Step into the Water

Sermon Preached on September 25, 2011
St. Mark's Episcopal Church - Evanston
Revelation 22:1-5

The Book of the Revelation – also called The Apocalypse of John – is perhaps one of the most challenging texts in the Bible.  The word “apocalypse” itself seems to be part of the problem.   It is popularly defined as “the complete final destruction of the world.”  A definition which Hollywood seems to enjoy with movies from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse starring Rudolph Valentino in 1921 to Apocalypse Now in 1979 featuring Martin Sheen and Marlon Brando, not to mention the countless films which focus on fears of Judgment Day, the mark of the beast, the danger of the number 666, and on and on.
But the word “apocalypse” quite simply means “to disclose” or “reveal” and, over time, it came to describe a type of literature that focused on an expectation that God would intervene in human history “in a decisive manner to save God’s people and to punish their enemies . . . by restoring or recreating the world as it was in the beginning.  This expectation is communicated through dreams and visions – disclosures, revelations, or apocalypses.  To be sure, in the Book of the Revelation, there are visions of “the dragon” and of “flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and [even] a violent earthquake.”  But, even more amazing are the life-giving images of the city of God, the new Jerusalem.  Those images, inspired a Methodist pastor in Wisconsin, the Rev. Wesley White, to write this tongue-in-cheek poem:

imagine Ron Popeil as an angel
showing / marketing
all New Jerusalem's features
one "wait there's more"
piled on top of the last
until we reach forever
and ever

doors open for you
a light left on to guide
ionic sanitizers at the gate
books of life larger than life
flowing crystal water
straddled by a tree of healing[i]

. . . but wait, there’s more.  Yes, apocalypse is simply a word that means “to disclose” or “reveal” but apocalyptic literature has a function as well as a form.  One of its functions is to motivate the recipients of the vision “to modify their views and behaviors, to conform to transcendent perspectives.”[ii]  So the purpose of the visions of the new city of God – of heaven – are not intended solely – or even primarily – as promises for after death, but are instead intended as reminders of how profoundly “unwell” things are today and how desperately needed are repentance and change of life.[iii]  And what change are you and I called to this day?
Today’s reading begins with an image of “the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city.”  Imagine flowing water –the quiet lullaby of a bubbling brook, children running through a sprinkler, their laughter filling the air, running water powerful enough to shape landscapes, cleansing water,  healing waters, the life-giving water of baptism:
We thank you, Almighty God, for the gift of water.  Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation.  Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your Son Jesus received the baptism of John and was anointed by the Holy Spirit as the Messiah, the Christ, to lead us, through his death and resurrection, from the bondage of sin into everlasting life.  We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism. In it we are buried with Christ in his death. By it we share in his resurrection. Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit[iv]
- cleansed from sin and born again to continue for ever in the risen life of Jesus Christ our Savior.  This is the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the streets of our communities.  And we are invited to get wet, to step into the water of life. 
On Friday night, Chief Bior and Bishop Joseph were here from the Diocese of Renk. In a discussion about South Sudan’s resources, someone suggested that, even more so than the oil which flows in South Sudan, the water of the Nile River which flows through the country is perhaps their greatest and most valuable resource.  History is filled with accounts of political conflicts over the unjust and unequal distribution of Nile water resources among the ten countries that rely on it for life.  In February 1999, the Nile Basin Initiative was launched by these countries. The Initiative’s goal is “to achieve sustainable socio-economic development through the equitable utilization of and benefit from the common Nile Basin water resources.” Today, more than twelve years later, progress continues; but, no long-term, permanent agreements have been reached.[v] 
When an economy – or, an entire people’s existence – is so closely linked to a shared resource – as is the case with the Nile River – it is perhaps easy to imagine what it means to step into the river of the water of life.  For that image is, indeed, a present reality.  Stepping into the river of the water of life necessarily means focusing on the common good, focusing on the interdependence of communities and moving away from preoccupations with the question, “how can my life be better?”  to a focus instead on the question, “how can our life together be better?”
So, how will we at St. Mark’s step into the water?  What does it mean to fully live into the waters of our baptism?  How will we step into the water which flows through the middle of the communities in which we live and work and worship?  Beginning in October, a small group of parishioners will begin meeting to pray about these very questions and to ask for God’s help in discerning the future for St. Mark’s.  To borrow language from the corporate world – we will be doing the work of strategic visioning.  To keep the language of the church – we will be keeping our feet planted in the water of the river of life. 
Our goal is to provide a responsibly hopeful report to the vestry for endorsement and implementation.  A report which claims our strengths as a congregation, sets forth recommendations for expanding those strengths, and recommends the addition of new strengths, if appropriate.  One thing is clear, St. Mark’s must continue to step into the river of the water of life.  And while the work of the visioning team will take time, all of us must continue to be mindful of the water, mindful of its call to us to be a part of God’s healing in the world around us, mindful of its call to us to play a little, to splash around a bit, and to laugh in the embrace of God’s healing grace.

[i] Wesley White, “Sixth Sunday of Easter – 6C,” Kairos CoMotion Dialogue , May 10, 2007, accessed online on September 24, 2011.
[ii] David E. Aune, “Apocalyptic” and “Revelation to John” in The Westminster Dictionary of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and Rhetoric (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 46-50, 399-406.
[iii] Duane F. Watson, The New Interpeter’s Bible Commentary: Revelation, Volume XII, p. 730.
[iv] BCP, p. 306.
[v] Source: The Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) website accessed on September 24, 2011.


Back of the Bread is the Flour

Sermon Preached at St. Mark's Episcopal Church
Evanston, Illinois - 4 September 2011
Genesis 2:4b-22 and Acts 17:22-28

For the four Sundays in September, St. Mark's will be celebrating The Season of Creation.  I wish I could say that we are doing this because, as rector, I was recently motivated to "go green" or that I've been on an ecology-kick all summer or - well, quite frankly, I wish I could say that it was motivated by any kind of environmental altruism whatsoever.  But, the fact of the matter is, in my day to day life, I don’t pay much attention to the environment or creation at all.  In fact, I take it all for granted. 
So, the reason we are celebrating The Season of Creation in September has to do with the launch of our new church school curriculum called Seasons of the Spirit.  One of its most promising features is that the lessons our children will study in the classroom are the same lessons we will be using in worship that day.  For most of the year, Seasons of the Spirit follows the same Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) that we have been using; however, for 4 weeks in September they follow a Creation Cycle – “a season of creation which invites us to celebrate earth as a sacred planet filled with God’s vibrant presence.”[i]
And so, it is really a practical reason that has led us at St. Mark’s to the Season of Creation.  But, having made this change, has moved me – forced me? - to consider more deeply the interconnectedness of our world; the myriad ways in which all of creation is connected through our rootedness in God.  In the Acts of the Apostles, we heard this morning a portion of Paul’s speech in Athens.  His speech is motivated by what verse 16 tells us is his deep distress over the number of idols throughout the city. An altar “to an unknown God” captures his attention and becomes an object lesson in the nature of God:
“The God who made the world and everything it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things. . . he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him. . . For ‘In him we live and move and have our being.’”[ii]
The altar “to an unknown God” is completely unnecessary, Paul contends, because God is knowable.  This knowable God is the creator of all time, of all space, and of all boundaries.  Paul is well-aware of the human boundaries – cultural and political and economic - which seem at times to thwart the purposes of God but Paul insists, even these human boundaries are allowed their existence by God.  Paul also speaks of the natural boundaries – seasons and cycles which, along with the human boundaries, are part of God’s created order.  It is within these natural boundaries that all of us live within the intimacy of God.  Indeed, all creation lives and moves within that holy reality and all creation gives expression to God’s glory. 
Perhaps there is nothing particularly new to our ears in what Paul has to say to the Athenians - that God can be found in all of creation and that all of creation finds its life in God the creator.   But when we place Paul’s words in the larger context of Scripture, the implications of this understanding are powerful.  Looking to our reading from Genesis, we heard this verse:  “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.”[iii]  This is the reason you and I are placed on earth – “to till it and keep it.”  The verb in Hebrew- ‘ābad - which is translated as “to till” is also used in scripture to mean “to serve”  as a servant might serve a master; so another rendering of this verse could be “The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to serve it and to keep it.”[iv]  In this reading, you and I are here to serve the land, not to be served by the land; for all of creation, as Paul points out, has its life in God and all creation gives expression to God’s glory.  All of creation, then, is to be valued, to be treasured, and to be understood as infused with the life-giving breath of God.
 When we hold ourselves accountable to this understanding of creation, we cannot look at a loaf of bread in the same way.  A first step in serving creation for many of us might be a simple exercise in awareness.  You and I are on high-speed, on auto-pilot, and more often than not we miss the intricate inter-connectedness of creation.  On a very basic level, as I shared with the children this morning, saying grace before a meal is more than an act of thanking God for the food set before us; it becomes a way of acknowledging the entire cycle of creation --- the soil, the seed, the farmers, the sun, the rain, the wheat, the harvested grain, the workers in the mill, the flour, the bread --- and for giving thanks for its complexity, its richness, and our total reliance on God, the planet, and others.
In 2007, Annie Leonard created a short film called The Story of Stuff [click this link to view the 22 minute film on YouTube; or click the link at the left to order a copy of her book].  In it she explores the economic textbook description of our commodities system:  from extraction to production to distribution, consumption, and disposal.  Leonard’s film – which, by the way, I highly recommend (you can link to it on St. Mark’s webpage); her film, points out a couple of powerful things:
1)      The system is much more complicated than you might think and not all in the system are treated equally and
2)      The system cannot sustain itself because it is a linear system which assumes a never ending chain of “stuff” to be extracted for production. 
Like Paul’s speech to the Athenians, there is perhaps nothing new to our ears in Leonard’s film either. No new information and yet, for many of us, we continue to move through time as if we had no idea this was happening or with the assumption that nothing we do will really make a difference anyhow when the fact of the matter is this: if we continue to do nothing, a real difference will occur and is beginning to take place already. 
Let me be clear.  My research for this four-week Season of Creation has not turned me into an environmentalist, it doesn’t have me fired up to attend rallies or conferences on how to make the rectory or our church green; but it has caused me to stop and think about some of the little things in the course of my day like drinking water out of a plastic bottle and its impact on limited fossil fuels and discarding piles of “junk mail” received each day and the impact of all that paper on the forests.  But even with this knowledge, I’m not sure that I am ready to make that one small step toward change; I want to be honest with you.  But, there is a simple song that has taken hold of my brain recently, refusing to let go:

Back of the bread is the flour
And back of the flour is the mill
And back of the mill is the wind and the rain
And the Father's will.

Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[v]

[i] From Season of Creation charter from Seasons of the Spirit (Wood Lake Publishing Inc., 2011).
[ii] Acts 17:24-28.
[iii] Genesis 2:15.
[iv] ‘ābad, in William L. Holladay (ed.), A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), p. 261.
[v] Prayer #40, “For Knowledge of God’s Creation,” The Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 827.