01 May 2016

Taking the Long View

"New Jerusalem" by Diane Fairchild
Revelation 21 & 22

Sixth Sunday of Easter 1st May 2016

“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.  And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God…” (Rev. 21:1-2). 
On Wednesday evening last week, nearly one hundred Presbyterians assembled in a city, not New Jerusalem but the City of Baltimore.  Members of Baltimore Presbytery gathered on the corner of Penn and North Avenues, in front of the CVS that was looted and then burned in the uprising last April (which has since reopened). We walked along North Avenue, singing, to Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church for an outdoor vigil.  We were there to remember the death of Freddie Gray and the riots, the uprising, the destruction, the despair that swept through sections of Baltimore.
In prayer and song and testimony we confessed the systemic sins of racism and poverty and inequality and the church’s complicity in all of it and we lit candles and promised that we would let our lights shine in the dark places and that we would keep walking—keep walking to a better place, a better time, keep walking into a future that embodies God’s love and justice. 
If you’ve spent any time in that part of Baltimore, even if you just drive through the neighborhoods, you would see that racism and impoverishment and unemployment and inequality are not new issues for the city.  Freddie Gray is only the tip of the iceberg. Driving back to Catonsville on Wednesday, I noticed that a tree was growing within the shell of a building, a row house, and its branches were growing through where windows once were.  The tree, a Lilac tree, in full bloom, was about four-stories high.  It was a powerful symbol for me.  That shell of a house had been there for a long time.  Actually, we saw many trees growing in the shells of buildings.
When you drive through those streets, block after block of row houses and tenements, and imagine what it’s like to live there, for children to grow up there, for families trying to survive there, when you see the level of devastation, comparable to war-torn regions of the world, it’s easy to be feel overwhelmed by it all, by the scale of urban blight.  All of it is generations, even centuries, in the making, and it’s going to take the commitment, passion, and imagination of generations to come to fix it.
How do we strike a balance between being critically honest and real about the present situation without allowing the present situation to define the future?  That precarious place between the present and the future, the now and the not-yet, is the razor’s edge where a Christian lives.  While it’s true that all we ever have at any given moment is the present, confidence in the future is a foundation for hope—it’s the only foundation for hope.  I often say to people facing challenging, painful times, “Stay in the moment.”  Our fears and worries about what might happen are usually fantasies and never come to fruition.  We’re often wrong when we think about what tomorrow might bring.  Stay in the moment, stay with what you know. But we also have to insure that we don’t get stuck in the present, stuck in the now, because that, too, can be overwhelming.
Sometimes we need to take the long view.  The problems, issues, and challenges we face, whether individually or together as a society, will not be solved in this generation or the next; they will not be solved by our children or grandchildren or their children, and we need to be okay with this—okay, without being passive.  Yes, change and healing are coming, slowly, but they’re coming, but their slowness in coming can’t be used as an excuse to do nothing.  It’s been said that “The arc of the moral universe is long, but its bends toward justice.”[1]  I think this is true.  Clarity about where we we’re going gives us the confidence, and the courage, to live in the present.  It’s helpful at times to step back and take a long view, for it keeps despair and discouragement at bay.
Facade, Strasbourg Cathedral
I was reminded of this several weeks ago traveling in Europe, standing at the entrance to the enormous cathedral in Strasbourg, France.  Victor Hugo (1802-1885) called it “a gigantic and delicate marvel.”  Goethe (1749-1832) said it was “a sublimely towering, wide-spreading tree of God.”  Consider the construction of a cathedral.  Workers, craftsmen, countless, nameless to us, spent their entire lives working on a task that they never saw completed.  They gave their lives to the creation of something beautiful and awe-inspiring, all for the glory of God, which was never finished in their lifetime.
In John’s vision, found in Revelation 21 and 22, we’re given a glimpse of the future, a new city, a new Jerusalem. The Bible might begin in Genesis in a garden, but it ends in a city.  God dwells with God’s people in a city, not a garden.  “See the home of God is among mortals” (Rev. 21:3) and that home is a city, an enormous, vast, beautiful city, with streets of gold, walls clear as glass, gates adorned with jewels.  Its light comes from God’s presence, God’s glory, whose gates will never shut because it’s never night.  Here death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more.  And through the city flows a river with water of life, bright as crystal.  And on either side of the river is the tree of life, producing fruit, every month.  The leaves of this tree are for the healing of the nations.
This is where we’re going.  This is God’s vision, God’s dream for our future, for all God’s children. 
The New Jerusalem and Baltimore.  The City of God and the City of Baltimore.  The two need to be held in creative tension.  One needs to inform the other. 
It’s easy to get discouraged, feeling we’ll never get there.  Hearing the vision of Revelation 21 and 22, it’s easy to become discouraged.  It sounds so idealistic—and idealism can be just as oppressive as realism.  It’s easy for the Church and its ministers to get dispirited and depressed.  We plant seeds and never really know which ones will take root and grow and which ones will be choked or burned up or blown away by the wind.  Sometimes it feels like we’re making no difference in the world.
That’s why I’m grateful for the so-called Romero Prayer.  Oscar Romero (1917-1980), the Archbishop of San Salvador, in El Salvador, was murdered, in 1980, while celebrating Mass in a small cancer hospital where he lived.  I will close with the prayer—although it’s not really a prayer and Romero didn’t write it.  It was composed by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw, and later delivered in a homily by Cardinal John Dearden in November of 1979 for a celebration of departed priests.  Romero was murdered five months later.  These words are not only for priests or ministers, but also for all of us who walk the difficult road of the Risen Christ, who are called to work for God’s justice and wholeness in the world.

“It helps now and then to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is another way of
saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession
brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one
day will grow. We water the seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects
far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of
liberation in realizing this.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's
grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the
difference between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not
messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”[2]

West Rose Window, Strasbourg Cathedral

[1] This statement is attributed to Theodore Parker (1810-1860), the American Transcendentalist and Unitarian minister.
[2] I’m grateful to Dan Clendennin for sharing the Romero Prayer