April 25, 2010
The Third Sunday after Easter
God calls the church to be a sign-- the leaven of heaven.
Dealing with the public in a retail forum, as I do, I have come to know some people (maybe you do, too) whose first priority in life should be to re-arrange their bedroom furniture. What else could explain the fact that they permanently seem to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed? It seems as if they misread the installation instructions on their beds and put them up wrong-side out.
I am sure we all know people that seem to resemble this characteristic. They go through each day cranky and cantankerous, purveyors of doom and gloom. These are the folks that always know what new natural disaster has just struck, what local businesses are about to go bankrupt, whose marriages are on the rocks. How could we survive life without these wrong-side-of-the-bed type people? How could we get around without the black clouds and gloomy forecasts. Without wrong-side-of-the-bed type folks, we would never fully appreciate how miserable life really is. Sounds like atheists to me.
The book of Revelation is often perceived as sharing that same sort of bleak perspective -- a wrong-side-of-the-bed vision foretelling pestilence, punishment, famine, death, destruction. But the Revelation of Jesus to John is not a narrowed down version of despair, a nerve-racking vision of wrath. Here in today's text we are given celestial glimpses of glory. What might it be like to enlist in God's reign and exist in God's peace?
The divisiveness of nationality, the prejudices of particularity, are forgotten as all peoples forge forward to praise God. There is one congregation, one church, and it joins all its separate voices together in a resonant harmony of glorifying God. John saw this as the church of the future. John also saw this as our template for bringing the church to life in our own time.
Instead of being just another organization lobbying for what it deems important, the church is challenged by this vision in Revelation, to itself become a sign of paradise. For our text calls the church to be what in biblical language, is a sign of the end times.
In Hebrew the concept is conveyed by the word Shamayim, which literally means a foretaste of heaven. If you have ever had an encounter with the Spirit, if you are alive and aglow with life, you know the meaning of Shamayim. In Greek the word for sign is arrabon, a legal term denoting a deposit made that renders the contract binding. A sign is a promise, a pledge, a foretaste, an embodied symbol of something which is to come in its fullness later.
When a young couple plants a spindly little oak sapling smack in the middle of their new backyard, it is a sign of the future they envision in that space. Someday the tree will grow to shade their yard with an enormous umbrella of green. Its sturdy branches will hold the tire swings and tree house platforms of the children yet to be born. It will carpet the ground with its brilliant fall foliage and feed a legion of squirrels with its annual crop of acorns. It might not look like much when planted, but the few spindly limbs of that sapling oak bear the weight of a tremendous sign of that to come.
Although the ultimate sign is the Holy Spirit, as Spirit-empowered people we are each called to act as a sign of the ultimate triumph we know Christ's salvation has in store for all creation. On the day of salvation, today's Revelation text proclaims, all believers will loudly praise God's "blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might".
Are you a sign, a leaven of heaven? Does your life attest to the presence of these divine gifts to the world? When others listen to you speak, watch you work, see your home, do they experience that encounter as an sign of Christ's victory, of God's redeeming love for the world. We are all signs; we who are part of the body of Christ.
Is our church a sign of the future; human conduits of the divine light offering others little glimpses of the brilliance and the glory that awaits the redeemed creation? Is our role in this community a leaven of heaven? We hear a lot about “ethics” in today’s society, especially when it comes to conversations about the church as a whole; do we exemplify ethics in our ministry?
Missionary/physician/musician/historical theologian Dr. Albert Schweitzer gave his life to serve the needs of those who lived in the African jungle. He was to the first half of the 20th century what Mother Teresa was to the second half. He gave one of the best definitions of "ethics", and lived what he defined. He said:
"Let me give you a definition of ethics: It is good to maintain life and further life; it is bad to damage and destroy life ... Ethics is the maintaining of life at the highest point of development -- my own life and other life -- by devoting myself to it in help and love, and both these things are connected." (Reverence for Life, 1965)
Schweitzer allegedly hung a lamp in front of his hospital that shone brilliantly throughout the jungle darkness for a wide area. The light became a beacon of hope and healing for the area's sick and dying. He is said to have hung under the lamp this sign:
"At whatever hour you come, you will find light, and hope and human kindness." *
Both the sign and the lamp were signs of Schweitzer's ministry. Is there a lamp for our church that says to the world, "Come by here. For here is a Leaven of Heaven"?
Though portraying an eternal future, this morning's text focuses on the three most basic human needs of our frail and mortal present. Let’s examine our reading from the Book of Revelation in some analogy type ways.
Physical Needs -- The vision from Revelation promises that when believers are gathered around God enthroned, they will "hunger no more, and thirst no more". In other words, we will be delivered from physical needs.
Each of us is capable of providing some measure of sheer physical comfort to those whose physical needs are consuming all their energy and hope. Welfare reforms have made the global Church's role as a social service agency even more vital. It's hard to work on an empty stomach; it's hard to learn when you're cold and tired; it's hard to play when you're weak and malnourished. Can we feed the hungry? Can we heal the sick? Maybe not in ways that Jesus can, but we can make a difference, even if it is only visiting the sick and bringing bread to the hungry.
Spiritual Needs -- Jesus' vision to John revealed that divine deliverance involves more than just filling up stomachs and banishing body aches. There are other aches that have no neurological cause. There are pains suffered by a parched soul. Without addressing the spiritual needs of the human condition, one finds there is no true sign of salvation present. Saving the body is not enough, for it will fail to thrive unless the spirit is nourished and nurtured by a community of faith. Can we bring our ministry to those in need? Can we bring it to those who may have lost faith in the church, but maybe are still yearning for it all the same? Maybe all it takes is a simple invite to a Catholic Church that is not like other Catholic churches? Just might be ours!
Emotional Needs -- As frail and failing human beings, however, we find our emotional needs are perhaps the most difficult to satisfy, and are even more demanding when denied. Without emotional strength and suppleness, even the strongest body will fail; even the surest spirit will falter. When our body labors, it needs a quiet center, a sense of emotional ease, in order to bear the physical hardship. Our spirit can soar only if it knows there is a safe and secure emotional scaffolding resting under its flight path.
One of the most tragic figures in biblical history is Israel's first chosen king, Saul. Although he was a great and strong warrior and commanded the 12 tribes of the new nation, although he experienced the exalted presence of God's Spirit, Saul's body and soul had a fatal weakness. Although he enjoyed physical and spiritual triumphs, Saul's own emotional melancholia destroyed his faith, his vision, his purpose, his will.
In today's Revelation text, God meets our emotional needs in two ways. The text promises God will "wipe away every tear"; suggesting that the emotionally honest and cleansing tears will first be allowed to flow, but that these tears will then be dried by God's own tender hand. As a sign of this quality of emotional care, we, too, must not be afraid to show the same depth of feeling and to let others do the same. In response to a genuine outpouring of emotion, a sign of the coming age does not judge those who sin or who are different, but offers what is needed -- to dry a cheek, to hold a hand, to show empathy.
Our short little gospel reading is very well matched for today's reading from the book of Revelation. Let me illustrate that for you. Hands are strong symbols. Two clasped hands are on a logo for the United Way. A child walking hand-in-hand with adult is sometimes featured on commercials for Hallmark cards. A child who falls receives a bump or scratch, runs racing to hands for comfort. Anyone who has sat with a very inward dying person knows how important a touch of the hand is; a loving caress, a gentle stroke, the massage of soothing cream. Medical massage therapy is a respected alternative medical practice. All these images and countless others remind us that hands are symbol for connectedness care and hope. This Sunday’s very brief gospel includes the Good Shepherd's reassuring words, “no one can take them out of my hand”.
The gospel conveys Jesus’ great, tender care and concern for his sheep. This care does not keep his followers from violent abuse or great distress, but it does assure them of protection in the midst of persecution and of eternal life. But this assurance only comes when we followers of Jesus hear his voice and live out of the personal relationship God offers us.
By placing side-by-side, hearing and following, the gospel tells us that hearing Jesus is already following him. We follow first by listening. The call to follow is a call to faithful obedience (the root word for obedience means “to hear”). To put it another way, hearing Jesus and heeding his voice is already an active following. Heeding Jesus' voice is already our participation in proclaiming the Gospel. But probably most importantly, hearing Jesus voice is already our participation in eternal life. Ultimately this promise of eternal life is the reassurance and care that Jesus offers. By hearing Jesus voice and following him we will not perish, but we already share in Jesus is eternal life. No better cure than this could the good Shepherd offer.
Let me leave you with some words that a one John Fischer wrote some time ago:
Don't even try to sympathize.
Don't say you understand because you don't.
Just hold me in your arms for once.
And love me as I am.
Like my mommy used to do
before the world grew up on me.
(John Fischer, "In Praise of the Unrenowned,")
Will this church hold the world in its arms and love it, as a sign of God holding the whole world in the arms of the Almighty -- and loving it? Will you be a leaven of heaven in your family, your community, your world?
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.