Sunday, May 2, 2010

Passing Fancies

“Eleven” by Sandra Cisneros

Passing Fancies

© copyright 2010 Robert J. Elder
Fifth Sunday of Easter , May 2, 2010

Revelation 21:1-6

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth;
for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away...

I remember when, many years back now, some people from a congregation began telephoning me in Texas. They turned out to be members of a church’s Pastor Nominating Committee, of course. I’d been serving a church in Texas for about 7 years, I wasn’t really thinking about moving again, but apparently new events were preparing to change that accustomed world. It was a long time ago now, but I still remember it as though it was just last week. Today’s reading from Revelation brings that memory back to me, unbidden.

“And he who sat upon the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new.’” All things? We’ve heard religious-sounding phrases enough in our lives that we are apt to let this one go by without really paying enough attention. But let’s don’t be too hasty. Remember, there are some things, many things, perhaps even most things in this world to which we are pretty attached as they are. I can’t believe we really want everything made over new.

I have tried to hear this phrase with new ears during the past week. I began to think that if everything is to be made new in the kingdom, it might do us good to make a little catalogue of those things that we hope could possibly stay pretty much the same. For example, maybe we like living in a comfortable place on a nice street, having access to good roads and highways, and most of us have cars to drive on them.

We like our church. We really do, don’t we? I’ve been privileged to hear from many of you over the short time I’ve been here in Vancouver, and one thing is clear to me: you really love your church. Oh, the old place could use a change here and there, but for the most part, you seem to like it pretty much as it is. Perhaps a few more new members, or some touchup of this or that program, as long as the big things stay about the same. But, reflecting on what the author of Revelation said: everything made new? Maybe we’re not so sure about that. We shouldn’t gloss over those words too uncritically. It can be a threat as well as a promise. And I’ll bet there were those who read it for the first time after John wrote these words who saw it that way too.

Think of the ancient British ritual of formal afternoon tea. When it is practiced in its proper context, nothing could be more pleasant. On the veranda with Lady Quizenfield, or in a Victorian parlor, or even in the headmaster’s office at a nice country day school. I can’t see anything wrong with that. But it becomes little more than an odd caricature when it is served on African safari, complete with linen tablecloths that have to be lugged overland alongside all the crockery that is necessary for a proper British tea. In the 1980s movie, Out of Africa, one of the most telling moments occured when the lady of the house finally allowed her native table servant to stop wearing a pair of ridiculous white gloves, which throughout the movie had only served to hinder his dexterity and cause a near tragedy with a bottle of wine. Out of the context of the genteel English countryside, afternoon tea can seem like little more than fodder for New Yorker cartoons, surely not something someone would seriously consider doing in the wild.

The world order changes, our accustomed context shifts, what was once the appropriate thing to do becomes less than appropriate, even demonic when cherished long beyond its usefulness. Like it or not, we will be called upon to change with the new world that is emerging or be changed by it. This promise that all things will be made new is not merely a gentle, spiritual promise, but a life-changing, possibly even wrenching experience as well. No wonder it comes near the end of the book of Revelation, for only after readers have waded through one fantastic image after another in this fabulous New Testament book can we join John in this affirmation with anything but astonishment.

As with John’s Revelation, Paul spoke of Christ’s coming kingdom through the image of a woman hard at the labors of childbirth. Things are becoming different, powerfully different. And even those who would welcome a change from the present order will find themselves going through a change such as comes on a woman giving birth.

Perhaps much of what we have given our lives to will be of no use as the new order emerges. We will have to become accustomed to the fact that a whole host of things just simply are not to be left alone in the kingdom of God. All the little compromises of life, all our having it both ways, all this will change. It is not simply a load of smiling, happy, no problems good news, this loaded promise coming out of the most loaded of the New Testament books.

But the new order need not take us by surprise. Jesus’ words are full of anticipation for this new order. He said, in dozens of different ways, what it is that we could expect. “Even as I have loved you, love one another.”

There are lots of other people in our time who look for a dramatic change in the world order, who welcome the possibility, who even go to the greatest lengths to help it come to pass. One definition of a fanatic is a person who has taken a little slice of the truth and tried to make it pass for the whole pie. Whoever the crazy people are who hatch plots to plant bombs on airplanes, subways, and in cars outside restaurants and embassies in cities all over the world, they are trying in a misguided way to force a new order of things into being.

But the new order for which others may look by such methods does not match the new order which John’s Revelation was calling into being. Believers begin with different assumptions. “As I have loved you... love one another.” This declares that at the end of the day, while drawing up a strategy for the new world order, we may not leave out the assumption with which we began: “I have loved you... so love.” God is love. This we believe. And this rules out many currently popular methods of bringing on a new world order, ways which resort to hate in an attempt to bring love into being.

Someone once said that for Christians to see the big change coming, to know that new things are on the way, is to be like a reader of John Grisham novels who reads the last chapter first... So that in the middle of the book, where the normal reader cannot decide whether to blame the murder on the crooked city official or the owner of the big company, this reader knows.

John was giving his people that kind of an edge in facing the turbulent historical forces of his day. We are in the world, but not to be too much attached to it the way it is, because we believe that God’s love is moving history irresistably forward, toward the birth of a new creation. One of the ways that God is accomplishing this is through the new witness of Jesus. “As I have loved you... love one another.” That was and is new. It is certainly new to a world so much persuaded that violence and threat of violence are the only ways to secure the peace.

One dilemma in a vision such as John’s is that it can be treated two ways:
  1. We can see it as a fanciful vision of the way things might be some future day, but since we don’t see it now we don’t think about it too much. That places the whole load in God’s lap in some far-off future time. If God can bring it off, fine. Until then, give me all my accustomed material and familial security blankets to rely on.
  2. But the other way to see his vision is the way he would have wanted his readers then, and now, to see it. Not as some nearly unattainable future utopia, but as a present witness now to the way things will be, causing us to live differently now. What mountain climber, if he knew he would be required to climb a mountain tomorrow, would not scour the house tonight for his best equipment? That is how John wants us to respond to his vision. Not merely to hear, but to begin to do. Begin to see the world not through jaded, accustomed eyes, but through new eyes. If this is the way the world will inescapably be, how can we justify continuing on in our old ways?
The Revelation of John shows us the direct connection between the “new commandment” that Jesus spoke to his disciples – the commandment that we love one another – and the new order that God will bring to pass. He calls us as actors in the new heaven and new earth, not passive observers. Even the sea, the old-time symbol of chaos from the time of the creation story and of Noah and the children of Israel walking between the walls of the sea, even the threat of that oldest symbol of the chaos, the raging sea, shall be tamed, no longer merely held at bay, but entirely defeated.

Any good scientist could tell us that each truly new technological possibility for our world must pass through an ocean of impossibilities. In every new discovery that changes the way the scientific world sees things, there is always the sense of the miraculous, the “Aha!” moment, when suddenly accustomed perspectives change, cherished ways of seeing things must be thrown out, and we have to begin again. It is not fulfillment which drives, calls, enriches humanity, but the mystery of what could yet be: the longing, hungering disatisfaction with what is because we have caught a glimpse of what could be and we won’t rest until we have achieved it.

Martin Luther King, Jr., said, in his last and most famous sermon, preached just prior to his death, “I have been to the mountaintop, I have seen the promised land.” Once Moses brought the children of Israel to that point, there was no way for them to stop there, to return to Egypt. They had become too committed to what could be to settle for what had been.

God’s people are led forward by promises. It is dreams that drive us and hopes that make us happen. I frequently correspond with an old friend who is also in the ministry. I was reminded not long ago of a letter he once sent me. I had written him that uncertain economic times inevitably show up in the church budget. But his response to me could have come straight out of Revelation, for it reflected the new times into which Jesus inevitably draws us. He wrote,
“What a community’s economic condition can do to the church is the typical [budget committee] question. My question is what the church’s hope can do for the community. My suspicion is that they have that to offer even if their finances are half of what they are now. Money moves with... and is moved by ideas. I think when leadership is bold and innovative it always moves money...”[1]
…as with our commitment to a community garden and other mission projects in a year that has been one of the toughest, budget-wise, in the history of this church!

Our response to John’s disturbing-happy-terrifying-glad-sad news must be to take a look at our world with new eyes. To realize that living in the old world can never be the same. And remember that “I make all things new” is preceded by,
Behold the dwelling of God is with humanity. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.
It’s some pretty solid evidence that God’s new world will be worth any pain we might be called upon to endure in helping to bring it about. One of my favorite authors, Frederick Buechner, once wrote,
“Christianity is mainly wishful thinking. Even the part about Judgment and Hell reflects the wish that somewhere the score is being kept. Dreams are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking. Interplanetary travel is wishful thinking. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on. Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.”[2]
Copyright © 2010 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
[1] George E. Chorba, personal correspondence
[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Harper & Row, 1973, p. 96.