Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn
After [these things] I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches 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 and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshipped God,12singing, ‘Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honour and power and might be to our God for ever 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 of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne 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 will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the centre 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 eyes.’
“After these things” are the first words we hear in today’s reading from the book of Revelation. “After these things” are words that now adequately describe our life after bombs have gone off at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.
It was a shameful crime, and an evil act. Make no mistake about it, evil lurked in the hearts of those who killed and maimed people in Boston last week. There is such a thing as evil. I have said that from this pulpit before, and, I fear, I will have to say it again…because evil exists! It hijacks the will of people who forget who they are and whose they are.
Now, our inquisitive minds tempt us to wonder how evil ever gained a foothold in God’s divine economy. I know that temptation… and I know it leads to a byzantine labyrinth of subtlety and nuance and innuendo that take us nowhere. It is enough to know that evil enjoys the shadows of ambiguity, where it lives and lurks waiting to steal the souls of one who has forgotten who they are or whose they are.
Christianity confronts evil. Christianity shines light. Christianity does this by remembering three core things. First, we are God’s children, known and loved, made from love to be beloved; that is our nature. Second, we each have a unique, particular, specific, and important relationship with God, we were made with forethought, purpose and intent. There are no accidental people. As noted by the prophet Jeremiah, “God thought of each of us even before we were conceived in the womb” (Jer 1:5). And third, we are eternal beings, which means death holds no dominion over us. So, we are beloved. We are unique. We are eternal. And the final note, so is everyone else. Everyone is included in the Kingdom of God.
It is a tough concept to hold in mind, particularly when unholy men set off the bombs in Copley Square.
Today we are given the book of Revelation as a divine gift through which to gain context for the situation we, as a nation, now find ourselves in. Some avoid this final book in the bible because of its wild imagery and complexity.
But I believe it meets us where we are. The text begins with the words “After these things…” and ends with “God will wipe away every tear.” And in the middle we find ourselves passing through the great ordeal, which now includes bombings in Boston.
It is the great ordeal that I want to preach about this morning. The King James Bible translates it as the great tribulation. The Greek word for tribulation is thlipsis, which means both affliction, but also the pressing together.
Pressing together is what happens when a crisis hits a community. Things seem smaller, we feel closer to one another, and we see connections, when we are pressed together, that we didn’t know existed before:
1. I didn’t know that two parishioners were at the Boston Marathon.
2. I didn’t know a parishioner’s son was friends with a woman who ran the race and was then killed by the bomb.
3. I didn’t know my sister had three close friends there, until she told me about their experience of the blast.
When a great ordeal comes along we are pushed together and the hope is we become kinder toward one another, and more charitable, and more gracious. To be gracious is to accept the grace of God, and then let it spill over onto others.
It is this grace, provoked by tribulation, that neutralizes evil in the world. Grace is the divine counter punch, if you will, that calls forth from our souls the sure and certain truth that those against whom our lives are pressed in a moment of tribulation are, like us, beloved, unique and eternal.
When I think of grace, I think of John Newton. You may recall him as the slave trader turned Anglican priest who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
He experienced a grace that moved through his soul as he was pressed against a mass of humanity buried in the hull of the slave ship he captained across the Middle Passage. A great evil indeed, provoked an even greater grace, an amazing grace which called him to be a new man and help change the world.
It was evil cloaked in ambiguity and nuance that allowed the slave trade to perpetuate itself for so long. Evil subtlety dehumanizes the other, in a way justifiable to the person that packs people in the hull of a cargo ship, or leaves a backpack full of explosives at a crowded intersection.
Grace intervenes. It did in the heart of John Newton.
I imagine he heard in the deepest recesses of his soul the words of the elder, we hear today from the Book of Revelation…“Who are these people John Newton and where have they come from?” To which he responded, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” The elder then replies, “These are they who have come from the great ordeal. For this reason they are before the altar of God. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more, and the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
This too is true for those who were snatched from our presence at the finish line in Boston. And the space they vacated acts like a black hole, pulling us, pressing us together as if by some unseen force.
Everyone is touched by tribulation at some point, in fact, at many points throughout his life. Evil is unrelenting in its efforts to draw us into a byzantine labyrinth of subtlety and nuance and innuendo in a way that causes us to forget who we are and whose we are.
Grace is the countervailing force. Like evil, grace is also set upon us. Like evil, grace is also received by choice, our choice. Like evil, grace can also change the world. The difference is grace comes from God.
We will not eradicate evil, any more than we will be the generative force of grace. Our power is not as reproductive agents of evil or grace. They just exist. They just are. Our power comes from what we take on and pass on when we are pressed through times of tribulation.
When we accept grace and let it overflow from our life like living water, evil is diminished. We thwart evil not by seeking to destroy it, but by turning away from it; and by knitting our souls together in a common powerful bond that leaves evil dehydrated… withering on the vine. Evil cannot prevail against the unified force of God’s children.
We see the power of union at work in the way Dzhokar was captured. There was a common goal; there was a unity of spirit. People obeyed, they communicated, they stayed still, and were helpful. And in the end evil was isolated and alone, withering on the vine. Evil cannot prevail against the united children of God.
Union is a decision, however. At Epiphany we make this choice, each week by fully turning our back on evil and our faces towards God. That is the point of liturgy, and the specific act of liturgy that draws us into union happens around the communion table. It is a meal for the soul and everyone is invited to eat. Does that mean everybody? Even those who have acted as agents of evil? Even Dzhokar and his brother? And all I can say is “I hope so.” For the sake of my own soul, “I hope so,” for there have been times when I too have forgotten who I am and whose I am.
The book of Revelation, contrary to common perception, supports this point. It answers the question: “Who is this great multitude that comes to the altar of God?” Chapter five replies by saying… “those for whom Christ died.” Chapter six gives a different answer… “those who witnessed the work of evil.” Chapter seven says…”those who make up the great multitude.” Chapter fourteen has two answers…“those who are baptized” and “those who have been sacrificed by the evil done by others.” Finally, chapter nineteen sums it all up by answering the question: “Who is this great multitude gathered around the table of God?” “Everybody,” is the response, “all those who are both great and small.”
It is the answer we’d expect given that God loves us, and has a plan for us, and created us for eternity.
The table is our common point of orientation. It is where the absent presence of Christ draws us by the unseen force of grace, pressing us through a space that washes away the evil of tribulation. The Eucharist is a foretaste of an eternal, amazing grace.
But grace is a choice, first and foremost, accepted when we say: “I am beloved and unique and eternal and so are you.” And when we shout this from the mountaintop of our lives, the echo we hear back is: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!”
And the elder asks: “Who are these robed in white?” And then responds, “They are you, for you have been pressed through the great tribulation. The Lamb is at the center of the throne and will be your shepherd, and he will guide you to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear.”