Unity Lutheran Church + Cross of Life Campus
26 May 2019 + Sixth Sunday of Easter
Revelation 21.10, 22—22.5
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching
Think about the last dream you had. If you’re struggling, you’re not alone. On average, according to the National Sleep Foundation, most of us have 4-6 dreams per night, but we forget 95-99% of them!
Dreams are fascinating, aren’t they? They can be nightmares, frightening images that jolt us awake. Or they can be downright bizarre, leaving us to wonder what we ate or drank the night before to warrant such nonsense. Dreams can also, of course, be happy.
Dreams are also prone to interpretation. Seminars and specialists who focus on “dream work” can help their clients hone in on deciphering their dreams and uncovering their meaning for their lives.
Dreams aren’t just limited to when we’re sleeping either. We have dreams — or we might say hopes — for life, too. For ourselves: dreams and hopes about our lives, our relationships, our aspirations, our careers. Or for our loved ones: dreams and hopes for our children, for their lives, for their future. Or even for the world, when we rally around and work for issues and causes we care about.
And then there’s always daydreaming too — a completely different kind of dreaming, where we find ourselves escaping dreadfully boring meetings at work. (Of course, I know nothing about that during Tuesday staff meetings at Unity.)
No matter the kind of dream, one thing is clear: Dreams take us to places that are somewhere else, to imagined or ideal scenarios that we craft or envision, to things that we hope for, whether for ourselves or for others.
Our Bible is full of dreamers: Perhaps most famous is Joseph, way back in Genesis, who has dreams about his own future that get him into trouble with his brothers and, later, interprets a dream Pharaoh has that helps get him out of prison and into a position of power in Egypt. Then there’s the other Joseph, many centuries later, who has a dream where an angel tells him his wife is pregnant with the savior of the world. And then the wise men who come to visit this savior, who have their own dream warning them not to return to Herod.
Our Bible is full of dreamers, and their dreams are as varied as their own unique stories. But one thing seems certain: In the Bible, dreams communicate something important that God’s people need to hear.
The book of Revelation is itself one long dream, or vision, written down by its author, John of Patmos. This isn’t John the baptist, or John the disciple, or John the gospel writer. We know him only by the super common name he gives himself (John) and where he’s writing from (Patmos, a small island about 60 miles off the coast of modern-day Turkey).
In many ways, Revelation reads like a nightmare: with seals and trumpets that announce destruction, a dragon and two beasts, cosmic war and divine judgment. Not exactly the stuff of happily-ever-after.
There’s no denying that stuff is in there. And yet, the book of Revelation has been so woefully misunderstood throughout the history of Christianity, and co-opted by a select group of fundamentalists with a particularly narrow and literal understanding of the book’s events as some kind of “roadmap” for the end of the world. But that’s not what it’s about at all.
First and foremost, Revelation is a letter. Like the epistles before it that make up the bulk of the New Testament, Revelation’s author is addressing seven very real church communities on earth, living in the context of the oppressive Roman Empire. And therein lies the key: This is a book about the struggle against the empire.
Rome had its own dream of empire without end — world peace by way of world domination. Which was great if you were a natural-born Roman citizen, but less-than-stellar if you were among those they conquered.
Enter John of Patmos. He hated Rome and flat-out rejected Rome’s dream for empire without end. One of my New Testament professors from seminary even calls John’s writing anti-Roman propaganda, where the beasts stand in for the empire and the plagues and destruction that unfold, one after the other, are directed at the beast-empire’s own brutality that perpetuates a system of domination, social injustice, and inequality.
In the midst of all this, John’s dream would have given his hearers encouragement and hope, bizarre as that might sound. One of the central figures in the whole book, introduced in chapter 5, is the Lamb, Revelation’s image for Jesus. And John is here to remind his audience that this Lamb has conquered already and this Lamb will get the final word.
Rome is not the end. Social injustice and inequality and violence are not the end. Instead, Revelation invites its original hearers to imagine a future beyond their present circumstances, a future guided by the certain hope that Christ is risen (Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!). Revelation invites us to imagine ourselves into that reality, too.
At our first summer Theology on Tap gathering this past Thursday, we talked about liberation theology — a movement with its roots in the churches of Central America, including our own partners in El Salvador, that encouraged those living under the reality of oppressive governments, state-sanctioned violence, and war to read the Bible in light of their present circumstances, and how to envision a future of hope and liberation in the midst of it all.
Revelation is like that too. Revelation is liberation theology and has inspired theologians and pastors and Christians beyond the first-century world and 20th-century Central America. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., that other great dreamer, once wrote:
“It’s alright to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder,’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here. It’s alright to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the [new] New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee.”
King had a dream, a vision, of the New Jerusalem that John of Patmos describes. The New Jerusalem is not some far off heavenly dwelling-place, but here on earth. John describes seeing the holy city coming down out of heaven. John’s dream brings him back to earth, back to reality, but with a renewed slice of God’s vision for the earth. King understood that well.
There’s a term for what King is talking about, too, and it’s called public church. This term became somewhat of a tagline at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, where I went to seminary, and in fact, our whole curriculum is based on what it means to be a public church.
So what is “public church”? That all depends on context, but it comes down to this: getting beyond the four walls of the church building and into the community. Which is what made me so excited about Unity when I was interviewing here, thinking about all our servant partners: two inner-city ELCA congregations, two addiction recovery centers, a free medical clinic, a food pantry, a homeless shelter, both a Lutheran and a Catholic congregation in El Salvador. Together we don’t just imagine or dream a future radically different from the status quo of our world. We live it, and we do it.
Today’s passage from Revelation also has one of my favorite biblical images: the tree of life with its leaves outstretched for the healing of the nations. In the hymn text quoted as the opening thought in your bulletin today, the hymn writer links this tree to the cross, so central to our proclamation as Christians. The tree of life is the cross of life, and I can’t help but look at the cross hanging over our communion table at the Cross of Life campus — wrapped in leaves. What a wonderful image and visual reminder.
The cross is always our starting point. And what if we’re those leaves, outstretched, for the healing of the nations? Teresa of Ávila, the 16th-century Spanish mystic, is often remembered for her words: “Christ has no body but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours…”
My friends, we are the body of Christ, and we are Christ’s hands and feet in this world. This is our calling: to dream a new world into being and to enact God’s vision for God’s people. Here, literally, the cross, the tree of life, stands tall in our midst, reaching out for the healing and restoration and lasting peace of the whole creation, and inviting us into its embrace.
Thanks be to God.