Sunday, June 29, 2014

Reading the Book of Revelation

Seeker’s Class
First Congregational Church, Los Angeles
The Rev. Ryan Steitz, Teacher

 June 29, 2014, led by the Rev. Dr. Tom Eggebeen 

Everything depends on what we bring to the Text.

We always bring the whole of our lives to the Text - our family of origin, neighbors and neighborhoods, nation of origin, the section of the nation where we born and/or reared, the religious values to which we were exposed, Sunday School teachers, preachers, extended family members. School, as well: public, private or parochial; various teachers and classmates. Movies and TV, literature and art, summer camp and family vacations … and personal experience: hardship and sorrow, feelings of humiliation, shame and estrangement, illness, family financial status - childhood hobbies, pets, holidays and celebrations - the way we see life even before we see it. We bring all of this, and then some, to the Text.

Religiously, a lot is going on for us: 1) We might perceive god as a distant being, who has little to do with our daily lives, if at all; perhaps, for some, there is no god, yet we seek an ethical framework in which to live. 2) We might perceive god as something, or someone, very close and intimate, and have no fear regarding our ultimate eternal destiny. 3) We might be fearful of a stern and reluctant god - not inclined to forgiveness. 4) We might find a great friendship in god, and without fear about life or eternity, we live as best as we can, looking for the depth-dimension in life that holds everything together for good.

As for the Bible, 1) We might believe that it’s the “inspired word of god” and take it very seriously, though often troubled by sections that strike us as odd, if not inconsistent with what we believe about god. 2) We might enjoy reading it as literature, sacred literature, but we invest it with a weight similar to what we might give to any great piece of literature. 3) We might dismiss the Bible as a gathering of fairy tales, violent stories, harsh laws, often anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-choice.

Hence, we “like” or “dislike” pieces of the Text.

Even the most “faithful” reader will settle on certain passages more often than not, setting other sections aside. Liberals read it one way; conservatives another. So do the happy and the sad. The peace and the angry. 

Our task: To read all of it, appreciate each piece as someone’s struggle to understand the depth-dimension of life, life’s ultimate concern, to discern the community of faith behind each piece, differing communities who perceived god in differing ways, sometimes contrary to one another. 

Devotionally, to see the Bible as a giant round table discussion - lots of voices: “Have you considered this?” “I think it’s like this.” “I disagree with you.” “I agree with you.” “You’re a damn fool.” You’re spot-on.” All of these voices echo through the pages of the Text and across the centuries.

Whatever interest we might have in some “originalist” meaning (scholars can help us here considerably, but all confess limits), the Book of Revelation (BoR) tends to dance before our eyes like shimmering desert heat. 

Take a painting - 10 feet away, it tells a remarkable story, and we’d like to know more, so we step up to it, get close, and suddenly, the image is lost - it’s just so much paint of varying colors and strokes on a piece of canvass. Up close, no meaning - so, we step back again, and the picture snaps into view.

Specifics for today: How will it end?

Throughout the Bible, images, visions, predictions about the end of things … some of these are what might be called “the peaceable kingdom” of Isaiah 11, “the lion lies down with the lamp, the child plays near the asp” … other images are violent, as with Sodom and Gomorrah.

The Bible is always asking: What does this mean?

After Judah’s exile (586 BCE) and return some 70-100 years later, lots of struggle with “what does all of this mean?”

For a thousand years, Israel/Judah carried on with land, temple, circumcision, diet, kings and priests - there was plenty of war, but Israel/Judah constituted a viable and independent entity … and then after 586, the land and the kings and temple ended. The temple was rebuilt by returning exiles, but it was a shadow of its former Solomonic glory.

In the years before Jesus, Herod the Great, a friend of Rome, poured millions into rebuilding the rebuilding of the temple, and in 70 CE, that, too, was destroyed, this time by Rome who was fed up with the constant rebellion of certain factions of Jews. 

What does it all mean?

Paul the Apostle offers pretty much the sum and substance of Christian interpretation with regard to Jewish life: a lot has ended in Jesus , i.e. been fulfilled - circumcision, land, temple, diet, kings and priests. All of this was temporary and paved the way for Jesus, who is Israel in his person, who does what none could do - lay his life down before the terrible powers of this world as a way of revealing how evil they are, and that God’s victory is found, not in conquest, but in sacrifice; that God’s power is revealed, not in military might, but in everything Jesus outlines in the Beatitudes.

A book like Revelation, believed by some to be mostly Jewish apocalyptic, patterned after Daniel, perhaps written before Jesus in large part, and then Christianized after Jesus, after the destruction of the temple in 70 CE.

Helps to remember that the Bible is an anthology, by many authors from different spectrums of faith. It’s not a singular book, or a collection of essays by the same author - it’s a whole library. And before there was a codex (bound version), all we had were individual scrolls or letters.

Also helpful: BoR was accepted late in the history of the early church - it wasn’t that popular! That is comes at the “end” of the Bible is simply a way of saying, “It’s the last book received by the church.” And since it deals with “the end,” I guess putting it at the end of the codex is a good way to end. 

But, for me, it’s a reminder that the BoR is not the most important book of the 66, as “the last chapter” of a major novel might be. Every theme in the BoR is treated elsewhere, and sometimes with more clarity. With 66 books, it’s wise to know the preceding 65 as well as we can. If we never read the BoR, we’d be just fine. In the hands of some, who always claim to have all the answers, it has been used to instill fear, with many a Christian going to bed in a state of spiritual anxiety. 

For the BoR, the message is endurance because things will end well, for most … Revelation lacks the universal element reflected in Paul or in Isaiah, so a question for us: How big is the love of God? 

Are there some parts of God’s creation, some of God’s creatures, i.e. those who bear the image of God, who are beyond the pale, beyond redemption, beyond God’s saving reach - so evil, so wrong, so full of hatred for God, that God is powerless before their decisions, powerless before their power and that of hell and the devil? Or is God simply interested in punishing some “forever”? That those, who in their span of years here - 60, 70, 80 or a 100 - should then be condemned to an “eternity” of pain and suffering?

There are a good many scholars who raise interesting questions about the intent of author -  but for our purposes this morning, it’s helpful, as well, to ask: What do we want? How do we want things to end? Is it our desire and hope that the some, if they fail to receive Christ, accept God, repent of their sins, or whatever else we deem important, as we read the Bible, will be forever separated from God, from us, from all their loved ones, to “burn” forever as depicted in some Medieval portrait of hell? What is that we want for them, and why?

Again, what we bring to the Text determines very much how we interpret the Text.

BTW, of the Devil and Evil Angels, their actual role in the scheme of things is minor - they try hard, but they're released and imprisoned at God’s behest  - the so-called “Battle of Armageddon,” a big thing for movies and books, never happens. The so-called “enemies of God” rally the troops for a bit, but then God shows up, and that’s that. It’s done, it’s all over with, IT IS FINISHED!

In the end, God.
In the end, Jesus.
In the end, Peace.

With that, let’s take a close look at the question for the day - do events in today’s State of Israel (a nation among other nations) tie into the Book of Revelation?

  1. For me, no!  A conclusion shared by many scholars. Calvin refused to write a commentary on it and said, “No one can understand it” (his counsel should caution us) The Book of Revelation is not a roadmap of some future events that the world has been patiently waiting until “our” time - there is a certain element of arrogance in all of these “end times” ideas - as if God moved the creation of the Scriptures and moves all of history to then “come to pass” in our time, just for us. The Book of Revelation (BoR) is a celebration of confidence, hope, to help folks endure hard times - political hard times when evil forces are in charge (at the heart of the BoR (chapters 17-18).
  2. Confusion in those Christian groups who are fascinated by predictions between The State of Israel and Biblical Israel.
  3. Some pray for the rebuilding of the temple, the onset of a great war, to hasten the return of Christ in power and glory. Some preachers in this tradition have called for the military intervention of the US in the Middle East - a war there is likely a prelude to the return of Jesus, so war is inevitable, and war is good.
  4. The State of Israel founded, 1948 - for several reasons:
    1. Zionist dreams of a homeland.
      1. Many Jews at the time were not in favor of this.
      2. Preferring the ancient model of living within a nation.
    2. Western anti-semitism - “Who wants the Jews? We don’t.”

Why predict the future?

It’s power, I suppose, to have the inside track on God’s purpose … and who doesn’t like power? And along with power, power’s greatest servant: Fear. How many Christians “fear” missing out, losing their salvation because they might believe the wrong things or miss their chance or live poorly? Whether it be the Medieval Church with its lurid images of hell and fire or the pulpit-pounding fury of an evangelical/fundamentalist end-times preacher, fear is the tool used to manipulate people into conformity, silence and passivity, driving a damaging self-interest that privately lives to gain heaven.

For our purpose here today, I affirm the following:
  1. History moves toward a good conclusion - the arc of history.
  2. God is the prime mover, not Satan.
  3. Between here and there, a lot of struggle, hurt and pain - history, even for God, is a very messy business.
  4. Don’t panic. Endure.
  5. Be faithful - don’t worship the angels, but only God.
  6. It’s not about going to heaven when we die, but participating in the work of God to redeem the whole of creation.
  7. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
  8. And when the time is right, the New City comes down to us … and God dwells with us.
  9. Even now, by the Spirit, God is with us.
  10. And we can live, as best we can the vision of the Beatitudes, in the Spirit of Christ, whose mercy forgives, whose love sustains, whose final victory is creation’s redemption, including all creatures, great and small - that which God created in the beginning is made new and glorious, and there are no more tears.

When we read the text carefully, seeing it as a Text of hope in the face of hard times, each of its several cycles of Seven, being like singing hymns - often saying the same thing, but saying them differently. Yet the story is the same - in the end, God - with healing grace and peace.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Presbyterian Layman - Murky Waters

Just surfaced after wading into the murky waters of the Presbyterian Layman's website ... wow, are they are the warpath - self-anointed righteous battle against the evil, fire-breathing, god-denying, Bible-rejecting, heretical and apostate, liberal, hell-bent-for-leather #PCUSA #love221, monster. 

They cheer the negative, ignore the positive, celebrate schism, deride those who walk on the PCUSA sunny side of the street, paint themselves as all good, and folks like me all evil. 

It'll be a long time before I dirty my feet in that swamp of hatred and arrogance. 

Sorry, if this language is a bit over the top, but I need some aspirin and a hot shower.


Friday, June 20, 2014

"No Good Deed Goes Unpunished" - a sermon by the Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison, April 3, 2011

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

The Rev. Rebecca F. Harrison
New Bridges Presbyterian Church; Hayward, CA
April 3, 2011
Text:  1 Peter 3:13-22

I was brought up –
as I suppose you were too –
that one always did the right thing,
just because it was the right thing to do.
And by “the right thing,”
our parents meant
being nice to other kids,
even if they were mean to me;
helping people who needed help,
like opening the door
for someone carrying two big sacks of groceries;
giving up my seat on the bus or the train
to a pregnant woman,
or someone who was disabled,
or the elderly.
(Now, elderly folks, I understood,
were people who were,
oh, maybe forty or fifty years old.
Today, I think a little differently.)
Over the course of one spring,
when I was perhaps seven years old,
our sleepy little town was visited
by a number of hoboes, as we called them.
Now, I think, they’d be called homeless people.
Nonetheless, they were there,
and they were needy.
Our family never had much,
as we were growing up,
but we always had food to eat,
and a place to sleep at night.
These people had neither.
Our mother made sandwiches,
and together she and one or two of us children
would go out on the sidewalk,
where the hoboes could be found,
and would feed them sandwiches.
We did this frequently, throughout that spring.
Other people said the hoboes marked our house
as being people who would feed them,
so we shouldn’t.
But we did, anyway.
After all, our mother reasoned,
they were human,
and they were hungry.
They deserved their daily bread, too,
just like the rest of the world.

As we got a little older,
doing the right thing
took on new dimensions.
When I was in elementary school,
in the 1950s in Arkansas,
I didn’t understand why Mary,
my friend from around the corner,
couldn’t go to the same school I went to,
just because her skin was a different color.
We went in completely opposite directions
when we walked to school.
So when our father wrote a letter
(I found out, when I was much older,
that he was only one of many clergy
who signed that letter)
when our father wrote a letter
to the Governor of Arkansas,
saying that he believed the schools
in the entire state of Arkansas
should welcome all children,
regardless of their skin color,
why, I knew, he was doing the right thing.
And he was proud,
mighty proud
(which was unusual for our father;
he didn’t get proud very often)
that Governor Orval Faubus,
in responding to that letter,
called him a Communist.
I didn’t know what a Communist was,
except that it was obviously something
Governor Faubus didn’t like.
When I learned later, in junior high school,
what a Communist was,
I thought it was pretty funny,
that Governor Faubus would call my father
and all those other ministers
a bunch of Communists.
I guess nobody bothered to tell Governor Faubus
what a Communist was,
or maybe he just didn’t care.
I suspect the latter.
Our father was doing the right thing,
because it was the right thing to do,
and if it meant being called a Communist,
well, that didn’t hurt so very much.

For my brothers and sisters and me,
our father’s behavior in this situation
was an example of doing the right thing,
because it was the right thing to do.
It never occurred to us,
as it probably didn’t to you,
when you were young,
that sometimes, doing the right thing
came at a cost.
It was only when we were older,
when once again,
our father
(and our mother, who completely agreed with him)
took a stand against racism,
that we saw the cost;
indeed, that we felt it ourselves.
It was only then
that we began to see the truth in the phrase,
“No good deed goes unpunished.”
I don’t think our parents
ever really thought of themselves
as “good-deed-doers,”
to quote the Wizard of Oz.
They just believed,
and they taught us to believe,
that sometimes, doing the right thing
means taking a stand,
a difficult stand,
one which may result in some people
or perhaps many people
disagreeing with you,
calling you names,
making life extremely difficult.
I was a sophomore in high school,
in a small town in Kansas.
This time, it was the church itself,
not the government,
which was acting
in what can only be called
a racist behavior.
They owned a home, fully furnished,
which was intended to be used
by families in the community
who couldn’t afford a place to live.
This house had been used by several families.
But now, an African-American family needed that home.
The Session of the congregation –
the people who made decisions –
made a decision.
They decided that this family,
whose skin was a different color
than most in the congregation,
this family could, indeed, live in the house.
They just couldn’t use the furniture.
They would have to find furniture of their own,
or do without.
I suppose having a roof over their heads
was of some benefit,
but how they were supposed to live
at all comfortably
with no furniture –
well, I guess that Session decided
that they just didn’t care.
Or maybe they were afraid
of what the congregation would think
or say
or do.
Maybe, the people on that Session
had even been threatened
by members of the congregation
or the community
if they did the right thing
and let that black family
live in that house
and use that furniture.
So they didn’t do the right thing.
But our parents did.
That Friday afternoon,
our parents picked us all up after school,
with a bag packed for each of us.
(And by now, there were seven children in our family.)
They said, “We’re going out of town for the weekend.”
Which was unusual, because,
as you may know,
pastors NEVER
go out of town for the weekend.
And when we got out of town, they said,
“Oh, and by the way,
we’re not going back.”
Our parents decided that
my older brother and I
were old enough to understand
some, at least,
of what had happened.
They told us about the Session’s decision.
They told us that our father needed to make a decision, too.
His decision was that,
if the church was unwilling to welcome
and care for
all God’s children, regardless of color,
then he could no longer be their pastor.
So our father wrote a letter to the Session,
with a copy to the Presbytery,
Effective immediately.
Which, if you know the way
Presbyterians do things,
NEVER happens.

We moved to a neighboring city,
about two hundred miles away,
in Missouri.
The Presbytery in Kansas decided
that our father 
must have severe emotional problems
for him to leave that way.
It never occurred to them that perhaps
that congregation in Kansas
had the emotional problems.
So the Presbytery initially required our father
to undergo months of counseling,
before they would allow him
to be a pastor again
in another church
in another presbytery
in another state.
While he was receiving counseling
and awaiting the presbytery’s permission to move on,
Dad worked not as a pastor,
but as the janitor in the nearby elementary school.
Or so he told me,
though until recently,
my mother had never heard him say that.
But that may have been
a way for Dad
to save face with one of his children.
Little did he know,
in our eyes,
he was about the biggest man around.
He didn’t need to save any face
During that time,
we lived on food stamps
and government surplus food.
Life was not easy.
But it was easier,
having done the right thing,
than if our parents had simply given in,
had simply abided by the decision
of that Session in Kansas.

No good deed goes unpunished.
We learned, my siblings and I,
the hard way.
Our parents, through their decision,
through their actions,
committed a good deed,
a righteous deed,
and that deed was punished.
Even so, it was the right thing to do.
“For it is better to suffer for doing good,
if suffering should be God’s will,
than to suffer for doing evil.”

Doing the right thing,
even today,
can still be a difficult decision.
Sometimes it’s easy;
you prepare a meal for a family in crisis;
visit the sick and aged at the local care facility;
give to a deserving charity.
But then there are the other times,
the times that call upon 
all the internal fortitude,
all the Spirit you can muster.
You march for an unpopular cause,
and onlookers curse you, and throw things.
Your employer’s practices go against your beliefs,
and you resign your position,
having no promise of another.
You see an injustice being perpetrated by the government,
and you risk arrest to participate in civil disobedience.
You discover an injustice being perpetrated by the church,
and you risk losing your ordination
to take a stand and act in favor of what you believe to be the truth.
No good deed goes unpunished.
At least, not in this life.

But when we do the right thing,
because it’s the right thing to do,
even though we know 
there will be a price to pay,
we have faith.
We have the promises given to us by Jesus:
Promises of God’s eternal love,
of a heavenly home waiting for us
where there will be
And that says nothing, of course,
about the promise of forgiveness, freely given,
when we do the wrong thing,
which sometimes means
not doing the right thing.

There are, unfortunately,
no promises that life will be easy.
But we can look to the examples
that have been set for us
by the early church,
by Martin Luther King, Jr.,
and by Jesus, himself,
examples of doing the right thing
and suffering for it.
By their lives, Jesus, King and the early church are reminders
that no good deed goes unpunished.
Even when doing the right thing
means we will suffer,
even then, we can know
that God’s blessing
is being poured out upon us.
And for that blessing,
we can be thankful;
thankful, too, that we have,
in Jesus Christ, 
the supreme example
of doing the right thing
because it’s the right thing to do.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

O Happy Day and Some Tough Questions

Re: the decision today of the PCUSA General Assembly meeting in Detroit to allow pastors in states where Marriage Equality exists to freely choose to officiate at same-gender weddings without fear of ecclesiastical reprisal.
Adam Walker Cleveland, Designer

And sent to the Presbyteries an overture to amend the Book of Order by changing "man and woman" to "two people" in the marriage section.

Here's something I wrote a few moments ago and have posted in various news outlets:

I'm a PCUSA pastor (now retired), and I'm rejoicing ... I now that some sisters and brothers are lamenting right now. Well, I've lamented plenty over the years as our church failed, as I see it, on this matter. After many such failures, I believe we have made some vital mid-course corrections. Clergy in states where Marriage Equality is the law can no officiate at a same-gender marriage without fear of ecclesiastical reprisal. Over the years, I didn't leave even when my heart was heavy and I believed that the church was failing Christ. I have always practiced the Larger Loyalty that transcends the pain of the moment. Many of my conservative sisters and brothers exercise a loyalty to dogma that trumps loyalty to one another; in their hearts, they believe this is loyalty to Christ. But how can one love Christ and walk away, often with bitterness and denunciation, from one's sisters and brothers. Tough questions, for sure, required by difficult times when the pull-of-the-past is at war with the pull-of-the-future.