August 23, 2020
Sara Wilhelm Garbers
Then I saw new heavens and a new earth. The former heavens and the former earth had passed away, and the sea existed no longer. 2 I also saw a new Jerusalem, the holy city, coming down out of heaven from God, radiant as those getting married are on their wedding day. 3 And I heard a loud voice calling from the throne,
“Look! God’s Tabernacle is among humankind!
God will tabernacle amongst them;
they will be God’s people.
and God will be fully present with them;
4 The Most High will wipe every tear from their eyes.
And death, mourning, crying, and pain will be no more,
for the old order has fallen.”
5 The One who was seated on the throne said, “Look! I am making everything new!” and added, “Write this, for what I am saying is trustworthy and true.” 6 And that One continued, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give drink freely from the spring of the water of life. 7 This is the rightful inheritance of the over-comers. I will be their God and they will be my children. 8 But the legacy of cowards, the unfaithful, the depraved, the murderers, the fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars is the burning lake of fiery sulphur, which is the second death.” Revelation 21:1-8
Well, good morning and welcome to worship! I am joining you this morning from a boat in northern Wisconsin, which seemed appropriate given that the sermon is entitled “A New Heaven and a New Earth.” So, greetings to you from here in the midst of creation. As we begin, will you pray with me? God of all creation, indeed of earth and of the sky… this morning, as we come to worship, we come with earnest hearts—and hearts filled with a lot of other things—but we’re here. So God, by your Spirit and by your breeze and breath and air, might you open us to yourself and, in so doing, open us to all things of life: to one another, and this world, for it’s in Christ’s name that we gather and pray. Amen.
When I was a little girl, I would go visit my dad who lived in Colorado (and then in Illinois, Missouri, and eventually in Arizona). The best part about having divorced parents was that ever since I was about five years old, I got to fly on airplanes all by myself which, if you know anything about me, you know that I loved adventuring and doing it by myself. It was so fun! I got to meet the pilot, and they would be so nice to me and give me wings. It was great. One of my favorite parts about flying though was when the plane would begin to lower in the sky and I would look out of the window seat, which I still to this day will request, and I would see the landscape of my homeland…Minnesota. Ever since my family immigrated to the United States, predominantly from Sweden but also Norway and Germany, Minnesota has been our land. It’s been the place where my great-great grandma, my great-grandma, my grandma, my mom, and myself (to trace my matrilineal line), where we were lived and, minus my great-great grandma, we all were all born. And as places are won’t to do, they become part of us; they get in our bones; the water runs like the blood in our veins. And every time a plane would come out of the clouds and I would look down in the lakes and I could point them out because I knew them, I knew I was home. Have you ever felt that way?
Where the place becomes part of who you are?
Where a landscape itself is sacred?
Where you emerge into it and you can breathe
because you know that you are home?
The lakes and the land of Minnesota have been that for me. I went to college at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and my favorite memories from my time there are of when the mist and the fog would roll in and it was as if heaven came closer to earth for just a little bit. And the magic of Gitchi Gami would rise up out of the waters and envelop me, and I knew that God was there. I’ve had similar experiences throughout my life, whether it was the Summer Solstice on top of Cadillac Mountain with Andy in Acadia National Park, or whether it was the sun dancing behind the mountains of the Collegiate Peaks as I was backpacking the Continental Divide with a bunch of ninth graders, or whether it was times spent at camp in the middle of the woods, when the Spirit had bubbled up something different, different than we had known in the time at home with our phones and God got to work and show up in God’s way in the mystery and sacredness of those woods and that place. So, how about you? Is it a lake, maybe like this one? Time spent in the Boundary Waters, at a family cabin, or perhaps it is the land and the place where our church sits?
Indeed, in our process of Re-Forming, one of the core values that we articulated was IMMERSE: “Immerse in sacred spaces and rhythms.” And the reason this became one of our named values is because so many of us noted the ways in which the Meetinghouse, the way that space itself was a sacred place for us, a place where we had encountered God in the rhythms of our lives, where marriages and baptisms and confirmations had transpired, where our lives were transformed in a place.
Place matters. Land matters for who we are and our ability to flourish and walk in this land. And so today, as we continue our series about what it means for us to be a “Kingdom People,” together we will consider and wrestle a bit more with what it means that we are a people, a people who claim to follow and pray for God and God’s kingdom to come here on earth as it is in heaven. So today, as we continue our series on a “Kingdom People,” we want to wrestle a little bit with what does it mean that we are people who live on this land, in this time? And what does it mean for us then to pray for God’s kingdom to come; to live out a reality of a new heaven and a new earth and to do so in the face of the reality of climate crisis, environmental degradation, and the reality that right now, folks are burning up in the Southwest of the United States on account of forest fires.
What does this mean? Does it say, speak, or call anything to/from us as people who claim the name of Christ and who want to walk the kingdom way? Even if this conversation is new to you or feels a bit uncomfortable, I hope that you’ll stay in it, because our hope in doing this series on “Kingdom People” is that we want to be a people who root in, who refuse the ways in which the partisanship of our time prevents us from hearing the call of Christ, and to live more deeply into what does it mean to be a people who pray this prayer every week for God’s kingdom to come, that we might indeed then be a people who are “Kingdom People” together. Sallie McFague, Christian theologian and author, writes about what it means to be a people who follow Christ and who live in a time of climate change. She talks about how indeed we live in a space of environmental crisis. And that for us, this actually is a theological problem. It invites us to ask serious questions about how we understand who we are and who this God is. In her book, A New Climate for Theology, she notes how very often our ways of encountering our spirituality have largely been from a psychological framework. It’s about our own inner lives and souls, but this in many ways actually has something to do with New Age theology, where it’s just about me feeling good and not having to be encountered by the God who works in history and in all of creation. And so she invites us, as I am going to do today as well, to take seriously what it means to be a people whose faith not only transforms us on the inside, but then invites us to live differently in the way that we show up in the world and in the land. Now, the reality is that for far too long in Western Christianity, our faith has not actually been very shaped by Scripture, but instead it’s been shaped by philosophies that view the human as higher and above all of the rest of creation. This is what’s known as the “dominion model”: it’s one in which the earth is merely ours to use, and we can do whatever we want with it. Now, some of you might not have tuned into this sort of awareness of how we have been formed back when you were kids, but I remember how much I internalized this model when I was a kid.
While I was growing up I’d go to church and hear stuff about new heaven and new earth and it was like, “Well, God’s going to blow everything up anyway…so, like, who really cares? I mean thank goodness, I’m not like Buddhist or something. I can like crush bugs and eat whatever I want and get all of this cool stuff!” Now, of course, I look back at myself both with compassion— because we all grow—but also with grief because following Jesus doesn’t mean that we don’t care about this world. We claim a faith that says God became embodied and dwelt amongst us. We follow a God who we name as Creator and Sustainer and Redeemer of all of life. So does this not then invite us to show up in the world to live in a way that is in partnership with the ways in which God would desire for us to live? Theology matters. How we understand who God is and how we then make sense of ourselves matters. So if we say we want to be a Kingdom People then it matters how we think of God and ourselves for if we understand and think about ourselves and this world as just something that’s going to burn up and doesn’t matter, it impacts the way that we live our lives. Some of this can be seen in the ways that some folks who claim the name of Christ dealt with the westward movement across our country: where carcasses of buffaloes would pile up, where Native people were not treated as ones equally made in the image of God. And so right now, today, we have the opportunity and the invitation instead to join with God who is God the Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer of all of creation. And we do so, indeed, by becoming a Kingdom People who care about and who participate in the caring for all of God’s creation, and all of humanity. What I’m saying is deeply rooted in a Scriptural invitation and in the way of faith. The Biblical vision is clear, going way back to chapter one of Genesis, right? Where does the story start? It starts in creation. God creates the heavens and the earth and all living things and there’s day and there’s night and they’re separated from one another. There’s fish and there are all kinds of animals. All of this creating happens and God says it’s really good before we humans even show up. And yet when we do, when the earth creature is formed from out of the dust of the earth, the earth creature is not given a task to rule over, but to care for, to restore the goodness of God’s creation that God has made. This witness of God as Creator is one that is echoed throughout the text of our Scriptures. The Psalms again and again, name God as the one who is the creator of the heavens and the earth, the wonder and the marvel of creation. The book of Colossians also names, that by God all things were created in heaven and in earth: ”For by God all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities-all things have been created by God and for God.” (Col 1:16)
So central to our faith and our way of being in the world should therefore be a commitment to a belief that God is the Creator of all things. And if God is Creator, does that not invite something from us to honor the creation? For in so doing, we honor the God who is the creator of all of life. This should be one of the central aspects of our understanding of what it means to be a Kingdom People: we are a people who get to partner with God the Creator, the creator of all life and become people who foster the conditions of life and of creation both in ourselves and in the world that God has fashioned. Not only is the Biblical vision one of God is creator, it is also one of God as Sustainer. The idea of God as Sustainer of all living things begins at the beginning: God is the one who breathes breath into our nostrils. God is the one who we are invited to live in right relationship with because we can’t do it on our own. Even looking at Levitical law, whenever an Israelite would kill an animal, it wasn’t like the got to do whatever and kill as many as they wanted as if no one really cares. No, they had to bring the animal before the priest. This is because throughout the text there is a clear sense of everything comes from God and so we don’t get to just do whatever we want because God is the Sustainer. Without God, the creator now sustaininglife, there wouldn’t be any life of which to speak, we wouldn’t be here. So to think that we’re powerful and can do whatever we want fundamentally violates the Biblical vision of who this God is and who we are then called to be. Not only though is God Creator and Sustainer, but God is also Redeemer. We see this even in the beginning, when folks are like, “Hey, listen, I know we were walking in the garden with God and everything was good, but we’re just going to do our own thing.” God immediately says, “Hey, I’m here to make things new. Let’s get back to the garden. Live in right relationship with me and with one another and with all of creation.” And so even as the people come out of being enslaved in Exodus, God promises them a place, a land where there will be plenty enough for everyone to eat, freedom in every sense, and sustainability for their lives and their wellbeing. This is part of the vision that they see when they get to the mountain top and look over into that land: they see a LAND. It’s a land, a good land, a broad land, says Exodus. This land is a world where God cares for all of creation, where when the flood comes, it isn’t just the humans who are saved. No, the animals and all living things matter, for God is about life: life and flourishing of all that God has created. So this is the vision of God: as Creator, Sustainer, and as Redeemer, but fundamentally central to all of this is the idea that God becomes incarnate amongst us, that the God who has created the body of the earth and our bodies in God’s image shows up in a human body to tell us that there is a different way for us to live, for we have forgotten how to live the garden promise. And yet we’re invited to participate in this new creation and in the way things are meant to be in view of the God who has dwelt amongst us. As Romans 8:20 recounts, creation is groaning as if in childbirth awaiting this fullness of God’s love and embodied freedom to come or, as 2 Corinthians reminds us: When we are in Christ, we are a new creation. to be, and to live this way then is to strip ourselves of the ego things where we think that we need power and dominion. And instead to walk the way of Jesus, who being in very nature God took on human form and dwelt amongst us. So why then has so much of the history of our faith seemed to have forgotten this? Why is it that so often we look for a faith that will save us out of this world instead of encountering the Christ who meets us in this world, and then join with God and the caring for God’s creation?
I don’t know all the reasons, but I think a lot of it has to do with fear.
One of the things about me that most of you don’t know is I’m not a good swimmer, I’m pretty bad, actually. I think that’s fundamentally why I hate being in the water, because when I was in Hawaii on my honeymoon, I almost drowned (That was awesome!). Or even now right in this boat on the lake, I am where I like to be: I’m on top of the water, thank you very much. Because if I go in, I know there are muskies and there is seaweed…and a lot of other things that are bigger than me which I can’t control. And so much of our lives have been structured around trying to clench our fists and seek control. But this is not the kingdom way. This is not the kingdom invitation for us. The invitation is for us to encounter the God of the wild, the God who is bigger than us, the God who is found in the creation itself, in that which we can’t control…and our inability to control it isn’t the problem. It is instead an invitation into life where we encounter and embrace our vulnerabilities and our fragility, knowing that we are held and sustained by the Creator of all life. Last year as Andy and I were miscarrying, I listened to a song on repeat from the latest album by Mumford & Sons. The song was called “The Wild.” And as painful and excruciating as it was (and is) to know that I wasn’t going to get to parent that child on the earth, there was a sense of love that washed over me as I listened and wept, knowing that what I was experiencing and encountering in my grief was the wildness of life and the God who held and sustained me…and that there was more life for me to encounter, if I would just let myself be held. In her book, The Hour of Land, eco-feminist activist and writer Terry Tempest Williams writes about our National Parks and notes that we fear the wild and the wilderness seek to control it. She writes
In the desert, success is the understanding of limits. One false move and
you die. You can’t talk your way out of thirst. Bare skin burns. Face-to-
face with a spitting rattlesnake, the only thing you have to negotiate is
your escape. There are rules in the desert. Pay attention. Adapt our parish.
To fear the wild and seek to control it is not the pathway of life. No, rather the pathway of life is to go deeper in. Perhaps this is why so often throughout the Scriptures, the place where people go for renewal and to be encountered by God is to the wilderness…to the desert. For there everything is stripped bare and our human pretensions of power, they dissolve as we are exposed…not to kill us, but because there is beauty in the exposure, which opens us up to be a people who are transformed, a people who encounter the God of the wild so that we might truly live.
This then is the Revelation vision, not one in which God comes and nukes the world and gets a new one. No. The vision of Revelation is one instead where we are reminded that the Genesis beginning (Alpha) and the Revelation ending (Omega) is the story of this God who as Creator, Sustainer, and Redeemer, holds all things.
The vision in Revelation is not one when we’re, “Beam(ed) me up, Scotty.” The end times is not a rapture. No, instead it’s a vision of a God whose kingdom, whose New Jerusalem comes and is present here on earth. In Revelation, God takes up dwelling here with us humans forever…and we live differently.
This is the vision of the God who makes all things new, and not in a way that obliterates it the world, but a newness that allows it to freely flourish in the ways that God intended. This vision of the “new things” is shared then in Isaiah and throughout the Bible (Isaiah 65:17-25 and 43:18-19); this is the vision of the God who is making things new who is about setting things right, about the kingdom coming indeed, here on earth, as it is in heaven. Revelation’s vision is about God’s reign, God’s way of being, as being present in us and in the world. And so this vision, when it happens is of a new heaven and new earth, the Jerusalem where there is no more crying. It’s the place where we get to walk back home to the garden, to the place where we were meant to live. It’s this earth as our garden home.
Sallie McFague talks about how, if you break down the word ecology in Greek, it’s really just the word oikos meaning home and logos meaning word. It’s connected to our words, ecological, ecumenical, and economic, and, as McFague argues: if salvation is seen as the flourishing of God’s household, then we must see these three words as being held together for, at its simplest, ecology, is words about home. And what does John remind us about in his gospel? That in the beginning was logos, the word, the word that calls us home to know how to live rightly in this world and in relationship to the earth and to one another. Hence, being people, a kingdom people who care about and are committed to the flourishing of all of creation, isn’t some new age theology. No, instead it’s a return to the fundamental cosmology that we were meant to live within: where we live as a people who walk with God and one another in this creation, cared for by it and caring for it as well. As I noted earlier, how we see God and how we see ourselves matters. Are we willing to live inside of a vision where we are called to be people who live out a home word, an ecology, an economics that is connected to the care for the whole of the household, where we are stewards? We are called to care for this household of which we are a part. This is the dream of the mountain top joining with God’s dream, for a kingdom and a world and a vision like Revelation…a vision of a new heavens and a new earth, not in a retreat back to garden, but a new city where God dwells amongst all of God’s people and all of the land, such that this world is not destroyed, but that it is instead restored. Revelation 21 through 22 offers us a wonderful eschatological, meaning the end and the way in the being of all things, where now those of us who joined together with God get to know a land and a place where the earth is cared for, where lions and lambs lay down with one another, where there is no more crying and we cease living as people in exile in Babylon, meaning people who have forgotten the garden way.
Might we be just such a people, a Kingdom People, a people who don’t seek to preserve ego or live so as to have power and dominion over one another and over creation, but instead to be a people, a Kingdom People, people who join with the God who makes all things new. To be a Kingdom People calls us to live our lives and order ourselves towards action, to have a theology that then invites us out into the world. As theologian John Caputo writes, “The love of God is something we do namely to praise God and have compassion for the world.”
So we have a choice as to how we will live. Will we live as a people who spurn the Creator, who refuse to live in alignment with the Sustainer who say, “I don’t need to participate with the Redeemer,” and instead live our lives, just using one another in the world?
Goodness, I hope not. I hope that we will live our lives in answer to the prayer that we pray each Sunday, to live in view of the reality of who God is and the reality of what’s going on in our world. There are intentional ways that we can do this, ways that we can provide home for each other and care for this earth and the planet…for us to be transformed, to repent, to be different, to be committed to here on earth, creating the possibilities and the flourishing for the flourishing of all of life and all of creation to be changed and transformed. The grace of God is made present and real in creation from the mountaintops at Acadia to the valleys to Yosemite to the 10,000 lakes (or however many we have floating around in Minnesota). This land was made for all of us. So might we join with the vision of Revelation of a new heavens and a new earth where the angels indeed will sing, “Holy, holy, holy. The whole earth is full of God’s glory.” Let’s be a Kingdom People and let’s care for this creation together. Amen.