August 12, 2018 // Narrative Yr. 4 Revelation Series 5 // First Congregational UCC Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Death and Dragons”: Revelation 6:1-17; Revelation 8:1-6; also “The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse” and “En Route, Tikrit,” by Tania Runyan
We could not avoid it forever. In this summer sermon series on “Revelation as Resistance,” we couldn’t just pretend away the difficult parts. We come today, finally, to the terrible parts of Revelation. We arrive this morning at scenes of violence and destruction and death, on a global scale. This morning, you heard what happens when the seven seals are opened. The first that that happens is those Four HorseWomen of the Apocalypse (I couldn’t imagine them any other way this week) show up. They unleash evil: the evil that is social evil (war), the evil that is ecological evil (famine), the evil that is biological evil (sickness). These evils that are “common, but also often disguised so that we accept their presence as something normal,” Eugene Peterson writes. In this vision of John’s, we have to reckon with the evil.
Many progressive Christians see and hear the death and violence of this vision and recoil, finding judgement and violence distasteful, offensive even. In her poem, “The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse,” Tania Runyan writes a protest that could speak for many of us,
You say you will never forsake us
Then send a horse the color of decaying flesh
To wipe out a fourth of the earth…
Perhaps because we recognize religion has so long wielded judgement and violence, we want to distance ourselves from the visions of this Revelation. “That’s not us. That’s not Christianity. That’s not the God we know as Love.” (Pause)
There is precedence for telling ourselves this is not happening, this vision is not really happening. The poet John often hears one thing and then sees another. In our text just last week, John narrates himself weeping with grief that no one in heaven, on earth or under the earth can open the scroll with its seven seals. Then he hears an elder say, “Look! The Lion of Judah… the Root of David… is able to open the scroll.” John hears images of strength: lion, root. But when John looks, he sees… a lamb, looking like it’s been executed, but standing. A lamb, a should-be-dead lamb, a vision of nonviolent resistance rather than a predatory judge hunting people down to tear them apart. So, there’s good precedence for not taking these visions of Revelation literally. Interpreting these visions as literal predictions of historical events is dangerous and not what the poet expected us to do with them, anyway.
John is saying something about evil here, though. And the Four Horsewomen of the Apocalypse are just the beginning. Over the next 10 chapters of so, John will see other visions of death and destruction. There will be monsters who rise out of the sea and wreak havoc on the earth. There will be dragons. There will be a lot of bloodshed. There will be a lot of death. Scholar Brian Blount likens John’s revelation to a “three-ring narrative circus.” These fantastic visions aren’t chronological; this is all going on at once for John. Over here, the seven seals open to reveal complete revelation, over here there are seven trumpets ready to sound the totality of divine proclamation, and over there seven golden bowls ready to pour out all the divine judgement on the Earth. The chapters don’t tell a chronological history of future events. They are visions that peal back layers of deepening understanding that John receives when he is caught up in the Spirit “on the Lord’s Day.” He’s a poet masterfully balancing the tension of these terrible truths by interspersing descriptions of heavenly worship, prayer, song, celestial awe – in between the sections of disaster, destruction and judgment. So we know not to take these pictures and images literally. (Pause)
But there is also a greater danger in dismissing the terrible parts of Revelation. When we do that, when we distance ourselves from the suffering and judgement of John’s vision, we read this story through the lens of white colonial supremacy. And this story wasn’t written from the viewpoint of white colonial supremacy. It was written from the viewpoint of struggle, suffering and fear. When your community is being poisoned by the lead in Flint, Michigan… your men and boys are being locked up by the tens and thousands and hundreds of thousands, discriminated again ever afterward in this era of the New Jim Crow… when your people are strip-searched and imprisoned just for seeking asylum… you long to see the seven seals opened, to hear the seven trumpets blow, to feel the seven bowls full of judgment poured out on this earth. Maybe more accurately: You’re already seeing and hearing and feeling God’s cosmic judgement in the now, and you know… you know in your hands and your feet and your heart… that left unresisted, the Empire’s exploitation of Creation is going to break us all, even the ones who can escape to the hills. Evil is real. Monsters are real. That’s part of the truth that John’s vision tells. We know that’s true in the now. A white supremacist monster drove a car into protesters in Charlottesville one year ago yesterday, killing one woman and wounding many others; another monster recently stabbed and killed a woman just riding a train. (I keep thinking of that dystopian film Children of Men, a powerful work of art that painted a world of refugee crisis and authoritarian xenophobia in a time of global infertility; I keep thinking this past year “That was supposed to be fiction.” And it still is. But somedays it feels like it is only just barely.) Evil is real. Not just out there. Also in here, we know, personally, in this room, monsters who have used their power as adults to violate and abuse children in the most intimate of family relationships. Preparing for this week’s sermon, I had picked two more of Tania Runyan’s poems, but they were too rough for me to print in the bulletin. One invites us to step into the shoes of those who’ve suffered the worst of what humanity can do, a young boy who isn’t so repulsed by the judgment implied in John’s vision… begs for angels to intervene… “C’mon, [expletive]. Pour it down. C’mon, let it sizzle this time.” Evil is real. Monsters are real. And the desire for the Divine to set things right and save is real. (Pause)
So when African-American theologian, Brian Blount reads Revelation, he reads it not through a colonial white supremacist lens, but through the lens of suffering and witness to Resurrection life. Throughout his commentary, he translates a phrase we’ve always heard as “patient endurance” – a good white European virtue — out of its tone of passive resignation. He translates it instead “nonviolent resistance.” Those who are conquerors in the vision John receives from Christ are those who keep witnessing to the ultimate power of this executed lamb who yet stands to call the Empire a liar when it uses violence to trick us into believing our lives are saved and sustained by its hand. “Christians do not shut their eyes to the world’s cruelty in themselves or others,” writes Eugene Peterson. “St. John has trained us to be especially attentive to it, to name it with honesty — and deal with it courageously…. Christians, for the most part, are the very persons I our society who can be counted on to have no illusions about the depth of depravity in themselves or in the world at large… and at the same time… be less cynical or despairing about it.” Who can stand? In John’s vision, it’s this executed Lamb who still stands, who still bears witness, to resurrection life. (Pause)
At the end of today’s vision, when the seventh seal is opened, there is silence in heaven for half an hour. I remembered that in that prophetically dystopian masterpiece Children of Men, there’s a point when the whole film goes silent. In the cacophony of chaos and warfare, the whole thing goes quiet. And in that silence, the hell of war and destruction loses its power… as people turn their eyes – with all of the cries and needs and suffering – toward new life. I remembered that scene as I sat with Revelation this week. When the world has had its fill of violence and destruction, there is silence in heaven for half an hour. Silence in heaven for half an hour. Silence. [Pause long here.] In this silence, Eugene Peterson imagines, our prayers are heard. Cries are heard. And out of silence, things happen. “Out of the silence of heaven,” Eugene Peterson writes, “actions are prepared.” Those prayers rising like incense to heaven are collected by an angel, and notice they aren’t stored under the altar, or in some drawer or glass cabinet for the Ancient of Days to show off or admire. An angel gathers the prayers of the saints and mixes those prayers with fire from the altar, mixing the prayers of the saints with the fire of God’s spirit, and then returns that hot and holy mixture to the Earth. It’s “reversed thunder.” (Pause)
Some of that reversed thunder landed on our planet this week. Some reversed thunder poured out on Ferguson, Missouri, this week. Where four years ago, Christ the King UCC opened their doors and welcomed a grieving community. Rev. Traci Blackmon and so many other people of faith have been crying out to God since Mike Brown was killed, since police met community grief and anger with war-level weaponry, since the Prosecutor failed to get an indictment against the officer who shot unarmed Michael Brown dead in the street. This week, some prayers mixed with holy fire got poured back down on the community. And Bob McCulloch, that seven-term white county prosecutor lost his primary race to Wesley Bell, a Ferguson City Council member who is black. Some kind of reversed thunder visited that community. Cries of suffering were heard. While the “reversed thunder” of John’s revelation toes no partisan line, it does serve a liberating God though. We’re part of seeing it get poured out on the earth. John’s vision gives us a place to take our pain, our anger, our cries for help. John’s vision helps us tell the truth that monsters are real, that evil is real. And John’s vision gives us room to be reminded that our prayers don’t go unheard. (Pause)
By the end of this morning’s reading, there are seven trumpets ready to blow. The last time that happened in our biblical story, walls fell down. The power of God encircles a city, and at the sound of those trumpets, at Jericho, the walls crumble. John’s vision gives us a place to take the pain and suffering and trauma of this world and watch it get transformed with prayer – not to the passive patient endurance we’ve so often been told to accept, but into the nonviolent resistance that follows the lead of an executed Lamb who still stands to tell the truth that God is for life.
 Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, (New York: HarperOne, 1988), p. 76.
 Tania Runyan, “The Fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse,” What Must Soon Take Place, (Brewster, Mass.: Paraclete Press, 2017), p. 45.
 Blount, p. 120.
 Blount, p. 120.
 Tania Runyan, “En Route, Tikrit,” What Will Soon Take Place, p. 65.
 Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary, TNTL (Westminster John Knox Press: Louisville, 2009), p. 135.
 Peterson, p. 81.
 Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination, p. 95.
 Peterson, quoting George Herbert, a “reversed thunder,” p. 88.