Thursday, September 8, 2016

“The New Jerusalem: A Vision of Hope” (Revelation Series #5) - September 4, 2016

Text: Revelation 21:1-6, 22:1-5

Does anybody here play computer games or video games?  Solitaire on your computer or Angry Birds on your ipad or Madden 2016 on your XBox?  Living on the wild side as I do, I regularly play a word game on my phone and I occasionally play sports or strategy-type games.  One of those games is Sim City.  (That’s SIM City, not SIN city, which would be a different game altogether.)

In Sim City, you are a city planner.  You map out your city and provide all of the infrastructure – roads and streets, bridges, power plants, a water plant, a landfill, and so forth.  You build fire stations and police stations to provide protection for your city; you build schools and libraries and hospitals.  You want to make your city livable so you build parks and other amenities.  You zone land for various uses and basically, you are in charge of all the important decisions regarding your city.

You pay for all of this from the city treasury and you set tax rates and collect taxes from your simulated citizens, or Sims.  And you get feedback from your Sims – they might think that taxes are too high (they’ll probably think that) or there is too much traffic or they want better schools. 

I was playing this game and had built a nice city.  The population was getting towards 200,000 and I had a 76% approval rating, which if you have paid any attention to political polls lately is completely unheard of.  I had just zoned a new subdivision on some prime real estate along a lake and prospects for continued growth and prosperity seemed good.

Then disaster struck.  A powerful earthquake devastated the city.  Fires broke out all over the place.  Much of the city was without power.  Fortunately, there was quite a bit of cash in the city coffers.  I bulldozed burnt out areas, repaired power lines and water lines, rebuilt streets, and did the best I could to restore order.  I nearly ran out of money, but I had the basic infrastructure back to some semblance of working order and I thought things were under control.

But of course the problems ran a lot deeper than I realized.  Thousands of people moved away, decreasing the tax base.    I had no choice but to raise taxes and cut back on services, which only made more people leave.  Angry citizens demanded a stadium to replace the one destroyed in the earthquake.  Crime was rising, there were power shortages, the streets were crumbling, the trash wasn’t being collected, and city employees were underpaid, but my Sims were demanding a stadium.  (It’s a pretty realistic game.)  People were leaving in droves, I still had the same infrastructure to support as when there were twice as many residents, and we were broke.  I was down to a 14% approval rating and angry mobs were demonstrating in the streets.

You know what I did?  I quit.  I didn’t see anything, short of a direct intervention by God, that would save my city.  There seemed to be no reason to go on, because there was no future.  In a word, it was hopeless.   

If there is anything that we need to live, it is hope.  And so often, hope is a commodity that is in short supply.  Let’s face it: life can be hard, and there are so many things that serve to diminish hope. 

John wrote the book of Revelation, more than 1900 years ago.  He was in exile, on the isle of Patmos.  Forced to live away from family and friends – those who had not been killed.  Christians were being persecuted throughout the Roman Empire.  In Rome, they had been fed to the lions and lit up as torches at night.  This is hopelessness.

It was in this kind of atmosphere that John wrote the Book of Revelation.  This is the last of a 5-part sermon series on Revelation.  (Please, hold your applause.)  If we didn’t already know it going in, we have discovered over these past weeks that Revelation is one of the most difficult books and probably the weirdest book in the Bible.  We have read about all kinds of weird images and characters: A wounded yet living lamb with seven horns and seven eyes, various horses and riders, a beast from the sea, a beast from the earth, four living creatures surrounding the throne, mouths with swords in them, cataclysmic battles and destruction and sheer terror.

And yet, a lot of people are very taken with Revelation, seeing it as kind of map that, if properly understood, describes in detail what will happen in the end times. 

Timothy Luke Johnson, is a scholar of New Testament at Candler School of Theology – our theology class used a video series with him a few years ago.  Speaking of the Book of Revelation, Johnson says:
Few writings...have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation...Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation...its arcane symbols...have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing.

If this book is so misunderstood, why is it so popular?  Well, for one thing, the world can be a scary place.  Revelation was written in a particularly scary time for Christians.  Many Romans saw Christians as disloyal or unpatriotic because some refused to worship the emperor.  While some were persecuted, imprisoned or put to death, many chose to accommodate themselves to the prevailing culture to avoid social rejection and economic hardship.

In the midst of such problems, the letter of Revelation was sent to seven churches not to foretell the end of time and certainly not to give 21st century Americans a road map for the end of the world, but to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches of John’s time faced and about God’s presence with them.  John wanted to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation with the cultural practices of the empire around them.

We too live in a scary time, a time of fear and terror and violence and mistrust.  No wonder people are drawn to apocalyptic visions.  No wonder folks are intrigued about the world coming to an end.  There is a bumper sticker that says, “God is coming and she is mad!”

John writes to Christians and churches living through a very scary time.  And he does not give them details on how the world will end, he gives them assurance that God is in control and that a better day is coming.

Our scriptures today are from the last two chapters of Revelation.  The last two chapters of the Bible.  Now, you might imagine that after so much trial and tribulation, so much devastation on earth, it might end with leaving the problems of this world behind for life with God in heaven.  And throughout this book, there are images of worship in the heavenly court.  But that is not what happens.

John has a vision not of heaven, but a new and transformed earth.  A New Jerusalem coming down from heaven.  When our cities seem beyond hope – not just simulated ones but the real ones – and when our world seems so messed up that nothing but intervention from God will save us, that is exactly what happens:
I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is among mortals.  He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away.

There are several notable things about the city.  Toward the end of chapter 21 we read that the gates are always open.  Protection from outside forces is not needed; the city is safe, and all are welcome.  There is no secret password.  All of the great jokes notwithstanding, St. Peter is not at the pearly gates quizzing people before they can get in.  There are no security guards, no bouncers, no border patrol.

The tree of life is found along the streets, by the river of life, and the leaves are for the healing of the nations.  All the nations.  There are no distinctions.  People are brought together in this city, is it s a place of healing, and it is for everyone.

Nothing in this city is unclean.  No one whose ways are evil will be here.  All will be united by a love for Christ and for one another.

There will be no need for the sun or the noon.  God’s presence is so illuminating that no other light is needed. 

And there will be no temple.  A place to meet God is not needed, because the divine presence permeates the city.  There will be no need for a priest, one to point to God, because God is there.

This holy city, the New Jerusalem, is described mostly in negative terms – in terms of what it is not.  No pain, no tears, no evil, no sun, no temple.  A vision of the new and unknown is most easily described by what it is not.  But what it is, John relates, is a place of welcome, a place of healing, a place of goodness, a place of peace.

Now some of you, those who are practical-minded, may be asking, “Well, OK… so what’s the point?”  Isn’t this just a bunch of pie-in-the-sky-by-and-bye, religious gibberish that really has nothing to do with my life today?

I have to tell you, I’m one of the first to tire of irrelevant, pie-in-the-sky religion.  You might call this vision of John pie-in-the-sky if you want to, but there is a sense in which it is extremely timely and relevant and meaningful and practical. 

For John’s hearers, these were words of hope and comfort – exactly what they needed to hear.  Life was filled with pain.  Hope was in short supply.  This vision of peace and safety and welcome and healing, this vision of a city that was beautiful and good and free of the evil and the faithless and the corrupt was a word they needed to hear.

We cannot go on meeting practical needs and doing relevant things unless we know that what we are about ultimately matters and that what we are working toward will ultimately come to be.  As we work for peace and justice and goodness and righteousness and welcome and inclusion and brotherhood and sisterhood, we can be encouraged by knowing that this is where God is headed.  This vision tells us that it is not all up to us.  The problems in the world might leave us feeling helpless and hopeless, but there is a new day coming, a new world coming, a new city coming.

There may be a temptation to say, well, if God is going to break in and set everything right, then why do we bother?  What is the point in our working to make the world a better place if in the end God is going to break in and fix everything anyway?

Well, maybe we are instruments God is using to bring about this new world, even if we can’t see it.  It says that God will make all things new – not that God will make all new things.  There is a continuity to life and a continuity to relationships.

Further into chapter 21, John describes the city - the gates, the walls, the materials, and so forth.  And he says the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the names of the twelve apostles.

The twelve apostles.  Those very human, sometimes clueless disciples of Jesus.  They finally got it together, they led the church, imperfect as it was, imperfect as they were, and their names are on the wall of the city of the New Jerusalem.  Which says that what we do really does matter.  They had a part in building the city, and maybe we do too.  This vision is not one to make us give up because God is going to take care of everything anyway, it is a vision to give us hope and encourage us in working and serving, because what we do really does matter.  Every effort to make the world a better place, every work done for the common good, every act of kindness, every prayer that is said, every ditch that is dug, every expression of love matters.

I would add one more thing.  John’s Apocalypse ends with a very ecological vision that says something about the way we care for creation.  There are those who believe that the way we treat the earth does not matter in the end.  The world is ours to use and to benefit from as we see fit, but in the end the earth is not really our home, our true home is in another place.  You will hear this expressed subtly and sometimes not so subtly.

Just as this vision of John’s says that what we do really does matter, it also says that the earth really does matter.  And this has been true throughout the book.  Ever since chapter four, we have had recurring appearances by the four living creatures, who represent all of creation.  And in the end, the earth is not abandoned for a home in heaven but God come to us, on this earth, in the New Jerusalem.

If we list the worries and fears that we have, and if we get to talking about long-term and big-picture worries and fears, the way that we have abused and degraded God’s creation, the concerns about changes we have wrought on the atmosphere and resulting changes in climate may be at the top of the list.   John’s vison says that this earth matters, that our world is not just a layover on our flight to heaven, that caring for all of God’s creation should matter to us

Since it is now football season, I am allowed to quote Vince Lombardi, the great football coach.  He once said:

Good football coaches have in the back of their mind a picture of a perfectly executed offensive play, the perfectly run defensive formation.  Although the coach has never seen a group of players execute it perfectly, still the coach has in his mind a vision of what it would look like if everyone did it correctly.
This is the vision that John gives us.  A vision of the day when the kingdom of God will break through in all its fullness, a vision of a future we have with God when everything will be made right.

We won’t see that perfect city in this life.  But we can go on living and serving with hope, because we know what the future holds.  Amen.

“Getting Paid to Go to Church” - August 28, 2016

Texts: Galatians 3:26-28, 1 Corinthians 12:4-14
(Worship Under The Trees service)

There was an interesting news item a few years ago out of Shreveport, Louisiana.  Bishop Fred Caldwell is pastor of the Greenwood Acres Full Gospel Baptist Church, a large African-American congregation with a membership of about 5000.  The church had about six active white members.

In Caldwell’s eyes, Shreveport is one of those Southern cities where the Civil Rights movement never quite took hold and the power structure was never forced to change.  “Shreveport is one of the last strongholds of the Confederacy,” he said.  “Racial prejudice here runs deep.”

He also said that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.  He certainly isn’t the first to make that observation –Martin Luther King may have been the one to popularize that phrase - but it is true, and not only in Shreveport but in America generally.

All of this had weighed on Caldwell’s mind for a long time, and finally he had an idea – an idea, he says, that came from God.  To bring more diversity to his church, he offered to pay white people to attend services: five dollars for Sunday mornings, and $10 for Thursday night services.  (He reasoned that people were busier on weeknights and so he ought to pay a little extra for the Thursday services.)

Of course, there was reaction.  Some people were shocked.  Some members were afraid that it might bring in the wrong kind of people who were coming for the wrong reasons.  But then, Caldwell said, one could make the case that Jesus majored in the wrong kind of people.  Others said it was wrong to pay people to come to church when there were poor people who could use the money.  Caldwell responded that Judas said the same thing to Jesus, and he wondered if the people asking that were giving their money to the poor.  Some expected that longtime members would have a problem with paying newcomers to come to church -- but a number of members in fact offered to help pay people to come.

Well, it is an interesting concept, the kind of thing that most of us instantly have an opinion about.  But I think the bigger issue is what this pastor was hoping to accomplish.  He certainly raised the issue of segregation.  More white people – not a lot, but more – have attended his church since, and most didn’t want the $5.  His offer made it clear that they really were welcome.  And his offer made the news, raising the issue for a lot of folks - not to mention giving his church a lot of free publicity, more than you could buy with a few $5 bills.

It is no secret, and it is not surprising, that people like to go to church with folks who are like them.  And so churches tend to be made up largely of one socioeconomic group, or ethnic group, or racial group, or tilt toward a certain age.  Many churches will target a particular niche—maybe the 20-30 age group, or seekers, or the classical music crowd.  There are cowboy churches in Texas.  There are new churches in places like Arizona and Florida, in areas with lots of retirees, intentionally formed as churches for senior adults. 

The appeal of a particular church to particular grouping of people isn’t all bad.  And it can’t be avoided; it’s just the way the world works.  It’s hard to be all things to all people.  It’s hard to do both country music and Bach at the same time.  There is a certain sense in which members of any group, whether it be a church or Rotary or Little League or the crowd at the Monster Truck Rally, will be at least somewhat alike.

Several years ago, church growth experts were talking about what they called the “homogeneous unit principle.”  Congregations that grew, they said, were made up of a fairly homogeneous group, and attracted those same kinds of people.  They went a step further by proposing this as a strategy—kind of the opposite of Bishop Caldwell’s strategy. Churches should aim for folks who were just like they were. 
They proposed it because, they said, it worked. 

The question is, in the church, should it be that way?  If we only want people just like us, can it really be called the church of Jesus Christ?

To me, there are a lot of reasons why it is good for a church to have a broad mix of people.  There are practical reasons.  We live in a diverse community, and so it only makes sense that we reflect our community.  If we are serious about ministering where we are, we need to be diverse.

And then, there is a power and excitement that comes with a widely varied group.  There is something energizing about a church with all kinds of people, where everyone is not just like me.  There is something energizing about new ideas, fresh perspectives, and having a little variety in our life together as a church family.

There are practical reasons for wanting diversity.  But to me, the practical arguments are far outweighed by the theological argument for diversity.  If we are claiming to follow Jesus, we might want to look at Jesus’ first followers.

The 12 disciples were a motley bunch.  There were hard-working fishermen.  There was also Matthew, a tax collector – hated by most of the population as a Roman lackey – and Simon the Zealot, a member of a political party dedicated to the violent overthrow of Rome.  Folks from opposite ends of the political spectrum were in Jesus’ inner circle – it is like he had Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz both on his team, and it is hard to see them hitting it off all that well.  There were also women who were prominent among Jesus’ followers, which was absolutely scandalous in that day.  In fact, the gospels tell us that Jesus’ primary financial supporters were a small group of women.

Jesus did not shy away from relating to Samaritans, who were hated by the Jews.  He hung out with people who were not exactly the upstanding citizens of the day, and because of that accused of being a “glutton and a winebibber.”  (Which might raise the question, “When was the last time you heard someone called a “winebibber”?)  To be just real honest, Jesus didn’t seem to care a bit about anything like a “homogeneous unit principle.”

When we look at the early church, the diversity among believers broadened to include both Jews and Gentiles.  Paul worked with churches made up of all kinds of folks – rich, poor, of different races and different religious backgrounds and different nationalities and different occupations.  It got messy – at times it was extremely messy - but in the middle of all the messiness, there was Christ, and there was hope, and there was a witness to the world of love and care and peace.
As Paul puts it, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”   The culture took note of the church because of the love members had for one another, and because the church cared for the poor and needy around them, whomever they were.

Welcomefest was Wednesday night at ISU, and we gave away around 400 plastic cups with info about our church as well as some pens and some Hershey’s kisses to students.  It is always fun and very interesting to see all the students at Welcomefest.  One guy came up and I handed him a cup and we talked a bit and then he asked me, “Is this a white church?”

I was a little bit taken aback.  The two of us working at our table happened to be white, so obviously we had white members, but he was asking if this was a white church.  I had never thought of that as our identity.  The student who asked was a black guy, and I’m not sure, but I supposed that what he was really asking was whether he would be welcome and feel comfortable here.

I said that we weren’t all white and we had some racial diversity and we would like to have more, but yeah, the majority of members were white.  He didn’t stick around to talk, and I have to say that I really didn’t feel good about my answer.

If I were asked that question again, I would say, no, we are not a white church.  We are not a white church or a black church or an Asian church.  We are a people church.  And it doesn’t really belong to us, anyway.  It’s God’s church, not ours, and all God’s children are welcome here. 

When we gather as a group of diverse individuals and together become a family, when together we become the church, we are reflecting what God’s kingdom is like. 

In the Church, we need all kinds of people.  Our reading from 1 Corinthians uses the analogy of the body: we need each part working well in order to function and be healthy.  Ninety-nine percent of your body can be working just fine, but if your back goes out, or your kidneys stop cooperating, or you’ve got a toothache, or an eye decides to take the day off, you can be in real trouble.  We need all of the parts working together.

I’m thankful for all of the gifts in the Body of Christ.  I’m thankful for all the gifts that are offered by members of this community.

I’m thankful for musicians who lead us in worship with their instruments and voices. 

I’m thankful for Sunday School teachers who care for children and who lead adults and who help us as we study the scriptures and apply our faith in our daily lives.

I’m thankful for people who quietly work behind the scenes, baking cookies and visiting people who are sick and working in the nursery and giving people rides and bringing flowers for the sanctuary and maintaining the library and painting stripes in the parking lot.

I’m thankful for those with artistic gifts and those with organizational skills and those who are mechanically inclined and those who can operate a miter saw or paintbrush or pipe wrench.

I’m thankful for all of the great cooks.  In a few minutes, I’ll be even more thankful!

I’m thankful for those who with their faithful presence lift the spirit of others.  I’m thankful for the laughers and the smilers and the gigglers and the huggers.  I’m thankful for those who persevere even when life is difficult.  And I’m thankful for those who help others to persevere.

I’m thankful for those who are people of deep prayer.  I’m thankful for long-time members, for those who offer experience and wisdom.  I’m thankful for newcomers who bring new ideas and fresh energy.  I’m thankful for students who bring excitement and ask questions, and jump right in sharing their gifts.  And I’m thankful for children who teach us so much about trust and joy.  I’m thankful for those who come from faraway places and from other countries, bringing their unique gifts and perspectives.

I’m thankful for all of the gifts I am too obtuse even to recognize but which nevertheless bless me.

We need all of these gifts.  We need each person, with all of our differences.  Maybe we need each other because of our differences.

God, for some reason, chooses to work through us.  We are the Body of Christ.  And we need the gifts of every person.

Bishop Caldwell paid people $5 to go to church.  It may not be in cash, but we also get a payoff – we all must get something out of coming to church - otherwise we wouldn’t be here.  What is the payoff for us?

Today that question may be easier to answer.  There is going to be a good meal.  We are outside, it’s fun, it’s different.  You don’t have to get dressed up. 

But week in, week out – what is the payoff?  For me, the payoff is this.  We come from different places; we have different hopes and dreams, different gifts, different experiences.  Even our ideas about faith and our theological understandings may be different.  And all of this – all of this - is good.  All of this is wonderful.

Because while we are all different, we come together to become a family—a family where we are welcomed and we are accepted.  We become part of a community where we can be stretched and challenged and grow, and where we are nurtured and loved and cared for, and where under God’s grace we are discovering together what it is to follow Jesus - and in the process, what it is truly be ourselves. 

That is the payoff.  And friends, that is worth far more than $5.  Amen.