Sunday, May 8, 2016

Phil Kniss: From God's hands to ours

Easter 7: God who invites all to life
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21

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Perhaps the best news
    the book of Revelation has to offer us Jesus-followers
    is that life is ultimately in the hands of God.

Remember this book is being written to persecuted Christians.
    Horribly, brutally persecuted Christians.
        Not talking your garden-variety 21st-century America
            so-called persecution of Christians,
                like banning prayer in public school,
                or other laws some Christians resent.
        No, we’re talking about genuine persecution,
            where Christians were thrown to lions in a public arena,
            or burned at the stake,
            or drowned.
    It’s that Christian community Revelation was first written for.
        This book of heavenly visions was meant to help them
            get a clear picture of God,
            and a more hopeful picture of the future.

Maybe the vision that encouraged them most,
    was this picture of God holding life itself in his hands.
    The epitome of this is the image of the Tree of Life
        thriving on the banks of the River of Life,
        that flows from the throne of God.

    The message here in Revelation 22
        is that God holds the one and only claim on their lives.
    God alone gets to define what a life is worth.
    Their enemies may decide to kill them.
        But only God gets to decide the significance of their lives,
            and the ultimate meaning of their suffering and death.

Then, and now, imposters try to stake a claim on life.
    Would-be gods, false gods try to assert the right
        to define life on their terms.
    But, as the book of Revelation assures us,
        since God has the last word on life,
        these usurpers of God always come up short.
    They wind up on the losing side.

Today, there are people who set themselves up as demi-gods.
    Powerful individuals
        who are never content with the power they already have,
        and keep angling for more.
    From Asian dictators, to African warlords, to American politicians,
        there is a persistent narrative of human beings attempting
            to seize control,
            to advance personal agenda,
            and to twist the definition
                of what a flourishing life looks like.

And not only individuals, there are powerful systems and forces at work.
    Economic and social and spiritual forces of all kinds
        act out of their own vested interests
        to distract us from God’s claim on our lives.

    They all stand to benefit if they succeed.

    Systems feeding off greed and materialism
        stand to benefit if they convince us that
        we are what we drive, or eat, or wear, or live in,
        or that we are what we own.

    Systems feeding off militarism
        stand to benefit if they can convince us that
        our lives have greater value than the lives of our enemies.

    Systems feeding off political power
        stand to benefit if they can convince us that
        they are the only ones on our side,
        the only ones who will defend our rights,
        and that everyone else—everyone who is other—
            another party, another country, another religion—
            is a mortal threat to us and our American way of life.

    Systems feeding off self-gratification and indulgence
        stand to benefit if they can get us to buy into the myth
        that pleasure is a right to pursue at any cost.

    But God remains unmoved by these systems
        who would like to usurp the throne of God.
     The Creator of all things living
        watches over us all,
        and maintains the right to set the parameters on life.

That’s the picture Revelation gives us.
    This is the divine work of art being unveiled today.

    Life comes from God, only.
    Life belongs still to God, and to no other.
    All the criteria that define what a flourishing life looks like
        are purposefully laid out by God alone.

Then, as we read this text more carefully,
    and look closer at this picture being unveiled,
    we see God doing an astonishing thing.
    God takes this life that is entirely in God’s hands—
        this life defined, owned, and initiated by God alone—
        and hands it over to us as a gift.

    A gift that we have the power to appropriate as we choose.
        With freedom.
        And . . . with consequences.

    This is a re-gifting of life.

In a way, this text from the last chapter in the Bible,
    it’s an undoing, a reversal,
    of what we read about in the first chapters of the Bible.

Remember, if you will,
    the scene when God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden.
    After their disobedience,
        in which they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil,
        they paid the price in several ways.
    The worst of which,
        is they were sent far away, out East of Eden,
        far away from that lush and comforting garden,
            and most especially, far away from the Tree of Life.

    In order to ensure they not get access to the Tree of Life,
        God puts guards at the gate,
            angels wielding flaming swords,
            which, according to Genesis 3:24,
            they “flash back and forth
                to guard the way to the tree of life.”
    The picture in Genesis 3 is clear.
        God has total control of the Tree of Life,
            and human beings aren’t getting near it.

Now, in Revelation 22, we read these astonishing words:
    “Blessed are those who wash their robes,
        so that they will have the right to the tree of life
        and may enter the city by the gates.”
    John is saying here, the curse is being reversed.
        You will have the right to the Tree of Life.
        And you will have the right to walk through the open gates.
    God is saying, essentially,
        life—both present and eternal—belongs to me,
            and I invite you into it,
            I share it with you.

    Some of us could read Revelation 22 a dozen times,
        and not catch this remarkable allusion to Genesis 3.
    I imagine John’s audience, early Jewish Christians,
        got it immediately,
        and experienced the full shock value of the picture.
        They were intimately familiar with the Torah.
            Probably knew the lines from Genesis 3 by heart.

    And what they saw here in John’s vision gave them great joy,
        as Christians who had oppressors breathing down their necks,
            telling them their lives had no meaning,
            threatening to take their lives from them.
    The Gospel word to them, from God, is,
        “Life has always been mine, but I’m sharing.”

    Furthermore, I’m not limiting my gift.
        “Let everyone who is thirsty come.
          Let anyone who wishes . . . take the water of life as a gift.”

This is also a Gospel word we need to hear today,
    and the whole world needs to hear.

We humans, and our power structures,
    are so quick to seize God’s responsibility—
    to assign value and meaning to the lives of others,
    and to assume it’s on our shoulders
        to give our own lives meaning and value.

But God has done that already.
    And we are so quick to forget.

This dynamic shows up constantly,
    in the many forms of brokenness in our world.
    Individuals and systems
        continually attempt to diminish the value and meaning
            of the lives of those who get in their way.

There are glaring examples everywhere today.
    We need only scratch the surface.
        We’d run out of time trying to list them.
    Not to mention, if we looked back on how often this has happened
        in the darker pages of human history.

So, we are in the middle of a presidential campaign cycle.
    In normal years, presidential candidates often
        try to diminish the worth of others, to win votes.
    But that practice reached new lows this year.
        Not commenting on any actual policy matters at stake.
        Just saying that candidates, as persons,
            have regularly insulted the personhood of their opponents.
        And that is shameful.
        And for candidates claiming to be Christian,
            it’s especially shameful, and clearly un-Christian behavior.
        Yes, Trump gets the most press, and is the most quoted,
            and without a doubt, he’s been the most egregious,
            at calling names,
            and insulting the human dignity of his opponents,
                and of whole classes of people who aren’t like him.
        He may be the worst, but he’s not alone.
        His opponents have often responded in kind.
        Our politicians have set the tone
            for what’s permitted in public discourse.
            And it’s ugly.
        Someone needs to push the reset button.

And the same dynamic is happening on a worldwide scale,
    and in far more devastating and violent ways.
    This thing of diminishing the human dignity of an opponent,
        of undermining the humanity and value of others,
        is the stock-in-trade
            of nations at war,
            of violent religious extremists,
            of tyrants and dictators,
                and it’s been happening since time immemorial.

It’s what allows one group of human beings
    to kidnap, torture, and/or kill other human beings
        who offend them or threaten them.
    ISIS, the Taliban, Boko Haram, you name the group.
        They convince themselves,
            and they convince their vulnerable recruits,
            that the lives of a whole ethnic or religious class of people—
                have less value, less meaning, less worth,
                than their own.
        So they feel justified in determining the end of those lives.

And it’s what allows racism and sexism to thrive close to home,
    in an otherwise civilized society.
    It’s what encourages things like police brutality,
        mistreatment of prisoners,
        anti-immigrant rhetoric,
        bullying of sexual minorities,
        and all kinds of other social ills.

But all those things I named are easy targets
    for us comfortable, compassionate, enlightened Christians.
    It’s easy to get righteously angry
        at highly visible politicians and dictators and movements
            that are so clearly offensive and wrong,
            and so unlike us.

But if I reflect, even a little,
    on the way I look at myself,
    and look at others I encounter,
        I have to admit the temptation is real for me, too.
    I also sometimes stoop to this tactic.
    I also diminish the value of the life of the other,
        in order to inflate the value of my own, in comparison.

How often? I shudder to think.
    I do it whenever I approach someone on the sidewalk downtown,
        who appears homeless, or intoxicated, or poverty-stricken,
            or otherwise difficult to encounter,
        and I pass by while purposely not making eye contact.
    Sure, my sin is less visible, and certainly less impactful,
        than the sins that offend me so greatly
            in Donald Trump and his ilk.
        But it’s on the same spectrum of sins.

    Making eye contact, and offering a smile and a nod,
        is the most simple and immediate way to say to someone,
            “I see the human in you. And I share it.”
    And to purposely avoid eye contact,
        with someone I clearly see in my field of vision,
            and who may well be looking at me as I walk by,
        is the most simple and immediate way to say the opposite:
            “I am ignoring you, because I can,
                because you are not worth the effort
                of a human encounter.”
    In doing so, haven’t I committed the very offense
        of those I so loudly condemn?

And if this happens often on the street, and it does,
    think how often it happens online.
    Think how many times, online,
        you’ve seen someone’s human worth cheapened,
            through insults or shaming or character attacks,
        whose humanity has been diminished
            because it’s so easy to do,
            because others cheer when you do,
            and it makes you feel validated . . . for a moment.
    And many of us here,
        even if we would never directly engage in this kind of
            humanity-diminishing discourse,
            at some level approve and participate.

This scripture from Revelation is for us.
    There is good news, encouraging news!
    God retains the right to value a life, any life,
        however diminished it may be in our eyes.

    That includes our own lives.
        Many of us live with a diminished view
            of the worth of our own lives.
        God confronts that with one word—“Come.”

    God’s word to us, to our neighbor, to those we fear,
        and to those who offend us,
            is, “Come.”
        “Let everyone—everyone—who is thirsty, come.
          Let anyone—anyone—who wishes,
            take the water of life as a gift.”

    Today God says to us,
        “Life in its fullness, at its most flourishing, belongs to me.
            And I’m sharing it with you. For free.
                No matter what others say.
                No matter what you say.
            You have worth. You are loved.”
    Can you hear the voice of Jesus inviting us
        to a fuller, more flourishing life?

I heard the voice of Jesus say, “Behold, I freely give
    the living water; thirsty one, stoop down, and drink, and live.”
    I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life giving stream;
    My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.

Turn in HWB to #493.

—Phil Kniss, May 8, 2016

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