August 26, 2009
Every year I have the honor of preaching at the first worship service of our community's school year. Each year I try, as preachers do everywhere, to find a word from outside that is fitting to this community of learning and faith. This is my tenth such occasion, and in preparation for today I reviewed some past themes for former years. I have preached about the scholar's need to be humble, about the absoluteness of the command to love God and neighbor, even in this community, and on the implications of Jesus' refusal to condemn a woman caught in adultery. I have preached on the mutual recognition of different races and identities and on the duty to overcome Christian anti-Semitism. I have found good news to share in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, and even once from the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas. But I've never preached from the book of Revelation.
Today, the good news comes from the book of Revelation.
Actually, Presbyterians in the Bible belt like me tend to avoid Revelation. As my colleague, Ted Smith, says we leave that to the snake handlers, the left-behinders, and the red heifer breeders. We (and now I mean US) don’t want to deal with this book, this genre of literature. It makes us nervous. And that’s a problem. It’s a problem that I think all of us in this university-based theological school share, and one I wish us to reflect upon as we begin this school year. But first, let me tell you a story that leads to an insight I had about teaching and learning in theological education. Let me tell you about the influence of a great teacher.
A couple of summers ago, I talked to an AP reporter who was doing a feature on people who were afraid of June 6, 2006 because the number of the beast was 666. She called to tell me, “Professor, I want to say that scholars believe that 666 is the number of the beast, of the anti-Christ that people fear.” I explained, as my colleagues might, that the original number might be 616 and, in any case, was nothing to be afraid of since either was numerical code for a long dead Roman tyrant and that the whole book was about early Christian secret hopes for endurance under conditions of persecution rather than a forecast for the end of the world as we know it. The reporter thanked me and the story ran, reading, “ not all scholars believe that 666 is the number of the beast.”
My then-12 year old son, who heard the whole story, was fascinated. He was even was able to explain it himself to my wife later in the day when she noted that people kept pointing out that her cell phone number ending in 0666 was a bad number for a Presbyterian pastor. She allowed as to how she didn’t know about all that and asked where I learned it, and I said, “In Raymond Brown’s apocalyptic literature class at Union.” There’s the great teacher I promised you, one of a great cloud of witnesses in my life and education. My hope for those of you who are just starting divinity school is that you will find your own great teachers here at VDS.
What Brown did for me is what I would call “Textual Liberation.” He liberated apocalyptic texts for me; other scholars right here and now free other texts from their bondage to tortured and oppressive readings. Sometimes the most hopeful and loving thing you can do is to teach someone that the text does not mean what they always have been told it means. That's true not only in teaching, but also in ministry.
But if academics know better, why don’t we often embrace texts like Revelation 21 and 22? I think it is because we have trouble with this hopeful, visionary side of what I would call the Jeremiah-Revelation continuum because we are more comfortable, and far too comfortable with the critical Jeremiah side of things. “God does not like the way you are living.” “You are not doing justice; God’s going to get you for that.” That’s how Jeremiah does critical theology. It’s how we usually do theology and ethics, maybe especially at Vanderbilt where we see all too readily all the ways our world does not measure up to the glory of God. It is absolutely necessary to deconstruct false ways of living and to confront injustice. But this Revelation text points us in another direction away from our accustomed path. It offers us a vision of how things might be; a poetic construal of abundance and joy in terms we can well understand. Just like last weekend's glorious weather lifted our eyes and spirits to beauty in Nashville, visions of hope remind us why we are here and why we care.
If persecuted people like those persecuted early Christians can envision and express hope, what is stopping us? The fear that we will not be seen as serious academics? Or is it something more basic, as in that we would rather complain than hope? The health-care debacle in our public life is a sad example of our horrible basic tendency to seek out the worst. I understood Barney Frank when, after listening to a rant at a town hall meeting, he asked, "Who wants to yell next?" The tragedy there is that the vision of healthcare for all of us has gotten completely lost in the debate. But forget Congress, we are supposed to be the visionaries. I think that vision is the indispensable virtue of the best theological teachers, students, and religious leaders. Without vision the people perish and so do their leaders. So a challenge of this text to me and you is this: are we willing to envision our hope in extravagant terms, too?
What would our Revelation 21-22 version of hope look like? I think it might look something like this:
I saw no theological schools in the city because their work had succeeded. Justice prevails and there is enough for all to eat. Even Jeremiah sits at ease in Zion.
I saw that people had taught love and hope for the church so much so that, like the temple, the church was no more and God alone was their temple.
And I saw that spiritual formation had ended, for everyone was at home in their own spirit and recognized the image of the Lamb in one another.
All academic disciplines disappeared because everyone could converse together equally, for there was no hoarding of knowledge, only generous sharing of wisdom for the healing of the nations.
On either side of the river of life, all religious diversity was present as before, but it was no more remarkable than 12 kinds of fruit in bloom at one time, on one tree.
Then the angel showed me that no one made or defended normative claims, because all simply experienced for themselves what is true, what is beautiful, and what is good.
None of these visions seems achievable with simply four classes a semester and in a small fortune in books. And yet I say we need to be moving, we are moving, in the direction of holy and extravagant hope. Without big hopes it is hard to teach well, learn well, or serve well.
Each of these visions, and others like them, provide the telos of our common labor as members of the divinity school. As we begin this year may we nurture the hopes that brought us to this place for the healing of the world, for ministry, and for our lives. And may God bless us as we go and as we serve. Amen.