Consolation and Connection

Revelation 21:1-6
November 4, 2018

 

Revelation is a book that many of us may keep at a distance. It’s the bonkers fever dream that caps off a nice narrative that’s been building of liberation, grace, and unconditional love.

One commentator I came across this week called Revelation “a happy hunting ground for bigots and fanatics,” and the vivid, startling imagery is easy to get a hold of by those who distort the original message.

The book of Revelation was initially crafted to be a narrative of victory and assurance for people who lived in powerlessness and fear.

This was written in the 90s CE, during the reign of the Emperor Domitian. Being a Christ-follower was a dangerous business back then. Christ communities were seen as a heretical branch of a barely-tolerated religion from a backwater region of the Empire. And when the practices of your weird little sect have you doing things like saying “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Caesar is Lord” and proclaiming Good News that doesn’t come from a messenger from Rome, you’re walking around with a target on your back. They experienced unpredictable persecutions and aggression because state control went hand-in-hand with control of the religious imagination. And Christianity troubled that control.

 

Now, we are citizens today of a country that supports and privileges those who identify as Christian. So in some ways, it is hard for us to encounter this text as would the people from whom this text originated.

Because can you imagine,

that when you feel afraid at every turn,

fearful for your life and the life of those you love,

when you feel like everyone around you disdains your practice,

when you have to meet in secret,

celebrating the Holy Meal in hushed voices for fear of being discovered by authorities—

can you imagine it might be very comforting to hear a story where the good guys (you)

and the bad guys (them) are very clear,

and you win after bitter struggle,

and your God bears you to victory, safety, and endless joy and peace?

That’s what’s operating in Revelation.

 

We do this still. Think of the rise in popularity of Superhero movies.

When our futures feel uncertain, and truth and morality are said to have multiple alternatives, there is something comforting about immersing ourselves in clear-cut stories of virtuous and strong and loving good guys who defeat greedy, slimy, and cruel bad guys.

Stories like this console and encourage their hearers and listeners.

So, for a people who felt embattled for much of their days, this passage is a word of tremendous consolation and connection.

And in our lives today, when we are struggling, in grief, in painful uncertainty, stories of connection and consolation can soothe our tired hearts.

And the nature of this text as the end of this apocalyptic narrative suggests that this is what all the struggle and striving has been leading to all along—the revelation that God is and was and always has been intimately close with us.

God will dwell with Her people. God won’t bring them up into heaven; God pitches a tent with us on earth.

Apocalyptic literature, as a genre, is about revealing what is true; making plain what has been there all along.

Here, our connection with God is what has been there all along. We were formed in love, and we return to love.

 

Earlier this week, I attended the Service of Solidarity after the shooting in the Tree of Life synagogue. And there is something very powerful about being a visitor in a different faith community, and something tender and heavy—Kavod-y—about being there in the wake of a tragedy of this scale and vitriol.

And I got there twenty minutes early but what was late for the sheer volume of people who went, so I was out in the overflow courtyard. And it was a different sort of experience there than the service inside. Until a sound system was connected, we could kind of hear the service, but not really. So instead, people spontaneously sang songs of Shalom. Hebrew chants of consolation and hope and resilience soared that most people there knew by heart.

And once we could hear the service inside, one of the speakers said that, despite the horror and grief of this shooting, “the roots of the Tree of Life still run deep”

A bit later, we hear in this text that the waters of life flow from the Tree of Life. This image, echoing the Garden of Eden where this story all began, closes the circle and connects us to the first story. It reminds us that we are formed from God, in love eternal, and we return to this in the end. That love is the beginning and the end; the Alpha and the Omega.

As Carl Jung says, “life is a luminous pause between two great mysteries, which themselves are one”[1]

This Tree of Life is for all people, endlessly fruitful, with leaves that are for the healing of the nations. And through grief, terror, dismay, war, disaster, betrayal, and all the tragedies large and small that can befall us, the roots of the Tree of Life yet run deep.

 

Now, I say this and am drawn to this passage not because these promises are obvious or effortless. When someone we love deeply dies, we don’t move swiftly to the place where we kick back under healing Trees of Life with no more tears and pain and death.

I remember when one of my best friends died suddenly and pretty horrifically, I was not feeling intimately connected to God. I was angry and jagged and bitter and dark.

But healing for me came, slowly, as I acknowledged Dan perhaps returning to the infinite.

Ancient Archbishop St. John Chrysostom said that “she whom we love and lose is no longer where she was before. She is now wherever we are.”

This reminds me of this obituary I read recently. This was online, and these are strange days, when obits from the other side of the country can go viral online—about a young woman named Madelyn Linsenmeir who struggled with an addiction that ultimately killed her. The obit caught such traction because it was beautifully and honestly written, but the last line particularly caught me: “Our grief over losing her is infinite, and now so is she.”[2]

This spoke to the place I find comfort in losing those I love: that in some way, it’s not that they are no longer with us. Now, they are in some way always with us.

So now, I experience Dan as part of those I consider my Cloud of Witnesses alongside my grandparents and uncle Mark and aunt Mary.

And when I call on God, I also call on them. Because I know God loves me, but their love for me is one I have known in a very real way. It sticks with you.

 

And so a critique I would have of this passage falling on All Saints Day is that it goes too fast past the real grief and anger and bleakness of death. We don’t hear so much of the struggle before this part where God is dabbing our eyes with a tissue and telling us everything will be and in fact always has been okay—when it really can feel like it’s not okay.

But the story, the final reality, of Love being the beginning and the end, the alpha and the omega—that’s consolation.

I believe that God is love, but there’s a different quality to that love when you rest in your cloud of witnesses. It’s an unadulterated love that has known you. In some way, maybe, still knows you.

 

I don’t know much about what happens after we die, but there is one thing I trust: that love will be the point, the reality, the end.

 

This passage from Revelation pulls our altitude a little higher—it gives us a long view. Whatever hurt, grief, frustrations come in our lives, this gives us a glimpse of the end of that long arc that is bending towards justice and consolation we often hear about.

The end of the story is that, through grief and joy, God is with us, sitting among us even amid the shards, gently cradling our faces as we ready to turn towards hope and light.

[1] Quoted in Richard Rohr’s “Falling Upward”, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. 2011.
[2] Obituary for Madelyn Ellen Linsenmeir, published in the Burlington Free Press, Oct. 14, 2018.