Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Not Mending Fences

"Not Mending Fences"
Rev. 7:9-17[1]
Robert Frost is one of my favorite poets. In a collection of poems published almost a hundred years ago, he included a now-famous poem called “Mending Wall.” Its opening line, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,” expresses a sense of questioning the validity of the boundaries in this world. He articulates the question like this: “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offence. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”[2]
Now, what we have to understand is that in Frost’s New England stone “walls” were the “fences.” The poem is about the annual ritual that he and his neighbor perform—walking the wall to replace stones that have come off. Hence the notion of “mending fences.” His neighbor insists on holding firmly to the notion handed down to him that “Good fences make good neighbors.” But Frost saw the very forces of nature as arrayed against the continued existence of fences—between the ground swelling and contracting, toppling the stones, and the action of ice freezing and breaking up the stones, the very elements themselves conspired to bring down the walls and fences that conventional wisdom insisted “make good neighbors.” From Frost’s perspective, it would seem that God has built into the very process of nature that which continually uproots and overturns and tears down walls and fences—and perhaps also boundaries and divisions.
This would seem to be one of the points of the vision of the great multitude that no one could count in Revelation 7:9—in the throng worshiping the one on the throne and the Lamb, all the boundaries and lines and divisions that separate people from one another are torn down. Now, we must acknowledge at the outset that this vision is contrary to the way of the world. The world in which we live says that only members are allowed; it says you must have on shoes and a shirt to receive service; it reinforces the notion that differences in color and culture constitute absolute boundaries that must be upheld against all threats. This world wants clear boundaries and fences—and laws that reinforce them!
In the Kingdom of God, however, the standard operating procedure is “neither Jew nor Greek, neither male nor female, neither slave nor free” (Gal 3:28);[3] it is neither white nor black nor brown nor yellow nor red, neither rich or poor, neither employed or unemployed, neither native born citizen or illegal alien, but all are included in God’s vision for humankind. Like Frost’s notion of creation conspiring to bring down all the walls and fences in our world, God’s Kingdom is designed so that nothing will be left that can possibly divide us!
The vision of the great multitude in Revelation is a startling one if we let it stand on its own. I think the majority view in mainline protestant churches like ours has been to read this passage as if the great multitude were white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant Christian, middle- to upper-class voting citizens of the USA! What a pale vision that is! The seer of Revelation says that this multitude comes from every nation, from “all tribes and peoples and languages” (Rev. 7:9). In the First-Century world, I would imagine that as a description of just about every distinction that could divide the human family. In our day and time we have added some distinctions—creed, social class, sexual orientation, political affiliation, just to name a few. But the point of the vision is that the “great multitude” cuts across all of these ways in which we like to divide humanity and segregate others who are different from us.
This is the vision of the kingdom of God—it includes all people; some have tried to make it only a vast throng of Christians from every people group, but I disagree with that. [4] I think it is the vision of universal salvation that the book of Genesis articulates in the narrative of Abraham’s call: “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen. 12:3). The implication is clear: from start to finish, God’s purpose is to restore all people.[5] And the vision of the vast and diverse crowd around the throne in Revelation gives us an idea of what that might look like.[6]
This vision lies at the heart of the call in the book of Revelation to follow the way of the Lamb who was slain. But make no mistake about it; it is also a vision that implies a danger for all who determine to follow this way.[7] It is dangerous to follow a man who was executed for turning the world upside down. It is dangerous to hold faithfully to the testimony of the Lamb who was slain, the one who wins the victory not by force but by giving himself over to death. Jesus Christ performed the ultimate act of non-violent sacrifice, and by so doing he won the ultimate victory over evil and death and violence and injustice—and even over the divisions of this world.
The biblical writers insist that act of sacrifice changed everything for everybody.[8] It “turned the world upside down.” And every time one of us chooses to follow the way of the Lamb in a world that is diametrically opposed to that way, we continue the process of “turning the world upside down.” It would seem then that “mending fences” is something that those of us who seek to follow the Lamb have no business doing! When we take this approach, we must expect opposition, hostility, and perhaps even violence in reaction to our determination to follow the way of the Lamb. [9] But in the long run, I think we can take comfort from the assurance that one day the way of the Lamb will be vindicated; one day all the walls and fences and boundaries and divisions in this world will be eliminated.[10] This is the vision of God’s Kingdom—and as Robert Frost suggested, we can see it written into the very processes of creation.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 4/25/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Robert Frost, “Mending Wall,” from North of Boston.
[3] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 84, 106, 188, 292, 316, 338-39, 342
[4] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 135: “Christian eschatology is not merely eschatology for Christians”! Cf. similarly, ibid., 293: since the Christian community is “the sign, the instrument, and the breaking-in” of Christ’s reign and therefore of the new creation, it “is therefore not an exclusive community of the saved, but the initial and inclusive materialization of the world freed by the risen Christ.”
[5] Cf. Moltmann, Church in the Power, 59-60, where he describes the intention of God’s work as leading the glorification of God: “The glory of God is only completed when the ‘creation at the beginning’ is consummated by the ‘new creation at the end’ and when the whole redeemed existence joyfully raises the hymn of eternal thanksgiving.” That sounds like an appropriate description of the vision in Revelation 7! Cf. further ibid., 63-65.
[6] Cf. Richard Bauckham, “The List of the Tribes in Revelation 7, Again,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 42 (1991):99-115; cf. 103, where he emphasizes the vision of the innumberable multitude as a fulfillment of the promise to Abraham and his descendants; cf. also Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, 300; David E. Aune, Revelation 6-16, 466-67; cf. further Balmer H. Kelly, “Revelation 7:9-17,” Interpretation 40 (July, 1986): 290; he points also to Isaiah 49 as a basis for this vision.
[7] Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, “Preaching the Psalms: Psalm 23,” Journal for Preachers 31 ( Lent 2008): 43-48, who brings out the similar danger of affirming “the Lord is my shepherd”!
[8] Cf. Kimberley Bracken Long, “Who are These People? Revelation 7:9-17,” Journal for Preachers 28 (Easter 2005): 27-30.
[9] Cf. Gary W. Charles, “Diving into Wonderland: Preaching Revelation in the Mainline Pulpit,” in Journal for Preachers (Advent 2006):15-20.
[10] Cf. Kelly, “Revelation 7:9-17,” 294, where he says this passage presents “an unalloyed ‘gospel,’ a seeing and hearing of the final justification of Christian hope. … The strength of the biblical hope is that it focuses on what is real rather than simply on what will be. Triumph will be because it is the fundamental truth of human life corresponding to the truth of God.”

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