Rev. Dr. Scott Herr


“A New Thing”                                                                                  Please Read:

A Sermon by the Rev. Scott Herr                                                       Isaiah 61:10-62:3

The American Church in Paris – December 31, 2017                        Rev. 21:1-5a

            “Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily merrily, life is but a dream.” The older I get, the more profound that nursery rhyme seems. Life goes by so quickly, like a dream. When we talk about baptizing children, I always tell young couples, “The days are long, but the years are short.” I remember holding each of our children in my arms so many years ago, and now the older boys are looking down at me! And now it’s a dream to have them with us for the holidays… We have a special Christmas tradition where we enjoy a really nice meal together. We talk for hours about life and what’s coming up in the New Year for everyone. It’s healthy for all of us to review the past and dream about the future. 

            Dreams open up the field of the imagination where we can play without restriction, where we can envision the future working out in any number of ways and where we can see the present from new perspectives. Childhood dreams, as well as adult dreams, of course, are not free from fear or pain. As a parent, we know that to dare our children to dream big risks big failures and disappointments.

            It sounds cliché, but even broken dreams are better than no dreams at all. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech continues to inspire and hold up a vision for justice and equality for all people around the world. Even dreams that seem far away  in the future can have clear impact on the waking world because they motivate us to change the world today.

            So it is no slight to Scripture to refer to the prophecy we find in the book of Revelation as a dream. The elements of dream are all in John’s vision:  fantastic animals, magical beings, images that have particular meaning only to the dreamer or the prophet himself, time and space stretched beyond the boundaries of the waking world. John’s revelation includes images that give holy insight into reality: visions of the future, potential wonders, and patterns that suggest new ways of seeing the present.

            It’s fairly easy to understand the longing for a new heaven and a new earth. The author of Revelation lived in a time and a place ruled by the force of an oppressive government. There were few places on earth to hide from the power of Rome. Heaven, at least in the view of the Romans, was filled with a pantheon of deities represented on earth by the emperor himself. Swift and cruel punishment fell upon those who would not acknowledge the emperor’s heavenly power. Into that terrible world, an oppressed earth under a corrupted heaven, the prophet dreamed of newness breaking in. 

            But was it just a dream, or was it a way of seeing the new reality that was already coming into being?  For even as John of Patmos wrote, the Christian church was growing in numbers that would eventually bring a new vision of heavenly power into the world. A new heaven and new earth were coming into the first-century world.

            And yet, the prophecy that was already coming true for John’s time seems not yet to have come true, at least completely, even after two thousand years. Although we may live in relative security and freedom here in this time and place, we do not have to look very far to find violence, corruption, oppression, and even local complicity in the same. Perhaps taken literally, the need for a new heaven and a new earth is greater now than it ever has been. Daily we read about tragic news – Sexual assaults, terrorist shootings and bombings; racism near and far; rampant deception among leaders; the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, and so on...  Indeed, a new heaven and a new earth might come in handy about now.

            Where is there any sign of the fulfilment of the prophecy, of the reality of the rest of the dream? If we look out at the world, even if we look inward just at our own lives, do we see an end of tears, or an end to death and mourning? Surely there is still pain all around us and within us. The time when death shall be no more is not yet. We wait through tears and pain and death. We wait for fulfilment of the vision.

            But we do not wait alone. While we wait for the day when every tear shall be wiped away, we already live in the day of God’s dwelling with us. “The home of God is among mortals...  Behold, I am making all things new,”  says the Lord. And just after our text, “It is done! I am the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.” Here, the Gospel proclamation is the echo of the Christmas message of Emmanuel: that God is present among us here and now, even where there is yet pain and death and tears. 

            The verb in our Revelation text for dwelling is the same verb that is famously used in the first chapter of John, and that was read on Christmas Eve. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth…” It’s the same word in the Hebrew used to describe how God dwelt with the Israelites as they fled the slavery of Egypt through the wilderness towards the Promised Land.

            I believe the vision of God’s presence is more than wishful thinking; it is more than hope for things yet to come; it is, indeed, a reality to be received here and now.  It can be grasped whenever a loved one returns home from the hospital; it can be seen wherever a baby is born; it can be heard in the words of forgiveness after a fight; it can be experienced when people choose hope over despair and build a peaceful community after the ravages of war; it can be tasted in the sacramental fruit whenever, wherever God’s grace reigns.

            This time of year is a good time to reflect on God’s grace, and what new things God has done in my life, what new dreams God has given me, as a way of looking forward with hope to the New Year. When I look back on this year, the most significant experience for me was walking the Camino Santiago during my sabbatical. Roughly 500 miles of hiking that became a metaphor for life. I was deeply grateful for each day of life, for my wife and children and parents and larger family and circle of friends… What a gift it is to be a part of a loving community!

            I had a number of strange experiences toward the end of the journey. First of all, I realized I was called to go beyond Santiago to Finnestre, in the medieval mind, the “End of the World.” In C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia book, The Voyage of the Dawntreader, Reepicheep, the loyal Mouse who serves King Aslan, the Lion, dreams of going on to Aslan’s country beyond the sea. When Reepicheep was a baby, a Dryad pronounced a prophesy over his cradle. He dreamed about the song throughout his life:

            Where sky and water meet, Where the waves grow sweet,

            Doubt not, Reepicheep, To find all you seek, There is the utter East.[1]

            Reepicheep carried this dream with him, and on that journey, he realized he might be able to go all the way into Aslan's country (“heaven” for the Narnians), and he decided he wouldn’t stop until he got there, or died trying. He rowed his boat into the horizon.

            Here’s the thing: Finnestre became my Aslan’s country, and so I set out on the extra three day journey alone. I had made it to Santiago in 28 days, so was feeling confident. My map only went to Santiago, so, I got a local tourist trail map figuring, hey, I know what I’m doing. “Pride goes before the fall!” The map was not accurate. This is significant because I rationed my water supply based on what I thought would be the next town on the map. But when I got to what I thought was a town on the tourist map, it simply wasn’t there. I was desperate, very thirsty, and miles from nowhere. Well, all you can do is pray and keep going. This is where it gets strange. As I kept walking, I came upon a chapel that was not on the map, and just in front of the chapel was a bottle of water. I called out, thinking that someone must be there, but no one answered. I was in the middle of nowhere, tired and thirsty, and there was a bottle of water. A miracle!

            I drank it quickly, I was so parched, and set off on the trail again, still without water… A few kilometres further, another map-less miracle: A spring with fresh mountain water pouring out of the pipe was by the trail. I was able to fill up my flask and make it to the next town, which turned out to be 52 kilometers or 32 miles from where I began. A friend later helped interpret this experience for me… Even towards the end of life, we still have much to learn, and God still provides for us… because God is still with us!

            As we look to a new year, I invite you remember that whatever you are facing in life - whether it be illness, loneliness, sorrow, addiction, worries over work, grief over loss, disorientation in a foreign culture, breakdowns in a relationship, anxiety about the future, or some other hardship, you are not alone. This is the Christmas message for us to celebrate and proclaim: God is invading our world, our lives. Jesus is the one on the throne saying, “See, I am making all things new.”

            But here’s the catch. You are invited not only to see the dream. You are invited to live into the dream of renewal and re-creation. In John’s dream there is the vision of the bride and the groom. God is coming to meet you and you are to be joined with God in a relationship, a loving partnership. This image comes from Isaiah. This is not just a ho-hum marriage! God delights in you, “as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride.” In relationship with God we find hope, joy, and the strength and will to learn more about and care for one another.

            But there’s another catch. A dream without a plan… is just a dream. In other words, God’s dream invites us to make changes in our lives and in our world so that God’s dream becomes a reality. This may involve resolutions and lists about what needs to be done! Anyone who’s actually planned a wedding understands this. It’s a lot of work! So call it New Year’s resolutions, goals, hopes; there are things we are called to do to realize the dream!

            And finally, note the wedding image mixes with the holy city. Right here in the messiness of the metropolis, God comes to dwell. God’s dream is not some distant heavenly throne, but here among us and with us and for us, but not just for us. This dream has a cosmic inclusivity and welcome for all.

            So as you row, row, row your little boat, gently down the stream of life, remember the days are long, but the years are short! Dare to pray, “Thy Kingdom Come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Welcome the bride. Pray, plan and pursue God’s dream in this New Year, being with those who weep; comforting those who grieve; standing with those who suffer injustice or violence; pointing to the One who will bring about a new heaven and new earth. Pray God, come and dwell among us, making all things new...  

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

[1] C.S. Lewis, Voyage of the Dawntreader (Collier Books, 1970), 16.