Monday, May 03, 2010

First Sermon at the New Place, Rev 21:1-6

The New Jerusalem. A holy city come down from heaven.

That’s what we hear from the Book of the Revelation to John.

I will bet you a good steak dinner that when John’s friends and relations heard that passage that we just heard, somebody said, “New Jerusalem? What’s wrong with the old Jerusalem? It was perfectly fine most of the time, and my Grandmother came from the Old Jerusalem! Why do we need a new one? What’s with all the changes around here?”

And there were other folks nodding their heads, saying “We don’t need a new Jerusalem. We’d much rather have the old one.”

That’s what happens when the world around us swirls with change. We want the swirling to stop, we hate the dizzy feeling it gives us. We want the familiar, the comforting, the good old ways…even when we know that the good old ways weren’t always so good.

Change is an uncomfortable thing…

PH and I moved down to Richmond from Alexandria this past week. Moving is always hard work, even when it’s for an exciting new adventure in one’s life, and we took turns feeling stressed and disoriented by it. Going back and forth on the phone with Comcast to get the cable set up, dealing with buying a washer and dryer for the new place, figuring out how to get our two geriatric cats down here without too much stress on them and on us, all of it made for a hectic week. And yes, we did paint a bedroom or two in the midst of all this, and I wrote this sermon. Change is an uncomfortable thing.

But our worries about the move seem pale in comparison to those folks who first heard the message of the Book of Revelation.

Scholars tell us that this book, the last one in the New Testament, was written somewhere between the year 68 and the year 95. It was not a good time to be a follower of Christ…the emperor Domitian was busy imprisoning, banishing, or martyring Christians. John was using language in this book that was prophetic, to be sure, but in the eyes of the Romans, it was also political. Romans heard this idea of a new Jerusalem about the same way some people today would hear the phrase “new world order…” something that was talking about a new Jerusalem that would replace the world as it existed then. No surprise then, that John was probably exiled to Patmos, where he later died. They saw him as a political instigator.

In that world, at that time, life was not good. In point of fact, Jews and Christians had already lost the old Jerusalem…the great temple had been destroyed and the Jews, and Jewish Christ-followers along with them, had been banished from the city. The small number of Jews and Christians who remained were persecuted. And even those who went to different places, to Greece, to Syria, suffered persecution from the Roman authorities.

So perhaps the idea of a new Jerusalem wasn’t entirely an unwelcome change…perhaps there were possibilities in this new Jerusalem. After all, what was John describing? A Jerusalem so wonderful that it was heaven come to earth. God dwelling right alongside God’s people. That sounds pretty promising, doesn’t it?

Sometimes change is not so uncomfortable, when we see that the new thing may bring great joy.

Even so, while we’re in the midst of it, change takes us out of our comfort zones into something very different.

It feels for all the world like one of those merry-go-rounds in the playground. Not the great big ones with the music playing and the wooden horses we ride on, but the big disks about ten feet in diameter, with poles to hang onto…you get them started by hanging one foot off and pushing, pushing, pushing, until it is spinning at a crazy pace and you’re hanging on for dear life. If you’re looking out from the edge or the center, you see the world zipping by, and before long you’ve got that queasy feeling in your stomach.

Now here’s the trick about those merry-go-rounds: if you look in to the center as you’re spinning, rather than out at the world whirling past, you don’t get sick. Focus on the center, and what happens around you doesn’t affect you anywhere near as much.

It’s not just about merry go rounds, though. It works the same way for us in the midst of change…if we focus on what is important, then the spinning, whirring wheel of change doesn’t make us anywhere near as disoriented.

One of the great change agents of the last century, Mahatma Gandhi, said , “ I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a Living Power that is changeless, that holds all together, that creates, dissolves, and recreates. That informing Power…is God. And since nothing else I see merely through [my] senses can or will persist, He alone is.” He is talking about that kind of focus on what is really important, the center of our existence, which makes the wheel of change tolerable. We are looking inward to the center, not outward to the world whizzing by.

What is that center?

The Book of Revelation and Mahatma Gandhi agree on this:

The center is God dwelling among us, being with us in all things.

God wiping away every tear from our eyes, even in the midst of making all things new.

God at the center, helping us in the midst of change, comforting us when it feels too strange and new.

That’s particularly good news for us here at the Church by the Lakeside, where it probably feels like there has been nothing BUT change over the past couple of years. Different priests, different ways of doing things, worries about who would eventually be called to be your permanent priest, wondering about where God has been in this time of change.

God has been right here. Dwelling among you. Wiping tears from your eyes, smiling as you smile, nodding graciously as you worship, as you remain faithful to our covenant with the One who has given us life.

God has been right here, helping you to be patient. God has been other places, too, like my former parish, where I have served in a variety of ways for the past 2 ½ years, preparing me to be here with you. God was helping me to be patient as I wondered where I was meant to be.

For this parish, the past couple of years have been a ride on the merry-go-round. Lots of changes and lots of questions and lots of wishes that things would just settle down.

In one sense, my arrival marks a time of settling down. But being Christians means we do not necessarily settle, because God is always calling us to do and be something new.

We have dreams for this place, for welcoming others into this parish family, for finding fresh ways to serve God even as we honor the things we’ve been doing faithfully for a long time. But dreams sometimes mean moving out of the comfortable ways of the old Jerusalem to the surprising and different ways of the new Jerusalem. That’s what the apostle Peter was dreaming about in our reading from Acts earlier this morning…a religion that would bring together Jews and Gentiles without barriers or preferences, a radical concept in that time and place. That was their surprising and different new Jerusalem.

We do not fully know what our new Jerusalem will look like. I can tell you that it will start with prayer and thoughtful discussion of where God is leading us in this time and this place. I can also tell you that our work to discern that new Jerusalem will be open. It will be the work of the whole parish, not just me, and not just the Vestry. We will map our path to that new Jerusalem by focusing on the center, on the God who dwells among us and guides us, and wherever it leads us, God will be with us. Consider me your tour guide, who knows some of the key information you will need….but we will all be walking on the path together, and it will be good.

So we step onto that path, and prepare for change.

Not change simply for change’s sake, but transformation. Transformation into the new Jerusalem. If we allow God to transform us, and if we keep him at the center of what is to come, we will not get dizzy and disoriented. We will know better than ever before where we are going, and it will not frighten us, it will strengthen us.

So let us walk together, toward a future with a new Jerusalem. We are not alone. God dwells among us, this day and every day.