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.