I Want to Be Ready


a reflection on Revelation 21:1-6 and 22:2-2

I don’t know if books of the Bible have feelings, but if they did, I think the book of Revelation might be feeling a little neglected, at least here in the United Church of Christ. It’s a neighborhood of the Bible we don’t explore together very often. Which is understandable, because this Revelation to John can be a pretty rough neighborhood. Wandering its streets are fierce dragons and warring angels. There are unidentified demons and a seven-headed beast with ten horns. Here we read that the world has been engulfed in the great and final battle between good and evil and that the four horsemen of the apocalypse have arrived, waving their swords of famine and plague, war and destruction. Here, even Jesus has morphed into a divine warrior, bursting out of heaven on his white horse, striking down the nations with his sword, and condemning the unfaithful to burn for all eternity in a lake of fire, while a select and righteous few are saved, chosen to reign with Christ in triumph for a thousand years.

I think it’s safe to say that this is not a section of the Bible that can ease you back to sleep in the middle of the night.

This is weird and disturbing stuff. And if the weirdness of the imagery itself makes us uncomfortable, perhaps even more troubling are the ways in which Christians throughout history have used this particular book of the Bible to condemn their perceived enemies to that vast lake of fire, and to condone their own violence in the name of God.

What I’d like to talk about this morning is how persistent and compelling this book seems to be…even for those of us who don’t read it very often.

Take, for example, the hymn we often sing right here on Sunday mornings: I want to be ready…to walk in Jerusalem just like John.

This is John of Patmos we’re singing about! The very same John who claims to have written down this revelation, this vision he received while in exile on the Island of Patmos off the coast of Turkey. John was among the second generation of Jewish Jesus followers. A man who, in his own lifetime, had very likely witnessed the utter destruction of the actual city of Jerusalem around the year 70, when sixty thousand Roman soldiers arrived in Jerusalem to starve and slaughter the city’s inhabitants, leaving the Temple itself—God’s home on earth—burned to the ground, and the city in ruins. It’s no wonder that John is haunted by visions of death and destruction. John is a man who, nearly 100 years after Jesus’ death, is wondering when the Christ of God will finally return to set this broken world right. A man who, in a state of fasting and prayer, receives a spectacular vision of a violent world being painfully restored to God’s peace, and who writes it down for all of us to read.

 This is John who envisions the new Jerusalem, and who describes it this way: 

“…the home where God dwells with God’s people, where God will “wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more;mourning and crying and pain will be no more.”

“A city where the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,flows from the throne of God … and on either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”

This is a beautiful thing John sees in his mind’s eye: a vision of God’s own healing presence flowing like a river through the body of creation.

And I’m pretty sure that this is why we’re not willing to give up on Book of Revelation. Despite our misgivings about the way it has been used, the vision of healing that John records here is so beautiful, so compelling, so true to who we know ourselves to be, that we cling to it, even now. We long to walk in that city of peace. We long to wade into that crystal river. We long to eat the fruit of the tree of life. And we sing these visions on Sunday mornings as signs of hope in a suffering world.

So I want to give thanks this morning for our friend John of Patmos: a guy who doesn’t always get his due respect in progressive congregations. And I want to invite us to ask ourselves what, exactly, it might mean for us to sing, “I want to be ready…to walk in Jerusalem just like John.” What does it mean for us, like John, to look beyond the world we know, to look beyond the church we’ve always known, and receive a new vision from God? A vision that is so true to our best selves, a vision that is so aligned with our core values, that it can sustain our hope and inspire us to work, and call us back to the teachings of Jesus. Because just like John, we understand that visions—strange or impossible as they may seem–are essential to our future; a future we can just barely glimpse. And because we can glimpse it—because we can speak it and write it and sing itwe can then begin to build it, together.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that this can be difficult work. That it takes a leap of faith to let go of our old ways and trust that God will move in to fill the space that opens up. Not every church is willing to do this. Mainline protestant churches are dying every day, friends, because it is scary to live into a new vision. In contrast, visionary churches are thriving. Visionary churches all over the world today are watching and listening for what God is calling the church to be in the years ahead.  And I’ve been watching over the past few months as this congregation has been living into your calling to become visionary church. A church that is brave enough to listen for the vision that God is dreaming in you. A radical and counter-cultural vision of truly intergenerational community; a vision of justice for the earth; a vision of spiritual renewal. A vision of healing and hope that God has planted in you, for the sake of the world.

The only difference between you and John of Patmos is that you are not alone. John, exiled on that little island, didn’t know whether anyone else would ever see his vision, whether anyone else would help him hold that vision, and fight for that vision, in the face of the armies of fear. But right here, in the hush of a Sunday-morning, we have what John was longing for. A community brave enough, to risk living into a new vision.  A community strong enough to proclaim a vision of God’s healing and peace for all the world. A world where the rivers run clean and the fruits of every tree are for the sharing, and the healing, of the nations. 

This season, as we consider why this church matters to us, and why it matters to the world, I am giving thanks for our friend John of Patmos and for the radical courage of his vision. I’m giving thanks for every congregation that has the courage to pursue the healing, world-changing vision that God has entrusted to us. I’m giving thanks for the courage we are finding right here to claim and to build that vision together. 

Friends, the vision God is dreaming in us isn’t something we just think about . The vision of healing God is dreaming in us is something we live into, day by day, step by step, breath by breath. I invite you now to let the vision, and the visionary, live in you. Let carry you to your feet in body or spirit as we rise now and sing. You’ll find John’s vision in your black hymnal, #616.

Civil Disobedience for the People of God

Activists In London Join The Global Climate Strike

A reflection on Mark 11:1-11

This is quite a parade Jesus and his followers organize in our gospel story this morning. But it is more than just a palm-waving, hosannah-shouting parade. As many scholars have noted, this parade we’ve just read about is a very pointed political demonstration. It’s a protest march. A street protest in which Jesus openly defies Roman authority. Jesus, riding into Jerusalem on the back of a colt, his followers waving palm branches, stages a protest march to precisely coincide with the moment when the Roman army is riding into Jerusalem on the backs of their enormous horses, waving…not palms, but real swords in a show of overwhelming military force.

We are revisiting this scene today because through the ages, the church’s understanding of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem—the meaning we assign to this ancient story—has formed our own understanding of what it means to follow Jesus: what it means for us to live with the kind of moral courage Jesus asks of us. This is the moment in the gospel narrative in which Jesus sets in motion the events that will lead to his trial, his refusal to cooperate with the Roman authorities, and his execution by those very same authorities. In other words, this Palm Sunday parade  into Jerusalem by Jesus and his followers comes at the final and crucial stage of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus’ ministry culminates here in a very public act of what today we would call “civil disobedience.” 

This season, we’ve been talking about moral courage – the kind of courage that will be required of us as we confront imminent and catastrophic climate change; the moral courage and honesty it will require for us to recognize that human activity, and our human failure to protect and steward God’s creation, have brought us to the very brink of worldwide ecological collapse. Over the past few months, we’ve been exploring some of the spiritual practices we’ve inherited from our ancestors in faith; practices that might be particularly helpful to us, and to the world, as humanity tries to find the courage and the collective will to change our ways. Last Sunday, for example, we took up the practice of praying with the news, as a way to listen for God’s call to action in difficult and sometimes overwhelming situations.

This morning, I want to suggest that our long tradition of civil disobedience—a tradition that goes back at least as far as Jesus himself—might be particularly helpful to us as we face our current climate crisis: a crisis in which humanity must decide whether or not we will  dismantle the economic and political forces that are threatening all life on earth; forces that may very well not respond to anything short of large-scale, worldwide civil disobedience.

So I thought we might take a look this morning at what this ancient spiritual practice of civil disobedience has meant for our ancestors in faith, and what it might look like for us today.

The term “civil disobedience” did not emerge until 1848, when Henry David Thoreau used it to describe his own protest against what he saw as the immoral and unjust acts of his own government. In Thoreau’s case, the precipitating immoral and unjust act was a poll tax that was being used, among other things, to finance the capture and return fugitive slaves. Thoreau went to prison for refusing to pay this tax. 

But when Thoreau coined the term “civil disobedience” in 1848, he was naming a form of action— social and moral action—that goes back at least as far as Jesus, and extends into modern times through the Boston Tea Party, the abolitionist movement, the women’s suffrage movement, resistance to British rule in India, the civil rights movement in the Untied States, the resistance to apartheid in South Africa, and many more. In all these cases, the heart of civil disobedience has been a public, often non-violent, demonstration against laws and government policies that are immoral or unjust.

I’ll repeat that: a public protest against laws and government policies that are immoral or unjust. I think this is a pretty good description of what Jesus was up to as he walked this earth: a ministry of highly disciplined, non-violent civil disobedience. Let’s remember what our gospel stories tell us about what Jesus did in the face of state-sanctioned violence and in the face of a social and political system that was violating basic human needs:

He broke bread with social and religious outlaws; he advocated in the streets for the outcast and the suffering; he publicly spoke out on behalf of those who were denied legal and religious standing; and he organized a non-violent public demonstration—a march on Jerusalem—on the eve of the Passover festival. All these are acts of civil disobedience against a government that was cruel,  unjust, and immoral; a regime that was daily doing violence to the most vulnerable. 

If any want to become my followers, Jesus says. Let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. Then he turns and heads toward Jerusalem for his dramatic final protest against the power of Rome.

As followers of Jesus, I think we need to be asking ourselves whether we’re serious about following him as he takes up this particular cross of protest; if we’re serious about following Jesus as he speaks and acts out in public in order to end to unjust policies that are doing real harm to the ones Jesus calls “the least of these.” The ones who have no voice, no political power, no lobbyists in Rome or in Washington, D.C.

“The least of these.” These are the ones for whom Jesus puts his life on the line. These are the suffering ones Jesus is willing to die for. In every age, followers of Jesus have asked themselves who, in our world today, is being harmed by unjust laws? Who is being harmed by possibly legal but nevertheless immoral social policies? In every age, the risen Christ asks us: Who are the “least of these: today? Who needs us to speak up, and act up, on their behalf?

I want to be very clear that there is no one answer to this question. I believe that as followers of Jesus, we are called to discern who needs us to act on their behalf and what kinds of action we will take. That’s something we all have to decide for ourselves.

But I will tell you where I’ve landed after wrestling with this question. I believe that as people of faith, our action, or lack of action, on behalf of the earth and the earth’s most vulnerable—both the human and the more-than-human among us—is the crucial moral issue of our time. Every day now, more and more Christians of every stripe are coming to realize that Jesus calls us today to put our voices, and our resources—and yes, if necessary, our lives—on the line, in order to save a suffering planet and its climate refugees. Jesus calls us to do everything in our power to save the species, and the ice caps, and the island nations that are even now vanishing as a result of our own actions and the policies of our own governments. Policies that are possibly legal, but that are certainly not just.

It is legal to inject water at high pressure into rock to get at the petroleum and natural gas inside, contaminating groundwater in the process. But it is not just. 

It may be legal to blow the top off a mountain to get at the coal inside, destroying ecosystems and continuing our investment in fossil fuels, causing cancer and birth defects in surrounding communities. But it is not just. 

It is questionably legal for our own government to incarcerate refugees who are trying to cross our southern border—refugees from countries where up to 82% of corn and bean crops have been lost to rising temperatures and drought; climate catastrophes caused by our own carbon emissions. But this incarceration is not just. And our continued carbon emissions are not sustainable for life as we know it on this planet. 

Truly I tell you,  Jesus says. Just as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.

And this piece of advice, from another skilled practitioner of civil disobedience, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King: 

The church must lead rather than follow in the march toward justice. Civil disobedience, was practiced by Jesus, and it was practiced superbly – superbly!—by the early Christians.

Dr. King asks us to remember that civil disobedience was practiced by Jesus and practiced superbly by the early Christians. I wonder if he would say the same about us.

We know through experience, says the Reverend King. That freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor. It must be demanded by the oppressed.

To this, I would only add that when the oppressed have no voice of their own—when the earth and its creatures have no voice of their own—then freedom, and justice, and even life itself, must be demanded by those of us who do have a voice. 

 Take up your cross, Jesus says. And follow me.

If my followers were silent, Jesus says. The stones themselves would cry out.

May the stones not cry out alone. And may the followers of the risen Christ, as we take to the streets, not cry out in vain.  Amen.