May 1, Sixth Sunday of Easter:
Acts 16:9-15; Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5; John 14:23-29
Draft text of the homily, please forgive all grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
There are several visions today. Paul has one. The “seer” of Revelation has one.
Jesus keeps trying to get us to see one…through parables, healings, through dying and rising…these aren’t visions of heaven really, but a visions of God’s dream for all of creation. When the Holy City comes down out of heaven, and to reside on earth. When the divine comes to us and makes a home with us.
The great Kentucky writer Wendell Berry has a poem called “A Vision” that has much in common with the vision in today’s Revelation.
“If we have the wisdom to survive,” it begins.
“If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are dead
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, an old forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.”
Can you hear all the echoes?
The clear river of the water of life, the old forest filled with trees whose leaves are for the healing of nations. Fruit, and birds, and song and sacrament in abundance.
The health and wisdom and indwelling light.
Visions of heaven and earth united…no longer separate…God’s way of peace and justice being known upon the earth…God’s saving health among all nations.
God revealed as fully, completely, absolutely one with all of creation.
And even more importantly, humans being able to see it…To see, and taste, and feel, and smell the light and love and goodness of God all around…in everything.
And then that ending. “This is no paradisal dream. Its hardship is its reality.”
This is what’s coming, and it requires something from us.
This is the message that seers and visionaries and mystics have been trying to get us to understand for millennia. That ultimately it is not up to us, and yet somehow it is up to us. The fate of the world rests on God’s love and mercy and justice and not on anything we do; and yet the things we do or don’t do have profound effects (positive and negative) on those near and far, on those we never see, and on those yet to be. The mystics, the visionaries, the seers like the author of Revelation, and Wendell Berry, and Jesus will tell us that it’s not either/or—either God is responsible or we are—but both/and. How this vision plays out is both entirely up to God and mostly up to us.
Because whether or not we will have the wisdom to survive is still an open question. And whether or not we can really embrace the hardship of that dream’s reality.
Whether we can muster the collective will and determination to prepare a place for future generations to grow and thrive. A place where memory will grow into legend and song and sacrament and abundance. A place of clean water, and healthy soil, and vibrant communities.
But then, it’s always been an open question. And it’s what these visionaries are trying to help us see…revealing the connections between God’s activity in the world and ours.
In the year 60 of the common era, there was a massive earthquake which damaged or destroyed many of the cities mentioned in the book of Revelation. And there were fears and rumors that Nero— the dreaded emperor and persecutor of early Christians—had come back to life.
It was against this backdrop of anxiety and fear that this apocalyptic text known as the book of Revelation was composed. Like a mad Jewish beat poet, this author who calls himself John paints a bold and disorienting picture—not really of the future—but of this essential both/and…of these core truths that we seem to need constantly to be reminded of. That sin, suffering, and human rebellion against God’s ways of peace are real. That all of our human structures and social systems—(the principalities and the powers)—even if they were created good, and for the very best of intentions—are also infected with demonic energies of greed, and fear, and hate. AND also reminding us that in the midst of all of this chaos and uncertainty, that God is working, and moving, and waiting to be revealed in the fullness of glory.
In vivid language, “John” reminds those living in the chaos of the first century—and the chaos of the 21st century—that behind, and within, and beyond the shadow of worldly power and control God’s dream—God’s reality—of an open city—of creation finally, and fully reconciled to it’s creator—of healing and health and salvation is waiting, groaning, aching to be revealed.
And we help it along by all of our actions large and small.
It’s not easy. And it’s not entirely up to us. But we do play our part.
There’s a new documentary on Wendell Berry coming out, called “The Seer”, and last week on NPR there was a story on it. In it Berry talks about the brokenness of the world and the hardship of repairing God’s vision saying: “Things that belong together have been taken apart. And you can’t put it all back together again. What you can do, is the only thing that you can do. You take two things that ought to be together and you put them together. Two things! Not all things.”
And the filmmaker adds: “What he’s saying to me is…We’re all complicit in a broken system, and in a broken world. The question isn’t how can I fix it all. But how can I, with my own two hands, do good work, every day.”
That’s wisdom we can build on. And it reminded me of something another wise rabbi once said. “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” [Shapiro, Wisdom of the Sages, 41. Paraphrase of Rabbi Rami Shapiro’s interpretive translation of Rabbi Tarfon’s work on the Pirke Avot 2:20. The text is a commentary on Michah 6:8.]
I think it’s why Jesus says today, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” Or in the translation that I like better: “do not let your hearts be distressed or lacking in courage.” In other words, don’t worry, it’s not all up to you, but keep at it. We can’t do it all, but we need to do something. Something renewing, enriching, something wise, and maybe a little risky. Take two things that ought to be together and put them together. Every day.
And someday we’ll stand with all the saints and sinners by that clear water in that glistening city sharing in the abundant sacrament of our lives being offered in service to that dream—that vision—that God is continually breathing into existence.