All Things New (Sermon)

Where are you going? Where am I going? Where are we going?[1] My inclination when I hear this question is to simply pull out my calendar, and ask well, what date are you asking about? When do you want to schedule for? In this world we only really think about where we’re going in a temporal sense—only if it has to do with tomorrow, or next week, or maybe next year. We’re really great at talking about where we came from. Our history. Why things are the way that they are, why we are at this point in history, but we’re less clear about where we’re going.

Perhaps it’s because we are used to rationalizing other perspectives—I find myself getting a little nervous when people talk about the end times and the apocalypse, and perhaps you do too. Every day that is predicted by one group or another as the day the world will end passes with relatively few disruptions. Time keeps on marching onward, and it would be safe and rational to assume that maybe it just keeps doing this, and there’s no need to worry ourselves about the end of times.

But then, we run into passages like this one, from Revelation, where the writer is not simply talking about the end of days. The writer is audaciously claiming that not only will the end of times come with fire and beasts and dragons, but that the earth as we know it will be transformed into something new. And while our initial inclination may be to get a bit squeamish, perhaps this is an opportunity to put aside a concept of linear time, to step outside of our comfort zones and hear the hope that is so audaciously being offered.

—–

At the very end of the Lord of the Rings movies, Frodo and Sam have finally cast the ring into Mount Doom. This is the end of the quest that they have given everything to complete. And before they drift out of consciousness, they begin reminiscing about the Shire, and home, and people they love. In the film, they’re laying on rocks that barely hold them above the molten lava streaming down the mountainside, they’re so thirsty and hungry that they can’t remember the taste of food. And yet, they are dreaming. The world is collapsing around them, so it seems, and yet they are dreaming about a better world, the world they had once lived in.

This is what I think about when we finally get to this point in the book of Revelation. “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.” These are the words that open today’s reading, but they are not the beginning of the book. If you read through the book of Revelation, (which some of you have been doing in the Revelation Bible Study) you’ll know that in order to get to this point, the reader has travelled a long way. From the letters to the churches, to the throne of the Lamb—from seals to scrolls to dragons to beasts to the fall of Babylon to the defeat of the beast and of Satan to the final judgement. There’s a lot going on in the first twenty chapters.

And when we arrive at chapter 21, the tone changes. We move from the throes of judgement to suddenly, “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.”. Something changes here—the tone of the text is altered. It’s like you’re laying on a rock on Mount Doom surrounded by molten lava and suddenly you start thinking about home, and green grass and sunshine.

I’ve always wondered why, in this moment, it’s the Shire that gets talked about by two people who barely have the breath to talk. They don’t talk about the lava. They don’t talk explicitly about the fear that they are going to die. They wish they could see home one more time, and this is what they talk about—the memories of specific places and people that they love.

—–

If we were to ask Frodo and Sam where they are going, they may not be able to rationally articulate an concept of an afterlife, but in this moment when they think they are done for—when everything feels completely at an end, they begin to talk about home. This maybe doesn’t seem hopeful—they are after all weeping about things that they will never experience again, or things they wish they had done or seen once more. But just the courage to name these memories in the face of death and the end is ridiculous and full of hope.

All Saints is a feast day that is a little ridiculous—or at the least, a bit strange to us. We don’t often talk about death, let alone an afterlife in our culture and yet here we are on a day that explicitly recalls these things to our mind. We remember the saints of ages past, and on Friday, All Souls Day, we remembered all who have died.  This is a season where we remember that death happens. It’s part of our lives—to walk in the door this morning you had to walk or drive by the hundreds of saints buried around us at St. Paul’s—people who have experienced death. But we also remember today that resurrection happens. We articulate this hope every week when we say at the end of the creed that “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”.

If we can believe today’s gospel where Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead then I don’t think it’s too much of a leap to believe that this same Godhead has the power to make all things new. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” It’s not a new heaven and new earth as a second creation, another Genesis account, but it’s the transformation of this creation—this world that we live in.

To claim our identity as people who believe in a world that can be transformed—not abandoned, not left to its own devices—is to be a people who are audaciously… ridiculously hopeful. Just read the headlines. How can we possibly hope when everything feels so bleak? Revelation’s writer makes the claim that even, and especially after the first twenty chapters of judgement and fire that we should be hopeful that God will in fact make all things new.

—–

T.S. Eliot writes in his seminal poetic work, Four Quartets, that:

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire[2].

As much as this reading is about a new heaven and a new earth and what might happen after death, I don’t want you to walk away thinking that that’s all it’s about. The choice of fire or fire, pyre or pyre isn’t just Revelation’s judgement and new heaven and new earth. When I hear fire or fire, I’m thinking about the choices we have to make in this world every day. And sometimes, life can feel like death. People we love die, or grow ill. Our relationships break down and we can so easily hurt ourselves and others and our planet. Floods overturn our worlds and mass shootings kill our neighbors while they worship.

It sounds a little bit like the first 20 chapters of Revelation, doesn’t it? And I say this not because I believe the world is going to end soon, but because today’s reading tells us that if the fire of this world exists in this life, then so too can the new creation.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire

We have no choice. This is the road we have to walk in this life. So how are we going to do that?

Are we going to stare with despair at the lava roiling down around us, at the world the feels like it’s ending, even though it’s been redeemed, even though the ring has been thrown into Mount Doom, even though Christ has conquered death? Are we going to talk about our death, or our hopelessness?

Or are we going to talk about the Shire? The party tree? The summertime and green grass and people we love? Are we going to talk about a world that can be transformed from the brokenness we see to this new heaven and new earth? A new earth that is not strange but is utterly familiar, is home in all the ways we remember it capable of being and so much more.

—–

Will we choose hope over despair? Will we claim the ridiculous, audacious hope that “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come”? If we claim this hope for ourselves, then it doesn’t just have implications for the world to come, the ‘where are we going’ outside of any knowable timeline.

If we are a people of hope and of resurrection then that should change how we walk through this world and how we value it. Our world is not disposable or wholly evil—there are the Shires of our lives, the homes and places and relationships we dream about. If we claim the way of hope, then we believe in a world that can be transformed, even just a little bit into the world we dream of it being, the world that God dreamed and still dreams of it being.

If we believe in “the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come” then we need to claim, to make a part of our lives this ridiculous, audacious hope that God is making all things new. To claim it, to make it part of our lives is to work to make things new in the world we live in. We can choose “hope, or else despair”—Saints of St. Paul’s… let’s choose hope.

(Sermon recording, with some variation from this text, will soon be found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under All Saints Day, 2018, or may be found below.)

[Footnotes]

[1] Question of past/future from Taylor, Barbara Brown, and David Lyon Bartlett. Feasting on the Word : Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Vol. 1st ed, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. 230.

[2] Eliot, T. S. Four Quartets. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1943. 57.

Poetry for October

When October hits, I become more contemplative and morose. I wonder sometimes if it’s just the weather, or the season of transition or the time in the semester. In reality, it’s probably a confluence of all these things.

Although I don’t have a lot of time to read for fun during the semester, I thought I’d post several collections of poetry that have been keeping me going. They’re beautifully seasonal. I’m grateful for a way to reflect on life and death in a holy space, which I feel an absence of in our culture.

 

 

To close, I’m going to leave you all with a quote from Eliot’s Four Quartets, which is one of my all-time favorite poems.

“The dove descending breaks the air

With flame of incandescent terror

Of which the tongues declare

The one discharge from sin and error.

The only hope, or else despair

Lies in the choice of pyre or pyre—

To be redeemed from fire by fire.”

God Goes on Dreaming (Sermon)

My Old Testament professor at seminary said not to shy away from the difficult texts, the passages in scripture that you’d rather not deal with, the words that perhaps are easier to abandon than others. And this is one of those Sundays where it’s easier for the preacher to talk about the psalm or the epistle, but if I did that, we’d all be left wondering what is going on in the gospel.

Today’s lectionary manages to pair two texts that have been used for centuries as moral codes, as justifications for laws that undermine the worth and dignity of some people, especially women. This passage in Genesis has been used to say that because Eve was made from the rib of Adam as his companion that women are subordinate to men—that man was made first because he is the greater one. And Mark’s text has been used to say that divorce is impermissible under any circumstance, even in the case of abuse and dysfunction.

And this context is what makes me ask where the gospel is in this text. How can we talk about this as the good news when it really doesn’t feel like good news?

To answer this question, I think we need to go back to the beginning, “when God began to create the heavens and the earth”. To answer this question, you need to remember that Genesis is not a monolithic account of creation. Scholars have identified Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as being written by two different people with two very different perspectives. In Genesis 1, we find the repetition that God saw that it was good. In Genesis 1 we have the creation of humanity “in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them”. This writer sees God as all-powerful, able to speak life into being, to make order out of chaos. Meanwhile, in Genesis 2 we have God creating Adam out of the dust of the earth, and today’s lectionary reading where Eve is created out of Adam’s rib. The writer of Genesis 2 is the writer who brings us the image of God walking in the garden, a God who has human characteristics, and is in relationship with humanity.

Knowing this about the Genesis narratives is important, because in today’s gospel, Jesus quotes both accounts instead of just one, rewriting the narrative a little bit more. The Pharisees ask him about divorce, and instead of answering immediately, Jesus says, well, what do the laws of Moses say? They answer correctly—a man can dismiss his wife with little more than a certificate. What they don’t say, but what is implied is that the man, as the property owner would likely dismiss her with nothing more than the clothes on her back, leaving her to beg on the streets or become a prostitute. There were very few options for women not under the protection of a man for much of the world’s history.

I picture Jesus getting frustrated with this idea, with this answer—it’s not quite enough. Yes, Moses allowed you to do this because of your hard, unloving hearts that see a woman as nothing more than an object. But that, Jesus says, is not the dream of God. This is not the whole picture. The dream of God is that God created us male and female, in the divine image. Jesus quotes Genesis 1 here—he doesn’t say that “eve was made from adam’s rib, sooooo maybe you should be a bit kinder to her…” NO Jesus reinterprets the creation account in this moment and says that we’re not talking about hierarchy or who is first in the kingdom. We are talking about the fact that women and men are created by God in God’s divine image. And the dream of God is that we will not be separated by our inability to value the image of God in other people.

The dream of God is that we would see other people as God sees us—not with labels or other markers of identity floating above our heads like we’re in some video game where points are counted. Jesus takes Genesis chapter two and turns it around and says that it’s not really about the rib or the dust or the naming but it is about two people, created in the image of God to be in community, in relationship with one another. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.”

What does this mean? What does this mean for us in a world where even the very dream of God for us be united in relationship with one another feels broken? Most of us have had to deal with the heartbreak and exhaustion of divorce, directly, or even indirectly. It is unavoidable—sometimes things just don’t work out, sometimes two people cannot be in relationship with one another, sometimes we harm each other—this is a part of the human condition.

Where is the hope? Where is God’s dream in this?

I think it’s that we tend to read this passage as law, as a text that has to be followed to the letter. And yes, we can read it that way, but what if this moment is about Jesus simply raising our standards? I think Jesus recognizes that we cannot follow this law to the letter, but what if Jesus asks about Moses’ law not to affirm it but to remind us that this was not the original plan? That brokenness and pain was not God’s dream, and if the Pharisees thought they were being clever by saying that a cruel, inhumane divorce that left one person destitute was God’s dream, then they were wrong.

The dream of God is that we are in a community no one can tear apart. The dream of God reminds us that sometimes our legalistic standards are too low, that there can be more. Jesus says let the little children come to me, do not stop them, for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. When we are children, we dream and hope in a way unfettered by the laws of the land or even of gravity. When we are children, our community is bigger, our relationships less fettered by labels and hierarchy. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs, to those who can dream of a more perfect, hopeful future—together.

We live in a world where the dream of God is not fully realized. We still cannot see the image of God in every person, whether they’re at our borders, or at our door, or testifying to our lawmakers. We cannot quite dream the dream of God all the time, or most of the time, because we’re quick to judge one another, we’re quick to fall into the brokenness and divisiveness of our world.

But, Br. James Koester, a friend and mentor of mine writes that “in spite of everything, God goes on dreaming. And we come here, [to church, to this community] to remind ourselves that God’s dream is real.” (source)

In spite of all of this, in spite of all of us. Because of all of us, created in the image of God, God goes on dreaming. And so should we—at church, in our work, in our homes—we should dream the dream of God, the dream of community—for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.

(Sermon recording, with some variation from this text, will soon be found at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, under 20th Sunday after Pentecost, 2018, or may be found below.)

narratives and self

What are the narratives we choose to tell about ourselves? To whom do we tell them? I’ve been thinking about this question ever since I ran into a professor in the mail room on campus, who asked how I was. I’d just come from Eucharist, where I told my friends I was “good”. To this professor, my intonation of “good” was not particularly compelling (“that was a very American answer”), and I admitted for the first time that morning that I was fighting the beginnings of a cold and wasn’t feeling my absolute best.

This is a trivial, somewhat inconsequential moment, but it’s made me wonder about how we talk about ourselves. There is the level of self-revealing that occurs when people ask how we are–do we answer with a socially acceptable response? Or do we probe a bit deeper into how we are, and perhaps why we are that way in that particular moment?

My example is very much focused on the politics of greetings and the cultural intention of asking “how are you”, which could get into a discussion of cultural norms and politeness vs. oversharing. But I’m more interested at the moment in the ways that we represent ourselves to others more broadly. What is the story we tell others when meeting someone for the first time? What are the things that we want others to walk away from our meeting(s) knowing? Is this desire intentional or unintentional?

I find for myself that this year’s conversations are very different from last year’s. Last year, I spent a lot of time at seminary talking about age in an attempt to convince myself (unconsciously) and others (consciously) that I was supposed to be here. This year, my conversations have shifted to discussing vocation and call. The narrative I wanted last year was that I was young but I still had valuable things to contribute. The narrative I find myself talking about this year is that I’m in discernment, I’m not sure about whether I’m called to parish priesthood, and I’m really okay with that.

I suppose, in many ways, thinking of self-narratives makes me wonder to what extent we allow those narratives to change when they need to. If speaking something to another person has the power to cement something inside of ourselves (which I believe is true), then how can we shift these stories? How do we live into an evolving self-narrative (discernment) in a world that demands static narratives and fixed, certain identities?

And with that–happy Wednesday!