10/08/2021

God of the Voiceless

 Inspired by Exodus 2:23-25; 3:1-15; 4:10-16

Well, talk about a huge jump in the overall narrative here! Ok, let’s get caught up a bit first. Last week we read the story of Jacob’s pillow. In a nutshell, Jacob, who’s name is changed to Israel, has lots of kids and in a series of many unfortunate events the family finds themselves in Egypt where they escape a devastating famine, thanks in large part to one of his sons, Joseph. In fact, Joseph becomes the ruler of Egypt, second only to the Pharoah himself. It’s a crazy story, most of which we’ve read in years one through three of the Narrative Lectionary. So the family is allowed to stay in Egypt, as a thank you to Joseph for his leadership, and that’s what they do. Israel’s kids have kids and their kids have kids, and on and on, and after a few hundred years have passed, this family has grown so huge that now Egypt is getting nervous.  

Afraid that they might take over, they begin to treat these people very harshly, to keep them underfoot, to keep them in line. For a modern day example of this we needn’t look any further than the way the United States has treated, and continues to treat, black people. So, after years of such harsh treatment, Moses is born, and in another series of unfortunate events, one of which was the slaughter of every baby boy born to an Israelite woman, Moses is rescued and raised by an Egyptian woman, in the Pharoah’s own household no less. But Moses grows up knowing he wasn’t Egyptian, he didn’t look like them for one, and he saw how the Egyptians were treating his people, and he had finally had enough.  

So one day he saw an Egyptian beating an Israelite, one of his own people. For a modern day example of this think the lynching of black people in our society. Yes, I said modern day lynchings. Remember Ahmaud Arbery? The 25 year old black man gunned down last year for jogging near his own neighborhood while black? Modern day lynching. But instead of pulling out his camera to catch this act on video, Moses takes matters into his own hands and kills the Egyptian. Moses is then forced to flee as a fugitive, and runs away to a place called Midian. He finds work as a shepherd, gets married, and that is where our story picks up today. Did I miss anything? Well, I skipped a lot too but that’s the Reader’s Digest version to get us caught up. 

Now we come to the burning bush scene and what a scene it is! This is Moses’ call story. And before we go any further we have to come to the realization that each and every one of us has a call story. Call stories are not just for Biblical characters, nor are they just for those in professional ministry. Each and every one of you has a call story. Think of it this way, how would you explain to someone why you are a Christian? Why you go to church? Why you believe in God still? And it’s not enough to say that you grew up in church, is it! Because one, that’s cheating! And two, it’s never that simple! 

Because if we’re honest, life, and sometimes a church, has given you plenty of reasons to never come back again, let alone give up on your faith in God. Why have you persisted? Why do you keep coming back? The answer to those questions is your call story! And the reason why it’s so important to come to that realization is because the Bible is littered with call stories and each and every one of them is written to be relatable to you and your call story. And this one is no different so let’s keep moving. 

Moses sees a bush on fire but it is not burning up and so he goes to investigate a little closer. Then he hears the voice, and a most astonishing conversation ensued between Moses and God. As always, our job here is to keep God and God’s actions central. The question is always, what is God doing in this story. Focusing too much on the humans in a Bible story is gonna get us in trouble every time because humans will disappoint us ever time. But God is always a sure bet. And what I see God doing in this story is giving voice to the voiceless. And God starts with Moses. Upon hearing what God wants him to do, Moses objects. So there’s lesson number one: when God calls you, you are free to object! God didn’t smite him. But instead God continues the conversation. 

And Moses tries everything to get out of this! First he says, “Who am I?” Meaning, I am no one! I am no one to my own people. And I am less than no one to the Egyptians because I’m a fugitive! In other words, he didn’t have the credentials for this! Well, that didn’t work so he then questions God’s own credentials! Who are you? He asks God. I don’t even know your name, let alone the Egyptians! Well, not only did that not work, but God gives him an answer that’s not really an answer! No Bible translation gets this very accurate. Ours says, I Am As I Am. And there’s lots of other versions of that but a more accurate translation would be, I will be who I will be. Well, that may be more accurate but I can’t say it’s a much better answer. Not very helpful God. But no matter, Moses moves on to his next excuse. I can’t speak. 

Now, he could just be saying that he’s not a very good public speaker. Some scholars have suggested that he had a speech impediment of some kind. Either way, Moses knew that to do what God was asking, one would have to be a good speaker. So, now he thinks he’s got God trapped in a corner! There’s no way God is gonna wiggle outta this one! Clearly Moses doesn’t know who he’s talking to! Because we know there’s no one more wigglier than God! God says, ok, no problem, your brother Aaron can help you with that, and oh, by the way, he’s already on his way here! Moses probably thought, Dagnabbit! This God has thought of everything! And with that, God gave Moses a voice. God saw Moses, heard him out, and provided a voice for this voiceless shepherding fugitive. But God doesn’t stop there. Moses is merely a means to an end. 

There are more voiceless ones in need. A lot of ‘em! And once again, God heard the cries of God’s people, God saw what was happening to them, and God was moved to act upon what God heard and saw, moved to give them a voice in the midst of so much violence and power, which is always a bad combination. You see, no matter the need, no matter how many are in need, they have to be seen first, they have to be heard first, before there is any hope of help arriving. People in need must be given a voice. God knew that. And so God sends Moses to them, to be their voice before the powerful pharaoh. You see the irony there, right? He sends the once voiceless, to help the voiceless. Coincidence? I think not. We are often called to do things that we have firsthand experience in. 

So, here’s your homework, this week I invite you to think about your own call stories. How was God at work in your own call to follow Jesus? Through whom did God work to make that happen? What was your metaphorical burning bush? That is to say, what got your attention to hear God’s call? And this week I challenge you to come to the Wednesday Bible discussion and share a few of those stories with us! And now that I said that out loud I realize I probably just scared you all away from it!  

But more importantly than any of that, because it’s not all about us, I’d invite you to ponder on who in our world needs a voice. Who needs someone sent to them to be their voice, to express their need, to advocate for them, and could that be us? And if so, what would that look like? We will be discussing that too on Wednesday. For our God is a God of the voiceless. Sometimes that’s us. And sometimes we get the opportunity and privilege to be called to give a voice to others, no matter how unqualified we think we may be. Thankfully, it is God’s credentials that really matter. Thanks be to God. Amen.

9/28/2021

Jacob's Pillow

 Inspired by Genesis 27:1-5, 15-23, 41-43; 28:10-18

As you may have noticed, a lot has transpired in this biblical narrative since my last sermon, which was on the creation story. As usual, this is the thirty-thousand-foot flyby of the Hebrew scriptures so don’t be too put off by the fact that there will be large gaps in between stories. Here is what the trajectory will look like though. We started with one couple. We then took a wider lens and focused on one family, Sarah and Abraham’s family, where we are right now. We’ll then widen that a bit more and take a look at the nation that comes from the one family, Israel. That nation then gets scattered across the known world and by the time we get to our Christian scriptures, this year the Gospel of John, Jesus will then give us the widest lens possible when Jesus flings the door wide open on God’s unconditional love of all. So, that’s our trajectory in a nutshell. 

Right now though, we’re still with this very dysfunctional family of Abraham and Sarah’s. A promise was given to them to not only have a child but for that child to be the start of an entire nation. As promises go, in that time and place, they don’t get much bigger than that! The promise of land and descendants as numerous as the stars? I mean, that was the promise to end all promises! God comes through and gives them their son Isaac, but not before a whole of deceit and taking matters into their own hands due to a lack of trust in God. Last week we then heard the story of God asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. Thankfully, God comes through and stops it just in time. And now that son is old with two kids of his own, Jacob and Esau. Those two as well were born out of a whole lot of deceit and betrayal surrounding the lives of Isaac and Rebekah. 

Which brings us to today’s story, where we see Jacob and Rebekah steal the firstborn’s blessing away from Esau. Are you picking up a pattern in this family here? Lies, deceit, betrayal, theft, and I haven’t even mentioned that prejudice that comes out in their stories as well! These stories should be required reading in any course on dysfunctional families. It truly is a miracle that a nation was born from this family, let alone an entire religion! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, in today’s reading the climax of this part of the story comes at the end, the good news comes at the end. But the backdrop of this story is the deception between Jacob and Rebekah and Esau and Isaac. 

There are so many layers to this story that we don’t have time to even get into but the current deception is the stealing of the firstborn’s blessing. Old and blind, Isaac gets fooled into blessing his second-born, that which was meant for his firstborn. Now, you might be thinking, couldn’t Isaac have just reversed it, taken it back, set it right? Not according to ancient Jewish thinking. For them, words mattered. Once spoken, they could not be taken back. Once they left your mouth they took on a life of their own, a power of their own, no matter the consequences. I think we could learn a lot from our ancient siblings in the faith. Imagine if we took words so seriously. Imagine if we were so careful with our words. I could have written an entire sermon just on that! But I didn’t so we’ll move on. 

Needless to say, Esau is beyond pissed about this! He’s seeing red! He’s on a warpath! So much so that he is planning on murdering his brother Esau! Not to give him any excuses because murder is always wrong but this is the last straw for him! This is not the first time that his brother has deceived him, has betrayed him, has stolen something from him. There has been a painful pattern of behavior between these two from day one, and Esau has had enough! Again, not an excuse to murder your brother but it’s not like this came out of nowhere! And Jacob knows that. He knows that. Which is why when his mom heard that Esau was looking to kill Jacob, she sent him away and he didn’t question it. He knew that this was the only way no one was gonna killed that day. And so did his momma. So, he ran. 

Which brings us to one of the most beautiful, and oft-overlooked scenes in Genesis. You’ve probably come to know this part of the story as Jacob’s Ladder. I’d argue that it’s been wrongly named. As amazing as the dream is that Jacob has about a ladder with angel’s going up and down it. That’s not the real gem of this story. If I got to name this story, I would have called it Jacob’s Pillow. Let me back up a bit. So, Jacob is on the run. He’s on his way to his momma’s family to hopefully wait until things calm down. That’s not exactly how things turned out but that’s for another sermon. He stops for the night in an unnamed place and he must not have left with very much. Maybe just the clothes on his back because when he lays down for the night to sleep, he has to use a rock as a pillow. 

It’s then that he has this amazing dream of a ladder, but like I said, that’s not the highlight of this story. He wakes up and his whole disposition is changed. Because I imagine he went to sleep that night with a whole host of negative emotions. Fear, loneliness, guilt, shame, hopelessness, you name it. He had behaved horribly and to be honest, deserved to go to sleep that night feeling one or all of those emotions. And if he didn’t, then my goodness, he wasn’t human. But that’s what makes these stories so powerful, isn’t it? These are stories of humanity, with all our joys and flaws. It’s what makes them so relatable. We would be wise to remember that before we put these figures on such a high pedestal. But let’s keep moving. The climax of the story awaits. 

He wakes up a new man, with a new vigor in his step. Why? Because his dream, as weird as it was, convinced him that God had not abandoned him. That as bad as his behavior was, God was still with him! Even out there, in the wilderness of his fleeing heart. This is the promise that God made with his father and his grandfather, and God was there to tell him that he had not screwed that up. The promise not only was still in effect but that God was with him wherever he ended up. And so what does Jacob do? He builds an altar with what was his pillow the night before and anoints it with oil. However, he still doesn’t quite get it. In typical human fashion, he’s still a bit clueless. Again, very relatable. He says, “Truly, God is in this place, and I never knew it! This is nothing less than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven!” 

He thinks that it’s the place that is special. He thinks that he just happen to stop at a place that was rich with God’s presence. He thinks it’s the location, the stone, that allowed him to have such an intimate experience with God there! And if I was there I’d grab him by the ears, look him in the eyes, and say, God isn’t here because this place is special, God is here because you are here! You big dummy! God isn’t here because of this stone! God is here because you are here! And God will continue to be where you are, because that’s what God has promised, and not even God can go back on God’s promise. Amen? And God’s promise is not dependent on our behavior! Amen? And God’s promise is not dependent on being in the right place! Amen? And God’s promise is not dependent on being at the right time! Amen? 

Now, who needs to hear this in our world today? Other than us, cuz lord knows we need reminded of this too, don’t we! Jacob had trouble coming to this conclusion on his own for a whole host of reasons. How do I know this? Listen to his words that immediately follow our reading: “Jacob then made this vow: ‘If you go with me and keep me safe on this journey which I am making, and give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, and if I return home safely to my parents’ house, you will be my God. This stone that I have set up as a memorial pillar will be a place of worship, and I promise to give back to you one-tenth of everything you give me.’” He just isn’t getting it is he! He has the gall to put conditions on his loyalty to God!? Are you kidding me, Jacob! 

But this is all he’s known. Think of the family that he comes from! This is how they operate! There’s conditions on everything! Nothing is free! Everything they have they think they have to fight for, deceive for, even murder for! That’s the only way that he knows how to get something or how to give something. It’s all he’s known. So, don’t be too hard on him because he is us, right! We, as humans, have trouble with God’s unconditional love, whether that be in accepting it or sharing it, because that’s not how we work, is it! That goes against our grain! Especially for us American Christians! It’s not the American way! We’re taught that nothing in life is free! That you’re gonna have to fight for everything in life! Nobody’s gonna give you noth’n! 

And this story, like so many other stories in the Hebrew scriptures, says no to all that nonsense. There is another way to live. And we, as followers of Christ, and these beautiful old stories, get to share that with others. We get to share that God goes with them, no matter what. No matter our behavior, no matter the place, no matter the time, no matter what stone we may choose for our head. When you were baptized, the pastor didn’t anoint a stone with oil, they didn’t anoint some beautiful font, they didn’t anoint the ground you or your parents were standing on, no that pastor anointed your head with oil, not because the place was special, not because the font was special, not because the water was special. But because you are special, and mean the world to God. God is here, because you are here, dear friends. I think we owe it to this world to share that, wherever they may be, whomever needs to hear it the most. Thanks be to God. Amen.

9/14/2021

Did I Ever Tell You About the Day You Were Born?

 Inspired by Genesis 1:1-2:3

Today we begin the fourth and final year of the Narrative Lectionary. As always at this time of year we begin in Genesis and work our way through some of the most important stories of the Hebrew scriptures that we hadn’t read in previous years, leading up to the Gospel of John that we read through almost in its entirety starting on the fourth Sunday of Advent and ending at Easter. As many of you know, John is my least favorite Gospel. In spite of that, I’m looking forward to it and hope to gain a new appreciation for it. But right now we are in the book of Genesis and some of you might be wondering why it took until the final year of the Narrative Lectionary for us to read the beginning of Genesis! Well, there’s actually a logical reason for that. 

The creators of this lectionary are very Christ-centered and so when they chose the stories that we’d read from the Hebrew scriptures each year they chose ones that would pair well with the particular Gospel that would be read that year. For instance, the opening lines of the Gospel of John are, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning. Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people.” Now, what better Hebrew text to pair with that than the first chapter of Genesis! So, that’s why it took so long for us to read this particular story. 

I had a real hard time narrowing down what I wanted to share with you about this ancient story. On the surface, it seems like such a simple story but trust me when I say, this story has layers upon layers of meaning, as well as a plethora of interesting little tidbits of Bible trivia. It really was a difficult task to pick what I wanted to share with you. Being the Bible nerd that I am, I constantly have to remind myself that what’s fascinating to me might not be fascinating to everyone else. But it boiled down to this, I had to ask myself what I perceive God wanting you to hear, in this place and time. And once I ask myself that, direction seems to become very clear very fast. Because to be honest with you, God is not a Bible nerd. God is and will always be more interested in your well-being than anything else, including the Bible. 

Ok, so I’m not sure if you’ve picked up on this pattern in my preaching but I often begin with the good news of the text at hand and then end by challenging you with something. I don’t always do that intentionally, that’s just the way it turns out often. And by the way, I know that I challenge you pretty strongly, don’t think that gets lost on me. I know I stretch you near the breaking point sometimes, and I love you and thank you for not giving up, for sticking with me on this journey we’ve been on for five years now together. And believe me when I say, not every pastor can say that. I hear pastors all the time say things like, “Oh, I could never say that in a sermon!” Or, “If I talked about that subject in they’d leave me!” Suffice to say, this is one of the many reasons I am proud to be your pastor. 

Today, however, I’m gonna challenge you first and then end with the good news. Now we obviously don’t have time to take this story verse by verse, we’ll do more of that on Wednesday evening so I hope you’ll join us for that. But as far as what this story challenges us with, I’ll share three insights that stood out to me. The first one is that we humans are not the end-all be-all of creation. For too long humans have taken this story to mean that we are God’s ultimate creation, the shining jewel of all that God accomplished on those seven days, as if it was a trial and error kind of week for God and finally at the end God got it right with us! 

Now, here’s the reality, did you notice that we humans didn’t even get our own day during that week? You know, I’ve heard this story a million times and I don’t think I ever noticed that. But we humans were created on the same day that the rest of the Earth’s beasts and creepy crawly things were. So there’s clue number one that we humans aren’t quite as special as we’d like to believe we are. 

The second insight that challenges us here is this, humans being created in the image of God. Now, what the image of God actually means we can talk about on Wednesday evening but it certainly means more than physical characteristics. For today, it’s enough to recognize that the author is not just pointing out the image of God in ourselves, but in everyone else around us. Thereby being a call to first see, with our eyes, the honor and dignity in every human being on the face of the planet that has ever lived and will ever live. And I don’t have to tell you that this has not been the case and still isn’t. We still have people in our world fighting to be recognized as fully human with all the rights and privileges and respect that should go without saying. Ok, insight number three is gonna tie those first two together. And then we gotta move on to the good news I promised you! 

Creation was not made for us, we were made for creation. More specifically, creation was not made to serve us, we were made to serve creation. We humans are the only ones that were given a job during those six days. And the job was to be stewards of everything else that was created, to be caretakers of the rest of creation, and that includes everything: other humans, other animals, cuz that’s all we are at the end of the day right, a bunch of filthy animals, plants, trees, waterways, air, oceans, insects, you name it, we were ordered to be caretakers of creation, from our very first day of existence. Now, how are we doing with that job? I’m not even gonna make you answer that, but as theologian Kathleen O’Connor puts it, “We cannot survive if we do not live in harmony with the world around us.” 

Now for the good news. And I’ll start with a personal story. I am my father’s only child. He had me relatively late in life at the age of 30. Like most parents, his parents couldn’t wait to meet their first grandchild. Unfortunately, when my mom was five months pregnant with me, Grandma Valadez died. Now, in spite of that being a sad story, it has oddly been a story of comfort for me. And it took me a while this week to figure out how to articulate this but I think it’s because, other then the blood we share, that’s my only connection story that I have with Grandma Valadez. And the thought that she was eagerly awaiting my arrival, and loved me as only a grandma can in spite of never meeting me, has brought me comfort every time I have heard that story over the course of my life. 

Now, why am I sharing that? Birth stories, or in my case, pregnancy stories, can often be a source of comfort for us. And that’s exactly what this story was for God’s people when it was first written down. In spite of the fact that this is the first book in our Bible, it was not the first to be written, far from in fact. This was written during the end or just after the trauma of the Babylonian exile, when Persia had taken over and began to allow them to return home and rebuild their lives. Talk about a time when they needed some comfort. And the author chose to do that by telling them the story of their birth. It was the author’s way of holding them in their arms and saying, “Did I ever tell you about the day you were born?” It’s a story the helped to reground them in God’s love, to reconnect them to the God of the universe that seemed so far away to them at the time. 

This may seem like a stretch but there’s a beautiful moment in one of my favorite scary movies that I think speaks very well to this. The movie is called Signs, and in the scenes that I’m about to show you, there’s a family of a dad, his two kids, and his brother. The mom has since died and there’s something outside their house that’s trying to get inside to get them and so they’re frantically boarding up the windows to try and keep it out. Don’t worry, there’s nothing that will scare you in these scenes. Roll the tape…

 

Birth stories can be such a powerful source of comfort for us. Whether they be our own birth stories, or children’s birth stories, or even birth stories that didn’t turn out the way we’d hoped. I’d invite you this week to ponder those stories in your own life and in the lives of your loved ones. When’s the last time you shared one? When’s the last time you asked someone, “Did I ever tell you about the day you were born?” Or, “Have I ever told you about the day I was born?” I encourage you to ask those questions, and share those stories—because in those stories we find hope, we find strength, we find perseverance, and we find comfort for the days ahead. Thanks be to our creator, who loves to ask us just when we need it the most, “Did I ever tell you about the day you were born?”

Forever and Always Starts Now

 Inspired by Revelation 20:10; 21:1-6, 22-25; 22:1-5

So we have come to the end of our five weeks in Revelation. I hope it has been a meaningful five weeks for you. It certainly has been for me. Next Sunday we start year four of the Narrative Lectionary, which is hard to believe that much time has already gone by. This too has been a joy to journey with you through. As with every new year of the Narrative Lectionary, we will begin in Genesis and work our way to the Gospel of John this year, stopping along the way at some of the most important stories of the Hebrew Bible that we’ve yet to read in the first three years. Next week’s reading will be particularly timely because it matches so well with today's! It’s almost like they had it planned that way! So let’s dig in to today’s reading. 

We begin our story with the end of the dragon from last week’s reading. We skipped to the end of the book, not because it was boring or anything, far from. But other than some more death and destruction, all we really skipped was the beginning of the last battle. The last battle between Christ and the dragon. Our reading for today picks up at the end of that final battle, when evil is finally defeated, never to return again. No more last gasps of strength, no more flailing fists of fury. Evil is no more. Gone. For good. Now, let us just pause there and bask in that good news. Because honestly, the book could have just ended there! For far too many of us, it is enough to know that the evil of this world does have an end, it has an expiration date, it will die, its power will be no more! 

I think for a lot of us, that’d be enough! Whatever comes after is just icing, unnecessary! Well, let’s not get crazy, I love me some icing. It’s the only reason to eat cake in my opinion but I digress. The end of the pain and heartache that this world provides would be enough, but for God, it’s never enough, is it! God is always ready and willing to go the extra mile. And so we get these final two chapters of Revelation where John describes his final vision, God shows him the new Jerusalem. Now, for us that might sound like an odd way to describe Heaven. Jerusalem doesn’t have the same ring to us that it did for them. But we have to remember all that Jerusalem represented for them. Jerusalem was the one and only place on earth where you could claim to be the closest to God that you could ever be in this life. 

And we also have to remember, that the Jerusalem that they knew, was just a shell of what it once was, not to mention the fact that the temple, the very lightning rod that connected them to God was no more, destroyed by the Roman Empire, the dragon of their day. And so, a new Jerusalem brought for them all the warm fuzzies that you could imagine, it tugged on all the heartstrings for these early Christians, newly birthed from the Jewish faith. This meant everything to them. This meant that things were finally, ultimately, going to go forward to the way things were intended. Not go back. This new Jerusalem was going to be an entirely transformed Jerusalem. This wasn’t a Make Jerusalem Great Again movement!  

But at the same time, this was not John’s way of saying that God was ready to discard all that God had made and start over. God was in no way giving up on creation. But rather, God is ready to make something new with us. Something that will not be tainted by evil. So much so, that it will be something altogether new. How new? This place will be so different, there will be no need for a temple!  

Now, again, that might not sound like a big deal to us but to them, it was not only a new idea but it was probably a blasphemous idea! That was the only place they could be assured of their nearness to God! John says, no need, God will be there, like really there, as in the garden of Eden kind of there, face to face with us. John describes the new Jerusalem like this, “God’s very self will be with them…and will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore.” 

Can we just stop here again and bask in more of that good news. I mean, not only will evil be defeated, not only will God live among us, not only will there be no death or pain or tears, but what I love about this is the affirmation that those things were never part of God’s original blueprint for creation. Can we just stop and admire the truth here that John is sharing with us, that God hates those things too. Pain, suffering, death, tears, mourning, God hates those things as much as we do, and never has and never will use them as tactics to get God’s way.  

Now, for some of you, this might be a no-brainer, but I can’t tell you how often pastors hear comments like, “Well, I guess that was God’s plan” after someone dies. Or, “Well, there’s a reason for everything” after tragedy strikes. Bull! Poor John probably turns over in his grave every time someone says something like that. Because John knew that those things sadden and frustrate God as much as they do us. And that is gospel to our ears. 

This last vision ends with John seeing more of what makes this new Jerusalem so special. The river of life-giving water will run through the city. The tree of life, harkening back to that story of creation from Genesis, will be there, for the healing of the nations. And there will be no need for an outside source of light, because God’s glory and the wee little wounded lamb will be providing all the light that is needed. No need for the sun, moon, nor night. And this really struck me. In this last vision of John’s, God is so powerful, so providential, that God won’t even need the sun or moon or temple to make God known. God is enough. God is enough. And so, with that in mind, let’s ask that question we always ask ourselves after reading a Bible passage, “What does this mean for us today?” 

And for a little help with that we’re gonna turn to another author. In the final years of his life, Mark Twain wrote a book called Letters from the Earth. It includes a collection of letters written by Satan from Earth, to the angels Gabriel and Michael in Heaven. There’s this one section where Satan is comparing and contrasting the way things are in Heaven and the way things are on Earth. Humor me a moment and let me read you a portion of it, “In man's heaven everybody sings! The man who did not sing on earth sings there; the man who could not sing on earth is able to do it there. The universal singing is not casual, not occasional, not relieved by intervals of quiet; it goes on, all day long, and every day, during a stretch of twelve hours. And everybody stays; whereas in the earth the place would be empty in two hours. The singing is of hymns alone. Nay, it is of one hymn alone. The words are always the same, in number they are only about a dozen, there is no rhyme, there is no poetry: "Hosannah, hosannah, hosannah, Lord God of [Heaven], 'rah! 'rah! 'rah!" Meantime, every person is playing on a harp -- those millions and millions! -- whereas not more than twenty in the thousand of them could play an instrument in the earth, or ever wanted to. Now then, in the earth these people cannot stand much church -- an hour and a quarter is the limit, and they draw the line at once a week. That is to say, Sunday. One day in seven; and even then they do not look forward to it with longing. And so -- consider what their heaven provides for them: "church" that lasts forever, and a Sabbath that has no end!” 

This was written during a very difficult time in his life, after the death of both his wife and one of his daughters. So aside from being typical Mark Twain writing, the sarcasm is at an all-time high, and so is his criticism of the Christian faith. What struck me about this passage though was his keen eye in realizing the discrepancy between God’s ways, as they are in Heaven, and our ways, as they are on Earth. Snarkiness aside, Mr. Twain hit the nail on the head. John of Patmos would urge us to ask, should there be such a discrepancy between Heaven and Earth? Of course there will be some discrepancy, but should there be such a discrepancy, such a wide discrepancy? John ends our passage by saying that God and God’s people will rule forever and always. Well, can’t forever and always start now? Is there some rule that I don’t know about that says it can’t start now? 

I don’t mean in its complete form but the ways of this new Jerusalem that John saw in his vision seem pretty doable now. At the very least we can get a good head start on them! Think of all the images that John has shared with us, an ornate city, gates that are forever open, the river of life, the tree of life, a garden-like setting, a place of perpetual light, angels singing, a marriage, a wounded lamb, a feast. These images represent protection, security, beauty, peace, abundance, joy, community, celebration, sacrificial giving!  

We know those things! We can do those things! Forever and always can start now! And it doesn’t have to be as hard as we often make it. Our God is so powerful, God does not need any of our help. If we can just allow God to shine, the way God shines in the new Jerusalem, without any outside help. Imagine how many new people could hear the good news of God’s unconditional love? 

But we always got to complicate things! We’re always looking for some new way to reach people. The latest craze that’ll pull people in! What if it’s not about pulling people in anyway! What if it’s just about letting people know that God loves them, no matter what? Especially in light of the fact that other people, other churches, have told them just the opposite! Which is why I’m so proud to be a part of a Reconciling in Christ church. Those rainbow hearts and flags and pamphlets that we have around, those might seem a little silly to some but to those who have been told you don’t belong in church because of who you love, those colors can seem like a river of life flowing from this place. And maybe they come through those doors someday and maybe they don’t. Either way, we can sleep tonight because we’ve allowed God to shine, not us, God.  

Here’s one last example and then I’ll shut up and let you get on with your day. Sometimes I think I’m in the twilight zone when I see such a fuss over the phrase Black Lives Matter. In what universe do people argue over whether a particular group of human’s lives matter? Any group! Blank lives matter. I never thought I’d live in a world where blank could be filled in with a group that people would actually argue over! If this book calls us to do anything, it’s to look around our world and see who needs some of God’s light to shine on them, who needs a drink from the river of life, who needs some of the healing leaves of the tree of life, in the here and now! And just like a rainbow flag, imagine how people of color feel after passing by the church in this photo? I’ll tell you how, they feel seen and they feel loved.  

I can tell you that because that’s how I’d feel as a brown person who has walked into too many rooms in my life, into too many buildings in my life, and have not felt welcome. The church in this photo is an Episcopal church in Mobile, Alabama. Needless to say, they have had to replace that banner several times and have said they will continue to do so. Like a rainbow flag, these are not new ways of reeling people in. They are simply allowing God’s light, God’s truth, God’s love, that we have had the privilege of knowing, to shine through to people who have not! And again, whether they ever walk through those doors or not isn’t the point. That church can sleep tonight knowing they’ve let God’s light shine through. And have continued the process of closing that discrepancy between that new Jerusalem and Earth. Thanks be to John of Patmos for sharing these visions with us. Thanks be to God. Thanks be to the wee little wounded lamb. Amen.

8/30/2021

Allegiance

 Inspired by Revelation 12:3, 4a, 7-12; 12:18-13:18

We are now in week four of this five-week series in Revelation. The end is nigh. Some of you might be sad by that, and some of you might be relieved that it’ll be over soon! I’m having a blast! I haven’t had the opportunity to spend any serious study time with this book since seminary, so I’ve been in Bible nerd heaven! My hope is, for some of you, these five weeks will have given you a new appreciation for this book at the very least, and maybe even provided you with the much-needed hope that the author originally intended. Even after readings like today! Dear Lord! As if last week’s wasn’t bad enough! I read this and thought, “What the heck am I gonna do with this! Dragons? Really John! You’re not gonna make this is easy for me are ya, John?” Those are the kinds of conversations we Bible nerds have in our heads, in case you were wondering. 

A few thoughts though before we actually dive into the text itself. Two really, and they are actually warnings for us to keep in mind, two dangers that have been too easy for Christians to fall into when reading this passage of the dragon. The first one is that we shouldn’t get too bogged down by trying to decode what each and every reference and image that John used means. Don’t get me wrong, some of them probably did mean something very specific, as we will see in a bit. But some of the imagery used may not have, and when we try to force everything to mean something it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture, the big message that John of Patmos is trying to get across. And we don’t want to lose that. Equally dangerous is making any of these images mean anything we want, and we will see the danger of that in a bit. 

So, with that in mind, let us turn to our text, which comes from the twelfth and thirteenth chapters. We skipped the rest of the opening of the seven seals, as well as the seven trumpets, don’t worry is just more death and destruction. After all that, we come to chapter twelve, and all of a sudden a dragon appears. And not just any dragon, this is the big guy himself, Satan! But why a dragon? Haven’t we had enough of the fantastical imagery in this book? How are we supposed to take this seriously? 

Well, oddly enough, that’s probably why John uses the image of a dragon, so we take this seriously! Not literally, but seriously! There’s a difference! The image of a dragon was just as familiar to John’s readers as it is to us. Here he’s borrowing from a lot of sources, Greek, Babylonian, and Hebrew mythology to be precise. And by “borrowing” I mean practically plagiarizing! The description of the dragons from those various myths is almost word for word! And that’s ok, because the point here is for us to take evil seriously. With that in mind, let’s keep moving. 

Apparently, the dragon and his angels got into a big fight with Michael and his angels up in heaven and they get tossed out. Which is great news for the residents of heaven, and really bad news for us residents of Earth, which is where they toss the dragon and his angels to. Thanks a lot Mike! Someone breaks out in song and sings about Michael’s great victory by the power of the wee little wounded lamb, and then the song ends with, “But oh! The horror for the earth and sea! The devil has come down to you with great rage, for he knows that he only has a short time.” And why is his time short, because he’s already been defeated, by the cross and the empty tomb! But that doesn’t mean that the dragon doesn’t have any fight left in him. 

As theologian Mitchell Reddish puts it, “John can sing the song of victory because he knows that the decisive battle in the great war has already been fought. It occurred on Calvary. The skirmishes still continue, but the outcome of the eternal struggle between good and evil has already been decided. For John, the coming assault against the church is nothing more than the futile, desperate last gasps of a dying Satan.” Ooh, I love that! However, these may be his dying last gasps but as we know all too well, this dragon’s dying last gasps have a lot of power to them. And this is a good place to pause and remind ourselves of two things. 

One, that Satan is not a force equal to God, the way it’s often portrayed. Believing that would be to believe that there are two gods. And of course, there are not. God always has been and always will be the ultimate power in the universe, and Satan will always be less than. And two, believing that Satan is a literal entity, a metaphysical being of some kind, is not a required doctrine for us as Christians. To quote Reddish one more time, “John uses the figure of Satan as a shorthand way to talk about the seductive and destructive power of evil.” And powerful it is! Chapter twelve ends with a cliffhanger, almost as if John is writing a movie script. He ends the chapter with these words, “Then the dragon stood on the seashore.” End scene. What a cliffhanger! You can just imagine the dragon being thrown down from heaven, landing on the seashore, straightening his back, then his neck and head, looking into Earth, plotting his next move! 

Chapter thirteen opens with just that, a great and terrible beast emerges from the sea. Here we have an example of what I was referring to earlier, when an image is symbolic of something or someone specific. This first beast is Caesar Nero. Now I won’t go into the many ways that scholars know this, but one is the number six hundred and sixty-six. This is code for Caesar Nero. How do we know that? Well, if you assign a number to each letter of the Greek alphabet and then add up the corresponding numbers for Caesar Nero, you get six hundred and sixty-six. It is not an evil number, a cursed number, or any such nonsense as that. It’s a name. Caesar Nero, the name of one of the most cruel, evil emperors that Rome ever had. We’re talking Hitler-level evil. But here’s the kicker, he was already dead at the time of this writing! So, why is John so concerned with him? 

Well, here’s more evidence that this book shouldn’t be taken so literally. Nero represented one of the greatest evils that they had experienced. And this author knew that the evil that Nero operated under, did not die with him, but continued on in other rulers, including their current one, and would continue in others, until the end of time. I know, that sounds very pessimistic but just take a look at history since then. For them, it was every Nero-like ruler that would come after. For us, it’s every Hitler-like ruler that the world has experienced. 

Next comes a beast from the land, the dragon’s other lackey. So, if the first beast was Nero and all other evil rulers of the world, who is this second beast? Well, this one’s not quite as precise but this second beast represents all those who assist the first beast, thereby assisting the dragon. Remember, both beasts are merely the pawns of the dragon. They have no real power but what the dragon gives them. Unlike the wee little wounded lamb, who is the ultimate power in the universe! 

John even has some fun with this by giving the beasts lamb horns, and a wound that has healed. He’s making them a parody of the lamb. No one can say that this John didn’t have a sense of humor! But more importantly, this is where we find the good news in all this chaos. In the fact that the dragon and his two beasts, don’t got nothing on the wee little wounded lamb. So much so, that John can poke some fun at them. 

So, we’ve come to the “So what?” part of this sermon. What does any of this have to do with us? John of Patmos has one question for us to answer, “Who is our allegiance to, and how do we know?” John saw the Christians of his day wavering in their allegiance under the pressure of Rome and its evil, powerful rulers. And he knew that if this baby religion was gonna make it, they were gonna have to choose one or the other. They couldn’t claim allegiance to Christ with their mouths and with their actions work for the advancement of an evil empire. And neither can we. As one theologian put it, “Revelation 13 calls for civil disobedience.” When the entity in power is working against the ways of the wee little wounded lamb, we are called to do our part in working against that entity. 

(A rare-for-me ad-libbed section here, in audio)...

Lord knows, the church has been duped into working for many evil empires in the past, in spite of the fact that John of Patmos has been warning us of that for two thousand years. In his day it was the Roman empire and the worship of its leaders. Fast forward to the last century and it was the support of many Lutheran Christians in Germany to Hitler’s efforts to unify their country, at the expense of Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and others they found “undesirable.” Another example would be in South Africa, where the Dutch Reformed church was a heavy supporter of the government’s racist apartheid policies. Or take Nicaragua, and the Roman Catholic’s support of the Somoza regime and its atrocities and human rights violations. 

And here in the U.S., just take a look at how church leaders rally around the military during times of war, whether it’s World War I or Afghanistan, calling for the defeat of our nation’s enemies, godless enemies, portraying them as subhuman. Ah, and that’s where we get into some real trouble, isn’t it! When we portray our enemies as evil, whether they be Evangelicals or Muslims, whether they be Democrats or Republicans, whether they be white people or people of color, whether they be straight or gay, whoever our enemy might be, when we label them as evil, we’ve fallen in league with the dragon. Because it’s a very short step from that to losing all compassion and love for them. And that’s exactly what evil would have us do. 

Thankfully, we have another example to follow, the example of the wee little wounded lamb, who does not come to conquer us, but to love us; who does not come to make us bow, but to lift us up; who does not come for blood, but to give his own; who does not come to divide us, but to remind us that we are all family. John of Patmos did not share these scary images to make us aware that evil exists. Like last week, we could have told him that! But rather, to quote Reddish one last time, “to remind us of the important role we play in the ongoing struggle against evil.” And may we always be willing to see and fight that evil, when it manifests in our own hearts and minds, as we daily renew our allegiance to the one who has always been loyal to us, the wee little wounded lamb. Thanks be to God. Amen.