The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor: “This Way Home”
Full disclosure: I do not like the book of Revelation. I do not like its violence, its vindictiveness, its opaqueness, its psychotic visions, its attitude toward women, its enemy thinking, its dualistic worldview or its vacancy of love. I do not even like people who like the book of Revelation, since so many of them use it to justify their crazier ideas about God and scare other people with what they think they know. Right this minute, someone is turning Hurricane Sandy into a predictor of apocalypse and using the book of Revelation to do so. I wish it had been left out of the Bible, as it almost was.
But since it wasn’t, I’ll grant this much: if you want a beatific vision of God’s end-game for creation, there is no better place to look than the last two chapters of Revelation, with its golden streets and pearly gates—the place most Christians think of when they think of heaven, where death will be no more—no more tears, no more crying, no more pain. The seven plagues are all over; all the trumpets have been blown. Michael has defeated the Dragon and the Beast has gone down to the dust. And behold, there is rejoicing in heaven as the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven prepared as a bride adorned for her husband, and all the saints of God make their way to the marriage supper of the Lamb.
These verses are read at so many funerals that some of us expect to see a casket when we hear them. Ditto with the story of the raising of Lazarus. These are teachings about the end of life, not the beginning, which makes them sound a little odd on a day so full of baptisms. Shouldn’t we be hearing something from the book of Genesis today, or at least something from the early chapters of the gospels? Why do we celebrate new life in Christ with so much focus on the end?
It’s a wonderful question, especially for people who have been trained to look to the past to discover who they are. In the South, the ritual of meeting someone new always includes establishing that person’s origins.
“Where are you from?” That’s the leading question—hard to answer if you come from a military family, possibly irritating if you or your parents were immigrants, and even risky if the answer is anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line. Once, when I was walking in the backwoods of rural north Georgia, a man in overalls who was clearly not happy to see me planted himself in my path. “And who would your people be?” he asked, which I understood as shorthand for, “Why don’t you get back into your foreign car and go back to wherever you came from?”
But he was an exception. Most of the time people want to know where you come from so they can establish a connection. “Seattle? Isn’t that where ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ is filmed? Do you know any Pritchetts or McQueens?” Since I’m not from anywhere in particular I usually talk about my ancestors instead—Irish on my mother’s side, English and Austrian on my father’s. It’s why I love bagpipes and potatoes, though not in that order.
If I’m in a churchy crowd I may present those credentials instead—baptized in the Catholic church as an infant, baptized again in the Baptist church as a teenager, confirmed in the Episcopal church in my twenties. However I do it, what I am trying to do is to tell you who I am by telling you who I was. I am establishing my identity by telling you about my origins.
Christians do it by appealing to the story of creation or the story of the fall to explain why we are the way we are. Why do we keep listening for the voice of God and longing for God’s company? Because there was a time when we walked together in the garden at the time of the evening breeze. Why do we keep reaching for things we know aren’t good for us? Because we still have a seed of that forbidden fruit caught in our teeth somewhere, so delicious and ruinous all at once that we cannot get its taste out of our mouths.
For as long as there have been humans, there have been stories like these—stories of our beginnings, of our ancestors, that help explain who we are and why we are here. Call them our Alpha stories, since they are the first ones many of us learned. They set our clocks ticking. They magnetized our compasses at such a deep level that they continue to function as our default settings even now.
This makes perfect sense, since they are stories about things that have already happened to us. Whether they happened in our religious imaginations or in our real lives on earth, they are part of our past—a part that cannot be changed now, for good or ill, which gives the past a kind of solidity that the future does not have. Whatever happens from here on out, I will never have different grandparents. I will never have been born in El Salvador, and I will never have been raised on stories of Lord Krishna or Lady Lilith. My Alpha stories are set in stone.
It was not until I got to work on this sermon that I realized how important our Omega stories are—not our origin stories but our destination stories—the ones that tell us who we are by telling us where we are going. These stories may not have the same solidity that our Alpha stories do—at least not at first—because they have not happened yet, which means that no one can tell us which one is “right.” All we can do is choose one from the wide variety of end-time stories that we are being offered almost every day—and then hope that we have chosen wisely, since our Omega stories will have as much or more to do with the direction of our lives than our Alpha stories ever do.
By setting six verses from Revelation over the sacrament of baptism today, the church offers the baptized its best vision of a destination big enough to sustain a human life: the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. For the babies baptized earlier today, it is a destination to grow up in and into. For the adult who presented herself, it may be a new one altogether, meant to replace an old one that was not taking her anywhere she wanted to go. For those of us renewing our vows, it is a reminder that our lives are more than the result of our histories. As trees rooted in the earth still rise toward the sun, so our lives unfurl toward their purposes.
The difference is, we can choose our suns, and even among Christians there are quite a few planets to choose from. So here are a few things to notice about the Omega story Revelation tells, especially if you are still shopping for one big enough for your life:
1) In this story, people do not go up to heaven; heaven comes down to them. The earth is not struck by a rogue meteor, laid waste by aliens, destroyed by nuclear holocaust, or otherwise demolished so that humans have nowhere to go but up, like steam escaping a cosmic forest fire. That is Hollywood, not Revelation. In Revelation, the same God who created heaven and earth the first time is pleased to create them both anew. The sea is no more. Sandy and her wreckage have passed away. The new Jerusalem comes down to rest on the same footprint where the old, troubled city once stood, and God comes too—joining humans right where they are. “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them…” In this vision of final destination, the arc of the divine bends down, not up. With a future like that, you can’t dismiss the earth now.
2) In this story, the destination is not a garden but a city. We are not headed back to a perfect paradise for two but forward to a city for all the nations. When Adam and Eve cleared out of the Garden of Eden, God did not hang a sign on the gate that said “Closed for Repairs.” The sign said “Closed for Good,” while God (the eternal pragmatist) got busy finding other ways to woo people back to life. The vision of the new Jerusalem is bound to be a disappointment to people who thought they were going to have God all to themselves, since this city is 1500 miles square, full of people from every corner of the earth, and its gates are never shut. Anyone who cannot get along with the neighbors now is going to be miserable then, unless they let the vision get to work on them ahead of time, softening their hearts and opening their minds to embrace all whom God embraces. As a friend of mine is fond of saying, “It’s a shame that God has such poor taste in people.” The good news is that means there is hope for people like us. With a future like that, you can’t lock the gates now.
3) In this story, there is no temple. The new Jerusalem does not have a single church in it. By then, the time for beautiful places like this—even broken beautiful places like this—will be over. There will be further need for any of the mediators of God—sacred buildings, sacred books, sacred rituals or clergy—for God will be fully present to the people, who will see God face to face. The temple will be the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb—just that, just them, with no furniture but a throne and no light but the light streaming from them—no roof, no walls, no altar—but lots of water (not the Sandy kind; this is life-giving water, not life-taking-away water). In the vision, the river of the water of life flows from the throne on which God sits. The tree of life grows on its banks, producing fruit year round, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. I know some of you will miss church, but there you have it: there won’t be any one place to call “church” anymore since every place will be church, if what you mean by church is the place where you seek God. In the new Jerusalem, God won’t be hard to find anymore. The whole city will be God’s bride. Wherever you go in it and whomever you are with, you will be married to God. With a future like that, religion can’t be your be-all-and-end-all now. God’s presence is what counts.
To choose this destination is not about securing an advance ticket to heaven. It is about receiving citizenship papers. In a moment one of the designated officials in this beautiful, broken place will lead all of us through our baptismal vows—a compact summary of the rights and responsibilities of the citizens of the new Jerusalem. Anyone who answers “I will, with God’s help,” uses the future tense to accept a certain future—one that has not happened yet, but one with power to shape everything that happens next.
To say “yes” to it won’t get you any extra protection from hurricanes or other threats to your well-being; it may in fact make things harder instead of easier, with one important exception: you will never suffer from a shortage of high purpose in your life. You will never wonder why you are here or what you are for, because from now on you know both where you came from and where you are headed. Your feet are pointed in a certain direction— toward full communion with God and neighbor; away from evil and despair; toward justice and peace among all people, away from anything that might persuade you to respect the dignity of some human beings but not all.
Once you have decided to go in that direction, any step away takes you away from your own destiny—though fortunately your vows cover that too. If you ever look in the rear view mirror and see your destination getting smaller behind you, you can, with God’s help, stop and turn around. Sometimes you can even call AAA and the Lamb will send someone to pick you up.
Because once you have chosen your destination, your destination chooses you. The minute word gets out about your citizenship ceremony, you gain a whole new crowd of coaches and cheerleaders—Christians call them saints—who are dedicated to helping you get where you mean to go—not just by the end of time but by the end of every single day. Meanwhile, there you are, looking backward and forward to discover who you are, hanging on to your roots as you let your life unfurl toward the sun of your own choosing.
T. S. Eliot said it well: “In my end is my beginning.”
The one who is seated on the throne says it even better: “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
May it be so. May the Lord God Almighty be your A to Z, your beginning and your end, your source and destination, both this day and forevermore. Amen.
© Barbara Brown Taylor