Sunday, July 15, 2012

This Week's Sermon: "Thin Places"

Revelation 21:1-5

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (CEB)

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

I was raised by a modern family—and I don’t mean the sitcom.  I mean that my parents had—and have—swapped some of the more traditional gender roles in their marriage.  See, because my mom doesn’t cook one bit, my dad does all the grocery shopping and cooking, and whenever he was out of town for business, my sister and I would line up by the car, waiting for my mom to take us out to our favorite diner, lest she try to concoct some culinary abomination in the kitchen. 

And so one time, when my sister and I were both in elementary school, we were acting out too excitedly for getting to go out to eat, and my mom began scolding us as she drove—but she was so focused on scolding us that she missed the turn into the diner parking lot, and instead turned one stoplight too soon—which instead took us onto the interstate that takes you from our Kansas City suburb to St. Louis, but she just continued driving.  And so at an appropriate break in the action, after my mother had finished lecturing us on how some children only got peanut butter and jelly for dinner, my sister pipes up and asks, “Mommy, why are we going to St. Louis?”

The old Christian maxim is that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.  I think more appropriate would be that many of us actually fear that the road to God is filled with wrong turns, and we have instilled in ourselves this fear that it only takes one wrong turn to take us wildly off course—one wrong turn takes you from your familiar hometown to a road leading to a city hours away.  One wrong turn moves you away from God and Jesus and closer towards whatever evil is.  But this implies a distance between us and God that I think has done more harm than good, and deep down, I think John, the author of Revelation, would probably agree. 

Today marks the seventh week of our summer sermon series.  As I’ve said throughout, 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.  Yet, 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 an introduction to how we are meant to read Revelation—and that is with the humility and knowledge that we are not John, and cannot understand his mind.  In week two, we began going through the actual vision itself, and we started in a familiar, heartwarming place with Heaven itself.  Then we began to delve into the realm of demons and dragons and wars between Heaven and Hell with the appearances of the iconic four horsemen of the apocalypse and the dragon that is cast out of Heaven by Michael the Archangel.  We tackled perhaps the most famous image in Revelation—the number of the beast—and last week, we saw Christ enter the picture as a new, fifth horseman, and now, after all is said and done, we have finally arrived!

Or, should I say, God has finally arrived.  The most powerful aspect of the vision of the new Jerusalem is that it comes to us—we do not, and perhaps cannot, travel to it, lest we become lost ourselves over the past twenty chapters of violence, fear, and otherworldly war in Revelation.

Because that is usually what we end up doing, right?  When it comes to faith, it’s easy to get lost…and I have to wonder if it is because we’re much better at the short game than the long game—yes, we know what the end goal is, what lies beyond the finish line, but I’m talking about in the moments in between, when something huge might happen in our lives and we fall to our knees and call it a miracle, and then forget all about that feeling just a few days later.

Maybe the most painful consequence of that pattern of spirituality is that it makes us feel as though God is pushed further away—that He is only present in those moments of euphoria when something really does happen, and that He is not present in all the other in-betweens.  In short, that sort of stop-and-go spirituality turns God into a fair-weather fan for us.  And so we keep God at a distance, both literally and metaphorically.

One of the most poignant ways I’ve seen this distance borne out was about ten or twelve years ago, the science fiction author Tim Powers wrote a thriller novel called “Declare,” in which the Heaviside layer, this wispy layer of ionized air some 90 miles above the earth, was the spirit realm.  We had long since given up on the earth as any sort of dwelling place fit for the gods, and no longer were the skies distant enough for gods to dwell, we now had to put them even further away, because we’re down here, and God’s up there, and that’s just the way it is.

Except that it isn’t.  Every once in a while, those two worlds, heaven and earth, collide in the most miraculous of ways, where the veil is lifted from our eyes and we actually do see God in the world.  The Trappist monk Thomas Merton called this the “thin place,” where the boundary between our world and God’s world was at it softest, most permeable, most forgiving.  The famous Bible scholar Marcus Borg simply calls the thin place “a means of grace.” 

As a church, what we feel we are called to do is to search high and low for the thin place, for a way to bring that Heaviside layer where God resides into our sad, battered, used up little world.  And it would be an admirable mission, but for one thing—we often forget to begin that search at the very place where we are instructed to, every Sunday, look and listen for God.

And that’s what the new Jerusalem is supposed to be—it is supposed to be the last tearing of the boundary between Heaven and earth, the last gasp of the air that lives between sky and ground, and the last stand of whatever obstacles lie between us and the God who loves us.

But lest we assume that this entire process takes place only in the future, remember the idea of the thin place…that the bringing of God to earth is something that can be done here, now.  After all—as I said at the beginning, when John wrote Revelation, there literally was no Jerusalem—it had been sacked by the Romans.  Not only does Jerusalem exist today in the literal sense, but its holiness is brought to us, thousands of miles away, whenever we find that we are stumbling about lost, without a spiritual map or compass, and are gently placed back upon safe ground.

For John, Jerusalem was the center of the world.  A new Jerusalem is not simply a new city in which to dwell, or a new idea of Heaven to be imagined.  It is nothing more, and nothing less, than the creation of a brand new moral center to his universe.

And if we feel like we sometimes lose our moral centers, then no wonder we might go through life wondering whether God is absent, or whether God is still working in the world.  It is not that God has left us, it is that we have forgotten for a moment how to see and hear Him.  It is not that we have been banished, it is that we have gotten lost.

Because getting lost implies finding your way once more.  It implies being found at some point down the road.  By these final chapters of Revelation, John has felt lost for far too long.  He knows that he will be found once more, and so he writes to us what he thinks it will look like, the arrival of God and God’s kingdom in his life.

May your own hopes for God’s arrival in your life be as amazing and fantastical and imaginative as it is for John.  May you share with one another what you think that arrival will look like.  And may, in doing so, you create for another person, another child of God, a new thin place in the world, where God is made just a little bit closer, and His love is made just a little more known.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
July 15, 2012

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