God Has Moved into the Neighborhood: Glory Be to God!
by Jan Love
Closing sermon given May 7, 2006 at United Methodist Women's Assembly 2006, Anaheim, California
Good morning! It's such a privilege, an honor and a joy to be here this morning. To look out upon you is itself to see the Glory of God. Thank you so much for being here.
As you know, I am from the Deep South. Although I have traveled to more than 40 countries in every continent, I'm still something of a country girl at heart. I spend as much time as I can back home in South Carolina, but since coming to the Women's Division, I have been living in an apartment in Manhattan.
Being in New York City on a regular basis is fun and fascinating. For example, I have learned to be alert to sightings of famous people, who, as it turns out, like all the rest of us eat at restaurants, hail cabs, shop, and otherwise carry on somewhat normal lives. One time as we were going through airport security, our daughter, Rachel, exclaimed to me with whispered, almost breathless excitement, "Momi, do you see who that is?" She had spotted a rock star in the line just ahead of us. We lingered as we unloaded our boxes from the screening machines just so we could watch him tie his shoes.
In recent weeks, the buzz in the city's papers is all about Julia Roberts. Although she is a gigantic screen star, she recently opened in her first Broadway play, titled "Three Days of Rain." In the New York Times review of her debut (April 20), the critic, who admits to being a "Juliaholic," says that she is the "sole reason this limited-run revival" of a decade old play "has become the most coveted ticket in town." He goes on to report that it's almost impossible to appreciate the true artistic value of the play because Ms. Roberts' acting on stage is so bad. Nonetheless, he says,
I found myself fascinated by the way her facial structure (ah, those cheekbones!) seems to change according to how the light hits her. In repose, her face seems impossibly, hauntingly eloquent. She has a scene - all right, a few seconds - . . . that [are] absolutely charming. And on the few occasions when she smiles, it's with a sunniness that could dispel even 40 days and 40 nights of rain. None of this, for the record, in any way illuminates her characters or [the] play.
This guy's got it bad, doesn't he?! I'm pretty sure that close encounters with Julia Roberts, rock stars, or any other such celebrities are not likely to ever make me feel so ecstatic. A few years ago, however, I was in a couple of groups that hosted Nelson Mandela, and I admit that being in his presence made my spine tingle. Anyone who has examined his life in any detail knows he has feet of clay, as do we all; but I, like many other people, feel that to be in the same room with him is to be in the presence of greatness. Scholars call leaders like Mandela ennobling; that is, they are not just effective leaders, they are much more. They ennoble the rest of us by inspiring us to a higher level of dignity, character, and excellence - even glory, we might say.
In our age of mass media, it's sometimes hard to tell the celebrities like Julia Roberts - whom I genuinely like -- from history's truly great figures like Nelson Mandela. As those in commercial marketing know so well, we humans will go gaga over lots of things - whether they are worthy or not.
The focus for today is "Glorify God," the third component of our Assembly theme. Glorify means to give glory. In both Hebrew scripture and the New Testament, the word glory is a major theological term. One of the key Hebrew words for glory is kabod, which means weight or importance. To have glory is to be significant, of extraordinary value or consequence, weighty. Someone or something with glory can produce results, has power that shines through for all to see, a presence that's palpable. You can feel it by being nearby. To glorify then is to acknowledge this importance, this weighty, powerful, radiant presence.
In the Assembly scripture from Psalms 105, we are told to "Glory in God's holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice. See the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually. Remember the wonderful works he has done. . ."
The New Testament builds on the meaning of glory found in the Hebrew scripture and applies the word to humans and nature. For example, in Luke 12: 27, Jesus says, "Consider the lilies, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these."
In the New Testament, Jesus and his ministry powerfully unveil God's glory in a new way. John 1:14 says, "And the word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory. . ." In Jesus, God's glory is brought even closer to each of us. Not only do we come near to God's glory, we participate in it! We glorify God, and through Christ, we also partake in his glory! We get to have that weighty radiance, that miraculous grace, and that magnificent love spill over onto us!
This is the vision of the Book of Revelation from which we take our New Testament reading. Revelation culminates in the creation of a new heaven and a new earth. Our prayer of "Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven" gets fulfilled when these separate unite domains into a single remarkable new city of God. In chapter 21: 23-26, we read,
And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light. . .The nations will walk by its light. . .Its gates will never be shut by day - and there will be no night there. People will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.
What a vision! As we know, however, the Book of Revelation is one of the most difficult, even weird, books of the Bible. We don't use it as often as we do a number of other parts. We don't find it listed frequently in the lectionary, and we sure don't read it to young children before bedtime! Most of this book is a ferocious mix of images, creatures, battles and symbols. We read about horsemen, dragons, beasts from the sea, beasts from the earth, lakes of burning sulfur, mouths with swords in them, and much more. Lord, have mercy! That's more drama than any floor fight I've ever witnessed at General Conference!
Yet the Book of Revelation has had a profound impact on Western culture. It is one of the most widely illustrated books of the Bible, depicted in architecture, tapestry, paintings, and altar pieces. Lots of literature reflects the pervasive power of this text, for example, in the poetry of Dante, John Bunyan, William Blake, T.S. Eliot; the novels of Charlotte Bronte, Ray Bradbury, and more. The Book of Revelation has also influenced a great deal of music, including Handel's famous Messiah and Julia Ward Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic."
Revelation tells of the unveiling of the end times, the apocalypse. Apocalyptic themes pervade popular culture today. The music many young people listen to, like the rap artist Busta Rhymes or the rock group Rage Against the Machine, features a vision of the end times. Films and television programs also regularly embody tales of the apocalypse, as does the incredibly popular "Left Behind" book series by Timothy LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins, which was featured last year on the cover of Newsweek magazine. Consumers can't get enough of apocalyptic literature.
Timothy Luke Johnson, a scholar of New Testament at the United Methodist Candler School of Theology in Atlanta says in his book, The Writings of the New Testament,
Few writings. . .have been so obsessively read with such generally disastrous results as the Book of Revelation. . .Its history of interpretation is largely a story of tragic misinterpretation. . .its arcane symbols. . .have nurtured delusionary systems, both private and public, to the destruction of their fashioners and to the discredit of the writing.
Well, if it is so misunderstood, why is this apocalyptic vision so pervasive? Why has it fired the imagination of writers, artists, and more ordinary folks like us for centuries and popular culture today? The answer is fairly easy, I think. I want to address it in two parts.
The first is that the world can be a really scary place. During some periods of history or in some places, it can be much more frightening than at other times and places. The Book of Revelation is written in the late first century, a scary time for Christians. It's in the form of a letter from John, a prisoner in exile on the island of Patmos, to Christians in seven churches in the country we now know as Turkey. At that time, Turkey was still part of the Roman Empire, and Christians were being persecuted. Some Romans saw Christians as disloyal, unpatriotic, if you will, because they refused to worship the emperor. Some were imprisoned; some tortured; some even executed. Many were tempted to abandon or corrupt their faith. In the midst of such a scary time of trouble, the letter of Revelation was sent as a coded message, full of signs and symbols, to give Christians hope, help them endure, and encourage them.
Today Christians in too many parts of the world live in similarly difficult circumstances where they face violent persecution, as do Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others. For example, the names of Christian leaders in the Philippines, including United Methodists, have been found on death squad lists. The General Board of Church and Society is seeking help from our government to stop the violence that targets these and other leaders. Although we who live in the United States don't suffer this kind of persecution, we too live in troubled, scary times.
I moved to Manhattan in 2004, and being there helps me more fully comprehend the impact of 9-11. I now appreciate much more how that horrific act of terrorism penetrated every aspect of the city's life, including its remarkable resilience. Barely a day goes by without some reference, small or large, to 9-11. In recent weeks we have heard or read excerpts from tapes in which emergency service workers answered the calls of those who were dying in the Twin Towers. New York City was particularly affected but our entire country also continues to feel the impact of 9-11, and probably will for a long time to come. We live in a scary time.
One of the many consequences of 9-11 is that our nation is at war in a number of places, most notably Iraq. Many people are dying in these wars. Most communities in our country have lost someone or had their loved ones return from war with physical or psychological wounds. We see the names and faces of those in the armed service, some alive, some dead, on the nightly news. Yet, their extraordinary sacrifice has not yet really made us more secure or given us a sense of peace and calm about the future. Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis may have died from the war's direct violence as well as the breakdown of basic services like clean water and access to health care. In addition to the human toll, many experts believe the war will end up costing more than $1 trillion. There seems to be no clear end in sight.
Moreover, it's become what we in the 1970s called "a dirty war." Back then when governments tortured their presumed enemies or when prisoners disappeared, never to be found again, we in the United States condemned these practices as illegal, immoral, and offensive to civilized societies. When communist or fascist governments used these techniques against their enemies, justifying them on the basis of national security, we claimed the high moral ground, proudly declaring that democracies like ours would never do such horrible things. But our government has been doing such horrible things in recent years, and thanks be to God, some of the rank and file soldiers ordered to torture prisoners have been among the first to expose this shameful practice. Religious leaders, including United Methodist Women, have strongly pressed the government to stop this national disgrace. We live in a scary time.
We are also in a messy debate over immigration, about who gets to come to the United States and who gets to stay. Some of the leaders of our church, particularly the bishops, the Women's Division, and the General Board of Global Ministries have all made significant contributions to helping us remember to welcome the stranger, the undocumented workers on whom we all depend so much. United Methodist Women will continue to advocate for the rights of immigrants and stand with our sisters and brothers in the face of intimidation and injustice.
Yet, a larger set of issues is also at stake here. Nobody in this country making $15 an hour, or $25 an hour, should have to compete with those risking their lives to cross the border just to make $5 an hour. Everyone in America, whether they've been here for a few months or for a few generations, ought to earn a living wage, a paycheck large enough to feed and clothe their families and genuinely pursue the American dream.
Children also live in a scary world. According to UNICEF, more than a million children are bought and sold for commercial purposes, many for the sex slave industry. Over half of all children in the world live in poverty. Each year, more than 10 million children die before their fifth birthday. Since 1990, more than 20 million have been forced from their homes by wars, civil conflicts, or human rights violations. Thousands of street children in some countries are slaughtered by thugs who go unpunished. About half of all people who contract HIV/AIDS these days are children. Too many in this country, one of the wealthiest on earth, can't get a decent public education.
The ice caps are melting, yet we remain devoted to our gas guzzling cars and gross over-consumption, despite the devastation to the whole of creation. And, of course, I could list so much more. We live in a scary time. You know all these problems. I don't need to recite them all to you, especially you United Methodist Women.
The worst part, however, is that much of this death-dealing destruction is done in the name of religion. Those who blow themselves up in markets, busy streets, or mosques have a religious vision, as do those who seek vengeance and retribution for such attacks. Those who steal land from others on the basis of some distorted reading of sacred texts have a religious vision. Those who preach a gospel of prosperity and blame the poor for their poverty have a religious vision, as do those who deny women access to basic reproductive health care. Many who beat children have a religious vision, as do many who pillage creation.
We as United Methodist Women have a religious vision, too. Has your religion ever gotten in the way of you offering love and grace to a wounded world? If you are like me, I bet it has. One of the problems with deeply religious people like us is that we are sometimes so clear in our convictions that we mow down anyone who gets in the way of our carrying them out. We must confess that we are all prone to manipulating religion for our own particular ends.
We live in a scary world. No wonder people are drawn to apocalyptic visions! No wonder people speculate about the world coming to an end. One of my favorite bumper stickers, those occasional theological sound bites that we read in traffic says, "God is coming and she is mad!"
God have every reason to be mad! We're making a colossal mess of things here! We glorify in all the wrong stuff: war; humiliating our adversaries; shaming the immigrant; ignoring or neglecting many of the world's children; consuming goods that possess us rather than us possessing them; relishing in our economic gains when others lose; and so much more. Yet we hear in the words of Jeremiah 9: 23-24,
Let not the wise glory in their wisdom. Let not the strong glory in their strength. Let not the rich glory in their riches. But let all who glory, glory in this, that you understand and know me. I am the Lord who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth. For in these I delight, declares the Lord.
Kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth! What a vision. Those of us who know the saving grace of Jesus Christ, who partake personally in God's glory of kindness, justice, and righteousness, need desperately to embody "God's mission to reclaim, restore and redeem the life of all creation to its divine intention..." (Para. 1301, The United Methodist Book of Discipline). If ever there was at time when the world needs the healing, saving grace of Jesus Christ, it is now - which brings us to the second reason that the Book of Revelation remains a profoundly powerful text despite being so strange, even weird. This book acknowledges the hardships of daily existence while it also invokes the deepest longings of the human heart for life in all its fullness, healed and whole.
Listen to how theologian Eugene Peterson translates Revelation 21, a few verses earlier than the ones we've already read:
I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: "Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They're his people, he's their God. He'll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good - tears gone, crying gone, pain gone. . .Look! I'm making everything new. Write it all down - each word dependable and accurate."
This is not just about pie in the sky when we die, although we certainly don't discount that promise. This vision is about that wonderfully delicious pie that we all crave on earth now, a life that basks in God's presence now, a life that reflects God's glory today and every day! God has moved into the neighborhood! As we state in one of our policy documents, "It is God's will that all people share in the feast of God. And, by God's grace, all shall." The Book of Revelation is powerful precisely because here our dreams for the future break into the present. Revelation assures us that good overcomes evil, love overcomes hate, hope overcomes despair, and life overcomes death -- all here and now, as well as in eternity. We live in a scary time, but we know from Psalms 27, "The Lord is my light and my salvation- whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life- of whom shall I be afraid?"
Is there any concrete, palpable evidence traceable directly to you that God has moved into your neighborhood? Is there any tangible and plain proof that God has moved into your local unit of United Methodist Women? Does God's glory -- the weighty, powerful, radiant presence of love, grace, healing and wholeness - shine out from your house, your church and the organization of United Methodist Women where you are? Does your faith light up your neighborhood?
I was recently in Brazil at the Ninth Assembly of the World Council of Churches. I have attended a number of WCC Assemblies, but this was the first one as the head of the Women's Division. People who are our partners in mission across the globe sought me out and asked me to take a message to you. They wanted me to convey their gratitude, blessings, and challenge. I learned that in Latin America, they call us "mission mamas" because of our decades of work in mission with women, children and youth, our commitment to spreading the good news of the Gospel in word and deed. "Tell all the 'mission mamas' hello, they said. Tell them that even though we've never met face to face, we are bonded together in God's love. Tell them to stay strong and keep doing good in the world for Jesus sake."
We are strong and have done a lot of good over the last 137 years! Thanks be to God! Look at you, all of you gathered here! You are a wondrous sight to behold. I give thanks to God every day for each and every one of you! But we are not as strong as we used to be, just as the larger church, of which we are a part, is not as strong as it used to be. We need to work harder to build each other up in love in this remarkable part of the one body of Christ. We need to reflect God's glory, that vision of a new heaven and a new earth more brightly into the future.
What can you do when you go home to make this happen? We United Methodist Women are very practical in expressing our faith! We always want to know what we can do. Here are my suggestions.
First of all, deepen your understanding of your own salvation story and that of others in your supportive community of United Methodist Women. Witness more fully to the love of Christ in your life. Give personal thanks to all those who have lighted the way for you. Express the richness of the joy you know as redeemed women. The late William Sloan Coffin once asked, "So, why are Christians so often so joyless? It is, I think, because too often Christians have only enough religion to make themselves miserable. Guilt they know, but not forgiveness. Nietzsche correctly noted, 'Christians should look more redeemed.'" Glory in the goodness of your faith journey. Offer praise and thanksgiving in gratitude for just being a part of God's good creation. Look more redeemed!
Second, make every day a mission day. We gain strength for the journey by giving to others and by receiving from them. Continue with more determination to practice love, mercy, kindness and justice in your home, neighborhood, our nation, and across the world. When we act with mercy and justice we bring the human in touch with the divine; we build a piece of that new, radiant city of God. We demonstrate in very concrete ways that God has moved into the neighborhood - all while praying that our best efforts might add some small measure of glory to the many wonders we experience.
Third, recruit some new "mission mamas," new members of United Methodist Women, and reach deeper into your pocket to increase your pledge to mission. Tell everyone you know about this glorious organization and all the great things we have dared to do for God over the past 137 years!
Tell them that, even though the world can be a really scary place, you belong to an organization where members surround each other with prayer. We wrap each other in those amazing shawls, and we enfold others who suffer in prayer so that everyone having a hard time can gain confidence and comfort in God's love, mercy and kindness.
Tell them that you belong to an organization that embraces all God's people. Tell them that this year our church is celebrating the 50th anniversary of full clergy rights for women, a great accomplishment in which United Methodist Women played a key role. We were not just among the first to call for full rights for clergy women more than 50 years ago, we acted our way into embracing women clergy. We were the first in this denomination consistently to ask women to preach, teach, and lead bible study in our gatherings, large and small. Tell them we will continue to advocate that both church and society acknowledge and embrace women's concerns, perspectives, and contributions.
Tell them that you belong to an organization that refuses to offer religious excuses or legitimization for violence, vengeance, deprivation, and discrimination. You belong to an organization that tries to show the honor and glory of our nation, our nation at its best, not the shame and degradation of our nation at its worst. Tell them United Methodist Women seek the Lord and his presence and strength; we understand the prophet Jeremiah's proclamation that we glory in and give praise to a God who delights in kindness, justice and righteousness on the earth.
Tell them that you belong to an organization that believes in a new heaven and a new earth where children have every tear wiped from their eyes, where crying is gone, and pain is gone, where the world is made new so that children can share in the feast of God, living the full, radiant lives that God intends.
Tell them that you belong to an organization that for more than 137 years has literally saved and served the lives of millions of women, children and youth, and brought salvation to those who have not yet received the loving grace of Jesus Christ. You belong to an organization that seeks to demonstrate today and everyday that God lives in this neighborhood now and for eternity.
Thanks be to God! Glory be to God!