Monday, 19 April 2010 17:54

April 18, 2010 Sermon

"A New Earth"
Revelation 21:1-6
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 18, 2010
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN


Let me begin by reading from the second most important book at UBC.  This is from Gayla Marty’s just-released book, Memory of Trees:

“Why do we love places at all when we must continually leave them?  Why do we trouble to make homes and farms with the illusion that they will endure and be holy?  Or is every place holy, drawing us to itself, to care for creation?” (Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, by Gayla Marty. University of Minnesota Press, 2010, Page 207)

I got a note this past week from MPR asking me if I thought that Earth Day was still relevant.  Just seeing the turnout for Gayla’s book launch proves it.  Gayla’s memoir is about land.  It’s about family.  It’s about paradise—the childhood illusion of it and the hard work of sustaining it.  Without hard work, we run the risk of losing paradise.  “Of course Earth Day is still relevant”, I emailed back to MPR.  We care for the earth.  And we have the dirty fingernails and the sore backs to prove it.

Here are some of the things we have done at UBC over the past several years to be a greener community of faith.

We replaced windows and installed storm windows on most of the building and we plan to finish the job in the coming months.

We changed our light bulbs to CFL’s.

We installed a low-flow toilet and we plan to install some more of them.

We encouraged the congregation take the Minnesota Energy Challenge.

There’s a green initiatives section on our web site.

We now deliver our newsletter primarily through cyberspace rather than using trees and toner to produce our communication.

We installed ceiling fans to better regulate the temperature in this cavernous room.

We got rid of our old inefficient air conditioners—recycling them of course.  We kept the ones that actually work—go figure.

We have addressed problems with our thermostats to make our building more energy efficient.

Some of us ride our bikes to church, to school, to work.

We constantly recycle and look for ways to reduce our toxicity.

Beth Wilson made a new flag out of discarded plastic bags.  Check it out on the flagpole.

Our janitor uses nontoxic cleaning supplies.

We produced a Lenten calendar with 47 ideas for being greener, including 47 scripture passages—one for each day.

Did I mention that we planted a vegetable garden?

We even held a forum on composting.

And we are going to be a drop site for a CSA in the coming months.

Of course Earth Day is important.

The difference is that Earth Day used to be one day to call upon people to be better stewards of the earth.  That’s a good and noble thing.  But now, we ride on the wave of environmental consciousness.  And we take this day as an opportunity to celebrate the ways we are taking care of the earth.  What a welcome change.  Is it still needed?  Of course it is for we have recognized that we are intricately connected with our earth—this creation given to us by God to be a paradise.

So what does the Bible say about environmental concerns?  I think it is intricately woven into the Biblical narrative.  The Bible is about land—the holiness of it, the people who live on it, and our work to be worthy of the land we were promised.  The question we have grappled with all year is this: Is paradise something that we recognize here or is it something that we wait for after we die?  The Bible begins and ends in paradise.  We have the Garden of Eden in Genesis and the vision of a new heaven and a new earth in Revelation.  In between is the struggle for the land.  Today, I want to focus on the concept of a new earth.

You know, taking something from Revelation is always a risky thing.  Revelation is the most misunderstood and misused book of the Bible.  It is written in graphic metaphor about how the destructive ways of the world will eventually cause the earth to implode.  And it points us to a way of living in the world that is more faithful, more just, and more godly.  People have literalized the metaphors and it has caused them to believe all sorts of freaky things—about how the world is going to end and worse, that the only thing we need to be doing is focusing on believing the right things so we can be spared all of the tribulation.

I was at my dentist’s office a few weeks ago.  The hygienist and I got into a conversation about the recent earthquakes.  She said, almost gleefully, that the earthquakes are a sign that Jesus is returning soon.  “Isn’t that great pastor?”  I chose not to argue with her since she was the one holding the sharp dental instruments.  I might have pointed out that there are the same number of earthquakes this year as in previous years.  The difference is that they are hitting closer to populated areas.  This is not God picking off heathen or sinful people or even accelerating tribulation to fulfill Biblical prophecy.

So, let’s unpack some of the imagery of Revelation.  I have heard people use the imagery and destruction in Revelation to eschew environmental concerns for they say God’s going to just destroy the earth anyway.  We need not care for an earth God is going to destroy.  Or worse, if more of the world is destroyed, it will hasten the day of the return of Christ.  Let’s just participate in a little tribulation for the glory of God.  Sounds like an easy cop-out to me.  But increasingly, care for the earth is something that liberal evangelicals and conservative evangelicals can both rally around.  We’re finding some common ground.  There is hope.

Here’s the question.  Is Revelation proscriptive or is it descriptive?  Meaning, is it a book that is telling us the way things are going to occur or is it written as a warning and an encouragement for us to get it right.

I think it’s the latter.  It’s a book that says, this is where your current path leads.  Turn, therefore.  Repent.  When you do, you will be going against the grain.  People will think you’re nuts.  But keep going against the grain.  Keep them confused.  And keep working toward paradise here on this earth.

The communities to which Revelation was written were living on the edge of society. They were little house church communities probably smaller than this one. What each of these seven churches had in common was a desire to be faithful servants of God. The problem was that their brand of religion was not very popular. In fact the Roman Empire sought to destroy those who followed the emerging sect called Christianity because they said "Jesus is Lord”, not Caesar.  The Christians saw little need to follow the unjust laws of the Empire. They refused conscription to the military. They refused to worship at the temples of the other gods. They took their ethics from Jesus who welcomed the stranger and had the guts to stand up to the powers of the empire even if it cost him his life. Revelation was written to strengthen these tiny communities so that they might bear the faithful witness in the face of persecution.

The writer of Revelation also warned against going along too much with the ways of the world. He called this becoming drunk with the wine of the beast. The people in the churches are told to have patient endurance as they bear the faithful witness against great odds. The terror unleashed in Revelation is what happens to a world that is bent on evil. Bowls are poured, seals are broken, trumpets sound and all hell breaks loose. Our persecution can come from too much conformity to a wayward world.

The only ones who are spared are those who bear the faithful witness in the face of empire. They are the ones who see the New Jerusalem and hear God declare, "Behold, I make all things new." In other words, the worldly empires we think have control over us in the end, aren’t really in control. God makes all things new. God is always doing a new thing in us and calls us not to conform to the destructive ways of the world.

Rita Brock says that Revelation “Responded to rather than provoked—devastating violence.  During the troubled first century in Galilee and Judea, religious movement fomented many forms of resistance to Rome, which had taken over the territory in 63 BCE. Rome governed with a brutal and exploitive hand, epitomized by Herod the Great.  It co-opted the Jerusalem temple system to extract heavy taxes, and it crucified dissidents.  Leaders of resistance movements condemned Rome and frequently also denounced Jerusalem and the temple.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker, Beacon Press 2008 p.74)

The Jewish people saw their temple destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE and in a last-ditch effort to resist Roman rule, they held another uprising in 139 that left Jerusalem permanently Roman.  Under penalty of death, Jews were not allowed in Jerusalem.  Jerusalem became metaphorically known as Babylon.  Some scholars believe that the destruction described in Revelation is a remembrance of the destruction that the Jews had already seen.  The point of the book is to say that there is hope beyond destruction.

As a tactic of war, the Romans used to salt their enemies’ fields—making them impossible to grow crops.  The idea of a new earth makes real sense here: new soil, unspoiled land.  The only way to restore the earth was to rely on God and pull together the struggling communities of faith and remind them to bear the faithful witness and persistently resist the ways of violence and death.  Caring for the earth is an act of resistance against empire and entropy.  It’s an act of faithful hope.

And we are rewarded for our good work with fruit from our labors.

We’re rewarded with clean water.

We’re rewarded with fresh air.

We’re rewarded with fresh milk, like we got last Sunday afternoon.

We’re rewarded with a renewed sense of community as we all get our fingernails dirty.

The New Jerusalem was one that looked like Eden.  

“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.  Nothing accursed will be found there anymore.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be there light, and they will reign forever and ever.” (Rev. 22:1-3,5)

But is this enough?  Rita Brock writes: “Revelation has more words devoted to paradise than does any other text in the scriptures.  But Revelation’s paradise is too thin and meager to carry the weight of its fury.  In being obsessed with dualism of good and evil and galvanizing its attention on empire, it closes the door, finally, on any possibility of forgiveness, and it envisions a denatured new Jerusalem that is out of this world….Its paradise resembles Doris Lessing; description of hell in a locked psychiatric ward—the lights are on all the time, and nowhere can one find tender mercies or the warmth of love.” (Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love for This World for Crucifixion and Empire by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker, Beacon Press 2008 p.79)

Maybe we need to expand our view of paradise beyond what we see in the last book of the Bible.

Is paradise just a place?

Maybe it is also a state of mind.

Maybe it’s a spirit of being.

Maybe it’s a renewed commitment.

Maybe it’s sacred memory.

Maybe it’s all of that.

Hear again from our resident theologian:

“Why do we love places at all when we must continually leave them?  Why do we trouble to make homes and farms with the illusion that they will endure and be holy?  Or is every place holy, drawing us to itself, to care for creation?” (Memory of Trees: A Daughter’s Story of a Family Farm, by Gayla Marty. University of Minnesota Press, 2010, Page 207)

What if the new earth we create is not simply about something that God is going to do in the future, but it’s something that we create here and now.  Maybe it’s something that we create whether or not we are farmers or gardeners.

Maybe it is the way we tread on this earth.

Maybe it’s the way we recognize the grace that is around us.

Maybe it’s as we recover the memory of trees around us (as Gayla would remind and encourage us).

Maybe it’s how we embody the spirit of God that is upon us.

Maybe it’s how we recognize and live the resurrection.

Behold, says God, I make all things new.

May we recognize the new in each of us.  That’s the new earth.  And it’s right here.  It’s close enough for us to touch.  And it’s able to touch us and renew within us a sense of the holy that we all need.  And when we touch that holiness, then we experience a new earth.  We join God in creating this new earth.  We tread lightly not only on the land, but we care for the inhabitants of the land.  We model the inspiration of God in our lives and we are made new.  Thank God.  Amen.