I love the way kids show up. I love that Conrad can hear about asking God for big dreams and say, “I want to be a superhero,” and then talk with his mom about just how he might do it. One of my kids, when they were about Conrad’s age, once wrote, “When I grow up, I want to be a frog”. Hey, maybe not possible, but why not want what’s impossible for a day or two if that’s what’s on your mind!
Kids, you have been leading our country lately. We’ve seen kids showing up a lot. I bought a sweatshirt online the other day from an 11-year-old people call Little Miss Flint. She’s gonna be president someday, she says, and she’s maybe the best known public water supply activist in the country. For four years, she’s kept showing up, asking why her city can’t get safe water pipes.
Kids from Florida and Chicago are teaming up to try to change old ways of violence in our country. And their speeches – speeches given by a 17-year-old girl from Parkland and an 11-year old girl from Virginia – have left me spellbound, taking notes on how be a better speaker myself. These kids aren’t stuck in the past, they certainly aren’t just waiting around for the future, they are showing up to live. Today.
I love that we can give Conrad and Rosie capes, and they just might wear them a bit. I’ve noticed that when young kids get to pick their own clothes to wear, they make some rad choices sometimes. When you run marathons, no matter what place you come in, you get a medal, and the first time I finished a marathon, I wanted to wear that thing all year, but I only kept it on a couple of hours because I felt goofy wearing it. Sometime in childhood, we start getting self-conscious. And right around the same time, a lot of us stop showing up for life in the same way.
We start living in the past or living in the future, life defined by our regrets or losses or fears. Lately, I’ve been haunted by this question posed in this Walker Percy novel Second Coming.
The narrator asks, “Is it possible for people to miss their lives in the same way one misses a plane?”
Later Percy describes a character like this: “Not once in his entire life had he allowed himself to come to rest in the quiet center of himself but had forever cast himself forward from some dark past he could not remember to a future which did not exist. Not once had he been present for his life. So his life had passed like a dream.”
Does that resonate with you? Do you hear Conrad’s story, or see today’s youth activists, and ever wonder when did you stop showing up for your life as much?
What would it take to show up again? To be present this day, and the next, and the next for all life has to give you, for all that you can be. To rest in the quiet center of yourself, and live with passion and courage.
Today I want to look at what Easter has to say to us in this regard. How the hope of Easter can give us power to be present today and show up boldly for our lives.
A New Heaven, a New Earth
The past few weeks, a lot of us in this community have been reading the last book of the Bible, Revelation. It’s a weird, screwy book of obscure apocalyptic symbolism, but it ends with a flourish of poetry that still speaks right to our souls. I want to read a couple sections of that today.
Here’s the first bit, from the beginning of the second to last chapter.
Revelation 21:1-5 (NRSV)
21 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. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; 4 he 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.”
5 And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
A holy city, a wedding, and a whole new heaven and earth. No more death or mourning or crying or pain, and every tear wiped away from our eyes. This sounds good and beautiful and also utterly unlike the world we greet each day.
The poetry continues into the last chapter of the whole Bible, as the landscaping and architecture of this city gets fleshed out.
Revelation 22:1-5 (NRSV)
22 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.
I like this passage even more. God’s here, living in the city, and all kinds of good is flowing from that. There’s a tree that’s really a whole orchard of trees, and it’s nourishing and sweet and bountiful year round, and the leaves have this herbal medicine that heals all the stuff – the wounds of the nations. Poverty, war, corruption, violence. Unjust justice systems, failing infrastructure, crushing debt – all solved, all healed here.
Traditionally, these passages – with the word heaven in them – have been read as a vision of our future – some people individualize it and hope this is what they’ll wake up to after death. Other people have pictured it as a collective thing God will do someday for all the people who live with God together beyond the grave.
And maybe the image here that’s most been associated with a future heaven is the river of life. A river of Paradise.
Christians, Jews, Muslims and others have all pictured a future paradise with rivers there. You go to the gorgeous tombs in Northern India built by the Muslim Mughal empire. The Taj Mahal, the I’timad-ud-Daulah, the so called Baby Taj, and they are these extraordinary works of art – huge, perfectly symmetrical buildings built from Makrona marble that gleams in the sun, inlaid with jewels and calligraphy. And they’re surrounded by these mini-garden paradises, built along riverbanks, with pools of water to mirror the rivers of paradise they hope their beloved dead are now enjoying.
And, hey, why not? It’s a beautiful image of our destiny, that God will transform the earth to a paradise garden city, where there is no death and no harm – and only bounty and healing and peace and joy. That’s a future I hope for as well.
But in Revelation, this poetry isn’t just future-looking. It’s also about helping us show up today.
Heaven, in Revelation, isn’t only a future where all things are made new. It is that future invading the present. The most salient, central feature of this new heaven and new earth I just read about is that God lives there. This experience is one of the very titles of Jesus, Immanuel – Hebrew for God with us. And Jesus himself liked to talk about what he was up to as bringing the kingdom of Heaven to us.
This is why even the pretty conservative pastor and scholar Eugene Peterson says that heaven in the gospels and in Revelation and really throughout Scripture is the metaphor that tells us that there is far more here than meets the eye. This doesn’t mean it isn’t real, it just means that it’s a reality that’s inaccessible at this point to any of our five senses. It’s the invisible realm of God invading us. God’s land settling into our world.
This is why this beautiful teaching of Revelation didn’t just give the early followers of Jesus hope for the future, but it starting rocking their present.
One example from the text, and we’ll bring this back to us.
Right after we hear that heaven has no room for anything that is accursed, we read that God’s servants will worship him and we read what life will be like for those servants. Well, our translators have tried to lighten things up here because the actual word, which gets mentioned again later in the chapter, isn’t servants but slaves. It says God’s slaves will worship God, and will see God’s face, and have God’s name on their foreheads, and reign with God too, which is doubly weird – because when do slaves ever reign alongside their masters, and who’d want to be God’s slave anyway?
But here’s the deal. Scholars estimate that in the Roman Empire’s urban areas, large numbers of the population – maybe up to a third of the residents – were slaves. And being a slave in Rome was an accursed experience. You didn’t have your freedom, of course, you were also subject to all manner of violence and indignity, and you’d be branded on your forehead if you ever tried to escape.
The Technology of Paradise
Now when these lines from Revelation are read out loud to the house churches in urban Asia, every person hearing them is a slave or a slave owner or a person who knows a slave or a slave owner. And what they hear about God’s realm, how God is making all things new, is this: they hear that God’s slaves really aren’t slaves at all – they are God’s partners, as they reign with God. And they don’t have to cast their gaze down in deference or fear – they look at God face to face. The dignity and joy and freedom and delight of all God’s children is for slaves as well.
This is probably why the early followers of Jesus began a movement that changed the empire. Slaves were given the same burials and funerals as citizens. They took communion and worshipped side by side with their free brothers and sisters. And then followers of Jesus starting freeing their slaves entirely. They saw that God making all things new meant getting rid of this curse of slavery.
This is what I’m calling the technology of paradise. It’s heaven made operational. It’s the beautiful hope of the resurrection of Jesus from death to life, a powerful factor in our real, lived experience.
I got this idea from a philosopher who said that what churches have to offer today is this radical technology of grace. Embedded in our teaching and tradition and symbols is that God loves and accepts and delights in all people, just as we are today, without exception. We believe this isn’t hard for God, it’s not something God does begrudgingly, but it’s the nature of what it means to be God. To be love. To welcome. To embrace. And for us to practice this with one another is to apply the technology of grace – for theory to become real, as we make a community of radical hospitality, radical love and acceptance and welcome.
And so we’re invited, I believe, to similarly apply the technology of paradise. To live into the present experience of this beautiful vision of a new heaven and a new earth.
Two days ago in this space, on Good Friday, we remembered the death of Jesus. That in God’s mortal life on earth, God too experiences that death has the last word. That entropy gets everyone and everything. That betrayal and failure and suffering and death win.
And yet on Good Friday, we find that all of this death and suffering and constant missing of the mark we know doesn’t separate us from God.
And if that was the end of Jesus’ story, it would have been a stunning climax. For us to no longer be separated from God, or alone in our pain, would have been enough.
But that is not the end of Jesus’ story. On the third day of his death, women that followed him visit his tomb and he is no longer there. Men walking away from God in despair find Jesus walking along side of them. Jesus’ friends and followers huddled up in fear meet Jesus, wishing them peace, eating a meal with them, and letting them know that God’s activity among them has only just begun.
Because Jesus tells his friends and followers that his win over death changes everything. It means that God will live with us on earth. Everyone who asks can be filled with God’s spirit. The home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with us, and we will be God’s people.
The technology of paradise is to welcome this today and every day as our lived experience. When we cry, to invite God to be with us and wipe away our tears. When we’re lonely, to welcome God to dwell with us. When we’re wounded, to welcome God’s healing. When we’re confronted with all that is tired and broken and accursed in our world, to believe that God is making all things new, and to show up and participate in that renewal.
I think when we see people that are showing up with power and hope and freedom in the present, we see people living this technology of paradise. Liberated from regret or anxiety, empowered by hope, they’re able to show up and make something new.
We love people that do this. Kids that I was talking about at the top, that show up with courage and conviction and passion – they’re living like justice is possible, like evil and death in their many forms don’t get the last word.
I saw this first hand this winter, when I took a trip with a few of you to the slums India, to visit the work of Asha that we support. We were in a slum called Chanderpuri. It’s a Muslim neighborhood on the Northeast outskirts of Delhi. A couple of thousand people live there in squatters apartments that have become permanent over generations, with extended families of maybe a dozen people sharing tiny apartments with no running water, no bathroom, no kitchen.
During the day, we’d often meet with groups in a community center, which was right next to a vacant lot where all day long, little trucks would dump the city’s trash on the ground and men – trash pickers – would pick through the garbage with no masks, no gloves, for scraps that could be salvaged and sold, to earn them maybe a few bucks a day.
Next door to these trash pickers, we’d meet each day with children’s groups organized by Asha. And those groups are like after-school clubs, helping slum kids end up going to university more and more, which is an awesome thing. But there’s more than just that going on. These children’s groups are also places where the new heaven and new earth is being birthed. Because they’re centers of hope and empowerment. Kids are learning a set of values to live by, values that are rooted in the teachings of Jesus, and then they are empowered to show up in their neighborhood with hope and courage.
One of their values is generosity, so even though the kids are extremely poor, they collect small amounts of funds each month and pool them so they have resources to be generous with. While we were there, the kids decided they wanted to provide food for one of their neighbors, a widow whose child had also died and was totally destitute.
So we were able to watch as they presented this widow with oil and rice and tea, what looked like food supplies for month or more. I remember saying to myself, this looks like heaven. And it was – the curse of poverty and hunger being driven away, the curse of kids thinking they don’t have enough to do something good and beautiful in the world driven away too, as these kids showed up with what they had learned from God, and in that time and place, things were made new.
Show up with Courage
We see the new heaven and the new earth in beautiful moments like this for sure, but also when we show up with courage to everything that is hard as well. I’m learning a lot about this in this season, trying to at least.
Because we live in hard times. The other week, the news was filled with protests about violence. And when it wasn’t, it was gearing us up for another scandalous reveal on prime time television. And beyond this, my pastor twitter feed was filled with hot takes on alleged unethical and illegal behavior by the one of the most prominent and respected American pastors, someone’s whose work I’d appreciated and benefited from in the past. This was all just in one week. Strange, unsettling times.
It’s personal too. Each week I talk to another person or two or three in this community about your profound challenges and pain. This is my world in some ways in this season too. I’ve been shaken in this season. Circumstances have pushed me to reevaluate old stories I’ve told about my own life. Pushed me to examine old ways of living that I’m tired of too and realize all this has some pretty deep roots in me that are going to be hard to untangle.
And in my own hard times, I’m learning that I’ll do anything but show up. I’m more like Jesus’ closest male disciples than his female ones. When I’m confused or torn up or disappointed, I don’t go looking for Jesus.
Or I turn my back and walk out of the city, or try to find something concrete I at least know how to do. I go fishing, so to speak.
But even then, I eventually feel again that I am not alone. That Jesus is looking for me, walking by my side unseen as I walk away. Showing up to serve me a meal and eat with me when I’m hiding.
I’ve hoped for and looked for the risen Jesus too much in my life for me to not sense it’s still true.
In the strangest, the most confusing, the most disconsolate moments this winter, I’ve been struck again and again by this strange and admittedly kind of mystical sensation that God is with me, arm around my shoulder, telling me everything is OK. I’m here. It’s all going to be OK, Steve.
Because Jesus is alive, the new heavens and new earth have begun, if only with God dwelling with you and wiping away your tears as they fall.
It won’t stop there. God will drive out all that is accursed within and among us. The river of love that flows from the center of the heart of God will reach us all. Slaves will be free and reign with God. God’s nourishment and healing will abound.
But sometimes, just knowing that God dwells with you still, that God’s hand is on your shoulder, telling us it’s OK, is enough resurrection for today. That lets us rest in the quiet center of ourselves, and be still, and tend to the seeds of passion and courage that we know we grow again.
Let me leave you with two small invitations for this, for welcoming the technology of paradise into your life.
“Applying the Technology of Paradise”
1) Welcome a risen God to dwell with you each day.
Take a quiet moment as you drink your coffee or as you walk to school or drive to work to not think about yesterday or the day ahead, but to say, Here I am today, not alone, because a living God, a risen Jesus, an unseen Spirit can be with me.
This God can be with me in all joys and sorrow, can wipe away my tears, can drive out all that is accursed, heal all that is broken, bear abundant fruit in any desert.
This is the day that God has made for my joy and my courage. I can show up to today.
Welcome a risen God to dwell with you each day. And secondly:
2) Go deep with a community that will foster more faith, hope, and courage.
It’s hard to stay in faith, hope, and courage by ourselves. Our broken world, and our crazy-making lives will drive it out.
We need people to travel with, to encourage us. The kids of Asha show up to their desperately impoverished lives and community because they have each other and their teachers and mentors to encourage them. When I was talking with Nate Proctor about their family’s story at the top, he said there’s nothing special about me finding passion and courage, Steve, it’s just that I have lucked out with this church and with such good friends. My own hope, that sense I can’t shake that God is with me and that makes everything OK is spurred on by good people in my life that remind me it’s true.
Friends, stick with that community, value those people wherever you find them.
But know too that this church would love to be that community for you, if you need one. If you’re new here or circling around the outsides of this faith community, we’d love to encourage you, to invite you to touch base a little more with a community that hopes Jesus is alive, and so God is with us, and that God is birthing and building that new heaven and earth around us right now. We’d love for you to be part of that story.