In my world I sit in my easy chair overlooking the garden, reading a real book and exulting with Mary Oliver in her poem, “The Sun”:
Have you ever seen/anything/in your life/more wonderful
than the way the sun,/every evening,/relaxed and easy,/floats toward the horizon
and into the clouds or the hills,/or the rumpled sea, and is gone---
and how it slides again
out of the blackness,/every morning,/on the other side of the world,/
like a red flower/
streaming upward on its heavenly oils,/ say, on a morning in [late winter]….,/ at its perfect imperial distance---and have you ever felt for anything
such wild love---
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,/a word billowing enough/for the pleasure
that fills you,/ as the sun/reaches out,/as it warms you
as you stand there,/empty-handed—or have you too/turned from this world---
or have you too/gone crazy/for power,/ for things?
Mary Oliver sets up a dichotomy between those people who are crazy for things, with their iPhones and iPads and their constant shopping, and those of us who prefer Nature with a capitol N and Beauty with a capitol B. Yet who’s to say my poetic sunrise is any more spiritual than her iPhone version?
Sheryl’s daughter Nicole has Black Friday shopping down to a fine science. She told her nieces: “I’ll pick you up at 3 a.m., hit the first store, each of us will grab the things we can’t live without, then zoom over for the opening rush at the next store.” And they’ll do it all, arriving home at 10 a.m. frazzled but exultant. From my perspective, that’s nuts! I don’t have a smart phone. I don’t do Black Friday. Nicole and I have very different perspectives on the world. But we can still love each other and tease about our different worlds.
Douglas Adams, in The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time contends that all of us are nuts: “The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well, on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball 90 million miles away and think this to be normal is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.”
How do we get our perspective? “We all think that we gather the facts and make our judgment from that,” novelist Barbara Kingsolver reminds us. “But I have a hunch that humans really work differently. We decide what we believe first, and then we go looking for facts that support what we believe. Or we decide whom we trust, then we believe what they say, then we look for supporting evidence.”
We each also come to our own perspective based on where we grew up. Watching “The Dust Bowl” this week, I saw again the absolutely flat terrain of my Oklahoma home (which we always said gives us a very large sky!). Luckily my hometown wasn’t in the panhandle, so we kept our “waving fields of grain,” and we had great rivers (which flooded), and sparkling trout streams where we frolicked on the rocks. In “The Dust Bowl” I also heard again the speech of my upbringing and reveled in the dialect, while flinching from the pictures of a mob mugging thousands of rapacious jack rabbits.
My theological perspective was shaped by “hellfire and brimstone” sermons from Revelation. I had to do a lot of work to get rid of the Oklahoma twang and the Southern Baptist theology—but I did it! Knowing that those things shaped me lets me be more understanding of everyone else’s perspective, recognizing that they too have been shaped by their upbringing.
When Sheila called Monday and asked me to preach today and told me the text was from the apocalyptic book of Revelation, I had to steel myself. I sat right down and read the visions John of Patmos records and found myself pulled into these mysteries.
There are two distinct perspectives on the book of Revelation. My recollection from childhood was that it was about a hundred-year war and blood up to the muzzles of the horses and scenes where Jesus plunged millions into the everlasting fire. Those parts of Revelation were used to scare us into being good. And we were good, and we thought our way of being good was the only way to live—scared of judgment and bound for glory while all our enemies perished.
Roger Ferlo distinguishes the two perspectives: “The images and obsessions of the book of Revelation have perhaps wreaked more havoc in people’s lives—created more strife, fomented more demonic fantasies, misled more people—than any other book in the Bible. (My fundamentalist daughter-in-law is always urging me to read the Left Behind series.) To a hostile reader the book (of Revelation) is absolute craziness—disjointed, inconsistent, violent, madly repetitive.
“But even its severest critics recognize the power of its cadences, the theophanies, the elemental resonance of its presiding myths. The dragon with the seven heads, the woman clothed with the sun, the Lamb upon his throne, what the Dante scholar Peter Hawkins has called ‘the cubed jewel box of the heavenly city’—these are symbols that have shaped the religious imagination of the West for two thousand years. (Feast, B4, 240)
Bible scholar Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza of Harvard tells us that in reality Revelation is recounting the great slaughters that happened during Rome’s conquering of many nations—actually prophecy after the fact. The seven churches around Ephesus in Asia Minor (now Turkey) to whom John writes were ravaged by war, and the new Christians were more severely punished than any others. Their children were killed and their homes were destroyed, leaving them without hope. John wrote Revelation to restore their hope by showing the “last days,” when God through Jesus would purify the earth and reward all the redeemed, while their persecutors suffered torment. But while waiting for these heavenly rewards, John wanted the people to be strong and to live honorable lives.
Our text from Revelation 3 is part of a magnificent pageant (think “Les Mis” for majesty and panorama) in which Jesus, “God’s Yes, the Faithful and Accurate Witness, the First of God’s creation,” admonishes the church at Laodicea for not having a perspective. Commentaries tell us that Laodicea lacked its own water supply, having no direct access to the cold water of the mountains or the hot water of the nearby springs. The waters flowing by aqueduct from the healing hot springs five miles away were lukewarm when they reached Laodicea. Likewise, Jesus found this church’s tepid indifference repugnant. Cold and hot water represent something positive, for cold water refreshes in the heat, and hot water is a tonic when one is chill. But lukewarm? The KJV has that powerful phrase: “You are lukewarm and I will spew you out of my mouth.” I asked Sheryl to give me an example of a liquid she might want to “spew out,” and she vividly reminded me of the time the box elder bug fell into my coffee.
In his vision, John of Patmos says Jesus accuses the people in the church at Laodicea of behaving exactly like their unconverted neighbors. They compromise and use their riches to buy off their enemies. Though they are not out on the streets robbing banks, raping, looting, murdering, mugging old grandmothers, or abusing children, they behave like Romans. Jesus says: “Choose a perspective! Stand for something. Make a difference.” But the message is even stronger than that. Jesus says, “The people I love, I call to account—prod and correct and guide so that they’ll live at their best.”
A few days before the election, Sister Joan Chittister spoke to an audience jammed into Westminster Presbyterian Church and prodded and corrected and guided us to live at our best. She spoke movingly about the persecution of women around the globe: mothers grabbing their children to flee the terror in Syria, women across Africa hauling water two miles up and down the mountain morning and night, the two million young girls suffering clitorectomies every year (even in the U.S.), sex trafficking of nubile African girls and innocent Native American teens and languid Russian beauties, forced labor in the factories that make our iPhones in China and Malaysia.
Then she stopped preaching and started meddling (as an old southern joke puts it) by bringing it home to our country. She spoke of the practices in the U.S. that are “criminal but not yet illegal”: the rape of women in the military; a minimum wage so low a single mother has to desert her children and work two jobs to be able to feed them; inadequate child care; few well-baby clinics in rural areas; working women being paid 18-25% less than men doing the same job; slum housing and widespread homelessness; racial discrimination. (The powerful indictment went on for an hour! You can hear the rebroadcast online at MPR.com.) We stood and cheered Sister Joan for reminding us that feminism is not dead and that we can make a difference where we live today. For her conclusion she brought us back to our own loving relationships and how policies can be changed to make the life we enjoy available to all people.
Similarly, after his message of correction in Revelation, Jesus gives us the beautiful portrait of Jesus at the door that hung in many a Christian church and home when I was growing up: “Look at me,” he says. “ I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you.” The harsh judge becomes an humble petitioner at the door, waiting for us to open our hearts.
A Cherokee proverb captures the message of Revelation: “When you were born, you cried and the world rejoiced. Live your life so that when you die, the world cries and you rejoice.”
In his Paradiso, Dante recreates the final scene of Revelation in poetry by envisioning an enormous celestial choir of all the Saints singing praise to God for all eternity. As Tom Tate describes the scene: “There are so many no one can count them all. They have come from everywhere, from every race and tribe, from every nation and language. They are everybody; and they sing! It is what the saints do.
“Even in the midst of evil, war, social upheaval, famine, luxury, and greed, saints cannot keep from singing! Though sickness unto death, persecution, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, tsunami, and state-sanctioned injustice may confront them, saints cannot keep from listening!
“Why? Because by listening they hear the good news. Living between the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, saints at the throne hear the raucously beautiful good news of God’s final word reaching back into history, back to where they live and breathe and have their being. By singing, they pay it forward and proclaim it loudly. They sing for courage to live in the present while always facing the future. There is no silence in this vision, for no one can keep from singing or listening before the throne. From creation to redemption, and beyond, the crowd gathers around the throne in numbers too large to count. Saints from every nation listen and sing, and God keeps hope alive in our world.” Tom Tate (Feast, A4, 220)
How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings. They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life, in your light do we see light. O continue your steadfast love to those who know you and your salvation to the upright of heart!