The Revelation at Lands End
Christópher Abreu Rosario is a third year MDiv student at Columbia Theological Seminary. We are grateful for the wisdom he offers in the sermon that follows.
The following sermon has been edited from what was originally proclaimed at North Decatur Presbyterian Church, in Greater Atlanta, on Sunday, September 29, 2019. It was the culminating service in a sermon series on Creation. As an intern for the church, I was only in my third week of service when I put this sermon together on the assigned text from Revelation. I rarely preach on the New Testament, and being new to the congregation, I was both excited and terrified.
The text from Revelation 21:1-6, speaks of a new heaven and a new earth. For most of my upbringing, this text was connected to the devastation of the earth where sinners would perish (or be eternally punished), and those who were righteous would be removed from this earth and taken elsewhere. When reading the text repeatedly, this concept of the righteous being taken elsewhere doesn’t seem to make much sense. The question can also be asked, who are the righteous? Depending heavily on the Holy Spirit for guidance, I set out to proclaim a message that valued all of Creation with language appropriate for the community I was currently part of.
As a Dominican-American in the predominantly Euro-American Presbyterian Church (USA), I am witness to how important it is to bring a multitude of voices with you into new spaces. I was called to not only enlarge the scope of the sermon to speak of life beyond the U.S., but also to incorporate other people as conversation partners. It will be evident from reading this manuscript that I explicitly cite a few different sources. When it comes to talking and doing the work of creation care, we have no choice but to recognize that we must do it in teamwork. A team of a global scale.
During this past summer, I took a worship/preaching course at the Hispanic Summer Program (HSP) entitled “Extractivism: The Political, Emotional, Economic, and Religious Model of Our Times, A Liturgical Response.” During this program I learned just how deeply connected creation care is intermixed with economic and political justice. Much credit for this sermon should be assigned to that course and our professor Dr. Cláudio Carvalhaes, Associate Professor of Worship at Union Theological Seminary, New York. It was through the experience I had at HSP that this sermon found a place in my heart.
The Revelation at Lands End
Christópher Abreu Rosario
Revelation 21: 1-6 (NRSV)
21Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
4he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”
5And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” 6Then he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give water as a gift from the spring of the water of life.
I don’t know about you, but a world without the sea, terrifies me. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up on the coast, come from a family with island origins, or just love seafood, the idea of never seeing an ocean again fills me with fear. Even being in Atlanta without daily access to the ocean has an effect on me, thank goodness for yearly visits to my presbytery of care in San Francisco. It is on these trips that I get to visit one of my favorite places on the planet. On the northwestern corner of the city, there is a small national park called Lands End, and in the center of its hiking trail is a labyrinth set just by a cliff edge, overlooking the Pacific Ocean.
I love walking this labyrinth with its rocky path and soil floor, and afterward sitting on the edge of the cliff and closing my eyes and allowing the sound of the crashing waves and the birds flying overhead to fill me with peace in an otherwise busy city. Sometimes I can sit there for hours and watch pelicans swoop into the water and out with a mouthful of fish, or spot a pod of dolphins in the distance, or a family of sea lions bobbing up and down in the water. There is also the occasional whale sighting, and also great whites.
Sometimes you can be the unexpected witness to a shark making a meal of a sea lion or another wonderful creature. The drop from this cliff is steep, and the rocks at the bottom, sharp, and the current, strong, and there are no railings, no warnings, and no staff to limit or protect.
This place, that I love, which is so beautiful, is dangerous.
In our text, the author of Revelation, John, describes a future that is no longer dangerous. He speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, with the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven onto the earth. In the first chapter of this book, we learn that John is writing this letter to seven specific churches in Asia, which are in modern-day Turkey.
It has been commonly understood that this John is the same one who authored the Gospel of John. There are many scholars who think this may not be so. Theologians Justo and Catherine González point out that the John of Revelation appears to be more inclined in Aramaic while the John of the fourth gospel is more inclined in Greek. We can assume that perhaps these were two separate individuals.
In this chapter, John uses the language of a new heaven and a new earth. This language first appears in the Bible in the 65th chapter of the Book of Isaiah. A text from what is commonly referred to as Third Isaiah, this text was written after the Israelites returned to the land after exile in Babylon to a Jerusalem that was in shambles and a temple in ruin. Third Isaiah promises that Jerusalem would be a joy again as the people are rebuilding the city and the temple.
What it must be like to return to a land that you’ve longed for, only to find it in ruin?
In the summer of 2015, a person or a group of people destroyed the labyrinth at Lands End. Images posted on twitter showed what was left, a few rocks and a rather desolate view of the Golden Gate Bridge. One caption read: “Can you tell me what happened to the labyrinth? Went there yesterday and it was gone!” And just like that, it was gone. I remember feeling distraught that my weekly meditative hike would be no more, and that a place that offered me so much peace would now be a site of pain.
A site of pain. Many align Revelation to “the Apocalypse,” the end of times, of punishment for sinners and deliverance for the righteous. This word apocalypse comes from the Greek Ἀποκάλυψις (Apokalypsis), which means revelation, to uncover, to unveil, to illumine. In his 2011 piece in the Boston Review titled “Apocalypse: What Disasters Reveal,” Dominican author Junot Díaz, uses the term as a revelation for what destruction reveals about a place, what it reveals about us, what it reveals about the world. In our lifetime, we have witnessed a great deal of destruction, some of it human orchestrated, and some of it termed “natural.” Acts of God if you will. I think of the earthquake in Haiti, the hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico and the Bahamas, I think of the tsunamis that devastated Thailand and Japan. Tsunami’s which are first witnessed by the recession of ocean water from coasts, an image reminiscent to John’s revelation, just to return elevated and destructive.
I think of the ways the term apocalypse has been described and experienced by people all over the world.
David Brooks, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times, comments that apocalyptic disasters “wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.” Junot Diaz adds that it is in the aftermath of a disaster that we gain “insight into the conditions that led to the catastrophe, whether we are talking about Haiti or Japan” or Puerto Rico or the Bahamas.
In relation to Haiti, what was revealed after the earthquake in 2010 was economic disparity, government corruption, foreign governments controlling the welfare and resources of the Haitian people for their own economic gain. The extraction of natural resources for the benefit of the rich, while over half the population lacks clean water. Deforestation alone has caused 6,000 hectares of land to erode each year, deforestation also allows for hurricane-induced mudslides which have wiped out farms, roads, and entire communities. Without trees, Haiti is defenseless to hurricanes and earthquakes. Revelation.
The Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 killed at least 225,000 people across a dozen countries. Perhaps it was a bad idea to remove all those coral reefs in order to make it easier for trade ships to maneuver between ports. Coral reefs have a way of slowing down waves. Perhaps it was a bad idea to allow the hotel industry and industrial shrimp farming businesses to do away with the mangrove forests, which are natural tsunami shredders. These decisions were made by people in business suits sitting in offices, looking at maps and deciding what was best for them financially. The people who lived and worked on the land, most likely were not consulted. The tsunami. Revelation.
When the earthquake devastated the already fractured infrastructure of Haiti, the Dominican Republic, my motherland, was first to respond in the form of aid, workers, relief. And when the refugees from Haiti started to move en masse into the Dominican Republic, DR was the first nation to say “no, thank you.” Revelation.
When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in the fall of 2017, our U.S. President visited the island and threw paper towels to the people. Revelation. Fourteen years after Hurricane Katrina, there are parts of New Orleans that have yet to recover. Revelation.
So what does our passage reveal about Revelation? About John? We can estimate that the book of Revelation was written around the year 95 CE. John would die a few short years later but at the time of the writing, he was living on the Greek island of Patmos, which is just off the coast of modern-day Turkey. He was most likely living there in exile, since being a Christian at that time meant suffering under Roman control. Many Christians and Jews were compromising their faith and John was telling them to stay strong and continue to have hope.
In his letter, he illustrates a new world where there are no oceans, a symbol for chaos and destruction, for imperial tyranny, which goes back to Genesis 1, but also a physical barrier for him as he was exiled to this island away from his loved ones. He talks about a new Jerusalem coming from the heavens because at that time Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Romans. He speaks of hope for the restoration of the city which, as we know from Isaiah, had been restored before. He speaks of God returning to dwell among the people, as was the case in the Garden of Eden.
Barbara Rossing, Professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, states that “revelation is profoundly ecological in the sense of declaring God’s commitment to the earth as the location of salvation.”
The text reads “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” For John and his readers, victims of imperial control, the promise of God coming to set things right was a welcomed relief. The barriers that separated them would be removed and the restoration that was to follow, a necessary task.
About a month after the Lands End Labyrinth had been destroyed, there was an event announced on Facebook for people to gather and rebuild. And so, on September 13 of 2015, a group of about fifty volunteers got together and carefully replaced every stone, measuring the distance, and maintaining the original design. As a community, they restored an icon of the city that was important to them.
I was relieved of course, but it was revealed to me that in the city of San Francisco there were people who would destroy. It was also revealed that there are people who will restore. What was also revealed was how I took for granted that this labyrinth was there. I never asked any questions about who built it, why it was there, or how it was maintained. I later learned that it was built by a man named Eduardo Aguilera in 2004, BUT that it has been maintained weekly by a woman named Colleen Yerge since 2008. Colleen is a baker and a doula who resides in the northern part of the city, she doesn’t get paid for her work, and no one asked her to do it. She takes care of the labyrinth because it means something to her.
I also discovered that the labyrinth has been destroyed MANY times over the years. And every time, people gather, and they restore, and they maintain, and many more enjoy. What a revelation.
A New Heaven and New Earth doesn’t mean that we replace the world we have now. It means we restore, and we maintain. Just like Colleen Yerge who maintained that labyrinth, we are called to maintain our communities holistically – economics, justice, ecology, with dignity and respect for those who dwell on this earth now and those who will come after.
The prophets among us, our children, are striking during school. Our Swedish sister Greta Thunberg has called out the United Nations and along with fifteen other children from across the world have filed a complaint against Germany, France, Brazil, Argentina, and Turkey for their human rights violations against our children by not taking action to stop the climate crisis. I’m sure we can add the United States to this list. These are our children, crying out.
Junot Diaz reflects “I cannot contemplate the apocalypse of Haiti without asking the question: where is this all leading? Where are the patterns and forces that we have set in motion in our world—the patterns and forces that made Haiti’s devastation not only possible but inevitable—delivering us? To what end, to what future, to what fate?”
The answer is frightening. We will plunder our natural resources. We will devastate eco-systems, eliminating entire species, and poisoning every water source in reach. Our icecaps will melt, and our cities will drown. We will live in a world where the words of John of Patmos will ring true: we would wish for a world void of ocean. The poor will be half dead and the rich will have the illusion of living. And we will call these events “natural disasters,” even “acts of God.”
But there is God. God almighty who has restored us to new life with a promise of a restored world where we have all taken part in the restoration and daily maintenance. Norman Wirzba writes in the Christian Century “none of us knows exactly what it means to speak of the whole world being reconciled to God. Our love and our imaginations are too small to appreciate all that’s involved and what practical skills are needed—which is why we need to ask for the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
I wonder what we can learn from the Holy Spirit, as we reflect on this text from Revelation, as we witness and experience the heatwave of this weekend, as we listen to the cries of our children.
Our text concludes with the words of Jesus, the Alpha and the Omega, who declares that “it is done.” To the thirsty, he will give water as a gift from the spring of life. In the first verse I was filled with fear over a world with no ocean, and in the last, I am relieved with water itself.
May we hear the revelation of John of Patmos, of Junot Díaz. May we heed the cries of Greta Thunberg and our children. May we follow the example of Colleen Yerge. May we gather and restore and maintain.
Thanks be to God, who called us, and calls us still to be co-creators in creation.
So, let’s get to work.
Christópher Abreu Rosario is a third year dual-degree student (MDiv and MA Practical Theology) at Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA. He is a candidate in the PC(USA) ordination process, under care of Mission Bay Community Church in San Francisco, CA. He loves donuts, movies, and sharing food and long walks with friends.