Twenty years ago last Thursday my husband received me as a birthday present. Well, not me exactly; my phone number. He and his mother had come with Evelyn and her son to Sunday worship at the church I served in San Antonio. After church, the four friends went to lunch. My husband challenged his mother. “If you want to give me a birthday present, get me that woman’s phone number.”
That week, Evelyn called. “Dear, do you remember that man and his mother who came to church with me last Sunday?” “Vaguely,” I replied. “Well, he lives in Washington, D.C., and he is asking for your phone number. May I give it to him?” An alarm sounded in my head; never date a man who needs an 80 year old to arrange it.
And yet, I liked Evelyn. What could come of sharing your phone number with someone half-way across the country?
We had a date. We phoned. We crisscrossed the country. We were wary; both of us had been previously married and carried the residue of a relationship of covenanted love gone painfully wrong.
Nothing in this relationship would go unexamined. Halfway through our first meal, my husband looked across the table and said, “You can unclench your fists now.” Dating meant trust, scrutiny, risk. My husband bought a book about lasting relationships. Each chapter ended with a quiz. We took them all. He asked if we could take the inventory I use in pre-marital counseling. We inventoried. I asked for his family tree and for him to describe his family’s dynamics.
Not exactly the dating I had expected. And yet fairly quickly, something came clear to us both. Newness was rising up in us and between us; newness and love. And God was at the heart of it all.
I chose this morning’s reading from Revelation for our wedding; the vision of new heaven and new earth; a tender God settling among us bringing life to dead, dire, dreary places; making all things new in love.
The preacher invited our gathered friends and relatives into John’s vision:
“Remember the first heaven and the first earth? How God made the world to be a beautiful garden; ripe with joy, a [couple] meant for each other; a paradise of intimacy, delight and love?
Who can understand how such an Eden has become a place of estrangement and loneliness; a place of hunger and homelessness; a place of violence and oppression?
Can we glimpse in this marriage the world as it was meant to be: A place of triumph and tenderness, a place of passion and power; a place of wonder and delight?” (JR Huie)
She asked a good question. In a world of guns and bombs and poison gas; uncontrolled greed and crushing poverty; melting icecaps and rising seas—can we even glimpse the transforming, recreating, gracious newness born of the love of God?
Sitting with families and faith communities, I hear a laundry list of complaints about a child, a partner, a pastor, a church. We speak eloquently when describing the misbehavior, unhappiness, or injustice that affects us in life and in relationships.
We find it infinitely harder to glimpse the strengths, surprises, gifts, and hope of new life and deeper love. “Just what would you like your child to be doing? What would the perfect spouse look like for you? What kind of church did you have in mind? These questions generally evoke a long silence. (GG Campbell)
Which makes John’s evocative image of a transfigured world even more astonishing. John spoke to a people persecuted, martyred, harshly judged of a holy Jerusalem, coming down to earth from heaven; born of the heart and life of God; a city of profound beauty, like a bride; radiant on her wedding day. He imagines God’s people, after enduring terrible persecution, waiting like a faithful husband, ready to receive his bride; and God dwelling at the center of it all. How did John catch a glimpse of newness so profound that it touches a longing in the deepest core of our beings? (Wright)
Vision. Vision provides a lifeline, offers nourishment, gives direction to our love. Without vision, Jeremiah says, people perish. Think of vision as the pull of the horizon; drawing us out to the very edge of what we know; and then just a bit further. If all we can imagine is what we already see, death has taken hold of us.
God beckons us to trust what we cannot see; to live toward God’s promised future with hope.
In Peter’s day, few barriers were stronger than the wall between Jews and Gentiles; insiders and outsiders. When Peter returned from Joppa, the insiders confront him, “Why did you have to go rubbing shoulders with those outsiders, eating their unclean food. They are not our kind!”
“God gave me a glimpse of God’s Spirit, falling upon them as a gift,” Peter said, “just as it fell upon us in the beginning. God leapt over our walls with astonishing grace. No more them and us. Who am I to object?” (Peterson)
Silence. Then praise: a praise which, according to the Psalm, encompasses the whole of creation. God’s newness has cosmic dimensions.
Jesus gathers the eleven after Judas goes off into the night. He commands them to love one another, just as he has loved them; sacrificially, obediently, as a servant. “Love each other like that,” he tells them, “and even after I’m gone, others will catch a glimpse of me in you and in your life together.”
Margaret Guenther says, “Love is the most powerful of the potent four letter words—hate, fear, work, life. And maybe the hardest to understand… [The idea of loving on command, even the command of Christ,] “boggles the mind.” And yet, here and there we catch a glimpse of people who love with greatness of spirit. They give us hope.
I read in the Washington Post about a couple: the wife, a peace advocate of national prominence; the husband, a member of the National Guard; the wife, a leader in an organization of military spouses protesting military policy; the husband, a decorated veteran of the war in Iraq. They spoke of the challenges they encounter in maintaining a loving relationship given their very different vocations and values.
The wife’s words have stayed with me. “What matters is that I remain true to myself. What matters is that I am big enough [and love him enough] to let him do the same.”
In a world where relationships unravel over where to hang a picture, where churches cannot respectfully agree to disagree, where what passes for love leaves a wake of brokenness, this couple seems to have imagined the unimaginable: how to be separate without separating.
We need a clear and compelling vision of God’s future to have stamina for our journey. Ironically, John’s vision grounds us. God does not invite us to leave this earth for a heavenly place. No. The wedding, it seems, will come to us. Our task is to live with the love and faithfulness of Jesus, as glimpses of God’s promised future, while we wait; while we hope.
Notice in John’s vision we journey toward a city, not a garden. John’s image of the holy city; perfectly prepared and beautifully adorned by the love and life of God humbles us when we think of the poverty, decay, and violence of our cities.
And yet even the cities of old earth offer glimpses of God’s new creation. Just after the Civil War, a bishop—looking out over a battered and broken Richmond—felt an urgent need to pray for the city. Seven Sisters of the Visitation answered his call to establish a convent. Purchasing a home on the city’s highest point, they began to pray for the healing of the city. Opening a school to pay their bills, the sisters taught and prayed.
Decades later, when a new generation of sisters needed to sell the convent and move elsewhere, the vision of praying over the city captured the imagination of an Episcopal priest. Together with friends, he bought and renovated the convent and called together a community of great diversity for communal living, service in the city, and prayer.
Three times every day, the community of Richmond Hill gathers to pray for the city of Richmond and for its healing: praying for every jurisdiction of the city by name and all its leaders, people, and institutions; for all suffering and all challenges; for the end of racism in the city and for the increase of spiritual community.
The power of prayer prayed in a place sanctified by almost 150 years of prayer—it’s simplicity and its strength—almost takes your breath away.
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth; and a city, like a bride; and a people, like a husband; and God in their midst making all things new.
It is a glimpse. Can we see it?
These are sermon notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Weavings, January/February 1997, “Living into the Image: Thoughts on Religious Imagination and the Imagery of Tradition,” Wendy Wright
Christian Century, 5-2-01, sermon by Margaret Guenther
The Message, Eugene Peterson, Nav Press, 2003
Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, wedding homily, 1994
“Maturity Matters,” Gina Gilland Campbell