We’re Going to Hell in a Handbasket?

A sermon preached at First Church UCC, Middletown, Ct on January 1, 2023

Revelation 21:1-6
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, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them; 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.” 
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.” 
Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.
To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God our Rock and our Redeemer.  Amen.

I’d bet that everyone here knows that ministers go into church hibernation between December 25 and January 2 (or 1, if you have to preach this day)…. 

It’s not that we do nothing during that week, but more that for seven days, we set aside Bible studies or theological books and instead, spend time with our families, do endless piles of laundry, re-stock the freezer, and take lots and lots of naps….

So, there I was, napping, when the doorbell rang.  and when I answered it, there were three women – a girl, her mom, and the grandmother – mom with a Bible in her hand, ready to ask me if I thought that the world was going to hell in a handbasket…and she did so, before I could stop her.

I was not quite as hospitable as I try to be to the pleasant Jehovah’s Witness missionary who visits me monthly, often right as I’m doing my sermon… 

This time, I simply said “no thanks” and closed the door while the mother was still talking.  So I don’t even know if they were also Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons, or from some other variety of church.   All I know is that they think the world is not going in the right direction.

And so far, right now, I think we’d have trouble disagreeing with her.  Between inflation, the horrifying snowstorm in Buffalo NY, war in Ukraine, the disaster that is Southwest Airlines – when you list them like that, COVID isn’t actually even in the top five, but still…. 

Here we are at the beginning of 2023, and we might be excused if we find it hard to smile.  But we’d be wrong.

. . . and so was that woman at my door, suggesting that the world is going to wherever, as fast as possible.

One of the books I’ve been dipping into is a social study of Middletown, conducted in the sixties, and focused on the integration of housing.  It’s set in that hard time, not actually all that long ago, when segregation, whether formal, as in the South, or informal, as it was here in Connecticut, was the rule of life.  No white person willingly sold their home to a black family because it would ruin property values… or at least that’s what folks thought.  The book reports on a campaign here in Middletown to open our housing stock to peoples of all backgrounds.  The campaign did not go well, and received very little support from the clergy or churches of this city.  

Now, look at us today.  Today, our churches are united in our commitment to racial justice.  We’ve not achieved it – I’m not even sure it’s something we can “achieve”, at least in the sense of “getting there” and not having to work on it any more, like graduating from high school.  But that aside, we have changed enormously in the past sixty years, and not just about race.  That’s good news.

On New Year’s Day, the lectionary offers us a set of readings that talk about newness and describe what it looks like when we get there.  We begin with an ending – the ending of the Book of Revelation.

Revelation, a book of prophecies about the end times, isn’t often part of our worship.  It’s too lurid, perhaps too specific, maybe even too pointed, for us to be comfortable with a book which condemns lukewarm Christians.  Mostly, though, I think it’s just too too obscure, too hard to understand.  That said, there is something important for us in today’s reading and it is this:  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.’”

See, the home of God is among mortals.  God will be with us, wiping away every tear.  

. . . and what sort of place is this to be where God is with us?  That’s what the Gospel lesson from Matthew describes… it’s a place where we welcome the hungry, where we give something to drink to the thirsty, where the stranger is welcomed, where the naked are clothed, people in need are visited.  

Now the signs of God’s community are clear, and we can see  how much more we live into that vision than we did in past years.  We can see that, for God, it’s how we live in community that matters, more than anything else.  After all, Matthew doesn’t write that the Son of Man will ask where we stand on the authority of bishops or infant baptism.  Matthew says, listen up, poor people matter.   Listen up, no one is supposed to be hungry.  Listen up, everyone gets a decent home – at least in God’s world, they do.  

And we can add, if God is saying those who are scorned matter, then gay people matter in God’s eyes.  Trans people matter in God’s eyes.  Homeless people matter in God’s eyes.  

This is all because, in God’s eyes, it’s our love for one another that is the foundation of the world.  God made us to build community, to accept one another, to figure out how to compromise when we can’t get everything we want.  That’s how we live our love for one another.

God made us to live out forgiveness in our daily lives.  Professor Mark Heim, an American Baptist at the Andover Newton Seminary at Yale Divinity School, teaches that the ability and willingness to forgive is one of the essential marks of being human.  We are most fully human when we can do so, when we can be love.  

That doesn’t mean, by the way, being patsies or being taken advantage of.  It means not holding grudges that break relationships.  If things are toxic in your circumstances, it may mean stepping as far away as you can – but that’s only about a particular time/place/set of people.  For all of us, together, forgiveness is essential to being Christian, to being human.

Yes indeed, the world around us may be falling apart.  The Yankees have Aaron Judge, but the Red Sox lost Xander Bogaerts.  The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.  In the midst of so much that is so wrong, let us remember that our hope is not in unending worldly successes, but in exemplifying God’s love in our lives.  

Let us be the people God has made us to be.  Let us bring salvation to our world.

Amen.

Author: tobelieveistocare

I am an interim pastor in the United Church of Christ, having served as a settled pastor for over thirty years. I play classical mandolin and share my home with a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel

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