Monday, April 29, 2013

Sermon for April 28, 2013

Revelation and Liberation: Hunger No More

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen." Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" I said to him, "Sir, you are the one that knows." Then he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." Revelation 7:9-17

The book was called 88 Reasons Why the Rapture is Coming in 1988, and it literally scared me like no tomorrow. I was 18 years old, in my first week at a small Christian college. Students were talking about this book, and the evidence seemed clear: Based on the prophecies of the books of Revelation and Daniel, Jesus would return in October of 1988. We weren’t the only ones who thought so. The book sold 300,000 copies when it came out. The Trinity Broadcast Network took the author so seriously, the cable channel interrupted its regular programming to give viewers instructions on how to survive the coming tribulations. For whatever reason, I knew I wasn’t going to make it through the end times. If the book was correct, I only had a month to get my act together before the return of Jesus. And even if I was faithful enough, I was so upset about friends and family whom I thought were not following God and would spend a fiery eternity treading lava in the lake of fire mentioned in the Bible. Of course, 1988 came and went with no end times. Another Doomsday of Yesteryear for the history books. All these years later, I still get cold sweats when someone predicts a new deadline for the return of Christ.

And I don’t even believe that stuff anymore. The book of Revelation was never intended to be an end-times check list, helping us count down the days to the end of the world. The author of Revelation, a political exile living on the craggy island of Patmos off the coast of Greece, had something more immediate in mind. As best we can tell, as John writes his visions down, the Roman Emperor Domitian sits on the throne. Emperor Domitian has just put the finishing touches on a new temple in the city of Ephesus and dedicated it to his family, the Flavian dynasty. As a strong-willed monarch, Domitian tolerates no disagreement with his policies. The new imperial temple provides a way for citizens to show their loyalty and honor to the emperor. It is supposed to have a unifying effect. But a growing group of Christians, otherwise known as Followers of the Way, have a crisis. As citizens of the Realm of Caesar, they have this offer they can’t refuse -- to attend Domitian’s imperial religious festivals. As citizens of the Realm of God they ask. “Do we worship Christ or Caesar? How can we, who call ourselves Jews and Christians, pay honor to the imperial family that killed Jesus and destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem? Are we willing to face punishment and death to protest Domitian’s Temple?” In John’s vision, those who hold firm and stay true to Christ lose their lives, but gain the reward. Bathed in light, they worship God day and night before the throne of God, not the throne of Caesar. 

We can only wonder if the Followers of the Way begin to lose heart as decades roll by without the promised return of Jesus.  Doubts seep in, like dirty water in a flooded basement. Will Christ ever come back and save the faithful? Do they dare hope for an end to injustice borne of violence? Will there ever be a renewed earth where everyone has enough, where children survive, where the oppressed are set free, and the grip of evil is finally defeated? When will the poor and needy have enough in a rich society? When will those on the margins of society be cared for with dignity and respect? When will aliens and immigrants be welcomed?
Sound familiar? Sound familiar you dreamers among us, you who can see a beautiful, renewed world in your mind’s eye – a word where beauty is restored, tears wiped away,  thirst satisfied at the waters of life? Sound familiar you prophets among us, you who call us to build societies based on fairness and equality where people hunger no more? Sound familiar you fearless champions for peace among us, you who renounce violence with the embrace of love? Sound familiar you servants among us, you who put hands and feet to work to soothe and heal the pain of injustice? Sound familiar, you who are tired and weary and worn – you who are sucked down in a quicksand-world where the rich get richer, the middle class gets poorer and the poorest among us are forgotten? We may have more in common with the book of Revelation than we care to think.

We have this book of Revelation, with its terrifying images, cruel upheavals and unbridled praise of God. As much as I don’t get it, I also wonder if Christian churches need more visions like the book of Revelation – something that helps us see the horrors of the world for what they are . . . something that can confronts the injustices of the world with a dream of hope and renewal.  I wonder if we need to welcome poets and mystics back into our conversations about the future of the church. The way I see it, over the centuries, church leaders began to teach that the best way to protect people was to replace mystics and poets with creeds and statements of faith. Then they demanded that people in the pew recite them as vows. Creeds became swords drawn to defend turf. Statements of faith became tests of faith. The earliest Christians never equated dogma with devotion. They simply stopped worshipping Caesar. They refused to go to the Emperor’s party. Instead, they threw open the doors of their underground assemblies, redistributed wealth, and made a simple, dangerous claim: “Jesus is Lord. We worship at the throne of God, not the throne of Caesar.”

As Christianity grew, Christians began to come up with complex theories like original sin and substitutionary atonement, along with the claim that the church alone could not only make the diagnosis, but also claim to have the only cure for the sins of humankind. The earliest Christians did not see the death of the Lamb of God as a mandatory event to pay the price for sin. For them, the Lamb’s death was the final death in a cosmic battle between peace and violence. For our early Christian ancestors, the Lamb of God was a symbol of their refusal to participate in scapegoating. Early Christians actually stopped performing animal sacrifices. And it was an amazing and courageous thing to do. Rome encouraged the practice of animal sacrifice among the various religions. Roman leaders knew that sacrifice was a safety valve that shifted attention away from the brutality of the realm by giving comfort to the masses. Rome perfected the technique of using violence to accomplish peace. Violence is redemptive, the citizens were told. Violence saves. The earliest church refused to participate. Christian theology did not get on the violent atonement bandwagon for a thousand years. 

In many ways, we are like the early church – like those Followers of the Way who need to decide whether we participate in the unjust structures of empire – whether we can risk losing ourselves for the sake of love. For too long, Christian churches have claimed divine sanction to undergird a violent status quo when all along, we were supposed to create redemptive communities who renew the earth. We are a non-violent community who stands against the unchallenged assumptions of violent empires, wherever and whenever they arise. Anytime we use our rituals and theologies to align ourselves with any other message, we preach and practice corrupted grace.

Rich was diagnosed with cancer when he was a student in college. Rich was not that religious, but he in his physically wasted state, he remembered a teaching from his boyhood church. He had not been baptized, which meant he was not saved and would go to hell. What he needed to hear was a message of grace – a reminder that he arms of God were around him day and night. Instead he was terrified by the thought of eternal punishment.

What caused Rich’s terror? What brought back this memory of his childhood church? Well, a much-publicized evangelist had come into town for a gospel meeting. He heard of Rich’s condition and decided to pay him a visit. The family had not asked for the visit, but their decency made them vulnerable, so when he knocked on the door, they opened it. The evangelist asked to meet with Rich privately, and they granted the request. The evangelist asked Rich if he had been baptized, making it clear to all that the entire state of his soul hung on the answer.

Rich whispered in pain, “No sir.”

The evangelist told him, in a deep somber tone, totally devoid of feeling, that if Rich was unbaptized he would go to hell. If he was baptized, he would not have to be afraid of meeting God when he died. He prayed for Rich to make the right decision and then he left for good.

Rich spent his days not only physically wracked in pain but also deeply conflicted. One morning, after a fit of coughing and with death’s yellow face staring back at him in a mirror, he asked his mother to call her pastor. She requested that the pastor come to the hospital and baptize Rich by immersion, the only method acceptable to their tradition. The pastor was also deeply conflicted about this, but he agreed.

Rich had no idea what baptism meant, but he feared the consequences of not going through with it. The logistics were complicated. The hospital staff secured a large tank, loaned from the physical therapy department. Lowering Rich into the tank would be painful, as would be his trip from his room to the basement where the tank was located and filled with warm water. Lifting him off the bed caused excruciating pain, and as he cried out, those assisting him lost both their will and their strength – starting and stopping several times, wishing they could abandon this task altogether.

The ride on the elevator was painful, as was the task of putting Rich in the sling that would  swing him over the tank and lower him into the water. Even some of the most experienced therapists winced at Rich’s screaming and stood back to watch as Rich prepared to receive his sign of God’s acceptance.

There was Rich, alone in a sling, dangling over a tub of water. The pastor knew he was supposed to say something – something about rebirth and hope into the ear of a dying young man whose pain was serenaded by the beeping and grinding of hospital machinery. When Rich was lowered into the water, he was too weak to keep the fluid out of his mouth. He came up out of the water strangled and close to drowning. Some of the technicians left the room. The pastor helped dry Rich off, and then the tortured trip back to his room began. Rich died three days later.

This is mortal mistrust. This is anti-grace. This is the final insult to the idea of a God of unconditional love and grace. And it’s not the kind of religion I want to be part of.
Did you know the word religion comes from the same word as ligament? Both religion and ligament come from a Latin word that means to connect. At its unhealthiest, religion ruptures and tears apart. At its best, religion is something that connects us to God and one another. That’s the kind of religion I want to be part of.

I want to be part of a connecting religion that is born of love and unites instead of division.
I want to be part of an inviting religion that gives special attention to the weak and forgotten, a church that finds those who have been marked as enemies and makes room for them at the table.

I want to be part of a fair religion where women are equal to men; where gays and straight, black, white, brown and tan celebrate diversity together; where children are cherished and elders are respected.

I want to be part of a mission-focused religion where our worship service is not just about coming in the doors, but also going out from here to actually serve.

I want to be part of an honest religion where fear is not used as a technique to manipulate others into obedience – a church where our love for one another becomes an irrevocable claim on one another.

I want to be part of a humble religion where it’s more important to love than to be right and where we hear more singing than arguing.

I want to be part of a religion that empowers the human spirit – a religion that can sit by the bedside of people like Rich and say, no matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you come from or where you’re going – no matter what, you belong to God who formed you in the divine image and will never leave you or forsake you.

We stand together, blessed and broken, working hard and partnering with God to be shepherds of peace. You dreamers and prophets, you servants and peacemakers, you wounded healers, go now, dry the tears and nourish the bodies of those who live in this beautiful, terrible, wonderful world. Go with the Lamb on the throne, the Shepherd, who has the waters of life.


Robin Meyers, The Underground Church.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Sermon for April 21, 2013 / Easter 4

Trading Sorrows
April 21, 2013

Back when Newsweek was still with us, the magazine ran a poll asking what people thought about heaven. At that time, 76 percent of Americans said believe in heaven, and, of those, 71 percent thought it’s an “actual place.” People could not agree on the specifics, though Nineteen percent thought heaven looks like a garden, 13 percent said it looks like a city, and 17 percent had no idea.  The New Testament’s fullest descriptions of heaven were also battle cries. After the Romans crushed Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Middle Eastern cities teemed with festivals honoring the Roman emperors. The earliest Christians had a dilemma. “To what extent do we join the mainstream culture?” they wondered. “Do we attend without participating, participate without believing, or believe without embracing?” The Book of Revelation drew the battle lines. Revelation’s descriptions of thunder and lightning and lakes of fire, as well as its promises of pearl gates and jeweled walls, were warnings to the earliest Christians: Do not worship the Roman emperors. Stay faithful to your God and Jerusalem will be restored and you will live in a magnificent city forever. So, we get visions like this from John the Seer:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life.” -- Revelation 21:1-6
I have a problem. How dare we think about some far off new heaven when people are dying, starving and killing each other in our world?  How dare we talk about a new heaven, when we see evidence of Hell on earth, like the bombings at the Boston Marathon last week? In my most cynical days, I see people acting out on unrestrained craving, and egoistic behavior, unleashed upon others with no hope of improvement or escape. Hell on earth makes us anxious. Scared. Afraid of a future where love is gone and God fails to act.
And what about this talk of a new earth? How dare we dream of a new earth when we can’t take care of the one we’ve been given to take care of? How dare we dream of a fresh new start after we make this one unlivable for our species? Some use the promise of a new earth as an excuse to hollow out our current planet for resources. The argument goes like this: the earth is headed for destruction, and there is going to be a new heaven and a new earth anyway, so why bother taking care of this earth. It was made to pass away. The sooner it does, the sooner we get the new one. As much as I hate to say it, a lot of the anti-environmentalism we see around us today comes from Christians. It’s all summed up well in the bumper sticker I saw on the back of a behemoth SUV sporting a Christian fish sign that read: “Friends don’t let friends become environmentalists.”

The new world described by John is the joining of the previous world and heaven to form a renewed realm of peace, prosperity and faithful love. In Revelation 21, John arrives at the climax of hope for his audience. They have listened to his description of several dismal images displaying the horrific force of evil and the mighty hand of God in judgment. Now he is able to soothe their ringing ears with a promise that God not only will address their present circumstances but also will finally correct every deviation from his original creation. John sees Heaven and earth join together as one.  He is not saying that God will simply wipe everything away to begin again with nothing.  God will not making all things anew. God is making all things as new. Our current earth is not a precursor to a replacement planet once our disregard for the environment causes an irreversible catastrophe (if it hasn’t already). The second earth, or new earth, is the renewal of creation. If we want to see a new earth, then we need to see our care of it as a mandate from Christ. Or to be blunt, disregard for creation is disregard for God.

I guess a little touch of some new heaven and earth would be a good think right now. Last week showed the worst of what the current earth and its citizens offer: terrorism in Boston, genocide in Syria, floods in the Midwest, community-leveling explosions in Texas. Not to mention the inability of our Senate to look the families of the Sandy Hook shootings in the eyes and pass a simple forearm background check law. Wouldn’t even a taste of that in our lives today be wonderful? Just a little joy in the bleak moments...a second of spiritual comfort in the midst of turmoil...peace in the thick of our hectic lives? How do we get to experience even a little bit of that new heaven and earth – just a sliver of that renewal here and now?

If I had to define what heaven is, I’d say Heaven is the destination of ultimate joy. Not some future home on a cloud. Not some vindication after a doomsday. Building a new heaven and new earth is a journey – a day-by-day set of choices we make, that over time lead us to joy. I think we one of the things we can to do build the renewed and renewing heaven and earth is to choose joy. So, how might we choose joy as a way to renew creation?

1. Choose joy through perseverance.

If the book of Revelation teaches nothing else, we can learn to keep on keeping on. It’s baseball season, so let me tell you the story about Clint Courtney. Clint never came close to making it into the Baseball Hall of Fame. He wasn’t a legend in his own time -- not even in his own mind. But a few die-hard fans were inspired by his tremendous perseverance. Clint played catcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the 1950s. During his career he earned the nickname of Scrap Iron. Clint was weathered and tough. Old Scrap Iron broke no records -- only bones. He had little power or speed on the base paths. As for grace and style, he made the easiest play look rather difficult. But armed with mitt and mask, Scrap Iron never flinched from any challenge. Batters often missed the ball and caught his shin. Their foul tips nipped his elbow. Runners fiercely plowed into him, spikes first, as he defended home plate. Though often doubled over in agony, and flattened in a heap of dust, Clint Courtney never quit. Without fail, he’d slowly get up, shake off the dust, punch the pocket of his mitt once or twice, and nod to his pitcher to throw another one. The game would go on and Clint with it -- scarred, bruised, clutching his arm in pain, but determined to continue. Some made fun of him, calling him a masochist. Insane. Others remember him as a true champion. What kept him going? I guess he really loved baseball.

Hang in there, even when life gets really gritty and rough. And make no mistake, life gets really tough. Curve balls come. We get knocked down. We have a reason to hang in there. We love this earth. We love each other. And we want to make life together work.

2. We can choose joy through obedience.

Joy is a sign that the Holy Spirit is alive and working in your life. Joy begins to bloom when obedience to Jesus works its way into the fabric of our daily lives. Imagine that you work for a company whose president found it necessary to travel out of the country and spend an extended period of time abroad. The President says to you and the other trusted employees, “Look, I’m going to leave. And while I’m gone, I want you to pay close attention to the business. You manage things while I’m away. I will E-mail you regularly and I will instruct you in what you should do from now until I return from this trip.” The boss leaves and stays gone for a couple of years. During that time the boss writes often, communicating her desires and concerns. Finally she returns. She walks up to the front door of the company and immediately discovers everything is a mess -- weeds flourishing in the flower beds, windows broken across the front of the building, the secretary at the front desk dozing, loud music roaring from several offices, two or three people engaged in horseplay in the back room. Instead of making a profit, the business has suffered massive loss. Without hesitation she calls everyone together and barks, “What happened? Didn’t you get my messages?” You say, “Oh, yeah, sure. We got all your Email. We’ve even printed your messages and the bound them in a book. You know, those were really great letters.” I think the president would then ask, “But what did you do about my instructions?” No doubt the employees would respond, “Do? Well, we did nothing. But we read every one!”

Do you know anyone like that, a person who knows God’s expectations? That person might have even read the Bible from cover to cover, but doesn’t live it out. There’s no obedience, and therefore no joy. I am fairly clear on what God wants us to be doing: Take care of the earth’s resources. Feed the hungry. Visit the prisoner. Clothe the naked. Tend to those in need. Stand up for those who have no voice. Bring those on the margins to the center of the action. Live lives of peace and compassion.  Doing these things can bring great joy.

3. Choose joy by trading sorrows

There is something to be said for disciplining ourselves to be positive in the midst of life’s difficulties. I read a story about Gary -- the kind of guy you love to hate. He is always in a good mood and always has something positive to say. When someone would ask him how he was doing, he would reply, “If I were any better, I would be twins!” He was a natural motivator. If an employee was having a bad day, Gary was there telling the employee how to look on the positive side of the situation. Seeing this managerial style, a curious observer approached Gary and said, “I don’t get it! You can’t be a positive person all of the time. How do you do it?” Gary replied, “Each morning I wake up and say to myself, ‘Gary, you have two choices today. You can choose to be in a good mood or you can choose to be in a bad mood. I choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I choose to learn from it . . . Life is all about choices . . . You choose how you react to situations . . . The bottom line: It’s your choice how you live life.”

Several years later, Gary did something you are never supposed to do: he left the back door of his business open one morning and was held up at gun point by three armed robbers. While trying to open the safe, his hand slipped off the combination. The criminals panicked and shot him. Luckily, Gary was found quickly and rushed to the local trauma center. After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, they released Gary from the hospital. About six months after the accident, when people asked him how he was, Gary replied, “If I were any better, I’d be twins. Wanna see my scars?” Someone asked him what went through his mind as the robbery took place. Gary replied. “The first thing that went through my mind was that I should have locked the back door. Then, as I lay on the floor, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or I could choose to die. I chose to live . . . When they wheeled me into the ER and I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I got really scared. In their eyes I read, ‘He’s a dead man.’ I knew I needed to take action. There was a big burly nurse shouting questions at me. She asked if I was allergic to anything. ‘Yes,’ I replied. The doctors and nurses stopped working as they waited for my reply. I took a deep breath and yelled, ‘I’m allergic to bullets!’ Over their laughter, I told them, ‘I am choosing to live. Operate on me as if I am alive, not dead.’ Gary lived thanks to the skill of his medical team, but also because of his amazing attitude.

Every day we have the choice to live against the odds, and this can bring great joy. This can bring some renewal.

We do not have to live in defeat. We can trade our sorrows for God’s joy. Live with purpose. Do what you love. Choose joy. When enough of us can do this together, maybe we will find some of the renewal we want to see.

I’d like to leave you with an excerpt from a letter by Fra Giovanni Giocondo . Giovanni was an architect, engineer, and classical scholar who was born in Verona around 1433 and died in 1516. This letter was written to a friend on Christmas Eve, 1513. It’s words are ancient but still meaningful.
I salute you! There is nothing I can give you which you have not; but there is much, that, while I cannot give, you can take.

No Heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in it today. Take Heaven.

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present instant. Take peace.

The gloom of the world is but a shadow; behind it, yet, within our reach, is joy. Take joy.
God is making all things as new. We might not see it, but we may need to affirm it anyway. God is making all things new, and God can use us to help make it happen. In the face of the worst this world has to offer, may we all find a way to take some joy and know the unity of heaven on earth, here and now.


Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Pastoral Letter

It has been a very difficult week for our country -- the bombing in Boston, an explosion in West Texas, flooding in the Midwest, tornado watches here in the D.C. area and the failure of cowardly senators to pass sensible gun background check legislation. I sent this letter to my congregation before Tsarnaev was apprehended in Boston, but I thought I'd still publish it on the blog. Terrorism will continue, so we will continue to find ways to respond as people of faith.

Sometimes I ready to give up on humanity. Really, I’ve had enough of the shootings, bombings, and grisly death scenes. The Boston bombings reveal my own deep-seated feelings: I am angry and I am scared.  Terrorism is designed precisely to do that -- to scare people far out of proportion to its actual danger. Since these events will not stop, my personal growing edge is to learn how to empathize while refusing to be terrorized; to be angry without being scared.

In response to the Boston Marathon bombings, comedian Patton Oswalt wrote on his Facebook page, “This is a giant planet and we're lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in awhile, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they're pointed towards darkness.  But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evil doers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil . . . So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, ‘The good outnumber you, and we always will.’”

I’ve noticed that, for whatever reason, some comedians have the ability to speak deep truth to us in this terrible situation. Oswalt’s message is in line with some of the Psalms. Consider the opening words of Psalm 91.
Those who live in the shelter of the Most High
will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
This I declare about the Lord:
God alone is my refuge, my place of safety;
In God I trust.
God will rescue you from every trap
and protect you from deadly disease . . .
God’s faithful promises are your armor and protection.
Do not be afraid of the terrors of the night,
nor the arrow that flies in the day.
Do not dread the disease that stalks in darkness,
nor the disaster that strikes at midday.
Or, consider the words of Psalm 56.
When I am afraid,
I will trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise,
In God I trust; I will not be afraid.
What can mortal man do to me?
Affirming this level of trust is so difficult! The temptation for many of us is to seal ourselves off from threats and close ourselves off to pain. Atlantic Monthly writer Bruce Schneier writes, “Terrorism isn't primarily a crime against people or property. It's a crime against our minds, using the deaths of innocents and destruction of property as accomplices. When we react from fear, when we change our laws and policies to make our country less open, the terrorists succeed, even if their attacks fail. But when we refuse to be terrorized, when we're indomitable in the face of terror, the terrorists fail, even if their attacks succeed.”

We empathize, we continue to trust, but we refuse to be terrorized. Fear not. Be indomitable and support those who continue to pursue compassion, peace, and healing in the midst of this bloodthirsty world.

Pastor Matt


Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Sermon for April 14 , 2013 / Easter 3

Revelation and Liberation: Lamb on the Throne
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, "Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, "To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!" And the four living creatures said, "Amen!" And the elders fell down and worshiped. Revelation 5:11-14
The book or Revelation is a strange and wonderful gift. Much of the imagery of the modern horror film industry comes from this unsettling book of scripture. These hallucinogenic and ominous images all come from the pages of the last book of the Christian New Testament: The Antichrist; 666; The Lake of Fire; The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse; The Seventh Seal; The Mark of the Beast.  Remember when bar codes first came out, some Christian groups were worried that they were a fulfillment of the prophecies of the Book of Revelation. When the first UPC scanners arrived in the early 1970s, there were protests at grocery stores — even though the codes appeared on Coke cans and jars of applesauce, not right hands and foreheads. And in the years that followed, an urban legend arose, warning gullible types that the number 666 was hidden in each bar code. Some claimed that the inventor of the bar code was a tool of Satan. With what proof? His name is George Joseph Laurer. Each of his names has six letters! All together: 666!

The imagery in the Book of Revelation reaches shocking levels of violence. While the tradition of the Gospel of John is has Jesus talking about love as a new commandment, we wonder if John’s tradition of love was lost on this writer who claims to belong to the same school of thought, with all his talk of plagues and punishment.

Here’s what’s happening up to the point of today’s reading from Chapter 5. A Christian named John is held as a prisoner for his faith on the small island of Patmos off the western coast of what is now Turkey. It’s the Lord’s Day, what we call Sunday – the day of the week on which we celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. On the Lord’s Day, an elaborate vision comes to John. In the beginning of the vision, John looks up to heaven and sees a door standing open. A voice invites him to come up and take a look. There, at the center of the scene, is a throne surrounded by a rainbow. And someone sits on the throne. This someone looks like two precious stones: one the color of amber, the other the color of flame. From the throne come sights and sounds: flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. In front of the throne stand seven burning torches. Encircling the throne are 24 other thrones, on which are seated 24 elders wearing white robes and golden crowns. In front of the throne is a sea of glass like crystal. Beside the throne are four remarkable creatures, each of them with many eyes and six wings, and each with a different face. These four creatures an unceasing song: Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come. It is John’s vision of heaven. As this song sounds forth, the two dozen elders cast their crowns before the throne and sing their own hymn celebrating God as creator.  We sing about this scene in one of our beloved hymns. “Holy, Holy, Holy! All the saints adore thee. Casting out their golden crowns around the glassy sea.”

 John looks again at the gem-like figure on the throne and sees that the figure holds a scroll, a scroll sealed with not just one seal, but seven -- a scroll whose contents remain secret. Then John hears an angel cry out loudly, "Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seven seals?' Nobody speaks. Nobody in heaven, on earth, or under the earth is worthy to do this.

John starts to weep bitterly. The scroll that nobody is worthy to open is the scroll of history. To open it and read it means to make sense of the past, to discern the meaning behind events, to carry out the Creator's intention for creation. But the scroll remains unread, sealed seven times over. History remains a painful riddle.

John is not alone is his tears. Many of us have wept with him. When we run straight into the hard edge of life, when we see suffering unabated, evil unchecked, justice notoriously absent, when we count up the crimes and blasphemies and terrors that fill the chronicles of yesterday and the news magazines of today, when we do not witness redemption and release, when good seems impotent and moral monsters hold sway--whenever these things appear before us, and we have a heart, then we too, like John, must weep, and our tears are bitter.

Maybe we need a vision of heaven? I don’t know. If it’s as terrifying as what John claims to see, I don’t know if I want to experience it.  There are plenty of benign, harmless scenes of heaven that aren’t so appealing, either -- some bright place tucked behind a galaxy where birds chirp and organs play with heavy tremolo and angels bounce from cloud to cloud. By the way, this image is used by advertisers to sell items as unremarkable as cream cheese – a beautiful women wearing a size-two angel outfit and a tilted halo enjoying a bagel and cream cheese atop a fluffy cloud. Now for some this may be a remarkable vision of things to come. For me, though, it’s remarkably boring.

Why even worry about Heaven right now? There are people dying, starving and killing each other in our world. We face depression, loneliness, fear, anxiety, and grief on a daily basis. We are too busy to think about some future promise like Heaven. But, if the idea of Heaven doesn’t have some day-to-day impact on the suffering we go through here and now, it is useless. What if Heaven could touch us today? What if Heaven isn’t just some future eternal bliss, but a reality to our Christian lives here and now? What if our tears could remind us that we carry and inarticulate grief about the world around us and need some hope. What if heaven was a reminder that we sometimes filled with heavy sadness that dims the atmosphere where all of us struggle to live. We grieve. We mourn. We cry. We need visions and dreams that keep help us make sense of our history and meet the future with hope.

Back to the book of Revelation.  So, we left off at the seven seals. No one can open the scroll. John weeps. One of the elders, dressed in a white robe and a golden crown, one of that worshipping assembly, addresses John and addresses us as well. "Do not weep," he commands. "The Lion of the tribe of Judah, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals." John wipes his eyes and looks again. What he sees is the strangest sight of all the strange sights throughout his vision. The elder promised him a lion, and what stand before him is a lamb.  Near the throne, is a lamb who bears the marks of slaughter. The lamb takes the scroll of history from the figure seated on the throne.

The heavens cheer for the lamb who was once dead and is now alive forever. Their cheers encompass the ecstasy and gruesomeness of life. They sing, “ You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God, and they will reign on earth.” Then the entire universe erupts in song, with creatures in heaven and on earth, under the earth and in the sea, bursting forth with a cosmic cheer: “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

Someone has come to dry our tears. Those tears we weep when we run straight into the hard edge of life, when we see suffering unabated, evil unchecked, justice notoriously absent, those tears we weep when we count up the crimes and blasphemies and terrors that fill the chronicles of yesterday and the news magazines of today, those tears we weep when we do not witness redemption and release, when good seems impotent and moral monsters so often hold sway. Someone has come to dry those tears.

It reminds me of the story I heard about a woman who is given a tour of heaven and hell.  In hell, she sees hundreds of hungry people in a room full of banquet tables.  The banquet tables overflow with delicious food and amazing aromas, and all the people have spoons.  The spoons have long handles, just too long so the people in hell could not feed themselves – they cannot get the food into their mouths.  So they are eternally tortured by their hunger in a room full of delicious food.  The tourist asks about heaven. The tour guide says that heaven is much more pleasant.  The room looks a lot like this one but everyone there is very happy at their banquet.  The woman asks, “In heaven do they have shorter spoons?”  The tour guide says, “No, the spoons are the same and the food is the same.  But in heaven, they feed each other.”

The elder promised a lion, but what we see is a lamb, slain yet alive, meek yet triumphant – the lamb who died on a cross, rises from a grave, and lives and reigns forever. Easter faith proclaims that a new power has been let loose in the world through the Easter victory of Jesus. This is the power of the Lamb -- the power of the Lamb to help us create heaven on earth – to work in gentle, steady, loving ways to forge a world of peace, liberty, compassion and justice for all, not just a few – a world of people with long spoons where we feed one another. The power of the lamb declares . . .
A love stronger than hatred.
A reconciliation stronger than separation.
A forgiveness stronger than sin.
A joy stronger than sorrow.
A peace stronger than violence.
A hope stronger than despair.
A life stronger than death.
The power of the Lamb! “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

Violence and Nonviolence in the Book of Revelation, by Matthew J. Streett,%20PowerLamb.htm

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Sermon for March 31, 2013 Easter Sunday

What Brought You Here?
Luke 24:1-12

So, what brought you here? Because, the truth is many people don’t bother with Sunday morning worship. Years ago, Willow Creek Community Church, a mega-church near Chicago, did a door-to-door survey asking: If you don’t go to church, why? The five biggest reasons: 1) Church is boring, 2) Church is irrelevant, 3) They’re asking for money all the time, 4) I’m too busy already, 5) I feel awkward at church. Let me add another reason: It’s just easier to stay home on Sunday. You only get two days off. Sometimes it’s hard to get the kids fed and dressed and your partner or spouse to cooperate. Or you are up at the crack of dawn bringing kids to sports practices and games. Wouldn’t it better to sleep in and read the paper, or get up and hit the tennis courts or the golf course and enjoy a leisurely day?

Mainline Protestant denominations like the UCC have lost millions of members over the last 30 years. Nobody knows why, although sociologists, theologians, congregational consultants, and pollsters all have different ideas. Over time, those of us who work in churches have heard dozens of reasons why people don’t attend Sunday worship. Here just a few reasons:
I'm allergic to my religion. I don't like going to church because the minister is too loud and the  man behind me keeps coughing! I don't want to go to church because my kids don't want to go and I can't find a babysitter for them. I might as well not go. The last time I went to church, the pastor told us about someone who was burned at the stake for believing in God! I don't want that to happen to me now do I? If I enter a church, it might get struck with lightning.That much church can kill a person. I can't go to church, my name is Judas. I have to wash the car. I need to mow the yard. I worship God at home when I'm alone. My cat is a prophet. I get all my godly advice straight from the cat's mouth. If the cat doesn't tell me to go to church, I consider it great wisdom of the prophet. God made Football . . . doesn't that cover it? I don't go to church on Sunday because getting the kids dressed in their Sunday Best first thing in the morning makes me cuss and curse the Lord . . . very loudly.  Nobody notices when I'm not there. They don't sing the songs I like. The organ is too loud. It's too stuffy, why don't they open some windows.There are too many sinners in church.There are too many hypocrites in church.The sermon is too long. The service is too long. I have nothing to wear. I work six days a week. The seventh day belongs to me. I'm not good enough. They don't meet my needs.
With all that said, for some reason, each one of us are ‘in here’ rather than ‘out there’ this morning. I just want to say, I’m glad you’re here. Some of us have come here because we are always here.. Some of us are not usually found in church on a Sunday, but we’re here because it’s Easter, after all! Others of us have come because someone invited us, or someone forced us, or bribed us, or somehow made us feel guilty about not coming to church. No matter what, I am so glad you’re here. I want you to know that no matter who you are, no matter where you came from, no matter how you feel about church, no matter what your faith background, no matter your hurts, pains, or emotional baggage, no matter whether you came willingly or kicking and screaming, you are welcome here. And I want to offer the hospitality of our congregation to you. If you are visiting with us, or if you are checking us out, we welcome you. I want to get a chance to know you some more, and learn about who you are, and listen to your feelings about churches, so please do Pastor Amy and me the honor of introducing yourself to us before you leave today.

I say all that because, on Easter Sunday, something brought you all here. I want you to think about a time when you felt God was close and you were in the presence of the Holy. Some of you might be thinking that you felt God
when you recited a creed,
or when you sang a favorite hymn,
or when a sermon spoke to you,
or when you read a favorite scripture or spiritual writing
or when you prayed,

A lot of people will say things like,
“It was when my first child was horn, and I held this flesh of my flesh close to me”, or
 “When I hear the sound of’ a gentle summer rain on a tin roof at night”, or
 “When I am walking in an open field by myself on a winter day and millions of absolutely perfect snowflakes are falling all around me”, or
“When I lay on my back on a perfectly clear night and see millions of stars shining their light from millennia past’.

People connect with God outside of the church all the time. So, what’s going on in here?

If you travel to the seminary at Princeton University, you will see a beautiful little Greek revival chapel where students and faculty worship. 80 years ago that little chapel was not located on the main campus. The building was actually moved there. Workers jacked the building up, put wheels under it and pulled it to its present location with a tractor. It evidently attracted a lot of attention in Princeton. People stopped along the sidewalk to see this little church bouncing along behind a tractor to its new home. One of the people who stopped to see it move was none other than Albert Einstein. As he watched the little chapel bounce along the lawn to its new spot, he began to smile. And then he said something – “That little box is too small to hold God.”

Those words ought to be inscribed over the portals of every church building in the world, whether it’s a small congregational church or St. Peter’s Basilica,
“This little box is too small to hold God.”
“This little creed is too small to hold God.”
“This little bible is too small to hold God.’”

I don’t think we needed to come here to find God. It’s not as if when you leave the church building you are removed from God’s presence. We can find God everywhere. Maybe we are here for something else. Maybe we are here to listen to the account of the God whose costly, death-defying love embraces the whole world. Maybe we are here to be reminded that we have not been abandoned, no matter who we are or what we’ve done, or what our circumstances may be. Easter reminds us that a compassionate God knows us by name, and loves us, and forgives us, and embraces us and never lets us go. That is what we tell in here, …and sing in here...and believe in here. We come into the sanctuary to once again hear the story of the great generosity of God. And then hearing that Story—
we see what we could not have seen otherwise,
we imagine what we could not have imagined otherwise,
we hear what we could not have heard otherwise,
we do what we could not have done otherwise.

And it then it becomes our opportunity and delight to say, “Thank you, God. Thank you.”

A graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, told a story about his days as a student there. His name is Bill. The President of the Seminary was an austere Puritan by the name of Dr. James McDowell Richards. People admired Dr. James McDowell Richards, but no one was close with him. The students respected Dr. Richards but kept their distance from him. Bill, graduated from Seminary and eventually became the chaplain in a church-sponsored retirement home. Imagine how he felt when he learned that the newest resident of the home was no other than the now-retired Dr. James McDowell Richards.

He was in awe of the man still and now he was going to have to be his chaplain. He did the best he could. One evening he went into the dining room and saw Dr. Richards seated in his wheelchair at his table having supper. A nurse was standing guard over him. The former student, now chaplain, went up to Dr. Richards. They had some conversation together and then the chaplain started to leave. On a last-second impulse, he turned to Dr. Richards and said, “Dr. Richards. I’ve always wanted to ask you something.”
“What is it?”
“You and your wife were the parents of sons, weren’t you?”
“Three of them. Yes.”
“Did you ever tell your sons that you loved them?”
“No. I didn’t need to . . . Well, once I did. I was in intensive care and I told one of them but it wasn’t a regular thing mind you.”
“I just wondered. You know my father never told me that either. I wondered if fathers ever said that kind of thing.”

The meal was over. The nurse pulled the wheelchair away from the table and the chaplain watched Dr. Richards go. When Dr. Richards got to the door, he said something to the nurse. She turned the wheelchair around and brought him back. Then he got close and reached up and touched his former student’s cheek … and said ‘Bill, I love you.’

“I had known it all along,” Bill said later, “but to hear it, sealed it in my heart.”

There is something we want to receive today in here that you can’t always get out there. What brings us here? Maybe it’s to hear something from God and to have it sealed on our hearts. Have you heard it yet? It’s the unbelievable, really. It declares we are loved by name with a costly, unconditional and empowering love, rooted in the very being of God. It never lets us go, not even when we die. On this Easter Sunday, we gather in this place to have sealed in our hearts a truth -- a living truth that does indeed move us to say and to sing alleluia.

Sermon for December 9, 2018 | Advet 2

The Journey: Preparing the Way In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and ...