Sunday, June 17, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Postmodern Parthia"

(...yes, I did indeed say in my last post that I felt we Christians overuse the term "postmodern." I'm just a bundle of contradictions.) 

Revelation 6:1-8 

Then I looked on as the Lamb opened one of the seven seals. I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” 2 So I looked, and there was a white horse. Its rider held a bow and was given a crown. And he went forth from victory to victory. 3 When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” 4 Out came another horse, fiery red. Its rider was allowed to take peace from the earth so that people would kill each other. He was given a large sword. 5 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” So I looked, and there was a black horse. Its rider held a balance for weighing in his hand. 6 I heard what sounded like a voice from among the four living creatures. It said, “A quart of wheat for a denarion,[a] and three quarts of barley for a denarion, but don’t damage the olive oil and the wine.” 7 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” 8 So I looked, and there was a pale green horse. Its rider’s name was Death, and the Grave was following right behind. They were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill by sword, famine, disease, and the wild animals of the earth. (CEB)

“The Greatest Movie Never Made: The Book of Revelation,” Week Three 

The kick drum was booming, the lights were dimming, and the absolutely packed auditorium was filled with anticipation so intense that you could cut it with a blade.  And this was in 2003, yet I remember it well.

Nine years ago, almost to the day, I saw my first-ever post-sermon altar call.

Mind you, I have witnessed many altar calls and loved them—usually at the very end of a service, during the closing music, for people who wanted to dedicate or rededicate themselves to Christ and become members of that particular church.

This was, rather, a “turn or burn” altar call.

I was seventeen and on mission in Atlanta, Georgia, with the International Christian Youth Fellowship, the youth arm of the Disciples of Christ. We had worship every night, and on that first night, we got a…I’ll be diplomatic and call it an "intense” sermon that culminated in an altar call, because, you know, this ain’t All Dogs Go to Heaven—it’s Only Particular Christians Go to Heaven. That’s what the preacher said. Several of my friends, crying, walked forward.

I walked out.

It wasn’t because of the altar call itself.

It was because of the altar call under threat of hellfire.

It was because of the message that I felt denigrated my agnostic father.

It was because of the message made my friends—loving, caring Christians all—suddenly terrified for the fate of their souls.

I felt sick. And in that moment, I caught a glimpse of why my peers leave the church, why many of them never come back, and why this is one of the greatest threats to the church.

Today marks the third week of our summer sermon series. After all, summer is the season of blockbuster movies about superheroes or thrilling heists or action-packed military exploits, and at first glance, the Bible wouldn’t seem to stack up well to such epic storytelling. Jesus preached a lot of turning the other cheek, the rest of the New Testament are a bunch of letters, and the stories of the conquest under Joshua, or of the wars with the Philistines under Saul and David, are far off in the dusty recesses of the past, documented vividly in the Old Testament, but still a thousand or so years before Christ. So, enter the book of Revelation. After decades of subjugation by Rome, which included the sacking of Jerusalem and the Jewish Temple in the year 70 CE, Saint John writes this final letter of the Bible from his lonely exile on the Greek island of Patmos some roughly twenty years later. His letter is a vivid, harrowing vision of what the future may hold in store for God’s people, and it has often been misinterpreted by Christians since, often in, frankly, wholly incorrect ways. I can’t promise you the right answers in this sermon series, but I can promise you a lot of interesting questions to debate during our fellowship time after worship is over!

The first week was mostly a crash course introduction to how exactly we are meant to read Revelation to begin with—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John himself, and could not begin to understand his mind—and last week, we began going through his actual vision, and we start in a familiar, heartwarming place before today, this week, when we begin to delve into the realm of devils and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell with the appearance of the iconic four horsemen of the apocalypse, the first great threats in John’s vision.

There are four horsemen, one after the other, representing conquest, war, famine, and death--contrary to popular belief, there is no horseman in Scripture who represents pestilence. And it is also very important that they are horsemen. One of the greatest military threats that Biblical Israel faced was that of Parthia, an empire in modern-day Iran, whose armies were known for their fearsome and legendary cavalry. These cavalry fought primarily with two weapons—the bow and arrow, and the sword. These two weapons are wielded by the first two horsemen—conquest and war. The image of the Parthian cavalry is invoked by John because, quite literally, they represented to ancient Israel war and conquest, and that which follows—famine and death.

Famine from the resources used and destroyed by war, and from that famine comes the tyranny of the scales—the scales which were used to weigh pieces of silver and gold to pay for food (think of how we would use a cash register today). And when there is too little food, prices increase. It’s supply-and-demand, economics 101. A day’s pay for a quart of wheat, or for three quarts of barley, was the equivalent of price-gouging--imagine paying an entire day's salary for a loaf of Wonderbread! And when you can no longer afford food, starvation comes and death claims you.

What John is describing is, in fact, the reality that the greatest threats we face are from one another. Our ability to claim another’s life by means of violence and economic exploitation is the first threat that we see in the entirety of Revelation—chapter one is the introduction, chapters two and three are letters to various churches, chapters four and five are peaceful visions of Heaven, and here is the first threat to that peace—the threats of violence and scarcity. And whether we choose to admit it or not, they are the greatest threat the church faces today.

We can make all the noise we want about evolution versus creationism, or who is allowed to be married or not, but the number of deaths that they directly cause is relatively small to say the least. Yet an estimated 25,000 people die every day from hunger or hunger-related causes—that’s over 1,000 people every hour—and over 4,000 people die every day from violence. And the number of people who die because we teach evolution in our schools? Well…probably pretty close to zero.

The simple truth, the annoying, won’t-shut-up-and-go-away truth is, that there are REAL concerns facing the church today regarding what the four horsemen represent—there are real concerns about violence and starvation that we can do something about, by supporting, say, the battered women’s shelter in Kelso, and by providing for the Kessler Elementary School’s food aid for students. And I am so very, very grateful that these are what this congregation chooses to expend its resources on, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because to our unchurched neighbors, that is what they often want or need to see from us to recognize our faith as genuine. As James writes, "By your works, I shall know your faith!"

Because faith that misses the big picture—that pushes aside the big stuff to invent littler stuff to tackle—that is the sort of faith that is what is turning people away from the church today. The Barna Group, a California think tank focused on faith and culture, published a study last year that included these eye-opening facts: 22% of 18-to-29-year-old adults believe the church ignores the problems of the real world. 36% believe they cannot ask their most pressing life questions in church. And because of that type of stifling atmosphere—where, for instance, turn-or- burn pronouncements of hellfire and condemnation make up the message—because of things like that, 20% of people my age say that God is missing from their experiences of church.

When we ignore what the four horsemen represent, we create another great crisis, another foe, another Parthian army, that the current, post-modern church must face and conquer—of disbelief in us!

It would be disingenuous for me to ignore the concerns of the real world from the pulpit (that I never use!). It would be shameful for me to turn this church into a place where you could not ask any pressing questions. But neither of those things kept me from terror’s grip when I got in front of you last week and tore into the reality that there are churches that teach their children virulent homophobia from a very early age. Many of you told me afterwards that you noticed how nervous I was, or even that such nervousness was unlike me. And I’d like to think that it is, because it is not often that I preach with the fear in the back of my mind that by preaching what I believe to be true, that I would cause an uproar among you for daring to push the envelope.

I cannot say, and will hopefully never have to say, that I am sorry for preaching what I believe to be true. But I am sorry, very sorry, that I did not have more faith in you. I was terrified that I was about to cut this congregation’s throat by saying something you so would not want to hear that you would shut your ears to me. But I have learned that this is not so. And learning this restores my faith, and I hope it does for you as well, that this can indeed be a church which dedicates itself to the true crises that we face, rather than the crises which we manufacture.

For in the four horsemen, we have seen the faces of the evils that we are called to quell. And may our doing this provide to those who have walked away from the path of Jesus Christ a wondrous reason to return to it once more. Because I will say this for my generation—we may not always be certain of what our faith looks like, or even that we have that much faith, but we know it when we see it.

We know it when we see it.

By the grace of God, may it be so. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
June 17, 2012

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