Sunday, April 28, 2013

28 April 2013 -- 5th Sunday of Easter

5th Sunday of Easter — 28 April 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

Acts 11:1-18  |  Psalm 148  |  Revelation 21:1-6  |  John 13:31-35

"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.”

Some preachers love to preach on the Book of Revelation.  They are not usually Episcopalians.  Other preachers never preach on the Book of Revelation.  There are lots of Episcopalians among them!  I don’t preach on the Book of Revelation very often myself!   But we’ve been hearing a few passages from Revelation in this Easter Season of Year C.  This is about the only time in three years that we read from Revelation at the Sunday Eucharist, and, I might note, we hear a rather narrow selection, mostly hymns of praise offered before the throne of God in heaven.  Which is fine, although as I expect many of you realize, that leaves out a whole lot of stuff, especially the violent and gory stuff.  Though we might keep in mind that the passages we do hear this Eastertide, and especially today, next Sunday, and the Sunday after, really are what this book is all about!  I don’t know whether others have talked about the Book of Revelation this season, but I thought I would say something about it!
A popular phrase these days—a devastatingly accusatory, condemnatory phrase—is “You just don’t get it!”  You young people – how many of you have ever thought in regard to your parents, and if you’re kind of sassy maybe even said out loud, “You just don’t get it!”  And parents – how many times have you told your kids, when they are resisting your parental wisdom, “You just don’t get it!”  The truth is, most of us, about a lot of things much of the time, and about a few things most of the time, “just don’t get it!”  High on the “just don’t get it” list, you will probably not be surprised to hear, is the Bible.  But we need to realize that those who “just don’t get” the Bible are not just “those other folks” of denominational traditions other than our own (I won’t name names!), but we also!  It doesn’t take a lot of study of Church history to realize that in regard to the Bible, much of the Church, throughout the centuries and around the world, “just didn’t get it.”  But that’s another very long sermon for another time.
The Book of the Revelation to John may well lead the whole Bible on the “just don’t get it” list.  And at this point perhaps you are saying to yourself, “Well, I guess I must be one of those who just don’t get it, because I have no idea what the Book of Revelation is all about!”  It’s okay, you are in good company!
Let’s admit that the Book of Revelation is hard for us.  In some respects it’s probably the hardest book in the Bible.  But actually, it isn’t so much that it’s hard (like a textbook in quantum physics is hard, especially if like me you don’t count physics and math among your strongest subjects) as that it’s alien.  It’s foreign to us.  (Actually, quantum physics is not only hard, it’s also alien!)  The rhetoric of the Revelation is very different from anything we normally encounter.  However, it was quite familiar to first-century Jews and to Jewish Christians and to the Gentile Christians who had a substantial exposure to the Old Testament and other Jewish religious literature.  The Book of Revelation is steeped in Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah, Daniel, and all that gang, as well as a number of late second-temple Jewish writings that the rabbis excluded from the canonical Tanakh.  If we were Christians, particularly Jewish Christians, in Asia Minor in the last decade of the first century, John’s Revelation would probably be fairly clear to us.  But we aren’t, and so it isn’t.  The problem is not so much the text itself, but the fact that we are so far removed from its cultural context, by which I mean both its literary genre and its social and political historical setting. 
The Book of Revelation is an account of visionary experience, akin to the language of dreams.  Thus we are in a realm of highly symbolic discourse.  Part of our difficulty with this is that we are not familiar with the apocalyptic symbol system which the Revelation and other writings of this genre take for granted.  Another part of our difficulty is that our post-enlightenment, rationalist, technological, left-brained culture tends to have problems with symbolism or metaphor of any sort.  We just don’t get it. 
But in any case, we need to understand that the symbolics of the Revelation are not cold hard ciphers, where this translates to this and that translates to that, and once you figure out the key the meaning is unambiguous.  On the contrary, the symbolic imagery is intended to be evocative, to call the reader or hearer into a dialogue with the text at an imaginative, creative, poetic level where mood is more important than concept, the affective more than the cognitive, and meaning is multivalent, multi-layered.  I am reminded somewhat of dream sequences in movies, which give important insights into what’s going on in the character development or the plot of the drama, but which are not meant to depict literal reality.  (An example that comes to mind is the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s film Wild Strawberries, about an old professor reflecting back on this life.  I first saw it when I was a college student, pretty much into my head, and I didn’t get it at all.  Thirty years later I found the film a much more profoundly moving experience, and even more so two days ago when I watched it yet again.)  (While I was at it, thinking about the Book of Revelation and Ingmar Bergman, I also watched The Seventh Seal again, which explicitly draws on Revelation.  But that’s another path that I won’t go down right now!)  What I am suggesting is that the Revelation to John is the New Testament’s great final dream sequence. 
The other thing to keep in mind is what’s going on in the lives of these Christians in Asia Minor at the end of the first century of the Christian era.  What the Revelation is finally about is faith in the ultimate victory of the Rule of God despite the present tribulations and persecutions which the Christian community is suffering.  Some of the visionary imagery about the struggle against the godless Roman Empire is pretty wild and woolly stuff.   A lot of the imagery about pagan empires reflects similar concerns from about 250 years earlier in the Book of Daniel.  But the final assurance is that God, and God’s Son and Messiah the Lamb – will in the end triumph.  So hang on!  “The one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”
And this is all still true.  This is all still valid for us.  The big difference, I think, is that we see the world – still God’s world, but God’s world as we see it and live in it – in a very different way, and with very different imagery.  For most Christians throughout history, and for many people still today, the world we live in was thought to be only a few thousand years old.  And thus the idea of this world coming to its final conclusion sometime soon was not all that far out.  And I suppose we do have to grant the possibility that God could end the world this afternoon.  But it does seem to me that this would be out of character for the God we have come to know.  God has been about the creation and sustaining of this universe for, at last count, 13.8-and-change billion years, which leads me to suspect that God works on a very long timeline!  So for us, to think and talk about the ultimate destiny of the world requires new and different imagery, which I’m not sure we have yet conceived. 
But the basic point of all this, and of the Book of the Revelation to John, is still true.  Ultimately the Rule of God will triumph, and we will share in that victory.  We do not know, we cannot know, exactly or even approximately what the new heaven and new earth will be like, and the question of “when” is effectively off the table.  But we are called to believe and trust that in the end God will indeed make all things new.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

7 April 2013 -- 2nd of Easter

2ND SUNDAY OF EASTER  — 7 April 2013
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls – 9:15 am

Acts 5:27-32  |  Psalm 150  |  Revelation 1:4-8  |  John 20:19-31

“Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

   On this the second Sunday of Easter – does anyone else remember when we used to call it “Low Sunday,” allegedly because after the huge crowds in church on Easter Day, today got a much more modest attendance.  I’m glad to see that doesn’t apply to you in this parish!  Actually, it probably reflects the fact that the Sunday of the Resurrection was considered a ‘high holy day,” in comparison to which today, a week later, is relatively lower.  Don’t take notes.  It’s quite all right to completely forget this whole point.

   Anyway, on this the second Sunday of Easter in the Church –not only the Catholic tradition in the West but also the Orthodox Churches in the East – the Gospel reading every year has for a very very long time been the narrative of the encounter of St. Thomas with the risen Jesus.  Here’s where we get the whole bit about “doubting Thomas.”  I assume you have heard many many sermons that argue that this is not altogether fair to poor St. Thomas.  I have certainly preached them!  And sometimes the point has been that doubt, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing.  Which is true.

   Have you all seen the TV commercial sponsored by one of the cellphone companies, in which a man wearing a red-and-black-checked lumberjack shirt – I have one just like it -- and his apparently expectant wife – come into the cellphone store and he announces that he’ll believe anything – Bigfoot, ghosts, mermaids and mermen – but he won’t believe that this company has a good deal on cellphones.  His wife observes that the cellphone company should write a joke book.  Well, fortunately, St. Thomas was not anything like that guy.

   He was not the only one who was doubtful when told that Jesus had risen.  St. Matthew tells us that when the disciples met the risen Jesus in Galilee, “some doubted.”  [Mt 28:17]  In the well-known and well-beloved story about Cleopas and his companion – I suggest it’s his wife Mary – meeting but not recognizing the risen Jesus on the road to Emmaus, they say that they had heard the story that Jesus’ tomb had been found empty, but they doubted. [Luke 24:22-24] After all, St. John’s Gospel says that Mary the wife of Cleopas was one of the women standing near the cross of Jesus.  She had seen Jesus die!  They didn’t know what this empty tomb business was all about, but they doubted.  So let’s give poor St. Thomas a break!  Lots of reasons for doubt going around.  People in the first century knew just as well as we do that dead people do not rise from their graves.  (Though north of the Wall in Westeros, all bets are off.)

   Incidentally, the discovery of the empty tomb does not in itself prove the resurrection of Jesus.  I think there are all sorts of reasons – historical, scriptural, theological, spiritual – for concluding that the gospel stories are basically sound and that the tomb was indeed found empty on Sunday morning, but that is important not so much for proving that the resurrection happened as for clarifying what happened.  We do need to understand that the resurrection of Jesus was not simply the resuscitation of his corpse, “back to life.”  The resurrection was not, and is not, “back.”  According to the gospels, the daughter of Jairus, and the son of the widow of Nain, and Lazarus were resuscitated.  What God did with Jesus was, is, at a wholly different order of reality. 

   (Don’t ask me about the Shroud of Turin.  I’m not going there.)

   And I think we can see that in the gospel story of St. Thomas today.  Note that the Gospel says that both on that first Sunday, and then a week later on this second Sunday, the doors were locked; but “Jesus came and stood among them.”  [John 20:19,26]  It does not say that Jesus walked through walls!

   (I have this immature and very silly image in my mind of the risen Jesus standing outside the door, wondering to himself, “Should I knock?  Or should I just walk through?”)

   (Another reflection, I hope not quite as immature and silly:  The other disciples are telling Thomas that they’ve seen the risen Lord.  Thomas says, “No!  I won’t buy that!  Bad enough that our hopes have been so cruelly dashed, I can’t risk the pain of some wild hoax!  Not unless I can touch his wounds!”  And then, in the event, does Thomas examine Jesus’ wrists and say, “Ooh!  Big nails they used!”  and poking Jesus in the side comment, “Ow!  That’s got to have hurt!”?  No!  In the event Thomas does not touch Jesus’ wounds, he falls and cries, “My Lord and my God!”  That, by the way, is not a statement of systematic Christological theology, although it may be relevant to that.  It’s a cry of faith and trust.  Thomas recognizes what has happened in that upper room:  at least for that moment and in that place, in the words of the Revelation and of Mr. Handel, “The kingdom of this world is become the Kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ.”  [Rev. 11:15])

   Where is the risen Jesus between his appearances to his disciples?  A silly question, probably, but I suspect it has occurred to most of us at one time or another.  Hanging out inconspicuously in that little coffee shop across from the Pool of Siloam, maybe?  I don’t think so!  No, despite how the gospel writers, and especially St. Luke, address it narratively, the resurrection and the ascension are aspects of the same reality.  The risen Jesus is in heaven, which is to say with the Father, which is to say in the headquarters of the Kingdom of God.  Heaven, of course, is not “up there.”  It is not anywhere in this created universe; it is the greater reality within which this whole created universe has its present existence and its ultimate goal.  “My kingdom,” Jesus says, “is not of this world.”  It is the ultimate beyond, which in various ways and at various times breaks into our present world.  The signal instances of this breaking in from the ultimate beyond are, I think, the Incarnation and the Resurrection (which themselves may be aspects of the same reality). 

   We need to understand, in our heads and in our lives, that all this stuff we are celebrating, especially at this season, is not about “religion.”  Or even about “spirituality.”  (“I’m not religious, but I am spiritual.”  “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.  How can I help?”)  “Religion” and “spirituality” can all too often be seen as just one of life’s compartments, just one pigeonhole among other pigeonholes in our desk:  job, family, recreation, politics, hobbies, religion, whatever, often isolated and not always related to each other.  The Gospel, the good news, which has been proclaimed to us and which we are to share with the world, is about God’s ultimate rule over the whole of existence, and how this rule, this “Kingdom” in human terms, has appeared and been especially enacted in our world by the creator God enfleshed in the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of the Messiah Jesus of Nazareth.