“Alpha and Omega”

Diana Butler Bass, a scholar of religion and culture, writes: “At first glance, Mother’s Day appears a quaint and conservative holiday, a sort of greeting card moment, honoring 1950s values, a historical throw back to old-fashioned notions of hearth and home.” In fact, she explains, President Wilson established this holiday in 1914 in response to pressure from “radical Protestant women [who] had been agitating for a national Mother’s Day hoping that it would further a progressive political agenda that favored issues related to women’s lives.

… Julia Ward Howe … expressed this hope in her 1870 prose-poem, ‘A Mother’s Day Proclamation’”. She wrote: Arise then…women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts! Whether your baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly…”Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice. Blood does not wipe our dishonor, Nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil At the summons of war, Let women now leave all that may be left of home For a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace… Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diana-butler-bass/radical-history-of-mothers-day_b_3259326.html?utm_hp_ref=religion)

The book of Revelation, too, is a call for the great human family to live in peace as inhabitants of a renewed earth, a restored Eden, a bountiful urban garden. God’s own presence powers this holy city, this new Jerusalem. From the heart of God’s radiance pours the river of life. The tree of life roots itself beside the river. Like Julia Ward Howe’s poem, today’s passage issues a summons to resist and renounce Caesar’s rule of violent of oppression. “Happy are they who wash their robes so as to have free access to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates.” Christopher Rowland interprets this verse, saying: “In Revelation 7:14, [the washing of robes] has been done in the blood of the Lamb, probably indicating the witness of those who have stood firm in the face of the threat of the state beast [that is, Rome].” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 2, p. 535)

The next verse names those who will be exiled from the holy city. It’s language is so harsh that the lectionary, or cycle of readings, omits this verse. “Outside [the city] are the dogs… the sorcerers, fornicators, murderers, idolaters and the deceitful” Ouch! Some scholars suggest the dogs are male prostitutes; others say they are a certain brand of Greek philosophers; still others think it is an anti-Jewish reference. Whatever the original meaning of this word, it’s clearly not a nice thing to call somebody; it’s a term laced with disrespect, prejudice, racism.

The Jesus I know told lots of stories about God’s incredible grace. God is like a parent who welcomes the prodigal home, like a shepherd who leaves the flock in danger to rescue the one sheep who is lost. The Jesus I know said “love your enemies”. BUT even as I stand by this all-inclusive God embodied in Jesus, who will not allow even one sparrow to perish, I know that there things in the world that need to end so that a new creation can emerge. As Mary Hinkle Shore puts it: “Please God let it be that the evil within and around us will in the end be defeated and put to death!” She concludes: “Rev. 22:15 gives us language to say that as Christians, we hope not to have to put up with perpetrating these practices [of evil] or being victimized by them for eternity!” (http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2004/05/small_lectionar.html)

I suspect that Revelation 22:15 is not meant to be interpreted literally. The whole book is, after all, a giant symbol, a puzzle. It is an encoded rant against empire, but for the safety of its writer and its readers, it needed to appear to be something else. Sorcery, idolatry, fornication, murder and deceit – I read these “sins” not as the transgressions of immoral individuals, but as crimes against humanity and the earth, crimes perpetrated by an ruthless system of world domination.

Last week we pondered together the Great Radiance (or the Big Bang) that set into motion the astounding process by which we were all born out of the dust of the stars. And I continue to wonder, who and what is God in this scientific and spiritual context of the universe? Is God in the energy of the process itself? Is God the spark that brought life into being in the oceans? Is God the coherence of our planet’s climate system which creates the necessary conditions for life to continue? Is God to be found in the numeric patterning that shapes all things? It’s all speculation on my part. And yet it is clear to me that the old bearded man in the clouds has got to go. We must understand any anthropomorphic picture of God to be a metaphor.

If we are thinking about God in new ways, perhaps we also have to shift our understandings about sin and evil. What if we stopped defining these concepts in such individualistic terms? Surely what the Boston bombers did was evil, pure and simple and they should face a reckoning for their actions. But might I also be judged for my sins against the planet, its creatures, and my fellow humans? The bottom line is that as a member of the household of planet earth, I consume way more than my fair share of our collective resources. It is killing those with whom I share this home, just as surely as a pipe bomb would.

It’s been a big week. The MN House of Representatives voted for the freedom to marry. And we reached 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. From the New York Times: The level of the most important heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere, carbon dioxide, has passed a long-feared milestone… Scientific instruments showed that the gas had reached an average daily level above 400 parts per million — just an odometer moment in one sense, but also a sobering reminder that decades of efforts to bring human-produced emissions under control are faltering…. China is now the largest emitter, but Americans have been consuming fossil fuels extensively for far longer, and experts say the United States is more responsible than any other nation for the high level…. Countries have adopted an official target to limit the damage from global warming, with 450 parts per million seen as the maximum level compatible with that goal. “Unless things slow down, we’ll probably get there in well under 25 years,” said Ralph Keeling [Director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography]. Yet many countries, including China and the United States, have refused to adopt binding national targets.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/11/science/earth/carbon-dioxide-level-passes-long-feared-milestone.html)

The marriage vote gives us hope: we “washed our robes”, bravely and effectively resisting the powers of oppression by telling our personal and prophetic stories. Climate change calls us to remove our training wheels, and take our hope on the road, committing ourselves to another, far more difficult journey of courage and witness and change. My understanding of the science of our universe is that nothing is ever lost, only transformed. And the process of change is constant; it is life itself. Out of pure energy, matter is made. Stars forge elements and explode, giving birth to new stars and to planets. Life once brewed in a soup of a lifeless elements. When life comes to an end, the elements that contained life return to earth to become a new life.

Perhaps the right question to ask is not: will you or I, or the Boston bombers, be exiled from God’s holy city, given what we have done? Maybe the point of chapter 22, verse 15, is that one part of God’s process of life’s unfolding is the untangling of the world from the harmful ways of empire, from the sicknesses that result when the earth lives in bondage to oppressive visions of power. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” In other words, God, mother universe, encompasses all. Even our sin and evil gets put to use, recycled. It becomes compost, to feed the radiance of a restored earth. Come, then, “Let us solemnly take counsel with one another as to the means Whereby the great human family can live in peace… Each bearing after our own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar, But of God” Amen.