“Home Among Mortals”
A Sermon on Revelation 21:1-6 for the 5th Sunday of Easter, Year C; preached April 24, 2016, by the Rev. Matthew Emery, Senior Minister
“Where there is no vision, the people perish.” So goes the old saying. It’s from the Bible itself, in fact, at least it is in the old ‘King James Version’ translation of the book of Proverbs.
I imagine, though, that most of us don’t need to know these words are from the Bible to know that they are true, or at least so often can be true.
Before coming here to Storrs almost five-and-a-half years ago, I ministered in a city that you might say testified to such truth. Many of you know that my previous call was at a Congregationalist-background UCC church in the city of Rockford, Illinois, but I suspect not many of you know much about Rockford itself. Illinois, after all, is so dominated as a state by the city of Chicago and its suburbs that most people have a hard time visualizing anything else there—except, perhaps, the wide swaths of flat-as-a-pancake farm fields much further downstate. Illinois does have, as it turns out, other cities, though, and the greater Rockford area is actually the state’s largest outside either the Chicago or St. Louis metro areas. The city of Rockford proper is actually larger than any of our own ‘big three’—Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport—although it doesn’t have nearly as populous a constellation of suburbs.
Founded by New Englanders in the 1830s, Rockford is a typical ‘rust-belt’ city in many ways. Dominated for so long by manufacturing industries—notably things like heavy machinery, tools, furniture, and even screws—the population base and economy skewed heavily in that ‘blue collar’ direction. Which, of course, is fine in-and-of itself, but as most of us know, history since the 1970s has not proven so kind to such communities. De-industrialization, automation, internationalization, and all those other economic forces of the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s, largely decimated the economic base on which Rockford stood.
Now, that’s a story that could be told of so many cities, large and small, near and far. Rockford, though, has had a particularly rough go at any sort of meaningful revitalization or renewal. I’m not an economist or a sociologist, so I can’t offer a full analysis of what that’s been the case. But what I do know is that the city’s lore—the stories and histories that people there tell of themselves—has in it at least two episodes of what, in hindsight, can be seen as unfortunate lack of vision, with consequences that still plague them today.
One such episode is both rather simple and, to be honest, quite understandable on one level. In the late 1950s, as the first major segments of the Interstate Highway System were built around the country, one such segment, the portion of I-90 that runs between Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, was destined to go right through the city of Rockford. As the story goes, though, the city or the community or someone objected to that plan. Now, many of us are familiar with the freeway revolts that came later, in the later 60s and early 70s, when communities all over the country began pushing back against freeway developments that were going to rip through established communities. And so, as I said, this opposition was on one hand quite understandable, even if it did happen some 10 or 15 years earlier than those more famous examples. But understandable or not, it did not come without tremendous consequence for the future of Rockford. The interstate got built, of course, but it was re-routed to bypass Rockford some 8 or so miles to the east of downtown. Over the intervening decades, all of the commercial and residential development shifted like a landslide to the east , necessitating hundreds of millions of dollars of new infrastructure over the years, while the sizable downtown and old city neighborhoods sat—and still sit—underutilized, languishing, and isolated.
The other episode I’ll share is a bit more indicting of the Rockford’s old ‘city fathers’. Back in the day when plans were taking shape for what would become Northern Illinois University—a school with similar history to our own ECSU down in Willimantic, although today it has a student body size closer to UConn’s—when plans were taking shape, the story goes, apparently those plans were for the school to be built in Rockford. After all, Rockford was the second major city in the state, perhaps even more prominently so then than it is today. But those old city fathers, they didn’t want it. They didn’t think that Rockford needed or even wanted such a thing. So the school ended up going to DeKalb, a little farm town some 45 minutes away. The tragedy of this decision for Rockford really has only become apparent in recent years, though. You see, as our economy has shifted, and as Rockford tries so valiantly to attract new commerce and new investment to replace the old industrial base that has closed up shop, they have to do so while jumping the hurdle of a population base where less than 15% of people have even basic college degrees. The youth of Rockford all go off elsewhere for college and, to a large degree, never come back. In today’s economy, so based as it is in information and innovation, Rockford just isn’t an attractive place, and its population doesn’t have within it the type of workforce that businesses are looking for. Now, would having had that university built in Rockford ultimately changed this? Of course, it’s hard to tell. We’ll probably never know. My hunch, though, is that it might have been at least one ingredient in the recipe for a different future, a recipe for a Rockford not languishing, a future of a people not perishing.
Vision is no insignificant thing. And vision beyond our current reality—not at odds with our current reality, but beyond it—that sort of vision is, in many ways, priceless. That sense of not simply who we are now, but who we want to be, of what a hoped-for future for us could look like… such a sense can make all the difference in the world. Truly powerful, life-giving, transformative vision invites our eyes to gaze onward and upward, past merely the next step on the course we’re on. It takes the core of our identity and invites us to see beyond the next horizon into the fullness of what could be, for ones such as us.
In the New Testament book titled ‘Revelation,’ we get let in on a vision of sorts of what the ultimate future is for us and for all of creation. I say a vision of sorts because Revelation doesn’t give us a simple statement that could be put on a business card, or a vision goal like you might find in the town’s Plan of Conservation and Development. The vision God offers through the book of Revelation comes as a vision—that is, as a dreamscape, if you will, an ecstatic and exotic story full of vivid imagery and deep symbolism, a visionary landscape through which we catch a glimpse into the truth of what awaits.
Quite frankly, Revelation is often a misunderstood book, and therefore an often misunderstood vision. Perhaps you’ve heard the pious babbling out there about “rapture” and “tribulation”. Maybe you remember people who have offered up their key to what exactly each different symbol and character in Revelation supposedly stands for, or others who’ve used the book to predict an exact date for the supposed “end of the world.” All of these ways of trying to use Revelation, however, are simply at odds with the richly symbolic dreamscape the book paints. Moreover, they tend to miss the forest for the trees—that is to say, they miss the point of the vision altogether.
“What is the point, then?” you might ask. Really, it’s quite simple. God wins. That’s the point, that’s the vision: God wins. In a world where the strong devour the weak, and the rich extract more and more from the already poor, God shall in the end win. Ina time when terrorists wreck havoc, and politicians simply reek, God shall win. In an existence marked by disease and despair, separation and desolation, pain and—yes—even death, God shall win. The God who knit you together in your mother’s womb, the God who created all things and pronounced them good… that God wins. Death does not win. Hell does not win. The powers and principalities of this world do not win. God wins.
What does such a victory look like? A new heaven and a new earth altogether, the vision shows us. When God has won over all that would work to the contrary, the end result isn’t just a little bit better a version of this world, a little bit nicer one, a little bit prettier or fairer one. No, it is a new creation entirely—not just a new earth, but even a new heaven.
Of all the things that could be said about a whole new creation, the vision Revelation shows us captures no more important one than this: that the home of God is among mortals, that God in God’s very self will be with us, fully and completely. That, my friends, is what lies beyond the next horizon. And ‘lying beyond the next horizon’ isn’t, in this vision’s case, just some euphemism about what happens to any one of us when we die. No, we’re talking about the next horizon for the whole creation, for this world and all of us together in it, in the ultimate fulfillment of history and God’s will.
Death will be no more; mourning, crying, pain—no more. The wild tumults of chaos and unrest—no more. The separations between us, and the separation between us and God—no more.
Vision matters. It matters that we know where ultimate reality is heading, lest we mistakenly believe that it is headed nowhere. It matters when we know that there’s something over the next horizon that puts the struggles of today into perspective, something that makes the strivings for tomorrow having meaning.
Presbyterian pastor Dana Ferguson once told the story of when, a number of years ago, she laid in a hospital bed with the news she had cancer, a “particularly vicious and sneaky kind of cancer for which there were no survival rates.” The next morning, she tells us, a doctor she’d come to know through the long journey toward a diagnosis heard of her situation and came to visit—not to share his medical knowledge, but to share his support.
“Will I survive this?” she asked him.
“Yes,” he replied, “but you will have to fight.”
This pastor, she reflects that “[t]hose words had great meaning to [her] at that moment.” “Yet,” she writes, “I had no idea how much they would grow in value over the next eighteen months as I lay in bed struggling for my life. They seemed simple words at the time. Their profundity grew each day as I mustered all the strength I had simply to get out of bed and attempt to make it through another day. As I did, I heard those words ringing in my head: ‘You will have to fight.’ So that is what I did, leading me into a new day that dawned many long months later.”
What will be the words that ring in our heads, each of us and all of us together as a people, as we make may through the paths of each day?
Might I suggest trying on for size the word of new heaven and new earth, the word of no more crying or dying, the word of God-with-us, fully and completely and eternally. And in such a word, my friends, find the vision, find the hope, find the faithfulness of God the Alpha and Omega, our beginning and our great and glorious end.
Blessing and honor, glory and power be unto God, now and forever. Amen.
 Dana Ferguson, pastoral commentary on Revelation 21:1-6, in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, ed. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Year C, vol. 2 (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 464-466.