgiveness of their enemies. The crowds who watched this converted to Christianity on the spot, and the government could no longer keep them silent. Martin Luther King, Junior, a student of the Book of Revelation, said:

We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will match physical force with soul force. We will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.

There are times and places where suffering and death is a powerful Christian witness. However, the word martyr simply means witness. The Book of Revelation is a call to, and a tribute to, patient, faithful witness. How do we serve as witnesses to our faith? How do we keep the Church faithful to that witness? How do we engage the very real powerlessness that is what it means to be a follower of Jesus?

Playing with Clay

photo 1 (34)For our last session together, the Following the Way group spent time playing with clay. Artist-in-Residence Leroy Goertz talked a bit about creativity and his own experiences with clay, while the rest of us pounded, rolled, pinched, destroyed, rebuilt, fiddled, explored, talked, and listened. This experience, which I’ve been lucky enough to have a few times since LeRoy set up shop in the lower level art studio, never ceases to amaze me. I begin by getting in touch with all of my own inadequacies as an artist, mixed in with painful memories of childhood ceramics classes, where certain things came naturally to a handful of kids, and the rest of us made ashtrays (thank God our parents all smoked back then). Then gradually all of that subsides, and I let myself enjoy the tactile experience, and let it go at that. Tonight, because there were a bunch of us, the best part of the evening–for me, anyway–was seeing everyone else’s creations. Take a look.

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It started as a cave. And then it became a seashell.

And if you wish you were there, it’s not too late. This summer’s Faith & Story Project will be all about fellowship and creativity, and you’re invited. The best way to know about specific upcoming opportunities is to read our weekly enotes. If you’re not a subscriber, go to our webpage, scroll down to the bottom, and enter your email address.

Shelf fungus. Right?

Shelf fungus. Right?

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St. Michael the Archangel. Indeed!

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“Container-guy”

Lindsay made this dogwood, just in time for St. David's dogwood to bloom sometime next week.

Lindsay made this dogwood, just in time for St. David’s dogwood to bloom sometime next week.

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Megan and Anne came to Following the Way AND had a girls’ night out all at the same time!

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A contemplative dude.

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Nurturing turtle

Resurrection: A never-ending story

doubting thomasBlessed are those who believe.

And blessed are all of you who are here today. Statistics tell us that there were three times as many people here last Sunday as this Sunday. And why do we come back the week after Easter? Many of us are here because this is what we do on Sundays, any Sunday. Some of us are perhaps here because we look forward to church getting “back to normal” after all the hoopla for Holy Week and Easter.  And I hope that some of you came back—whether for the first time or the fiftieth time—because you want to know more about the life of faith as we live it out in this community. Because you want to know more about the Jesus whom we encounter so intimately during Holy Week, whose resurrection we celebrate so vigorously at Easter.

Did you see it? Did anybody actually see him get out of the tomb? Did you see the resurrected Jesus? Did anyone you know personally ever know anyone who actually saw Jesus walking the earth? How do we know?

After the wonderful liturgies of Holy Week and the glorious celebrations of Easter which we experienced in this place last Saturday, last Sunday and in the days leading up to it, it is striking to me that every year, no matter where we are in the 3-year lectionary cycle, the next time we all get together after Easter, we hear this story of Thomas and his refusal to believe without proof. As this story has been handed down to us through generations from the first Easter, Thomas has been given the name “Doubting Thomas.” Not Disbelieving Thomas, or De-bunking Thomas, but Doubting Thomas.

In the midst of any life of faith, doubt comes in all sorts of ways for all kinds of reasons. We’re tired, we’re hurt, we’re vulnerable. We’ve spent ourselves, whether in rejoicing, or in working on a relationship that may fail, or in working toward an important goal that always seems just out of reach, or in praying to be healed from an illness. Doubt comes in to protect us from further disappointment. Doubt comes in to say God cannot possibly be in charge of the messy, chaotic, complicated lives so many of us lead.

Thomas speaks for all of us at one time or another. I say this every year at this time: just as Jesus is the bearer of our sins, so I believe Thomas is the bearer of our doubts. Thomas was not the first disciple to doubt, and he will certainly not the last.

Thomas stands for the human need to touch and see in order to believe. When I look at Thomas, when I look at my own life, I come to the conclusion that doubt is not about unbelief, it is about the longing to believe. Think about how we use the word in daily life. Perhaps the sun will come out this morning. I doubt it. Perhaps so-and-so will smile at me today. I doubt it. Perhaps all of this will work out just right. I doubt it. Doubt is not about unbelief, it is about the longing to believe.

So what do we do with our doubts? We do what Thomas did. We go to where our friends our, to where Jesus might be, and we share our doubts. We go to church, the beach, Hopworks, Lucky Lab, People’s Co-op, Powell’s, little t, and we wrestle through our doubt. Maybe we do this with a friend, or maybe on our own. Maybe shaking our fist at the sky that may or may not hold the One we may or may not believe in. Any kind of wrestling with doubt is, in itself, an act of faith.

In his words, Thomas is completely focused on the need to believe, rather than the practice of faith. But in his deeds, he acts out his faith. He practices. Driven by hope, he seeks out the disciples, goes back to where they met the Risen Lord. Then he makes this audacious request to put his hands in the holes made by the nails and the spear, and Jesus grants it.

But it starts with Thomas acting through his doubts: going, asking, and believing.

In our collect today we prayed: grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith. Many of us need to show forth our faith in our lives before we actually believe it. To put it another way, we need to act ourselves into right thinking, rather than think ourselves into right acting. That’s why our baptismal vows are all about action. When we renew these vows, as many of us did last Saturday night, we promise to break bread, to seek, serve, pray, persevere, strive, respect, repent, and return. Action words.

It is in our actions and our interactions that we encounter the Risen Lord. In seeking out the poor and poor in spirit, in breaking bread with neighbors and strangers, in coming to this table, that we might touch and taste Jesus, in praying for those with whom we struggle—even when we don’t want to or we don’t believe that God is listening—these actions bring us closer to Jesus and give us “proof” of resurrection.

And it is through us, as we minister our way through our doubts, that others experience the Risen Lord. As we act our way into right thinking, we touch the lives of those around us with our actions. The Benedictines have long held to a principle of hospitality, inspired by St. Benedict’s teaching that “all that come to the monastery be received as Christ.” What if we received all that came to our church as though each one of them were Thomas? Think about today’s gospel scene as a model for Christian ministry: Thomas, who missed the disciples’ first encounter with the Risen Christ, is given a second chance. He is greeted with love and grace, with an invitation and the assurance that Christ is truly alive. He is offered the Peace of Christ, and he is blessed.

I’m going to close with a portion of the General Thanksgiving in the morning prayer service:

And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies,
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you
in holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.