A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
Rev. Julie Emery
January 15, 2012
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 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 ever tear from their eyes.”
I am always surprised at the random gathering that becomes the disciples that follow Jesus. John’s gospel makes them out to be a handful of the followers of John the Baptist, who then called their friends. First Andrew who reaches out to his brother Simon… Then Philip finds his friend Nathanael. These are invitations and exhortations, each with the refrain, “come and see…”
It’s not unlike the church of today – which seems to be employing the same concept of evangelism that worked 2000 years ago. Invite your friends to church, we often say, and those who do very often yield results. Even if the skepticism of Nathaniel has changed into a more general skepticism about church or religion in general, (Can anything good come out of a church?), still friends tend to trust friends, and that trust can trump skepticism most days.
Friends invite friends. This is the concept that upon which the booming world of FaceBook and social media is based. In fact, there is a button that says just that: “like this.” Click it, and you launch a campaign that informs your friends of your “likes” from music to clothing to political campaigns to events coming up in a neighborhood near you.
Many churches are now utilizing those practices, reaching out in evangelism through social media; discussing “cohorts” an “interest groups,” and how we might reach out to those groups through one or two of their “friends.” It is the natural, human way of connecting. So natural, in fact, that it mimicks the very way the first disciples were called: First Andrew and Simon, then Philip and Nathanael.
The problem with this way of growing the church, as I see it, is that so often we are only friends with people who are like us. Just as the Facebook campaign suggests: our friends will like what we like. Flip that in just the right way and it becomes: the people we are friends with are just like us.
Walk in to most churches and you see this is true: They are homogenous, even insular. People talking to people they already know; Friends who like and invite friends who look like them and act like them…
Our church may or may not feel that way depending on who you ask; but for the most part, the feedback we get is that our church is welcoming and warm. While friends often come to speak to and connect with friends, there is also a fair amount of reaching out. We are diverse in ages and stages: noting as we did with our new officers yesterday that in recent years our statistics showed that we are a church with 50% of our membership under the age of 53.
We are diverse culturally: drawing people with such wide and various backgrounds that we could claim a strong immigrant population at our church, albeit from places like France and Germany, Finland and Russia, but also Ghana and Pakistan. It would be inaccurate, in many ways, to call us homogeneous.
And yet, on this Martin Luther King Weekend it would do us well to consider the claim that this time on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in our country and ask ourselves: who might be missing in this gathering of believers here in the Larchmont Avenue Church?
“It won’t be like this in heaven,” is a phrase I hear from time to time from my esteemed colleague Reverend Crawford that I find particularly poignant on a day like today. Often it comes up in the context of stories: moments when one or the other of us has experienced separation from a gathering of believers, or when we have felt others have been excluded. But what will it be like in heaven, then? What do we imagine that heaven will be?
The Apocalypse of John, otherwise known as the book of Revelation, lays out a heavenly vision that might be worthy of our time and reflection. In the section read this morning, we hear John’s vision of the gathered people of God as they surround the throne of the most high God and sing God’s praises. This is the gathering of the multitudes: first those who have been sealed by God, and then the nations upon nations of those who have been gathered and called as witnesses and believers. John’s vision is of a people of all nations and tribes, all peoples and languages. This is the vision of the gathered in heaven.
Last fall and spring, a group of women across the generations at LAC spent some time tackling the apocalypse of John. Filled with terror and terrible language, monsters of the deep and seals and bowls that let loose plagues and war, the Apocalypse of John is certainly the most violent book in our Bible. Some even argue that the violence of the book is at odds with the non-violent, turn the other cheek Jesus we find in the gospels. Throw it out, they suggest, it has no place here.
The church, in essence, has done just that. Passages from the apocalypse rarely show up in the lectionary, and even then, they are the “easy ones;” Passages that speak of a new heaven and a new earth. This passage from chapter seven may be one of those – when those gathered by God will find that they will hunger and thirst no more, and every tear will be wiped from their eyes.
But passages such as this cannot be read apart from the visions of justice and judgment throughout this book; John’s vision is one of justice AND salvation, and for John, God’s justice is enacted through violence and suffering that John envisions will rain down on those who persecute Christ’s followers and witnesses.
Perhaps this is part of the reason you found yourself coming here this morning: because we are all looking for something that helps us make sense out of this world which is still terribly violent, still filled with hatred and bigotry. A world where the haves have even more and the “have nots” have even less. In some ways we feel not too far from the world that gave birth to John’s vision of justice.
And yet, we do well to note that nowhere in the book do Christ’s followers take part in the violence. Instead, in the face of oppression, John insisted that Christians be vocal about their beliefs, standing up as witnesses to the truth they proclaimed and held dear. In the face of their suffering and persecution, John encouraged believers to stand on the Word of God and their faith in Jesus Christ. On this Martin Luther King Day, it is a message that rings familiar, doesn’t it?
Brian Blount, president of Union Seminary in Richmond, VA, writes in his commentary on the apocalypse, “Long before Mahatma Gandhi in India or Martin Luther King Jr. in the American South, John of Patmos asked his people to engage in a testimony that was tantamount to active, aggressive, nonviolent resistance. Their witness to the world would transform the world.”i
Our world is indeed transformed by these witnesses and voices. As someone born in the seventies I am poignantly aware of the ways in which I grew up as an heir of the work that had been done well before I was even a twinkle in my parent’s eye. I have to work to conjure up a memory when I ever felt inferior because I was a woman. As I look back on my childhood I still have the memory that I was told over and over again that I could do or be anything that I put my mind to. Nothing stood in my way.
What a privilege. What a gift.
When I consider the world my children are growing up in, I am aware of the fact that they will likely grow up with no memory of a world in which a black man could not be elected president. It is entirely likely that I may see a woman elected president in my lifetime. My boys will grow up with no memory of a supreme court that did not have a person of color or a woman serving as a justice. No matter what your political affiliation, these things should make you smile.
What a privilege. What a gift.
As people of privilege, we are called to an awareness of the consequences of our privilege. One thing we wondered in our bible study was whether or not we could truly understand John’s apocalypse as people who have never suffered oppression and persecution.
South African cleric and anti-aparteid activist Allen Boesak once said, “People who do not know what oppression and suffering is react strangely to the language of the Bible. The truth is that God is the God of the poor and the oppressed…
…Because they are powerless, God will take up their cause and redeem them from oppression and violence. The oppressed do not see any dichotomy between God’s love and God’s justice.” (quoted by Blount in his introduction to his commentary)
While we have come far, there is still much further to go. Ours is a world still separate from the true dream that King painted – one where all people might know they are a blessed child of God, where all people might find valuable and valued work, where resources might be distributed such that “they will hunger no more, and thirst no more, the sun shall not strike them… and God will wipe every tear from their eye.”
With many miles to go there are still glimpses of that vision of heaven…
At a meeting this past week, a member of our church shared his experience delivering the LAC Christmas Baskets to a member of our community who might not otherwise had any Christmas celebration. They delivered to a single mom and her young son presents and foodstuffs, gift cards and more presents. The young boy, in his overwhelmed confusion kept noting that they didn’t have a Christmas Tree: where would they put these presents? The mom wept tears of thanksgiving.
In his retelling, the church member noted that this family lived not three miles from our church; how it was all he could do not to run out and bring the boy a Christmas tree.
Moments such as these are a reminder of how interconnected we are; How our small community is made up of such diversity of life and situation.
King once noted that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality; tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Such interconnectedness is both a blessing and a challenge for us as people of privilege.
Wouldn’t it be amazing to see that colorful garment in the church, in the here and now?
Wouldn’t it be a gift to find that woman and her son sitting in our pews, worshipping along with us even now?
Wouldn’t it be a vision to witness the church as John saw it: all nations and tribes and languages woven together in one connected body.
Wouldn’t it be a miracle to see those who might be missing now: the poor and immigrant, the hungry and hungry of heart, streaming through our doors, welcomed and welcoming in the name of the God who calls us all and calls each of us to call even more in the name of Christ?
What would it be like? How could we make it so?
In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
i Blount, Brian Preface to The New Testament Library: Revelation, A Commentary p. xi