An Easter Vision for All
A sermon related to Rev. 21:1-5a
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. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a wedding partner adorned for the wedding. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and the Holy One will be with them; 4 God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ 5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new...’
For the Word in Scripture
For the Word among us
For the Word within us
Thanks be to God
When things are tough, how do we know it’s going to turn out?
How do we stay the course and keep hope?
When problems seem so large, how do we keep going?
When you are young and wondering how to find your place and deal with the big world, how do you keep confidence and seek direction?
When you are old and life is short, where do you look for meaning and possibility?
This year, I’ll turn 59.
Might sound young to some, old to others.
But it sure makes me reflect on more than half a century of living;
highs and lows, mistakes and learning, growth and gratitude.
Yet, in all my years, I’ve never seen a couple of years like our last two. What about you?
We’ve had a new worldwide pandemic, the old pandemic of racism unveiled anew to many, the increasing effects of climate change seen in hurricanes and wildfires, armed white vigilantes in the streets and the Capitol, even in grocery stores.
But if you think the last couple of years have been tough to view, it can’t compete with the biblical vision we know as The Revelation received by the anonymous author we refer to as John. John’s vision has beasts, a sea monster, plagues, horses of multiple colors, the archangel Michael fighting a red dragon, a giant pit, a pregnant woman, and a day of God’s wrath.
Likely in a trance or non-ordinary state of consciousness, John saw and recorded this vision. It is not for the faint of heart nor is it for simple literal interpretation. And there is a lot of lousy interpretation out there that claims The Revelation of John as its verification; end of the world stuff predicting dates and events and such. It’s generally poor Bible analysis and bad theology.
The Revelation is best approached with humility and a good understanding of Hebrew symbols and Hebrew prophecy. Seen this way, Revelation can become what it was for the people of John’s time and for many Christians over the centuries;
an inspiring, encouraging vision that helped them in bad times to keep going, to faithfully resist empire and the false gods of society.
Indeed, The Revelation received by John was an underdog story that served them as they faced tough challenges and big questions of history and of their lives.
As the last book of the Bible, it is a kind of symbolic end, not necessarily in the sense of time ending, but of purpose, the telos, the end toward which we travel, the meaning of history and life. Of that which is symbolic of that time, we know that John was referring to the Roman empire as the beast and anti-Christ Presence. The Pax Romana, the dominating peace of Rome, that way of empire was not the Peace of Christ. John knew that. The early Christians knew that.
So those early followers and communities of Christ were called to live differently, to resist the way of Caesar and choose the way of Jesus. But when Rome is so big, when the system seems so pervasive, or even when life takes an unexpected and unwelcome turn, how do you do deal with that?
Many of the faithful looked to The Revelation of John as an alternative vision of what ultimate power was at play and trusted in that Divine power. Through this story, they rejected the conventional menu of what was inevitable and cultivated an alternative consciousness of what was possible. In this, they found hope.
Hebrew scholars like Walter Brueggemann and theologians like the late great James Cone will tell you that Pharoah and Caesar’s greatest power is the belief in their ultimate power and the limitation of possibility to change the status quo. There is nothing new in the empire. There is no different future, only anxiety about a different future (which might inspire something like Make Rome Great Again).
Maybe that is the genius of the Medieval Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart when he wrote: "God is the newest thing there is, the youngest thing there is. God is the beginning and, if we are united to God, we become new again."
Sound strange, God as the newest thing?
Maybe being part of a historic Protestant denomination and a congregation with institutional history and a solid brick building makes it harder for us to know the God who is always new. Maybe we relate more to God as a fixed external absolute, as the Ancient of Days. Or maybe we can attribute it to the repeated habits of heritage. (It is said that the last seven words of the church are “We have never done it that way.”)
Yet like the new births of that come to our congregation, God comes, too. Not just as the birther, as the mother, but as the new birth itself, as the new itself.
And new in Revelation means different.
Did you hear it in the Scripture passage read?
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; John said.
Both for those of the first centuries of the ancient near East and for us, the new heaven and the new earth has not come. This morning’s news from Buffalo, New York, and many mornings’ news tell us that. Pharoah, Caesar, demonic conscious and unconscious systems of domination still have power. And they take root in human souls such that violence against another person or group or country becomes a siren song, a tragic temptation, an illusion of solution: if only we or I could just get rid of or control this ‘other.’ Projecting inner tensions and fears and insecurities onto the ‘other’ and making them an enemy, a dehumanized object is as old as Cain and Abel and at the core of what keeps humanity alienated, in conflict, and out of step with Divine Love.
The Revelation of John is not without its troubling aspects, yet ultimately tells a new, alternative story where empire is not the last word nor the only possibility. Connecting with that Divine alternative vision is the beginning of liberation for us all. Through song, ritual, prayers, or art of this liberating story of reversal, where empire is not ultimate or final, we can connect to the power of the story of a new heaven and the new earth. We can anticipate its full coming by tasting and expressing and living it now. We can participate in its emergence now. We can live the new now, and in so doing allow its call to stay rooted in us and sustain us in the long arc of history.
And for those being crushed and exploited by the empire, whether the oppressive empires of history or the inner oppressions of the wounded soul, Good News comes when a new vision of possibility is made visible and, like communion, taken in, even if only in part. When this taste of inner liberation comes, hope comes, affirmation comes, and fortifies the spirit for endurance and for liberating action.
As Choctaw nation music artist Red Eagle raps in his song, “Still Here,”
Wounded Knee And we still here
Sand Creek And we still here
Cortez And we still here
Slavery And we still here
Small Pox And we still here
Boarding Schools And we still here
Damn it feels good to be a native
Damn it feels good to be a native
Good News comes to those who hear and trust the God who says ‘See, I am making all things new...’ even in the midst of empire, injustice, and violence.
It comes when you truly hear Jesus say ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first.’
It comes when you know that, even if in the short term of history, it looks like the forces of death and oppression are winning, you know the story of the Resurrected One who came in a lowly stable, lived with, taught, and healed the lowly ones, and who, dying with the lowly ones, conquered even the power of death.
As we continue in the resonance of Easter, our sacred image from John’s Revelation reminds us that we arrive together in the end in a New Heaven and a New Earth. It is an Easter vision for all people and for all Creation.
In the words of Lyla June, Navajo Nation artist in her song All Nations Rise
“this time, it isn’t Indians versus Cowboys. No. This time it is all the beautiful races of humanity together on the SAME side and we are fighting to replace our fear with LOVE. This time bullets, arrows, and cannon balls won’t save us. The only weapons that are useful in this battle are the weapons of truth, faith, and compassion.”
Truth, faith, and compassion. The alternative way of Jesus.
Cultivating and living in these ways are how we participate in the coming of this Easter Vision for All, God’s Beloved Community, a New Heaven and a New Earth. This is what we do to be an Easter People amidst times such as these. This is what we do to allow God to dwell with mortals, Immanuel.
Finally, a brief word for our graduates from Sister Ilia Delio, a Sister of St. Francis and Professor at Georgetown University who says,
God is always new; life is always new. Every end is a new beginning and every arrival, a new departure. There are no dead ends in life unless we ourselves die in despair.
For you graduates, I say do not despair, but have faith in the God who says
‘See, I am making all things new...’
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” Then the one seated on the throne said, “Look! I’m making all things new.” He also said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Then he said to me, “All is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will freely give water from the life-giving spring”. (Common English Bible)
I don’t often preach from Revelation, but this familiar passage transmits the vision of hope that we need in the midst of the pandemic. God will wipe away every tear, will dwell with us, DOES dwell with us through Christ, and invites us into partnership as co-creators of God’s realm.
I reread the whole of Revelation a couple of years ago, and it occurred to me that it actually reads like Harry Potter with all kinds of magical beasts, battles of good and evil, dark arts, and the rest. And it provides the beautiful vision that I just read.
The New Jerusalem probably isn’t going to descend from the clouds. In fact, I would claim that it is here, at least in part, for those who have eyes to see it. That vision of a new heaven and a new earth is the kingdom of God writ large. It is the realm that Jesus proclaimed in his preaching and that Luke’s gospel says is already among us. The eschaton, or the final chapter in God’s intention for us, could be violent battle (as described in Revelation) or it could be nonviolent, marked by justice and by peace. Which of those visions is congruent with Jesus’ vision for the world? Didn’t the kingdom of God he proclaimed begin with his pronouncement, and doesn’t it continue with us today? It is clearly not here in its fullness, but it is unfolding across the millennia.
I had an interesting email conversation with one of our members last week, and he appropriately challenged something I wrote in my reflection last Tuesday about seeing a world not of “us and them,” but that we all are “us.” And I think it is so easy to focus on the negatives in our culture (like people protesting against Larimer County’s Health Department, which is trying to keep us safe and alive). But there is more to the story. Aren’t we Christians called to faith, hope, and love? To love our enemies? Even in the face of violence, that is the story I try to live out, if for no other reason, it feels deeply right, and helps build a tiny piece of the kingdom…maybe just the size of a Lego brick, but many bricks build God’s realm. And we need everyone to add a brick.
This is what our mission statement at Plymouth says about that: “It is our mission to worship God and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people individually and collectively. We do this by inviting, transforming, and sending.” Making God’s realm visible. That’s at the crux of John’s vision of a New Jerusalem.
If you are here this morning or watching online, somehow, you have been invited. Someone told you about Plymouth, or you were invited by our website or a Google search or by our sign on Prospect or Lake Street. Somehow, you’ve been invited in, and invited to eat at Christ’s table.
At some point or points in your life, or at some point in the future, the pattern of your life will be changed by your faith in God. That transformation may be subtle, or it may be a lightning bolt or a two-by-four applies to the side of your head by the movement of the Holy Spirit. It may mean being born again…and again…and again. Think for a moment: How has your life been transformed, or how do you want it to be transformed?
And you have been or will be sent forth to engage others in the spread of God’s realm of justice, peace, and love. The word mission has as its Latin root the noun missio, which means “sending.” Mission is the third component part of Plymouth’s mission statement: getting out there and doing God’s work.
Some of that is what you heard Bobbi describe this morning, and it is something you can support at our Alternative Giving Fair on November 21…just two weeks away! There are all kinds of ways that you can be a part of sending support from Plymouth across the world or down the block in support of mission. (And none of this Christmas gift-giving will be affected by container-ship backups at ports in California.)
There are also all kinds of ways that your regular giving to Plymouth supports our mission: Your gifts made our livestream possible. And we even supported smaller congregations in the Rocky Mountain Conference with simple video broadcast equipment as the pandemic broke out. Plymouth is the largest donor to the Interfaith Council of Fort Collins, (which supports many community organizations) and to Our Church’s Wider Mission, which supports the justice work of the national church, In the Mud grants throughout the conference, as well as new programs and staff in antiracism.
And we have hands-on opportunities for making a difference as well, whether through Habitat builds, being a Stephen Minister, supplying international students with furnishings, working for sane gun laws and immigration reform, or helping with the Giving Fair. Next month, our teens will again be sleeping out on Plymouth’s front lawn…last year they raised over $30,000 for homelessness prevention.
One of the pitfalls that some of us may fall into is in thinking that we have to do it all…that saving the world is our job alone. Of course, that isn’t realistic, and it’s also not theologically sound. When Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is among you,” he is using the second person plural, and if he was from the South, he’d have said, “The kingdom of God is among Y’ALL!” Being a co-creator of the realm of God isn’t primarily about what I do, but about what WE do together. Plymouth cannot answer all the needs of Fort Collins, so our focus tends to be on areas that other congregations cannot or will not do. Clearly not every congregation will address LGBTQ concerns, immigration justice, housing insecurity, or gun violence…but we do! We do the work that others can’t or won’t.
Our new Strategic Plan talks about us embodying Beloved Community and building new bridges to the community, especially to CSU. That is mission! Even in the midst of a pandemic, we are continuing to work for God’s realm in larger and smaller ways.
One of our late members, Bob Calkins, was a warm and wise man. Whenever I tended to over-complicate things theologically, he would say, “Hal, it’s all about LOVE.” I still hear him saying that to me when I get caught up in the details. And “sending” is about showing and sharing our love.
Valerie Kaur, a wise Sikh writer and civil rights activist, says, “Love is more than a feeling. Love is a form of sweet labor: fierce, bloody, imperfect, and life-giving — a choice we make over and over again. If love is sweet labor, love can be taught, modeled, and practiced. This labor engages all our emotions. Joy is the gift of love. Grief is the price of love. Anger protects that which is loved. And when we have reached our limit, wonder is the act that returns us to love. Revolutionary love is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves in order to transform the world around us.”
You and I don’t have to do it all. We have companions on this journey, and we have God with us every step of the way to guide us, love us, give us hope. You don’t have to do it all by yourself. You just need to take your Lego brick and find a way to put it to good use in building God’s realm.
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 Luke 17.20
 Valerie Kaur, See No Stranger (NY: One World, 2020), p. xv.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
All Saints Sunday
Plymouth Congregational UCC, Fort Collins, CO
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Will you pray with me? O God, may the words of my mouth and the meditations, the artwork, the expressionism of all of our hearts in response to your Word, this Totenfest morning, be good and pleasing to you and healing for your people. Amen.
Last Sunday was Reformation Sunday when we celebrated the 500 years of the Reformation in the Church, so today it is proper and right for me to begin my sermon by quoting Martin Luther from his preface to a 1522 translation of the New Testament. In it he says of the Book of Revelation, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book. For me this is reason enough not to think highly of it: Christ is neither taught nor known in it.”1 Martin Luther’s reaction to Revelation was not unique. Zwingli, another parent of the Reformation, also sternly rejected The Book of Revelation, although neither succeeded in removing it from the cannon. There is a reason for that.
This is one of those complex texts, not a comforting or easy narrative, not a story or a letter, but a volatile and even dangerous one when misunderstood or misused, which it often is in our time. This is because it emerged from the School or Community of John, but many years after the death of the Apostles and Gospel writers. Rather, it is attributed to a later John—John the Divine. Isn’t that an awesome name! We can surmise from the context, language, and historical references that in response to persecution, death, and even hunger. It is, by every definition, an apocalypse. As such, it bears the weight, the burden, the pain, the anguish, and the torture in the face of oppression, fear, and loss. It was written as a tableau of grief in search of hope for a community and a people in pain. An apocalypse in Biblical literature is always a response to a Totenfest of sorts.
Rather than reading the Revelation literally, for that is always a grave mistake with Biblical apocalyptic literature, we must hold it up to the light of paradigm, metaphor, and human experience… painted in words and story fragments. The Book of Revelation is the raw, pure, and complex experience of being human and facing death transformed into a non-linear story. Again, this book is a painting of grief and loss.
Speaking of paintings, how many of you have ever been to a modern art museum? If you haven’t, Denver has one of the best with the Clyfford Still Museum—which I recommend. Still was an abstract expressionist artist rooted in philosophy that kept most of his work as one ensemble and offered it in its entirety to any city, upon his death, willing to build him an art museum. Guess what? Denver did it. This museum inspired my sermon.
Today, in Biblical terms we are journeying into Scripture’s Museum of Modern Art. We are entering together into the literary space shared by John the Divine (author of The Book of Revelation) and the Bauhaus movement, abstract expressionism, modernism, surrealism, pointillism, and post-modern artwork. Saint John the Divine was the original abstract expressionist. When we encounter modern art, like encountering the apocalyptic literature, we must assume a couple of things:
1. Feelings and our responses matter
2. Pay attention to the metaphors, the colors, and the big picture rather than getting lost in the details—it is the composition that counts
3. It is in response to a world that is no longer explainable, relatable, and understandable with simple story.
Abstract Expressionism emerged in the speechlessness and horror of a post World War II world, much like the communities who wrote Biblical apocalypse. Pictures of flowers and stories will no longer do. We again live in such a world where words and images have reached their limit of rational expression.
I love this—I feel like I am teaching an art history class.
Put simply in artistic terms: When encountering The Book of Revelation, think Jackson Pollock rather than Rembrandt. While the Gospels and the letters of Paul are images we easily can relate to with story and personalities we understand (love 'em or hate 'em), learning to love the Book of Revelation is much like learning to understand modern or abstract expressionist artwork. It is not to be taken literally but symbolically and artistically. Again, think of Jackson Pollock rather than Rembrandt. Think of Salvador Dali rather than Monet. Think of Clyfford Still or Mondrian rather than Michael Angelo.
One of my professors, Dr. Carl Holladay, writes, “Counterbalancing [the] negative reactions [to it] is Revelation’s influence on the church through music and art. Some of the most memorable choruses from Handel’s Messiah are drawn from Revelation, even as it has inspired some of the most memorable works of visual art through the centuries…Its ‘Splendiferous [a great word… splendiferous] imagery’ captured the imagination of poets, artists, writers in every age and from every quarter. Any assessment of Revelation must account for this aesthetic dimension of the work and its lasting legacy.”2 When we read Revelation, we are called to respond with the creative side of our souls, which I know can push our limits as Congregationalists. When we read Revelation, we are allowed [given permission] to be artists dealing in the delicate space of grief, bereavement, loss, death, and finally the light of hope.
So I am going to read the passage for today again [while emphasizing the colors and imagery that emerge for me in my reading], and I want you to pay attention to color, to metaphor, and to what makes your heart jump: words, colors, phrases, etc. I also invite you to close your eyes and visualize the painting of emotions that John the Divine is painting with words. Let us be artists:
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation [rainbow], from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches [green] in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels stood around the throne [gold] and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood [red] of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne [gold] of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun [yellow] will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water [clear blue] of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
What do you see? How do you feel? We have had the beauty of The Book of Revelation, its powerful imagery, and ability to bring peace taken away from us by those in the Christian faith who want to interpret it as a literal apocalypse of the future and use it to draw fear into their followers. Rather, I believe for today’s reader it is painting an abstract picture of what it means to face loss and death for each of us in our lives. It is a picture of all our daily deaths and mini apocalypses.
Since there isn’t enough time to dig into all of the images, although I will point out the use of color in this passage for today, I want to draw you attention to just one image, one that I will point out is unique to the Book of Revelation, which might surprise us. So many of us, like Luther, say we dislike this book, but in it are some of the images we hold most dear in our faith and in healing ministry. This is an image that we know and see in popular Christianity, we have heard, but maybe we have not thought much about or located before in Scripture.
Verse 17: “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd and he will guide them to springs of the water of life and God will wipe away every tear from their eye.” And God will wipe away every tear from their eye.
This imagery is unique to Revelation, and it is so important that it is repeated again in Revelation 21: 4, “‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
The word in Greek translated as “wipe away” is moreover only used to mean specifically “wipe away” in this way only two times in the whole Bible, and they are these two instances in Revelation. The Book of Revelation is unique in this motif and the intimate, kind, and lovingly familiar image of God here.
This is gut-wrenchingly intimate. Have you ever wiped away someone’s tears while he or she is crying, weeping, or morning? [Gesture to face to imitate the wiping of tears.] I mean have you ever reached over with a tissue and actually wiped away a tear? Or have you ever had someone else wiping away a tear for you? This is something that maybe some of us have never experienced. This is God at God’s most intimate, familiar, gentle in a time of great mourning. Here, at the conclusion of the Bible, we have journeyed from the Book of Genesis with a God or collection of gods (depending on how you read Genesis) who punish and don’t want names known or said, to here… here… a God who wipes away tears from a multitude too large to count. What a journey it has been. Here at the conclusion of the cannon, while often misinterpreted as a book of violence and misread by Evangelicals as an instruction manual for the end of the world, really it is an abstraction on the theme of loss and hope: contrasts and colors.
A God who wipes away tears is a God who is familiar with us. A God who reaches out with the comfort of touch is a God who knows and feels our pain. The tableau presented here in this abstract expressionist apocalypse is a complex image of life, death, pain and yes a glimmer of hope.
We find ourselves on this Totenfest or Death Sunday at the end of the Biblical cannon, in the midst of a confusing and complex artistic interpretation of the pain and the fear of an ancient people in a time that could not be explained with a story or a narrative or a letter or a poem. Only one genre will do: abstract apocalypse. We are offered something unfamiliar: colors, imagery—raw emotions of a community in free-fall. Yet, despite all of that, God comes through the dizzying array of colors, themes, metaphors and similes… and smiles, reaches out for our faces and again wipes away our tears.
I revel in being able to say this: Martin Luther was wrong, at least in this case. Today, only a week after Reformation Sunday, Martin Luther misses the point and the mark entirely. Revelation doesn’t point necessarily directly to Christ, but rather it paints pictures of the deepest struggles, fears, isolation, loss, mini apocalypses, and ongoing deaths and struggles we all face. Revelation paints a picture of grace and hope with color, with art, and with God’s hand reaching through the storms of the centuries past and yet to come to wipe a tear from the faces of God’s beloved one: you.
We remember those we have lost (our saints) friends and beloved. We also today remember the little deaths we all face every day when we know we aren’t living the lives we thought we were promised. When work is unfulfilling or political. When a child you helped raise and love, perhaps a son or daughter, turns and says something hateful. When we face loneliness and isolation. What parts of you/ yourself are you mourning the death of? Whatever the answer to these questions, God emerges in a revelation of hope in the midst of darkness to wipe away every every every every tear.
This is what I see for God’s people, for you, in the abstract expressionism of our reading for today from The Book of Revelation.
1 Carl R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning
2 Carl R. Holladay, A Critical Introduction to the New Testament: Interpreting the Message and Meaning
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.