Monday, May 1, 2017

Despair, Misunderstanding, and Change: Recognizing Jesus on the Emmaus Road (excerpts from a sermon delivered on April 30, 2017)

In Luke’s gospel, he dares his readers to see the fullness of God in the person, work, and witness of Jesus Christ who came to deliver not only Israel, but also the entire Gentile world. These very Gentiles would become some of his primary readers who were encountering the story for the first time. So Luke begins his gospel in the same way he ends it, with this call to recognition. "I too decided," Luke writes, "after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophillus, so that you may know (Greek: recognize) the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (Luke 1:4).

So that you may recognize. 

This is the same word used multiple times in chapter 24. But today’s story, the book end of Luke’s call to recognition, which has taken us from shepherd fields to the feeding of massive crowds, from controversial encounters with Syrophoenician women to the raising from the dead one of his closest friends named Lazarus, from garden to table to betrayal to cross to tomb then left empty, hinges on those who still found themselves unable to recognize the resurrected Christ as they walk their pilgrim road. Luke says they were kept from recognizing him- literally, their eyes were seized and arrested so they could not recognize Jesus when he came near.  Like a crafty filmmaker or storyteller, Luke leaves the reader wondering not only why these sojourners cannot, but also when will their eyes be loosed so they can recognize him. When will the reveal come? 

So first, what keeps them from recognizing Jesus? There are a few reasons- in many ways they are intertwined with what keeps us from seeing Jesus today.

First, there is despair. When the clouds are thick and gray, when our newsfeeds and radio waves are saturated with tragic and concerning events and fear and hostile rhetoric have become the new normal, when we experience personal loss and yet another reminder that those personal aspirations or visions for ______ may be unattainable, even the most optimistic among us may find it hard to recognize the hope we once held dear. Despair can be an arresting force that shackles our dreams, seizes our creativity, and fetters our vision away from any possibility of things being other than what they are. 

Theologian Andrew Root writes in his book, The Promise of Despair:
“If death had a Facebook profile its interests would not only be putting people in the grave but also killing their dreams, their loves, their peace, their dignity.”  

The two companions who traveled that road from Jerusalem to Emmaus knew this well. The resurrected Christ had come near, right in front of them, and Luke writes, “They stood still, looking sad.”  Said differently, they stopped on that road arrested by their despairing hearts in light of the death of their Teacher and Friend. 

What's important in today's story is how Christ draws near in this moment of despair. Jesus does not rush to revelation or pat answers to reduce their lament; he walks alongside. This is some of the best news in today's story- awareness that no matter how thick your clouds of despair, Christ draws near you not with dismissive answers but real presence, even when he may be difficult if not impossible to recognize. This is the call of the church, too, as we enter into the despairs of our communities, cities, and larger world not first to offer answers but solidarity and love so our neighbors may recognize the very compassion of Christ. 

Still, Jesus is not content to remain despairing. Neither should we. 

This is true for individuals, communities, nations, congregations, and denominations, too.  We must be careful not to become so trapped by our sufferings or narratives of decline that our eyes are arrested and unable to see resurrection possibilities in the very places we were called to serve.

It is fascinating to me that these two travelers are talking along the road and they lead with haven’t you heard about “these things” about the death and crucifixion of the Messiah? Resurrection was dismissed as idle tale and their ministry with Jesus believed to be over. Despair had a vice grip on their hopes and dreams and forward thinking.  Despair can have a vice grip on the church, too. Those who like to elevate their voices of reason and corporate memory come armed with proof that there is no hope for an alternative to what currently is and what will likely always be for a particular congregation. So many O church stand still looking sad, unable to recognize resurrection possibilities right before them, content to talk about closure or prolonged maintenance at best. Their ministry with Jesus is believed to be over. 

Here Jesus flips the foolishness and calls out their misunderstanding, which is another of this mornings roadblock to recognition. Misunderstanding

What did they misunderstand? I suggest it is what they said about “we had hoped he was the One to redeem Israel.” It is not that this was wrong- Jesus was all about delivering the covenant people. But if they had paid any attention at all, and if we have been in reading Luke, the thrust of the stories were about including the other- the Gentile- those labeled as beyond the scope of God’s promise. Their hope, on the contrary, was still insular. They were not able to recognize the resurrected Christ because they had misunderstood the goal of the biblical story- redemption of all the world. 

I was recently a part of a worship service with seminarians serving in one of our churches, part of our Presbytery’s Ministry and Leadership Incubator. One of the students, as part of the self-offering, held up a stick with pieces of rope hanging down. She then began to talk about how the disciples used nets to fish- not hooks. These nets were created as rope from opposite ends were woven together into a tool to gather in the fish; opposing ends used to draw in the masses. 

We would rather put hooks on the end of each rope, maybe content with luring one fish at a time in solitude. Or if you are like me, no fish ever, unless they accidentally run into my line and are get snagged. True story.  But nets, while they take time in their weaving, working likely with other people, they are able to gather in the multitude. Especially when they are cast on the other side of the boat. 

How often we misunderstand the gospel.  Instead of finding more reasons to bind ourselves to one another as we form an inclusive community of grace and love, we build walls of exclusion or simply sit idle in despair grumbling as we fish alone and wonder why they aren't biting at our old and trusted bait.

This makes it not only difficult for us to recognize Christ, but also and more tragically difficult for the watching world to recognize Christ within us. 

Which leads to the final barrier to our recognition- change. The last time they had seen the Messiah was in the exhaustion of the events that led to his crucifixion. So when they see the One who has been to the other side of death and made new and whole again, they cannot recognize him. 

This past September I grew a beard. It was a nice beard. I loved my beard. When I walked into the office after an extended weekend with the beard, I got many interesting looks from those who did not recognize me and my new appearance. Then, on Easter weekend, I shaved it off as a sign of new life. My four-month old daughter, who only new me with the beard, did not recognize me. Until I spoke- and when I did, her face lit up and her toothless smile became as wide as the ocean.  

Change in appearance can make it difficult to recognize even the most beloved of people. The same can be said of communities and the church. Yet change is often necessary- especially for the church- if we are to participate in the resurrection in such a way that speaks into the neighborhoods we have been called to love and serve; these communities are constantly changing. 

But change can be fearful.  For some, change may be painful and make it somewhat difficult to recognize what they have grown to love for so long. It may even make their ability to see Jesus in a particular place a challenge. We would do well to walk alongside them in the same way Jesus walked alongside Cleopas and the unnamed companion. For others, changes are welcome and refreshing. They usher in a new era of witness that just may make the mission of the church more recognizable to their neighbors who may be searching for belonging and assurance that there is a God who loves them. Be careful not to allow these changes to become the new structures of idolatry unwilling to be adapted and reformed when that day comes- and it will come. Today’s story dares us to embrace what it means to be reformed not only in theology, but also in our church forms, systems, structures, and methods for faithful witness.  Eyes opened to change can be the difference between cross and resurrection, Jerusalem and Emmaus, death and newness of life.  

Despair. Misunderstanding. Change. They can be arresting agents that prevent us from recognizing Jesus.

But then we come to Luke’s reveal. The story has built to this moment and, to our surprise, recognition comes in the familiar. Luke says, “when he was at the table with them, he took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”  

Much like my daughter, whose eyes widened when her baby-faced father spoke to her, the eyes of these pilgrims were opened in the familiarity of grace and gratitude found in the sacramental table. As they broke bread with this stranger, they recognized why their hearts burned within as Jesus opened the Scriptures to them. 

This is a good word for the church today. In light of our past and budding future, may we be a people committed to moving through despair and towards possibilities; to having our understanding of our call and witness renewed and reformed as we cast our nets wide into our communities and offer places of belonging to those frequently dismissed or ignored; and to embracing change as redemptive opportunity to encounter the person of Christ in one another and strangers who just may gather around this table and break bread with us.* As we do all this, may we recognize Christ as walking alongside us on this pilgrim road called faith.  This Christ is the One who dares us to be, as the hymn goes,** drawn by the Spirit’s tether into resurrection possibilities that just may make the gospel recognizable in even the most despairing places. 

*I love what theologian Justo Gonzalez writes, “In [the church’s] worship, in this eating together that is communion, the church has the opportunity and the duty to give the world a glimpse of a life between the past of what God has done and the future of what God has promised to do” (The Story Luke Tells Us 109).

**Draw Us in the Spirit's Tether (Hymn 504, Union Seminary 1957)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Jesus as the Thirsty One: Brief Meditations on One of the Last Words of Christ

Water can be play, like hot city streets turned playground as children dance through the spray of hydrants drawn open. Water can be terror, just think of regions devastated by hurricanes, tsunamis, and massive floods. Water can be sacred symbol, as when sprinkled on the head of a child or a new believer submerged within through the sacrament of baptism.

Then there is water as drink. Yet, health studies have suggested 75% of Americans are chronically dehydrated. That is, we are a thirsty people. We do not take in enough water. Whether due to the of lack of access to clean water, various health conditions, or simply becoming lax to our bodies basic need, most Americans are unable to maintain healthy levels of hydration. 

To be thirsty is to become aware of a significant lack- something is not right.

In that sense, water is not the only thing we thirst for as a people. We know things are not right and well around us, and they have not been for quite some time.

We thirst for the easing of hostile rhetoric.

We thirst for the day when war is no more and weapons of war, terror, and violence, be they guns or chemicals, are no longer wielded.

We thirst alongside those who flee genocide, oppression, and civil war in search of safe refuge in foreign lands where just maybe their children can run and play without fear. 

We thirst for welcome.

We thirst for those who are literally thirsty from Flint, Michigan to regions throughout the developing world. 

We thirst for equal access to quality education for our children and the dismantling of a school-to-prison pipeline that puts young people of color and with disabilities at an increased risk for encounters with the juvenile justice system and incarceration as adults.

We thirst for gender equality in the work place and the rights of LGBTQI persons. 

We thirst for the end of hunger and poverty and a more balanced economy. 

We thirst for the end of chronic disease and pain. We thirst for safety in our schools. We thirst for belonging. We thirst for the end of conflict and stress in our most intimate relationships. 

We may even thirst for the church as we wrestle with our relevance and witness in the midst of the complexities of the twenty-first century and what seems to be constant identity crises. 

There is so much more that leaves us thirsty in a dehydrated world.

Then we hear the words of Christ upon the cross, “I thirst.”  While some like to highlight the Jesus in John as in full control, even dignified, there is no escaping the vulnerability of a dehydrated God longing for relief as he hangs nailed to a tree. Jesus as the thirsty one.  This may be good news for us- Jesus on the side of those who thirst for all we just named and more.  The Blessed One, thirsting for justice and righteousness.

There is also a level of irony in these words of Christ upon the cross, “I thirst.” This is the same Messiah who spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well, "but those who drink of the water that I will give them will never be thirsty. The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” (John 4). 

Yet Jesus says, "I thirst."

I can imagine the woman Jesus befriended at the foot of the cross that day. So much for the that spring of water gushing up to eternal life, she may have shouted out as she wept in fear, angst, and sense of abandonment that was an all too frequent element of her narrative.

As we come to the end of this Holy Week narrative, with all the realities of our nation, world, and personal lives, we may echo the same.  A thirsty God may lead us to wonder how long until, if ever, our thirst is truly quenched. 

Still I wonder, what was it that Jesus was thirsty for in his darkest of hours? Yes, there is the obvious answer of water. But, if you know anything about this Gospel, John is never about the obvious.

Was Jesus thirsty for relief from the pain as he remained there exposed and on the brink of death? Was Jesus thirsty for the easing of sorrow and fear he knew overwhelmed the hearts and minds of those he bid to follow? Was Jesus thirsty for the cup he knew only he could drink and thereby deliver the whole world? Was Jesus thirsty for the resurrection he knew was to come in just a few days? Was Jesus thirsty for God’s Dreams to come to fruition, when all creation would be made new and right again? 

Yes. These things Jesus surely thirsted for on that Good Friday. But we must go farther. For Jesus to say I thirst is to identify with those who lack. Jesus is on the side of those who thirst. It’s as if the Gospel writer is including his own variance of Matthew 25, “When did you see me thirsty and offer me a drink?"

In this sense, Jesus thirsted for us.  Jesus’ mission had reached its pivotal goal of Jerusalem and the cross and he thirsted for us to pick up where, as John writes, he had finished. Jesus thirsted for us, whom he prayed for, to be on the side of the thirsty ones.

Jesus thirsted for the waters of our baptism to drench our work in and for the world as we side with those most vulnerable in our neighborhoods.

Jesus thirsted for faith communities to extend solidarity and hospitality to those frequently relegated to the margins and labeled as other and less.

Jesus thirsted for the faithful to remain open and thirsty to new ways of being church alongside those searching for meaning and belonging.

Jesus thirsted for his people to advocate for victims of violence and their families thirsty for empathy and justice in the wake of another life taken.

Jesus thirsted for the faithful to organize alongside young people in at-risk communities thirsty for mentoring, direction, and assurance their lives matter even though the cards may be stacked against them.

Jesus thirsted for the end of racial and ethnic divides and varied –isms that plague us as a people.

Jesus thirsted for us to become a spring of water gushing up to eternal life in a dehydrated world- maybe even in how we care for creation.

So where do you thirst? May you find assurance that Jesus is on the side of the thirsty ones- blessed are you who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

May you also recognize your thirst as the very awakening of the Spirit calling you to respond to the lack with fresh hydrations of the gospel near and far. As we do this together, we allow the living water to become in us the very springs of water gushing up to eternal life. We just may be quenching the thirst of a crucified Christ who comes to us in the face of our neighbors whom we are called to love and serve.  Amen. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

I Don't Have Time: A Call to Being Not Possessing

I don't have time.
There’s not enough time. 
I wish we had more time. 
Can we make time?
Who has that kind of time?

These are our laments as we tread water in the culture of productivity and performance. We lust after time and envy those who appear able to manage time with great ease. We may even resent those (or our much younger selves) who have the coveted free time that now eludes us. 

Even the reference to time as free exposes our treatment of days and weeks as the greatest commodity in a culture of acquisition and achievement.

Despite our best attempts to create time through devices aimed to make us more efficient multitaskers, we still cannot attain enough time.  In fact, time escapes us at a greater rate in the digital age, as immediacy is expected of us and we are less able to be fully present in one particular time and place.

These are sure reasons for the popularity of Twenty-One Pilot’s hit single, “Stressed Out”:
"Wish we could turn back time

to the good old days

when our momma sang us to sleep but

now we’re stressed out."

While we may like to think this is a new kind of phenomena unique to the modern man or woman, the reality is, time has been vulnerable since the beginning. Humans have always wrestled with time, sought to control time, and have even used time as a means to oppress others in pursuit of power. 

Along the way, religious traditions have crafted related narratives, rituals, and liturgical praxes to reframe time as neither nemesis nor collateral but witness to the divine presence and sacred space to encounter the holy. 

And the sacred cannot be manufactured, contained, or subdued.

In Abraham Heschel’s classic, The Sabbath, he writes:
"There is a realm of time where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord.  Life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern” (3).
This is one of the reasons Jesus was so agitated by the resistance of the Pharisees when he healed on the Sabbath. The Sabbath had become a thing of space and an object of human control and subduction. When a chance to love neighbor was juxtaposed with their harnessing of time, they optioned for the latter at the expense of the former created in the image of God.

We do not need more time. We dare not obsess over the protection, preservation, or ill-fated attempts to manufacture time. Instead, we are to aim for a particular way of being within the time and space God has given us each day, to include those set apart as holy. This way of being is centered around giving, sharing, and aspiring not to control or possess but to move in accord with the sacred, even when time feels pressed at best. 

Only then are we able love those we encounter in every time and place and avoid becoming so very stressed out. 

Maybe that was the purpose of Sabbath all along. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

On Ash of Wednesday and the Goodness of Dust

This year Ash Wednesday meets us with a level of welcome I cannot remember in my lifetime. The sobering refrain, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, cuts through every and any claim of personal or social sovereignty. We all have the same beginning and will arrive at the same end. 

I am just as much a collection of dust as those at the head of a nation. You are just as much dust as your closest friend and most feared foe. We are all dust and to dust we shall all return. 

A few other musings on this first day of Lent. 

We are all complicit. 
The call to a season of prayer laced in confession is not solely a means to identify the social sins of systems, institutions, and powers that be. There is an urgent place for this; Lent for too long was primarily about personal piety. Yet, we miss the point if we close our conscience to how each and every one of us is complicit in varied distortions of what it means to love God and neighbor and to live into God's dreams for a world just and whole. Lent dares us to be leary of exposing the splinters in the eyes of another without awareness of the planks in our own retinas. This is a liturgical gift in a world bent on finger pointing, wall-constructing, blame shifting, wedge driving, and enemy making rhetoric unable to usher in an alternative reality to what we know is not even close to good enough. When we acknowledge each of us contributes to the problem, only then can we work towards preferred solutions and reformations.

We are all limited dependents. 
Each Ash Wednesday, we reclaim and reaffirm the creation narrative of God making humanity from the dirt only then to breathe life into the nostrils. We are dependent creatures whose existence is a gift and preservation an act of grace.* This dependency assures us none of us alone can save the world from the chaos that is. We can merely play our part alongside fellow image bearers and light sharers and rest in rhythm, too. And rest indeed. Play, too. Resistance cannot be fueled on the fumes of those naive to their own limitations and humanity. Which is why the Resurrection story at the end of the 40 Days is so critical- deliverance over death is not our achievement but God’s forward looking and leading gift to all of humanity. 

We are all finite. 
Finitude does not have to be despairing. Instead, the temporal nature of our existence liberates us to prioritize the holy and give preference to the most sacred. We are reminded no person or empire has escaped an end; all are subject to finitude. Which means we are to refuse to allow even the most unjust powers to rob us of the joy of living as much as it is in our ability to do so. Turn off the news and spend time with your children. Get off the mobile device and go for a run. Read a novel. Play an instrument. Eat. Drink. Be Merry. Celebrate love the best and most intimate way you know how. Invite a stranger to be a guest at dinner. Refuse to allow despair to claim the blip of time called your life. Lenten tradition reserved Sundays as a break from the forty-day fast. This is largely the reason.

We are all from goodness.
Remember you are dust, to dust you shall return. At first glimpse there is an absence of love and hope. Then we dig into the creation narrative and remember humanity was birthed out of the land God called good. Dust is both the beginning and remnant of what was once good. To be marked with the dusty cross each Ash Wednesday is to confess a collective call to return to the goodness from our shared beginnings. To taste the ash as it it falls from our face is to remember that even out of the ash God can and will resurrect new life and make all whole again. It is as if we should say, remember you were created out of goodness and to goodness we will all return. 

Blessed Ash Wednesday. May your Lent be a sobering holiness. 

*As Karl Barth once wrote, “If [God] loves us; if He has preferred our being to our not-being; our loveableness to our unloveableness that is for us the ever-wonderful dynamic of His love. For it is grace not nature” (Church Dogmatics II.1, p. 281).

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Parenting as Proclamation and Apprenticeship

Karl Barth did not write a lot about children. He wrote even less about parenting. But what the greatest theologian of the 20th century did pen on the matter parallels his emphasis on proclamation as central to the call of the Christian:
"Children are not by nature parents' property, subjects, servants or even pupils, but their apprentices, who are entrusted and subordinated to them in order that they might lead them into the way of life." (Church Dogmatics Vol III.4 p. 243)
This is a sacred yet heavy daily reminder. Our kids are our primary congregation; the living room, car rides, dinner table, bed time rituals, and everywhere we gather as a family are our most treasured pulpits; the way we manage conflict, interact with neighbors, talk about current events, elevate the cause of those most vulnerable to injustice and hatred, and how we spend and share our money become critical catechesis as we model the way of life called Christian discipleship.

Even how we respond to their angst and fears, questions and curiosities, tantrums and disappointments, and occasional locking of horns with siblings or parent can be as formative as any Bible story. These moments can be platforms to proclaim the gospel with as much grace and love as any preacher.

Maybe even more so.

And when our children embrace us in the morning, kiss us goodnight, and maybe even leave a picture at the base of the bedroom door after a long and tense day of child wrangling that leaves us feeling like complete failures, we become as much their apprentices as they are ours.* They proclaim the good news of God's love, joy, and forgiveness and lead us in the way of life.

We do well to pay attention.

*Picture above from my daughter on one such occasion. I was a mess when I saw this, only to glance into her bedroom and be greeted with a smile and whispered, "I love you, Daddy."

Friday, January 27, 2017

Beatitudes Remixed...Again

The Revised Common Lectionary can be quite providential. Only a week removed from the recent inauguration, when Jesus' preface to his sermon on the mount was read as part of the imperial liturgy, the same text pops up as the lection for preachers. 

And as I did nearly five years ago, here is my revised midrash of those whom Jesus called blessed, anointed, privileged, and at the forefront the inauguration of God's dreams for the world made new. These remixed beatitudes are upside-down prayers for these days whereby we reclaim the subversive nature of the biblical narrative written by those in the underbelly of empire. 

Blessed are those whose spirits have been crushed by systems and institutions, who seek solidarity in the midst of darkness and despair, and those who hold onto hope by their finger tips, God’s dreams for the world include you.

Blessed are those whose grief runs deep and others who enter into the suffering of their most vulnerable neighbors, God’s comfort and peace extends to you.

Blessed are those who humbly extend love and kindness, the movers and shakers of this world who subvert narratives of power and privilege and yet your names may not appear in headlines or history books, you already know the joys of God's kingdom here and yet-to-come.

Blessed are those who long for the world to be made right, whose commitment to justice is the marrow in their bones, and who organize resistance movements against perpetuates of fear, hatred, prejudice, and abusive rhetoric that breeds oppression, for you will find validation in the good news that God is reconciling the whole world.

Blessed are those who offer second-chances, cultivate empathy, quest for greater understanding, error on the side of mercy and love, and dare to believe noone is beyond redemption, for you understand what it means to be whole and human.

Blessed are those motivated not by self-interest but by a concern for those frequently labeled "least" among us, who surrender the temptation for self-preservation and choose instead the good of the whole, for you have the eyes and ears of the Spirit. 

Blessed are those who choose peace over violence, love over vengeance, and grace over retaliation, who work towards the end of war, seek to heal the rifts in our neighborhoods, and labor tirelessly to ensure our schools and communities are made safe for our children, for you best reflect what it means to be called God’s people in the world.

Blessed are you who have linked arms with the oppressed, extended sanctuary to the refugee, protested violations of human rights as embodiments of prayer, and do all these things and more as extensions of a deep commitment to the Way of Jesus even at the risk of arrest and the threat to your very lives. You join the long history of prophetic witnesses and will find joy in the resurrection parade of the Messiah and the movement of this gospel.  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

A Tale of Two Parades...or Three: Revelation as March of Prayerful Protest

In the span of twenty-four hours, there were two parades.

One celebrated the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States and what we call the "peaceful transition of power." The pageantry was full of the sacred symbols and liturgical rhythms of the national religion we call American democracy, whose new priest walked the streets of Washington D.C. to sounds of both praise and disapproval. 

The other hinged on peaceful protests and demonstrations in the name of women's rights and varied intersections with demands for justice for people of color, LGBTQI+, immigrants, the interfaith community, and more. The collective sense of urgency was no doubt heightened by the inauguration of Donald Trump just one day earlier, whose fear-based rhetoric, history of offense and abuse of women, and slander related to immigrants, Muslims, people with disabilities, and African Americans became the target of placards created by those who organized and exercised their right to demand better. 

This parade was not without its critics, too. 

There is no question, this nation is at a critical crossroads. The world as we know it is at a crucial turning point evident in this "tale of two parades." 

And yet again, the biblical narrative cuts through the dualism of our world and temptations to bifucate solutions and offers a third way. There is a third parade, whose attendees are too vast to count and agenda unapologetically tilted towards those slain by all systems of power and privilege. This march of holy protest assures us dreams for a world made whole, right, and just again cannot and will not be overcome by the powers that be; there is a different reign breaking in that trumps all others. 
"Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, singing with full voice, 
'Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and mightand honor and glory and blessing!'
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the seam and all that is in them, singing,
'To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and mightforever and ever!'
And the four living creatures said, 'Amen!' And the elders fell down and worshiped" (Rev. 5:11-14)
The pageantry of this apocalyptic parade is laced in subversive imagery (see also Revelation 4). John borrows the imperial symbols, traditions, and religious iconography that surrounded the inauguration of new "leaders," who claimed divine status and appointment, threatened detractors, and crucified criminals and "fake-news" subscribers (read: those who spread a gospel not in line with Rome) as testament to their fragility and insecurity. John countered with an alternative parade and a subversive anthem of allegiance echoed by resistors the powers thought they had silenced. At the apex of this holy occasion, the Elected One, the Lamb, takes the scroll as the elders fall in worship, harps in hand, and offer "bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8).

We can only imagine the content of these bowls full of prayers offered by leaders of the faithful resistance in the midst of rampant militarism, religious persecution, abduction of detractors fed to lions, an economy based on slavery and unjust tax systems, reduction of women and children to subservient status, fear of the foreigner, and legislation that segmented the elite from the poor and hungry. Surely these ancient petitions would have been an encyclopedia of their times as told from the vantage point of the empire's underbelly. They could have been colorful placards of early protest movements led by those victimized by the beast. 

This context breathes a level of comfort to those looking for time-tested solidarity. 

In our day, there is great energy swirling around current socio-political events and the American election. For some, this energy has leveraged a particular brand of change and thirst for ideological return. For others, the energy is fueling a fire that threatens to burn quests for social progress and equal opportunity that have been pursued over the last several generations. So the masses have taken to the streets. 

What John reminds us is neither to be overcome by despair nor provoked by emperor and empire to replicate the very evil we despise. Instead, we are to offer our prayers of protest and organize labors for justice and peace, even join varied marches, as such actions are gathered in bowls of incense before the throne of the Lamb. There we find an Elected One, surrounded by leaders of the faithful resistance, most able to identify with those victimized by the powers who then promises a universal resurrection he has already inaugurated.

So faithful saints, in our quest for justice and peace, let us pray fervently as we march onward and refuse to let our placards be the end of our advocacy. And let us do so in a way that pledges allegiance neither to a party nor flag, but to the Lamb of God who alone is able to take away the sins of the whole world. 

This is our only anthem of assurance.