Tuesday, April 26, 2016

4th Easter, The Revelation of John and a visitor from Bosnia and Herzegovina

Acts 9:36-43
Revelation 7:9-17
John 10:22-30

Psalm 23

Today I want to bring our attention to the passage from John’s letter, “Revelation”.  We rarely talk about Revelation in our Episcopal teaching.  I think that we, preachers struggle with this book because it has been used by some conservative churches to talk about an apocalyptic view of God’s work in the world.  Some denominations focus on the one passage that suggests that a chosen few will be raptured up to be with God while the rest will be condemned to the evil of the world.  Some denominations use the imagery of Revelation to suggest that the Kingdom of Heaven is coming, but it not coming here.  Others have used the war images of this letter to suggest that God favors one group and supports military action against another.
But to read Revelation literally is to miss the rich imagery and the complex theology that this letter offers us.  So I would like to open our consideration of Revelation by situating it in history and then suggest that the images  that we hear today in our passage from Revelation may open up a point of reflection for God’s presence and work with us, especially in places of oppression and injustice.

First the historical context.  We believe that the letter of Revelation was written by John at the end of the first century.  Some scholars believe that this John was one of the Apostles, possibly the one that Jesus loved.  Others argue that this John is a different person.  If this John was one of the Apostles, then he was a very young man at the time of Jesus’ death—likely just a teenager and a very old man at the time of writing this letter.  The letter was written to seven Church communities in Asia Minor communities.  These communities were facing very severe persecution by the Roman authorities and the emperor Domitian.  John himself has been exiled to the island of Patmos—one small Greek island.  Many Christians have been martyred.  The hope that Jesus would return in Glory during their lifetimes has waned.  They know oppression and suffering and are wondering how God and Jesus the Messiah is engaged with them.

Reading Revelation as a whole, we can see that John is writing to encourage and comfort the people of Asia Minor.  He is writing to help them see that God’s work is not a simple engagement of good against evil, but rather that God is working in the midst of human oppression.  He is encouraging them to hold onto a vision of new life.  This vision is an Easter vision, one in which Jesus is risen from death and suffering into new life with God.  He is comforting his people with the knowledge that God is present as they struggle against oppression and is working with them to bring that hope and vision into being—bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to fruition.
In today’s passage we see the great multitude surrounding the throne.  They are waving palms (reminding us of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday).  They are dressed in white.  An elder asks John,  “Who are these who are dressed in white and where have they come from?”  And John responds to the elder,  “You know”.   These are ones who have died.  These are the martyrs, the faithful who have died at the hands of the authorities.  This multitude includes those who died waiting for Christ to return. 
This multitude includes those who have died in our time.  I believe that the faithful multitude includes all of God’s people—not those of one sect, one faith or one denomination.  The faithful are people everywhere from every generation who have sought to do God’s work in the face of human rulers, corrupt governments, evil greed.  These are the ones who died and are now united in their witness to God’s power and goodness.

In death, this multitude provides John’s hearers with witness to God’s goodness.  They fall down before God singing and praising God. 
“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever!
Amen.”
John is offering his communities an assurance that in spite of the evil, corruption, oppression that they are experiencing, that God is still worthy of praise.  He points his people to the Lamb who was slain, Jesus Christ who was killed by Roman authorities has overcome death.  This is where hope and power continue.

And then in the context of this praise of God, the multitude sings about the vision for God’s realm—
“the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

In spite of death, poverty, destruction of the temple, dispersal of the church.  In spite of the fact that they are now small in number and John himself has been exiled, there is still a vision of Christ-God who will protect and provide so that people will not suffer, not hunger, not thirst, not cry.

These images from the letter of revelation are fantastical, but they speak to a reality of God’s presence, God’s promise, and God’s hope in the midst of suffering. 

Today we have a guest with us (at the 10 a.m. service), Jasmina Husanović.  Jasmina is a professor at the University of Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Jasmina was an activist during the Bosnian war of the 1990s.  She has committed herself to academic work and activist work of building a new society in Bosnia.  Jasmina has for the past twenty years worked with women survivors of the genocide.  She is currently working closely with a group of trade unionists who are trying to combat the economic oppression of the oligarchy.   You might remember that last year I talked about the DITA factory—the last manufacturing enterprise in Tuzla.  The workers won a settlement against the DITA owners who had closed the factory and a bankruptcy manager forced the owners to reopen the factory.  Jasmina has been working closely with the woman who has led that fight, our friend Minke.

At 10, I will ask Jasmina to talk about the vision for a new Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Without her here, I will answer on her behalf.  Jasmina and the others whom I have worked with share a vision for a new Bosnia and Herzegovina in which workers have a voice in their own destiny.  They are working towards a new economy in which workers will earn enough to support their families, creating good lives in which people have enough to eat, nice places to live, and an opportunity to connect with the broader community of Europe.  I think that having lived through the war, Jasmina will say that the vision must include freedom from fear—a security that stems from a new peace in which false constructs of ethnicity and religious division give way to a new shared sense of community and common humanity.  The vision of those who are working for real change is not a vision of separated ethnic states—Bosniak, Croat and Serb-- but rather real community united by shared prosperity, health and common purpose in an economy that produces peace and security.

This vision is not the reality in Bosnia today.  But there are signs of hope for that reality that Jasmina will share with us.  There is the reopening of the factory, and the engagement of students. But Jasmina will also speak to the difficulty of holding on to hope.  Close to 200,000 people emigrated from Bosnia last year.  That’s as many as the city of Banja Luka.  These are people who see no future for themselves in Bosnia and are seeking an alternative elsewhere.   At present Jasmina and her colleagues are working to start up a “Workers’ University”, a place where factory workers and public sector workers—most of whom are today unemployed can come together and read and think about their history and can work to develop both a critical assessment of what has happened there—the genocide and the destruction of the economy and plans for a future that will realize their vision.

I want to conclude our reflection today with the reminder that God is working.  That in the face of evil and oppression, we join the multitude of saints and martyrs, the faithful of every generation who look to the Lamb who was slain, our Messiah.  We offer our praise of God’s goodness in the midst of a harsh and oppressive world.  We join the angels, saints and living creatures dressed in white who have built up the Body, bringing God’s vision into being here.  Our work with Christ is not complete.  Let the letter of Revelation and Jasmina’s witness remind us that we are not alone—God is in our midst, guiding us to the promised Kingdom, here in Bosnia and in San Rafael.

Amen.

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