July 8, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Revelation Series 2 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “The Church: Imagination Station”: Revelation 1:9-20; Revelation 2:1-11
On her head sits a crown. From that crown, seven sharp rays reach out, one for each of Earth’s continents. At her sandaled feet, links of chain lie broken. With one hand she lifts 305 feet above the ground a torch plated with gold. In the other arm, she holds a tablet with the date inscribed in Roman numerals, July 4, 1776. Have you guessed what lady I’m describing yet? We call her the Statue of Liberty, and she was built on a tiny island off Manhattan to celebrate the 100th anniversary of that famous Declaration of Independence whose signing we commemorated on Wednesday. Though the Lady herself arrived 10 years late for that party, due to the French and American efforts to raise funds on both sides of the Atlantic dragging out, she has stood there saying through art what our nation has so often failed to say in deed. (Pause)
Emma Lazarus captured it in a sonnet she wrote as part of the fundraising efforts back in 1883. She titled it, “The New Colossus.”
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightening, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
“Mother of Exiles.” That’s her name. Large monument statues in other times and places have certainly. Sometimes to deter enemies. Other times to embody the wealth and strength of a nation. But the Statue of Liberty’s purpose differed. While it did commemorate that day in 1776 when a group of unauthorized immigrants – immigrants who happened to be white, male, land-owning representatives from 13 colonies – declared their independence from a King, Liberty herself lifted the imagination above and beyond the strictly political realm to the spiritual: “I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” When, on Wednesday, a 44-year-old personal trainer, resident of New York, and emigrant from the Congo, climbed up to Lady Liberty’s feet, she knew this history. Therese Patricia Okoumou was reaching back into our collective imagination to remind us of it. (Pause)
Though his vision never materialized in iron and copper and gold, John of Patmos, the poet behind the Revelation, also imagined a towering figure who was for him a beacon of freedom. This figure towers in the first chapter of Revelation. In the Spirit on the Lord’s Day, that is the day of prayer, John hears behind him a foreboding voice, like a trumpet, and turns to see who it is. John sees someone, a “human-like one” standing in the middle of seven lampstands. The white hair on his head is like wool or snow, there is fire where there should be eyes and a sword coming from his mouth. (So bizarre and poetic at the same time.) This imposing figure has a message for John to share with the churches. As soon as John begins to describe this One, he audience would have recognized the voice that John heard, too. For a figure very much like this one appears in a vision retold by the prophet Daniel, in chapter 7, during the brutal reign of another foreign power. Daniel has visions and dreams, too, during a time when Antiochus Epiphanes had banned prayers and invaded the temple with worship of other gods, primarily Zeus. In Daniel’s vision, one “like a human being” descends in the clouds, and the Ancient of Days – the Creator, God – empowers this Human One to defeat the ruler who appears like a monster from the sea. As the angel visiting Daniel begins to explain these visions and what they meant, it becomes clear that for Daniel this “Son of Man” or “Human One” represents collectively the “holy ones of God,” the faithful, who will ultimately inherit God’s Reign. Even though that all looks extremely unlikely in the present, this vision is a gift, a reminder that the Ancient of Days, the One who Is, who Was, and who Will Be, is working through the faithful, that all is not lost, that eventually this terrible power will be defeated. By the time of the Gospels, our stories about Jesus, this “Son of Man” has taken on some other qualities, and represents for many and is imagined as an expected Messiah. By the time of John’s vision on Patmos decades later, this sword-tongued, brilliant one indisputably represents the Risen Christ. John sketches this image, this towering Christ figure – with eyes like fire and a voice like a thundering waterfall – not to threaten, but to inspire. Remember that he is speaking to the churches. This is the One who walks among the seven lampstands, this is the one who holds the angel of each church in his hands. This is the One who says, “Stop being afraid; I AM the first and the last, and the living one.” You are in my hands. (Pause)
Last week I spoke about what Revelation is not, and began making the case that part of what Revelation is about is resistance in a time of trial, when the way of Jesus is and feels radically countercultural. Revelation is encouragement to keep the faith. There’s nothing really new in this book, as wild as it is. It is the “last word” in our Bible, but there’s nothing in it that can’t be found in the previous sixty-five books of the Bible. It does however take John’s poetry to find new ways to say it. This is a work of “intense imagination.” Emphasis on intense. John writes this book to the Seven Churches, and began to hear in the second reading this morning some of what he has to say to each of those churches. To a couple of them, John has nothing good to say. To a couple of them, John has nothing bad to say. The rest, the majority, are a mixed bag, much like us. John reaches back into their collective imagination to share the vision that he’s received in the middle of worship, when he’s been filled with the Holy Spirit on “the Lord’s Day.” He reaches back into their collective imagination to share this vision in order to say, “Stop being afraid.”
Part of why I’m drawn to tangle with this wild book is that one of the things that ails us, especially in the Protestant church, is a failure of imagination. There are a lot of reasons for it. Any given week, the mundane grind of just living in this world can dull our imagination. The daily task of just living in this world, the struggle just to earn our food, our rent, to take care of loved ones and just make it day-to-day. We are numbed, too, by the flood of headlines, rushing daily horrors near and far into our consciousness. This morning many in our community are grieving the loss of a man who was an integral part of the unhoused community, helping with the Peace Meal, often struggling with addiction, who this week died behind a bank in town. These kinds of daily losses can numb us over time. There are a lot of reasons that our imagination fails. We get worn down. We get depleted. Our hearts and minds can become dulled by platitudes and numbed by the brutal world. [The pastor and writer Eugene Peterson asks, “Is there no trumpet that can wake us to the intricacies of grace, the profundities of peace, the repeated and unrepeatable instances of love that are under and around and over us?”]
When I fear there is no trumpet that can rouse our imaginations, I remember where John was when he received this vision. He was “in the Spirit” on “the Lord’s Day.” He was at worship. He was in prayer. He has drawn close to the sources of inspiration. He has drawn from the well of imagination we share here: the silence, the sacred stories, the prayers. And then there are weeks like this past one when I am startled awake by others who have drawn near those sources, too. In my despair, I’m roused by someone else who has “seen and heard” and has been bold enough to paint a picture. I’m encouraged by the imagination of the ones who were inspired enough to paint butterfly wings to fly down Siskiyou Boulevard on Wednesday in order to say with beauty that “migration is beautiful.” I am struck by the bold imagination of those churches in the Midwest and elsewhere who dug their fiberglass Jesus, Mary and Joseph out of the basement closets this past week, to put their Nativity crèche on the church lawn not for a Christmas in July promo, but so they could fence the Holy Family in with chicken wire to ask their community to remember another undocumented flight across a border, when another family lived in fear of the threat of death. Weeks like this I’m startled by that Spirit still inspiring the faithful, still inspiring those who have ears to hear and listen. On weeks like this, when I feel like I have not an imaginative or creative thought left, I’m blessed by these pictures that startle me awake and help me for just a little while “Stop being afraid.” (Pause)
For behold, I looked. And I saw one like a daughter of the Earth, and her face was carved obsidian. There was a crowd of people on the island all around her. And as we watched she rose. She climbed, with feet of fiery pink, until she reached the heel of Lady Liberty herself, clad in greened copper, standing over 100 feet tall. And this one sat there, in the folds of Liberty’s skirt, above all the people, and around her chest was bound a cloth that said, “White Supremacy is Terrorism.” As the armed officers begged and cajoled her to come down, she answered: “I’m not coming down until you set the children free.” Let those who have ears to hear listen and act on what the Spirit is saying to the churches.
 “A Young Poet Captures the Essence of Lady Liberty,” The Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, www.libertyellisfoundation.org
 Joanna Walters, “’Are They Going to Shoot Me?’: Statue of Liberty climber on her anti-Trump protest,” The Guardian, July 7, 2018, www.theguardian.com
 Donald Gowan, Daniel, [commentary title].
 Brian Blount translation “Stop being afraid.”
 Eugene Peterson, intro.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, p. x-xi.
 Peterson, p. xi