August 5, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Revelation Series 4 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Heaven Cannot Wait”: Revelation 5:1-14; excerpt from The City Without a Church, by Henry Drummond

Intro

Yesterday, I finally got to see the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? If you’ve seen it, you know that Fred Rogers’ children’s television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood tackled complex emotions and politics from its very first week on the air. King Friday the 13th is upset with the “changers” moving into his neighborhood, who are changing his neighborhood, so he decides to erect a barbed wire fence and establish border patrol. This was 1968. Mr. Rogers’ wanted to create a place children could go when they felt scared or unsafe or confused. In Rogers’ own words, he offered a way “to help children through the more difficult modulations in life.” It may have been make-believe, but it wasn’t a fantasy. Even in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, conflict happened. Loss happened. (I probably have a special affection for Mr. Rogers because we are graduates of the same seminary, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.) The documentary interviews people talking about his impact on other peoples’ lives and on the lives of children. And without diminishing the power of the love children received from Mr. Rogers, the documentary also raises a question about whether Mr. Rogers’ simple theology of love your neighbor and love yourself was adequate – is still adequate – in our present world. The documentary raises a question about whether that theology – love your neighbor, love yourself – could stand up today even to the hate that picketed Mr. Rogers’ own funeral because his message “It’s you I like, just the way you are” included LGBTQ folk. (Pause)

 

Trans.

Reading the Revelation of John in 2018 begs a similar question. There are so many visions of triumph and praise and glory, especially in these early chapters when there is so much worship happening. Reading John’s vision can beg the question, Why? Why, with the Empire bearing down, four horsemen galloping with gifts of global disaster? Why, when there are two great beasts ready to rise from the sea to wreak destruction, why does John spend so much of his vision singing, so much of his time in worship? Is this just the Neighborhood of Make-Believe where we escape from the real world? (Pause)

 

I.

So much of John’s vision is symbol and metaphor. And there’s so much beautiful symbol and metaphor in today’s reading. Because I want us to hear from Kaeden, I’m not going to go all the way into everything. But to give us just a taste: 1) there’s the scroll which would have been recognizable to John’s congregations because there was always a scroll brought out in worship, a scroll that held within it the story of God’s hope and intention for humankind; 2) there’s the right hand of God that holds power and authority, the ability to make something happen; 3) there’s the 7 seals, that seven conveying completeness; 4) there are the names that in John’s time would have been used for the Emperor, that the Emperor was the Almighty, the Savior, the Lord of all the world, that John instead puts in the mouths of the saints to name the Creator in blatant defiance of the Empire; 5) there’s that multivalent Lamb image, evoking for John’s audience at least four different kinds of lambs, from the lamb used every day in the temple to the lamb that was a sign of liberation at Passover – there are at least four different kinds of lambs in the religious consciousness of John’s congregations; 6) And then there’s the fact that John chooses a word for this slaughtered lamb that avoids the language for sacrifice.[1] There’s a really good word that he could have used to communicate that this lamb that he sees, the Lamb that is able to open the scroll, was a sacrifice. But John does not use that word. He avoids the word of sacrifice and instead seems to communicate, scholar Brian Blount writes, that this lamb conquers through provocative witness. This lamb is killed for that provocative witness, but it’s not the killing that makes the Lamb a conqueror, worthy to open the scroll. Rather the lamb is worthy because it keeps putting glory where glory’s due: to the Creator, the Ancient of Days. There’s so much symbolism in this chapter. We could talk a lot more about it.

 

What I want us to notice today are the songs. There are songs everywhere in scripture. But as the library of sacred story we call the Bible draws to its close, the poet pulls out all the stops. Have you tried to read through Revelation? You can’t get very far without someone or something bursting into song. Five songs burst out in just chapters 4 and 5 of the Revelation, and they are not only contained there. If you listen to the songs, you realize they are not just there to make us feel good. These are hymns of resistance. They are there to rally and encourage and strengthen the saints, the people John is inviting to provocative witness. John is showing his congregations that “what they are presently doing in worship corresponds to what presently takes place at the very heart of things, heaven.”[2] It’s not make-believe. In these worship scenes John is describing, they are practicing Reality. The Reality that Caesar is not the savior, that the Creator is. The Reality that Creation and Redemption are connected. The Reality that who God is and what God does shapes who we are and what we do. This worship isn’t fantasy either, even if it is a pretty fantastic vision. Eugene Peterson describes it this way: “In worship we ‘listen to the voice of Being’ and become answers to it,” Eugene Peterson writes.[3] “… in worship we cease being predators who by stealth approach everyone as prey that we can pull into our center; (and instead) we respond to the center…. There is nothing cowering, cautious, or timid in it.”[4] In worship we shout an “Amen!” to the Source of Life. It’s not just make-believe. “The act of worship rehearses in the present the end that lies ahead,” Peterson writes. In worship, “Heaven is introduced into the present.”[5] (Pause)

 

I.

Last year, Kaeden Doshier met here among these people a Reality that made him ask his parents if he could be baptized here. He brought into this place his worries about the water protectors freezing at Standing Rock, and his idea about making scarves to send them warmth and love, scarves especially made by children, carrying a special blessing. And he found here Chris, and Kaylan, and Paula, and the Children and Youth Ministry Team, who supported his project, and a whole bunch of you who blessed those scarves on their way. Today we get the privilege of baptizing Kaeden. He comes with his own song, with things to teach us, even as he learns from us and our songs. The Reality he met last year is still the Reality that we gather around today: Creator and Redeemer inviting us to respond to life. Heaven is present now and cannot wait. (Pause)

 

Concl.

More than one of my clergy colleagues has suggested that “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was Fred Rogers’ parable of what the early Christians called “the kingdom of God,” that the Neighborhood of Make-Believe wasn’t fantasy but was the “Commonwealth of Heaven,” the Eternal Realm of Love, where we could work out our big feelings and know that we belonged. In his final commencement address, Fred Rogers told the graduates, “There have always been people who have smiled you into smiling, talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.”[6] We get to do that for Kaeden. And Kaeden gets to do that for us. That’s the Family of God. That’s heaven. And heaven cannot wait.

 

[1] Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary, The New Testament Library, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 116-118.

[2] Peterson, p. 70.

[3] Peterson, p. 68.

[4] Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination (New York: HarperOne, 1988), p. 68-69.

[5] Peterson, p. 70.

[6] Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? film, viewed August 4, 2018.