St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
May 19, 2019
St. John’s heavenly vision continues in the lesson we heard from Revelation. Same as last week, it seems to be focused on unrealistic, heavenly things far, far away from our existence.
John saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and first earth had passed away. He is describing his vision using imagery that he and every other good Jew knew all too well as found in the latter part of the book of Isaiah. Isaiah quotes the Lord God, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.” Isaiah wrote these words to the Hebrew people after they’d spent nearly 70 years in exile – in slavery – in Babylon. When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple along with it in 587 BC, their entire worldview was utterly and completely turned upside down. The Temple was literally the center of the universe for the Hebrew people. It was their central bank, a sort of flea market if you will, but most importantly, they believed that Yahweh, their god, actually resided there. Within the Temple, the Holy of Holies was where God physically dwelt amongst them. Along with Jerusalem and the Temple, the Babylonian captivity ended the monarchy in Israel despite the fact that God had promised that the Davidic line would be established and maintained forever.
It isn’t really possible for us as 21st century Americans to even begin to fathom how devastating the sack of Jerusalem was to the Hebrews. 9/11 doesn’t even come close. And to top it off, the Hebrews were then ripped from their homes and hauled off into exile. In 538 BC, Persia overtook Babylon and the Hebrews were allowed to begin to come home. But they came home to a Jerusalem in shambles. Their world was upside down and there was no hope for the future.
For the Hebrews, the Temple was the center of creation, and God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth was nothing other than a promise of an entirely new creation. In John’s vision of this new creation, he says, “the sea was no more.” This sea refers to the primordial chaos of creation in the book of Genesis, out of which evil continually threatens to undo the goodness of God’s creation. This passage, from the end of the Bible, returns to the ancient images of the creation stories from Genesis. No more evil, no more chaos, no more shame, no more death.
Yes, like last week, the message is that there is hope in the midst of despair. The orderliness of creation that was turned to chaos by sin will finally be renewed and restored. But it won’t be restored exactly to what it was. It will look different. In Genesis, paradise is not in a city, but in a garden. When Cain kills his brother Abel, he’s banished to a city. The new heavens and the new earth aren’t symbolized by a garden, but rather by a holy city. And cities are full of people and culture and food and resources. And unlike most cities, this one includes a river and trees and ample water. This isn’t unrealistic, heavenly imagery that is solely focused on things far, far away from our world. The new creation will be communal, filled with fellowship with other people, with plenty of resources to provide for our every need.
This blessed city, this heavenly Jerusalem, came down out of heaven from God. Then, John heard a loud voice proclaim that the “home of God is among mortals.” The word translated as home in Greek is the word “tabernacle,” and the word “dwell” is the verb form of the same word. “See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will tabernacle with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” For the original Hebrew audience, the word tabernacle brought to mind the stories not only of the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, but even further back, of the portable tent where God dwelt physically with the Israelites under Moses in the wilderness.
Quite simply, in this scene, heaven descends to earth. The new heaven and the new earth is the place where God is, and where humans are fully united with God. Unlike in our St. Peter-at-the-pearly gates cartoons and memes, heaven and earth are not separate, unrelated realities. John notes earlier in the book of Revelation that heaven and earth have an open door between them in the present age, and that events in heaven can determine the course of human events, and vice versa. Satan’s expulsion from heaven comes as a result of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead (12:5,7), and the same fallen angels work their revenge on the saints of God. In the present age, then, there is a strong connection between the world above and the world below. Last week’s heavenly scene from chapter 7 of the great multitude from all peoples standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, worshipping God with the angels and the four living creatures – this scene reveals the strongest connection of all between heaven and earth: the liturgy of the one holy catholic and apostolic church.
“See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.”
This word tabernacle is the same word we use in the church today for that box above the altar in which we keep consecrated bread. The altar party, and many of you genuflect or bow before sitting down, or when you pass in front of the Tabernacle. Why do we do this? Because this box, this work of human hands, contains within it the very God who created all things and is renewing all things. In this box is found the One who humbled himself to share in our humanity in order that we might be re-united with God in this world and the next.
A little over a month ago, you and I and the whole world watched in horror as Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris burned. Fr. Fournier, the chaplain of the Paris Fire Brigade, risked his life to go into the burning cathedral to rescue the relic believed to be the Crown of Thorns Jesus wore at his crucifixion, but more importantly, to rescue the Blessed Sacrament – the consecrated bread in the tabernacle.
Since then, some have been surprised – maybe even shocked – that so many people showed such deep emotion for a building made by human hands when so many people are suffering in the world. And some have decried the amount of money already raised to rebuild it. And some, I’m sure, have thought that it’s ridiculous for a man to risk his life to save a piece of bread.
The Archbishop of Paris said these words in a sermon shortly after the fire:
"We must ask why Notre Dame was constructed. Why this human genius? Because they could have done something functional. It's far more than functional. And why? Because what is honored there is absolutely splendid, that's what we believe. And if you want to ask the real question, what jewel is this jewel box for? It's not for the Crown of Thorns, you know? It's for a piece of bread. It's astonishing. How can one construct such a work of art for a piece of bread? That piece of bread is the Body of Christ. And that endures. Nobody will ever be able to destroy it."
John heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his people, and God himself will be with them.” Amen.
 Isaiah 65:17, NRSV.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Kindle edition, location 15336, quoting Ps. 74:13-14; Isa 27:1.
 Most of this paragraph comes from ibid 15331.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
The Rev’d Charles Everson
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
I’m not sure about you, but when I hear passages from the book of Revelation, I’m emotionally moved…sometimes to tears…at the beauty of his description of the vision he sees. And I’m usually comforted in some way. And yet, the supposedly intelligent part of me thinks, “This isn’t real. It’s a fantastical vision that can’t possibly be describing something real.”
The book of Revelation is apocalyptic literature. Apocalyptic literature is a genre of writing, like historical narrative or poetry or Law or a letter. It was popular in post-exilic Jewish culture and among early Christians. As a genre, apocalyptic literature details the author’s visions, usually delivered by an angel, and the vision is usually of some heavenly scene in what seems like an alternate universe. This isn’t a genre of literature that exists in 2019 in English, making it all the more difficult for us to interpret. Muddying the waters even more is the tendency amongst certain evangelicals to interpret John’s Revelation literally, resulting in book and movie series like Left Behind which portray events in John’s vision as predictions of events that will happen in the future. Apocalyptic literature is not 20th century journalism, nor is it meant to predict specific events that will happen in our world at some future date. Reading Revelation in one hand and the New York Times in the other, trying to find correlations between the two, is quite frankly dangerous and is missing the entire point.
But that doesn’t make the book of Revelation any less real.
At this point in his vision, John sees a great multitude of people from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages robed in white worshipping the Lamb of God. Their clothing was made white by being washed in the blood of the Lamb. The white garments represent the purity and cleanliness that comes from our baptism, a symbol that persisted for centuries as new Christians were baptized in a simple, white alb like this one.
These white-robed worshippers had just come out of the “great ordeal”. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that it’s God’s job to keep us and our loved ones safe from all harm. On the contrary, John’s vision shows us that pain and suffering are inherently part of the Christian life. These worshippers not only underwent a great ordeal, they are in need of shelter. They have known hunger and thirst and scorching heat. They have tears in their eyes. In other words, they are not immune to human suffering.
And neither are we immune to suffering. Sometimes, we may think that our entire life is one “great ordeal,” to use John’s words. Whether it’s the burden of caring for a loved one who cannot care for themselves, or trying to pay all your bills on a shoestring budget, or dealing with a frightening medical diagnosis with a bleak outcome, you and I suffer in a multitude of ways each and every day.
During these great fifty days of Easter, the Church shouts from the rooftops that our Lord Jesus Christ has won the victory over suffering and evil and death by his resurrection from the dead. At Easter, the Passover Lamb was sacrificed for us, and at our baptism, our souls were marked like the doorposts of the Hebrew people at the first Passover. And while the Resurrection of Jesus doesn’t mean that our suffering ends right now, by the message of an angel, we are given a foretaste of that day when all our suffering will end:
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.
What hope! What balm for the soul when we suffer! And thanks be to God, this hope is made tangible to us today in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. St. John Paul II, speaking of this heavenly vision in Revelation, once said,
This luminous image of the heavenly glory is anticipated in the Liturgy of the Church. Those who celebrate it here, live already in some way, beyond the signs, in the heavenly liturgy, where the celebration is totally communion and feast. It is in this eternal liturgy that the Spirit and the Church make us participate, when we celebrate the mystery of salvation in the sacraments.
Friends, it is in the sacraments of the Church that we are given the sustenance we need to continue to faithfully follow our Lord in the midst of our suffering.
John’s vision is not meant to be taken literally, but that makes it no less real. In his bodily resurrection at Easter, Jesus Christ defeated suffering and evil and death once and for all. We will not fully see the culmination of this great victory on this side of the grave, but we are given a foretaste of that heavenly banquet in this bread and this cup. What hope! As you receive the pledge of your salvation at the altar rail today, know that one day, God will guide you to the springs of the water of life, and he will wipe every tear from your eyes. Amen.
 David Lyon Bartlett, and Barbara Brown Taylor. Feasting on the Word. Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009. Kindle edition, location 14590 of 18450.
 Vs. 15-17.
 http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2014/12/the-book-of-revelation-guide-to.html#.XNcIVY5KjD4. He was actually speaking of a similar scene in Revelation 5 which is somewhat of a sister passage to this one, but I didn’t want to take the time in the actual sermon to explain that.
The Third Sunday of Easter
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
May 5, 2019
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Have you ever been asked this question: “Are you saved?” This question usually is posed by an evangelical Christian who is trying to ascertain if you’ve invited Jesus to come into your heart and save your soul. Because in their way of thinking, that’s the prayer that seals-the-deal. It’s called The Sinner’s Prayer. Once you pray that prayer, heaven is guaranteed. All is well and there is no further reason to fear damnation to the fiery pains of hell.
If you haven’t been asked this question, just come down to 14th and Main downtown sometime over the lunch hour and you’ll hear one of those street preachers with a megaphone. He not only asks this question, he denounces every group of people he doesn’t like. If you come to try to hear him, you might just see me in street clothes scurrying to lunch with noise-cancelling headphones on.
Many evangelical Christians describe with genuine emotion what they felt when they prayed the Sinner’s Prayer. And no, I’m not lumping them in with the annoying street preacher – most evangelicals tell their story sincerely and without demonstrating hate toward others. They remember the time they invited Jesus to come into their hearts and be their Lord – they remember truly feeling different.
It’s almost as if they think the dramatic story of St. Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus that we heard this morning is the norm.
I say St. Paul because that’s how we refer to him now, but Paul was no saint. [By the way, Saul was his name in Hebrew, and Paul was simply the transliteration of this name in Latin]. Whether it’s Saul or Paul, he was no saint. He had just taken an active part in the stoning of Stephen, the first deacon in the church. He was a religious leader who had just actively participated in a ritualistic and barbaric execution of someone for his religious beliefs, and then continued to persecute others who believed like Stephen did. We hear Jesus say to him on the road to Damascus, ““Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” He asked, “Who are you, Lord?” The reply came, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”
At this point, Saul hadn’t made a choice to stop persecuting Christians. He hadn’t decided to confess his sins and repent. God chose him while he was still actively living an evil life. God met him where he was. We see this approach all throughout Scripture. God called Matthew while he was still a corrupt tax collector. He called Peter – the future leader of the disciples and arguably the most prominent leader in the early church – when he was a simple fisherman. And he called Paul, a notorious murderer who hated Christianity and all that it stood for. Our Lord meets people where they are. He doesn’t wait until they’ve cleaned themselves up, he meets them where they are when they least expect it.
When Paul gets up off the ground after this encounter, he’s suddenly blind. Jesus then comes to Ananias in a vision and asks him to lay his hands on Paul so that he might regain his sight. Ananias’s response is understandable: he’s hesitant as he’s heard of the evil Saul had done to the saints in Jerusalem. But Jesus responds to his hesitation, “Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before the Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel. I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” After being blind for three days, his sight is restored, and he is baptized. Saul, a notorious sinner, dies with Christ and is then reborn with him in the waters of baptism. We know from the rest of the biblical record that Paul’s future will indeed be filled with both joy and suffering for the sake of Christ.
How would Paul have answered the question, “Are you saved?” According to New Testament scholar Bishop N.T. Wright, the only explicit account we have of Paul referring to what happened to him on the Road to Damascus is this from his letter to the Galatians:
“But [when] God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles…
Paul says nothing about repentance and faith, and certainly nothing about praying a specific prayer and finding his heart being strangely warmed. Paul’s re-telling of his initial conversion story is this: through God’s grace, he stopped persecuting the church and began announcing the Good News of Jesus Christ to the nations.
When this Southern Baptist boy began rubbing shoulders with Christians from the Roman Catholic and Episcopal churches, I quickly learned that most Christians don’t have a dramatic, heart-warming conversion experience. In fact, many folks in the church are hesitant to tell others how they came to faith in Christ because they feel ashamed that their story isn’t as flashy and exciting and emotional as the person next to them in the pew.
Thanks be to God, St. Paul’s experience shows us that God meets us where we are, and usually, when we least expect it. Sometimes that’s in the midst of notorious evil living; sometimes it’s in the doldrums of a seemingly boring life filled with work, eat, TV, repeat; and sometimes, it’s in the midst of loneliness and despair. No matter where Christ meets us, it is through God’s grace given to us in baptism that we are called to follow Him and proclaim the Good News of his salvation to the world.
When someone asks me today, “Are you saved?”, my short response is, “"I have been saved; I am being saved; and I will be saved." For despite having received God’s grace at baptism, I am desperately in need of the same grace each and every day in order to follow Christ and share his love with the other people I encounter. It is through the Christian disciplines of prayer and contemplation and service and the like…it is through sinning, repenting, and receiving God’s unconditional forgiveness that we are continually being saved. It is by receiving the Sacraments of the Church day-in-and-day-out that, in St. Paul’s words, “all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.”
Friends, it isn’t enough to invite Jesus into your heart and be done with it. A simple prayer, no matter how sincere you are when you pray it, won’t make you spiritually invincible to the forces of evil and death. From a technical standpoint, Christian salvation begins with baptism and is fulfilled at death. But God has revealed his son Jesus Christ to each of you in different ways in your lives, and your story – your spiritual journey is no less valid than mine.
Let us pray that God will open our eyes, as he opened St. Paul’s, to the saving power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. When Jesus meets us where we are, let us respond as Paul did by choosing to follow him wherever he may lead, even into suffering for his sake. And empowered by God’s grace, let us tell our story of how we came to faith in Jesus Christ to those around us in love – boldly and without shame. Amen.
 Galatians 1:15-17, NRSV.
 N. T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 1421.
 2 Corinthians 3:17, NRSV.
The audio recording of this sermon can be found here.
Our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles sets the stage for today’s entire service, and indeed for the next six weeks: St. Peter exclaims: “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.” While Easter Day past us seven days ago, the celebration of Easter and the resurrection of Jesus Christ continues for 50 days, seven full weeks, all the way until Pentecost. God has raised up Jesus who had been killed. There has been a great reversal, a great overturning, a great undoing. Death is the most certain and stable fixture of natural human existence, the great enemy of insatiable appetite, who ultimately devours all life, from whose jaws no one escapes. Death steals from us everything we love, being a constant source of sorrow and grief. This great enemy has now been shown to be vulnerable, conquerable, and indeed their destruction reversible. Jesus has burst his three-day prison of death, re-entering the realm of life, light, love, and joy.
Surprisingly, the announcement of this great reversal of life over death in Christ was not popular with the political and religious leaders. The religious leaders shouted, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” Why the great objection to this message of hope, rebirth, and renewal? One reason is because death, the great and invariable constant of human experience, has suddenly become vulnerable, movable, and even removable. Therefore certain structures of human experience less certain than death, such as political, religious, and social hierarchies, have that much more become destabilized. And that unsettles the people perched at the the top of those hierarchies.
Our Psalm for today, Psalm 118, continues this theme of reversal, though having become a part of Jewish worship well before Jesus walked on the earth. There is a surge of triumphant joy at the beginning of the portion we heard: “There is a sound of exultation and victory in the tents of the righteous,” because God “has become my salvation.” In the preceding section, the Psalmist describes their situation of distress: enemies “hem me in, they hem me in on every side…They swarm about me like bees; they blaze like a fire of thorns…I was pressed so hard that I almost fell, but the LORD came to my help.” Though it looked like all hope was lost, the Psalmist makes a defiant declaration: “I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the LORD.” They experienced such a profound and great deliverance, it was almost like being brought back from the dead.
Our third reading is from the book of Revelation, a wild, kaleidoscopic, apocalyptic narrative describing the spiritual conflict between Christ’s rulership and kingdoms of this world. And the message to the world’s empires is this: your peace is rooted in violence and bloodshed, your prosperity is grounded on exploitation, your justice is a perversion, your freedom is an authoritarian deception. The kingdoms of this world are a counterfeit and farce in the light of Christ’s reign of liberating and life-giving love—where suffering is alleviated, nations are reconciled, every person is endowed with sacred worth, and tears are wiped away from all faces.
In verse five of chapter one we are told Jesus Christ is “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” To be first implies a sequence. To be firstborn from among the dead means to be the first of many siblings who will experience the resurrection to eternal aliveness. St. Paul uses a similar expression when he calls Christ the “first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). Christ’s rising from the dead is the first fruits in a sequence of actions that comprise a single harvest. Jewish expectation around the time of Jesus, as described for example in the Book of Daniel, did not conceive of isolated and individual resurrections. Rather the resurrection was part of a single complex event where the regeneration of life, the restoration of all things, and the renewal of all creation was experienced by the faithful all together at the end of time. At Easter we announce Christ is the firstborn in that resurrection event that has already begun. Christ is the firstfruits of a single harvest that has already begun— “the first-fruits of the holy harvest field, which will all its full abundance at his second coming yield.” But the radical, radical proclamation in this verse is that this complex event of regeneration, restoration and renewal has already begun in the raising of Jesus Christ from the dead. It is not only for some time in the distant future. It begins now.
There is a line in the prayer book funeral service: “In the midst of life, we are in death.” This captures the truth that even while we are still alive before we die, we experience within us and around us the ravages of sin and death. During Easter we celebrate the inversion: “In the midst of death we are in life.” In the midst of a world marred by death, while living among the kingdoms and empires of the world marked by violence, exploitation, injustice, and oppression—in the midst of death, we are in life, through our union with the Christ who is himself the resurrection and the life. Through Christ, and with Christ, and in Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, the whole creation cries, “I shall not die, but live!” With Easter faith we boldly confess that the entire world will be renewed, and that renewal has already begun in Christ’s resurrection. And it continues through the Church who is the body of the resurrected Christ.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann describes it this way: “those who believe that in Christ the redeemer is already present, and those who sense in themselves the first signs of the life of God's Spirit, know that in fact true life does already exist in the midst of the life that is false. The future has already begun. The conflict between the rising sun and the departing shadows of the night is already being fought out. There is already a struggle for justice against injustice, and a protest of life against the forces of death.”
In our Gospel reading we find the disciples the evening after Jesus rose from the dead. Yet they are experiencing nothing of the renewed and restored life of resurrection. In their minds Jesus is still dead and we see them exhibiting three features:
1) Negative emotions
3) Loss of meaning
1) Negative emotions—they are full of despair, fear and anxiety, despairing the loss of Jesus, anxious for their future, fearful of their lives, hiding from the same powers of injustice that killed Jesus.
2) Disengagement—they are detached in their own enclosure, cut off from the outside world behind locked doors, engaged in no tasks other than self-preservation
3) Loss of meaning—before Jesus died, the disciples believed they were part of something bigger than themselves. They experienced solidarity in serving a larger purpose, in contributing to a larger cause. Now there was nothing. Just themselves and the walls around them.
And while the disciples were huddled behind locked doors, experiencing negative emotions, disengagement, and loss of meaning, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Having believed Jesus was still dead, the resurrected Christ appears bodily before them. People often marvel that Jesus here apparently either walked through the wall, or teleported into the room. But what happens next is much more significant: “Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you. When he had said this, he breathed into them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” As God sent Jesus to effect a great reversal, to inaugurate the resurrection, the restoration of all things, and the renewal of the whole creation, in the same way Jesus now sends us. In the midst of death, we experience life—and are sent to bring life. In a world of violence, exploitation, injustice, and oppression, we are sent to bring peace, equity, justice, and liberation. And in doing so, we experience our own liberation. We awaken to the positive emotions of love and joy that come from whole-hearted engagement in tasks that enrich the lives of others. And when we engage in these tasks together—in partnership with one another, we find both the relationships and sense of purpose that give life meaning.
In this endeavour we are not sent empty-handed. Jesus breathes into the disciples the Holy Spirit. The same spirit that hovered over the waters when God brought forth creation in Genesis 1, the same Spirit that God breathed into the first humans in Genesis 2 to make them alive, and the same Spirit that God sent to raise Jesus Christ from the dead (Romans 8:9-11) is sent to live in and through us. When we receive the Holy Spirit in Baptism and are renewed by the Spirit in Confirmation we receive into ourselves the very power that reanimates life, that reinvigorates hope, that renews this suffering world. And when we come to the Altar at Holy Communion, we receive into ourselves and become united with Jesus Christ who has been raised from the dead and inaugurates in himself the renewal of all creation. We begin to experience liberation from the dominating grip of negative emotions, the paralysing disengagement, and the loss of meaning that so plague our age. We find courage to have hope and joy in the face of life’s challenges. We find courage to emerge from behind self-preservation to engage in significant tasks and risky endeavours. We find courage to discover meaning beyond the narrow confines of our own self-interest—to give ourselves to a larger purpose—to join with God in the renewal and restoration of life that began in Christ and continues in and through us, the Body of Christ.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Jurgen Moltmann, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).
 Martin E.P. Seligman, Flourish (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012)