May 19, 2019

Revelation 21:1-6 The Message

I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new.

Perhaps the most prolific and well respected of our contemporary New Testament theologians is Bishop N.T (Tom) Wright. Wright is well respected by evangelical and mainline Christians alike. I have heard Bishop Wright lecture in person, watched his videos and read his books and commentaries. Of all his works the one aspect of Wright’s interpretation of Jesus and his Good News that stands out is the concept of Kingdom. Wright believes Jesus did not come into the world to tell us about the Kingdom, to prepare us for the Kingdom or even test us for the Kingdom. No, Wright believes Jesus came to the world to usher in the Kingdom, to personify and clarify exactly what this Kingdom is. In a very real sense ushering in the Kingdom is to glimpse a new heaven and a new earth, to live out what the Lord’s Prayer calls “on earth as it is in heaven.”

John of Patmos, the author of our Book of Revelation was a prisoner of the Roman Empire. From the barren rocky island of his captivity John could not see very far or very clearly. But John did have visions. We might call these disturbing, unsettling, visions and dreams. To our middle class North American ears these words and images can be terrifying, rivers of blood, skies will rain fire, angels will spit swords, humankind will be forced to retreat into caves for shelter, we will be harassed by at least three terrifying dragons and beasts, and angels will sound seven trumpets of warning, and later on, seven plagues will be dumped on the world. Cheery. But if you have ever spent time with someone who has been the victim of a cruel oppressor you will know the rage of injustice is hard to sanitize. I recall a friend who came out to me as a gay man describing the beating he took one night when he walked home from a club. As he described the men who did this to him he confided that in his dreams he would do likewise to them, vengeance would bring satisfaction.

John of Patmos was a brother in Christ to a fledgling Christian movement being rounded up and jailed, tortured and in some cases crucified by the Roman Empire. Thus the famous beast marked by 666 was none other than the sun god of the Roman Empire. But in the midst of this gruesome language there are seeds of hope, words and images that remind us that Jesus and his Kingdom will emerge in a dynamic and new way, ushering in peace, justice and life in abundance.

I saw Heaven and earth new-created. Gone the first Heaven, gone the first earth, gone the sea. I saw Holy Jerusalem, new-created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new.

The words from Eugene Peterson’s paraphrased translation The Message that stand out to me are Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood. Perhaps you are more familiar with the New Revised Standard Version See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples. Or some of you might recognize the King James Version Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. However, you translate it the message is clear, God is with us and something new is happening, something transformative.

One of the aspects of the early church’s self-understanding that we in our context find so challenging is the notion of witness. For many of us there is a clear memory of the state, the schools, the culture, doing our work for us. Children recited the Lord’s Prayer in school, sang Christmas carols at public concerts, we went about our business with religious holidays, and every part of our culture was infused with Biblical stories and moral messages. There is much nostalgia for this approach. Yet its lasting effect is now being questioned. People my age were all given this treatment and few find it compelling enough to connect with a church in their 50’s. Moreover, the cynic in us might wonder if all of this was more about an effort to regularize a certain kind of civilization and culture and less specifically about Jesus and his Kingdom.

For John of Patmos, on his island of imprisonment, the idea that Jesus could be taught and experienced through government or societal dictate would be absurd. And the early church understood this all too well. Rodney Stark in his book “The Rise of Christianity” makes a compelling case that the church grew and grew and grew because it witnessed to Jesus’ resurrection and new life, that people who followed Jesus lived like the Kingdom was present, not far off in the future. Living like the Kingdom is operative now is very different than offering to people a collection of Jesus’ teachings in hopes that following them will lead to some eternal reward.

I once lived in a Christian community called Koinonia, a farm 10 miles from Americus, Georgia. There, in a time of racial segregation, Clarence Jordan invited African Americans and Americans of European heritage like him, to live together as family, much like Luke’s description of the early church in the Book of Acts. Jordan called this a “demonstration plot” of the Kingdom. Some might say it was an example of “on earth as it was in heaven.” In other words, if you want to see the Kingdom of God come here. Not that everything was perfect there, it was not. Humility discerned from appreciation of human frailty and sin would remind us we never get to perfection. But the presence of the Kingdom is our midst is a hopeful and hope-filled sign. It confirms what is possible and what God’s people can do in God name.

Where do you see this new heaven and new earth emerging, how have you seen the Kingdom coming to life, where have you seen Jesus breaking into our world and showing us what is real and what is not?

Tonight the informal small band of acoustic guitar players here at Bethany, sometimes called the Strum Group, will be heading to Brunswick Street United Church to create sacred sounds for the 15 or so disciples who gather in a circle every Sunday night at 7 pm. Neither the music nor the worship will likely be confused with Timothy Eaton United Church, Riverside Church or St. Peter’s Church in Rome. But I suspect one thing will happen, we will see an in-breaking of the Kingdom in our midst, a heaven-like appearance, when sounds, testimonies and sharing brings to life something unexpected and joyous. This all came to be because one day I asked Glen if the Strum Group would like to join us. He immediately said yes. He could see something I could see.

Please join me here at Bethany as we see things, visions, dreams, that draw attention to the emerging Kingdom in our midst. Amen.

May 12, 2019

Recently we have hosted a few weddings and funerals at Bethany. If you happened to be walking through this building you may have heard someone read Psalm 23. At weddings the most popular scripture story is 1 Corinthians 13 and at funerals it is John 14. But coming a close second for both rituals is Psalm 23. I think people love this reading because it brings an element of constant and abiding peace...

May 5, 2019

Many of you know “our Ann” is well versed in all matters related to food and nutrition. We like to tease Ann about that. Correction, I like to tease Ann about that. You might hear me asking her if there is anything she eats without kale as an ingredient. But all teasing aside what we eat has to have an impact on how we feel inside and outside our bodies. It has to...

April 28, 2019

As many of you know I am not a participant in the facebook experience. You will not find me there. Still I know that world can bring many good things to life. Recently I attended an event on mental health that had no conventional advertising, no posters, no ads, no notices in the paper. I was worried no one would be there, I was ready to console the organizer...

April 14, 2019

Two weeks ago we said goodbye to our friends Grace and Les. This week I was referred to two families, one grieving the loss of a mother, the other living through the loss of a father. The referrals came as a result of family members being present at a funeral where I offered some leadership. Sometimes you just show up at the right time to walk on rocky ground with people who are hurting...

April 7, 2019

Many of you remember a golden time for the church. Many of you remember a time when everyone you knew went to church. The church then was the centre of a community’s life; young people accessed recreation programs, older people put on plays and sang in musical groups, Sunday Schools were huge, they had to be managed like a School Board...

March 31, 2019

My all-time favorite Bible study method is one I learned in Washington DC from a very intense Biblical scholar. Ched had a room full of clergy and roles for all of us, each one of us was to be a character in a Gospel story. As Ched read the text we would act out our part, the emotions on our faces, our body movements, how we interacted with each other, this is how we brought the story to life...

March 17, 2019

Mohandas Gandhi once remarked, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Even within the church some of us may find ourselves agreeing with this statement because human beings so often disappoint us. When someone points to the mishaps of a professed Christian as a reason not to embrace the faith...

March 10, 2019

Jesus ate nothing during those days, and when the time was up he was hungry. The Devil, playing on his hunger, gave him a test: “Since you’re God’s Son, command this stone to turn into a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered by quoting scripture: “It takes more than bread to really live...

March 3, 2019

Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the story of this mountaintop encounter, what we commonly call “the Transfiguration Sunday”. Over the years most of the sermons I have read, heard or preached on the Transfiguration have taken one of two tacks. One has been a focus on the glorification of Jesus as he becomes dazzlingly radiant before Peter, James and John...

February 17, 2019

I have been very blessed. I have enjoyed good health, good relationships with family and friends, had secure employment for close to 30 years, been supported by a wife and daughter who love me and suffered very few setbacks, failures and losses in my life. Yet in the close to 30 years I have served as an ordained minister...

February 10, 2019

Professor Adam Copeland teaches Pastoral Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota. He knows a thing or two about how to motivate people to make a change. February is African History Month and it would appropriate to lift up one of lessons Copeland offers his students when it comes to liberation. I don’t need to tell you that music can affect us deeply...

February 3, 2019

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing...

January 27, 2019

Around this time of year my mind usually wanders to Bangor Maine. Why? In the mid and late 1990’s I came to know two retired United Church Ministers, one lived in the valley and the other lived in New Brunswick. I discovered that every late January they would drive from Saint John to Bangor and attend a series of lectures by distinguished preachers and scholars in the United States...

January 20, 2019

An old friend of mine is a lifelong Episcopalian, active in his church, faithful to God, eager to share his gifts for the common good. My friend is a university professor, has written several books and has had the ear of a few Presidents. My friend has, what we sometimes refer to as “influence”. My friend’s academic research focuses on evaluating government programs designed to assist the poorest of the poor...

January 13, 2019

I want to share a story with you, you may have heard it before. A family is riding home from church on Sunday. Their four-year-old son in the back seat of the car was baptized that morning. Suddenly, midway home, he bursts into tears. When his parents ask what on earth is wrong, he sniffles out the answer...