A bleak day, a cosmic conversation, a liturgical identity – and consolation. (Listen.)
I was feeling despondent so I went for a walk when I came across a flock of red-browed finches. They were darting back and forth across the path, cheeping merrily at each other. And they said to me, ‘Learn from us! Look how happy we are in our little flock, flitting between sun and shade.’ And I said, ‘But where is my little flock? I don’t know anymore. And I seem to be stuck in the shadows.’
It’s been a year and then some. I’ve been to a bunch of funerals in the last twelve months: and that’s just the important people. Add in all the friends-of-my-parents and parents-of-my-friends and people-my-age-I’ve-had-dinner-with who’ve died, and the deaths of people I care about are well into the double digits. Meanwhile, loved ones are sick and suffering; friends’ mental health is unravelling; colleagues are bursting into tears at strange moments, and so am I.
I know I’m not alone in this. We’re a congregation that has seen a lot of death in the last twelve months, a lot of sickness, a lot of suffering. And, like many congregations in Victoria, we’re experiencing post lockdown fragmentation. Any given week, many of us are too sick, too busy, or too exhausted by the reality of Covid Normal to turn up to church. Families and kids have lost the habit, perhaps never to be regained; and any sense of momentum or a bright, shiny future has evaporated.
And that’s just the small stuff. Because there’s also the big stuff: war in Ukraine and floods up north and species loss and postcolonial realities and endless injustice and persecution of beloved folk and the swing to the vicious right. On and on and on it goes: there are many days when I can’t read the news.
So I’m feeling bleak. A surprise reminder of a friend’s recent death, a sense of the absence, and the tears roll down. Another small gathering of a fragmented church: and I wonder where the life is. A news report of a planned coal mine and destruction of a sacred site: and I rage and weep. Violence and death are everywhere; I’m mourning and in pain; I’m stuck in the shadows; and I can’t seem to remember where my flock is.
So I turn to the book of Revelation. It’s a weird old thing, a long, trippy letter written by a poet in exile to seven little flocks—and boy, were these flocks in trouble. They were being torn apart by persecution; they were being torn apart by internal conflict; they were struggling with false teachings; and they were struggling within themselves for what it means to be the church. They intimately knew tears and death: for they were living the pain of a ruptured world.
To these people, the poet writes: “‘I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and that old agent of chaos and destruction—the sea—was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down as a bride. And I heard a loud voice saying, ‘See, God’s home is among mortals. God will dwell among them as their God; they will be God’s peoples, and Godself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’” (Revelation 21:1-4).
Now, it’s possible that the poet had his head in the clouds, or had eaten some magic mushrooms. It’s possible to hear these words and think, he’s out of touch with reality. Life is hard, death is real, everything’s going down the gurgler and the world’s going to hell. But what if something else is going on?
What if John’s letter, his ‘revelation’ or ‘uncovering’, is a vision of how things really are? What if God’s in charge and, as we regularly pray, “heaven and earth are reconciled and all things are made one in Christ?” And what if these words are not hollow comfort, but passionate protest, enlivening hope? And what, then, is the nature of this hope?
There are two dominant ways of reading Revelation. The first we might call pie-in-the-sky-til-you-die, and it’s epitomized by the Left Behind series. This way of reading is all about death, because life itself doesn’t matter much. All you’re really doing is making sure you’ve got your ticket, so that when you die you’ll go to heaven. Then at the end times, God will swallow up death by … um … killing a lot of people then sending them to a place of endless suffering; while the rest of us will live blissfully in a new creation. As for what this new creation is, more than one person I know thinks it’s probably a planet currently under construction in one of heaven’s workshops.
So this first way of reading, this pie-in-the-sky-til-you-die, is all about escape from this world, and God is both violent avenger and Slartibartfast.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, there has been a backlash to this life-denying approach, and this brings me to the second way of reading. We might call this approach saving-the-world, and it’s focused on human action. For readers like me have noticed that the new Jerusalem has come down to earth, bringing God’s kingdom-culture with it. It’s not that we go to heaven; it’s that heaven has come down and been integrated with this earth. And so the emphasis is not on escaping the earth for an afterlife or Planet B. Instead, it’s about bringing about God’s kingdom-culture in this world now, a culture in which empire is disarmed once and for all, and peace and justice reign.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with seeking justice and peace and cleaning up waterways and campaigning for the things that matter. Indeed, caring for the earth and its peoples is good work, and a typical outcome of following Jesus. The problem is when we effectively erase God.
Too often, we forget that people have tried and failed for centuries to bring about healthy churches and good government and peace and justice for all; we ignore the deep realities of sin in institutions and in ourselves; we gloss over Jesus’ teaching that we will always have the poor. Instead, we work and work and work and work, and there’s no end to the work. We have no time for worship or rest or walks or finches; we become discouraged and eventually burn out—and all of us can probably name a few people who have lost their faith due to this focus on human striving.
But there is a third way, a way that is neither pie-in-the-sky nor saving-the-world: and this is to read Revelation as a liturgical text, a worship text.
This way of reading begins with the assumption that it’s not written to individuals so much as to a worshipping community; and that, like the first little flocks which received John’s letter, this community bears the pain of a ruptured world. It assumes that the worshipping community is grappling with grief and sin and conflict and death; and it reminds us that God’s love is so vast yet so intimate, that Godself will reach out and gently wipe away the tears from each and every face.
This way of reading places God at the centre, the God who has pitched a tent among us; and it trusts that only God brings about the end of empire and the restoration of all creation. But it doesn’t leave us passive. In the vision of Revelation, as the body of Christ the worshipping community is not called to fix or save the world; but it is called to embody God’s new creation. It’s not called to focus on the afterlife; but it is called to be a sign of God’s future, a glimpse of the fullness that is yet to come. It’s called to point to God’s newness and life and tenderness and hope, even as it bears the pain of the world.
In this vision, the worshipping community witnesses to and celebrates the marriage of heaven and earth; the integration of the material and the spiritual; the dance of bread and wine and word and water and breath. It’s called to embody economic justice and creation care in everything it does. It’s called to build loving relationships between radically diverse individuals and peoples and species. And it’s called to trust God so completely that, like birds of the air, its members no longer worry or strive: for a trusting community can embrace rhythms of work and worship and rest and play, death and life, grief and joy, knowing all things are held in God’s all-encompassing love.
As I read Revelation liturgically, thinking about those tiny struggling churches way back when and our tiny struggling church now, all bearing the wounds of the world, I remember the red-browed finches.
‘Learn from us!’ they said to me. ‘Look how happy we are in our little flock, flitting between sun and shade.’ In this moment of worship, in liturgical time, I lean into the vision where all things are reconciled and finches and ministers chat.
I think about our little group these days, no bigger than a flock of finches. I think of how a flock ebbs and flows: one taken by an eagle; another going off alone; a little hatchling here; a newcomer there. Individuals may come and go, but the flock continues on.
I notice how some are in the sun; some are in the shade; most of us are flitting between them. We are chirruping at each other, telling stories of our lives; we are caring for each other as we point to gospel seeds and springs of living water and mustard bushes and shelter. We are not powerful eagles or sly old foxes, just ordinary members of a flock: short-lived, vulnerable, but filled with the spirit’s breath—and not one is forgotten by God.
I remember that Christ is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end: and that all things are reconciled in Christ. Not just the good, the happy, the beautiful; not just the important, the powerful, the human: but all things. The hard, the bleak, the sad; the suffering, the pain, the death; the physical and the spiritual; the human and the non-human; lamenting women and chirruping birds: all these things and more are gathered up in Christ.
And this is where my hope lies.
For there’s a break in the clouds and I’m flooded with joy as the truth suddenly hits me: being gathered up in Christ means you and me and us together, in all our sadness and stories, gladness and pain: for you’re my little flock, my finches. Ω
1 June 2022: Afterword: Since preaching this reflection, a little flock of red-browed finches have begun visiting the Sanctuary garden. It is the first time we have seen them here. Thanks be to God’s Holy Spirit, which moves in and through all things.
A reflection by Alison Sampson on Revelation 21:-16 and other texts on 15 May 2022 © Sanctuary 2022 (Year C Pascha 5). Photo of a red-browed finch by Duncan McCaskill, Creative Commons.
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