My father was a city planner and had a degree in architecture so I grew up going on “walks” with him around Portland. He loved to talk about the history of the buildings and the different styles of architecture. He shared how urban renewal shaped the city in the 60’s and 70’s and the successes and failures of the movement. When he retired, he became active in the rails to trails movement, creating miles of bike trails which he rode on until his Parkinson’s disease became too crippling.
His passion for cities and buildings was passed onto all three of his kids. My sister teaches courses on architects and architecture at the University of W. Virginia and my brother loves everything about old Portland. And wherever I travel I always look for museums or tourist centers or websites where I can find out about the place I am and what has shaped it.
That’s one of the reasons I am so excited about being in Ballard during this incredible time of change and development. I care passionately about how the people who already live here and those who are moving in can work together as residents, business owners, governmental agencies, neighbors and non-profits to create the best possible community for the most people. Here at St. Luke’s we are in the center of this rapidly changing neighborhood and as those whose values for community are shaped by the vision God has for all people, we have something to contribute as well.
Which is why I heard the passage from Revelation in a new and focused way this past week as I began to prepare for Sunday. The writer of Revelation has received a vision. He is called to write it down accurately, to share it with others and to work to see that the vision becomes reality. He writes,
“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. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “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.”
What is this new Jerusalem, I wondered? Why is there a vision of an ideal city where God will dwell rather than a beautiful mountain top or a glorious beach or a majestic forest? After all, most people from the Pacific Northwest say that they find God most often in nature which almost always implies that they don’t find God in the city or in a building. This probably means that most folks find God where there aren’t as many people around. There is nothing to spoil an ideal vision or a glorious experience like the presence of real people who are loud or crazy or dirty or annoying or rude or a pain in the neck or all of the above!
Here’s the thing. Cities are where people are. A recent study shows that 86% of those who are considered Millennials (or young adults) will live in a city by the year 2020. If most of these folks don’t think that God can be found in the city, it will be a tragic situation. It makes a difference if you feel like the only way you can encounter God is by going on retreat, climbing a mountain or mediating in solitude.
But cities can be so dirty, chaotic, loud and dangerous. Certainly old Jerusalem is that way with its narrow alleys and walls and the ever present armed soldiers reminding you that this is one of the most contested pieces of property in the world. What is God’s vision for the city, the new Jerusalem that is so beautifully described in Revelation.
The first thing I noticed in the lengthy description of this perfect city is that it is beautifully proportioned, clean and orderly. It feels spacious and light and healthy. And although it has a wall and 12 gates, every one of those magnificent gates stand open. They are never shut. Imagine that. Imagine living in security and safety, not because we have more alarm systems, deadbolts and guns but because God has established us in relationships of trust and respect. Every time we have to build more walls, hire more guards, and put ourselves in gated communities we live in the old Jerusalem where fear and danger are primary motivators and we cannot even get near our neighbor because we are scared.
In the new Jerusalem we are willing to open ourselves to encounters with those who are different from us, those who have lived on the other side of the tracks or right next to the tracks, those who live in neighborhoods still defined by the old practice of red-lining that kept people of color from purchasing homes anywhere but in one, specific area, those who speak different languages and practice different customs.
Each of those gates is named for a different tribe of Israel. And each of the twelve foundations are named for the twelve apostles. Think of that. So many of the tribes failed to honor their promises or broke off from one another or even went to war with each other. And the twelve apostles? Does that include Judas?
Certainly Peter who failed Jesus so badly and many of the others who were clueless or doubting or manipulative would all be honored by having their name written on the very bedrock of this new city. Imagine that. God can create something beautiful and lasting and inspirational from the failures and foibles of ordinary people who serve and extraordinary Lord.
But the best is yet to come. There is no fear. There is no darkness. There are no locked doors. There isn’t even a religious temple. No glorious cathedral or new version of Solomon’s grand temple. No steeples to catch your attention or churches on hills. None of that will be necessary for God will dwell with all the peoples. God will be present everywhere and with everyone. No one will be able to claim that God prefers to dwell in this particular synagogue, church or mosque for God’s temple will be in our hearts. God’s law will be lived out in our lives. Our priorities will be less in the building and maintenance of houses of worship and more in actual worship.
And here’s the very best. In this new Jerusalem, the death that stalks city streets will no longer be present. No longer will people die from heroin overdoses or from exposure. Never again will someone walk into a house or workplace or school and shoot to kill dozens of people. Suicide will cease. And the mourning and crying and pain of grief will be dried up. God wants to bring a new Jerusalem where life is abundant and the thirsty are given the springs of the water of life.
It’s a glorious vision. As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry reminds us over and over, it takes us away from the nightmare that this world has become into the reality of God’s dream for all of creation.
This vision was given 2,000 years ago and it is still not our everyday reality. What good is it then? Why bother with fine words about a new Jerusalem when we live in real world where the rich are getting richer; and there are more gated communities and secure buildings; and the violence increases; and homelessness is exploding; and more people are taken by drugs and alcohol; and the city is a chaotic mess? Why even consider this vision of God that seems so far out of reach?
Because without it, nothing will ever change. Without it, it will be “every man for himself.” Without this vision, we will fracture into more and more groups of self-interested, partisan people who are at war with nature and one another.
When people of faith catch a glimpse of God’s vision, we are able to share that with others and to give ourselves to a hope that opens up completely new possibilities. When we learn to live in the beloved community where every person is valued and welcome, we offer a different way of life to those around us.
We will not be those who give into despair over the difficult situations our cities and neighborhoods are facing. We follow a risen Christ who reigns in glory and opens to us a new vision for how we might live in harmony with one another and with our environment. We can plant flowers in a neighborhood where all the dirt is disappearing. We can open our church home to all our neighbors so that we might actually sit down at table together across all the barriers that might keep us apart. We can participate in meetings, events and advocacy that builds up the common good and refuse to belittle or dismiss those who differ from us.
It won’t be easy. When Jesus gave us the new commandment that we should love one another just as he has loved us, he did so right after Judas left to betray him and just days before he was crucified. The challenges are real and the difficulties seem insurmountable at times. But we are not those who are without hope. We are Easter people. We have been given a vision to goad and inspire and guide us to live as people of faith, hope and love.
And as we do, one relationship at a time, one more effort to reach out to the least the last and the lost, one more time we work towards reconciliation rather than harboring grudges then the promise of Jesus will be for us, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Amen.