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sermon on endings and beginnings: Revelation 22:10-21

[slide: "Dear lectionary, when you leave out single verses, I am compelled to read and then preach on them. Love, me."]
[black slide]
And so we come to the end of the story. 
The Revelation to John is the last book of our Bible
And we heard the last chapter of the last book—truly the end of the story. 
It’s the end of the great story that began 
“Once upon a time, God decided to make a world.” 
And it ends with “God’s grace is present with us, so say we all.”
This is the end, my only friends, the end.
And God is present even here, at the end of all things. 
John the Revelator says God is the Alpha and the Omega, 
the beginning and the end, 
not just of the alphabet but of everything there ever was. 
God is the beginning and the end.
And God is the end and the beginning.
Because the book of Revelation isn’t only an ending, it is also a beginning.

We are in transition here at Good Shepherd
Our beloved senior pastor Larry has retired
—an end and a beginning for him, to be sure—
and we are embarking on the next miles of our journey together. 
Who will lead us? 
What will he or she be like? 
It’s a little scary—new beginnings always are—and it’s a lot exciting. 
What’s next, God?
And we just ended our stewardship season, 
only to begin actually being stewards—an end and a beginning.
At UC, the school year has ended, 
eight of our committed students have graduated or moved 
in the past month. 
They go off to jobs or internships or a season of discernment 
(that’s a churchy way to say 
“help me figure out what I’m doing with my life”)
At the Edge campus ministry house, we’re grieving that ending. 
And we’re anticipating the new beginning we see on the horizon
—who will join us this year? 
How will God be present in a new way? 
An end and a beginning.
You’ve been following the news, 
you know about the three women rescued 
from what amounts to suburban slavery in Cleveland. 
In a house where no one had any idea they were captives. 
What a wonderful ending for them
—no grief at the passing of an era but relief. 
And maybe some anxiety mixed in with the jubilation at being free. 
What’s next? 
We can live our lives now…but what toll will the last decade take? 
An ending and a beginning.
Our whole world is in transition
—the way wars are fought, 
shifting from pre-internet to internet being the water we swim in, 
questions of the relevance of churches—
ends and beginnings happening almost faster 
than we can comprehend them. 
One theologian says that generations aren’t defined 
by birth year anymore but by technological product. 
Children born this year will be a different generation 
than the ones born next year. 
It’s like all we have is the shift between end and beginning and end again.
And here in the church, we have a sacrament 
which names as holy this transition between end and beginning, 
between death and life.
Baptism is the death of one self and birth of another.
As well, Confirmation is our confirming that death and rebirth years later
first communion is food for the journey between death and life
weddings, ordinations, moving from one city to another, 
simply waking up in the morning
—all in the space between one story ending and another beginning. 
And God is present in every one of these stories. 
“The Grace of our Lord Jesus be with all of us,” says John the Revelator
—in the Greek, not “may the grace be with us” 
but the declaration “God’s grace is with all of us.”
Whatever ending and beginning you’re experiencing, 
it is hard and painful and full of grief. 
And it is exciting and strangely easy and full of delight.
And we have a hard time holding all of that in our heads at the same time. 
So we often don’t.  
We make it simpler, easier, nicer.
The lectionary writers cut out some of the more difficult bits 
of today’s reading from Revelation
—Rather than beasts and battles, it’s about blessing and invitation. 
Which I guess is nice here in the Easter season. 
But being a follower of Jesus is not about being nice. 
Here’s one of the parts you missed:
The ones who wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb 
are blessed
—these are the ones who believe in Jesus as the son of God 
and who show that belief in their actions. 
And then it says, 
“Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators 
and murderers and idolaters, 
and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.”
That’s not so nice.
Revelation is about clear distinctions between insiders and outsiders 
and doesn’t take the time to recognize 
the complex nature of humanity as do the gospels. 
What are we to make of John the Revelator’s 
calling those outside the Christian fold dogs? 
Remember when the Syrophonecian woman
—that is, non Jewish woman—
asked Jesus to heal her daughter 
and he said he didn’t come to the dogs but to the children of Israel? 
And she said even the dogs eat the crumbs under the master’s table? 
And then Jesus healed her daughter?
And what about Jesus’ statement that all sins except blasphemy 
will be forgiven? 
Leaving aside the question of what blasphemy is
—that’s another sermon altogether—
why are the sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters 
and liars not offered the chance at eternal life? 
Scripture is full of stories of God upending human expectations 
about who is worthy and forgiven. 
One commentator I read this week said: 
“Please God let it be that the evil within and around us 
will in the End be defeated and put to death!
I certainly hope that God leaves outside the holy city everything in me that would:”
  • [slide: adultery] Regard sex as a tool for manipulation or consider it disconnected from lifelong intimacy
  • [slide: murder] everything in me that commits violence against another person whether I want to kill them or not
  • [slide: sorcery] everything in me that thinks God can’t be trusted but that God can be manipulated by the right words and actions
  • [slide: idolatry] everything in me that puts money or status or objects or even people between me and God
  • [slide: falsehood] everything in me that lies to get what I want.
I certainly hope that these parts of ourselves 
will not have a place in the coming Kingdom, 
but I also hope that it is not entire persons who are excluded. [hope slide]
and that’s rather the point of the book of Revelation
—apocalyptic literature is weird because it’s in code 
and it’s difficult because it’s written by and to people oppressed 
and miserable.
If you were a slave to another culture who killed you for your faith
or for no reason at all, you might long for their destruction as well. 
You might long for vindication for yourself and your families as well. 
Apocalyptic literature is difficult 
and doesn’t have what many Christians call “plain meaning”.
But is a literature of hope. 
For people living in pain and loneliness and despair 
and for people who cause those things 
and for people who have no idea what’s going on under their noses, 
apocalyptic literature pulls back the curtain to reveal a different world, 
a world where God is in charge, 
where the story doesn’t end with your pain 
or even with your reveling in being the top of your game. 
The story isn’t over. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end. 
The story ends when God says it ends 
and, from our perspective anyway, 
the story is constantly ending and beginning. [black slide]
 “behold, I saw a new heaven and a new earth” John says.
“…[God] 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.’ 
John the Revelator is writing a new Creation story, 
a new Genesis, 
for this new world that God’s making.
And so we come to the end of the sermon.
And the beginning of your response. [slide: open door]
What’s next? [black slide]

sermon idea only barely related to the lessons

One of my many charms is a predilection for preaching a completely different sermon to myself while listening to someone else preach. Today was one of those occasions. In a move which could only be described as provocative (or maybe blood-thirsty), the Revised Common Lectionary assigned the fantastic story of Salome's dancing for her step-father and her asking for the head of John the Baptist on a platter as a reward. It's awful and awe-ful and unfair, as the preacher rightly pointed out. Where is the good news here? She began speaking about how unfair all of our lives are, but my mind turned in a different direction altogether.

Last night, Loving Husband and I watched Ratatouille and, while the movie was pretty darned great, one moment struck me. [I should note that there will be a SPOILER in this post. Won't ruin the movie for you, but proceed at your own risk. Or just go watch the movie right now and we'll wait for you.]

So near the end of the film, the restaurant critic is waiting ominously in the dining room while chaos and artistry vie for supremacy in the kitchen. We know the critic to be a dour, excessively disapproving sort--one who delights in writing negative reviews. And we know that the fate of the restaurant and of our two heroes--their identities, really--hang on the critic's experience of the food. Because we're all smart people here, I don't mind saying it's a foregone conclusion that the critic will come around, but how? With such build-up, it seems impossible for anything to change his mind, much less for the animators to be good enough to capture it. And yet they do so with one of the most graceful and most beautiful of moments I've seen on film.

The chef prepares a "peasant dish" of ratatouille, a simple vegetable stew, unremarkable to anyone. Of course he puts his own spin on it--what can it be? There's no way for us to know except through the critic's experience. Because when the plate--elegantly stacked as all haute cuisine is these days--arrives on his table and he takes his first sneering bite, he pauses. He pauses mid-chew and is, with us, catapulted into a childhood memory of having wrecked his bicycle, needing his mother to comfort him, and her serving him a dish of comforting ratatouille. And just as suddenly, we're catapulted back into that restaurant where the critic's face is shining with joy. It is a revelation, both to him and to us. No words could do the moment justice, no argument could convince the critic of the food's worth, but the memory does.

I've had that kind of moment. Loving Husband and I went to dinner at Hollyhock Hill in Indianapolis. When they brought out the sixth pre-dinner dish of food, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven. But it was when I noticed that there were both cottage cheese and apple butter on the table that I swooned. I used to mix the two when I was small and called it "Witches' Brew." I spooned equal amounts into my salad bowl and stirred them with anticipation mounting. With the first bite there came a moment like the critic's when my taste buds remembered the smell of grass and the grain of the paneling in my neighbor's house. It was a taste that I had forgotten and which revealed to me my youth.

And that, my friends, is what the book of Revelation is about. I'm not certain about all the seals and the 144,000, but that moment of seeing clearly, of physically remembering something forgotten but pivotal and even simple, that is what John of Patmos' Revelation is about.