Date: 8 May 2016
Text: Revelations 21:1-6, Revelations 22:13-17
Site: Bethany United Church – Halifax, NS
You won’t hear many sermons in a mainline church like ours on the Book of Revelations. Our evangelical friends in Christ like the emphasis in Revelation on a more intimate and final reunion with Jesus. Our fundamentalist friends in Christ tend to focus on the final judgment, a final battle between the forces of good and evil, with Christ on our side as the final victor. We in the mainline churches stay clear of this book for many reasons. The imagery of Revelations is dramatic and bloody, it reads more like a fantasy thriller than literature connected to the Prince of Peace.
What’s more there is so much symbolism, numerology, and outright war that we are left confused and dispirited. As believers we feel our gift of reason is God-given and therefore, like Martin Luther, the founder of the Reformation, we would rather this strange book be left alone.
However, having studied the Book of Revelation in seminary and heard some marvelous sermons on it I must say that I think we in the mainline churches are missing out by ignoring this odd text and ceding it to our evangelical and fundamentalist sisters and brothers. Let me explain why.
Some of you know I went to school nearby. I won’t name the school but you can figure it out. For ten years I attended a very rough school, in a very rough community. Lucy came home from school the other day to say she had witnessed her first school fight. She is in grade nine. In my ten years at the nearby school I can’t remember many days when there weren’t fights. In fact part of the everyday life at the school was seeing police officers walking up and down the hallways looking for classmates of mine who might have engaged in some illegal behavior the night before. In grade nine many of my classmates were not there for graduations, they were spending quality time in Shelburne.
I was not one of the cool kids back then. I was loud (shock!) and a bit of a class clown that both shielded me from, and drew me into, these fights. Those of us who had this experience often developed fantasy worlds where one day we would be the ones who walked the hallways and the tough kids would be the ones trying to look invisible. But we would seek them out, find them, and leave them with a bloody nose or a black eye.
According to the late Bruce Metzger, a great Biblical scholar at Princeton University, the key to understanding this complicated and complex book is to know that the early Christians were subject to persecution, torture and murder by the Roman Empire. Note that the symbolism used throughout this book is connected to the symbols of the Romans. In every respect Satan, the Beasts, the evil one identified in Revelation, is the Roman Empire. And like my own boyhood fantasies the early Christians had very specific, very graphic and very violent dreams of what they would do to the Romans if the tables would be reversed.
Metzger’s text that opens up Revelations in a very clear way is Breaking the Code: Understanding the Book of Revelation. Metzger says of the book, “Whether John would have us think of the new heavens and new earth as a transformation of the existing order, or whether this present cosmos will come to an end and a new creation will replace it, it is not quite clear.” We just don’t know. But it does mean that we in the mainline churches can and should embrace this book to help us see the possibility of experiencing a new heaven and a new earth now, right now.
This is Mother’s Day and I must share with you that during those dark days when life at the school was tough there were two things that sustained me; my faith in a God whom I could talk to and lean on at any time and my mother’s Mission statement, “whenever you see someone who is alone, segregated, walk up to her or him and show interest, ease them into a feeling of belonging.” Having that mission statement, that sense of purpose for my life gave me strength and resiliency. St. Augustine, who wrestled with the notion of how we experience God’s presence in these dark moments, said we see the new heaven and new earth “by the eyes of the heart, which can see realities that are immaterial.” Friends we need to cultivate this sense of vision for as the Book of Proverbs proclaims, where there is no revelation/vision the people perish.
Here at Bethany we are attempting to capture moments of transformation, where we experience a new heaven and a new earth. Not nostalgia, trying to relive the past. Not in ten years, building toward some elusive tomorrow. No, witnessing a new heaven and a new earth now, where you and I can stand in those moments and “see God by the eyes of the heart.”
Ann, Cheri, myself, those who have been part of the 20/20 Visioning and want to continue, and others now who want to join in, we want to dream with and for God to engage in moments where we Bethany are transformed, become citizens of Heaven, and experience the Kingdom of God NOW.
This is NOT about building a bigger more successful church, though that might happen. The goal is to experience transformation. Two recent examples of churches I have served who sought this place and found it. At St. Luke’s in Tantallon there was a desire to know this place around a Table. So believers like us gathered, shared, prayed, dreamt, and worked. What emerged was a need for people in the suburbs to know more deeply people from the inner city, where both would inspire, challenge and open each other up to something bigger. So around a large Table would sit equal numbers of folks from the inner city and the suburbs, sometimes 12, sometimes, 30, once 50+! All of the food was cooked at home. Then we followed the meal by sitting and talking, and then a walk on the Trail or sitting behind the church around the old swamp that was turned into a meditation centre. Deep community formed and a new heaven and new earth was experienced. It was a dream that came true.
At Brunswick Street we were down to 7 or 8 people on a Sunday morning with an AST student. When I arrived as their Minister they shifted the time of worship to Sunday night to accommodate me. I asked what their vision of themselves as God’s people was becoming. The first thing we did was change the configuration of the worship space. We changed from 50 chairs (with 8 people) to a circle of chairs with 15 people (a few more came along). Just that change, moving to a circle, led to other changes like the sharing of the entire service (every one taking part) and the sharing in the sermon time. Soon the circle became our identity and the way we experienced a new heaven and a new earth, for unlike the other days of the week, for these two hours we shared as family, as equals, as disciples, each with something unique to share and learn.
In the 20/20 Vision process there was a workshop and follow up and many ideas were put forward (I counted 34). But so far not much has materialized. I am NOT here as a rescuer, I have no magic bullet, no secret serum, and no wand to wave to fill the church with people and the plate with offerings. And isn’t that beside the point, in our last days when we look back at our time with Bethany will the memorable part of our journey be how many were here? I think not. It will be those moments of revelation, where time stood still and God was present in a deep way.
What will be process, the dreaming, the way we come together, the way we “see God by the eyes of the heart”. Ann coined the phrase, “A day of Revelation”. I like it. Let us know if you want to join us in this quest. Amen.