Sunday, May 1, 2016

6 Easter

May 1, 2016

Revelation 21.10, 22-22

Now, I know that I often will share with you the name of some important theologian or writer or poet and I will say, “If you have not read so-and-so, do so.” Well, I have another one this morning. And if you consider yourself a progressive, socially conscious Episcopalian, which I hope most of you consider yourselves, then here is your guy:

William Stringfellow.

I know you might think, from a name like that, that he was some Anglican Divine from the 1700s. But, no so.  Stringfellow was an amazing theologian, writer, lawyer, who was active in the mid-to-late twentieth century.  As a lawyer, he defended poor black and Hispanic people in Brooklyn in the 1950s. In the 1960s he defended such unpopular causes as clergy who marched on Selma, as well as Bishop James Pike when he was brought up on heresy charges. In the 1970s, he actually subpoenaed the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, John Allin, regarding women priests presiding in churches (Allin was opposed to women priests). In 1970, he very famously harbored the great Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and activist, Father Daniel Berrigan, at his home when the FBI were seeking to arrest Father Berrigan on charges of burning files from a draft board.

Father Berrigan, coincidentally enough, died yesterday at the age of 94.

Stringfellow later  called for the resignation of Richard Nixon’s presidency years before Watergate.

His private life too was very radical for its time.  Stringfellow lived openly and unashamedly from the 1960s through the 1980s with his partner, poet Anthony Towne.  In 1967, he and Towne moved to Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island, where they developed a semi-monastic life together and were eventually wholeheartedly welcomed into the somewhat insular year-round community at Block Island.

But in addition to all of this, Stringfellow was also, brace yourselves, an Evangelical Episcopal Christian.  He was an ardent student of the Bible and wrote extensively on how our lives as Christians must be based fully and completely on the Word of God.  Mind you, he was no fundamentalist.  He was no Bible-thumper.  Rather he was a careful, systematic theologian who simply saw all life through the lens of scripture.

Or to be clearer: he was, in a very real sense, a prophet.  He was a conduit, at times, through which the Word of God was proclaimed. Stringfellow, who died in March 1985, was and is an important theologian for us still to this day.  

Stringfellow was often described as a stranger in a strange land.  I love that description.  Let me tell you, I have often felt that same way in my own life at times.  Maybe that’s why I like him so much.

So, why this talk of William Stringfellow?  Well, Stringfellow is important to me because I cannot read or hear a reading from the book of Revelation without thinking of William Stringfellow.  It was through him that I began to re-read the Book of Revelation.  He helped me claim—or re-claim—it, and helped me to read it anew.

Still, I think there are a lot of us who feel very differently about the Book of Revelation.  Revelation is a strange book.  It can be a frightening book.  But—and I know this might seem strange to many Christians— I don’t see it as a book of prophecy, as many Christians do.  I don’t see it saying anything definitely about future governments or some messianic Anti-Christ in our midst or that we are living in the so-called “last days” or what have you. What I do see it doing is speaking to us through some beautiful and powerful poetry on what is happening in our lives, right now, as Christians, and about how, in the end, Christ is victorious.   I think it is important for us to re-claim Revelation in this way —and, in doing so, re-read it with a new lens. 

In our reading this morning from Revelation, we find some very strange esoteric images—not an uncommon thing when we read Revelation.  We find this morning these images of angels, of the holy city of Jerusalem, of a place without moon or sun, but a place of incredible light.  It is a glorious vision of what awaits us in that place in which God and Jesus the Lamb dwell.  It is a place of beauty and glory.    It is a place of unending life.  And it is here that I think the Book of Revelation speaks loudly to us.

Even we, as Christians, sometimes struggle with the reality of death in our lives. Even we fear it at times. And that is all right. That is normal.

Of course, death is a part of life, and certainly it’s part of my job as a priest.  I knew that going into it.   But, let me tell you: it still is hard, often.   And for people who have to deal with this mystery of death on a regular basis, there have to be ways to find strength and comfort in the midst of death.   One of the ways I find my way through this sometimes constant dealing with death is by turning to the scriptures.

What I love about William Stringfellow is that he saw that a common theme in all Scripture is one very important theme:  the defeat of death.   Or as Stringfellow called it “authority over death.”

I agree with him 100%.   I think he is absolutely right about that.  Stringfellow saw it most profoundly in the life of Jesus.   There we see this authority over death most profoundly.  We see it every time Jesus healed the sick, calmed the storms, cast out demons, ate with sinners, cleansed the temple, raised the death, carried the Cross.  And of course, in the Resurrection, which we are still celebrating in this season of Easter, it is all about authority over death. Even today, our Rogation Procession and our blessing of seeds is a small symbol of life being victorious over death.

In all of this, we see the God of life—the God Jesus believed in and embodied—being victorious over death.  This view of life over death speaks to us most profoundly during this Easter season.  During this  season, what we have found most vital to our understanding of living into this Easter faith is the startling fact that death truly does not have power over us.

We, as Christians, cannot let the power of death control and direct our lives.   As Christians, as followers of Jesus who crossed that awful boundary between life and death, and came back, we must truly be defiant to death.  

Of course, that ultimate victory over death happens only when we can face death honestly.  True victory over death is when we can see death in the light we hear about in today’s reading from Revelation.  Only then do we realize that death has no victory over us. Because of what happened on Easter, because of the Resurrection, because Jesus did die, yes, but God raised him that tomb, and because Jesus walked victorious upon the chains of death, we know now death does not have the last word in our lives.

 Over these past several years, I can tell you, it would’ve been easy for me to just give into this victory death strives for over life.  Mourning does that do us.  It weakens us and saps our energies from us. We all get stuck in mourning patterns.  

But, for us Christians, we can’t be stuck in such death.  We must live.  And we must move forward.  We must  stand up against death. I can tell you that, right now, in my own life, I am very tired of death.  I am weary of dealing directly with it.  I am tired of dealing with its after-effects.  I am tired of dealing with its seemingly overpowering presence.

But, standing up to death, even when we’re sick of it, is not easy.  Choosing life, with all its uncertainties, can be scary. Even when moving forward into life  and living our lives fully and completely, we realize it can be frightening.  We are, after all, heading into the future which is unknown to us.

But that, again, is what I love about Revelation.  What Revelation promises to us, through all that poetry and imagery, is that death will lose, hatred will lose, violence will lose, evil will lose, war will lose—and goodness, and holiness and LIFE will be victorious.  

That isn’t wishful thinking.  That’s isn’t being na├»ve. Rather, this is what it means to be a Christian.   This is what it means to believe in the God of life. That is what I means to follow Jesus.

Yes, following Jesus means following him to the Cross and to that dark tomb.   And to death, yes. But it also means following him into the great unknown on the other side of the Cross and the tomb—into that glorious, light-filled, unending life that swallows up death and darkness and war once and for all. It means following him to the point in which the God of unending life raises him—and us—into unending life as well.

“And there will be no more night,” St. John tells us in his Revelation. “they”—we—“will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be [our] light, and [we] will reign for ever and ever.”

Those are words of absolute and glorious victory.  But more so, they are words of life—of a life that goes on forever and ever.

As we travel through these last days of Easter, as we head into this week in which we celebrate Jesus’ ascension to that place of life and light, into that place in which the God of life and light dwells, let us do so with true Easter joy.  Let us do so rejoicing from the very core of our bodies. We are alive.   This morning, we are alive.  Life is in us.  And it is very, very good.   We have much to be thankful for and in which to rejoice. So, let us be thankful for this life.  Let us rejoice in it.   And let us realize that in rejoicing in our lives and in the life within each of us, God has truly prepared for us, as we heard in our collect this morning, “such good things as surpass our understanding.” Amen.

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