“Is, and Was, and Is to Come” / Revelation 1:4-8 / 25 November 2018
Power, O power! Let us turn our thoughts to power. On this day that we’ve called “The Reign of Christ Sunday,” or in olden days “Christ the King Sunday,” think for a moment about the powers that you see ruling the world out there, and perhaps the several conflicting powers ruling the world in here. How do you get power? Does someone give it, or do you just have to take it? What makes one ruthless, greedy person powerful, while a wiser, kinder, gentler one seems weak? The monarchs of old Europe pretended to get their power from the church, their gold crowns placed on their heads by the hand of bishops, who sported miters and twenty pounds of embroidered robes. The church, in turn, claimed to get its power from God—the source of all wholeness, and goodness, and life. But then they used that God-given power to all the same ungodly ends as everyone else. Where does power come from? Where does it go once it’s gone, for it never sticks around very long? Most importantly, what powers do you wield in this world of twisted and tricky power? O power to wound, power to heal! Power to curse, and power to bless! Power to frighten, and power to inspire! On this Reign of Christ Sunday, when we meditate on the mysterious divine authority that somehow governs the world, the great holy influence that has its hand in every life and every nation, that universal tendency toward healing and redemption in all things, let us remember that the only real power is the one that changes hearts and minds. It is not the power of force, but of gentleness, of love, of life.
When the old communist bloc collapsed, back in the 1990s, all the newly freed countries like Hungary, and Poland, and Romania were left with a lot of really bad public art. The Soviets had given them these grand sculptures and monuments to the glories of communism and the valor of the Red army. The Russians expected their vassal states to display these monuments in prominent public places and to treasure them. The Russians were like a tyrannical boyfriend who’s always giving his poor girlfriend bad portraits of himself. “Here’s me, making a touchdown. Here’s me, wrestling an alligator.” And then he expects her to have those portraits on her mantel every time he visits. But when all the Eastern European countries broke up with their Soviet boyfriend, what were they to do with all the contrived shrines to Russia’s glory? Hungary—which is perhaps the most underrated country in Europe—Hungary had a creative solution: Pull them all down and dump them in a field outside of town, and call it the “Monument Garden,” a curt nod in the direction of a past that they’d like to forget. Bulgaria had another idea: Leave the statues in place, but then turn a blind eye when people vandalize them.
In a city park in Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria, there’s a grandiose sculpture of the Red Army, as it liberates that city from the Nazis. The sculpture shows about a dozen men, larger than life, all in Russian military dress, wielding rifles and rolling a canon with great grit and heroism. Their faces are manly, and angular, and set with courage and determination. The daring glint in their eyes bespeaks their grave mission: Bulgaria will be free! The Bulgarians themselves take a less noble view of the Russians’ presence in their country, and so they’ve been vandalizing these statues for decades. Most recently, Bulgarian vandals have painted the men in the sculpture to look like fictional American characters—comic book characters and pop icons. The commanding officer, with his pistol and sweeping cloak, has been painted to look like Super Man, in blue and red with an S on his chest. The fellow leading the charge, is now the Joker, his trench coat purple and his hair green. One bearded soldier in a great, fur-lined coat is now a very grim Santa Claus, packing some serious heat, his coat painted red with the fur lining all white. Ronald McDonald is armed to the teeth, as he’s makes a foray with a bayonet. The soldier loading the canon is Robin, Batman’s faithful sidekick. Batman is nowhere to be seen, but Captain America is bringing up the rear, with some round object that has been made to look like a shield. When you get home, type “Bulgarian monument vandalized” into Google. It’s a picture to behold.
Funnier by far is how mad the Russians are about it. Moscow is making three demands: The Bulgarians must restore the monument to its former shine; they must put some sort of security system in place to protect it; and they must find and punish the vandals. But such demands are no longer within Russia’s power. It’s kind of like the same old tyrannical boyfriend—now an ex-boyfriend—asking his ex-girlfriend why she no longer wears the locket that he gave her with his picture inside. Oh, power! How we miss it when it’s gone. How we try to pretend it’s still ours. Power waxes, power wanes. The powers of this world fall into decline. The power of force cannot last. (Some say that no earthly empire has ever really held dominion for more than 200 years.) If Russia had inspired in the Bulgarians a sense of their own worth and possibility as a nation, then Russia’s power would surely still linger in Sofia. Their gifts to Bulgaria might be treasured. But such was not the nature of Soviet power. Theirs was the power of force, control, intimidation. That kind of power is always fickle. It will let you hold it for a while, but eventually it will betray you. Whether it be a race, or a nation, or a group of people, or your own child, the power of force will do more harm in the long run than good. The power of love and life is eternal.
I have found many a crazy and rambling letter in my mailbox here at the church. Once I got a handwritten letter about politics and the end of days. This letter was written by a complete stranger on the West Coast, and it was thirty-two pages long on lined notebook paper. I can’t begin to imagine the work that went into writing that letter, but nor could I imagine the work of actually reading it. So I didn’t. I started to, but couldn’t finish. You’ve probably received a few crazy letters in your lifetime, too. But neither of us has ever opened the mailbox to find a letter like the Book of Revelation. Whenever we read this controversial book, we must never forget that it’s someone else’s mail. We cannot understand its meaning until we know what’s going on in the lives of the writer and the people to whom he or she is writing. It’s a letter of encouragement, written in a kind of code, not so much about the end times as about the events happening at that time and in that place. It’s a book of symbols and shadows, not to be taken literally. But it’s a lovely book, too, poetic and stark. In fact, I wish I’d get more letters that speak like this one, for the Book of Revelation begins with language that thrills the heart and engages the imagination. It speaks blessings, and hopes, and of things eternal. I mean, listen to this: “Grace to you and peace from him who is, and who was, and who is to come…the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth, who loves us and frees.” This is language that pulls all the right cords in the heart, it draws back curtains onto bigger things than we usually ponder. It hints at all the stuff we long to hold and to be held by: love, timelessness, peace, power. This is not the flat, utilitarian language of text messages and tweets. No indeed, this is the language of the holy imagination, beckoning us to better things than the daily grind, calling us higher, calling us deeper. Wouldn’t it be nice if people talked to us like this a little more often; if they spoke to us in a way that recalled to us our God-given role in history and our sacred spot among the miraculous living? There’s great power in this rarified speech because it calls on the best desires of our divided souls. It reminds us that we are children of eternity, of mystery, or life.
Yes, inspiration, that’s power! Being reminded of our own holy vocation in this troubled world, that’s power! Being named as children of eternity, beyond the final reach of death and time, united beyond all the wreckage of history to the One who is, and who was, and who is to come, that’s power! Revelation is speaking with the kind of power that no hate speech, and no guns, and no bombs, and no stirring bigoted oratory can ever touch. The letter called Revelation is speaking to all our best desires, and so it speaks with the power of life. Life! In the end, what power is greater than that?
It’s just that the word “power” makes us think of armies, and tanks, and arsenals, and all the sad machinery of death. “Power,” to us, means aging white men in navy suits with red neckties. It means titles, and commands, and stony faces, and—well—much of what you might find on an old Soviet monument in Eastern Europe. At the very least, the word “power” probably makes us think of big biceps. Power is Genghis Khan, and Attila the Hun, and Joseph Stalin. Power, to us, usually means the ability to enforce one’s will upon others. It’s the threat of pain or death that one person holds over another. But let’s consider the several kinds of power you wield. Knowledge is power. Beauty is another kind of power, but no less real. There’s one kind of power in youthfulness, and quite a different power in age. Despite loud claims to the contrary, there’s still a greater degree of power bestowed on you if you’re white. And extra power if you’re the right kind of white—suburban, professional. There’s greater power for men than for women, and the taller the better. But women are deemed more trustworthy, and there’s a sort of power in that. If you’re educated, then you’ve got more power than someone who is not. It’s a power for which some will resent you, but none will deny. From the moment you open your mouth to speak, the world will either grant to you or withhold from you the power that it reserves for the educated. There’s power in fame. There’s power in money. Power! For us, it’s mostly about control—and education, and beauty, and strength, and wealth, and social status can all be used to get our way in the world.
These paltry, predictable, unimaginative powers! None of them endures. Worse, none of them endears! For when someone or something endears itself to us, when it wins our hearts and minds, then it holds over us the power not of force but of consent. It is only the powers of love and life that win the gratitude of a world desperate to hear words as gracious and full of blessing as the ones at the opening of the letter of Revelation. It is the power of life that matters. That is the only way in which the humble Jesus is a king.
A rescue helicopter was zipping away from a boat wreck with ten men and one woman clinging to a rope. One fellow said, “The rope’s going to break, and we’ll all drown. We need just one person to let go of the rope, to sacrifice himself…or herself.” Everyone looked at the one woman. In reply, the woman gave a touching speech about how, yes, she would sacrifice herself, as women have always done, sacrificing their freedom, and their careers, and their comfort for the sakes of their husbands and children. At the end of her speech, the ten men were so moved that they all clapped. Power comes in many forms, and the power of persuasion not the least.
At the root of our contemporary crisis of power is the materialism of our age. When I say materialism, I don’t mean a love of sports cars and bling. I mean the deeply held philosophy of our day that only matter matters, that life exists because the universe unintentionally spewed one fortuitous planet at the perfect distance from just the right star. Life is an accident of matter: temporary, random, meaningless, short. At least the kings of old believed that they, too, would answer to God. But if life is merely accidental, the get what you can while you can.
Now, hear me correctly. I believe in evolution, and I hope you do too. But what if life does not spring from the accidents of matter, but instead the universe and all things spring from life? Life, the unknown energy that put it all into motion in the first place, life, the bolt of lightning and the beating heart within us, life the movement and the will that all of us possess but none can explain. Perhaps life gives birth to the world, echoes through bits of matter for a time, then zips away but never ends. One prominent stem cell researcher and ophthalmologist named Robert Lanza, wrote a book called Biocentrism. In it, he argues that life, in all its mystery, gives rise to matter and not vice versa. Lanza, an agnostic, goes so far as to say, “Death is simply a break in our…consciousness.” What if the world is God’s body, and life God’s soul—in which we all take part? Then the only true and lasting power is the power of life. The world is spun out of the abundance of God’s life, which gives rise to all things. The power of life is the only real power, and even death is merely its minion.
Well, that’s pretty lofty. What’s our take-home? How about this: Our tongues and our hands possess the power of life. They touch eternity with their life-affirming words and life-giving deeds. Perhaps that’s why, in the face of the great questions of this big universe, we get not a catechism of changeless truths and unquestionable answers, but a single human life on which to model our own. A life lived in simplicity, without show or worldly power. A life dedicated to acts of mercy and justice. A life speaking words of benediction. A life throwing itself into something more than itself, a life misunderstood, rejected, broken, destroyed, a life risen to rule the world. Power, O power. On this Reign of Christ Sunday, meditate on that kind of power. The power of life. It’s in how you live—I your hands and your tongue. It’s not in whom or what you control, but in all that you bless and build up. This alone is eternal, which is, and was, and is to come. Amen.