May 4 Sermon: Water Washed, Spirit Born—Heavenly Vision of Our New Beginning and Ecumenical Perspect
Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:1-6
The grace of God is the gift of new beginnings and fresh starts: restoration, resurrection, renovations and troubled places of challenge, pain and despair. New beginnings in troubled places require a heavenly vision: a transformed socioeconomic and political reality. New heavens and a new earth represent perfection of the social order, one which is radically changed from previous experiences.
The reality is that as we view the text, we discover that the enemies of Christ and the faith are destroyed in the story and the text in Revelation, and happiness to the saints is perfected. Vision is an informed bridge to a better tomorrow. The apostle John, who is as we all know relegated to the island of Patmos, is in exile. He has been a faithful warrior and soldier. He has written the gospel and other epistles and finds himself here in this forsaken place called Patmos where he makes a witness of a new transfiguration, of a new order, of a new reality that Christ will bring into being in a new Jerusalem which comes to be.
He is a respected leader in the church of Jerusalem and, as a result of his witness and his testimony, we have the vision that is outlined for us. We thank God for the Johns, the St. John the Divines, those who will be relegated to hard, remote and distant places but never lose their prophetic fire, never tire of the demand and the requirement to speak for the Lord, never shrink from the responsibilities to hold high the banner of brotherhood and love, and never fail to lift up the prophetic eye on the issues that face us in our world.
We hear in John’s words, and in the words of the text from both Isaiah and from St. John the Divine, that God is calling us to stand in new places. He’s calling us to be a different people. He’s calling us to do together what we cannot do apart.
The ecumenical movement’s greatest witness bears its fruit in the reality that we are called into a fellowship of collective commitment that requires us to do dutifully all the more than we could ever do in our separate units. We’re called to share burdens and pains. We’re called to dream big dreams and have hopes. We’re called to see the big picture and to see a world of new beginnings, a world of peace with justice, a world where we are at home in love and in fellowship.
We’re called in this new reality to refute a faith-based economy and faith-based politics that radically distort our relationship between church and state in the whole of life and culture. We, as the church, must not become the hands of government but must remain the conscience of government, urging and demanding excellence in public education, demanding the quality of care for our children who sang so beautifully today, whose hearts and dispositions and potential for growth and development are all signs of the promise that God holds for the whole of creation. We must remain the conscience of the government. We must not only demand health and public education but also healthy and unified programs in health care and housing where the whole of the world is renewed, where our communities have an opportunity for comprehensive development.
This must not be for ourselves or for our government just rhetoric or conversation, but we must demand that the fiscal, human and comprehensive resources of the nation are available so that no child or community is left behind. This has to be more than a political sound bite.
And we must make certain that the efforts to undergird this are met with budgetary and political intentionality. When we make an assessment of our current president’s budget for 2005, we see that there is the elimination of more than 60 federal programs that were funded under previous administrations, including programs like Even Start, which provides for family literacy for low-income areas and combines early childhood education and preparing education of some $247 million. And the list is replete; it goes on and on with:
· Dropout prevention programs;
· Elementary and secondary school counseling;
· Even Start;
· Smaller learning communities;
· Community development block grants that earmark 951 local projects funded outside the formula grant programs;
· Programs for persons who are incarcerated that there would be education and development so that persons will have the opportunity for real rehabilitation.
We, therefore, are urged to speak boldly and daringly and courageously about what needs to happen. The role of the church is to demand that the government does its work fully and completely, without shifting the responsibility to congregations that are already overwhelmed. Government should be forced and required to do its part. We should do our part to assist and make certain, but under no circumstances should we give the government a “pass” as we deal with this.
And so, we are called to speak out in a way that we could never speak out alone. Our voices will be muffled even more if they only come from solitary denominations. But if we join our voices together, and God embellishes the sound of our voices in ways that otherwise would not occur, we’re able to impact the social order and to witness in a way that helps to transform our society.
We’re also called to speak boldly and courageously against a faith-based war, one that in this time in history pits Christians and Muslims against each other.
I’m so very grateful for the witness and ministry of Mel Talbert. I watched him on “Larry King.” I heard him in England. I witnessed his voice in all the places where he spoke. I’m grateful for the witness and ministry of Dr. Robert Edgar for the National Council of Churches finding a new place to speak as boldly and courageously and to find, through that witness, an opportunity for the whole life of the council to be revitalized and renewed. For God is true to God’s promise. We are called to do together that which we cannot do apart.
We must, therefore, rise to the occasion. We must not allow the challenges or the threats or any kind of social or political or IRS intimidations to keep us from speaking boldly truth to power in the places where it must be heard.
I applaud your confession for the sin of racism and slavery which we shared in Cleveland. I’m grateful for the commitment you made that it would be followed through at all the levels of the life of your church and that we would share together in all the places. I was privileged to share with Bishop Alfred Norris and with Bishop Oden in Dallas as we shared in the service when Bishop Norris was the preacher. I was grateful for the opportunity.
I’m waiting for the continued work we must do together. We must move beyond the verbiage and the level of conversation about racism. We must find credible, doable ways to demonstrate that we are new people, water-washed and Spirit-born. New people, new images, new models, new dreams, new visions, a new heaven and a new earth that God calls us to share and to create. We have the power. We have the capacity. All that is required is that we must have the will.
We can make it work. We can make it happen in your church, in our world. Together we’re summoned to do it. We must not be frightened.
I know it’s not easy. The most difficult thing in the world is to speak the truth to the people who know you, the people who pay your salaries, the people who live with you. It’s hard. It’s much easier to march with somebody else in another place, but that’s where God calls us to stand. It’s troubled ground, but it’s holy ground. God blesses us there. It’s a sacred space where we’re able to find new places to witness to the kingdom.
And so, on this service of ecumenical fellowship, we come to share with joy our common unity and to speak freely about our divisions, to wrestle with all our challenges. But while we wrestle with them and while we recognize all that has occurred, we do have hope. For just as John was on the island of Patmos, he saw a new vision of a New Jerusalem, and he said, “The sea was no more.” The sea represented the place of division, and in Konrad Raiser’s words, “It was a dividing wall.” And so he says, “The sea was no more.” And I saw a new heaven and a new earth that only God could create, coming down from heaven, and I was called and summoned to be a part of it.
Now, when the General Conference ends and we return to the places where the people have trusted us with this power of representation, the people who sent us here to Pittsburgh to do proper due diligence to the legislative task and responsibilities of setting up policy, may we also take back to the places where we go a new sense of urgency.
When Brown v. Board of Education was issued by the [U.S.] Supreme Court, it said, “with all deliberate speed.” Now the text where that phrase came from, they should have gone down further where it says “with quickness,” but they missed that part. They said, “with all deliberate speed.” In other words, it is an acknowledgement that we will do right, but we’re going to take forever to do it. It’s an acknowledgement that we’re all to do right; we’re all to do what’s just and equitable, but we’re going to take our own good time to do it. And if you rush us, we may get mad and won’t do it at all, because we control the resources. We have the access.
That’s what we must do is go back, as John was on the island of Patmos. There was a sense of urgency because, you see, at the end of the book it says, “Behold, I come quickly.” We live under judgment. We live under the realization that we do not have forever to do the will of God nor do we have forever to please or to fulfill the demands of God. We must do it now. We must end racism now. We must practice fairly now. We must make certain that the markets are even now. We must make certain that the banks don’t redline now. Not tomorrow. But with that urgency I urge you, as we consider our new beginnings and our new possibilities, to do it with the understanding that God expects us to do it now.
Well, it’s not easy, as I have acknowledged. And I know you don’t need to be beat up on, and I didn’t come to beat up on anybody, but I think there has to come a time in the life of the faithful that we really believe what we preach. And the text tells us that if we are faithful to what God has summoned us to do and to be, if we sow faithfulness and commitment to build the bridges and to make the witness and to take the stands and to bear the cross, he says that God will find a new dwelling place with God’s people.
That’s what it says. He will make a new dwelling place in the hearts of his people, and although they have come out of great trials and tribulations, he will wipe every tear from their eyes, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads. And God will be with them, and they with him, and they will dwell in the land of peace forever. What a utopic promise! What a beatific vision! What glorious hope! What joyous and resounding grace is presented to us if we are faithful to the claims and the call of Christ.
Let’s have a new start. Let’s make a bold, daring, new beginning that goes beyond words, that goes beyond gestures, that takes us to a new place of relationships and interaction. Let’s sharpen the voice of our prophetic witness. Let’s enlarge our pastoral and priestly witness as we comfort and console each other for we belong to a new people. We are water-washed and Spirit-born, but we have been blessed to see a heavenly vision that God has summoned us to share and to witness. And in light of that reality, I leave with you the words of the spiritual from our tradition:
Walk together, children.
Don’t you get weary.
There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.
Pray together, children. Don’t you get weary. Run together, children. Struggle together. Fight together. Serve together. There is a great camp meeting in the promised land.