Sunday, April 24, 2016

Revelation 21:1-6

Acts 11:1-18

To our Jewish friends, and we all have them, Happy Passover.? Passover is an eight day celebration remembering the passing over from slavery in Egypt to freedom, eventually into the Land of Israel.? Christianity is an heir of our Jewish ancestors and it is easy for us to ponder how many times in our lives we have passed from slavery from any number of situations, substances, and patterns that held us back and down.? The Jewish Passover is a grand celebration and I hope that each of us can find a way to include some aspect of it into our own spiritual pathway as well as celebrating with our Jewish friends for whom it is a foundational time of their faith formation.
We are concluding, as you?ve heard, our fund raising efforts for our solar panel array that will soon begin to be constructed on our roof and will hopefully produce one half of the electricity that we consume in this rather large building. ?I am putting in a contribution of $500 this morning to buy a panel in celebration of the life of my granddaughter, Genevieve.? I want her to know that this is one concrete step, among others, that I have taken along, with a community of others, to help bring our world that she will inherit out of our slavery to fossil fuel consumption.

Concurrently we have been raising funds for another Habitat for Humanity Interfaith build for this summer.? It is against the rules of financial sanity to run two campaigns at the same time.? But, life happens, opportunities present themselves and we just have to act.? We are doing so well in both efforts.? It almost goes without saying that for many people paying rent is a slavery that is nearly impossible to escape, in this town and many others.? Our gifts and participation to these Habitat Builds enable yet one more family to move out of what often seems the endless cycle of poverty to a modest measure of prosperity and potential happiness.? Our gifts, whether in money form or physical presence, make that possible.

Biblically, faith is not a noun but a verb.? Faith ought to be read and lived as what we are doing as the result of what we believe to be most true.? We have just concluded a five-month cycle, for the sixth year, of providing three nights a week shelter and food to those living in homelessness in our area.? In addition, if you listen to the announcements and read our newsletters you know that our faith involvements are numerous and every one of them crucial in some very important ways in moving real people with real needs away from slavery to freedoms that many of us can scarcely imagine.

I heard a short shout of joy out in the hallway the other day, followed by some crying.? It was a HeadStart teacher celebrating a little girl in the classroom who finally did letter sound recognition, just four weeks shy of the school year?s end.? It was one of those moments when one realizes, I think, why we have teachers who are called to be teachers.? It was one of those moments when a young girl begins to be able to move into reading and developing lifelong skills that you, the congregation of First United, help make happen because of what you give; from slavery to new-found freedoms to become more of what God is dreaming for this young girl to be and do.??? Each of you had a hand in her being supported in her early childhood education.? She thanks you!? Her education and that of thousands of others is what will make our world a more beautiful place.

In an unrelated-related way, this same little girl ran out of the building the other day wearing a pink cape flying behind her.? I spoke to her as she ran by my door, ?goodbye Super Girl,? and she just beamed a smile.

We have two readings from our ancient biblical sources this week that got me thinking in these directions, incidentally. ??The first reading that I almost didn?t use is from the Book of Revelation.? I don?t spend much time on this book because it is mired in so much negative meaning-making in church circles and even in society in general.?? It is the last book in the Christian Scriptures and our reading is from the next to the last chapter.? The reading itself includes such comforting images.

?Now the dwelling of Go is with all people and God will live with them?.and wipe every tear from their eyes.? There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain for the old order of things has passed away??God says, I am making all things new!?

For most of us sceptics in the crowd, we say, ?Well great imagery, but the world seems to be operating pretty much in the same old way!?? And that is both true and false and we ought to spend some time with both sides of the equation.

Christianity, even before Christianity, before Jesus, there was within Judaism a great and abiding hope that an all-powerful God would finally act in justice, perhaps even in revenge, and make all things right in the world.? The biblical writers for thousands of generations envisioned what the 21st Chapter of the Book of Revelation says,? I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem? which is to say, the world becoming finally like God wants it to be, coming to fullness on earth as it is in heaven.? It is the Biblical Utopian dream of purity, rightness, justice? and abundance for all of God?s chosen people.

The Book of Revelation is the last book in the Christian library of books, the canon, not because it was the last written but mostly because in the days of scrolls it was the last book you?d get to and maybe you?d never get to it.? It has never been a popular book and has only existed in Christian circles with the greatest of consternation until literally the last two centuries.? Most early church leaders discounted the book and many actively sought to have it removed from the library of acceptable religious literature.

Briefly, we do not know much about the background of the book except the author hoped and prayed that an end was coming to those evil doers who were persecuting those that the author understood to be the people of God.? The author may have experienced the death and the destruction of the old Jerusalem in the year 70 CE where Rome crushed not only the city but the whole country and sought to wipe Jews and early followers of Jesus (who were all Jews) from the Roman Empire in ways that Hitler did.? Some estimates are that as many as a million died during that early holocaust in and around the years 70 and after.? Survivors wanted the good God of heaven to come down and make things revengefully right.

It is often called the Apocalypse of John or the Revelation of John.?? All it means is here is some one person or community?s ideas about an abusive oppressive murderous occupying force and what should happen to them.? It does not make for good religion, though it makes for typical behavior between nations?using God as a reason to do even more slaughter.? Christianity used this book to help justify the Crusades against Islam, the slaughter of Jews in Europe and as recently as George W. Bush to send troops to slaughter millions of Iraqi?s and Afghans?, saying to the troops and citizens, ?Now May God bless America.?? I cried and still cry tears of religious and political remorse for those military responses after 9/11/01 and that continue still in the midst of the chaos we have created.

This morning?s vision is wonderful in that it sees all of our world at peace with God, at home with God, one with God.? I love the vision but I heartily disagree on how it might happen.? Jesus was apocalyptic, as was the Apostle Paul.? They believed and hoped as a fact that God could and would act to bring the world to justice in the twinkling, the flash of a single moment.? Even Prince said that Purple Rain was about the end times.? This quote from His Royal Badness suggests the apocalypse wasn?t far from his mind:

?When there?s blood in the sky – red and blue = purple? purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god” guide you through the purple rain.?

We know that the earth will have a final day when our star explodes but we have a couple billion years before that and a lot of climate change to deal with, wars to stop and relationships to mend and discoveries to make and a universe to discover.? God sustains natural order and will not ever bring an unnatural end to our world and nor can God do what we must do?which is, if there is to be peace among all people, a planet that is able to sustain life, then we must be the ones who break down the barriers that divide and we must be the ones that rather than drawing circles to keep people out; we must be expanding our circle to draw people in.

The reading from Acts reminds us that God calls us to live and speak and act in radically different ways. The story of Peter and Cornelius begins with a tiny detail that Luke repeats three times.

Luke says that “Peter stayed in Joppa for some time with a tanner named Simon.”? A few sentences later, he repeats himself: “Send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Peter, who’s staying with Simon the tanner.” And then again, one page later: “Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner.”

Simon the tanner was a socio-economic outcast. He was a “dirty” man in both a literal and a figurative sense. Tanners worked with dead animals and human urine. ?The filth and the stench were awful. Imagine how Simon looked and smelled at the end of a hot day. He would have been the object of social disdain. Almost anyone would have felt superior to him.

But Simon the tanner had joined the Jesus movement.? He found acceptance there that society never gave him.? And so Simon the tanner hosted Simon the apostle.

Given our human propensity for justifying ourselves and scapegoating others, the purity laws lent themselves to a moral hierarchy between the ritually “clean” who considered themselves to be close to God, and the “unclean” who were shunned as “dirty” sinners who were far from God.

Instead of expressing the holiness of God, ritual purity became a means of excluding people who were considered polluted or contaminated. Jesus rejected ritual purity as a measure of spiritual status.

In a marvelous stroke of irony, Luke says that it’s in the home of Simon the tanner, a Gentile who handled animal carcasses and human urine every day, where Peter the conscientious Jew had his vision ? surprise! ? of unclean animals. Peter learned that even though purity laws forbid him to associate with Gentiles, especially one as “dirty” as Simon or as suspect as a Roman soldier like Cornelius, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean. I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism.”Peter’s revelation reminds me of the remark by the German pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892?1984), who protested Hitler’s anti-semitic measures in person to the F?hrer.? He was eventually arrested, and then imprisoned for eight years at Sachsenhausen and Dachau. In words that paraphrase those of Peter, he once confessed, “It took me a long time to learn that God is not the enemy of my enemies. He is not even the enemy of his enemies.”

Let us Passover any boundaries we have that exclude other.? Let us stand with those who need us now?Muslims for certain in our day.? Let us stand as allies in saying with our lives that Black Lives Matter.? GLBTQ folks need ongoing strength, for the day is still not won as we allow politicians to seriously ponder bathroom rights.

?Love one another.? The way forward is through love and the ?one another? is not just fellow followers of Jesus but all creation, beginning where we are and expanding to the human and non-human communities. Love is challenging, and we can?t avoid some destruction, some death, in order to survive, but we need to minimize deathful behaviors. Our love mirrors God?s love for us. Our love also reflects God?s love for all creation in its diversity and calls us to the same all-encompassing love, albeit from our limited and fallible perspective.

Today?s spirit of God invites us to join the local and global in appreciation and ethics. We live in a world where no one is truly a stranger. We are all star stuff, children of God?s energy of love, and bound together as companions on our fragile planet. Each moment can be saving, for as we save one soul, be it human or non-human, we contribute to God?s world-saving quest.

Let us together Passover from whatever? it is that binds us and let us live in the freedom that comes from loving all the one another?s?globally, human or non-human.? To so love is a freedom that will save our world.