I am a parish minister currently serving the Eliot Church of Natick MA. Eliot Church is a Community Church affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ. Any statements made and postions held in "Unity," however, are solely mine(of course, they may be used with appropriate atribution). Therefore if you disagree, please do not blame the church!

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Sermon on Revelation, Chinese New Year, Friends of Jerry Falwell

Here is the sermon I preached last Sunday.

Also, I should point out that the UU Blog Awards voting is going on even as we speak ( Last year Unity did quite well. It got nominated for some things and even might have won something. This year, thanks to the very hard work of some very creative UUs, Unity is just fortunate to be able to bask in the company of some really great weblogs put out by some really great writers. So fell free to go vote. I will not be hurt if you don't vote for me...

Year of the Dog
Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot
at the Eliot Church

One very good reason for talking about the Chinese New Year today
Is that, in China, it is actually also known as the “Spring Festival”
It is the start, in some areas, of the ploughing season
And of preparations for the warming up
The thawing out of the days to come
What better reason, at the end of January, do we need?

Well, it probably won’t surprise you to hear
That there is at least one other reason that I bring this up today
But first, lets take a look at another of our readings

In our reading today from the book of Revelation we heard
Then I saw a new Heaven and a new Earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven from God.

The book of Revelation
And passages like this have,
At various times in the history of humanity
Spawned some rather startling ideas about the Divine
There are too many to describe today
But one group of ideas that has been extremely influential
In 21st Century American thought
Can be lumped together and described as End-Time Theology

There are people today, many varieties of evangelists
On the radio and on television, for example
Folks like televangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell
Who read this book of Revelation and see in it
Predictions of future events
All leading to an epic battle
Between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil

This is the world view
That makes Falwell and others see God’s hand
In many of the recent natural disasters
That have afflicted us
When you think in this way it cannot be
The actions and cycles of nature
That brought the hurricanes to the Gulf Coast
But instead must be some human act
That required violent punishment

Not surprisingly with such a binary world view
The people who hold these beliefs today
Have very little patience for differences of opinion
Those who disagree with them (they feel)
Are at best misguided
Those that disagree strongly
(Muslims, Jews, other Christians, agnostics…)
Are, at worst, soldiers of Satan

So, why should we care that people think these things?
Why shouldn’t we just reject
Or ignore this part of the Bible for ourselves and move on?
Because this modern, literal, interpretation of Revelation
Is becoming less of a fringe position
And influences our daily lives quite a bit more
Than our view of the world influences theirs
How we talk about our faith
How we frame the debates and issues before us in our society
How, (through the influence of the Religious Right)
Our nation is governed
Is increasingly impacted by beliefs
That are purportedly based in the book of Revelation
And we citizens of the American religious landscape
Might just want to know a thing or two
About this last book in the Bible

Now, there are other ways to interpret the book of Revelation
First, John of Patmos, its author
Points out right up front that Revelation
Is the record of a dream that he had
Very rarely are dreams literally true

And second, the book is a product of its time
Written for seven specific churches
To address the needs and issues that they had
The fact is, First Century Christians and Jews
Had a very different understanding of the world
Of the uses of literature
And of the the parameters concerning the study of history
That is, their context was very different from ours
Some two thousand years later

For example, many modern fundamentalists
Have been unable or unwilling
To take in the lesson of The Year of the Dog

The Chinese, like the Jews and the Muslims, use,
Not the Gregorian calendar, with its fixed dates
Based on the position of the Earth relative to the sun
But their own versions of a Lunar Calendar
Based as it is on the more easily experienced
Phases of the moon
Its beginning and end are based on actual observable events
And these events (the waxing and waning of the moon)
Are ongoing and cyclical

This is quite a departure from how we see time in the west
For us a day comes but once with its assigned tasks
And once a day has been completed
You can never go back
We worry about “wasting time”
As we march relentlessly forward
Toward some unknown goal
This view is a requirement
For the rather imaginative arguments for the end-times

Now, the way we think of time here is useful
When it comes to things like international trade
And keeping appointments
Things that even the Chinese, themselves, use our calendar for
But, it is still a modern idea
And would not have been something
The ancient John of Patmos understood

In fact, Bible writers
Had much more in common with the Chinese
In this respect
Using their own, ancient lunar calendar
Still in use, in the Jewish and Arab worlds

The Chinese New Year, the Spring Festival, reminds us
That in the same way that our seemingly flat earth
Is round
Our seemingly linear lives, with their beginning and end
Are also an illusion

This is most clearly illustrated in the Chinese Zodiac
When you see the zodiac drawn out
It is usually circular
(Zodiac posters were popular dormitory decorations
When I was in college
So, no doubt some of the rest of you have seen them as well.)
This circle is meant to convey the continuous nature of the cycle of life

In fact, as with the story about Jonah that we talked about last week
We have, once again found a tale that is meant to be a bit funny
When viewed through the lense of the Chinese calendar
We see that the animals are racing for nothing
Because there isn’t, really, a first year
Or a last, when a cycle of twelve months is complete
The moon continues it phases just as it did before
One after another after another
And twelve years later, it will be the year of the dog again
So, as it says in Ecclesiastes
There is nothing new under the sun

When we are confronted in Revelations
With this New Heaven and New Earth
It is quite possible that what may be apparent to
To the conservative theologians of the 21st Century
That is, predictions of
An entirely different world brought about
Through acts of angelic violence
May have actually held a another message to its writer
And its original audience
For they were thinking of something other than
The literal end of time

This style of writing can be found in other books of the Bible
(Like the book of Daniel),
And elsewhere, too
For as long as there have been human beings
Someone has been apparently predicting the end of the world
But in this literature is still where we see
Some of the greatest expressions
Of human creativity and imagination
In part, I believe, because at its heart
It isn’t meant to be taken literally
In a way, it has a much more radical message
Based on insight and inspiration
Rather than obedience

Bible scholar Mitchell Reddish writes
Revelation is a fantasia of sights, sounds, smells and action
Through this rich imagery,
We can see the message
That starts with the understanding that
The kingdom of heaven,
(Or as we sometimes say around here, Commonwealth) of Heaven
Isn’t some foreign entity, some new city that comes
After wiping out all the old things in one great gesture
But heaven is, instead an idea
That is forever growing in our hearts
That has, in the words of Augustine been coming down since the beginning
The Commonwealth of Heaven is already here
Waiting to be discovered

And it is also a gift that comes not from our actions
But from the Divine
As the preacher David Buttrick says
Left to our own devices we’ll dream a holy city and build Babel every time.
God speaks to us in Revelations 21 and says The home of God is among mortals…See; I am making all things new

Too often we have been tempted to look outside this world
Reading here in the Bible and elsewhere
A promise of a future eternal happiness
Which, of course, is only granted to those who obey
Whichever leader or theologian developed that particular idea

But the book of Revelation was written
To address specific needs
Just as Daniel was meant to give heart to the Jews
During the period of the Maccabean revolt
What message we gain from literature such as this
Must also have a similar practical foundation

As I mentioned earlier today
The Book of Revelations is what is known as Apocalyptic literature
Mitchell Reddish tells us that is
Is meant to be read imaginatively—with eyes ears and mind wide open. It is no wonder that artists of all types have been inspired by this work.

We need, like the artist
(And like John of Patmos)
To be creative in our faith
For an inflexible religion in the end
Prevents our growing in the spirit

Whereas one view held by Falwell and others
Requires that we seek out this new world
Which the righteous shall rule
The other view is more concerned with finding the new in the old
Sensing the slow changes that have come with the turning of the wheel

Still, we do have a task
As the new world grows and develops
And one that is in tension
With how we often live our lives

With our limited perspective we can sometimes try
To be the Rat in the Zodiac
Trying always to get ahead, cheating, pushing others out of the way
To reach the opposite shore
To win

Or we can make the effort to be like the dog
Stopping for a bath
Or better yet the dragon helping others
Because we realize that what comes around goes around
And the first shall be last soon enough

Seeking the Commonwealth of Heaven
Requires patience/Requires tolerance
Because chances are that no one person
Is completely right about anything
All we can do is make sure
That none of us are completely wrong

Yes, there is work involved
Not so much in the building and regulating line
As in the connecting, the reaching out
The understanding of difference

So let us work
To find
That constantly renewing spirit and vision
In Elizabeth Tapia’s prayer today
The one for transformed relations, sustainable communities, [and] a pacific, peace-loving world