Sermon: When Do We Get Our New Heavens and Our New Earth

ballenger_photoPA IPL Board Member Barbara Ballenger gave this homily on Earth Day Sunday, April 24, 2016, at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Philadelphia (where she is on staff).  Reprinted here with permission.  NOTE: St. Martin’s follows the Revised Common Lectionary, a 3-year cycle of scripture readings.  The readings for this day were Acts 11:1-18; Revelation 21:1-6; John 13:31-35.  

So I have a question. When do we get our new Heaven and new Earth? This set is wearing out, and it seems like it’s about time for God to deliver on those promises that God made in our second reading from the book of Revelation (Revelation 21:1-6).
I don’t want to rain on your Earth Day weekend but:

480887_10152743155550105_643811093_nWe have 84 years to get this right – that’s roughly my mother’s current lifetime. And in the meantime we have fires, floods, famines, droughts and mass species extinctions to worry about.
So by the time my daughter is her grandmother’s age, she could be looking at the end of her world. This isn’t crazy religious talk, this is scientific consensus. As the bumper sticker says: “if you’re not appalled you’re not paying attention.”

It’s end of the world as we know it. But I hope with all my heart that it’s also the beginning of a new one.

Now we’re in the territory of the author who crafted the book of Revelation. Whenever you encounter this psychedelic, multi-headed, winged and catastrophic literature in the Bible — and you can find it in both the Hebrew and the Christian scriptures — the topic of the end of the world is not too far away.

It’s called apocalyptic literature. The Greek word apocalypse means revelation; it’s where the book gets its name. It uses highly symbolic poetry, drenched in mythic imagery from the Hebrew Scriptures with coded references to local enemies to reveal something to its audience. In the case of the book of Revelation, the audience is seven churches in Western Turkey (Asia Minor) in about the year 95 CE. Fun fact: one of them is named Philadelphia. They are sore oppressed by Rome, with the violence of Nero a recent memory. They are beset by divisions with Jews and disagreements among fellow Christians.

And this is what this letter from John of Patmos reveals: Only with the help of God and the Christ are they are going to make it through a world that’s changing right under their feet. They are called to persevere in their beliefs and have faith in God’s involvement.
If you distill this crazy book of Revelation down to its very essence, its essential message, you get a call to active, world-changing hope in the power of God who “lives among mortals.” And this hope in all its multi-headed and winged glory shows up right when the world seems to be ending. Not a future end time. But a current one.

The author Rebecca Solnit would call this hope in the dark.

In fact, she insists that darkness is essential to the work of hope. She wrote this little volume called Hope in the Dark shortly after the start of the second Iraq war, when all that work by millions of people who were calling for peace… failed. Where was hope when so much effort was for nothing? she wondered.

This is what she wrote:

“ Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes – you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists.”

Hope in the dark – now that is something followers of Jesus do exceptionally well. And that is the gift we bring to the world this Earth Day – and really every day.

It’s the same thing that fueled the author of the Book of Revelation. The same thing that allowed the Apostle Peter to get out of the way while God opened the door for gentiles and their weird food.

In this womb-dark place where we do our best contemplation, here’s what we imagine:
We imagine a loving God creating a good earth, made to be nurtured, to be rich and diverse and sustaining and lasting.

We imagine an earth so good that God lives here, among mortals.

We imagine that we mortals who walk around bearing the divine presence within us are empowered to make great change happen on this good earth.

We imagine that change to be fueled by the power of repentance, a great turning that leads us to halt the course of the heat death of our planet. We imagine doing this in time to save not only our grandchildren but our grandparents, and all the vulnerable people who suffer from climate related catastrophe right now.

We imagine ourselves not only changing our light bulbs and our means of transportation, but changing our church, our government our industry our economy to something that is not run on convenience disguised as practicality.

And what we imagine as Christians, we are called to do as disciples.
The work is little and it is large. It is individual and it is collective. It insists on a great turning of the Heavens and the Earth into something new. Not something replaced, but something so loved and nurtured and healed and reconciled that it doesn’t resemble the old.

We also call that Easter.

Hope in the Dark. Easter. A new Heavens and New Earth. These things don’t live in our heads. They come out our hands.

We will practice a new Heavens and a new Earth in small ways today – planting trees, reading The Lorax, signing petitions at the Climate Action Team Table. Today’s forum included a story of how radio is helping vulnerable people in Africa fight climate change. Why here at St Martin’s we didn’t just have Earth day, we’re in the middle of Earth Fortnight!

Is it enough? No. These practices are much like the power individual prayers, vigil candles on the side altar, beads in the rosary. Our faithfulness to God and God’s good earth, is not measured just in the quantity of our actions but in our constancy. And in our willingness to be changed into the new thing that God is creating here.

Happy Earth Day. Amen.