Fruit of the Month Club

I’ve read Revelation, but if I’m honest, I’ve never really studied it much. We dabbled in it in seminary, but it was really high level stuff. If I spent a little time on it, I could probably remember the key players and symbols that help inform how we read John’s Revelation not with the terrible theology of the Left Behind series ruining it for us.

I’ve been reminded of my lack of deep knowledge on Revelation of late because in Year C, we read portions of the book during Eastertide. It’s way easier to preach John or Acts, so nobody in my congregation has heard anything about John’s great vision, but as I read the lesson appointed for Easter 6C, I couldn’t help be smile at the image of the new Jerusalem that John sees.

Stuck in the midst of this grand vision of a world in which there is no longer night, which can’t be heaven, in my opinion, is this description of the Tree of Life.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

This image of the Tree of Life producing its own fruit of the month club has me thinking about the abundance of the Kingdom of God. From my white, middle class, American perspective, I imagine the fruit to be grapes one month, apples another, and strawberries the month after that, but the reality is there is probably lychee, mangos, monk fruit, and maybe even durian.

The fruit that God offers to those who seek after the restoration of the world is going to look a lot like the fruit that challenges our tastes, those things that we give priority to in order to perpetuate our own comfort and sense of normalcy, and invites us to experience what brings joy to those around us, those we don’t know, those whose experiences have been marginalized. It’ll be ever changing, always challenging, and, it is important to remember, always life giving.

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A Lenten Epiphany

As you are probably aware, the season of Lent is the 40 days (not counting Sundays) that lead up to Easter Day and the Feast of the Resurrection.  It is a season of penitence and fasting, in which we are invited to bring to mind our sinfulness, repent of our wrong-headedness and stiff-necks, and seek God’s forgiveness.  Because Easter is a movable feast, falling on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the vernal equinox, Lent begins at different times each year.  This means that the number of Sundays after the Epiphany can vary.  What is unexpected, however, is when smack-dab in the middle of Lent, we get what feels like a Sunday in Epiphanytide.

Such is the case this Sunday with the foreshadowing that John uses in the story of Jesus cleansing the Temple.  The lessons appointed for the Sundays after the Epiphany tell the of the ongoing revelation of God to humanity through Jesus Christ.  We hear of the Magi, who recognize Jesus as the King of the Jews thanks to the appearance of a star in the heavens.  In the Baptism story, Jesus is revealed to be God’s beloved Son.  Nathaniel recognizes Jesus as the King of Israel.  The season always concludes with the Transfiguration of Christ, wherein Peter, James, and John are made privy to Jesus’ full revelation as the Christ of God.

In Sunday’s lesson, then, the Third Sunday in Lent becomes another opportunity for who Jesus really is to be revealed to the disciples.  After the Jewish leaders demand some credentials after his turning the Temple system on its ear, Jesus tells them what the sign will be.  “Tear down this temple, and I will build it back in three days.”  John concludes the story by noting that “after [Jesus] was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.”

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Note the disciples (left) looking like “This is not going to end well.”

It is a slow play, to be sure, two, more likely even three years, in the making.  Over the course of his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus is continually pulling back the curtain, slowly, as his disciples and crowds are able, unveiling more and more fully who he really is and what he came to do.  It is helpful, I think, here in the season of Lent, to take a moment to reflect on what this time of preparation reveals to us about Jesus.  From the Ash Wednesday invitation to a holy Lent all the way through Holy Saturday’s holy waiting, the lead-up to Jesus’ Passion and death are constantly unveiling God’s grace and mercy to us.

The Great Multitude

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“After this I, John, 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.”

The Revelation of John gets short shrift in many Episcopal circles.  It shows up on nine different Sundays in the three year lectionary cycle, an average of three times a year, but I can probably count on none fingers the number of times I’ve heard Revelation preached on a Sunday.  If I’ve heard it, it was probably in the context of the Burial Office wherein the latter half of Sunday’s lesson (in the BCP lectionary) is one of the six recommended New Testament lessons.  I say all this not to condemn my fellow preachers, but to convict myself as well, since over the last decade, I’ve been preaching roughly 50% of the Sundays every year.

I wonder why we are so Revelation averse?  It probably has something to do with the wider Christian culture’s seeming obsession with it.  Episcopalians tend to shy away from stuff that makes us seem “like them,” to our detriment.  Even more likely is the reality that we just don’t have much training in the topic.  Seminary electives on apocalyptic literature, while available, are probably taught every three years, and are certainly scarcely registered for.  With such vivid imagery, most of which must be taken metaphorically, it seems downright dangerous to tackle Revelation not having done your homework.  So, rather than take the time to dig in, we opt for safer texts like Ecclesiasticus, 1 John, or Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes.

If ever there was a safe Sunday on which a preacher might tackle some of the broader themes in Revelation, All Saints’ Sunday might be it.  We are already dabbling in that place where we can’t speak from any real knowledge.  Though we say, every Sunday (I hope), that we believe in the resurrection of the dead, it is hard to really grasp what that means.  So, when faced with a lesson in which John is given a glimpse of the heavenly city, with the great multitude that no one could count gathered around the throne, maybe we take shot at it, confessing that no one really knows what it means to be a part of the Church Triumphant, and yet giving thanks for the millions of Christians who have paved the way for us to one day take our place in that heavenly chorus that shouts “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

For me, the image of the Great Multitude is a comforting one, as I ponder not only those great heroes of the faith who are included, but the countless number of faithful disciples whose faith has impacted my own, without either of us knowing it.  I think of the arthritic hands I’ve seen knitting prayer shawls, the careful reverence of a pall being placed upon a casket, the hours priests have spent in their studies crafting sermons, and the hundreds of breakfast casseroles I’ve consumed over the years.  I think of faithful volunteers in elementary schools, food pantries, Sunday liturgies, and backpack blessings.  I think of all those folks who work tirelessly behind the scenes to build the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, I give thanks for their dedication, and I look forward to that day when I don my white rob and take my place before the throne to join the chorus, making a joyful noise for the Lord of our salvation.

The Tree of Life

Most every morning, I read three things: Morning Prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, Brother Give us a Word from the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, and God Pause from Luther Seminary and WorkingPreacher.org.  Some mornings are more hurried than others.  Sometimes, I able to just sit and soak in some meditative time, while other days, I’m reading from my iPhone screen in the parking lot at my daughter’s school.  This morning was one of those hurried times, but thankfully God spoke to me in the midst of my harried existence.

Today’s God Pause reflection was written by Tim Kellgren, a retired Lutheran Pastor, who richly opened up Sunday’s Revelation text.  It reads, in part, as follows:

In this reading from Revelation, the early church creates a grand visual aid for embracing God: God is the source of light in a time when darkness was a source of fear and unknowing; God is a flowing river in a dry land where water means life; God is an abundant tree of life producing a new crop every month in a land of uncertain food resources.

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I’ve never done much work in the Book of Revelation.  As such, I’ve never dealt with the vast array of images that John used to describe the things he saw in his vision.  For some reason  this morning, the image of the “abundant tree of life producing a new crop every month in a land of uncertain food resources” really struck me.  Maybe it is because my eldest child attends an elementary school with a nearly 80% free and reduced lunch rate.  Maybe it is because the Episcopal Church is statistically much older than the general population in which roughly 10% of senior citizens faces food insecurity.  Maybe it is because of the increasingly loud political rhetoric around “hand outs” and “entitlement programs” which ensure that American citizens, especially the young and the elderly, those most vulnerable, don’t go to bed hungry on a regular basis.  Whatever it is, I’ve come to realize just how radical a vision John is having when he sees the tree of life which offers fresh fruit each month, giving a world that was vastly more food insecure than 21st century America, the promise that God will provide: especially for those who can’t help themselves who don’t fit into the power system.

If John’s vision of the New Jerusalem is compelling today, imagine how much more it would have spoken to an oppressed church in a starving backwater place like the Sinai Peninsula in the sprawling Roman Empire.  Thanks be to God for a vision of a world where there is enough for everyone, but next comes the hard part.  How do we follow the words of our Lord’s Prayer and make this heavenly vision happen on earth, right now?

The Problem with John’s Revelation

Easter season in Year C of the lectionary brings with it a six week jaunt through John’s Revelation.  Since we are coming up on the fifth Sunday of Easter, I’m a bit late in bringing this to your attention, but maybe set a reminder for Lent 2019 with the note, “prayerfully consider a preaching series on Revelation during Eastertide.”  I suspect you won’t follow through on it, but you might.  Our people hear so much garbage about Revelation(s) in the popular religious culture, that it might behoove us to give them some decent eschatological theology once every three years or so.  I might consider such a preaching series the next time Year C rolls around, but I’ll have to spend some serious time working through a fundamental flaw in John’s Revelation that we will hear this Sunday.

As John describes the new heaven and the new earth that God will establish after Satan is finally defeated, he notes only one key characteristic:

the sea was no more

I am not a big fan of sand.  I don’t particularly enjoy spending a day sitting on the beach, but even I can appreciate the beauty of the waves crashing against the shoreline.  My children have grown up with the Gulf of Mexico coursing through their veins.

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A new heaven and a new earth that doesn’t have a beach is not a place that I’m keen to go.  Now let’s be clear.  I’ve got my tongue planted firmly in my cheek here.  I’m not suggesting that these images from John’s Gospel are to be taken literally.  Instead, I am taking umbrage with John’s projection of a pre-modern mythology of water onto God’s desire for the new creation.  Water was, for the majority of human history, a symbol of chaos.  This is why the first thing God does in creation is to send his Spirit to hover over the water.  The choas of the deep must first be overcome by order, and so a dome is established to push back the water creating the sky.  The waters that were left over had to be brought into order by being walled off by land.  The great flood of Noah was an undoing of creation: chaos once again reigned as the ark floated perilously over the earth.

The pre-modern world was very much afraid of the power of water, and so it is only logical that as John envisioned what God’s perfect new creation might look like, he couldn’t imagine the sea being a part of it.  In some ways, I think we can understand that.  We see the power that water can have when the flood waters rise.  We know that large bodies of warm water hold within them the potential energy for hurricanes of great magnitude.  We’ve seen the movies with great ships been tossed around like paper boats.  Yet, in our age, we have come to also understand the benefits of the sea.  The currents help create weather patterns.  There is increasing awareness of the possibility of tidal forces being used to create electric power.  And let’s not forget the great bounty of the sea that I so much enjoy about living life at sea level.  Perhaps a 21st century John of Patmos would have seen the new heaven and new earth in a much different way.

There is a lot of teaching potential in John’s Revelation. As you think about preaching a series on it three years from now, you might want to carefully consider how this  great socio-political apocalyptic vision of John intersects with our life today.  What did John see that was impacted by his time and place, and how might our vision of God’s dream be different today?  First and foremost, I’m sure that the new earth will have some sugar sand beaches and a sea as clear as crystal.

Making all things new

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I know what you are thinking.  The whole butterfly metaphor for new lift is so cliche’ and rife with the possibility of heresy.  I totally get that initial reaction.  I probably would have had it too had FBC not received this live butterfly garden kit for her seventh birthday.  The cool thing about this insectarium in a box is that it doesn’t come with freeze dried butterflies (I’m not sure how you’d make them travel-worthy).  Instead, it comes with baby caterpillars.  You get to watch them gain nutrition from the biological sludge in the bottom of their cup and grow into their full stature.  Most recently, they’ve moved from larva to pupa, each one forming a chrysalis which is now ready for the terrifying-to-me move from the safety of their plastic cup to the new world of their butterfly garden.  Watching the wonder in my two girls as they notice each change along the way has given new meaning to the word from the one sitting on the throne in John’s Revelation:

“See, I am making all things new.”

Even before the chrysalises had formed, every morning my daughters could see that something new was happening in that tiny plastic cup.  As I think about the promise of God in John’s Revelation, I can’t help but realized that I have stopped being able to see the world with the same sort of wonder.  I don’t wake up looking for the new things God is doing in the world, but if I believe the Scriptures, and take seriously the words Jesus taught me to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” then every day, little by little, God must be doing something new in the world.  Perhaps I should add to my prayers that God might “open my eyes to see his hand at work in the world about me.”

What about you, dear reader?  Are you able to see the new things that God is doing in your world?  Where is God calling you to meet him?  What blessing has God prepared for you that maybe you just can’t recognize yet?  Where is the spring of the water of life bursting forth in your little corner of the Kingdom?  Last week, I prayed that our ears might be open to hear the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Today, my prayer is that our eyes might be open to see with joy and wonder the new thing God is doing in our midst.