Friday, May 21, 2010

Precious in His Sight

“Precious in His Sight”
Rev 22:12-21[1]
It seems obvious to me that there are times when the humanity of the Bible’s authors overwhelms the divine message they were commissioned to deliver. I think we see this for example in those who would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that it was God who commanded them to slaughter their enemies, including men, women, children and livestock. Or in those who insisted that true holiness consists of rituals like hand-washing and purity codes that conveniently marked themselves as “pure” and others as “impure.”
One of the most prevalent ways in which the humanity of the Bible’s authors overwhelms their divine message is in the tension between what we might call “exclusion” and “embrace.”[2] There are many passages of scripture that emphasize “God’s people” as unique, distinct, set apart from other peoples. And along with that go observances that reinforce the barriers. It is the language of “exclusion.” It says to those who are different, “You don’t belong.”
There are also many passages of scripture that emphasize that God’s ultimate purpose in choosing a people for himself is to bring all peoples into the embrace of God’s love and God’s life. Along with that point of view go visions of a far-reaching and all-inclusive mission to carry the good news of God’s love to all nations. It is the language of “embrace.”[3] It says, “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world.”
We see this in our lesson from the Book of Revelation for today—well, only if we “read between the lectionary.” One of the features of the lectionary is that it tends to omit those passages of Scripture that speak of exclusion because they can be pretty offensive. Our lesson for today contains the wonderfully inclusive invitation, “let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift” (Rev. 22:17). But it omits the following: “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15).
On the surface of things, it would seem that these two verses blatantly contradict each other. On the one hand, we have an invitation extended to all people to come and receive the gift of life. It says, “all may come, all are welcome here.” It is the language of embrace. But on the other hand we have a rather rigid line that bars most people from actually being able to take advantage of that invitation! It says, “you don’t deserve God’s love (like I do).” It is the language of exclusion.
Many theologians remind us that the Biblical call to “separate” ourselves with an identity distinct from those around us in fact constitutes a commission to serve as ambassadors for God’s love and mercy and justice among those who are “strangers.” The language of “exclusion” in the Bible is intended for the most part to be understood not as a privilege but as a call to engage in the mission of embracing all people with God’s love.[4]
Unfortunately, there are some dynamics going on in the background of the book of Revelation that get in the way of this biblical transformation of exclusion into embrace. It seems that the people John was addressing faced severe threats from those outside the Christian community, like the loss of livelihood, or family and social ties, or possibly even loss of their lives. In the face of these threats it seems that the commission to embrace others hardened into retreat and isolation, and was expressed with the language of “outsiders” being banished and excluded.
But here’s the rub—taking God’s love and making it into something that excludes anybody means that it excludes everybody. Think about it: if we use Jesus’ definition of the criteria for keeping the “dogs” outside—lust, murder, coveting, and lying—we have to admit that we’re all on the outside. This is why I think that these kinds of statements in Scripture represent the authors’ humanity rather than the divinely inspired message they were commissioned to deliver. Whom would Jesus exclude? Whom would Jesus call a “dog”? From whom would Jesus keep the gift of life?
I think when we look at it that way we can begin to see that our God is a God of embrace, not exclusion. And that means that we who consider ourselves the people of “the God of embrace” can no longer isolate ourselves from “outsiders” whom we judge “different” by making the lines between us more rigid.[5] It means that we have to overcome our impulse to exclude by recognizing every human being as a beloved child of God and embracing him or her as a brother or sister.[6] As Ray Stevens sang it, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” If they are precious in God’s sight, then they must be precious in ours.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/16/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX.
[2] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 22-31.
[3] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 224.
[4] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 224-25, 284-85, 289, 333-38; Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 83-85.
[5] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 72-79
[6] Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, 69-71, 100, 118, 140-47, 214.