The Seventh Sunday of Easter

St. Paul’s, Evansville | Joanna Benskin | 29 May 2022 | Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God of resurrection hope and possibility.

Good morning, friends. Welcome to the seventh and last Sunday of the Easter season. Easter is a season of hope and joy in Jesus’ resurrection. And yet, this time around, Easter has also been a season of mourning, a season of violence, a season of uncertainty. How do we celebrate resurrection when the world is on fire? Where can we find a word of hope in times like this? 

Throughout this season of Easter, we’ve been reading snippets of the book of Revelation. Our Gospels and Psalms and readings from Acts have had so much to offer these weeks that we haven’t really dug into our readings from Revelation yet.

I’d like to do that today, and see if we can find a word of resurrection hope in this strange last book of the Bible.

Sometimes churches like ours avoid talking about the book of Revelation, and sometimes for good reasons. It’s a really strange book filled with visions of destruction and re-creation. It’s confusing. There’s a lot of violence in it. Some of us grew up in churches that used Revelation to support political conspiracy theories, or to justify wars, or to say that certain groups of people were going to go to hell.  

Some of us are wary of the book of Revelation because we’ve seen it used for harm, and we don’t want to see any more of that. Some of us just don’t know what to make of it, if we even come across it. Even St. Jerome, that deeply scholarly church father, says that this book “contains as many mysteries as it contains words.” So, if we’re not sure what to do with this book, we’re in good company.

But I think we need the book of Revelation today—for some of the same reasons the very first readers of Revelation needed it. Like them, we live in a scary, violent world. Like them, we face uncertainty for the future. Like them, we need hope that with God, another world is possible.

The book of Revelation uses imagination to challenge the world that exists, and the powers that rule it. The book of Revelation says that the way things are isn’t the way things always have to be.

It’s full of vivid, sometimes haunting images: a stone inscribed with a secret name; a rainbow like an emerald; a sea of glass; a pale horse whose rider is Death; the sainted dead crying out for justice from underneath the altar; seven thunders speaking unwritable words.

There’s a celestial woman fleeing from a dragon, and the earth itself helps her get away. There’s a terrifying beast. There’s a war in heaven, and a tree whose leaves will heal the world; there’s a city that never closes its gates.

In today’s reading, right at the end of the book, the people and the Spirit call on Jesus to come and bring a new world into being. And everyone is invited to come and claim a gift of water from the very river of God to quench all thirst.

Our readings over the past six weeks have hit some of the highlights of the book, and have left out some of the more disturbing parts. Some of the images in Revelation are honestly horrifying, and some of them are strangely beautiful, and some of them are just strange. This is a book that requires care and discernment, and sometimes a strong stomach.

Even some of the early Christians who decided what got to be in the Bible weren’t always sure about Revelation—one of them (Dionysius of Alexandria) said that it has to be read allegorically in order to be in line with the truth of the church’s teachings.

That is, we have to use a creative lens to see the deeper truth behind the images rather than taking them as a literal description of either the past or the future. There are references to the Roman Empire and the realities of power and suffering and hope that early Christians faced at the time the book was written, but all of it is told through double meanings and mysteries.

This is a difficult book. And I think it’s a deeply necessary book in this moment we face now. Y’all, the world is on fire. It’s bad out there. Kids and teachers were killed at their school this week in Uvalde, and the people who should have protected them didn’t. The week before that, Black moms and dads and grandmas in Buffalo trying to feed their families were killed, targeted because of their race.

It’s a violent, wildly unfair world. And we’ve let the most vulnerable bear the worst of it. It seems like the people with the most power to make a difference are doing the least. A lot of us are grieving, and a lot of us are angry.

Sometimes it’s hard to even imagine how real change could happen from here, now that we’ve let it go this far.

And this is where Revelation comes in. It turns out, we aren’t the first ones to feel this way. It turns out, the world has been on fire before. These early Christians who first heard and read the book of Revelation lived in an empire that didn’t really want them to live at all. They lived in violent times. They faced deep-rooted injustice. They didn’t know what the future would hold.

The powers that existed seemed so total, so final, so crushing. And the book of Revelation gave them hope that someday all those powers that oppressed them, all those evils that seemed so obvious and all-encompassing—someday the whole thing would come crashing down.

Someday the dragon would fall from the sky. Someday the all-powerful beast that had hurt so many people would fall into the ocean like a boulder. Somehow, the earth itself would help the faithful to survive.

Revelation gave them a vision of a new world where miraculous trees flourish, and the martyrs are gathered under the altar, and every cry for justice is heard, and every tear is wiped away. And in that world, everyone who is thirsty can drink the water of life that flows from God as a free gift.  

Another world is possible. The evils that exist in the world we know aren’t inevitable, and they aren’t forever. Transformation is coming. In Revelation, we learn that it’s possible to fight the monsters.

It’s like what the English writer G.K. Chesterton says about children and fairy tales. When people worried that these stories would be too scary for kids to read, he said dragons and monsters aren’t new to most children. Young people already know about those forces in our world that are deeply cruel and frighteningly powerful. (He said that before kids even had to do active shooter drills.)

Chesterton says that what fairy tales do, though, is teach young people the truth that all of these scary things they already see can be fought. That there are heroes who can take on the dragons. That even the biggest monsters can come crashing down when we stand up to them together. 

That’s what the book of Revelation can do for us, whatever our age: It can show us that the monsters in this world, the systems that grind people up, don’t have the last word. It can show us that God’s beautiful dream is wider and deeper and richer and stronger than the ways this world can hurt us.

And I think that might also be why the book of Revelation has so often been hijacked and used for small projects of exclusion. Because the message that another world is possible is a dangerous message, and a lot of us aren’t ready to hear it.

Sometimes I’m not ready to hear it; sometimes it would be easier to think that all the broken systems are immovable than to actually start figuring out how to move them. Some of us think we’re doing okay in world as it is, and we’re not sure where we’d fit into this other world that is possible. Transformation can be scary.

So sometimes it’s been easier for churches to read Revelation as a book about who gets excluded, or a book about wars on the other side of the world, or a detailed schedule of the End Times—instead of a book about hope, instead of a book about how no evil is inevitable, a book about how resistance is possible, a book about how God’s love changes everything.  

That’s a lot. I’m not always ready for that. The church isn’t always ready for that kind of transformation, even though it’s what we signed up for. We sign up for transformation every time we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”  

But a lot of people and groups and structures in this world are actively against transformation if it’s a threat to the way things are, a threat to making money, a threat to the same people staying in charge. It turns out that the folks who want to sell $8 bottles of water at the concert don’t like it when there’s a water fountain, much less a whole river of life flowing from the throne of God as a free gift.  

And the sad truth is that there are people who make a lot of money from the same setup that leads to school shootings, and they spend a lot of money to keep it that way. And there are people who only get to be famous and powerful by stirring up white people’s fear of everybody who’s not white. And sadly, even those of us who mean well sometimes hold onto the way things are because we’re afraid of what we might lose if another world were possible.

And the folks who do well off of these violent systems want us to think that the alternatives are too scary, and that the world we know is the only option. But it’s not.

Much like the conquering society called the Borg in Star Trek, the powers that oppress in this world would like us to believe that “resistance is futile.” But it isn’t.

Revelation tells us that we will not be assimilated. Revelation tells us that the inevitability of harmful patterns is a lie. Another world is possible. Another world is on the way. And imagining that world is our first step toward living in it.

The author of Revelation dared to imagine a world where the Roman Empire itself would fall into the ocean like a boulder. That must have seemed almost unthinkable at the time. No one knew any system except the Roman Empire. Sure, it was bad for lot of conquered peoples, it even crucified people, but the Empire built the roads and wrote the laws and ran the whole world’s economy.

What else could there be? What would the world even be like without it? And yet, it didn’t last forever; the Empire fell, and another world grew in its place.

So, I wonder what it would be like for us to be this bold in our imagination. Can we imagine a world without mass shootings?

In a video message about the shooting in Uvalde, the theologian Kelly Brown Douglas asked: “When will we be able to expand our moral imaginary enough so that we can imagine a world where all of our children are safe?” She challenges us to stretch and imagine what that would be like.

Douglas writes more about the importance of imagination in her book Resurrection Hope: A Future Where Black Lives Matter. There, Douglas says that one of the reasons why our country has so much trouble moving toward racial justice is that we haven’t yet learned out to imagine it.

Our country has a warped “moral imaginary” where judgments about race are embedded. We have to learn how to tell our history in a different way and learn how to imagine our future in a different way to reshape that moral imaginary and make change possible.

She says that we are accountable to God’s future. We see glimpses of God’s future in Revelation and in the prophets and the saints. We see it in Jesus’ life and teachings. God draws us onward toward that future, that possible world, where we feast together and live as one in God’s love.

And maybe sometimes we don’t agree on what kind of world would meet God’s dream, about how God calls us to act in this moment—and then we can talk about that, and we can work to strengthen each other’s imaginations. I hope that you’ll tell me when you notice I’m dreaming too small or acting out of fear instead of love, and I’ll try to do the same in this community. We learn as we go, and we hold each other accountable to God’s future as best we can see it.

Kelly Brown Douglas is doing this kind of accountability. She calls on us, and specifically those of us in mostly white churches, to expand our imaginations about what’s possible. She invites us to join with her and other Black theologians and visionaries to see the world differently.

Douglas invites us to imagine a world where Black lives matter—and not only matter, but are treated as sacred.

Like the author of Revelation, Kelly Brown Douglas invites us to challenge the patterns of our world that seem most obvious and inevitable. She calls on us to become part of the resurrection hope God brings by imagining differently.

So, I wonder what kind of worlds we can imagine together.

Can we imagine a world where Black lives are held as sacred? Can we imagine a world where children are safe in school? Can we imagine a world where we find some other way to solve our problems besides more guns and more prisons and more locks and more walls?

Could we dare to imagine a world with no prisons or police at all? Could we imagine a world where everyone has enough and some to share?

What about a world where transgender youth are embraced as the radiant creations of God they are and supported in being fully themselves, wherever they live?

Could we imagine a world without the military industrial complex? Could we imagine a world where we don’t burn fossil fuel, and we help the earth heal?

Could we dare to imagine about a world where no one is overworked and everyone has all the time they want for rest and creativity and play?

Maybe it seems impossible right now, but I wonder where it could lead if we dare to imagine a different world. I wonder where it could lead if we tried to dream God’s dream together in faith that transformation is possible.  

I wonder where it could lead if we told our neighbors and our senators and our council members and our children and our parents and our friends and our enemies about the worlds we dare to imagine. I wonder where it could lead if we acted as if another world were possible.

Friends, let’s find out.

Let’s find out what happens when we carry the wild and wonderful hope of Revelation with us: that another world is possible.

Let’s find out what happens when we are accountable to God’s future, and we hear each other’s dreams.

Let’s find out what happens when we drink deeply from the water of life that God gives us in love, and when we offer that water of life as a gift to anyone else who is thirsty in this world.  

Let’s find out what happens when we come into our own as the keepers of a God-breathed, precious, fierce, dangerous, hope that empowers us to face down the dragons of this world.

Let’s find out what happens when we ask God to raise our imaginations from the dead.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.

The image is a medieval (ca. 1330) illustration of the scene in Revelation where a celestial woman is given wings and aided by the earth to escape the dragon. (You can see more amazing illustrations of Revelation from this manuscript here: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/471869?ft=revelation&offset=40&rpp=40&pos=72 )
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