Revelation on Revelation

Did you know that Martin Luther thought it might be a good idea to take the Book of Revelation out of the Bible? It wasn’t because he thought it wasn’t important. Quite the contrary; Luther loved Revelation and even wrote a commentary on it. But, he thought it was very difficult to understand. It should have come out, in his opinion, to prevent misunderstandings. He’s right that it is very difficult to understand, and the average reader probably doesn’t get everything that’s going on. But that doesn’t mean that they can’t. Instead of not reading it, we ought to engage, to ask questions, and to learn more. Because beneath all the dragons and fiery lakes, there is a wonderful message: God is at work in the world, seeking to bring all things to a good end.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Any Game of Thrones fans here? Okay, if you haven’t seen the final two episodes, this is your spoiler warning. It’s not a massive spoiler or anything, don’t worry. There was just an unusual scene in the second to last episode, at the end of a huge battle that caught my attention. One of the main characters, Arya Stark is left battered and bruised, standing in the middle of all of this death and destruction, and out of nowhere, a white horse appears. The episode ends with her riding the white horse out of the city.

It was a really odd moment in the episode and left a lot of people wondering, what does the horse mean? Is it a symbol for something? As I read the speculation the next morning, I laughed a little at all the guesses, because yes, it was a symbol. It was a reference to the Bible. “So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death.” Revelation, chapter six, verse eight.

Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books of the Bible. It has this ferocious mix of creatures, battles, and symbols. Horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much, much more. Yet despite—or perhaps because of—its bizarre contents, the book of Revelation inspires art and music and literature like no other. It’s found in Dante, William Blake, T.S. Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and more. It’s inspired Handel’s Messiah and Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic. Whenever we sing our canticle of praise, “This is the Feast,” we’re singing from the book of Revelation.

Even if we don’t always recognize it, Revelation is all around us. Timothy Luke Johnson, a scholar of the New Testament has said that, “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.” Revelation tends to be either taken hyper-literally by those awaiting the end of times or dismissed and ignored as a slightly-embarrassing product of a different time and a different way of seeing the world.

But, if we don’t understand it or don’t like it, why does its influence remain so pervasive? I think, in part, because the world can be a scary place. Not always, but often enough to fuel plenty of anxiety and apocalyptic imagination. Revelation was written in the late first century, a scary time for Christians. It’s in the form of a letter from John, a Christian exile on the island of Patmos, to seven churches in what we now call Turkey. It was then part of the Roman Empire. It was a time of persecution. Christians were being forced to publicly worship the emperor. Refusal meant imprisonment, torture, or even death. In understandable fear, many Christians simply went along, offering worship to the emperor in order to avoid such a fate.

In the midst of these problems, the letter of Revelation was sent, not to foretell the end of time, but to unveil the truth about the challenges the churches faced and about God’s presence with them. That’s what the word apocalypse actually means: unveiling. Revelation uses fantastical imagery to recast the current situation, and to give hope in the midst of it. John wanted to help these churches endure and encourage them to resist complacency and accommodation to the empire.

Revelation captures our current imagination so well, because we, too, live in a scary time. We’re in the midst of unprecedented climate change, the results of which cause political and economic instability. There’s a refugee crisis, not just at our border, but across the world as people seek asylum from war and danger. Our country remains at war, with soldiers deployed in multiple places. And amid it all our divisions seem only to be growing wider. We live in a scary time. You know all these problems. I could list more, but I don’t need to recite them—you are already well acquainted with them.

Revelation is such a powerful text, not because of all the wild visions and images, but because of the truth underpinning them: it acknowledges the hardship and suffering of daily existence. It acknowledges that being a person of faith is not easy—there are always challenges that would draw us away from faith and to the ways of the world. It acknowledges that living in the middle of traumatic times can begin to feel hopeless and impossible.

But it also does so much more than that. Revelation also invokes the deepest longings of the human heart for healing, wholeness, and renewal. In our passage from John 14, Jesus tells the disciples that he will not always be with them. But, he will return with the Father, and he says, “we will come to those who love me and make our home with them.”

And what a home it will be! Revelation offers us the vision of the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven. There’s no need for a temple at all because God’s presence permeates everything. The gates are always open, they are never shut. The gifts of creation are abundantly available to all—all the nations of the earth. Kindness, justice, truth, grace, love, and righteousness—on earth!

The ultimate vision in Revelation is not a select few escaping the trials of earth and going to be with God. It is God coming to us, to renew the entire creation. We speak of this hope every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Each time we say this prayer, we are praying that God will make a home with us. Or, as Eugene Peterson translates it in The Message Bible, we pray that “God will move right into the neighborhood!”

God intends to reclaim, restore, and redeem the life of all creation to its divine intention. The new, beautiful city of God is not just about pie in the sky when we die. This vision is about that wonderfully delicious pie that we all crave on earth now. A life that basks in God’s presence now. A life that keeps God’s commandment to love one another and mirrors God’s justice today and every day! It’s about God moving into the neighborhood.

Revelation assures us that good overcomes evil, love overcomes hate, hope overcomes despair, and life overcomes death—all here and now, as well as in eternity. In the midst of our anxiety, fear, and hopelessness, our dreams of a future life with God break into the present. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth, let us pray that God will move into our neighborhood, into our homes, into our hearts. To restore and redeem, to renew and cultivate. To bring to life that glorious vision of the city of God. A place of peace and justice and righteousness for all the peoples of the earth. Amen.

A Place for Everyone

Every year in the seven weeks of Easter our first reading comes from the book of Acts. This year especially, I’ve felt drawn to these stories of the early church. Their struggles are many of our own struggles: what does it mean to be church? how do we define our community? how do we interpret the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus? who gets the final say in disagreements? Being part of a church in the 21st century doesn’t feel all that different from what we read of the church in the 1st century.

Today’s struggle is around inclusion. Who is welcome and what do they have to do to become part of the community? You can read the lesson for the day in Acts 11. The entire story of Peter and Cornelius begins in Acts 10.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

At the 2015 National Youth Gathering in Detroit, Pastor Emily Scott told the story of her first day of middle school. Her family had moved over the summer, so she went to her first day of middle school not knowing anyone. She recalled the moment that she stood in the middle of the cafeteria, holding her tray, and having nowhere to sit.

She didn’t know anyone, but she did understand the middle school cafeteria. There were the popular girls, the jocks, the band kids, the goths, and everyone in between. Everyone knew the rules and sat at the right table. It seemed there was nowhere for her. She told us what happened next with pain and regret even twenty years later. She threw out her lunch, went to the bathroom, and cried.

As adults, we like to think that we’ve moved past the middle school cafeteria mindset, but the questions of who is in and who is out, of who is included, valued, and welcomed versus who is marginalized, merely tolerated, or outright denied a place—these questions don’t go away once you leave middle school behind.

Who is in, and who is out? Where do the lines fall? So much time is spent defining who belongs and who doesn’t. From geographical to economic to political to religious to racial to sexual to generational lines, in some ways our world is built on defining who is in and who is out. Some of it, we do subconsciously, we don’t even realize that we’re excluding others or taking part in a system that is excluding. Other times, though, we’re happy for the lines that are drawn. Because those lines help us feel comfortable and safe. Or they make us feel more special and important, because we get to be part of the “in-crowd.”

Churches are certainly no exception to this. We create lines, we create divisions about who is in and who is out. Who is a member and who isn’t. Who is welcome and who isn’t. And often the big dividing line is who is welcome to the table. Do you have to be a certain age? Do you have to be a member of the church? Do you have to believe exactly what we believe? Do you have to live a certain way? Why the table—why is this where we have so much trouble coming together? Because eating together, because sharing a meal with someone is a powerful act. Table fellowship means breaking down lines and boundaries in often scary ways.

In our first reading from the book of Acts, Peter has done just that. The reading today was his recounting of what happened when he stepped across that boundary line and ate with Cornelius the Roman centurion. Peter had been staying in Joppa when he received a vision while praying. A sheet, coming down from heaven, containing all kinds of animals: mammals, reptiles, birds. And then a voice saying, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat.” Well, Peter refuses.

And not just because this is pretty weird. But because as faithful Jewish man, he wouldn’t eat most of these animals. It’s prohibited in the law, and taking the law seriously is one of the ways that Peter shows his love and devotion to God. But the voice comes back again and says, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” This happens three times. Three times Peter refuses these animals, not because he’s being stubborn or difficult, but because he truly believes it would be dishonoring God to eat these unclean animals.

And that is when Peter is called to Cornelius’ house. A Roman centurion. About as unclean as unclean can get. Not just from a foreign country but part of an occupying, military force. Different nationality, different homeland, different political loyalty, different religion. But as Peter is preaching to him and his household, the Holy Spirit falls upon them just as it had on Peter and the others. And as Peter says, “If God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus, who was I that I could hinder God?” So Cornelius and his entire household are baptized, (just as Anastasia will be baptized in a few minutes), they are welcomed into the church, the family of God, and Peter stays in their house for several days.

And it’s that second part, that Peter stayed with them, that he ate with them, that has the believers in Jerusalem most concerned. Not so much that he baptized them, but that he ate with them. He ate with people who were not part of their group. Who didn’t follow their ways and rules. If it sounds familiar, it’s because Jesus often got in trouble for the same thing. “This fellow welcomes tax collectors and sinners, and eats with them!” Eating together is dangerous, because all sorts of lines get blurred and broken.

Whenever we draw lines to keep other people out, or to keep ourselves in, it’s likely we’re going to find God on the other side of those lines. Jesus crossed the boundaries of religion, of gender, of respectability to eat with tax collectors, to eat with Samaritans, to eat with the outcasts, and to eat with the Pharisees who were criticizing him for doing so. And he invited his followers to do the same.

This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. Jesus says this on the night of the Last Supper. When he knows he has precious little time left to make sure the disciples get it. He doesn’t talk to them about what they should believe or how they should worship or any kind of doctrine. He tells them to love one another. They’ll know you are my followers, not by who you exclude or by what boundaries you draw—but they’ll know you are my followers because of love. Because of who is included. Because of who is valued and cherished.

It can be scary to break down boundaries. You can get accused, like Peter was, of losing sight of who you are, of betraying your group. It’s scary to break down boundaries, because, where do we end up drawing the line? There has to be some line, right? This could get out of hand very quickly.

And it might be scary, but the truth is grace is already out of hand. Grace got out of hand and out of control the moment when the God of the universe crossed every boundary imaginable and became a human being. Grace got out of hand when God hung on a cross and with outstretched hands looked out at those who had hung him there and declared, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

Grace has always been out of hand. God’s love has always been out of hand. But perhaps the most important thing is, it’s out of our hands. We don’t get to keep God’s Spirit from showing up in places that we don’t understand, in places that we can’t control her. We don’t get to decide who God loves, we don’t get to decide who God will work through. And that includes us. Because we have the chance, the opportunity, the imperative—to take the love that God has given us and see that it is shared.

Pastor Emily Scott, that middle school girl crying in the bathroom? She became a mission developer, which means she starts new churches. She founded St. Lydia’s Church in Brooklyn, a church whose worship is centered around cooking and eating together. And everyone has a place at the table. So it is in God’s kingdom. May it be so in our lives. Amen.

Not Today, Satan!

The title of this blog will make sense after you read the sermon, I promise. Bonus points to everyone who got my RuPaul/Game of Thrones reference yesterday. This sermon focuses on Tabitha, a little known biblical woman from Acts 9. The title of the blog comes from my ruminations on baptism, where we publicly reject sin, death, and the devil. In ancient church rites, the person being baptized would literally spit in the face of death.

We reject the lies and the empty promises that these things offer, instead clinging to God’s promises which are true. We do this publicly at baptisms, but every day is a chance to say, “Not today, Satan!” A chance to reject the lies that sin tells us: we’re not good enough, we don’t deserve love, everybody’s judging me, etc. Some days we’ll do a better job of rejecting these lies than others. But every day God’s promises are new and reach out to us in love.

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

“She became ill and died.” Five simple words. And yet so, so much than that. So much sadness, so much grief and pain. So many lost hopes. So many tears shed in those five simple words. “She became ill and died.” Do those five words span days, weeks, or months? Time spent with friends and family, saying goodbye? Or did it happen suddenly? Was there no time? We just don’t know, because all we have are five words. “She became ill and died.”

What do we even know about Tabitha? She’s certainly not one of the better known characters in the Bible, so there’s no shame if you’ve never even heard of her before this morning. And we don’t actually know much about her. But we do know her name. Two of them actually. Which is rare information for us to know about women in the Bible, who are often referred to by their role or relationship to men, not their own names. But not Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. Her two names probably mean that she interacted with both the Jewish and Greek cultures regularly.

We know that she is probably a widow. In her day, widows didn’t have a lot of social capital. Few women did, but a widow was seen as a burden, not a valued part of the culture. And yet, the book of Acts doesn’t actually tell us Tabitha is a widow, we have to infer that. Instead, the book of Acts tells us that Tabitha is a disciple. She is a disciple.

This is the only time—the ONLY time, ONCE—in the whole New Testament, that the feminine form of the word disciple is used. Only once, and it’s about Tabitha. The culture might label her as someone unimportant, someone easily overlooked, but the Bible says that she is a disciple. A follower of the way.

We know that Tabitha was devoted to good works and acts of charity. She made clothes and gave them to other people, perhaps people who wouldn’t have been able to afford them. And we know that Tabitha was loved. All of the widows wept at her death, clinging to the things that she had made them.

Have you ever had the honor of meeting Tabitha? I have. Only this time, she wasn’t also called Dorcas, she was also called Betty Johnson. She was a widow, a member of my church growing up. She was a quiet woman who served on the altar guild. Her husband had been a pastor before he died. I didn’t know her well, or even interact with her much. But when I was ready to go to seminary, she told me she had something she wanted to give me.

It was a black clergy shirt, made by hand, just for me. My mom had snuck a shirt out of my closet to her, so she could get the right measurements. Clergy shirts are finicky things. There’s a row of buttons, but they have to be hidden by another piece of fabric down the front. There’s a collar, but it has to be open in the front, and closed the rest of the way around. And it has to be just the right size to hold a strip of white plastic in place. It must have taken her hours. And all for someone that she barely knew.

That was the first time I met Tabitha, but it certainly wasn’t the last. A woman of faith, perhaps overlooked and disregarded. Perhaps seen as too old, or too poor, or too…whatever you might say…to be important or useful. A woman who used what she had, her gifts, her ministry, her love, to do what she could for the good of others. And she was called a disciple.

The world gives us so many names…some of them we even give ourselves. Tabitha might have been called widow. A burden. Elderly. We all get called names that we haven’t asked for but if we hear them enough times, we might even start to believe them. Failure. Faker. Screw-up. Addict. Divorced. Sinner. Worthless. What names does the world try to give to you?

Maybe, even, they seem like good names at first: powerful, rich, important, pretty, accomplished. Do-gooder, like Tabitha. But these names have a way of defining us. Of making us feel like we are only worthy if…that we only matter when…we manage to beat the addiction, when we manage to get our act together, when we’re married, when we’re religious, when we’re good.

But when we read this story of Tabitha, of Dorcas, of this beloved widow, the very first thing we hear is this: there was a disciple. She is not to be known by any of the names that the world might give to her, but by the name that God gives: disciple.

No matter what the world might call us—rich, poor, deserving, undeserving, sinner, saint, hopeless, hopeful—God calls us by a more important name. Beloved. Child. Ryan Clifford is going to be baptized (at the second service/in just a few minutes), and we will hear the name that God has given him: child of God. No matter what other names or titles he might get throughout his life, this one will always be the most important: beloved child of God.

In the baptismal service, we start with something that seems kind of weird and antiquated. We start by renouncing the devil and all his works and all his empty promises. To put it in other words, we renounce those forces, whether they come from outside us or from inside that try to call us by other names.

When we renounce the devil, we are saying “no” to every name that the world might give us. We are saying “no” to the things that make us question our worth and our value. We defiantly stare evil, and sin, and death in the face and boldly say: not today. In baptism we declare loud and clear: I am a beloved child of God—Ryan is a beloved child of God—and we renounce anything or anyone who says otherwise.

We’re all going to be given a lot of names in our life. Some of them we’ll surely like and cherish. And some of them we probably won’t. We are lucky to know Tabitha’s name and story. And we’re lucky to know the Tabitha’s in our lives. But even if we didn’t know her name, we would know this: she was a disciple. She was a beloved child of God. And so are you. Amen.

Breakfast with Jesus

Greetings to you all! It has been some time since I’ve added a blog post. I’ve been away for a few weeks and need to get back in my Monday morning routine. This sermon is focused on two of the readings from yesterday, Acts and John. Let me know in the comments: where have you seen God lately?

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Behind every great superhero is a great origin story. An explanation of how they got their special powers and came to this calling of fighting crime and evil. Maybe it was just a freak accident, like Spiderman getting bit by a radioactive spider. Maybe, like Superman, the origin of their powers is explained by the fact that they’re just not from here in the first place—he’s from a different planet and comes with special powers. Or maybe, like Batman, there’s a defining moment, in his case losing both of his parents, that changes the trajectory of their life.

Whatever the story, every great origin story explains just how our hero became so extraordinary. And in our first reading today from Acts, the Bible shows that it has some pretty good origin stories of its own. We read the origin story of Paul, who, when we begin seems anything but a hero. In fact, you could say he’s been the villain of the book of Acts thus far.

You see, Paul was a devout man. A Pharisee, he later says about himself. He was a religious leader. And he tried, with all his might, to protect his religion from people he saw to be dangerous heretics. As the early church was spreading in Jerusalem, as the apostles were telling others about Jesus and baptizing and teaching in his name, their biggest opponent was Paul of Tarsus.

He was there when the first Christian martyr, the deacon Stephen, was killed. He has been rooting out Christians ever since. And now, it seems that the church is spreading even outside of Jerusalem. Christians are beginning to appear in the north, past Samaria, in Damascus. And so that is where Paul heads.

And that is when we see the origin of the Apostle Paul. The road to Damascus is where Paul becomes who he will be: the apostle to the gentiles, a man after whom we name churches and universities, cities and hospitals. A great light from heaven flashes around him on the road. As he cowers in fear, he hears the voice: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you?” he asks. “Jesus, whom you are persecuting. Go enter the city, and you will be told what to do.” And he is left blind.

This story is usually called the Conversion of Paul, but as we read on, we see that there are actually two conversions happening here. For the Lord also appears to Ananias, a disciple living in Damascus. Ananias is told to go to Paul, to lay hands on him to heal his blindness. His first response? That is not something I think I will be doing. Don’t you know who Paul is, Lord? Because he’s a persecutor of the church. But God says that Paul is the one chosen to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. It’s not up to Ananias to decide who God is going to use. And so, Ananias too is converted. Converted from fear to trust. From hatred to reconciliation.

Ananias goes to Paul, and Paul is restored to sight. And he is baptized and becomes one of the greatest apostles of the Church. Because two people were willing to let their hearts be changed. Scales fall from both of their eyes. Sometimes I think that great, miraculous call stories like these can be hard for us to read. Not because they aren’t awe-inspiring, faith inspiring. But precisely because they are those things.

After all, how many of us have had such an other-worldly experience? Perhaps you have, and I by no means want to diminish that. It’s just that most of us don’t get to have such incredible origin stories. And it can be easy to begin to think that it’s because we don’t have enough faith, or because God doesn’t have an important job for us.

Perhaps God hasn’t appeared to you in lightning-flashed visions. But that doesn’t for a second mean that God doesn’t show up in your life. After all, how did God appear to the disciples in the gospel reading? Not in majesty and awe, not in fearful voices from clouds, but as an unfamiliar man on the beach, sharing a meal.

God shows up in unexpected ways in our lives, sometimes so unexpected that we don’t even recognize it. We need to pay attention, like the Beloved Disciple, to how Jesus is showing up. He is the first one to realize that this is God standing on the beach, and he announces to the others, “It is the Lord!”

Sometimes, we’ll need someone else in our lives to point out to us: It is the Lord! When we don’t see God at work in our lives, we’ll need someone else to tell us: look, I see God here. And the scales will fall from our eyes as we see what they see. And other times, we will get to be that sight and that voice for others. We will get to announce joyfully that we see God—in that place, in that situation, in that other person. But we have to pay attention, because where we wind up seeing God might not be where we expect.

In a meal shared amongst friends on the beach. In small moments of ordinary life. Today is first communion: we celebrate with four of our young people, Annabelle, Lily, Adam, and Grady, as they receive the bread and wine of communion for the first time. We come to a simple meal of the basic, everyday foods of life, and we encounter in the bread and wine the Risen Lord Jesus, just as the disciples encountered him on the beach.

The book we use for First Communion, called A Place for You, shares the ways that we are invited to take God’s presence into us, and to share God with others. Forgive others. Share our things with others. Share food and clothes and money with those who need them. Be kind to people who are different. Bring joy to people who are sad or lonely. These all come with the important caveat that Jesus and your church family will forgive you when you fail.

The Christian writer and blogger Rachel Held Evans died tragically yesterday at age thirty-seven. She struggled in her life to make sense of her faith and her doubts. She wrote of experiences traveling and speaking to many different faith communities: They reminded me that Christianity isn’t meant to simply be believed; it’s meant to be lived, shared, eaten, spoken, and enacted in the presence of other people. They reminded me that, try as I may, I can’t be a Christian on my own. I need a community. I need the church.

These things aren’t flashy. They won’t make the front page or become super hero stories. But even as we read the stories of the heroes of our faith, we remember that our faith is found in simple things. Bread and wine shared together. A meal amongst friends. Sharing God’s love in the ordinary stuff of life. Let’s all of us practice looking for God in surprising and ordinary places. Because if we pay attention, we just might get to have breakfast with Jesus. Amen.