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Even Now Come

Adwoa Lewis-Wilson
Sun, May 12

Ascension Sunday
Text: Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

My dear friends, we have just listened together to the very last words of Scripture - words that I believe offer scandalously good news. However, fair warning that its gospel is neither easy to accept nor easy to come by. To get there we must first journey through the unsettling landscape of the most contentious book of Scripture. So I begin simply by asking for your grace – grace for my words as I speak my own experience of the text – but also grace for yourselves as we traverse the rocky and disorienting terrain of Revelation.

In fact, the Church has always borne an uneasy skepticism about the Revelation of John. It was the last book to make it into the biblical canon by nearly a century. Of Revelation Martin Luther asserted that “Christ is neither taught nor known in it.” And Thomas Jefferson unapologetically omitted the text from his own controversial edition of the Bible, dismissing it as “the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.”

By contrast, more conservative brothers and sisters have elevated Revelation to a particularly exalted status, believing they can unearth exact dates as well as the precise nature of saints and sinners. While this is purely psychological conjecture, I would assert that these literalist interpretations reflect an equal attempt to contain a book that can easily shake us up if not quarantined by omission or by certitude of interpretation.

I imagine it is precisely the intimate un-containability of Revelation that makes us so very uncomfortable. This book is truly epic. It spans perhaps thousands of years, rapidly vacillates between heavenly and earthly realms, and baldly depicts evil with the sober view that triumph over it will require the full force of divine might; and human sacrifice. Indeed, while it portrays an overall arc of redemption, Revelation resists what Bonheoffer might have called “cheap grace.” With angels, bowls, and trumpets of God’s wrath, each casting plague upon plague on those who do not respond to the clarion call of Love – it is clear that for John, the restoration of all things simply does-not-come-peacefully. Rather he renders it as nothing short of trench warfare, requiring fortitude of faith and discipleship on the part of the people of God.

Now, most people probably set the book down right there. But if we stick with it, Revelation offers us the invitation and the challenge to examine our world more closely. Perhaps we squirm when confronted with Revelation’s graphic images not because we fear they are prescriptive of God’s far off cosmic justice, but instead because they are actually descriptive of our own earthly reality, here and now. How can we look at Syria and Sandyhook, at the tragedy of the marathon and the hate it inspired, at starving and uninsured citizens in one of the world’s wealthiest nations, at a natural order buckling under the weight of callous misuse, and at factory workers literally crushed by greed in Bangladesh -- and not know viscerally that Revelation’s gruesome imagery speaks to the stark reality of our present age and its woeful cycles of wrath?

John wrote Revelation in response to the crippling injustices of the Roman Empire in his own day, including violent and torturous persecution of the early church, of which John himself was a victim. Today Revelation compels us to reckon with how our world still groans under the weight of persecution and the work for justice. If we whitewash its imagery we turn our hearts away from the full impact of our own society’s inconvenient truth. Certainly it is problematic that John responds by writing some measure of Divine justice into what plagues us. But, as people of faith, he does at least compel us to ask: Who is God? What is God? When? Where? Why? And how is God, in all of this?

Yet to stop even there still walks away from Revelation before it has steeped to full potency. If we are willing and patient, this book can open our own souls to us as well. Here I can only speak for myself personally; but the same whiplash I have when I read the fast-paced and conflictual imagery of Revelation often comes upon me when I examine myself without pretense. My desire to radiate God’s love is often at war with instincts of self-preservation. Claims of fairness only thinly veil dragons of entitlement and wrath that threaten to devour my relationships. Insecurity, over-commitment, and mindlessness crowd out all manner of virtues that long to be tenderly cultivated within me.

Day by day I am learning that the renunciation of selfishness for love amid life’s complexity demands vigilance and fortitude … It is a vigilance I fail to maintain at least as often as I succeed. Thus, Revelation is most uncomfortable for me because to whatever extent my heart is of good will and honest self-examination, it also knows that its fidelity to the good can fall woefully short. In this I am actually reminded of a sermon by our own Terry McKinney in which he wondered whether the dividing line between good and evil was not between people or countries or ideas but right down the middle of the human heart. The very fact that Revelation uses such graphic language to describe the ultimate triumph of Love over injustice may speak to this very point – betraying the notes of wrath within its author rather than a pure reflection of the divine nature.

Do you see what I mean? It’s epic. It is no wonder we have spent so much energy dismissing or domesticating this Book. However, for just this morning, let us allow it to have its full effect: It should make us uncomfortable to encounter the Infinite God of Heaven – necessarily portrayed imperfectly through finite words. It should make us uncomfortable to confront the naked and unadorned brokenness of our world and to acknowledge the costs people of good will pay to respond. And it should make us uncomfortable to know ourselves caught up, in some measure, with the same struggle of good and evil within our own hearts.

But Beloved, this discomfort is actually a great and hard-won gift that, when fully received, has the power to still our hearts in sheer unknowing before the mysteries of the human soul and of God. If we are willing, it renders us poor, meek, hungry and thirsting – humble attributes that Jesus himself suggested open us to the richest of beatitude blessing. And it is to just such a pure heart that these consummate verses of Scripture whisper their most awesome good news: News of the once forbidden tree of life now freely accessible…News of God’s grace to all. Indeed, the earliest manuscripts of the text omit “all the saints” opening wide the gates of Love to those beyond the church as well…To be frank, there’s simply far more goodness than one sermon could possibly express.

And yet, I do think it hinges on one essential piece of Good News. So let us hear Jesus again as he says:
“See…I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last,
the beginning and the end…
…the root and the descendant of David.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come.”
And let everyone who hears say, “Come.”
The one who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.”

Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

These words remind us that no matter how pervasive injustice appears or how long human division endures – it is God’s Self that has started and will finish all things. More amazingly still – God’s Self IS the start and the finish of all things: at once the root of the tree AND its fruit.

I love that despite all the quibbling about Revelation’s inclusion in the canon, this is the final word of the Bible and the Gospel Message that John sees faithful people proclaiming to the end of the age.

I especially love that this is the unified message of the whole of Scripture. Just as Genesis begins with a few simple words: “In the beginning – God”, so too does Revelation end likewise: “Amen. Come Lord Jesus.” How stunning it is that our tradition’s sacred canon, though written by varied and flawed hands, still manages to flow in one inspired arc from God to God. How awesome that by so doing it reminds us that all of creation, right down to our own lives, does the same.

You see in Revelation, the acclamation, “Come” rises from earth not as a plea but as an agreement. It is God, in Jesus, who begins by revealing that he is first and last. And from within the uncomfortable struggle that Revelation describes, God’s people assent to this truth responding, “Amen! YES!” “Come!” And God rejoins once again, saying, “Surely I am coming soon!”

But I believe the Good News here is still more scandalous than that. As we’ve seen, John’s Revelation takes great pains to bring the cosmic timeline to the present moment and to bring societal conflict right to the soul’s doorstep. So I find it significant that John sees this vision in the midst of his own concrete persecution, not by avoiding it; significant, also, that his book condenses the struggle of the entire Bible into a very small space. By so doing, John signals that his description is more than the theoretical meandering of a pre-Fall creation toward a distant healing that none of us will practically witness. Instead we are invited to see every moment, even the present moment, and the weariness of our own hearts as an icon of God? Whether in well or in woe, on mountaintops of hope and in lions’ dens of despair, God. Is. Here.

Whatever the contours of the present moment may be – it is the one and only place where the beginning and the end can actually meet. Therefore: the purity in which all was created and the wholeness to which all is going are already perfectly and eternally present, as the mystery of God with us. Now.

Actually, this notion crops up fairly frequently in the history of our faith. Particularly dear to me is the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich, who asserts on the matter that “God wills that we believe that we experience God constantly.” In her vision, Julian sees God as the ground of every moment of life no matter how constricted it feels; and the untarnished core of each and every soul no matter how heinous their actions. Thankfully, Julian’s imagery is far more positive than John’s, but it evokes the same combination of discomfort and hope. She also wrote during a time of staggering political and religious unrest, and she lived through 3 bouts of the black plague which all but decimated her once thriving town of Norwich. Yet looking this reality right in the face – as John’s Revelation asks of us as well – she affirms that God is still there as the beginning, the end, and the ground of everything that she experiences.

Constantly.

Therefore Julian sees each person as charged to respond to every circumstance we encounter with loving self-surrender – as though it were none other than God’s own Self. It’s as though she invites us to pronounce with the bold voice of faith what our eyes cannot quite see, “Amen! Come Lord Jesus.”

Of course, most of us hardly ever experience the world this way. How can it be that God is the ground of every moment, constantly guiding it from pure beginning to redeemed end, when life can be so bitter? I have struggled with this exact question repeatedly as I’ve tried to walk by this vision – for example in face of the murder of my cousin last year or the wasting death of my aunt from ALS the year before. And that’s to say nothing of reckoning with the scope of global conflict.

It’s the reason I mention Julian at all. Unlike John, she is honest that she struggles with the showing she received. Nonetheless, after decades of sitting with it, arguing with God about it, acting *as if it* were true even though she did not quite understand it, and finally letting it take her into the uncomfortable landscape of her own inner spiritual battle, she ultimately holds firm to what she originally saw. She insists that living from within this belief is the most skillful way to engage the world as a person of faith.

In essence, I think that’s all the last words of Revelation are asking of us now: to walk by faith not by sight… because the truth of God fully present in each moment and every corner of humanity carries with it practical implications. From this perspective, we neither pray nor act in order to secure an otherwise uncertain outcome of justice. Instead, by our action we demonstrate our willingness to be with God where God already is. We know we are doing nothing more, but also nothing less, than trying to make manifest the One who IS, without dispute, already the latent ground of this present moment. Similarly, in our persistent response of prayer we assert beyond reason that there is simply no darkness anywhere that ever has or ever could overcome the Light that sustains all life, not even for one moment.

Friends, if we take the risk to see life this way, we may discover the bondage of fear and perfectionism shattered, for God is already here. We find encouragement and hope to carry us through the darkest days of service and the most fragile moments of self-examination, for the fullness of God is with us. We begin to sense that the kingdom of God is very near indeed, flowering in the faith-filled sight of our own souls. It can become the source of that peace which surpasses all understanding.

So, even though it is a challenging invitation that Revelation puts before us, I wonder if we can practice it right now. Take in this moment, this present moment – your neighbors in the pew, perhaps your bewilderment at the end of a shockingly long sermon, the sounds outside the door. Take it all in, and open your heart to imagine: this right here is the fullness of God. And in coffee hour as laughter with one another warms your heart, pause once again and notice it: this – the face and fullness of God! I invite us to keep practicing it all day, because a moment will come this week, perhaps when you are cut off in traffic, and indignation stands poised to run wild. But wait, pause. Muse. Imagine and trust that even this is the unfolding of God. Like training for a marathon, these mundane moments of practice can strengthen our eyes to see what graced visionaries have known throughout the ages, even while staring down otherwise bitter reality.

Let us practice because soon enough the examples won’t be mundane. We will hear the news of another tragedy, or injustice. Our hearts may tighten in grief. Helplessness. Rage. But perhaps even then we might find the courage to look deeply into the madness that enfolds us and exclaim to the darkness – “Though I cannot see it: redemption and goodness and God is the beginning, the end, and the ground of this struggle too. God IS here!” As we offer our faith-filled prayer of assent to the imminence and entirety of God filling every moment – no matter how Revelation-esque it may feel – our very lives become a subversive act of salvation, imbued with the glory of God. It is then that we are truly free to rise in service to those whose circumstances keep them from seeing it. This is good news, indeed.

May our lives be guided in faith by this beautiful vision for which we and our world so starkly hunger, but in which we are already so tightly held.
“See…I am the Alpha and the Omega.”
“See… I am the first and the last.”
“See… I am the beginning and the end.”
Come, Lord Jesus! Amen.

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