“A New Earth”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
April 24, 2016
University Baptist Church
“Dearly Beloved, We are gathered here today to get through this thing called life.” ~Prince
The City of Minneapolis is bathed in purple as we try to make sense out of the untimely death of an enigmatic musical genius who made Minnesota his home and brought fame and cool relevance to the Twin Cities. When others in the industry looked down on anything that wasn’t New York or LA or Nashville, Prince stayed rooted here in the Twin Cities where he felt at home, accepted and free to be as courageous and outrageous as he wanted to be. And no, the choir is not going to break out in a Prince song, nor is there any planned rendition of Purple Rain after the benediction. But even those who did not know his music knew of him and can see what is on the minds of those who did know him. The peaceful dance parties at First Avenue and Paisley Park, the flowers, the tributes, the reflection is an homage to a man that defied categorization, who eschewed labels and the limits that they imposed. Prince was an exacting artist who refused to be bound, except by his own inspired creativity. And now we are gathered here to find a new way to get through this thing called life.
It’s always like this.
Some trauma haunts us or rocks us out of our complacency and we need to look at the world differently, again.
That’s oddly the context of the book of Revelation. The people had seen the best and brightest of their generation killed by the state for practicing a religion that was out of the norm, that was suspect, that was not beholden to the rules and whims of the dominant culture. So the early church lived in the underground. It spoke in coded language that the intelligencia could not understand. It protected its own and appeared to the outside world as an enigma. Not dangerous as long as they could be contained. Not a threat as long as they could be scared or ignored. But there was a power underneath that the powers and principalities did not count on and could never understand. It was this power of spirit that we are trying to understand. It has taken 2000 years for people to come to terms with what was really going on in their minds. And even now, we can’t grasp it all. Such is the power of art. Such is the power of metaphor. Such is the power of the Spirit which undergirds it all.
It’s all about the New Heaven and the New Earth. It’s not a reward to receive in the future. It’s a guiding principle upon which to focus our lives. It’s a vision and it’s good news.
When people describe a Prince concert, people get misty. They have trouble explaining it. They talk about the aura, the artistry, the ability to be surprised and challenged. The gatherings at Paisley Park and First Avenue these past few days have had that kind of power. We experienced that a bit last weekend when we did the Missa Gaia. Something surreal and transporting happened, and we were given a glimpse of something new and it was very good.
Revelation spends 20 chapters telling of the destruction of the world as we know it. It’s reported as a future occurrence, but there are enough clues in it to relate it to the present age. Amidst the destruction, there are only two things that sustain the people: The music of the heavenly choir who have their backs and the vision for the New Jerusalem, the new earth that is being born, if they keep the faithful witness. So this vision and it’s musical soundtrack are partners in hope.
We could spend 20 chapters describing the results of not being good stewards of our earth. We can talk about climate change, sure, but we can also talk about the cutting down of the rainforests, the boom in agribusiness that chokes out small farmers and plants monocrops using genetically modified seeds that kill the so-called pests that keeps this world in balance. We can talk about our reliance on fossil fuels and the black tar sands of Canada. We can talk about hydraulic fracking that accesses natural gas, but at the expense of our aquifers and the stability of our tectonic plates. We can talk about rising sea levels and floods and hurricanes. It starts to sound the like four horsemen of the apocalypse. We long for a do-over.
But the good news is that there are some who are forging a new narrative. They are listening to a more hopeful soundtrack. They are keeping the faithful witness against the normative blind energy and material consumption. They are taking public transportation, riding bicycles, walking, investing in wind and solar energy, they are composting and putting in rain gardens. They are eschewing fast food, supporting small farms and limiting their use of disposable bags and disposable daipers. They are lobbying against coal and nuclear and advocating the balanced and proper use of our resources. They are doing this, knowing that the angel choir sings their songs. They do this knowing that God longs for a new earth.
Revelation is misread to only expect a sweet by and by. That’s all well and good, but you can be so heavenly focused that you’re no earthly good. A Biblical faith is about helping people live through the struggle in this world. What better way than to help create a new earth here and now, joining God in this transformation.
Revelation is nothing if not over the top. The destruction is graphic and then the New Jerusalem, the capital city of the new earth is equally absurd.
The city of the new Jerusalem is even paced off in extravagant ways. It’s 1500 cubic miles. It’s cubic like the holy of holies inside the old temple was cubic. This is a serious city. It is no longer one small city like Rome ruling the rest of the world. But this city on this mountain will be a huge place. The place is so big and so tall that there is no longer a distinction between heaven and earth. The city itself reaches up to heaven and heaven reaches down to us.
It almost seems ridiculous, except that something like it actually did happen. In the 200 years after the writing of Revelation, the Jesus movement grew—calling for freedom for slaves and other causes of justice.
Finally after the great emperor Diocletian failed to stamp out this cult, Emperor Constantine legalized it. It was perhaps the worst thing that could have happened to Christianity.
For once the movement for the outcast became the dominant religion of the empire, the line between empire and religion blurred. Power tempted the people. What followed were things like the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Holocaust, Heritage Village USA, CBN, Focus on the Family and televangelism. But in the midst of this there has always been the outsiders on the fringes speaking truth to power—longing for that day when the people are no longer seduced by the beast.
The people who saw through this were the Jesuits,
the Catholic Worker Movement,
the third world Latin American Liberation theologians,
the union organizers,
the glbtqa activists,
the Sojourners community,
the Black Lives Matter street protestors,
the University Baptists.
All of them saw through the masks of empire and kept their eyes on the prize. The true prize. The New Jerusalem. The new earth.
You see, it’s not something that’s out there for us to receive in the end times if we have been good and righteous and holy enough. It is something that we need to work toward. It takes work to tend the soil. It takes work to advocate for this world of ours so that it might be truly new once again. It takes commitment to actively oppose empire and to actively support the new earth.
Sisters and brothers, we have the new earth as close as our eyes can see—especially if we can look at our own hands and our own feet and our own hearts and our own minds and our own lips. When we can see them as God’s appendages, then we are truly on our way to the new earth.
So on this earth day Sunday, let us use our hands. Let us use our feet. Let us use our minds and hearts and lips and prayers.
And work toward a new earth. When we do, I think we will find something that approaches a new heaven.
And when we have a concept of a new heaven and a new earth in our minds and hearts and on our lips and in our prayers, then we are renewed. Renewed people who renew the earth who renew still others all the while building a new Jerusalem. Sounds like heaven to me.
After all of the ways of the world have run their course, with all of their conspiratorial evil, after all of the death and destruction, there will appear a new heaven and a new earth. A new Jerusalem. That’s the promise of Revelation.
The new Jerusalem will come down from heaven replacing Babylon, or Rome, or the United States, or the Russian Federation, or Iraq, or ISIL or the Taliban, or the World Trade Organization or the International Monetary Fund , or the oil industry, or whatever country or false gods we put our allegiance more into than the true living God.
For those of us not marked on the head or hand with the sign of the beast,
Those of us who trust more in God than in the sword,
More in Christ than in money
More in love than in hate,
More in reconciliation than in revenge,
More in hope than in fear,
More in conservation than consumption.
We will see this new earth. IF we bear the faithful witness with persistent resistance.
And we will be lifted by a hopeful soundtrack that sings a new song. It breaks out of the predictable patterns and unabashedly declares hope when all seems lost.
In the vision of Revelation, a voice from God declares:
“Behold, the dwelling of God is with all people. God will dwell with them and they shall be God’s people. God will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Hallelujah!
On this earth day Sunday, while we are walking on our blue boat home, we might find things that jar us out of our complacency. They might inspire us and ground us in reality.
And if they jar us into doing something or at least recognizing the beauty and the gift that is the earth, then we have take a step in the right direction.
After church today, we will have a chance to put some of our earth faith into action as we tend our lawn and gardens, preserving and enhancing the last and best green space in Dinkytown. In the springtime it looks like a new earth. And this piece of earth can be our palate on which we create a vision for how we want to live in the world—sharing beauty and peace, being a place where people gather and become inspired and go about creating and being a new earth.
In a few weeks, I will begin my 310 mile sojourn on the Superior Hiking Trail as part of my Sabbatical experience. I’ll no doubt encounter wildlife and creatures great and small. I’ll be moored by the Great Lake Gitchi Gumi and buoyed by your prayers. I intend to listen during that trip. Listen to the waves, listen to the call of the wild, listen to my creaky aging body, listen to the wind in the trees, maybe even the buzzing of a mosquito or two. And maybe they will sing like the angel choir, telling me to pay attention. Telling me to go about creating a new earth. Telling me to experience the present earth first.
Let me close with a poem by environmental activist and poet Wendell Berry.
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front
By Wendell Berry
One of the articles in Reclaiming Politics (IC#30)
Originally published in Fall/Winter 1991 on page 62
Copyright (c)1991, 1996 by Context Institute
Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” from The Country of Marriage, copyright © 1973 by Wendell Berry, reprinted by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.