Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday of Easter – April 28, 2013
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier. Amen.
Theologian Arthur McGill once said: “It does not do any good to tell people that they need to behave themselves and stop treating others selfishly and hatefully and start serving others. Whether people serve themselves or serve others,” said McGill, “is not entirely in their power to choose; it is a function of the kingdom to which they think they belong.” We act according to a world that we can see. Our deeds are related to the world in which we think we are living.
It is a temptation for a preacher to bypass a reading like this morning’s text from the Book of Revelations. The first reading from the Acts of the Apostles makes a good argument for the recognition in the very early church that differences were not a bad thing and that God called the first believers to embrace diversity. John’s Gospel offers much fodder for a sermon about love—what it is and what it isn’t, especially the nature of sacrificial love modeled by Jesus.
I’ve preached both of these texts and important lessons. Today I am sticking with the Revelations reading because it has a very different kind of message and one I think we need to hear, ponder and inwardly digest. The Book of Revelations is traditionally presented as the revelation of the Apostle John, the vision of a first or second century disciple. It is a strange book, full of symbolism and metaphors and yet some beautiful imagery. Today John tells us about the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the beautiful, heavenly city of God. We moderns tend to take this tongue in cheek. These ancients got their important data through dreams and visions. We get our truth off the internet.
We are in a very different place and time then the earliest believers. They were arrested and persecuted—often martyred—for their faith. We are free to be as religious as we want—or not. I wonder, however, if in spite of our enlightenment about so many things and the amazing advances in technology with which we have lived, our ability to vision has shrunk; not expanded. Compared to our ancestors in the faith who struggled to practice it openly, we have become complacent with what is a rather tame, domesticated, even sterile, brand of Christianity.
As the church, we typically shudder at the prospect of change; we avoid risk; we dare not mention sacrificial giving; we want comfortable faith, easy religion. That’s way different from what the first Christians had in mind for us, I am sure. Theologian Matthew Fox, formerly a Roman Catholic priest and now a member of the Episcopal Church, has suggested that “we humans are required to create a new civilization where peace and justice reign and where the spirit of delight and celebration can be made to happen, a civilization that is worthy of our dignity as royal persons and our responsibility as divine co-creators.”
The vision for that new civilization is found in the Book of Revelations. We can get really stuck when reading this book on decoding weird metaphors and challenging symbols and that can impair our ability to open our minds to the sweeping claims this book makes about God.
The reading today comes from the end of this book. It may sound familiar. It is one of the lessons recommended for use at funeral liturgies. It presents through John’s eyes the grand vision toward which God has been moving God’s Creation:
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away…See, I am making all things new.”
An angel then escorts John up on a high mountain and, in a kind of trance-like state, he has a dream of God’s city coming down from heaven. It is a very different city from Norwalk. There are no churches, no hospitals, no police cars or fire trucks with sirens a blare. There are no streetlights, not even the sun or the moon. No exclusive country clubs, no prisons, no airport security checks. No automatic weapons. No politicians.
In this city, our striving and struggles will be over and we will have only to enjoy the full, brilliant, radiant presence of God who will provide all the goodness we need, all the light we need, all the safety and health that we need. Nor are there any gates in this city for its citizens, in all of their wonderful diversity, walk the streets in security, freedom, and peace.
This all sounds very utopian, does it not? “Pie in the sky.” Maybe even unrealistic and naïve. Yet how can we live in the present world with its hardships, trials, and evils without a clear vision of the future that God promises us? It has been an especially tragedy-filled several months: innocents murdered in classrooms in Newtown and maimed or killed by terrorist activity in Boston. In between these two major events, hundreds of other acts of violence throughout the country have taken lives. We may have become so desensitized to it all that we don’t even focus on what the next shoe to drop will be. If we don’t have some vision of what God is doing to repair creation, what awaits us when God finally has the last word, how can we get up and serve one another? Even if we try our best, the world will eventually beat us down.
Here is the good news: John’s vision is more than “pie in the sky.” It is God’s promise—God’s promise to renovate, restore, and repair creation. It is not a vision that invites us to abandon this earth and go to some distant place in the clouds. God’s city is coming down to us. God with us. No more hunger or poverty or homelessness or violence or illness or grieving or heartbreak or death.
If we can begin to expand our minds and share with John that vision, our deeds and behaviors will be related to the world in which we believe we are living.
Thomas Long, professor of Theology and frequent contributing writer for the Christian Century, has said it well: “We are citizens of that hope and the way you hope changes the way you vote.” The city in which we live changes the way we live.
There is a great scene in the movie “As Good as it Gets.” Jack Nicholson plays a difficult neighbor with obsessive compulsive behavior and paranoid tendencies who decides to get back on medication because he has met someone who has made him want to get better. He walks into the psychiatrist’s waiting room and observes a half dozen patients with an array of emotional problems. Scanning the room, he blurts out “What if this is as good as it gets?”
I’ll bet there are plenty of days when no doubt you ask the same question: What if this is as good as it gets?” In fact, on some of those days, it may just be—for now. But today God promises that it won’t always be so. God will restore, make all things new, bring that holy city of the new Jerusalem to us. When we leave here today and go back to our respective lives, the people we encounter will expect that we will behave as if we already belong to that city. As, indeed, we do; as, indeed, we do.