scripture reading this morning is from Revelation chapter 21, verses 1
I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first
earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy
city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared
as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the
the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4he 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.’
the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all
things new.’ Also he said, ‘Write this, for these words are
trustworthy and true.’ 6Then he said to me, ‘It is done! I am the
Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will
give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life. 7Those who
conquer will inherit these things, and I will be their God and they
will be my children.
from Revelation on Mother's Day probably makes about as much sense as
celebrating New Year's with the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld J.
Not exactly a cheerful thought at the moment. Or asking for
investment advice from Martha Stewart. It just sounds crazy on the
face of it, but I am in the midst of a little mini-series on the book of
rather than deviate from the series I thought this morning I'd attempt
to sum up the meaning of Revelation with the story of a mother. I
have to warn you one of my pregnant young mom's in the first service
said I just added to her worries! But it is really intended to be
a story of hope, but one of the difficulties is that stories of hope that
have the greatest meaning arise in times of great trial.
story is told by Elaine Pagels, author of Beyond Belief. Dr.
Pagels teaches at Princeton and has devoted her career to the study of
the extra-canonical writings of the early church, those writings that
did not make it into the bible but nevertheless tell us much
about the history and origins of the church. Beyond Belief, Pagels'
latest book, is not about Revelation at all, it is rather about the
relationship between the gospel of John (which of course is in our New
Testament) and the gospel of Thomas (which is not). This very
scholarly book about the origins of Christian faith begins with a very
personal story of Dr. Pagels rediscovery of her own faith.
was early on a February Sunday many years ago that she found herself
drawn to the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York. She did not
intend to go there that morning, she was on her morning run, dressed as
you can imagine in New York in February in a t-shirt and running
shoes. She thought the church would be a place where she could
warm up and catch her breath. Despite her fitness attire, she
entered anyway. It was her first time back to church after a long
absence. She says she was startled by her response to the service
that she found there in progress. The soaring harmonies of the
choir singing with the congregation. The priest (a
woman--something she never saw in her days growing up in the church)
dressed in bright gold and white vestments, her clear, resident voice
proclaiming the prayers of the people. And a voice said to Dr.
Pagels: here is a family that knows how to face death.
had gone for a run early that morning while her husband and her
2-and-a-half year-old son slept because it had been a long sleepless
night for her and she needed to clear her mind. Two days before,
doctors informed her and her husband that their young son, Mark, had pulmonary
hypertension, a rare lung disorder that invariably led to death.
"How long?", she asked. "We don't know", they
said, "a few months, perhaps a few years".
writes: "Standing in the back of that church, I recognized
uncomfortably that I needed to be there. Here was a place to weep
without imposing tears upon a child. Here was a heterogeneous
community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common
needs and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine. Yet the
celebration in progress spoke of hope. Perhaps that is what made
the presence of death bearable. Before that time, I could only
ward off what I heard and felt the day before. I returned often to
that church, not looking for faith but because in the presence of that
worship and the people gathered there (and in a smaller group that met
on weekdays in the church basement for mutual encouragement), my
defenses fell away, exposing storms of grief and hope. In that
church I gathered new energy and resolved over and over to face whatever
awaited us, as constructively as possible for Mark, and for the rest of
Pagels goes on from that very personal experience of a profound crisis
to discuss the origins of Christians faith. Or more precisely, of
the faith community. For part of her thesis is that community and
faith emerged together in the first three centuries inseparable in a
time of crisis. And it was precisely the creative ability, or we
might say the spirit-led ability, of that early Christian community to
relate to the gospel story and to Jesus in such a way that it became
part of their own story. That it gave meaning and guidance to
their own lives that sustained, nurtured, and enlarged their
faith. Receiving baptism and gathering every week or even every
day to share the Lord's supper, those who participate weave the story of
Jesus' life, death, and resurrection into their own lives.
again, Pagels writes: "This, then, is what I dimly recognize
as I stood in the doorway of the Church of the Heavenly Rest. The
drama being played out there spoke to my condition, as it has to
millions of people throughout the ages because it simultaneously
acknowledges the reality of fear, grief, and death while paradoxically
nurturing hope. Four years later when our son, then 6 years old,
suddenly died, the Church of the Heavenly Rest offered some
shelter. Among words and music, when family and friends gathered
to bridge an abyss that seemed impassable."
is precisely the function and purpose of Revelation. It is the
drama that speaks not so much to my condition or yours but to the
world's condition. Simultaneously acknowledging the reality of
evil and the fear, the grief and the death it creates while also giving
us hope. That the impassable will be bridged by God.
you remember the story of Forrest Gump? A much more hopeful,
uplifting story. A wonderful movie, it came out years ago when our
children were too young to appreciate it, so we rented it again so our
kids could experience that heart-warming story. The main
character, played by Tom Hanks, is what we used to call a
'simpleton'. A person with very limited cognitive abilities.
An IQ of 75. Probably pretty close to my own, I think J.
And one would think that such a person is doomed in life, lacking the
necessary intelligence it takes in order to make it in this world.
What hope was there for him? And yet over and over again the movie
tells this story of Forrest Gump who finds himself in the national
spotlight one way or another, and towards the end of the story he
narrates that he went to the White House, 'yet again!', to meet the
President, yet again!, like that's really a dumb thing to have to
do. And what struck me as we watched this movie, yet again!, was
the role that the mother plays in it. Portrayed by Sally
Field. It's not a big role in terms of the movie, but it's a huge
role in terms of Forrest Gump's life. He says many times
throughout the movie: "Mama always said, life is a like a box
of chocolates". "Stupid is as stupid does".
And with those little pearls of wisdom guiding his life, he managed to
make it through. But it wasn't just what she told him, it was the
way she believed in him. How she insisted on the best for him, and
how in the face of overwhelming odds against him she gave him what he
needed to beat those odds. To rise up above them and to do the
that is my image of God. The mother who is the one who believes in
us, who inspires us to do our best. Who challenges us to beat the
odds against us and enables us to do what otherwise would be
impossible. And that's precisely what Revelation does too.
acknowledges that the world is stacked against us in so many ways.
There are beasts, terrible beasts in this world that would destroy
us. As Martin Luther wrote:
mighty Fortress is our God, a Bulwark never failing,
Our Helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great; and, armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.
though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed the truth to triumph through us.
The powers of darkness grim, we tremble not for them.
Their rage we can endure, for lo! their doom is sure;
One little word shall fell them.
thus Revelation portrayed that one little word of the slain lamb
defeating the imperial beast with nothing more than the sword of his
mouth. And then we are presented with this vision, once again of
God on his throne, only now, in contrast to the earlier portrayals of
God seated on his throne with all of the heavenly creates attending to
him that we looked at the previous two Sundays, now this God comes down
to earth to dwell with us once and for all, putting an end to all
misery, suffering, and even death itself.
as I shared two weeks ago, Revelation almost did not make it into
our Bible. The reformers almost excluded it from their editions of
the Bible. But it has been kept not because the church fathers and
others thought that it predicted the future, but rather because they
understood it was written for their time. And that's why they kept
it--for its vision of how things should be under God in stark contrast
to how they were under Caesar that gave them hope.
especially when you remember that when the elder John was writing from
the island of Patmos, the ruins of Jerusalem were still
smoldering. The stench of death in Palestine covered the land from
the war, including in 70 C.E. the complete destruction of the
temple. And the stones carried away, so that it could never be
rebuilt again, in contrast to the song that Adam wrote with the man
standing next to the temple and envisioning this glorious new
city. When John wrote, there was no temple. It was
gone. And think, then, how powerful this vision would have been to
those people for whom that memory was so vivid and so recent of the new
Jerusalem descending from God.
what is especially remarkable in this vision is that this paradise is
not achieved when we ascend to be united with God in heaven, but rather
when God descends to be united on earth with us. That is
too, that God's dwelling place is neither the mountain nor the temple,
but rather the city. And this is a challenging vision for
us. For all the nature lovers that find God out in the wilderness,
the forest and mountains, etc, and for the keepers of religious
institutions who want to put God in buildings, and erect these
wonderful, glorious places as holy sites to God. And it's not that
God cannot be found in the mountains, cannot be found in temples, but
rather that the home of God, literally the place where God pitches his
or her tent (here in the Greek), that dwelling place of God is with the
in the city, for there is no temple, no meaning of the temple
anymore. Because God dwells with us. And if God's home is to
be here with us, then that can only mean that we are part of God's
family. That all who follow this way that we have called
"Lamb Power", the way of the slain lamb, are our brothers and
sisters, children of God, our mother and father.
is not just a trite saying, to say that we are all part of God's
family. It's not something simplistic, even if it may be
simple. Because the social divisions in both ancient Palestine and
the Roman Empire were incredibly deep and strong. And when the
early Christian community rejected those time-honored distinctions,
separations, and divisions between slave and free, between male and
female, between aristocrat and peasant, between black and white, between
citizens and foreigners, it was seen as a challenge to the very
structure that held the fabric of society together.
I will dare say that it is still such today. The church was and is
in effect creating a new world order, based not on birth or wealth or
education or economic status or marital status or tradition or language
or any of those other traditional standards by which we structure our
world. It is rather built on the ethic of love.
Turtullian wrote in the early 2nd century that outsiders ridicule
Christians because we call each other brothers and sisters. What
marks us in the eyes of our enemies is our practice loving
kindness. "Look", they say, "look how they love one
that love is the love of Christ. It is the love of Lamb
Power. It is the love that we find with God dwelling in our
midst. And it is that love that found, or dare we even say, that
saved Dr. Pagels. Not her knowledge from her work achieving her
PhD. Not all of that studying of the ancient writing. Not
all of her teachings and writing. But the love of God.
said it was Christmas Eve, two years ago, she went to the midnight
service with her second child, Sarah. She had first carried Sarah
as an infant to the Church of the Heavenly Rest. And there, she
says, her infant daughter would raise her head to listen intently to the
singing cascading down from the choir loft. Sarah joined the choir
at Trinity in Princeton, at the age of 8, because, she said, "the
music helped my heart." That's why we love it when the
children sing for us, because it helps our hearts, doesn't it?
now they came together at the age of 16, on this Christmas Eve, to a
full church where the only seats they could find were on the stone steps
behind the lectern. Dr. Pagels said that she had always loved this
service as a child and had come to love it again as an adult after the
birth of her three children. But after her son's death, it was
difficult. This year, however, she said, this year she found
herself wholeheartedly singing the carols and listening to the stories
of the child born in Bethlehem. Angles breaking through darkness
to announce the miraculous birth. Stories that most New Testament
scholars, knowing that we have little or no historical information about
Jesus' birth, regard as a mixture of legend and midrash. Story
telling that draws upon Israel's stories of miraculous births of Isaac
and Samuel and the rescue of the infant Moses. On that night,
writes Pagels, "my own associations with those stories seem to be
embraced with the joy and sublimity of the
festival, laced as it is with the intimations
of Jesus' impending death as well as the promise of his continuing
radiant present. Attending to the
sounds and the silence, the candlelight and darkness, I felt the
celebration take us in and break over us like the sea. When it
receded, it left me no longer clinging to the particular moments in the
past. But born upon waves of love and gratitude that moved me
toward Sarah, toward the whole community gathered there at home or
everywhere. The dead and the living."
is John's vision of the new Jerusalem. The promise of Jesus'
continuing radiant presence and God's everlasting parental love.
It is a vision of the whole community, the dead and the living, at home
with God. It is a vision that beckons us, that calls to us, that
urges us to sing with angels, and to join in the story to make it our
story, our family, our hope.
it is our God who dwells here, with us. Thanks be to