Singing the Victory of God

Sermon Scripture Text: Revelation 18:21-24, 19:1-9

Audio Here, preached at Peace Fellowship Church on August 20, 2017.

For many of us, Revelation is the last book of the Bible we turn to for comfort. Oh sure, we may hear a reassuring word at a funeral (like Ch. 7—“God will wipe away every tear”) or the vision from the end of the book of the new heavens and new earth, Chapter21. But I would venture to guess that few of us look to Revelation for questions about the rest of life.

For understandable reasons, many of us avoid this book like the 6th plague (that’s a Revelation joke—seeing if you’re paying attention. You didn’t know Revelation could be funny, did you?). Or, for other people, they have maybe made too much of it, offering it as a kind of playbook or movie script for the so-called “end times.” Some have even made a big profit from an industry that relies on a certain, narrow, interpretation of it—Left Behind, Late Great Planet Earth, and the like.

For me, I also avoided reading it for most of my life. I remember in 8th or 9th grade, I was in a Bible Study through my church youth group, led by other youth, and we talked about choosing Revelation for our book of study one year. I came home and told my dad about this idea, and he immediately vetoed it, explaining that it was a complicated book that needed a careful, trained guide in order to understand. So I steered clear of it for the most part for a long time out of a kind of fear that I was not ready to comprehend its message.

Yet, sometime after college, my same father wrote such a guide to Reading Revelation well—Responsibly—with an eye to literary genre, political issues of the time, and other important guide posts to make it seem less unreachable, and more like Scripture, meaning a text through which we believe the Holy Spirit can breathe new life into us with each reading. For if a part of our Bible has become unreadable, scary, foreign, then it has stopped being Scripture. It can go on the shelf with books like James Joyce’s Ulysses. (Anyone who has ever read that book knows it needs its own companion guide to understand!).

Since I helped my dad index the book, I had to read it, and I found myself opened in a new way to the message of the Apocalypse. Since then, I have come regard it as the unsung hero of the New Testament—the only book of almost entirely prophetic literature in the NT, who fantastic images and scenes invite us to use our imagination as well to adopt a new imagination—an apocalyptic imagination. The word apocalypse means “unveiling,” and it implies—by definition at least–not the “end of times” but rather that the curtain between the spiritual realm and our earthly realm has been pulled back for a glimpse into deeper forces—both good and evil—at work in our world. An apocalyptic imagination, therefore, invites us to look at our lives, individually and communally, as a part of a deeper struggle, and in the mind of Revelation, a truer victory, than may be immediately apparent. Revelation is like the Matrix—taking the red pill—to see with different lenses. (Sorry—have I missed the boat on Matrix references? Is that so 2005?) Revelation invites us to understand that God has, is, and will defeat evil. Let me re-say that: Revelation is the unequivocal assertion that God has defeated, is defeating, and will defeat evil once and for all. Amen? In short, Revelation presents the answer to the problem of evil. In your life, you may be asking, or have asked, ‘Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be until your justice comes?” like the faithful saints in Revelation 9. Revelation’s Lamb says, “Behold I am coming soon.”

At a basic level, there are TWO prevailing themes in Revelation.

1) God is forever. God is described as the Alpha and Omega; the one who was, is, and is to come. The first and Last. Ancient of Days. God shares the throne with the Lamb who was slaughtered, who was found worthy because he was slaughtered, because his power is expressed not by might, but by humble sacrifice. This is significant—any other fantastic images of the Lamb or Jesus in Revelation are rooted in—not contradicting—this first and most crucial image of the Lion-who-is-slaughtered-Lamb in Chapter 4 is an unusual conqueror. He conquers through self-giving love.

By contrast, evil in its many forms, is not forever. The language of Revelation is the impending end of all sickness, oppression, war, persecution. Whether it takes the form of a dragon, beasts, economic injustice ,plagues, sickness, racism, sexism, classism, nationalism, colonialism,  (someone say Amen?)—its days are officially numbered when the kingdom of God begins to take over the authority given to kings of the earth (chapters 11 and 12 in Revelation) and, as it so beautifully says in 11:15: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.” Some might know this as the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah.

Revelation addresses many kinds of evil, but the root issue throughout is idolatry, which leads to the second basic theme: true worship of God and the Lamb. Why is Revelation so concerned with the sin of idolatry? What does idolatry mean? Idolatry, generally, is giving worship or allegiance to other things or gods besides the true God and Lamb. In a literal sense, people during John the Seer’s day (who wrote Revelation) were literally worshiping statues of Greek and Roman gods, the emperor himself, all sorts of things. Christians were constantly struggling with their own relationship to these gods and the often debaucherous cult of worship that surrounded them at temples. On the one hand, John is speaking about a particularly specific and dangerous idea. Yet, idolatry means more than just conscious worship or homage to a statue.

Throughout the Old Testament, idolatry is seen as the fundamental sin of Israel. Whether in the Garden of Eden (giving deference to the Serpent— it is no coincidence that Revelation uses a giant serpent/dragon to represent the Satan), the golden calf at Mt. Sinai, or the worship of Baal and other foreign gods, God’s people have tended to let other things take the place of YHWH. In a big picture kind of way, idolatry is at the heart of all sin. So in Revelation, John is showing that a particular kind of idolatry is at work in the world: evil, in the form of a dragon and his beast minions is trying to get people to worship them, pay them homage, and give allegiance that is due God alone (makes you stop and wonder about all those who criticize Colin Kapernick and others for not standing during the National Anthem). This idolatry is especially subtle as it comes through the nations, those tasked with to protecting and caring for the people have deceived them into giving their loyalty and trust in their sovereignty alone. Those who participate in and perpetuate its unjust economy (a mark on the forehead or wrist) are also committing idolatry. God is not deceived. John then uses the graphic imagery of “fornication” for Babylon, which is the embodiment of all the wickedness of the Beasts. Babylon fornicates with other kings and nations instead of being faithful to YHWH. Our text today contrasts the faithful church against the adulterous Babylon. Babylon of course is the land of exile that Israel dwelt in—the land of Baal, of idolatry, where God’s presence does not dwell. By using metaphoric imagery and coded language (Babylon instead of Rome, for instance, or Beast instead of Nero), the people and places are universal, calling for “a mind with wisdom,” to use John’s phrase, to see Babylon as any nation or institution that places itself at odds with God’s just and merciful ways. Just like Babylon can be any city or nation that oppresses, or demands allegiance and power, so too can dragons be any leaders or powers that push for war, racism, violence, hatred, and the temptation to idolatry can take any number of forms. This is one place where apocalyptic imagination is so vital.

Of course, the other side of idolatry is genuine, true worship of the only one who is worthy, and Revelation gives us almost 2 dozen explicit instances of worship in the form of proclamation and song. These songs and proclamations are sung by a variety of characters that I am today calling the “Heavenly Choir,” though there are some distinct subsets within this mass choir. This choir acts in many ways like the choruses of ancient Greek tragedies—they are always in the background of the drama, responding to events and people who appear. Yet in style, they’re more like a gospel choir, participating in a kind of “call and response” mode. Brian Blount calls the worship in Revelation a “Spiritual-Blues impulse,” meaning that over and over, the sung praises of God erupt responsively.

It blew my mind when I realized just how much worship is part of Revelation. It was always pitched to me as a scary story about judgment and plagues and God ruthlessly destroying enemies of God. Those things are in there—though not with the fear and cruelty that is often gleefully trumpeted—but far, far more prevalent are the songs of adulation, joy, adoration, and just praise of who God is.  (It is an interesting literary aside that those who worship the beast are never given a voice—we don’t know the “lyrics” to their idolatrous praise. In fact, the only voices, until the passage of text directly related to the one at hand for us today, we hear belong to God or God’s faithful. )

I see this call-and-response choir in 3 ways:

  1. Responding to God’s character: Especially in Chapters 4 and 5, there are these different groups of people that praise God simply because God is creator. God is worthy of worship because of who God is: the Creator. The Lamb is worthy of worship because he has been slaughtered and ransomed people from every nation to God.

2. Responding to other Saints: Often the songs of worship come in response to other groups singing. As we see in our text today, there is sometimes a domino effect: one group starts singing, then another chimes in, and then another, and then an “Amen.”

3.Responding to What God Does: Remember that Revelation is the story of God’s past, present, and future victory over evil. Different parts of this “heavenly choir” witness God gain some victory over evil and they respond in song and worship. Listen to the words from Chapter 19:3 (after Babylon has fallen): Once more they said, “Hallelujah! The smoke rises from her forever!” It’s like God’s victory is the “Call,” and worship is the “response.” And it almost feels like someone said, “Can I get an Amen?” because the next thing we hear is, “Amen, Hallelujah!” And then the multitude calls back, “Hallelujah! The Lord Almighty reigns!”

Singing the Victory with our Lives

Brothers and sisters, Revelation is not the script of the “end times,” but it is a kind of script in that it invites us to participate in the divine drama of salvation. We’ve been cast, as a community, as God’s people, as the “choir.” Our text today invites us and challenges us to think about what that means:

This specific passage is in response to the “fall of Babylon.” We see the response first of those who mourn Babylon’s defeat in Chapter 18:  First the kings and nations who benefited from her sins: “Alas, alas!” Then the Merchants and those who got rich off her oppression of others, weep and wail at the loss of its splendor. Then the sailors and those who carried the so-called Greatness of Babylon to others throw dust on their heads and ask, “What city was like the great city!” They might have said Make Babylon Great Again.  This is the city that we are told, had become a dwelling place of demons, a haunt of every foul spirit, a ruiner of other nations. This is the city God’s people are told to come out of, to steer clear of its sins.

When Babylon receives its defeat, its ill-gained riches lost, its finery and excess wealth destroyed, are the people told to feel sorry? No, they are told, rejoice! Rejoice that Babylon has fallen!

Revelation challenges us to wonder if we’re rooting for Babylon to win. Do we stand to gain, like merchants and sailors and kings, from Babylon? This Babylon will fall, whatever it is. It may be the nicest Babylon the world has ever known, but it is still Babylon. It may not be a violent fall—let’s pray not—but it will fall. Unjust leaders will be brought down; systemic racism will end; Mass Incarceration will end; Unjust over-consumption will be over. Revelation tells us that all Babylons will fall, but then turns and asks us, “Will you weep with the merchants or rejoice with the angels?”

This passage, like others in Chapters 14-16 is worship of God in response to God’s victory over evil. The choir are literal witnesses of God’s justice. They erupt in joy and praise, claiming God’s sovereignty, God’s authority, over all. They are songs of testimony. We are invited to sing our songs in response to God’s goodness, God’s character, yes, but just as much to respond to God’s justice. Do we have songs that proclaim this victory? Do we sing them with confidence of their truth?

This should tell us that our weekly worship services are not merely social gatherings, they are not merely affirmation gatherings, where we tell each other we’re not crazy. No, they have a participatory nature: when we worship, our songs become a corporate shout-down of evil, because we know God has already won the battle! Revelation is filled with this funny tension—knowing that God has already claimed victory in the Lamb who conquers, and that the Beast has a mortal wound, that its days have been numbered and that its time is short, and yet knowing that even now the beast is still trying to steal our allegiance. We sing in response to each little and big victory we see happening. The victory is God’s, we are simply the witnesses. We just sing the victory—in song and word on Sunday, with our lives the rest of the week

The beauty of worship in Revelation can inspire and invite us to write new songs (literally—2 different times, the choirs spontaneously sing a new song) that tell both of God’s worthiness and God’s justice. In that sense, our apocalyptic imagination is so necessary—without it, we will continue to see the darkness of the world instead of the light breaking through. I know we have writers here—write lyrics, and poetry, and testimonies. Work with a musician, write a song that we can sing together. Write a prayer or a call and response chant for the community. Be open to impulses that spontaneously urge you to praise God in our services, your life.

A new imagination is so desperately needed in American Christianity, and a commitment to the kind of worship evident in Revelation could be the avenue that leads us there. It is not enough to be simply for or against “empire” or patriotism or nationalism. St. John writes to churches—plural—facing various kinds of challenges and temptations, but the unifying call for all of them is in chapters 4 and 5: to behold the throne of God and the victorious Lamb and worship them with a new song. We all must become performers and narrators of the drama of God’s restorative acts and judgment through worship in our communities. That is our first call, to worship, and it strips away all of the other layers that our fallen selves add on—allegiance to political parties, leaders, even Christendom itself. When this happens, the community becomes (as another, wise Gorman has written), “a sacred space in which their imaginations and lives can be increasingly converted into the image of the Lamb” (Gprman, Reading Revelation Responsibly 178). It is through worship that dividing walls of political ideologies within in the church can be broken. Worship could heal the fractured church.

In the end, literally, worship is what we have been created to do, and it is the only appropriate response to the voice of the One who stands knocking, to the Spirit which says, “Come,” and to the God who is in enthroned above all creation. Through worship in the spirit of Revelation, an apocalyptic imagination is made available and a life of faithful witness is possible.

As we close today in song, I want to invite you to imbue your songs with new meaning. Add some extra weight to your hallelujah today. Let’s sing the victory of God! We even have a 2 part chorus for our closing song today.

Somone sing God’s victory over illness this past week. Someone rejoice as a piece of Babylon fell when that brave woman pulled that statue down in Durham. Someone sing God’s victory as thousands of people marched yesterday to shout down hatred and hate speech. Someone sing God’s victory as a white supremacist and war mongerer at the White House got fired. Someone sing the victory that’s still coming over violence and gentrification here in Deanwood and DC. Someone sing  the victory over economic injustice. You know the angels in heaven will be singing when a certain world leader resigns. Someone sing that victory!

It’s coming—God’s victory—but let the forces of wickedness in the spiritual realms hear you sing it today and live it so loud this week that the very walls of hostility in our world come tumbling down. Amen? Amen.





[1] Gorman, 178.


The Peace of Christ be With You

imagesCAQWZYAGMany churches keep the tradition of “passing the peace” at a certain point in the service. In the Catholic Mass, it is done as part of the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The priest reminds the congregation of Jesus’ words, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give you,” from John 14 and then asks everyone to extend the sign of Christ’s peace to one another. This usually consists of a few greetings,  a cursory handshake, maybe a hug or two, depending on the church. In some churches it’s a lot more enthusiastic, but that’s the basic gist of most Catholic churches I’ve attended.

In Protestant churches, “passing the peace” sometimes comes during communion, but is often somewhat arbitrarily interjected at the end of the opening hymns or the call to worship. It tends to function similarly, again depending on the church, rather reserved handshakes, a chance to meet a visitor. More often than not, the words “peace be with you” are not actually spoken, it is mostly a social time. In more charismatic churches, such as more traditional black churches, the call to exchange signs with peace is like a bell being set off at a family reunion. Everyone greets everyone, old and new. Tell your neighbor “Jesus loves you and so do I,” is what the pastor of my church in Durham used to say. My church here in D.C. does something similar. Passing the peace means saying hello to the rest of the community.

I don’t think this is bad, exactly. But something is missing. Part of the reason why “passing the peace” is part of the Liturgy of Eucharist is to give us the space to be reconciled to one another before partaking of the Holy Sacrament. It wasn’t meant to be a catchy phrase to turn and say hello to each other, but was actually meant to encourage the church to seek out those whom they had conflict with and be reconciled. This is why it has to be Christ’s peace that we pass to one another, not simply “peace.” Christ’s peace is a reconciling peace, a resurrection peace. It is a peace that declares that the kingdom of God is coming.

I do my best to always say “peace be with you” in church even if I also say something else.

But there’s a catch. If actually extending peace and reconciliation becomes a part of what you have in mind when you greet those around you, it makes you especially aware of those you don’t greet. Those who are physically near you who you don’t intentionally extend peace to. Or, those who you know you have conflict with, who you know that you are not fully reconciled to. Will you offer a true sign of peace? Will I?

On days when I really, truly believe in Christ’s resurrection, I can offer peace to my neighbor. But, I am equally conscious that by choosing not to offer peace, it is on those days, in those moments where I confess my doubt that the resurrection is true and that Jesus has inaugurated the kingdom on earth.

Each Sunday offers us the chance to choose: today, do I believe that the resurrection is true and that the dividing wall of hostility has been broken? Or do I confess that I don’t believe it today, and pass on offering peace to my brother or sister?

Forgive Our Debts

We measure our debts by the amount of money we owe to another person, money we’ve borrowed and never paid back. But debt is also something much deeper, something that we all carry.

In the Lord’s Prayer, we say “forgive our debts as we forgive those indebted to us.” John Howard Yoder reminds us of the importance of maintaining the “debts” language because it helps us keeps the very economic sense of Jubilee that is being described by this prayer.

This weekend, I was reminded of the debt I must be forgiven.

My dear friends at the Rutba House in Durham, NC have practiced welcoming the stranger for a long time. They truly believe that to welcome a stranger is to welcome Christ himself, a practice that has been carried on in Christian communities of various kinds ever since Jesus himself let us know that whatever we do unto the least of these our brethren we do as unto the Lord. I’ve written elsewhere that I believe that this practice of welcoming Jesus into their home over and over has made it a place where Christ feels at home and more readily resides. My friends there have taught me so much about this practice.

I would go so far as to say that the entire Gospel and message of the kingdom can be boiled down to a message about hospitality and welcoming. When we welcome the stranger, we are living in the kingdom because we have therefore welcomed Christ. To welcome Christ is to invite God’s reign on earth.

Recently, these friends did a risky thing. They’ve welcomed a young man who has had a rough existence to stay with them. More specifically, this man was shot at point-blank range a year ago and is now a quadriplegic. After he was shot, 8 months in a hospital bed led him to have gaping bed sores. Instead of roaming the streets as he did 13 months ago, he now lies in a hospital bed in my friends’ house where they take turns changing the bandages on his wounds each night.

When I lived in Durham 3 years ago, I met him a few times. My only memorable experience of him was driving him to work at a Pop-Eyes Chicken restaurant. While visiting in Durham this weekend, I helped another friend to change his bandages. While he lay there, I held his feet up and helped turn him as we spent the better part of an hour removing, cleaning, and changing the dressing for his wounds.

This experience was one of the more humbling things I’ve done in my entire life. I have never felt so blessed, not blessed for what I have by comparison, but blessed to have the honor to dress his wounds. I felt it an honor to be able to change his bandages. The room was a holy sanctuary and I knew Jesus was lying in that bed. I felt it so tangibly, so truly, so fully. There before me was the broken body of our Lord, poorly disguised. As I stood holding one foot and then another, I experienced a profound sense that I was in his debt and needed forgiveness. It is said of St. Francis that he would beg forgiveness of those whom he served. It sounds noble and maybe a bit mystical, but I understood exactly why in those moments. The humiliation, the forced reliance on the charity and good will of others; this is indeed the nature of our indebtedness to much of humanity. For the homeless men who beg on the streets, for the families who wait for hours in line for food stamps and social services, for so many people around the world who have been given no choice but to turn to us for assistance, we are indebted. As we serve those in need, it is we who must ask for forgiveness and release, for indeed, how could we ever repay such a debt as dressing the wounds of Christ himself? The awe and reverence for this body of Jesus offers to us far more than we could repay. No, we must ask for forgiveness from this debt.

I was truly mystified by my gut reaction. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I could only whisper thanksgivings for the gift. And I don’t think it could have happened without my friends who have chosen to welcome Christ in all of his distressing disguises. Jean Vanier said that when he welcomed two men with severe mental disabilities into his home, it was an “irreversible act.” I believe my friends have committed such another act, an act with reverberating effects that will only deepen with time.

To help repay a little of that debt, my friends are helping George to enter a contest to win a handicap-driveable van so that he can drive himself and gain some independence. Please, take a moment to watch his video and vote for him (Use the promo code “963″ to multiply your initial vote times five.).

Here’s an excerpt from Jonathan’s blog about what’s going on:

After working hard in rehab, George came home to stay with us at Rutba House in early February of this year. With good medical care, determination, and the patient love of lots of friends, he’s made steady progress–getting out of bed, learning to use a wheel chair, even hoisting himself in and out of our family van. But all along, George has maintained, “I’m gonna drive.”

I believe he will. But here’s the exciting news: you can help make it happen. For National Mobility Awareness Month, there’s a contest. Three people will win a fully equipped, handicap accessible van. And the winners will be determined by the number of votes that each nominee gets by May 13th.

So here’s what we need you to do.

1) Click here to Vote for George. (Use the promo code “963″ to multiply your initial vote times five.)

2) Share this. Email it. Tweet it. Post it to Facebook. Holler at everyone in your office and ask them to help.

3) Vote Early, Vote Often. We’re getting a late start, but you can vote once every 24 hours until May 13th.

George thinks I’m a little crazy for thinking we can win this. And maybe I am. But if I’ve learned anything in our life here at Rutba House, it’s that the unimaginable is possible when people come together in the power of love.

As a matter of fact, that’s the only thing that makes our life here possible.

I’m glad for this chance to invite you to join us.

May God give us all the grace to welcome Christ with such love. As much as a I’m indebted to George, I am also indebted to the Rutba House, such dear friends who have passed along to me a deeper wisdom through their hospitality than they could ever know.

Peace and Pearl Harbor

This second candle lit in Advent is often called the Peace candle, echoing the prophet Isaiah who said that the coming king would be called the Prince of Peace.

Isa 9:5-17

For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onwards and for evermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Every year I am struck by how easily this characteristic of the coming Messiah is overlooked. The one who came at the first Christmas, the one who comes now, and the one who is to come is the bringer of peace, will break the bow and make wars cease. But the “both/and” nature of Christmas, the looking back, the looking forward, and the presence of Jesus right now, declares to us that Christ’s peace-bringing reign has already begun even as we await its consummation.

It’s somewhat ironic that the anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the feast of the Immaculate Conception nearly coincide (Pearl Harbor Dec. 7th, Immaculate Conception is on the 8th). Pearl Harbor initiated the U.S. involvement in one of the many horrors of the 20th century, WWII, culminating in perhaps the darkest day in the history of human technological “advancement”: the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. December 7th is a day of mourning, similar to September 11th, not because (as some have said of the victims of 9/11) the people who died were martyrs, but because war is always something to be mourned. Like September 11th, a tragic day cued further violence. We are faced with the cold truth: we are utterly incapable of loving our enemies. The victims of the attacks were victims of the ultimate in human opposition to God’s design for humanity; instead of the flourishing of all life, the destruction of life. As we mourn the tragedy of one attack, let us mourn the countless attacks that the U.S.  has engaged in, and remember the many countries of the world who have far too many anniversaries like Pearl Harbor. Let us pray and act daily that we may beat our swords (not their swords) into plowshares; instruments of death turned into tools for helping us live into God’s vision fully.

Contrast this with the subversive and underground mystery that comes in the Immaculate Conception, or ‘La Purísima’ in some Central American countries, where peace to the world that will be born through an insignificant, small town teenager. Skepticism of Mary’s oft near-deification aside, the Immaculate Conception reveals to us how God chooses to bring peace to the world: not through force or coercion, which is the only way of peace the governments know, but through an infant, a helpless baby.

Isaiah 2 (the passage that culminates with “swords into plowshares”) looks forward to a day of judgment, when evil will be named and dealt with, in the same way Matthew’s gospel depicts the separation of the sheep and goats. The story of the Immaculate Conception is an embodiment of these visions: God has found favor with Mary and through her now the peace-bringing Savior comes. Only when God has dealt with the evil of the world can the visions of New Creation/Shalom be brought forth. There can be no restoration without judgment.

This is paralleled in Mary’s story. When the angel announces to Mary that she will bear the Christ, Mary is told that she has found favor in God’s eyes, and having found favor with (judged) her, God can initiate the restoration of creation through the birth of Jesus. There are many implications of the importance of the Virgin birth, but perhaps this image of purity also calls us to remember the purity of God’s original creation and the vision of the life to come. The absence of evil in Mary is a foreshadowing of the birth of God’s dream.

Let us pray for God to guide our feet in the path of peace, mourning the horrors of the past and present while re-membering our belonging to the body of Christ whose hands are outstretched to his enemies even as he is nailed to the cross.


Here are a couple of opportunities to participate in the peace bringing nature of this time of year:

December 16th at the White House will be a non-violent action to protest the ongoing wars, led by some veterans including Ray McGovern, a former high-up in the CIA whose feet have been guided on the path of peace. Ray is a regular teacher at the Church of the Saviour’s Servant Leadership School.

Last week of December: Feast of the Holy Innocents retreat with the Dorothy Day CW and Jonah House. Contact them for more info:  202.882.9649 or 202.829.7625


Isaiah 2: The problem of “They”

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

Among the most moving and inspiring visions in the entire Bible is this passage from Isaiah chapter two. It also happens to be the OT lectionary reading for Advent 1 this year. Today I preached at New Leaf Church, talking about Advent as a time of active anticipation in preparation to receive the mystery of Christ’s birth and parousia that Christmas draws us to. Advent is my favorite season of the year. I’ve posted about it four times in the last two years (Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Post 4), especially about how I came to a tangible understanding of what anticipation is all about while living with a couple that was expecting a new baby. Advent reminds us that we live in the “already-but-not-yet,” the overlapping of ages (as the Romans 13 passage from today’s readings reminds). This means that we are called to be midwives of the birth of the new creation; we breathe out the hope we have in Christ through healing and restoring action in the world, naming evil in ourselves and in the systems of the world.

This Isaiah passage looks forward to this as well: judgment. We tend to shy away from judgment language because we don’t want to sound, well, judgmental. But a biblical understanding of judgment isn’t as much about condemnation (indeed, for those who in Christ there is no condemnation, says Romans) as it is about naming evil. Writers from Isaiah all the way to St. John the Divine (writer of the Revelation) affirm this picture because without the naming of evil and consequently the cleansing of it, there can be no restored creation, no Shalom (today’s Romans 13:11-14 reading points us to the naming and repenting of our own evil; those in Christ no longer face condemnation but they still face judgment!) Isaiah 2 sees God as the righteous judge between the nations. These verses have inspired peace movements around the world as Christians have tried to embody the future vision of Isaiah in the here and now. However, these Christian groups have been small in number (the Plowshares Actions by the Catholic Worker folk, while powerful witnesses, are relatively unknown by the body at large, as are most peace movements that take Scripture seriously). I am often frustrated by why this is, and I’ve decided that while Isaiah 2 is the source of inspiration, it is also at fault for this neglect by Christians as a whole.

When I say at fault, I mean that the wording of Isaiah 2 points the finger elsewhere–“They” shall beat their swords into plowshares, they shall learn war no more. As long as we don’t have to do it, I’ll say “Amen” every time! That is the condition of the American church. “They” is perhaps the most harmful word in entire Bible; if there is any Scripture that might possibly convict us of a drastic need for repentance and change, “they” renders it null and void. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Others will do it. Americans (and maybe humans in general) respond well to a check list of “do”s and “don’t”s, which is why the Ten Commandments are so popular. There is enough ambiguity in them to allow for a libertarian philosophy of living–I maximize my “freedom” up to the point just before it runs a direct contradiction to the letter of the law. But as soon as I’m not told exactly that I must or must not do something, I feel no responsibility to acknowledge that Jesus might be calling me to a deeper and more challenging way of life that gives up my freedom.

I think when most people read this gripping image in Isaiah, they shrug it off–“they” will do it, the sinful and corrupt nations of the world. “We” are the protectors of liberty and all that is of God (we meaning the USA and complicit American Christians). Creative approaches to making this dream in Isaiah a reality aren’t even in the realm of most Christian imagination.

Moreover, if Isaiah had simply said, “We will beat our swords into plowshares,” it would have just made it easier for people to understand that peace begins within us. We the church, Christians, must be the first to beat our swords into plowshares–hence the apt, simple, yet alarmingly ignored, modest proposal for peace: That Christians of the world would agree not to kill one another.” How will the “nations” know how to beat swords into plowshares, to turn weapons of war, the ultimate in contradiction of God’s desire for humanity, into tools for helping us live out the call to tend the soil and creation found in Genesis? “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me [and us].” The Church must show the way. And to do that, we must start seeing “we” where “they” appears in passages like this.

More than ever, dear God, we need the prince of Peace. Maranatha! Lord, quickly come!

Mr. Wendell Berry

Look Out” by Wendell Berry, from Given

Come to the window, look out, and see
the valley turning green in remembrance
of all springs past and to come, the woods
perfecting with immortal patience
the leaves that are the work of all of time,
the sycamore whose white limbs shed
the history of a man’s life with their old bark,
the river quivering under the morning’s breath
like the touched skin of a horse, and you will see
also the shadow cast upon it by fire, the war
that lights its way by burning the earth.

Come to your windows, people of the world,
look out at whatever you see wherever you are,
and you will see dancing upon it that shadow.
You will see that your place, wherever it is,
your house, your garden, your shop, your forest, your farm,
bears the shadow of its destruction by war
which is the economy of greed which is plunder
which is the economy of wrath which is fire.
The Lords of War sell the earth to buy fire,
they sell the water and air of life to buy fire.
They are little men grown great by willingness
to drive whatever exists into its perfect absence.
Their intention to destroy any place is solidly founded
upon their willingness to destroy every place.

Every household of the world is at their mercy,
the households of the farmer and the otter and the owl
are at their mercy. They have no mercy.
Having hate, they can have no mercy.
Their greed is the hatred of mercy.
Their pockets jingle with the small change of the poor.
Their power is the willingness to destroy
everything for knowledge which is money
which is power which is victory
which is ashes sown by the wind.

Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is Money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.

I had the privilege of seeing and hearing Wendell Berry (in an intimate setting with 200 other people and probably 100 who were turned away) last night at the Arlington Central Library. It’s always exciting to see someone who has influenced so many people that he never met. Mr. Berry reminded me a lot of Jean Vanier. He spoke with a slow, southern drawl, and continually exuded a sense of peace and simplicity. Another thing that reminded me of Jean was that Wendell answered questions in his own broad, reflective, way, but very rarely answered a question directly. Of course, one goes to hear someone like Wendell or Jean for the chance to experience their presence and wisdom, not necessarily in order to have specific questions answered.

For me, Wendell Berry represents a sign of hope; not just because of who he is and what he writes about, but because the very fact that his writings resonate so profoundly with so many people suggests that we’re not too far gone. His message is deeply spiritual, deeply Christian; the connection between ecology and theology in his work is as essential as it is unmistakeable.

The irony of cell phones, digital cameras, and the like going off during the talk was too depressing to miss as well.

For better or worse, Mr. Berry didn’t give a presentation or lecture but rather answered questions from a librarian moderator and then from the audience. My own preference would have been for a lecture of some sort so that it had a bit more of a focus. The librarian asked a few questions from The Memory of Old Jack, but they were rather disjointed. Just hearing him was a pleasure, but I would have preferred a different format.

There’s not much else to say except that Wendell Berry is an inspiring man, someone who deserves even more reknown and respect than he has, but also someone who believes so strongly in the small and “leadership from the bottom,” which fits into what I think is a more appropriate understanding of power.

Dumpster Divers Dig Deep Despite Detractors

Don’t decry desperate devising designed to disengage discarded delectibles from disenchanted, deceived delinquints.

That’s my advice to the police, the security guards, law makers, and governing bodies that try to crack down on the art of Dumpster Diving. I’ve become quite convinced that the world needs dumpster divers, or freegans, to balance the uninhibited consumption and consequent refuse-creation of the rest of society. I’ll elaborate further below, but a first a story and then let me de-myth some ideas about Dumpster Diving (at least at its most basic level).

Duke University students moved out of the dorms this week, which means for the avid dumpster diver a field day. Students throw out all sorts of perfectly good clothes, electronics, bedding, and other things that can save even the most lazy dumpsterer a year’s worth of shopping. My fellow housemates and I have been gearing up for this for awhile, planning trips and making lists of what we’re looking for (making a list helps the process go faster).

So on Sunday evening, the three of us went and were having a grand old time, sitting in the huge 12 foot dumpster, looking through things, showing each other the treasures (and laughing at the oddities), and shaking our heads at the waste. We found unopened alcohol, so we shared a couple drinks, just a great way to spend a Sabbath evening, practicing a certain kind of Sabbath economics I guess you could say. We’d even had a security officer laugh and encourage Matt (housemate) to find some good stuff.

Along comes Dudley Do Right. Most of the security don’t care about the dumpstering. But this guy decided to do his duty and tell us we had to leave and to put all the stuff back that we’d taken out of the dumpster. We asked him to explain, and he said he didn’t have much of an explanation except that he was told this, but that if we’d like one he could call the police car over to explain better. Matt said sure, he’d like to talk to the police, so he calls it in.

Dudley gives a poor message to the dispatcher, who tells the police that we’re refusing to obey the security guard, so they come over all angry and suspicious, saying, “Do you want to go to jail today?” like 5 times. After a few minutes they realize we’re not being belligerent, and so we have a conversation about it but they still enforce the rule. So we carefully place everything back in the dumpster in a way that we can get quickly and easily later and then go home. I came back at 10 that night and grabbed my bag of goodies, they came back the next morning early get theirs. I came away with some brand new socks, undershirts, bathing suit, belt, shampoo and body wash, and a flannel shirt. Not bad at all.

For the curious, here’s a bit of demything of the practice:

–It’s not “disgusting.” Though dumpsters are inevitably filled with things that nobody really wants to take a bath in, proper attire avoids most of the real problems. Old shoes, pants you don’t care about, etc. A little precaution can make you a lot bolder in what you look for.

–It’s generally not that dangerous to your health. Dumpsters are emptied so often that most food doesn’t stay in them too long. Chances are, most items have only been in the dumpster a matter of hours. Also, some of the best food for taking is food that has an official expiration date (for government reasons) but still will be good for ages. Things like cheese, cookies, milk even, ice cream…all those things go bad wheen they look or taste bad, not because of a specific date.

–It’s illegality is questionable and complicpated. There have been Supreme Court Cases that state that discarded materials are public property (like things thrown out for the trashman), so it’s not stealing. Technically there are trespassing issues at stake, but whose is the question. Once in the dumpster you’re on the property of the dumpster-owning company. But generally, it’s not something that police will do more than ask you to leave.

But on to the more pressing issue.

To me, in all seriousness, dumpster diving is part of  bigger idea of justice and new creation that says that 1)we need to take better care of the planet and throwing away tons and tons of good things is just wasteful and disrepsectful to our Creator 2)and that while millions of people in the U.S. and elsewhere are in need, we refuse to contribute our economic resources to a system of consumerism and oppression.

I will grant that at its core, there is a bit of materialism inherent in dumpstering. It’s exciting to get new things at the dumpster, just like at a store, and the thrill of acquiring is a threat to the holistic goodness of the practice, but on the whole I find it to be a healthier materialism. I rejoice in the unopened pizza boxes, or the day old bagels, or a new belt (almost identical to the one I gave to a homeless man back in April, and I don’t count that a coincidence). I personally try to take things that I will actually use or give away and try to be realistic about it.

Dumpster diving also has a communal aspect to it. It’s so much more enjoyable to do with friends, to celebrate and laugh and marvel, to thank God for his abundant provision. It’s also sad, to sift through a grocery store dumpster and see the tons of food that could be given out for free to hungry families, or to sift through a Whole Foods dumpster and find fresh fruits and vegetables, essential items that most poor families are not able to afford (especially not from Whole Foods). Our neighbors eat candy and snacks in part cause they’re cheap, while they miss essential nutrients because of availability and affordability. We, at our house, give away a lot of the food we dumpster. We’re lucky to have the time to do it often and the transportation to carry a ton of stuff and store it.

So, give it a try. I’ll go with you. UMD will soon have its move out days, and I know from experience that there’s a lot of good treasure to be found. Go happily, go dumpster!

Baseball in the New Creation

The older I get, the more I excited and serious I am about certain aspects of Christianity, namely Advent, Christmas, Lent, and Easter. As I read more and understand more what these celebrations point to, the more upset I get when I feel like they are being undervalued by Christians, or being used by the secular market to make a buck.

But forgetting all that, I’ve been struck in the last few weeks (as I’ve read N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope) with the importance for having the cross and resurrection, and consequently new creation, as our lens through which we see everything else. The way I have come to see the grand vision, of God’s saving creation through Jesus’ death and resurrection and the forthcoming new heavens and new earth), is Shalom, the idea that God made a good world and will remake it in time. Wright’s book re-invigorated me in this thinking; he reminds that in fact our Christianity is rooted not primarily in a belief that you’ll go to a paradise in the skies after you die (which we have called heaven), but rather in the belief that the Resurrection is the first fruits of the restored, renewed creation and that we too will be bodily raised as well. What we call heaven is the resting  point, the intermediary for the deceased who await the final resurrection and completion of new creation, that day when Christ will be “their all in all.” New Creation is what we’re waiting for.

Wright spends most of the book trying to drive home this point. One of the things he says that got me oddly excited, is that as he talks about what it means to receive our reward (that which Paul talks about many times), he suggests that in the new creation that we will have work to do! Renaming the animals, etc, but also that all the gifts and talents we have now will be amplified, more fully experienced in new creation, (We see but darkly, as in a glass) and the joys that we sacrificed for our vocations can be taken up again.

I know that some people vision “heaven” as a place where they get to do all that, but I get the feeling that they’re thinking of some place in the sky where they get to play basketball on the clouds, and sit and chat with angels. For me, what excites me about what Wright suggests is that it’s not about some “pie in the sky when you die” philosophy, but that in new creation, we get to live life the way God originally intended us to live it! God wanted us to be able to play music, paint, draw, dance, sing…because it is all a reflection of our good Creator. Yet, we are called to work towards this new creation now. That is the fundamental difference, I think, depending on what lens you see through. If heaven is the end of all things, and the earth is to be discarded and destroyed anyway, then there is no practical, real-life examples of building for the kingdom, other than “saving souls.” But if God is calling us to be co-creators and co-workers, then all our work is to make the eventual, total reality, as much as possible present in this life today. That means we need to find ways to help our fellow human beings live to the fulles that God intended them to, by relieving poverty, oppression, etc, all those typical social justice problems.

But as I’ve argued at other times, new creation comes  also by our very acts of co-creation with God. As we make music, art, poetry, story, to the glory of our creator, then a little bit more of God’s kingdom inches its way forward. For me, that calls me to action, and really opens up the possibility to combine my gifts and passions and interests in a way that serves God’s kingdom.

But for the record, I’m playing starting pitcher in the new creation. Just sayin’.