by David Baer, August 20, 2017
Text: Revelation 5:1-13
It’s good to be back with you this Sunday after a couple of weeks away. You know, at the beginning of my vacation I did make an effort to disengage with news… and then last Saturday that became impossible. I’m from Virginia, and a quarter of my high-school graduating class went to UVA. I myself spent time there at a summer program for a couple of years, and I’ve got memories of playing frisbee on the Lawn under the watchful eye of Thomas Jefferson’s Rotunda. Because I’m from Virginia, I also grew up surrounded by reminders of the Civil War and its prominent figures. I’ve come to understand the pain it caused certain of my friends and classmates to see those who fought for their ancestors’ enslavement not merely remembered in monuments but celebrated with heroic statues, schools named in their honor, public holidays recognizing them as state heroes, and more. (My parents’ church is located on Lee-Jackson Memorial Highway.) I’ve come to understand that there is a difference between, on the one hand, remembering and learning from the past, and, on the other hand, giving reverence to a slanted version of history. I’ve come to believe that our public spaces ought to celebrate those things in our history that are best and most worthy of holding onto, and that maybe we need a few more monuments to the courageous men and women who bore up under or threw off the chains of slavery—Harriett Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Soujourner Truth, Solomon Northrup—and fewer monuments to those who fought to keep a system that stole their labor, shattered their families, and violated their bodies.
But to interpret what happened last Saturday as being about monuments is to miss the bigger picture. A proposal to remove a statue was the pretext used by a wide variety of groups to gather in Charlottesville, many of them armed, some carrying Nazi flags and shouting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. Those who brought large shields, firearms, and brass knuckles were not looking to peacefully express an opinion, but to hurt other people, or, failing that, to intimidate those who aren’t part of their vision for our country. One of them turned his car into a weapon intended to harm counter-protestors, killing Heather Heyer and seriously injuring a number of others. The attack ought to have prompted unequivocal condemnation from all of our leaders, but we didn’t quite get that.
I grieve for the young woman who was killed. And I worry about the message these groups will hear in the words and significant silences that followed this crime. This is what has been in my heart this past week. This is the con-text I bring to reading our text this morning.
For the rest of the summer we’ll be reading from the book of Revelation. It tells a story about a Creator God who remains endlessly faithful to creation, who is working in and behind the turmoil and trouble to bring a future of peace, where God is as visible a life-giving presence as the sun in the sky. But we make a mistake if we think that the book is only about the future, only about what will be someday. Revelation gives us its hopeful vision of the future so that we can be faithful and endure in present.
Today’s reading continues the scene we read a few weeks ago, where John, the author of the book, is spiritually transported into the heavenly throne room. The figure seated on the throne is the focus of worship, and we’re meant to understand that this is God. Now we see that there is a scroll in the hand of this figure on the throne, but the writing on the scroll is hidden, locked up behind seven seals. Could this be God’s decree, the once-and-for-all righting of all wrongs, the healing of all hurts, the perfection of a good creation that was intended from the start to be at peace with God and itself? But no one answers the call to open the seals, and John weeps.
After Charlottesville, after losses in our own lives, after hurt and heartache, we want to know, “How is all this going to be made right? How do we, or how do I, go on?” We can identify with John’s grief over the hiddenness of God’s purposes, which remain mysterious so often at exactly the times when we want the assurance of reading ahead. I’ve had occasion to weep those tears. Maybe you have too.
And then the answer comes, from an angel who tells John not to weep. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, he says—in other words, a descendant of King David, the rightful ruler of God’s people—has conquered, so that he can open the seals. The word conquered there is related to the Greek word Nike, not the sneaker, but the goddess of victory, who was honored in the ancient world when kings and emperors returned after winning a battle, adding land and increasing the prosperity of the empire through violent conquest. The Lion of Judah… We expect to see a ferocious figure, maybe someone wielding a sword, covered in the blood of his enemies.
But instead we see the Lamb. The Lamb has conquered, not by spilling the blood of his enemies, but by pouring out his own. The congregation gathered around the throne sings, “You are worthy to take the scroll and open its seals”—in other words, you are worthy to disclose and carry out God’s hidden purposes—“because you were slaughtered, and by your blood you ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” Among all the world’s powerful rulers and generals and wealthy men and women, no one was able to discern what God has in store, no one was able to make it happen. It was only Jesus, the Lamb, who could do this, through suffering love, through laying down his life.
People both ancient and modern have believed that power comes from asserting yourself, violently if necessary. That’s where power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing come from. That was the story the Roman emperors told. They were in the business of “winning,” winning at the expense of their enemies, and the citizens and soldiers that supported them could partake in the reward.
But the church testifies to a different story. God’s world comes to be what it was meant to be. Wrongs are put right. Wounds are bound up. God comes to dwell in our midst at last. And all this happens not through domination or military conquest, but through a sacrifice made out of love. The Lamb is worthy to open the seals, because he gave himself over to death.
And by doing this, we’re told, he “ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” In the new world God is making, who is in and who is out? Does the saving death of Jesus the Lamb only reach so far? Who belongs? If we are children of God, saved by Jesus, then who is our family? “Saints from every tribe and language and people and nation.” That’s why for us as Christians, being opposed to white supremacy of the kind on display in Charlottesville isn’t about politics. We speak out and we stand against the ideology that some people belong and others don’t, that some people are meant to be in charge and dominate or exclude others because of the color of their skin, because it’s not what God intends for our world. Because Jesus’ saints come from every ethnicity, speaking every language, their skin showing every shade of the human rainbow.
We are all equal in our fallenness, equal in our need for grace, and equal in the love and mercy God shows us. How arrogant it would be, in the face of God’s free and generous mercy, for some of us to claim we have the inside track because of our ancestry or appearance. To make racial identity an excuse for violence, intimidation, domination against minorities—the vulnerable people that Jesus identifies himself with over and over—to do this is to crucify Christ again. It is damnable–and I don’t use that word lightly. And the only hope for those who commit such violence is the prayer of Jesus himself: “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing!”
All have fallen short. All stand in need of mercy. God freely forgives through Jesus. Therefore we are all equal. That’s the heart of the gospel. It’s not about politics, it’s not about right versus left, it’s right versus wrong.
I got home on Wednesday night just in time to make it to the Charlottesville Solidarity Vigil in Ridgewood, at the Emmanuel Baptist Church. It was a beautiful gathering, peaceful, with voices hushed, as one speaker after another offered prayers and reflections on what had happened. But I wanted to share a question one speaker posed, because I think it’s on many of our hearts. The Rev. Mack Brandon, a pastor in Ridgewood, kept asking us, “Where do we go from here?” He recalled Martin Luther King’s statement that hate cannot drive out hate, that only love can do that. And then he reminded us that love is not passive: “Love is an action,” he said. “It’s time to aggressively love.” And then he read some words of scripture, urging us to listen for what love is and what love is not:
Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. (1 Corinthians 13:4-6).
Where you see love in yourself and those around you, he urged us, amplify it, make it stronger. And where you see that which is not love, he said, whether in your home, your community, or in the highest offices of government, call it out, see that others recognize that this is not love.
Love is an action. That sticks with me. It certainly was for Jesus, who didn’t love us from far away, but came to be with us, suffer with and for us, and raise us up. Active love is going to look different for every one of us, but I know for me, as a white man, as someone who is somewhat less vulnerable in the time and place I’m living, active love has got to include active listening to those who are feeling afraid and threatened right now. It’s got to include using my voice to speak up against hate, so that those who are most targeted don’t have to bear that burden alone. In light of what is happening, what does active love look like for you?
Love, the kind of love that is willing to set itself aside for the sake of those who are weak or hungry or poor or vulnerable, the kind of love we see in Jesus the Lamb, is what breaks the seals, what reveals God’s purposes, what brings us closer to the world God set out to create. Let us move through this time of trouble and turmoil determined to amplify love. In Jesus’ name, Amen.