Sermon – 4/24/16
Pastor Rick Danielson
Off the coast of Turkey is a little island called Patmos. It’s just a small rocky bulge sticking out of the Aegean Sea. The few public buildings on the island cater to tourists who disembark from cruise ships with cameras and floppy hats. They are there to visit the “Cave of the Apocalypse.” It’s a popular stop, but if you are an independent traveler, it’s not so easy to visit Patmos. I, too, wanted to go there to see the cave where a man named John recorded the remarkable vision that we know as the book of Revelation. I planned my itinerary to be on the nearby island of Samos on the very day a tiny passenger ferry was scheduled to begin its first run of the season. High winds and large waves meant no ferry service, so I was out of luck. Those who do manage to visit Patmos climb a hill from the port toward the ancient Monastery of St. John and enter the cave that contains a rock where John is said to have rested his head as he slept and presumably had his famous vision. Who was this John? Many people assume that John who wrote the Revelation was also the Apostle John from the Gospels, but it is likely he was another follower in the way of Jesus. John was a common name, like Mary and James. Whoever this John was, his activist faith resulted in exile on the barren island.
The book of Revelation has been a source of mystery and comfort and conspiracy theories for many people for many generations. Based on one’s understanding of Revelation, it is either a creative and highly symbolic commentary on the struggles that existed among Christians within the Roman Empire in the first century or it is a vivid and quite literal description of the end of the world. Either way, it ends with a triumphant account of John’s vision of a new reality in which all of creation is transformed. A voice is heard from a city called the New Jerusalem, which is not far off in the sky but instead comes down out of heaven. The voice says, “Look! The home of God is among mortals.”
I wonder if anyone was surprised by that news. Who ever thought that God’s home would be made and maintained so that God could come close to us human creatures and live with us? We usually think of it as being the other way around: we spend our lives here in the hope that someday we can go to a place called heaven where we can have a home close to God. But God actually seems to be saying here that wherever we are, that is where God dwells. “The home of God is among mortals.”
In 1965, a man named Millard Fuller was twenty-nine years old and already a self-made millionaire. And aremember that million dollars was worth a lot more in 1965! Fuller’s marriage was buckling under the stress of his frenetic life as a lawyer and businessman. In a desperate effort to repair their marriage, Fuller and his wife Linda gave away their wealth and moved to an intentional, interracial community in Georgia called Koinonia Farm. They were influenced there by the simple message of loving one another and serving one’s neighbors, especially the poor. While at the farm, Millard and Linda Fuller decided to try to make a measurable difference in the lives of the working poor by building simple, decent houses in partnership with the families that would occupy them. They had virtually no experience with hammers and nails, but they had a vision that took shape as Habitat for Humanity was formed in 1976. Since then, Habitat has built or renovated more than 400,000 homes that are occupied by more than two million persons around the globe. The vision of the Fullers for simple, decent, affordable housing is a constantly-unfolding reality that we are fortunate to be part of.
A preacher for social justice among evangelical Christians whose name was Thom Skinner used to say that John’s vision at Patmos was not the same as The American Dream! It’s true. God’s vision for the world has such broader priorities and values than what our own society tends to claim as important. But if the American Dream is to own a home, then maybe John’s vision includes those who work in partnership with Habitat. The voice booming from the New Jerusalem said “Look, the home of God is among mortals.” God’s home is every simple, decent house that is constructed in Boulder or Birmingham or Bangladesh. How incredibly blessed we are to build God’s home together.
Where is heaven? The culmination of the Book of Revelation talks a lot about heaven. It’s described as a place where tears are wiped and there is no more mourning or pain. It’s a place where everything old and worn becomes new. That new creation is not presented as a place we just escape to at the end of life. It’s a picture of what God is already doing in the midst of this present life. It’s now and it’s later. It’s all mixed up together. Jesus told us to pray for God’s realm to come, to exist on earth “as it is in heaven.”
At the time when John wrote out his vision, the first generation of Christians was almost gone. Those who knew Jesus and heard his message spoken first-hand were mostly dead. A new generation was picking up the torch and continuing the church’s witness, but it wasn’t a unified body. Some of the words of John seem at odds with the message of Paul and his followers. John is a strongly anti-Roman voice who urges readers not to compromise or conform. He retains a close identification with Judaism, in contrast with those who readily embraced Gentiles and accommodated their message and religious practices to a broader audience. John’s contribution to our faith and theologizing is significant, and in saying that, it’s important to remember that not all Christians have agreed on basic matters from the earliest days of our faith. Years later in the fifteenth century, Martin Luther wanted to banish Revelation from the canon, along with the book of James and other portions of the New Testament that didn’t align with his understanding of the message of Jesus. Since I happen to be a big fan of the epistle of James, Luther’s rejection of it makes me want to embrace Revelation all the more. Not the interpretations of the book that cause people to look for the end of the world, but the message of heaven coming to earth and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.
We heard a brief poem by the Chinese sage Du Fu. Du Fu lived during a time a great unrest in the eighth century. The An Lushan Rebellion resulted in the death of over thirty million Chinese and the displacement of most who survived. Du Fu himself found himself moving from place to place as he was forced to leave the region of his birth and seek safety. This period of unhappiness was the making of Du Fu as a poet: One commentator wrote, “What he saw around him—the lives of his family, neighbors, and strangers– what he heard, and what he hoped for or feared from the progress of various campaigns—these became the enduring themes of his poetry" Eventually, he tried to return home, slowly making his way along the Yangtze River despite ill health and deafness. He never made it, but along the way he wrote of willow trees and egrets and snow and mountains. “Ah! Would that they could take me back the thousand miles and more. From hence to home, those goodly ships that anchor at my door.”
The instinct to be home is strong for most of us. Whether it is the place of our birth or the home we have created later in life. We return to where we feel safe and comforted and are surrounded by what is familiar to us and are near our family of origin or the family we have chosen. It’s no wonder that people without a home feel unmoored and displaced.
I learned a bit more this week from David Ward in our church about local homeless people who are growing their own food and building their own tiny homes. That is a picture of heaven on earth. “The home of God is among mortals.” When the family moves into the house that we are helping to build with Habitat for Humanity, and when we and others gather to give thanks and bless the house and the family, that will be a picture of heaven on earth. We’ll see the truth that the home of God is with mortals.
Jesus talks of the kingdom of heaven in the Gospel of John, saying “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” I’m not sure what to make of that. A mansion seems excessive if we’re talking about heaven coming to earth. Maybe if Jesus was standing here today he would say, “In my Father’s house are many simple, decent, affordable homes.” Certainly, the realm of God is present when people are able to dwell in safety and peace with their family.
May we never stop striving to welcome God’s realm of justice. May our abundance bless others in their desire to share in abundant life. And may God’s reign of peace be known in the heart of every person we meet this week and always. Amen.