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"The End"

Sermon delivered by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian in New Bedford, 29 January, 2006.


The first reading this morning is from the Christian scriptures, the book called Revelation, chapter 22, vv. 1-5.

1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. 3 Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; 4 they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. 5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

The commentary on the reading comes from an essay titled "Alas for the Earth! Lament and Resistance in Revelation 12" by Barbara Rossing, from the book The Earth Story in the New Testament:

For us, the issue is to understand how Revelation's ecological lament takes shape in our own global situation. Escapist scenarios of a 'rapture' can only serve to deflect attention away from earth and away from the book's critique of imperialism. There is no rapture of people up to heaven in Revelation. If anything, it is God who is 'raptured' down to Earth to dwell with people in a wondrous urban paradise (Rev. 21.3; 22.3). The plot of Revelation ends on Earth, not heaven, with the throne of God... located in the center of the city (Rev 22.3) that has come down to earth. [p. 191]

Sermon -- "The End"

One of the central stories of the Western Christian tradition goes like this: God create the world out of nothing. Everything was wonderful at first, but then somehow evil crept into that perfect world. Human beings wound up living lives of suffering and sorrow, but if we're good enough then after we die we might get to go to a place called heaven. And one day, the world and everything in it will come to an end, because God is going to have the last day of judgment, and the earth will go away, and those who got into heaven will spend all eternity walking streets of gold through alabaster cities.

Does that story sound familiar? I expect it does. I expect many of you have heard this story over and over again. Some of you were taught this story as children; and although this is not the story we teach Unitarian Universalist children, nevertheless even those of us who grew up as Unitarian Universalists know this old central story of the Western Christian tradition.

This old story does not come from the Bible. It is based on some of the stories in the Bible, but there are other stories in the Bible which contradict this story. No, in spite of what some people may say, this old story does not come from the Bible. This old story is, in fact, a myth: the dominant myth of our time and for our culture. It is a myth that may be rooted in certain parts of the Bible but really it is a myth that is passed down from parent to child, from friend to friend. It is a myth that has so permeated our culture that even those of us who reject traditional Christianity still tell ourselves this myth.

And yes, even those of us here this morning: at some level, we, too, believe in this myth. We may tell the myth a little differently, but we still tell each other this myth. We might tell the story of this old myth like this: The universe came out of nothing, and began with the Big Bang. After billions of years, our solar system formed, and our planet formed, and life appeared on our planet. Life evolved until one day there were human beings, and we lived in harmony with the earth. But then we started polluting the earth, and we developed nuclear weapons that could end all life as we know it, so now we live lives of suffering and sorrow. If we're good people and work very very hard, and live lives devoted to making the world a better place, we believe we might get to a point where we create a world of peace and justice and happiness. But the way things are going, either there will be a nuclear holocaust or the oceans will rise due to global warming or overpopulation will turn earth into a kind of hell; in any case, the earth will go away and that will be the end of everything.

This second myth is pretty much the same as the first myth, except that there's more science, in it because it mentions the Big Bang and evolution and so on. But the basic trajectory of the story is the same: we come from nothing, for a time we lived in harmony with the universe, but now this is a world of suffering and woe, and someday soon everything will come to an end. Or to paraphrase Monty Python, from the movie "The Life of Brian": "We've come from nuffin, we're going back to nuffin; what 'ave we lost? Nuffin!" Yes indeed, for even if the world ends we really haven't lost anything.

I worry about these two myths that permeate our culture. Our culture seems to assume that the world is going to come to an end. And you know something? -- if you spend your time absolutely convinced that the world is coming to an end, that tends to make you a little passive. You tend to throw up your hands and say things like: Oh well, why worry about the homelessness problem, global warming is going to kill us all anyway. Or: Oh well, why worry about the way suburban sprawl is killing off woodlands and farmlands, overpopulation is inevitably going to kill us off anyway and there's nothing we can really do about it.

But we can do something. We can stop telling ourselves the story in this way. We can start telling a new story about the way things are. And I'll tell you where I think we should start: we should start with the book of Revelation in the Christian scriptures. The book of Revelation has been twisted and deformed by people who claim it's a book about God putting an end to the world; people who claim it's a book about death and destruction and violence. This twisted version of the book of Revelation has permeated popular culture. Have you heard of the "Left Behind" books? "Left Behind" is an enormously popular series of popular novels about the so-called "last days of earth," when God comes back to earth, and all the good people get to go immediately to heaven (do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars), while the rest of us have to stay here on earth to deal with wars and rumors of wars and pestilence and God knows what else, with every expectation that God is going to send us straight to hell before long. The millions of people who read these books assume that they are going to be the ones who go straight to heaven, and they assume that people like us heretical Unitarian Universalists will wind up in hell. That's the way popular culture twists the book of Revelation.

It's time for us to reclaim the book of Revelation. Now Revelation is a pretty strange book, no doubt about it. I have some friends who survived the nineteen-sixties drug culture, and they assure me that the book of Revelation sounds an awful lot like a description of a bad hallucinogenic drug trip. Those of you who are into the arts might think that the book of Revelation sounds much like some of the stranger Surrealists who were writing in the early part of the 20th century. Have any of you actually read Revelation? Don't you wonder how on earth we are going to do anything positive with it? And so you will ask: how on earth am I supposed to do anything with this crazy-talk book?

My friends, it's easy. Remember this basic principle: religion rests on myths that require poetic thought in order to be understood. Do not attempt to apply rational, linear thought to myths, because if you do, you will find that the myths twist and turn and slide away from you; they will not change, they will simply take up residence elsewhere in the realm of myth. No, what you have to do with myths is you have to own them and retell them in a way that makes mythic sense. If you are an artist or a poet or musician or a dancer, you will be practiced at doing this; but if not, remember that this is a skill that can be learned by anyone.

Let us, therefore, see what we can do with the book of Revelation.

First principles again: do not take this book literally. Let me give you an example of how we might do that. I have picked a random selection from the book of Revelation, which I will read to you shortly; and after I read this selection, we're going to apply mythical, poetical thinking to it, we're going to retell it in a way that's true for us. Here's the random passage, from chapter 9, vv. 13-21:

13 Then the sixth angel blew his trumpet, and I heard a voice from the four horns of the golden altar before God, 14 saying to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, "Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates." 15 So the four angels were released, who had been held ready for the hour, the day, the month, and the year, to kill a third of humankind. 16 The number of the troops of cavalry was two hundred million; I heard their number. 17 And this was how I saw the horses in my vision: the riders wore breastplates the color of fire and of sapphire and of sulfur; the heads of the horses were like lions' heads, and fire and smoke and sulfur came out of their mouths. 18 By these three plagues a third of humankind was killed, by the fire and smoke and sulfur coming out of their mouths. 19 For the power of the horses is in their mouths and in their tails; their tails are like serpents, having heads; and with them they inflict harm.

20 The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.

OK, that's pretty strange. I'm beginning to wish that I hadn't taken the risk of choosing some random passage from Revelation -- I mean, what on earth can we do with this crazy passage? The heads of the horses were like lions? with breath smelling of sulfur? and tails like serpents? What are we to do with that?

But then we read, "The rest of humankind... did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshipping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or talk." I think I find an ecological message here. I look around me at our culture, and I see people worshipping things; in our culture, we place a high value on accumulating things; and we place a correspondingly low value on living beings, both human beings and other living beings. The passage I randomly chose goes on to say, "And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts." So it is today, that our culture finds nothing wrong with accumulating personal wealth and possessions, even while homeless people roam our streets and a quarter of all children in the United States live in poverty; our culture finds nothing wrong with conspicuous consumption even though we are destroying whole ecosystems to support those patterns of consumption.

We are beginning to make some progress in our reinterpretation of the book of Revelation. Now I will tell you that a big part of the book of Revelation compares the mythical city of Jerusalem with the mythical city of Babylon. Babylon is the mythical fallen city, the city of sin. In chapter 18, the book of Revelation says:

Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
It has become a dwelling place of demons,
a haunt of every foul spirit,
a haunt of every foul bird,
a haunt of every foul and hateful beast.

Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the good city, the perfect city where everything is going to be all right. In chapter 21, the book of Revelation says:

1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Remember, these are not the actual historical cities of Jerusalem and Babylon; these are mythic representations of cities. And some ecological theologians have become very interested in the contrast between the two mythic cities. Babylon, they say, is the city of environmental disaster. Babylon is haunted by foul spirits, which could be taken as pollution or the like; it is haunted by foul birds and foul beasts, maybe like the many invasive species that are destroying our ecosystems. Jerusalem, on the other hand, is the city that is to come: a new earth, the new urbanism; a place of ecological balance, which we will get to as we solve the ecological problems we're now facing.

My friend Ellen Spero, now the minister at our church in Chelmsford, Mass., pointed out to me years ago that Revelation can easily be interpreted as telling the story of an oppressed people, trapped in the mythic city of Babylon, who will one day achieve economic and social justice; and after much turmoil this people will one day live in a new land, the mythic city of Jerusalem, a city where God (whoever God may be) will come down to live, too; and according to Revelation, a loud voice will proclaim:

See, the home of God is among mortals.
God will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God will be with them;
4 God will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more.

That sounds lovely to me. I wouldn't mind living in a city where there was someone to wipe every tear from our eyes, whether it's God that's doing the wiping away of tears, or whether we finally get ourselves to the point where we can reach out and wipe away the tears from our neighbors' eyes.

The way Ellen Spero interprets the story is closely related to the ecological interpretation of the story, as has been pointed out by a number of contemporary theologians. According to these theologians, the book of Revelation was written at a time when the early Christian communities were suffering under the oppression of the imperial Roman authorities; and these theologians assert that Roman imperialism is related to the kind of consumerism allows natural resources to be wasted and despoiled. (Interestingly, some of these theologians are conservative evangelical Christians, not just the usual liberal theologians.) Thus, while the writer of the book of Revelation did not know the term "ecological theology," there is a real connection there.

In the central story of the Western tradition, of course, Revelation is interpreted in a very different way. For many (but not all) traditional Christians, Revelation tells of a time when God will come back to earth to reward the righteous and punish evildoers. In this interpretation of the book of Revelation, you and I might be among the evildoers; Unitarian Universalists in particular get in trouble simply by virtue of not following a traditional Christian creed. In this interpretation of the book of Revelation, the people who tell the story this way usually put themselves in the position of the righteous persons whom God will save -- with some caveats, they have to keep leading a righteous life and so on. They tell a story where God will come and whisk them off to heaven, leaving the bad old earth behind to be consumed by wars and environmental disaster.

We have all heard this other interpretation of the book of Revelation. And in general, we have conceded that this is the correct interpretation of Revelation. We are more likely to reject the Bible completely as a stupid book, or at least reject Revelation as a crazy book. In so doing, we think we have won. Reject the Bible, or at least reject Revelation; that will take care of them! But it doesn't take care of them, because that means they get to have control over the myths that we tell ourselves in this culture. They get to tell us that the world will end; they get to tell us that only a few people (no plants or animals) will survive the end of the world; they get to tell us that they don't think we're going to survive the end of the world; they get to tell us to doubt ourselves.

I have come to call myself a "post-Christian." People will ask me, "Are you a Christian?"; and I respond, "No, I'm a post-Christian." I am post-Christian, meaning that I am not bound by the myths and creeds of traditional Christianity; but I am post-Christian, meaning that I acknowledge that my Unitarian Universalist tradition has been shaped by the old stories of the Christian tradition, and therefore those old stories are still mine to shape.

This is our work together. We cannot allow the old central story of the Christian tradition to continue unchallenged. That old Christian story tells us that the world is going to end soon, it sucks the hope out of our bodies, it leads us to act in ways of destruction; for if the world is going to end anyway it doesn't really matter what we do with our lives aside from gaining as much pleasure as we can while we're here.

We must challenge the old story of the Christian tradition from our Unitarian Universalist post-Christian perspective. In our retelling, Revelation is not a book about the end of the universe. Instead, it is a book that tells of a people who have been oppressed, and it offers a vision of a world without oppression; and it is a book that tells of a land that is being spoiled, and if offers a vision of a land of plenty where all beings can live together peacefully. We can retell the Christian stories so that they become stories of economic justice, stories of ecological justice.

But you can not delegate this work to your minister to do alone. If you have friends, acquaintances, or co-workers who tell the old Christian stories, listen to what they have to say and then retell their story to yourself so that it becomes a story of economic and ecological justice, so that you don't fall into the trap of believing their story at any level of your being. If you have children in your life, you have a special responsibility: that old Christian story permeates every aspect of our culture and they will learn it from friends and popular culture, so you must tell them your version of the story so that they have an alternative, less destructive, interpretation on which they can draw; this is why our Sunday school is such a critically important part of this church, because our Sunday school supports parents and grandparents in inoculating children against that old interpretation of the Bible story.

Finally, if you are lucky enough to be an artist or performer of any kind, or a writer, or a scholar, or an educator, help reshape the Bible story for our time. You are the ones who are really going to make a difference, because you are already dealing in mythic and poetic thinking. Lead the way for the rest of us as we reshape the central myths of our culture; reshape those myths so that instead of telling us that the destruction of the world is inevitable and oh by the way most of us are going to hell, instead of that those myths become myths of economic and ecological justice, myths of hope, myths that affirm life and living beings.

So may it be.