Sunday, April 17, 2016

Amen to Life

Amen to Life
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
April 17, 2016
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Revelation 7: 9-17
Ezekiel 37: 1-14

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
For your eyes show the way
Your mind knows the truth
Your being is the life.

9After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 11And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12singing, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. 16They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat;17for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

We’ve been trying to have this day for many weeks now. We first started thinking about having it right after Christmas for Janet’s birthday, then in February, then during Lent, then the Sunday before Palm Sunday, then the Sunday after Easter. We’ve changed the date again again. We’ve tried to make it right and make it perfect because we want to remember and honor a woman who touched our hearts. She touched our hearts with her music, with her kindness, with her example, with her caring, with her wit, with her knowledge, with her. . . self. .  there just isn’t any way to put it other than that without leaving anything out. It was Janet that touched our hearts, all of her, every piece, every element, everything.  As I started to try to think of adjectives, they just kept coming, and with each one a memory of moments and stories, examples of how Janet gave of herself to this church and this greater community. So we’ve wanted to make a moment to stop, to pause, to commemorate a life, and the love that formed and surrounded her life, because since she moved away we weren’t able to  So we landed on today, where we could get a choir together and be prepared to sing some, and in singing and listening dedicate Janet’s legacy of love symbolized by music here. With every song we remember, and hereby dedicate this music stand to memorialize her. Every time it is used going forward, the music it supports and gives direction to will stem from Janet’s love and memory.
I’m excited for where the lectionary leads today, and believe that it is providentially appropriate for a memorial or dedication to a life like Janet’s. It is a great testament to the resurrection, and witness thereof, a great heavenly scene of a representative metaphorical vision of redemption. Much like last week we see a vision of the heavenly throne room, but last week you had unearthly details. . . like beasts with multiple wings, horns, and eyes, and mysterious elders surrounding the throne, and then what was strangest of all is that it is a lamb, the lamb who is shown as worthy, worthy to open scrolls that previously could not be opened. Here  you have a similar theme, but now it isn’t just the 24 elders and the 4 beasts, but instead a multitude, a multitude of people, so many that no one could count them, and they are each adorned in a white robe, and they are each waving palm branches, all to the lamb. It echoes the Palm Sunday celebration, doesn’t it. . .and they are singing, (apparently that is what heaven is about, Janet should fit right in, singers always need a piano player right?). But they are singing words that echo Palm Sunday too, and though there is a multitude assembled, more than anyone could count, the pronoun they describes them, plural, but when it talks about their singing voice, there is only one, so this multitude is singing together in one voice, my what a choir, and they sing “Salvation (Hosanna) belongs to the God seated on the throne and to the lamb.” And there with the heavenly host of 24 angels and the 4 beasts, they all fall to their faces, in seeming humble supplication, but they do not ask for anything new, instead, they sing out Amen! “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”  What a powerful image. . . what a powerful statement that Amen is.
I want to get back to that in a second, but before I do let’s look at the second paragraph, because the second paragraph brings it all full circle, and connects the Old and New Testament readings for today. I must be a real glutton for punishment, because the lectionary doesn’t give an Old Testament passage for these weeks of Easter for some reason, so I had to supply it. And just as symbolic and intimidating as Revelation is for the New Testament, Ezekiel is the Revelation of the Old Testament. It is a strange book, and wild book, and a symbolic book. And the words that Erick read this morning is by far the most famous of the Ezekielian images. . . Ezekiel and those dry bones. O hear the word of the Lord. . .them bones, them bones,them dry bones, them bones them bones, them dry bones, them bones them bones, them dry bones, all hear the word of the lord, o the foot bone’s connected to the shin bone, the shin bone’s connected to the knee bone. . . and it goes on and on, but if you read it, these dry bones, that represent all the people of Jerusalem, all the faithful followers of God, who have passed away, it is these bones, that are going to have life breathed into them. . . and them bones them bones, gonna walk around. . . Life, new life, resurrection, redemption. . . Amen! How are they connected? Allusions are my favorite literary devices, because if you know the texts you can see the relationship, if you know the reference the meaning just expands. Look at the wording of both of these passages, if you can remember what Erick read.
The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. 2 He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. 3 He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.”

O Lord God, you know. . . is that anything like this:
13Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”

In both the knowing asks the visitor, and in both the visitor, says, you know you tell me. It is absolutely the same, and purposefully so. . . but why, why would John allude to Ezekiel, why would it be the same, except to say that these bones walking around, are the people set free by and through the blood of the lamb. It is a fulfillment of the prophesy. Now why is it so important for John to allude to Jesus fulfilling the prophecy of Ezekiel. The gospel writers and Paul are usually much more caught up in Isaiah, and or even the new covenant of Jeremiah, but here we have Ezekiel, strange, visionary Ezekiel. I loved the times in seminary when we got to connect the old and new testaments, because we were rarely pushed to do so. It seemed that so many people were always trying to connect so many different things. . . and such connections were often too easy, and like the boy that cries wolf, when you see connections in everything, it cheapens the weight of the real ones, and this I believe is a real one. So why Ezekiel? One of things that is really interesting about the Prophets of the Old Testament, is studying them, and thinking about them in their unique historical context because they are reacting and lending their prophetic voices to real time historical events. Isaiah covers alot of time, and it is believed by some scholars that there is actually more than one Isaiah, more than one voice, but Jeremiah and Ezekiel, fulfill different historical roles. The main event in the Biblical story after David and Solomon’s reign is the exile. The kingdom of Solomon gets split into two, Israel to the North and Judah to the South. Both kingdoms are threatened on all sides by much larger and more powerful Earthly Empires: you’ve got Egypt to the southwest, Assyria North and west, and the Babylonians from the East, and there sets this divided kingdom. Jeremiah is the prophet right before the fall of Judah. Israel has long fallen to the Assyrians, but Jeremiah is telling people, pleading the people of Judah to change their ways, to return to God, to remember the covenant, to remember who they are, to think about what God has done, and meant in their lives, to turn back, before all is lost, but then all is lost. . . and this same Jeremiah writes the book of Lamentations. . .
How lonely sits the city
   that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
   she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
   has become a vassal.
2 She weeps bitterly in the night,
   with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
   she has no one to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,
   they have become her enemies.
3 Judah has gone into exile with suffering
   and hard servitude;
she lives now among the nations,
   and finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
   in the midst of her distress.

That is Jeremiah, and that is his message, and his promise is that though the Lord will make them pay for their transgressions, he will not turn his head forever, and that a new covenant will be established, this time written on hearts.. . . but yes that is Jeremiah.
I told you that story to tell you this one. Ezekiel is the prophet of the exile. . . and think about what he needs to say to the people. What the message would have to be. Because think about what the typical mindset of the people probably would be. . . Where was God when the Babylonians came through. . . are their gods stronger? Are their gods real? Can God, can Yahweh not protect us anymore. . . sure he parted the sea, led us through the desert, delivered from slavery to the promised land, but it appears that his promises are done with? His power is no more, because how could a Good God, a creator God, an All Powerful God, who has chosen us, allow such things to happen. . . the Babylonians say they conquered us because their gods are God. . . are they right? What leg could we possibly have to stand on. . . but Ezekiel has the message that it is all a part of a larger plan, that God is very much in control, that all is not lost, and that God will get his vengeance in the end, those bones will walk around, and the ever present refrain throughout Ezekiel is. . . they will know my name is THE LORD. . . translated they will know my name is Yahweh, they will know my name is Jehoveh, they will know who I am and what my power is, when all of these things come to be. . . and then they will all bow down and be forced to acknowledge, and they will all say Amen.
Sound familiar? Christ crucified, Jerusalem destroyed again, this time by the Romans in response to a Jewish revolt, the newly formed Christian churches persecuted. . . the list goes on and on, but what John wants his readers, the people of the seven churches to know is that Jesus is Lord. . . despite all of this you see, the last word belongs to Christ, to the lamb, and that last word is a resounding Amen. . . glory, and power, and thanksgiving, and honor, forever and ever Amen. . . not the Romans, not the Emperor but the lamb, just like Ezekiel, not the Babylonians, but The Lord. The response of both is to believe, and witness, testify to that truth, so that all will come to know the name of the Lord, and be washed in the blood of the lamb. Do you see the all important connection?
So obviously today we witness to the resurrection, we believe death does not equal the end, but a beginning, and that our dear friend, beloved Janet is among those dressed in white, singing praises and bowing to the floor. We cannot see her, but our faith tells us that what we see all around us is not the last word, but that, that last word belongs to God and the Lamb, and to it we say Amen. I talked last week about Amen, what it means, about assent, about its acknowledging the past, in the present and looking to the future. It is also a powerful capstone. And I have found it so rewarding in my young ministry to speak at funerals, that it is so rewarding, we spend so much time talking about how we fall short, how because we do that we are in constant need of grace, but it throughout it all it is nice to see what grace does, in lives, how love and grace manifest itself in the people we have loved and have lost. To witness to the divine spark that is in people. It has been so great for me to have gotten the chance to witness to the spark in people here, to George Allman, to Joan, to Lydia, and to Virginia, and to Janet. We miss them, but their lives teach us much about life and discipleship. I want to close this morning with the poem that I wrote shortly after Janet passed. I wanted to capture that moment, and witness to the life she lived serving Christ and showing his love to all who knew her.
In Memoriam:  Janet DeRoche
There will always be a special place in my heart,
Where Janet is sitting at the piano, and playing.
She filled so many Sunday mornings with song,
And hearts with joy, simply by sharing her gifts.
Her love of music, her love of song, her endless
Kindness, cared enough to be there, without fail.
There is a real symbiotic relationship between
A pastor and the Music Director, for like other
Collaborations, the sum of the parts working
Together is so much more than one could be
Without the other. There were times where she
Knew what I was thinking before I did, and times
When she made me discover and realize ideas
I never knew I had, and she was never afraid
To tell me what she thought. . . never. . . ever,
Even when I did not want to hear it, but she
Was always kind, and we agreed more often
Than not. She was tough, but how could she
Not be, with a special combination of New Yorker
And Scot. Ever proud of both, history, heritage,
And patriotism flowed from deep within her,
And this above all, possibly even more than
Music, found in us kindred souls. We talked
Politics and poetry and history and showtunes.
There is that music coming in again. It is always
Right there. She touched so many in our little
Church, and in our little town. We will miss her,
But know she is somewhere in heaven, filling
A room with music, and heaven is just a little
Bit brighter, with her there. Thank you ever Janet.