“All Things New” / Revelation 21:1-6 / 4 November 2018
Let the holy words of our sacred text wash over you today, wherever you find yourself on life’s long journey. Let these ancient verses penetrate your spirit like the soothing balm they were meant to be, a salve for the soul. Let’s linger here: “Then I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem prepared as a bride adorned for her husband… And God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes…and death will be no more. Mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away. See, I am making all things new.” Perhaps you need to hear these words as badly as I do in a day like ours, and in an age like the one that has been appointed to us. Maybe this proclamation of renewal is as welcome in your world-weary heart as mine. This is a vision of a world that ought to be; it’s another possibility for human life; it’s a different hope. Of course, the Book of Revelation is all dreams, and visions, and imaginings—but so were cars, at one time, and airplanes, and stamps that you don’t have to lick, and Lysol wipes. Good things often begin in the imagination, but if they stay there, then they’re just silly dreams. On this All Saints Sunday, in this age of old hatreds rekindled and new fears invented, there is good news. You’ve come to the right place, too. Hopelessness comes from a lack of imagination. But we gather around an imaginative vision of what could be, what will be. The one seated on the throne says, “See, I am making all things new.” Ah, but it takes commitment! It takes commitment to get the world we imagine. Do we have the kind of commitment it takes?
Did you see the video, which went viral, of a woman standing in front of her house on Shady Avenue in Squirrel Hill and screaming at the presidential motorcade? She lives just five doors down from the Tree of Life Synagogue, and she was yelling at the President as he passed. It was on the evening news, Facebook, YouTube, and all over the Internet. Unless you’ve been living up in the church tower like Quasimodo you’ve surely seen it somewhere. The woman in the video is Rev. Susan Rothenberg, a pastor in Pittsburgh Presbytery. She was enraged by the timing of President Trump’s visit to Squirrel Hill. Everyone expects a president to visit the scene of a national tragedy, of course. But Susan’s complaint had more to do with the timing of the visit. When all your victims are Jewish, you’ve got to be sensitive to the Hebrew rites of bereavement, known as “sitting Shiva.” During the seven days of Shiva, any relative of a deceased person is expected to remain at home, while neighbors, and friends, and family come by to sit with them in their grief. The mourners are expected to go without shoes and stop all personal grooming until Shiva is over—no showers, no shaving, no tooth brushing. All mirrors in the house are covered. Mourners are not allowed to leave the house until the time of Shiva is passed. It’s a sacred time. Everything else is put on hold until Shiva is over. But the protocols of a presidential visit disrupted Shiva in Squirrel Hill. No one can pay calls on mourners when the neighborhood is on lockdown. Because her Jewish neighbors couldn’t come out to protest, Susan took it upon herself. She stood in front of her lovely East End home and yelled, even as a TV camera crew filmed her.
Within 12 hours, the video of Susan had been viewed online 12 million times. It got 50,000 responses, a number that is still growing. The news channel published her name and profession, by which people were able to find her street address, and she’s been getting vicious hate mail. The Rev. Sheldon Sorge—who serves as our equivalent to a bishop in Pittsburgh Presbytery—released a statement. He says this:
From the moment the first video clip went online, our Presbytery Facebook page was inundated with responses, some vile and vengeful, many expressing their outrage at the church. The incendiary character of many of the posts is chilling. As they continued to snowball, we made the decision to suspend our Facebook page temporarily. Our office has been swamped with phone calls and emails excoriating Susan, our presbytery, and our denomination. The pent-up anger this has revealed is astonishing. Susan’s protest has had the effect of a breach in a dam, and the torrent of hate-filled speech it has unleashed is vast and truly alarming. Something is gravely wrong in our society, and the church needs to display an utterly alternative way of handling our differences.
“An utterly alternative way”! That’s going to take imagination. That will be the New Jerusalem. Now, would you or I have done what Susan did? Perhaps not. Some of us might protest by writing a letter to the editor of the Post-Gazette, or sending a strongly-worded letter to the president himself. We might do something—anything—that did not attract a news camera. But if there’s anything in this life that will get you into trouble…it’s your commitments. It’s easy to avoid the kind of trouble Susan got herself into. Commit only to yourself and your interests, and who will condemn you? Commit to your own: your own country, your own people, your own family, social class, race. Everyone expects that. It’s a safe bet, always. But when you start making extra commitments to things like principles, things like moral ideals, like neighbors of another faith, things like your vision of how the world ought to be, well that’s going to cost extra. The paradox is that life has joy, and beauty, and weight only when you commit to the world of your dreams, the world of your holy imagination, the world redeemed and right, the world where all things are made new. Live for the world you imagine. Commit to it.
When these lovely lines were penned into the Bible’s final book, on the Isle of Patmos, it felt like the world was falling apart. John of Patmos is the writer, not to be confused with any of the other Johns in the Bible. This John is exiled for his faith on a balmy Greek island, where he gets news from time to time of the distant world and how it’s crumbling into chaos and disorder. The great Roman Empire is falling into long, slow decline, under the inept leadership of Diocletian—a man with deep ego issues, who wants all worship directed toward himself. Like all aging bullies, the empire is getting unpredictable and mean. Whereas it once had a degree of tolerance for faiths other than emperor-worship, now it has none. And so, John writes a letter of encouragement to seven churches that are struggling under the empire’s boot. And his message is basically this, if you’ll pardon a paraphrase: “Listen, you can live for the old Jerusalem, the passing world that was and is, or you can live for the new Jerusalem, the eternal world that will and ought to be. You can live for the things you see and believe to be true, or you can throw your life’s limited store of time, and talent, and resources into the better world that you dream to be.” Revelation is apocalyptic literature, a disappeared genre that makes use of vivid imagery, and hyperbole, and dreams and visions to depict a whole different reality that exists alongside our own, a whole new and better world that is ours, if we will only have it, own it, work for it, commit to it.
In the wake of the Tree of Life shooting, I contacted Temple Emanuel and Temple Beth El to offer them any help or support they need. I even went so far as to volunteer all of you, saying that we could muster a crowd of friends to sit outside and keep watch while they worship. After all, it would be hard for an anti-Semite to sneak an AR-15 past ten or fifteen unarmed-but-watchful gentiles. I heard back from a grateful rabbi, saying they might actually take us up on it, when the police stop standing vigil.
We would do it, too, wouldn’t we? Our commitment to peace, and non-violence, and to religious freedom—the true religious freedom, not the concocted kind—and our commitment to our neighbors, and their safety would keep us standing or sitting outside the synagogue on Saturdays long after the media has hurried along to the next big thing. That’s commitment: living for the things that you know to be right, even if or when others seem to forget them. The cynical live for the world that is, or the one that they assume is. The unimaginative live for the world they think they see: money, power, pleasure, recognition. But the faithful live for the world they imagine, the one that ought to be. The saints, the faithful ones, the prophets, the apostles, the martyrs, and the unsung humble souls, forgotten to all but God—they dared to live for better things than what they saw under the ragged heel of a dying empire. The arrogance, the violence, the greed—they knew there were better possibilities. How? Because they imagined them; they dreamed them. They lived for a new Jerusalem. Shall we not live for a new Mt. Lebanon? A new Pittsburgh? A new Washington? A new New York? But it will cost you. You’ll get tired of it. It’ll take commitment. What have been your life’s great commitments? Your commitments will define you. They can ruin or redeem you, but the most ruinous thing of all is to have none—or to commit only to your own.
We wouldn’t have our modern medical care, the bridges and highways, or sports arenas, the museums, the arts, the parks, the 911 services if people of generations past didn’t dream, if they hadn’t looked beyond themselves to a world they imagined. Is our age producing that kind of thinking, or have we drawn inward to think largely of ourselves? Do you know what else we wouldn’t have? Churches, synagogues, religious institutions. Churches in this town are poetry in stone and brick, the loveliest testimonies to faith that you’ll find in any small city in the land. Ours, especially, is known for its liveliness and its mission work that far exceed the size of its congregation. And all of it takes…commitment. A church like this is an utterly alternative way to be in this world. It’s easy to sign onto things, but commitment keeps us faithful long after our initial moods or interests fade. In a few moments, anyone who has ever signed on as member of this church will be asked to reaffirm his or her commitment to its missions and ministries. You’ll stand and repeat the same vow you made when you joined…because sometimes things need to be made new. Above all, never stop imagining the world that we stand for here. It’s not always the world we see; it’s the one we envision, the one we feel called to bring about. It’s a world where, “God shall wipe away every tear from their eyes…and mourning, and crying, and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” All things, all things will be made new. And let our commitment to that vision be made new, too! Amen.