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.

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