Thursday, April 28, 2016

Living the Dream

Well, that just got weird. Hearing these bizarre and fantastic visions it is hard to imagine them as real, and yet it seems equally as hard for some of us to try to understand them in any other way. Repeatedly throughout Western history these visions have influenced literature and art as we have attempted to wrestle with these powerful images. Yet we truly do not know if these writings were coded messages, or an actual dream, or even the result of some medicinal herb, mushroom or flower!

And even though Martin Luther only agreed to include John’s Revelation in the Bible as a tool to critique the Roman Catholic Church – and John Calvin didn’t even include it in his commentaries – the church has kept these writings in the canon of scripture for centuries.

So, I maintain the position that the Revelation of John at Patmos was an expression of faith in Jesus as God’s self-revelation. And, I want to remind you what we’ve been focusing on over the last few weeks.

First is the idea that our end – our purpose, our reason for being – is discovered through Jesus. What I mean is that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth we receive an example for living, and we see the power of God demonstrated in ways that can transform our lives and give us hope. That hope assures us that loving God, even giving our lives in service to God, is something worth doing. And then last week we went a little deeper into the idea that our salvation from sin is assured through the blood of Jesus – not because God needs a sacrifice, but because God wanted us to know how far God would go to demonstrate God’s love. In the sacrificial love of Jesus, God chose not to destroy us for our rejection of God, but instead to show us how large – and yet how personal – God’s embrace can be.

So with that in mind we turn to today’s readings. And I want to get some of the issues and questions out of the way. So, in this particular vision we have some things that are fairly obvious metaphors. A monster rises from the sea. The sea is generally understood as chaos, the part of creation that God left as a veritable toxic waste dump with terrible creatures. In fact, later visions of a new heaven and earth exclude the sea altogether.

The beast had all kinds of animal parts representing various earthly powers and divine attributes, and the mix of creature parts probably held some influence from Babylonian mythology. It had several heads and horns and crowns that represented earthly kingdoms, particularly Roman Emperors. One of them was wounded, but (unlike the lamb who is slain) it was not dead or risen from the dead. And all the people were amazed by its power and they worshiped it.

Now the beast came from a dragon, which is described in ch 12 as Satan, and it seems that we are being told that “resistance is futile”. If you’re going to be taken captive, so be it. You can fight it, but you’ll die. This conflict is itself an invitation for people of faith to be willing to endure suffering and conflict.

As we skip down a bit to ch 14, we find those that have the name of God and of the lamb written on their foreheads are being set aside. It’s a little troubling that part of their credentials is the fact that they are men who have never been sexually intimate with a woman, but they actually represent the purity of God’s choices as seen in us. They also look a lot like those that would be preparing for battle by abstaining from certain pleasures and steeling their will for the fight.

Now, before we go any further, I’d like to suggest that we consider the perspective of Desiderius Erasmus, a Dutch theologian and philosopher who is said to have had some influence on Martin Luther. He has been quoted saying, “There are some people who live in a dream world, and there are some who face reality; and then there are those who turn one into the other.”

I would say that expecting John’s visions to come true would be an example of living in a dream world. I would say that recognizing the theme in this text of oppressive systems of government – and other social systems – and naming the systems of oppression that we face today is an example of facing reality. But I would also say that God is calling us to step up and challenge those powers – knowing that it will cost us – so that those who are limited by others can become truly free!

While I think this is something that we must find ways to do on our own, I believe we must continue to seek new ways to demonstrate the liberating presence of God as a congregation. There is no end to the metaphors I could make for our common strength. We can talk about the combined power of candles in the dark, or the way that plants and animals demonstrate strength in numbers, but in John’s vision he heard music, and it was a song that only those who bore the name of God could sing!

And we have a unique voice. We believe in a God of grace and mercy that chooses us regardless of our worth or merit. We believe in a God that is present in suffering and whose will is for all to be saved from the limitations of human sinfulness. While we struggle with the idea that some might not be saved, we leave that up to God to handle. And we focus on responding to God’s love the best that we can. We don’t believe that we are more correct than any other branch or congregation of believers, but we believe that we working to become more faithful every day than we were the day before.

And more than that we know, deep in our bones, that God is at work in our relationships and in our connections with others who follow Christ. This is the song that we must sing! And even as we learn it and share it and belt it out with all of our hearts, we must continue to write it with God. And as we write it, we must continue to call one another “beloved” as we “get through this thing called life.” Because it is only by recognizing others as God’s beloved that we can see their needs as our needs.

Only by seeing their needs as our needs can we worship something other than power, because we love power! We love power because it makes us feel safe, and that’s not a bad thing. Seeking safety is a primal instinct that God gave us to help us survive. And no matter how we insulate ourselves, the wolf is always at the door. But the question John’s vision is asking us today is this, in our desire to become safe have we become the wolf?

For we do love and crave power. We love the power of our nation. We love the power of personal freedoms. We love feeling like we are the ones to determine our own destinies, because we do it so well.

That is, we do it well until we realize that we have become credit poor, over-extended, and unable to pay our bills. We do it well until the Dr. tells us that without certain changes we won’t have any more choices to make. We do it well until we realize that our choices have become centered around a bottle or a video game or our financial security or any center of value other than our God. We do such a great job determining our own destinies until the needs of a child change our concept of what we need, or our hearts are broken by need or loss or compassion for someone that we can’t find a way to help. We do such a great job until we realize that it’s not our job to determine our own destinies.

Whether you believe in fate or destiny or absolute freedom, there are more things out of our control than there are under our control. There is yet chaos in our world. There are greater evils and personal rebellions against God. Evil and malice and selfishness are real – and they have power in this world – but theirs is a limited power. And we have been set aside and called to fight against powers like these that oppress and limit others. But ours is not a conventional war. Our weapons include endurance, and obedience to God, and demonstrations of God’s love.

For our job is not to determine and secure our own bright, happy, perfect future. Our job is to anticipate the world that God is creating. Our job is to remember the things that are permanent and unlimited – faith, hope, and love. And in the end, we will do more than “get through life.” We will be taken away, swept up in what God is doing –even here, even now – and all to the glory of God! Amen.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

There Will Be Blood

We are now on our third week in a sermon series on the lectionary readings from the Book of Revelation. We began with the idea that Jesus is God’s self revelation, and this book is a particular expression of hope for a particular people who believe in Jesus as the One who revealed the heart of God. Because the language of this book is symbolic it can offer us a word of hope for our time as well. So, people of God, listen to what the Spirit is teaching us today through this reading from Revelation7:9-17.
9After 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. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, "Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!" 11And 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, 12singing, "Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” 
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?" 14I 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. 15For 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. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; 17for 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.”
These readings bring many questions to our minds. For starters, whenever a passage begins with “after this” it makes me think, “After what?” But before answering that, I think it’s important to restate the context of the reading that we have received today. I don’t necessarily mean delving into the history of the church under Roman oppression or the impact of the Maccabean rebellion on Christians. I mean the fact that we are dealing with a dream scape.

Although all of us dream, not all of us remember our dreams. Some of us have vivid dreams with developed story lines. Some of us have recurring dreams when we have things that we are trying to work out emotionally or just in our life patterns. When I was 11 I had a dream that my parents gave me a whip, a revolver, and a really cool hat so that I could defend our family against an invading hoard of Yeti’s that attacked in the night. I’ve never quite figured that one out, but it may have had something to do with my parent’s divorce and the release of the first Indiana Jones movie.

The point is that dreams, whatever else they may be, are the result of our brains using symbolic logic to work out the real life experiences of our waking lives. Symbols are crucial to our expressions of identity and communication. Be it tattoos, computer icons, or even simple instructions on our appliances, symbols communicate larger ideas. Even letters on a page are just symbolic marks that we interpret culturally to mean something that we agree on.

Symbols are used to create music, to orient our position on a map, and to create formulas to design buildings that scrape the sky and rockets that launch any number of harmful and helpful things into space. It has been said that it is through symbols that humankind has always worked to communicate thoughts that language alone cannot completely convey. In fact, Paul Tillich once said that our “ultimate concern must be expressed symbolically, because symbolic language alone is able to express the ultimate.”

So, there you have it. We must remember that this revelation of John, a Jewish follower of Jesus who wrote around a generation after the resurrection, must not be taken literally or used as a road map for God’s cosmic comeuppance for the world. Instead, John is asking us to dream a dream of salvation and hope. Now that said, our reading today began with “after this,” because it follows what we have read and discussed the last two weeks – plus a little more.

The first point to remember is that Jesus Christ is God’s self-revelation. The second is that the sacrificial love of Jesus and the providence of God’s grace make it clear to us that God is worthy to be worshiped, and Jesus is worthy to communicate God’s love. In terms of the unearthly vision of John, Jesus is given the authority to read the scroll that has been written and sealed by God. And each time Jesus breaks a seal something terrible happens. With the first four seals, horsemen are released that symbolize domination, conflict, inequality, and death. These are certainly not new concepts, and yet to have them released seems to say that God is not only OK with them, but they do God’s bidding.

Next, those who were martyred for their faith are released and they cry out for justice. Then the destruction of earthly powers and the scattering of the leaders of nations is announced, and finally a certain number of each of the 12 tribes of Israel are given their own seal so that they can be included in the kingdom of God.

That’s where we come into the story today. And as problematic as it is to think that a God of mercy and grace is going to use a counter to limit those in the tribes of Israel or even allow – much less use – domination, conflict, inequality, and death – it is yet encouraging to think of this multitude from every nation praising God!

These are the ones who have “survived the great ordeal” and who have “washed their robes in the blood of Jesus.” So, first off, we don’t really know what the great ordeal is or was. It could have been particular acts of aggression by Rome. The idea of some great calamity before God’s final reign echoes through the Bible from the book of Daniel and into the Gospels. It is certainly possible that something like this could happen, but this may simply be a spiritual version of the idea that sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.

You’ve seen that in your life, I’m sure. The slippery slope is where and how you see God in the midst of it. God does not wait around to say, “I told you so.” God is instead waiting around for you to say, “God is good.” as we open our hearts to the one who helps us get through every trial.

Now, this washed in the blood thing has always troubled me, but that’s probably because it makes no sense whatsoever. Blood stains worse than anything! But perhaps that’s the point. The blood of Jesus is something that marks us. It claims us more than we claim it. Just as goodness and mercy will pursue us with the clarity and sincerity of a hungry falcon on a cloudy day, God’s desire is to include us through the sacrificial love of Christ.

OK, so I get the metaphor that when we turn to Christ and see his suffering and realize that it is for us we become united with God. But that still begs the question, who needs the blood? Does God require blood to be able to forgive? This idea of substitutional atonement – Jesus taking our place to pay off God – really limits God, and I’ve always found it troubling.

Recently I’ve come to realize that – even though we think of blood sacrifices as an ancient practice – the idea that God needs (or needed) blood still effects our worldview. In fact, the idea that God needed, or wanted, or even accepted the blood of Jesus for us is a set up for a belief system that only understands justice as retribution or payback. I can tell you from experiences of working with children that pay back is a pretty juvenile concept. We may use it as adults, but it starts pretty early – and it comes from a world view that is pretty self-centered. Look no further than the current political debates to see expressions of faith that are stuck on an eye for an eye world view or expecting that only greater violence can keep us safe from lesser violence.

I say all of this because I don’t believe that God needed the blood, but I do believe that we did. Just in the book of Acts there are four different references to “this Jesus, who you killed.” And over and over the writings of Paul tell us that God raised this Jesus from the dead to demonstrate the authority of God over sin and death.

So, here’s a new thought. What if God sent Jesus knowing that he would die? OK, maybe that’s not new. What if God knew that Jesus would die because he knew that humanity could not tolerate a message of love and equality and justice that is tempered with mercy? Still not entirely new. What if God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, so that any who believe in him will have eternal life? Nope, still nothing new here. OK, what if the real atonement for sin is not found in the rejection of Jesus on the cross, but in God’s refusal to punish humanity for what was done to Jesus on the cross? What if, in the crucifixion, God made it abundantly clear how far God was willing to go to love us? And in raising Jesus from the dead, God made it abundantly clear that anger and wrath were just traits that we wanted God to express. But God’s choice is grace and mercy.

In the end, the dream we are asked to dream is not much different than that of the David in the 23rd Psalm. Even as we expect and anticipate trials and suffering, God is yet calling us to become a greater and more inclusive community. And when I think about that table that God is setting, “in the presence of my enemies” I can’t help but remember the words of a good friend from years ago.

She said, “I can guarantee you that when I get to that heavenly banquet there will be someone across the table that I was certain would not be there, and that person will be thinking the exact same about me! And all that will be left to say is please pass the bread.”

I do not know how or when that table will be set, but I know that we are called to work toward the vision of the kingdom that was given to John. And this vision includes the shelter of those who are vulnerable, the feeding of those who hunger, and the welcome of those that have been strangers. We can do that. We can be that. And to God be the glory for it. Amen.