Sunday, April 21, 2013

Between the Amens (4.21.13)

A Meditation on Revelation 7:9-17


Boston Globe, 4/20/13
I spent a good bit of my childhood biking back and forth between baseball fields in Belmont and doughnut shops in Watertown, Massachusetts.  I wasn’t much of a ballplayer, but I lived for the game and showed up early every Saturday to prove my passion to the coach.  From our home in Belmont, it was a quick half-mile ride up the hill to Waverly and then Mount Auburn Street.  On Sundays, our church was on the Belmont-Watertown line.  I’d show up early there too.  And after church, sometimes we’d visit the old cemetery just down the street, where my grandparents are buried in a family plot.  It’s especially lovely this time of year, that cemetery, pink blossoms, white blossoms everywhere, showering petals on weathered tombstones.

Boston, Cambridge, Belmont, Watertown.  These are the towns I grew up in.  And I must have spent two, maybe three hours Friday afternoon watching CNN’s coverage of a massive manhunt in my hometown.  Waverly Square, Payson Park Church, Mount Auburn Street.  Anderson Cooper reporting live from street corners I know like the back of my hand.  Old friends and parishioners sending occasional messages, sights and sounds from those same streets, with assurances of their safety.  My own nieces and nephews spent the day holed up in a hotel, on the other side of town, staying put and watching on TV with the rest of us.

It's hard to avoid the truth this week that what happens every week in places like Jerusalem and Gaza, in places like Kabul and Damascus, is happening here now.  Copley Square in Boston.  Mount Auburn Street in Watertown.  Bombs packaged in pressure cookers.  Shrapnel exploding in crowds of college students and school children.

I wonder how much TV you watched this week?  Did you watch the replayed bomb blasts, at the finish line of Boston’s Marathon, aired over and over and over again?  Did you watch the interviews with exhausted surgeons, emerging from amputation surgeries and describing the damage shrapnel can do to the human body?  Were you watching Thursday when authorities released pictures of two brothers and asked for vigilance and help in finding them?  Maybe you were watching Friday, as I was, as they finally found a nineteen-year-old kid in a backyard boat, just off Mount Auburn Street, a kid they believe helped his brother terrorize an entire city for a week?

And I won’t speak for you, but I found this week’s news from Washington, from the U.S. Senate, just as chilling frankly, and disturbing.  U.S. Senators trying to explain how 92% of the electorate gets gun control wrong, and why we really don’t need background checks, and how more guns in more hands make our schools and our theatres and our cities safer.  I found that vote chilling.  Coming on the heels of Monday’s bombing.  Wednesday’s vote seems to me to expose American politics for what it’s become.  Everything and everybody’s for sale.  So we’ve got a Congress of angry old men, bought and sold by the NRA, addicted (it seems) to violence and mayhem.  U.S. Senators avoiding meaningful eye contact with people in Newtown, Connecticut, and Aurora, Colorado, and (oh, yeah) Santa Cruz, California.

Now I get the relief, the immense sigh of relief that flowed out of Watertown and Boston and across the country Friday night.  I really do.  I’ve got brothers and cousins and nieces and nephews in those very neighborhoods.  I was ordained to the ministry there.  I served a great church there.  I get it.  Boston’s a resilient city.  But I feel something else this morning, something well short of relief.  I feel something like sadness, something like grief, and (yes) something like anger.  In the Sunday paper, I see all the pictures again and firsthand accounts of bombs going off at the finish line.  On the web, I watch fragments of interviews with friends of the two Tsarnaev brothers.  And I have to grieve the violence these two men turned to, the violence they grew up seeing and believing, the violence their Congress seems to sanction almost every day.  It’s madness, I think.  There’s no other word for it.  It’s madness.

So with all that madness in the news, you ask yourself, why this morning’s text from the Book of Revelation?  Sure it’s a lectionary text: once every three years churches around the world read and remember the last book in the New Testament canon.  But why turn, on a Sunday like this one, to a source that seems at times to invoke divine vengeance and apocalyptic mayhem.  We know how this stuff has been used and abused through the ages.  We know it’s inspired violence.  Couldn’t we do better this week?

But call me stubborn.  I’m not one to accept as definitive the testimony of apocalyptic fundamentalists or end-of-the-world zealots.  I think they’ve committed a kind of theological malpractice in this case, with the Book of Revelation.  It’s in front of us, the book is included in the canon, because the first generations of the movement found it inspiring and provocative: when their own world seemed so fragile, and organized violence so pervasive and entrenched.
John on Patmos in the Aegean
Those first Christians discovered something like courage here, something like hutzpah in the visions of John from the little island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea.  In John’s Revelation, they discovered hope and a reason to carry on with their ministries of compassion and tenderness—in a world that seemed to mock their tenderness at every turn.  Are his visions packed with monsters and beasts?  Sure.  Are his dreams laced with terrifying anxiety and his premonition of persecution and suffering?  Yes.  John wrote about monsters because his friends were facing monsters every day.  And the monsters were winning.  He dreamt about persecution because Christians and Jews in the ancient world were being persecuted mercilessly, hounded violently by Roman mercenaries.  For decades on end.  And people of faith were losing faith.

Now we’re not living in first century Ephesus or Asia Minor.  And Roman mercenaries aren’t peeking through the keyholes this morning, counting bodies and taking names.  But we know a little bit about violence, you and I: about gunfire in our streets, state-sanctioned drone campaigns and clandestine military prisons.  We know about the violence of a criminal justice system that goes hard and harder after people of color and a culture in which violence against women is a gruesome reality for too many of our sisters, mothers, daughters and friends.  We’re not living in first century Ephesus, but we know something about empires.  And we know something about violence.  And we know something about people of faith losing faith.

So maybe there’s something to be gained in reading Revelation again year.  Maybe we take it back from the zealots and terrorists and warmongers.  Maybe there’s some courage here, some defiance here, a spirit of resistance.  Maybe there’s a word from the Lord, even here, in John’s Revelation. 


Let's briefly locate this morning’s text in the larger vision that is the Book of Revelation.  Because in a lot of ways, this morning’s text is the powerful, promising heart of the book.

The book begins with John hearing a loud voice, like a trumpet, begging him to write down what he sees with his eyes.  When he turns, he sees that it’s Jesus, his hair white as snow now, his eyes blazing like flames, his face shining like the sun.  Jesus tells John that God’s kingdom is coming, and coming soon.  And he promises that those who persist in the faith will be sheltered in any trial, any ordeal to come. 

And then it gets weird, I mean, really weird.

John tells us how moments later, having ascended in the spirit into the heavens, he is allowed to glimpse the glorious throne of God, and the One on the throne radiates all kind of light, being set among seven flaming torches.  Are you with me?  It’s wild.  Seven torches.

Then John hears peals of thunder, mighty thunder and sees lightning flash from the throne itself, surrounded by worshippers and angels and flanked by four strange creatures who are, of course, studded with multiple eyes: one with a lion’s face, the others with the faces of a bull, an eagle, and a man.

And at this point, John adds: “I saw in the right hand of the one seated on the throne a scroll...sealed with seven seals, and I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?’”  Now here’s where it gets really interesting.  This sacred scroll reveals God’s divine plan.  And hearing that “no one in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth, is able to open the scroll, or look into it,” John himself begins to weep bitterly.  In deep despair.  Does all of this really end in more frustration?

But just then, one of God’s servants reassures him: “Do not weep, John of Patmos.  Behold the lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
And in a lot of ways, this is the hinge, the turning point, on which the entire Book of Revelation pivots.  John is encouraged by what he’s heard, expecting in his distress to see the conquering messiah, the mighty king called the Lion of Judah, standing before God’s throne.  But he is stunned, astounded really, to find instead a LAMB—and, odder still, “a LAMB standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God.”  Are you still with me?  To John’s astonishment, this supernatural LAMB takes the scroll in hand.  And a divine voice pronounces him worthy now to open it, adding that the LAMB is worthy BECAUSE he was slaughtered, and ransomed God’s holy ones from every tribe, language, people, and nation.  This is no mighty king, no superhero savior: this is Jesus of Nazareth, God’s suffering servant.

The great historian Elaine Pagels says “this spirited LAMB represents the paradox embodied in Jesus of Nazareth, whose own followers had recognized him as God’s appointed king, God’s messiah.  But instead of riding triumphant into Jerusalem for his coronation, as followers had hoped, Jesus was slaughtered, executed on the eve of Passover, like a sacrificial lamb.”  And this is God’s promise, God’s choice, God’s way into the future.

Do you see the pivot here?  In John’s Roman context, war is king, and violence rules cities, towns and countryside.  What really makes things happen is the brute power, the intimidating threat of violence.  It’s hard to imagine that the world could proceed in any other way, with any other possibilities.  That’s what living in the empire really means.  But here, in John’s vision, the slaughtered LAMB holds some kind of key.  Here, in John’s dream, the vulnerable Jesus is able to see things and do things that no one else can.  The order of things has, at least for a time, been overturned, upside down.  Love rules in heaven.

And briefly, John begins to see these heavenly secrets unfold, revealing some kind of end to time.  He sees the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: signifying the many ordeals on the near horizon for people of faith and conscience and good will.  There’s really no doubt, in John’s heart, that conflict is at hand, that the trials will be overwhelming, that faith will be hard to sustain.

And that’s where we find this morning’s text, in the seventh chapter, and with it, a promise that God will sustain the faithful through all the trials to come, through all the violence, through all the conflict and war and hardship.  You heard the reading earlier: “There was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  And they cried out in a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our god who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!’”


And now, at last, we get to heart of the matter.

My seminary classmate Joanne Terrell teaches theology and ethics at the Chicago Theological Seminary, and she’s an ordained elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  Joanne likes the say that her people’s favorite text—in all the twenty-one chapters of Revelation—comes “between the amens” in chapter 7.

Remember how this goes?  How all the angels and saints are standing around the throne and falling on their faces and worshipping God?  How they’re singing, singing: “Amen!  Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might—be to our God forever and ever!  Amen!”  I heard Joanne preach this text a dozen or so years ago in Boston.  And she’s got this big voice, Joanne does, steeped and shaped by the mothers and fathers of her AME tradition.  “In the black church,” she says, “we know what’s going on here ‘between the amens.’”  And what she means by that, what Joanne Terrell means by that is that John’s got this vision of what it means to OVERCOME.  John’s got this vision of how the people in peril, how the people in the great ordeal survive that ordeal to see the light and the love and the face of God.

Think about it.  Our lives begin and end with a great AMEN!  Every one of them.  They begin in amazing grace.  They begin in the purity of possibility.  They begin in stunning vulnerability and perfect light.  Think about it.  Every one of them.  Little Beatrix born on the floor down at the county jail.  My little Claire born in a flash of surgery in a Denver hospital.  Every one of our lives begins with an AMEN, begins in amazing grace.  Show me a baby, and we’ll see.

And our days come to conclusion with the same AMEN, right?  I sat with my father a year ago and said goodbye.  You’ve done the same with loved ones, friends, clients.  Whether they die young or die old.  Whether it’s a painful death or an easy one.  We believe, don’t we, that every death is a bridge, a bridge into some kind of peace, some kind of holy adventure, some kind of divine embrace.  That’s what my friend Joanne Terrell was talking about.  Our lives begin with an AMEN.  And they end with an AMEN.  Just like the text.  And what happens in between is what we’re here to talk about.  What happens in between is what makes a difference.  What happens in between is what shines the light through all this darkness.

“Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever!”  Here’s the thing about the times we’re living in.  They’re hard.  There’s a tremendous amount of violence in the air and on the streets, and it’s overwhelming at times.  We want to retreat.  Live in caves of our own making.  Of course we do.

But John’s vision reminds us that our practice of faith, our practice of compassion, our practice of generosity in the here and now—this practice is the one practice that truly honors the universe.  It’s the one practice that brings real honor and real blessing to the energies of creation.  It’s the one practice that brings together, in the end, a great multitude from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages.  It may not look that way to the naked eye.  We may not see compassion’s story playing out on CNN or the great websites of our time.  But all who live in love, between the AMENS, announce the purpose and promise of God.  And that purpose, and that promise is peace.

So here’s what I’m thinking this morning.  I’m thinking that when we organize next month’s gun amnesty program—a two-weekend program that will involve up to twelve churches in collecting unwanted and unsafe guns from our neighbors—I’m thinking that the Sentinel may not cover Stoney’s gun amnesty program.  CNN won’t be there.  NPR either.  It’ll seem like small potatoes in light of everything else, all the bad news, all the mayhem.  But I’m thinking that’s where God will be moving.  In little churches where little ladies and little men are collecting guns in hope, getting weapons off the streets and out of our neighborhoods.

And I’m thinking that when our choirs and orchestras perform Britten’s War Requiem next week...a stunning work of imagination and tenderness and human decency...I’m thinking that the crowds may be modest and the Grammy’s will look elsewhere for stars.  And CNN won’t be there either.  But that’s where God will be moving.  In loving creativity.  In human voices lifted in blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving.

Here’s the message, the overwhelming message I find in the Book of Revelation.  CNN doesn’t change the world.  Drones flying over Afghan villages don’t change the world.  Two brothers—filled with hate, packing kitchen appliances with explosives—they don’t change the world either.  What changes the world, what really matters in the universe is the tender compassion of people who love.  What changes the world, what really matters in the universe is the song of blessing that’s sung at a community college or a Sunday service or (heck)in your own shower every morning.

So live that way.  Love that way.   Sing that way.  And the Lamb at the center of the throne will be your shepherd, and he will guide you to springs of the water of life.  And God will wipe away every tear from your eyes: yours and mine and every tear from every eye.  Amen.