Sunday, April 21, 2013

Lamb Power

Monday night I cooked a stew in my pressure cooker. Jonathan and Nathan and I enjoyed it; though I was distracted with the news from Boston, and worrying about a childhood friend who had been running her first marathon—and as it turned out, her dad was critically injured, and he’s one of the people we will be praying for by name today. So when I found out on Tuesday that the explosives had been in pressure cookers, I kept thinking back to that dinner. I was shocked that I have the tools—or at least one of the tools—to create mayhem, havoc, and violence sitting on a shelf in my kitchen. 

It got me thinking about the inherent ambiguity of things. The pressure cooker can be a wonderful tool for getting a delicious dinner on the table quickly. Or it can be the container for something violent and horrific. Thinking of the explosion in West, Texas—fertilizer is so important for our agriculture, but potentially so very dangerous in the wrong hands or in an accident. 

The Bible’s like that, too, which is also scary. In one person’s hands the Bible is the foundation of love and justice and mercy—and in another’s hands it can be the starting place for hatred, violence and self-righteousness. There’s probably no book of the Bible that is more apt for that ambiguity than Revelation, which we heard from today.  

I’ve been re-reading a book by the Lutheran scholar and theologian, Barbara Rossing, this week, called The Rapture Exposed: the Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation. A lot of it focuses on de-bunking the idea of the Rapture, especially as told through the Left Behind series of novels. But the second half focuses on a good and holy and hopeful reading of Revelation, and I know that for me, this week, I need to hear good and holy and hopeful news.  

“These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Today is often referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday” because every year we hear a passage from John’s Gospel about Jesus being a shepherd to us. But as today’s text from Revelation reminds, us, Jesus is also—metaphorically—a lamb. The image of Jesus the Lamb on the heavenly throne begins earlier in Revelation with the description that it is “standing as if it had been slaughtered.” So from the very beginning, we are reminded that it is the slaughtered lamb, the crucified Christ, who is reigning, not a powerful predator. And Jesus is capable—paradoxically—of being both the lamb and the shepherd at the same time, as the elder in Revelation proclaims today. And I think it’s Jesus as Lamb that has the good news for us today, in the wake of the headlines this week as well as in our personal and professional lives. 

The Greek word for Revelation, apocalypse, means the lifting of a veil. What Revelation gives us today is the tiny glimpse of the heavenly court surrounding the Lamb of God. Rossing refers to it as a “salvation interlude” between the opening of the first six seals and the seventh seal. Each of the seals that are opened represent one of the trials that Rome unleashed on humanity—war, injustice, death, persecution, and fear—and there is a lot of anticipation about what could be coming next. Rossing writes, “The salvation interlude of chapter 7 reminds us that at those moments when judgment threatens most to overpower us the Lamb still breaks into our world with God’s unexpected grace and love.” (TRE, 130)  

You see, it’s precisely the darkness of Revelation means that it can speak to times like this week: it does not minimize the trials of life and death, but it also give us the brightness of hope. And so here we rest in this salvation interlude: a multitude that no one can number being comforted by the Lamb, no longer experiencing hunger or thirst, or needing to weep. What peace. That is what the Lamb promises to those who have come through the great ordeal. It’s not more ordeals—it is total comfort, total rest, total peace. The Lamb is ultimately victorious, and those who are with the Lamb are ultimately safe—that is the promise of Revelation. Penultimately we are not safe—are still mortal and frail and the Earth is not yet governed by justice and peace—but our final safety and rest is secured by the power of the Lamb.

That power of the Lamb on the throne in Revelation is set as the antithesis of the power of the beast—the symbol of Rome. The Beast tries to conquer through violence; the lamb conquers through its own blood. The blood of Revelation is the Lamb’s own blood—not anyone else’s blood. According to Rossing, God’s people are to conquer “by the blood of the lamb and by the word of their testimony.” In fact, the only violent image of Jesus in Revelation is to fight with a sword that comes from his mouth—the sword of true speech; the sword of words, not violence. 

Rossing continues, “Revelation is more a book about terror defeated than terror inflicted.” (TRE, 119) and “The lamb and his followers conquer only by their testimony and faithfulness—not by making war or killing. War is something done against God’s people by evil beasts and by Rome, not something that God’s saints or the Lamb practice in this book.” (TRE, 121) It takes an educated reading of Revelation to get to this conclusion. If you pick up a Biblical text and read Revelation, it is wild and violent and frightening and confusing—what does it all mean? You have to make the effort to learn about the world that St. John the Divine, the author, inhabited, and the violence that he and other Christians faced. They were being persecuted—and Rome was too effective a government to openly speak against. So Rome is called Babylon, and referred to as “the beast” and its sins are laid out in creative language of horsemen and plagues and battles. Which is to say, the dark parts of Revelation are a description of how things were, not how things are going to be. The way things were sounds pretty familiar to us this week. Senseless violence against innocents. Disasters that feel like God’s judgment to the people afflicted. Members of government more attached to their own political future than the welfare of the people they govern.   

But the other, more hopeful parts of this week are mirrored in Revelation, too: a multitude, too many to count, who desire peace and safety. That’s part of the news this week, too. Bravery, compassion, selfless dedication to your neighbor, even—uncharacteristically for our society today—patience with shutting down everything in a major city for 24 hours when the suspects were being hunted. There is holiness in the first responders and citizens who ran towards the aftermath of explosions in Boston rather than away; holiness in the first responders and civilians who tried to put out a fire in Texas and lost their lives.  Holiness in the crowds cheering their policemen and law enforcement officials in gratitude at their success in finding and apprehending the men responsible for the Boston bombings. 

And those hopeful parts help give us guidance on how to be children of the Lamb, and not give in to the temptation to be children of the beast. To be always on the side of comfort, shelter, justice, and non-violence. To be shepherds, not predators. To take the tools that we have and use—the Bible, a pressure-cooker, fertilizer, and on and on—and use them for the benefit of others; for the expansion of Love into the world. 

Worship--what we're doing right now, today--is our “salvation interlude.” It’s that pause between the chaos of the 24 hour news cycle and the overwhelming needs of the world when we can sit at the feet of the lamb and be comforted, inspired, and reminded that the Lamb has already been victorious. Pain and suffering are real, but our salvation is assured, and what is left to us is to proclaim the Word of God by our lives and actions; to adhere ourselves to the power of the Lamb rather than the power of the Beast.  

We read this passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans on Tuesday at our prayer service for Boston. I can’t think of a better concluding sentiment today. Paul writes: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39) Amen.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

"You have to let me lead."

Preached on April 14, 2013 at the Church of the Epiphany, NYC

What was Peter doing when he met Jesus? Fishing. Along with many of the other disciples. Jesus came to the Sea of Galilee, and said “Follow me” and they left their nets and boats behind and followed him.  

Today at the end of the Gospel of John, after the resurrection appearances, what are Peter and the disciples trying to do? They’re trying to fish, right back at the Sea of Galilee, also known as the Sea of Tiberias. They go back to what they know, only it doesn’t work out the way it used to. They can’t catch a single fish anymore on their own.  

One way of interpreting this would be to say that we can’t go backwards. We can try—and nostalgia is a powerful, powerful draw. I want things back the way they were—I want my nets and my boat back. But the disciples are not the same people they were before they met Jesus. They have been changed. They are no longer fishermen for fish—they are fishing for people. And they need Jesus to lead them. 

When Jesus does arrive, he doesn’t just do the fish miracle and prove that he’s fully real by eating the fish and bread, and send them back to their boats. Resurrection transformation is not about just being better at what we are already doing. Jesus reorients them as to how they’re supposed to live and what they’re supposed to do now that he has been raised—and it’s not to go back on the water. Simon Peter led the disciples to the boats. Now Jesus is going to lead them somewhere else. 

Jesus begins with the wonderful dialogue with Peter. “Peter, do you love me?” Now Greek, which is the language of the New Testament, has three words for love. There’s eros, which means erotic love; philo which means brotherly love or fondness, and agape, which is the self-emptying sacrificial love that Jesus has for us. At Bible and Brewskis this week, we wondered if it was like the fact that there are 50 words for snow in Eskimo… the things you have the most familiarity with have the most subtlety in vocabulary. You would think we would have more than one word for love in English, but I guess the English didn’t know as much about love as the Greeks, so we have to know the story behind our translation today. 

So Jesus asks Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you agape me more than these?” the first time, and Peter responds, “Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you.” Jesus tries again, “Simon, son of John, do you agape me?” Peter responds again, “Yes, Lord, you know that I philo you.” The third time, Jesus changes what he says: “Simon, son of John, do you philo me?” It’s almost like Jesus is lowering the bar to accommodate Peter so that what Jesus asks of Peter is something Peter can handle. Peter can do this. Peter can love Jesus like a brother. And he can feed the sheep. Loving Jesus is about turning that love around and offering it to others. Also, Jesus shows the development of these disciples, referring to them as “children” when they are on the boat and then focusing Peter’s attention to what will happen when he is “old”—mature—he will lose his independence and be led where he does not wish to go. Being a child in faith means you set your own course. Being mature means you let Jesus set your course. Jesus closes with the simple distillation of all of this: “Follow me.” 

Last Sunday Jonathan and I worshipped at a megachurch in Phoenix with my cousins. It was a much better experience than I’d been fearing, and the pastor was starting a preaching series on “What is a Christian?” I was a little worried when he began to preach on that topic—suspecting that whatever definition he gave would be one that was aiming at excluding, say, me, from being a Christian. But the way he finally defined it was this: A Christian is someone who follows Jesus. And I thought that was pretty good. It wasn’t based in baptism, or in a few test beliefs, or in how often you go to church. As the pastor put it amusingly: going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sleeping in a garage makes you a car. Being a Christian is about a direction and attitude toward Jesus. Jesus is the one I follow. If you can say—and do—that, then you’re a Christian.

The only problem is that following is hard. At least for some of us. We learn from a young age that we are supposed to lead, not follow. 

Two months ago at the Priests’ Conference, we had an evening with—of all things—a
DJ and dancing. Now I can dance, but I’ve never taking enough lessons at partner dancing to really get it, but I can fake it pretty well. Or so I thought. A friend who’s a good ole’ boy from South Carolina started dancing the Carolina Shag with me, and I kept messing it up. “Jennifer, you have to let me lead,” he finally said. “I know, I know. I’m not very good at that.”   

I hear Jesus saying that too, sometimes. “Jennifer, you have to let me lead.”

I like being in control. Following means we are vulnerable. Which is why both the Acts lesson and the Gospel today really challenge me. Saul is not in control when he is blinded on the road to Damascus. Ananias is not in control when he is instructed to go to Saul and heal him. The disciples are not in control when they go back to fishing. And Jesus is very clear with Peter in their dialogue that Peter will not be in control—he will be led places he does not want to go. “Peter, you have to let me lead.” 

Letting Jesus lead does not mean being passive. Ananias is not passive—letting God lead means he goes to Saul and risks a lot; his standing in the community, perhaps even his life. He brings Saul into the Christian community, helps him learn about Jesus in ways Saul had never heard when he was persecuting Christians. Ananias is a leader precisely because he follows Jesus and lets God lead. The same is true of Saul. He leads the church into the Gentile world, because he follows Jesus and lets God lead. Peter will preach the gospel and be the “rock” of the church because he finally learns how to follow Jesus and let God lead. Letting Jesus lead is part of loving Jesus with that selfless, agape love—the one that truly allows us to feed the sheep, and to be fed because we’re still sheep too. 

We need to let God lead. Can I trust God to let God lead? There’s no better way to say this for me than in the beautiful hymn Precious Lord, take my hand. Especially because it hints so well at that final journey that Jesus alludes to with Peter—the path we are most afraid to take, but the one that we will all inevitably be led down, no matter how much we fight. 

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear
Precious Lord linger near
When my life is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears
And the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Listen here to the sermon and the singing!