In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
I bring you greetings from the Presbytery of Carlisle (Presbyterian Church, USA) and the Pennsylvania Council of Churches. The Pennsylvania Council of Churches is the statewide ecumenical fellowship of forty-two Christian bodies in Pennsylvania that seek to witness together in particular ways to the unity of the Church in Jesus Christ our Lord. I’m also pleased to say that some of the religious leaders who comprise the board of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches are here today. It is an honor for the Pennsylvania Council of Churches to be represented in this service of worship.
We will take two of the allotted fifteen minutes for the sermon to mention the religious heritage of Pennsylvania, as this is Pennsylvania Sunday. William Penn, to whom the initial land grant was made for “Penn’s Woods” or “Penn Sylvania,” was a member of the Religious Society of Friends, commonly called the Quakers. Being pacifists, this group was unwilling to bear arms against the native peoples but were more than willing to sell land to my ancestors in the faith, the Presbyterians. They were willing to bear such arms and, in a sad chapter of Pennsylvania history, helped effectively wipe out the native population. Pittsburgh is now the demographic hotspot for Presbyterians in the USA, as well as the seat of a Greek Orthodox Metropolitan. The African Methodist Episcopal denomination was founded by the Rev. Richard Allen when he marched out of St. Georges’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia to protest racial segregation. Pennsylvania is home to one of the largest, if not the largest, populations of Anabaptists in the country, and while the Amish are the most famous, many other Anabaptist groups call our Commonwealth home. Pennsylvania, for instance, is home to the single largest group of Schwenkfelders in the world–all 2,500 of them! (And they are part of the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.) These few Pennsylvania facts give you just a taste of our religiously rich history, some of it tragic and some of it uplifting.
Before we examine the Scripture more closely, I would like to share an image with you. When my husband and I go on vacation, we tend not to go to the beach. Rather, we go to the mountains. Big mountains like the Rockies or Andes or Himalayas. One time, in northern Pakistan, we had finished quite a rigorous day’s hike. We had dropped some 2,500 feet in less than two hours, the trail down had been quite steep, and everyone in the group was much relieved to come to a lovely camp in a glacial valley. On one side of the valley was the glacier itself, and on the other side was the first shining, snow-covered ridge of the Himalayas. Throughout the valley there were lovely flowering bushes, mainly graceful tamarisks with their feathery pink flower fronds and lovely, twelve-feet-tall wild pink rose bushes. A little stream ran through the area where we were to camp that night. It was, in short, perfect. With the evening sun just starting to drop, and the peaks above shining golden in the light, a single horse grazed gently on the green, green grass. Yours truly, taken with all the beauty, wasn’t watching where she was going, and looking at a particularly beautiful rose bush, tripped over a branch in the camp and sprained an ankle. Badly sprained an ankle. It would hurt for the next ten months. Suddenly life was less than perfect, and with nine glaciers yet to be crossed and a few high altitude passes to go over, it was intimidating to consider accomplishing what needed to be accomplished with the sprained ankle. Most especially, the situation was intimidating because I had no hope of medical care of any sort. How did I handle the pain? Simple answer: I ignored it. I simply pretended the pain wasn’t there, and hiked along, ankle wrapped in an ace bandage and hand firmly grasping a walking stick, as if nothing was wrong at all. Now, many, many situations in our world today are painful. If we have no hope of some higher purpose, no hope of a loving God who will go through tough times with us, no hope that through deep faith, clear thinking and the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we human beings can begin to make things better, then we are likely to be tempted to ignore the painful, difficult situations and just live our comfortable, middle-class lives with very little reference to our faith except in the most private ways.
The Scriptures we are about to explore are a lot like that very beautiful camp. The passage from the book of the prophet Joel and the passage from the book of the Revelation to John describe that perfect time at the end of all time when God will make all things right. These two passages–the Church through the ages has called them apocalypse–describe the perfect reward for the faithful followers of the One, Holy, True God. Are these Scriptures merely pie in the sky, by and by? No. But they are far lovelier than what we experience in our everyday lives in this world. What do these Scriptures have to say to us, here and now, not just about the great day when God will make all things right, but now?
Apocalyptic Scriptures are among the most misunderstood of all the types of Scripture, so first let’s see what the writers of these Scriptures are trying to say to us. In North America it is very popular to use apocalyptic, especially the book of Revelation, to try to scare people into faith. It’s used as a kind of proselytization by intimidation tool. This is an irresponsible use of the Scripture, and here’s why. The people to whom Joel and John wrote were living through terrible times. They already had plenty of real-life terrors, in Joel’s case plagues of locusts that had destroyed all the food for all the people, raising the specter of famine, and in John’s case, outright persecution of Christians by the Roman authorities. People were literally scared for their lives. Now does it make sense to you that in such circumstances the writers of Scripture would try to scare the people more? No. That makes no sense at all. Rather, the writers of these Scripture passages are trying to use code language to give the faithful people hope. For instance, in the Revelation passage, John goes to great lengths to describe how beautiful the city will be when the saints of God have successfully endured the tribulations of this life and begin to inhabit the city. There will be no need for lamps at night because God and the Lamb (that’s Jesus Christ, the one for whom the saints were suffering in this earthly life) would provide light. In fact, John argues there will be no sun during the day because God and the Lamb will be shining brighter than the sun. The tribulations through which the saints of God had to pass, and about which we did not read today, were truly terrible. So were the situations in which the real life people to whom John wrote found themselves. The words about the shining city, with the throne of God in the midst of it and the stream of living water running from it and the trees of life on either side of the stream–these words were not used to convince people that they needed to be saved from a terrible fate. These were words of comfort for those who were already assumed to belong firmly to God and the Lamb, through the power of the Holy Spirit. And so it is today.
We comfortable Christians may not see ourselves in the troubled times of the late Roman Empire, but the message of hope in the midst of a troubled world is the same. Joel’s shining vision and John’s otherworldly message of the heavenly city, the new Jerusalem, are calls to hope in the midst of life’s challenges, those times in life when we perceive the world has sprained our ankles or worse. Both Scriptures hark back to the Garden of Eden, that place where all was in balance, and human beings lived idyllic lives in harmony with their Creator. How different from the world we experience in this life.
Without hope, it becomes very difficult to face the very real tragedies and challenges of this life. Without hope, we comfortable Christians can all too easily turn our backs on the suffering of other people and pretend it will all just go away. With hope, we begin to share a vision and to live a vision of the world as God would like it to be. Joel, John, Psalm 67 and the passage from John’s Gospel all speak of God’s empowering love. Consider the Revelation verse that refers to the trees of life. You remember in Genesis, there was a tree of life, the fruit of which, once eaten, would give immortality? Here we have multiple trees of life, with twelve different kinds of fruit during the twelve months of the year. This is life abundant, life full to overflowing, offered to people who were persecuted, suffering and terribly afraid. What are similar circumstances today, situations in which hope offered in Jesus Christ make all the difference?
Jonathan Kozol, in his book Amazing Grace: the Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, talks about the lives and thoughts of children and teens in one particularly violent neighborhood in the South Bronx. (It is no coincidence that Kozol puts a quotation from Revelation 21 about the new heaven and new earth on the frontispiece of his book.) In one passage, Kozol relays the words of a high school senior, a young man who is caring for his mother who is dying of AIDS. This youngster walks past drug dealers every day on his way to and from school, he fixes his mother’s food and encourages her to eat, even when she doesn’t feel like it. Here is what this young man said to Kozol. “I wonder how powerful God is. He must be wise and powerful to make the animals and trees and give man organs and a brain to build complex machineries, but he is not powerful enough to stop the evil on the earth, to change the hearts of people.” Kozol asked what he meant by evil on earth, and here is what he said, “Evil exists. I believe that what the rich have done to the poor people in this city is something that a preacher could call evil. Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people–that is my idea of evil.” And then he talked about what it was like to go to the clinic with his mother and see the line of drug users lined up waiting for clean needles. He noticed that most of the addicts were racial/ethnic minorities. He expressed his sorrow for them, and his fear. And then he said, “I believe that we are put here for a purpose, but these people in the streets can’t see a purpose. There’s a whole world out there if you know it’s there, if you can see it. But they’re in a cage. They cannot see.” This young man, growing up in the midst of terrible circumstances, not of his own making, had hope. He also saw, with crystal clear vision, the systems that oppress people in this country, the behaviors that are self destructive and the ways in which those of us who are comfortable Christians turn our backs, simply pretend the pain doesn’t exist. But that young man had hope–and it enabled him to look some evil things in the eye and then live out of his hope.
There are other circumstances in which God-given hope makes all the difference in the world. Recently, in our town, Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania, that fair state, four young men arrived. They are from the Sudan. The oldest is about twenty-one, the youngest maybe seventeen. When they were children, a terrible war was going on, and their parents sent them away in order to save their lives. For more than a decade they, and some 16,000 other young people, roamed across East Africa seeking safety, finally settling in a refugee camp near the Kenyan border. As a group they have been named the Lost Boys of Sudan, although they are now almost all grown. One might expect them to be cynical. They are not. One might expect the eagerness to learn new things to have been crushed out of them. It has not been. In asking them how they came to have some formal education and some hope for the future, they told my husband and me a couple of things. First they said, “We are Anglicans and we pray. (Actually they said, “We are Angelicans.” which, given their very sweet demeanor seems an appropriate pronunciation of their faith tradition.) And then they told us, “There were old people, like you, who came to live with us in the camps and they made sure we had food and school.” There were grown-up, Christian people who dedicated their lives to these young boys, even to the point of living in a refugee camp with them for years! And that made all the difference. Do these young men know their lives have been hard? Of course. Was it fair? No. But they have hope, because out of their faith, people cared about them and taught them to look to the future.
“And the leaves of the trees (of life) are for the healing of the nations.” The healing of the nations, you see, begins when we human beings, fractured and flawed though we might be, grasp a vision of how God wants this world to be, and then we live to make it come true. It’s called hope. One cannot quantify or draw a picture of it, but we surely cannot live without it. Once we have hope, the kind of hope that God and the Lamb can give, then we begin to live in light of that hope, we begin to live in ways that share that hope. So I ask you, as a person of faith, do you allow God’s hope, given to us through the crucified and risen One, to permeate your entire life? Do you allow God’s message in Christ–the message that the resurrection is possible even in the most awful situations–do you allow this message to influence your every thought and action? For without hope, we are just looking for rosebushes in life, and are stunned and stopped dead in our tracks when we encounter the sprains and strains of life that are genuinely difficult or tragic. But with hope, we can change the world, in ways great or small.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in describing the situation in South Africa, once said, “We have no cause for optimism. Therefore, God gives us hope!” How often in this life that is the case. We have no cause for optimism about poverty, but our God calls us to be a people of hope. And so we must do the tough, clear, compassionate thinking that would lead us in the direction of raising the minimum wage, of taking part in the National Council of Churches’ Decade Against Poverty, of supporting Bread for the World’s legislative efforts to eradicate hunger in our country, of volunteering in soup kitchens and asking our legislators to enact just public policies. We have no cause for optimism about poverty, therefore, God gives us hope! We have no cause for optimism about the possibilities of total world peace. Therefore, God gives us hope! Hope that calls us to interact with people from other cultures, to talk passionately and compassionately with those with whom we disagree, to call our own government and other governments to take the tough, clear, compassionate steps that will lead to peace–even if it means banning arms sales to other nations. We have no reason for optimism about total world peace. Therefore, God gives us hope!
The issue list could go on and on and on. But you catch the point of today’s Scriptures. We people of faith must not ignore the hurting, difficult, frightening situations of the world around us. Rather, we must trust in the lovely vision of the great day when God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. When God will sit upon the throne in righteousness. When the stream of living waters will shower down upon the earth’s children, and when the leaves of the trees will be for the healing of the nations. Until that day comes, you and I are called to live in the light of God’s hope, promised to us through the One who, dying a criminal’s death, yet overcame all that would hurt of harm. Then may our eyes be blest to see the day when we can say, along with the writer of John’s Gospel, “If a