“Imaginings” May 1, 2016 – Easter 6 – Year C

“Imaginings”

May 1, 2016 – Easter 6 – Year C

You have got to admit, it is a fantastic vision.  In fact, it is almost a science fiction image.  A vision of extravagant hope.  And what does that hope look like?  Would you believe the picture is one of a city!  No – not some serene pastoral scene, but instead a city! It is the new Jerusalem which will come down from heaven like a giant perfect cube, radiant with light, sparkling with gold and glass and every precious stone imaginable. Every person will have an entry point into the New Jerusalem.  And in the visionary city, the endless activity of the people will be encompassed by the River of Life.  It’s as if the writer had something utterly fantastic to proclaim, but couldn’t quite find the words that were rich enough.  So the writer piled image upon fantastic image, stretching the imagination almost to the breaking point.

But there’s something else fantastic about this text besides the imagery.  It is a vision of a city – the City of God, the New Jerusalem (the same Jerusalem where Jesus had been crucified, now transformed and holy).  The final vision in the Bible is a political entity – a city.  A city in which people from all nations live together before God in peace and justice.  A city in which there is no violence, no seething hatred and anger, no poverty, no tears.  The night is no more, for the city is filled with the glory of God. 

And, quite honestly, that vision is more fantastic to me than the precious gems and the golden streets.  For cities today are more often symbols of despair and hopelessness.  They have become the living symbols of problems we don’t seem to be able to solve.  They remind us of energy and commitment we cannot seem to muster, of the vision we lack and the status quo to which we cling.  Can you imagine holding up Toronto or Montreal or Vancouver as the vision of the future?

It is indeed a fantastic vision.  But it is also a humbling vision.  For the New Jerusalem is not the result of human achievements or human progress.  At the end of history, we find no great triumph of human initiative and ingenuity.  At the end it is God who is at work, doing a new thing, bringing in a new creation, as much despite us as because of us.  The Book of Revelation finally directs our gaze beyond our little human possibilities to God’s impossibilities.  It directs us beyond our narrow vision to God’s miraculous possibilities.

And maybe that is the most fantastic part of the vision of Revelation – the extravagant hope in God.  That kind of hope seems very foreign in our world today.  Maybe it was all right 2,000 years ago for that small group of persecuted Christians who thought the end of the world was near.  They would gather together behind closed doors and read the book of Revelation – the whole thing in one sitting.  They would hear that the future of the world does not belong to Caesar – the ways of the ordinary world – but instead to Christ – the Lamb who was slain.  They would peer beyond the possibilities of history to the impossibilities of God.  They would enter into a new and different world, and they would leave their worship with renewed courage and patience to follow the way of Jesus in desperate times.

Maybe that extravagant hope was appropriate for those disciples.  But for many of us, such hope seems kind of crazy.  That kind of hope is for the fringe groups who go up in the mountains and wait for the second coming – always only to watch in vain and be disappointed.    Or is it a possibility?  What might it look like?  Surely a new heaven and new earth would include the Jews and Palestinian’s coexisting in peace – Protestants and Catholics worshipping together in Ireland – Kwaitis and Iraqis living side by side trusting one another – Canadian First Nations people and others sharing land and resources without bitterness – Anglicans, Baptists, Pentecostal, Presbyterians, and United Church folk in Penticton working together in support and love for our community’s street people – long-time church member and newcomer being valued and cared for equally … and the list goes on.

The extravagant hope of John’s vision just seems plain, old crazy at times.  And yet!  And yet, maybe deep down within us a little of the madness remains – waiting, longing to be raised from the dead.  Surely we’ve heard the old, old story enough times to know deep down that after Jesus’ resurrection nothing can ever be impossible again.  Surely deep within us there remains a longing to be the kinds of disciples who take risks based on God’s impossibilities, rather than always following the safe path of reasonableness and realism.

Deep down, I suspect that many of us relish the extravagant hope of those early Christian martyrs, who went to their deaths with a song on their lips – and fooled Old Caesar who thought the final power belonged to him.  Deep down, I think many of us are stirred by that crazy, extravagant hope.

It is the hope of slaves who sang their gospel hymns even in the midst of slavery.  They had fooled the wealthy owner who lived in the big house and who thought that power belonged to him.

It is the hope of a woman who works on West Hastings streets in Vancouver – supporting and caring, week in and week out.  She stands in solidarity with the poor and needy and still has blessing in her voice and on her face.  She has fooled old greed and wealth who think the future belongs to them.

It is the hope of a man from Saskatchewan who lay dying in hospital, fighting for every breath and fervently wanting to die.  It was nearly Christmas and a local choir came to the hospital.  In his deep baritone voice this man joined in singing “How Great Thou Art”.  The next day he died – peacefully and surrounded by his family.

That is the hope of those early Christians who gathered behind closed doors to read the Book of Revelation.

That is the hope that peers beyond the possibilities of history into the impossibilities of God.  And maybe some of us have seen that crazy hope in the life of a friend or heard that hope in the voice of a stranger.  And maybe that hope has struck something in each of us that longed to be raised from the dead.

A few years ago a local newspaper carried an article about a small church that had a ministry with persons who had AIDS.  Every day volunteers prepared and delivered lunch to people with AIDS who were too ill to care for themselves.  The article focused on one particular woman.  She agreed to help prepare the lunches, but refused to deliver them.  “I don’t want to be around those people, she honestly stated.  “And I certainly don’t want to go into their homes and visit with them.”  So every week she came and prepared the meals while other volunteers delivered them.

One day, however, one of the volunteers who delivered meals was sick.  So the supervisor asked the woman if she would deliver a meal – “just this once.”  She hesitated for a long time, but finally agreed to take the meal.  “But don’t ever ask me again,” she replied.  So, that day the woman delivered a meal to a young man with AIDS.  And the next day she decided to deliver the meal again.  And the next.  And the next.  And finally, months later, when the young man died, the woman returned to the supervisor and asked, “Is there another person to whom I can deliver meals?” – Extravagant Hope!! “Imaginings” Don’t you agree?

The Good News is the future of the world does not belong to the military powers – to monarchs and elected rulers – or even to the wealthy leaders of finance and industry.  The future of the world rests with God – who shares with us Jesus Christ – as our leader, guide, and companion.  Now that is an extravagant hope!  And it is a hope that aches to be resurrected in us!

A few years ago this hope was voiced by a black preacher from South Africa.  In the midst of Apartheid, he dared to stake his life on this extravagant hope:

Let us say responsively the Affirmation of Faith:

AFFIRMATION OF FAITH

“It is not true, that this world and its inhabitants are doomed to died and be lost;

THIS IS TRUE: FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD THAT GOD GAVE THE ONLY SON SO THAT EVERYONE WHO BELIEVES IN CHRIST SHALL NOT DIE BUT HAVE EVERLASTING LIFE.

It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction;

THIS IS TRUE: I HAVE COME THAT THEY MAY HAVE LIFE, AND HAVE IT ABUNDANTLY.

It is not true that violence and hatred shall have the last word, and that war and destruction have come to stay forever.

THIS IS TRUE: TO US A CHILD IS BORN, TO US A SON IS GIVEN IN WHOM AUTHORITY WILL REST AND WHOSE NAME WILL BE PRINCE OF PEACE.

It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil that seek to rule the world;

THIS IS TRUE: TO ME IS GIVEN ALL AUTHORITY IN HEAVEN AND ON EARTH, AND LO, I AM WITH YOU ALWAYS TO THE END OF THE WORLD.

It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the church, before we can do anything;

THIS IS TRUE: I WILL POUR OUT MY SPIRIT ON ALL PEOPLE, AND YOUR SONS AND DAUGHTERS SHALL PROPHESY, YOUR YOUNG PEOPLE SHALL SEE VISIONS, AND YOUR OLD FOLK SHALL DREAM DREAMS.

It is not true that our dreams for the liberation of humankind, our dreams of justice, of human dignity, of peace, are not meant for this earth and this history;

THIS IS TRUE: THE HOUR COMES, AND IT IS NOW, THAT TRUE WORSHIPPERS SHALL WORSHIP GOD IN SPIRIT AND IN TRUTH. AMEN

(The Iona Community Worship Book, 1987)

“Ya – But” – April 17, 2016 – Easter 4 – Year C

            Have you ever spoken with someone and every time you make a comment, the response from the other is “ya – but”?  The conversation goes something like this: “It is a nice day isn’t it?”  “Ya – but, my garden is dry and could sure use some rain.”  “It’s great to see the church so full.”  “Ya – but, my seat is taken by that new family.”  “Yesterday’s Volunteer celebration at Gyro park had a nice representation from community groups.” “Ya – but, the food was greasy.”  “Jesus the Christ promises eternal life.” Ya – but, I want proof.”  And so it goes.

It can seem as if every conversation is peppered with “ya – but”. I can’t speak for all of you, but I sure know that when that happens to me, I get mighty annoyed.  I can only imagine how Jesus might have felt when he gathered with the Jewish people for the festival of the Dedication.  Over and over Jesus was questioned about whether he was the Messiah.  Each time Jesus responded to the question, the gathered group would say, “ya-but”.

The dialogue went something like this: “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”  Jesus replied, “I have told you, but you won’t believe.”  It was a classic “ya – but” conversation.  Jesus told the gathered group, “I’ve told you and you have seen.”  But, guess what, the faithful just couldn’t quite get it.  Over and over Jesus explained that this is the way it is, but boy oh boy, the group struggled to grasp the full truth.

I for one can identify with the sense of disbelief and uncertainty.  For even when I see for myself, sometimes I struggle to believe.  Even when I’m told truth, I don’t always grasp it.  For instance, when I lived in Chilliwack I was always astounded at the swathed hay fields in late April and early May.  Now I think I know a little bit about haying having grown up in Alberta and living in Saskatchewan for 13 years, and I know that in the prairies one does not even think about swathing until at least June and often not until July.  So, even when I would see precious feed lying on the ground, my head would say, “it’s late April, how can the hay be ready?”    I would think that the specific year must be an exception.  But guess what, everywhere I travelled in the Fraser Valley, I saw spring swathed fields.  “Ya – but” I say.

What happens if each one of us were to suspend our “ya-but’s” and explore the insights and faithfulness offered in today’s lectionary texts?     When we read the scriptural lections, we do so with post-resurrection hindsight.  Therefore, it is easy for us to condemn the Pharisees for thinking Jesus was demon-possessed or else claiming himself to be one with God.  The question “are you for real?” asked by the Pharisees is one that isn’t all together surprising.  We too question are you for real when we encounter one who claims to be of God.  Interesting isn’t it, that we are pretty critical of those who claim to be of God – whether they are the door to door evangels, or of a different faith perspective to ourselves, or the radical leader of a movement that promotes a oneness with God.  We tend to dismiss them as being possessed, but not necessarily by God.  Or we suggest that they are not of their right mind.  By what criterion do we make such judgements?  Facing a similar situation, Jesus asked the Pharisees not to judge him by what he said but rather by what he did.

Surely there has to be some yardstick – some criterion – some principles by which to judge whether something is of God or not. Jesus’ entire life offered a standard of love, justice and compassion.  He modelled building up rather than tearing down – helping not hurting – compassion not fear – acceptance not rejection – trust not mere obedience.  To be of God is to be committed to the way of love, justice and compassion.

One of the most difficult tasks we face today is conversing with people whose views are in conflict with our own.  It may be liberal trying to dialogue with conservative, or radical Christians trying to converse with fundamentalist Christians.  It certainly arises when Christians try to understand Hindi’s, Muslims or even Mormons.  It is the problem we face in our efforts at communicating across cultures.

A quick read through the newspaper reveals the many struggles in trying to cross the barriers of racism and ethnic intolerance.  On Monday of this past week we have welcomed the Awad family to Penticton.  This Syrian refugee family is sponsored by our United Church and Anglican Church initiative to sponsor a Syrian Refugee family.  They will see first hand the tolerance, economic, faith and ethnic acceptance within Penticton.  There is no doubt that there are many challenges before us.

Because of the values and beliefs we hold, we feel drawn to one group or another.  In some cases it is a cultural affiliation, in others, a religious one, and in still others a political one.  Among those “like” us, we feel a kinship, a bonding, a sense of belonging.  But this sense of belonging also establishes the boundaries of who is “inside” and who is “outside”, who is one for us and who is the other.

Jesus recognized this dilemma.  He understood that no matter what he said, no matter what argument he gave, the Pharisees would not agree with him because they came from their own perspectives that placed Jesus in opposition to themselves – as an outsider, an “other”.  When the Pharisees ask Jesus once again if he is the Christ, Jesus said, “I told you, you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”  Jesus recognized them as the other at this moment.  They were not of his flock.

This is not to say that Jesus rejected them, but that Jesus recognized that he is not going to change their mind by lots of words.  Jesus was aware that the only way they may be open to understanding who he is, is by his works, his actions.

“Ya – but” we say.  We try to be loving, justice seeking and compassionate – but sometimes we just don’t make it.  And that is why we are followers of Jesus the Christ.  We need a shepherd to lead us, guide us, protect us and give us life.  As believers and followers of the Risen Christ, we seek to model our lives after Jesus the Good Shepherd.

One of the better known contemporary followers of Jesus the Christ was Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.  Because he knew his identity as Christian and as a follower of the Good Shepherd he also was a shepherd to the El Salvadoran people.

Bishop Oscar Romero was murdered in 1980 for his work among the poor in El Salvador.  Two weeks before he was assassinated, Romero told a newspaper journalist “I have often been threatened with death.  I must tell you, as a Christian, I do not believe in death without resurrection.  If I am killed, I shall arise in the Salvadoran people.  I say so without boasting, the greatest humility.  As a shepherd, I am obliged by divine mandate to give my life for those I love – for all Salvadorans, even for those who may be going to kill me.  If the threats are carried out, from this moment I offer my blood to God for the redemption and for the resurrection of El Salvador.  Martyrdom is a grace of God that I do not believe I deserve.  But if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, let my blood be a seed of freedom and the sign that hope will soon be reality.  Let my death, if it is accepted by God, be for my people’s liberation and as a witness of hope in the future.”

We give thanks to God that Romero’s life was not filled with “ya-but”.  Bishop Oscar Romaro knew Jesus as the Christ.  And because of his witness, so too do many of the people of El Salvador.  Their identity is clear.

Our identity is also clear.  We are people of Christ.  We are Christian.  And that means that we share in a vision of a world transformed.  It is both promise and hope.  It is both possibility and deep truth that we live.  We know the Shepherd. May all that we say proclaim the Good News.  May all the we do reveal the way of faithfulness.  May who we are announce to all that Jesus is the Christ.  Amen.