Donkeys, Elephants, and The Lamb

Revelation 7.9-17

After this I looked, and 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. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

What is the most important thing in America? As in, if you could take a step back from it all, what do you think has the greatest priority in this country?

Some might say, after a week like the one we just had, that the World Series is the most important thing in America. Baseball is, after all, the great American pastime. Or at least, drinking a beer while eating a hot dog at the World Series is what being an American is all about.

Or maybe the greatest thing in America is the willingness to fight against tyranny and terrorism. This week there was yet another attack against innocent civilians in New York City and the response in condemning the attack was universally accepted.

What’s the most important thing in America? I would make a case, that for Americans freedom is the most important thing in America. Think about it for just a moment: freedom to chose, freedom to speak, freedom to worship, freedom to vote. Nothing is more important to Americans on the political left and right than maintaining the freedom of the individual. We hear about our freedom all the time.

As such, we’ve created a culture where privacy is sought more than community, where no one should be asked to suffer for anyone else, and where we get to say whatever we want, and others can say whatever they want, so long as it doesn’t offend us too much.

In a strange and weird way, our bondage to political realities and political choices has resulted in our bondage to freedom.

When we moved here a handful of months ago, after we finally unpacked most of the house, we set up our TV and signed up for cable. It took a long time to get used to watching commercials again after not seeing them for the majority of the last seven years while I was at my first appointment and while I was in seminary.

I liked watching a narrative from start to finish without interruption, and because the commercials were now interrupting my viewing I started paying more attention to them. During the first two months of cable television, just about every single advertisement had to do with bodies. If you take this pill your body will feel stronger, if you use this cream you will look ten years younger, if you use this shampoo you will get the man of your dreams, if you use this deodorant you will get the woman of your dreams.

And whenever I saw two middle age individuals holding hands while sitting in separate bathtubs, or just being overly affectionate with one another, I didn’t even need to listen to the voiceover to know what they were selling.

But then something changed.

Almost without warning, there was a not a single commercial break without an ad for the gubernatorial race that comes to its fruition this Tuesday. And the more I witnessed the ads the more I realized something bizarre: I never saw an ad describing what either candidate stood for. Instead every ad was dedicated to attacking the other.

At this point, I’m sad to say, I can tell you far more about what’s wrong with both candidates than I can tell you something constructive about what each of them are hoping to accomplish.

Freedom.

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Today we celebrate the saints of God. Since nearly the beginning, the church has set aside a day to remember the great cloud of witnesses who have gone on before us in the faith, stretching across the centuries and all around the world. We take time to read their names and pause for a moment of praise to the Lord for the many ways those saints shaped our faith even here and now.

And we don’t get to choose our saints, much like we don’t get to choose our politicians. I mean we do in the sense that we get to vote on them, but more often that not we just get the politicians we deserve.

Today, our culture has been separated into two divided categories: Donkeys and Elephants. Just about every fabric of our lives can be whittled down to one of the two dominant political ideologies such that we can’t watch TV, or read a newspaper, or get online, or even drive down the road without being bombarded by one of the two political animals. The suffocating political atmosphere of today is oppressive and often forces us to identify what camp we’re in.

And, sadly, because we have total and ultimate freedom, the thing we hold dear, we can surround ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, and perhaps most importantly, vote like us.

But saints are the people who gave their lives not to a donkey, and not to an elephant, but to the Lamb.

Revelation is one of the weirder books in the bible, and one not often read in church. In it you can find the kind of stuff that some people shout from the street corners of life. In it we can read about beasts and dragons and lambs. And, often times, it is used by those of a more fundamentalist leaning to detail the coming wrath and destruction of God in such a way that it scares faith into people.

But for as much as Revelation is about a time yet to come, it is also about what the faithful life is like here and now.

The vision contains a great multitude that no one could count, people from every nation, every tribe, every people, and every language standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. And they’re singing!

This group that is beyond all groups is gathered around the one Lamb at the throne. They are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal and have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

            In God’s time, all people will be washed by the blood of the Lamb; through the death of Christ on the cross salvation has entered existence.

Here and now, we are washed through the waters of baptism, something that gives us more identity than any donkey or elephant ever can, something that frees us more than any declaration of independence ever can, and something that saves us better than any politician ever can.

Baptism is the beginning of the journey that leads to sainthood. Because in baptism we enter into the revolution of God where the Lamb at the throne determines our lives more than anything else. Where we can find a unity through the waters that is almost completely absent in every other part of existence.

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Church, thanks be to God, is one of the last remaining places where we willingly gather with people who don’t think, look, act, and vote like us. Church is the place where we believe our baptismal identities are more important and more determinative than the political sign in our front yard and the person whose name we choose in the voting booth.

Whenever we gather in this space, we are brought before the throne with the Lamb at the center. This thing we call worship is our best chance to be reminded that God is the One guiding us to springs of water, and that God is the One invested in the work of wiping every tear from our eyes. Church is where we come to meet the saints with hope that someone might call us saints when we’re gone.

We live between the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last. We rest in the time between when we hear the beautiful tones of God’s final Word that stretches into eternity and reaches back into the farthest moments of time itself.

            And, like the saints of Revelation, we sing.

The music of the saints, the very music of salvation, gives a different sound and understanding to what we prioritize in this life. When we sing with the great cloud of witnesses from the past, present, and future, we boldly proclaim that it is always the Lord and not the empire that liberates. When we lift our voices to the sky we do so in declaration that the Lamb is more important than a donkey and an elephant.

It is through the music of God, the sounds of the saints, that we receive the endurance necessary to make it through whatever trouble springs up in our lives.

That heavenly choir of revelation, a choir that we harmonize with here on earth, invites the revolution of God that will not let division have the final word.

Almost a year ago I woke up and drove down the road from the parsonage to the local Seventh Day Adventist church, which was my polling station for the presidential election. For the better part of two years, with billions of dollars raised and spent by both campaigns, the time had come for the country to decide who would be our next president.

I pulled into the parking lot before the Sun had peaked over the horizon, and with a coffee mug in my hand and my clergy collar around my neck, I walked into the fellowship hall to cast my vote.

I remember the polling operators looking dreadful and depressed, as if the previous months had sucked the very life out of them, and I walked passed to my booth.

There before me on the table was a piece of paper that countless individuals have fought to protect. There, with big fonts and circles to fill in, was the very freedom our country was founded on. I filled in my circle and walked over to the machine, which ate my decision, and rang a little bell for completion.

And then I looked up. On the wall above the voting machine was a giant painting of Jesus. Not Jesus dying on the cross, nor was it Jesus praying in the garden, nor was it any of the miracles Jesus performed through his ministry. No, it was a giant painting of Jesus laughing his butt off.

            And it was perfect.

Salvation belongs to God alone. Even though all nations, and races, and creeds, and languages are pictured in the divine vision of revelation, salvation does not belong to any of them. All of them are guilty of promising something to a particular group while damning another.

The donkeys and the elephants can’t and won’t save us. They exist to instill a sense of freedom that isolates us from one another rather than binding us to one another. They attempt to rid us of our baptismal identities to tell us that our political identities are more important. They promise salvation that only brings division.

But the Lamb of God is at the center of the throne. The saints of God, those who came before, those who are with us now, and those who are yet to come sing with one voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Amen.

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Softly and Tenderly

Revelation 21.1-6

Then 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. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See the home 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 first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

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Revelation is full of some of the most bizarre imagery in all of Christianity. Pick up the bible; flip all the way to the end, and what you find sounds like the stuff that some people will scream out from the street corners of life. In Revelation we read about beasts and dragons and lambs, we catch a glimpse of the bowls of God’s wrath, and the destruction of the world.

It is an often-ignored book of the bible, and for good reason. Revelation has been responsible for countless deaths throughout the centuries, as zealous Christians believed they were seeing the images of the book before their eyes and acted accordingly. It rests at the foundation for some of the strangest modern Christian literature. And it accounts for the never-ending amount of fundamentalist preachers who claim to know the exact day of calamity that will bring about the end of the existence.

Growing up in the church, I can barely remember ever hearing about Revelation. On Sunday mornings we were more inclined to hear about the miracles of Jesus in the gospels, or the great narratives of Genesis, than we were to hear about visions of God’s power and destruction. Even today as a pastor, I am ashamed to admit that after leading worship for two and a half years, I have only preached on Revelation once, and frankly it was to talk about the writer of Revelation more than the text itself.

Yet, if regular worship ignores the power of Revelation, funerals are the place where it is most needed.

It is no accident that the text we read this morning has been used and associated with Christian burials for nearly as long as the church has existed. When faithful disciples gather for services of death and resurrection, Revelation 21.1-6 needs to be read precisely because of what it proclaims. This handful of verses offers evocative and moving images of comfort to those of us who live past our friends and family who die, and for those of us who live in troubled times.

John of Patmos, the writer of Revelation, saw a map of the future; a description of what God will do in time. From his vantage point John witnessed a new heaven and a new earth. All that we have come to know had passed away from recognition, and even the sea was no more. But there in the sky John saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven adorned like a bride for her husband. Like the wonderful moment of a bride walking down the aisle in church, with all of the joy and expectation of a new and beautiful future, God’s city came to rest with God’s creation.

And then John heard a loud and booming voice declare, “See God’s home is now with mortals. God will live with them and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will cease to exist; mourning and crying and pain will be no more. The first things have passed away and God’s divine reality will reign forever.

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And the one seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new! Write this down because it is trustworthy and true. It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.”

John’s words are a consolation, a vision of hope for a people in distress. These words have brought comfort to countless Christians throughout the centuries, from the earliest disciples persecuted for their faith to those who still live in fear because of what they believe. And at funerals, they help to remind each of us about God’s love in the past, present, and future.

It was freezing outside as we all gathered around the grave. We had gone through the funeral service in the sanctuary, we had praised God in spite of loss, we had remembered the saint’s life that were now about to bury in the ground, and we had somberly marched into the cemetery with our heads hung low.

There is a strange thing that happens between the sanctuary service and the graveside. The finality of death takes on an entirely new and deeper meaning as you witness a casket or urn prepared to be lowered into the earth. Gone are the familiar smells and sights of the sanctuary only to be replaced with the sounds of nature and the smell of dirt.

We stood there and patiently waited for the family to gather as close as possible, and then every eye turned to me. When we mourn the dead, we become helpless and rely on someone to guide us through the right words and actions, hoping that the pastor will be true to the life and death of our beloved while declaring the hope of the resurrection.

Every person shivered in the wind. I offered prayers and scriptures reflective of the person’s life, I made time for silence so that we could all properly reflect on what we were doing, and then I walked over the casket. I reached down to the ground, and like I had countless times before, I grabbed the loose soil and dropped it onto the wood. And then with my hands resting on the casket I began to sing, “Softly and tenderly Jesus is calling. Calling for you and for me. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O Sinner come home. Come home, come home, ye who are weary come home. Earnestly tenderly Jesus is calling, calling O sinner come home.

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The beauty of Revelation 21 is in the discovery that God will dwell with us, and the home of God will be with us. The hope of the text is the fact that God will call for all of us to come home at one point or another. The bell will toll for us all, but death has lost its sting because of the gift and grace of Jesus Christ.

Since becoming a pastor, I have had to bury a lot of saints, those faithful servants of God’s kingdom who witnessed in their lives to the love of God. While I have sat with numerous friends and families as we mourned the dead I have been brought back to this passage in Revelation that describes the beautiful future in store for us. And though we weep here and now on earth, we wait for that glorious day when death will be no more, when mourning and crying and pain will be no more and we live and with the One who reigns forever.

Today we honor the saints who have come before us, whose examples we wish to follow. God has gathered us in this place to remember what the saints did with their lives, and give thanks for their witness. The saints of faith are our brothers and sisters who risked in all for the sake of Christ.

Today we remember those from this church who have died in the last year, and we join in mourning with all of their friends and families. We remember George Harris, Howard Cassidy, Ray Lancaster, John Taylor, Sam Folkes, Jerry Pangburn, Jo Anne Berg, Dick Dickerson, Lucy Wisely, Frances Pack, Frank Rankin, and Steve Wisely. Some of us have the privilege to recall the life lessons they shared with us, we can remember admiring them for their faith, and we can even picture where they used to worship in this sanctuary.

To hear their names while hearing the words of God from Revelation is to join in solidarity with the saints of our lives and be strengthened by their witness; we too can be saints if our lives become examples of God’s love and compassion toward others.

Being a saint is not something that just happens when we die, but is a worthy goal in the here and now. Instead of lazily watching the days of life pass by, we can embrace God’s call on our lives to start bringing about glimpses of God’s kingdom on earth. This vision of the new heaven is available to us because God continues to make all things new, even us.

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So where do we begin? We begin by looking to the place where God dwells with mortals: worship. We start our saintly lives by mirroring the saints who have come before us. We give thanks for their witness remembering that they modeled their lives after Christ and we start doing the same.

We look for the living saints in the pews next to us. We ask for their prayers to give us the grace to be better Christians, we seek them out for advice, and we rely on their teachings. We begin seeing the pews not as walls of division, but instead as avenues of connection.

And then we come to the table and feast from the bread and the cup being strengthened for the work of ministry in the world. We start seeing this table as the connection between past, present, and future, as we remember all who have feasted before us and that this is a foretaste of God’s heavenly kingdom.

We can start living like saints because we belong to a communion of saints. We can start living like saints because Jesus gave his life to destroy the powers of death. We can start living like saints because God makes all things new. Amen.