A sermon by Rev. Robin Bartlett
preached at First Church in Sterling
May 26, 2019
In the scriptures we read this morning, paradise is located in two places: the garden, and the city.
The verdant, fruitful garden and the bejeweled city with streets paved with gold seems like two pretty easy places to find paradise.
But you and I need to seek after the home of God where its hardest to find, so I wanted to look elsewhere.
Paradise, California, the northern California town nestled in a pine cloaked ridge in the Sierra Foothills, had a population of about 25,000 until it was almost entirely wiped out by the Camp Fire this winter. It was the deadliest, most destructive wildfire in the U.S. in more than a century. Now, despite a massive effort to clean up, restore power and make plans to rebuild, the town remains largely uninhabitable.
There are still burned out cars, pickups and school buses lining its roads. Neighborhoods remain unrecognizable to even longtime residents.
There's ash and toxic debris everywhere. The beautiful trees that made it so pleasant to the sight have burned to the ground, making the town unrecognizable to its residents. I bet the firefighters who are here today are glad they live in Sterling and not California. There is just so much to save for those who lay down their lives to save.
Yet, there are people who saved and are saving Paradise as we speak. The firefighters there heroically led hundreds of people to escape in water during the days of the fire, helping them swim to safety.
And the city is promising to rebuild. The monumental task of removing the debris is a job that could take well over a year. Disaster response officials say it's on a scale not seen in this country since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Even after that, rebuilding is no guarantee for a lot of people.
Perhaps it all sounds futile to you, this task of raising up Paradise again.
But the saving of Paradise is always an act of faith: the labor itself is worth it because of the love it represents.
Rebecca Baggett says that anyone who notices the world must want to save it. As the church, we must be trained noticers of, and witnesses to, the exquisite beauty of the intricate web of creation of which we are apart.
The salvation of paradise is in our hands. We must raise it up out of the ashes.
Some of us are looking for paradise far off, somewhere other than here. Maybe at the Cape this weekend. Maybe in Hawaii or Fiji, or in the next life.
What if I told you you are already here?
In Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock’s book, Saving Paradise, they set off on a quest to learn about the early church through it’s art.
Through art, they discovered that “early Christian paradise was something other than “heaven” or the afterlife. Our modern views of heaven and paradise think of them as a world after death. However, in the early church, paradise—first and foremost—was this world, permeated and blessed by the Spirit of God. It was on the earth. Images of it in Rome and Ravenna captured the craggy, scruffy pastoral landscape, the orchards, the clear night skies, and teeming waters of the Mediterranean world, as if they were lit by a power from within. Sparkling mosaics in vivid colors captured the world’s luminosity. The images filled the walls of spaces in which liturgies fostered aesthetic, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual experiences of life in the present, in a world created as good and delightful.”
We desperately need eye-fulls of beauty, because we will not save what we do not love. Our work as the church is to cultivate lovers of this world and this beauty in the present. THIS world is made by God and called Good. We pray every week God’s kingdom come on EARTH as it is in heaven for a reason.
Our scriptures this morning come from the first book of the Hebrew Bible, and the last book of the Christian Bible. The Bible begins in a Garden and ends in the city.
In the beginning, God planted a Garden in Eden, in the east, and that is where God put the first humans. God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food. God formed Adam and Eve, out of dust from the ground. The humans were eventually exiled from paradise for eating the fruit from the tree of knowledge.
After they were banished from God’s home, humans had to figure out a new way to take God with them. So they built a tabernacle. A tabernacle is a moveable habitation—a tented place for Israel’s divine king.
Various details of the tabernacle suggest it is built to be a mini, moveable Eden. The tabernacle, like the garden of Eden, is where God’s people believed God lived. They put God’s word: the ten commandments in the inner sanctuary of the Tabernacle, in the holy of holies, and locked God’s presence away.
In those early years, the tabernacle moved, and then they built a building to put it in: a permanent residence. The first and then the second Temple.
But God’s people soon learned that buildings cannot contain God, no matter how ornate, no matter how old, no matter how much lightning protection is purchased for the steeple.
God broke out.
God sent Jesus as a human home for God’s word. A living, breathing, healing, tabernacle.
In the midst of Roman occupation, God makes God’s new home inside a brown-skinned, middle Eastern, Jewish refugee. Paradise is contained in a body on the move.
Paradise was now a movement for justice and peace and healing, and not a place at all.
If you read the scriptures, you’ll notice Jesus hardly preached in the Temple. He preached on the MOVE. He preached on mountains and on the countryside, and on the road….wherever he could find the people of God.
God moves out of the building to become a love revolution.
Jesus shows us how to practice the ethics of paradise:
He heals the sick, he walks beside the suffering, he feeds the hungry, he touches the untouchables, he forgives enemies, he blesses the meek and the humble, he cries for his friend, he stands up for the least, the last and the lost, he even dies to show us what God’s love is like.
And then he rises up out of the grave.
With his resurrection and ascension, he sends us the holy spirit to teach us that our bodies, too, contain the home for God.
We are not the temple, but the tabernacle. We are ON THE MOVE. The moving body of God.
Paradise is unleashed in US. It’s in our hands.
In our scripture from revelation, paradise is a city, coming down out of heaven from God. Ronald Allen says, John sees high walls with gates open on each side. Walls are traditional symbols of community and security. Real security comes from authentic community in which all people feel mutually supported. Gates typically control entrance and exit, but these gates -- four on a side -- are always open. Security is only possible when all are extravagantly welcome, when the doors are flung open.
The breath of paradise wafts its way into this broken and battered world of domination, separation, cruelty and division, reminding us that it is here where heaven makes it’s place. That we have the keys to the city already.
For some of us it is easier to find God in a garden, and maybe harder to find God in the city. There are too many people in the concrete jungle, too much ugly, and not enough quiet to listen to the still small voice of God.
I watched a video on the internet the other day that contained the life-breath of the garden wafting into the city; a saving remedy sent to heal. The filming took place on a New York subway train at rush hour, which is not always where one encounters beauty.
But one day, Greg Wong captured heaven on earth on video.
Wong and some 850 fellow commuters were caught in underground limbo for a full two hours as their train was stalled between stations in Manhattan due to a mechanical failure. It was a subway rider’s nightmare come to life. Eventually, they boarded a “rescue train” that took them, slowly, back to Queens, where they’d started.
But as Wong records in the video, the stranded passengers bonded during the ordeal. They are crowded in a small space. They are black and white, Asian and Latino. They are Christian and Muslim, businessmen and women, construction workers and restaurant dishwashers. They are young and old, male and female, gay and straight.
Together, they had abundance. At one point they share that most precious resource—backup battery charges for their phones.
“We were grumpy at first, but what can you do?” says one laughing young woman as people eagerly plug into the chargers being passed around.
It all culminates in an epic singalong that moves from the latest hits (“Hotline Bling”) to timeless classics (“One Love”).
By the end, after a round of “Watch me whip, watch me nae nae,” everyone is in high spirits. They have survived together, and they have done it with style and grace.
“Anyone who has lived in New York and ridden the trains will recognize the hard-won camaraderie they share. It’s a tough city, and sometimes things get crazy, but we’re all in this thing together, and we are going to make it no matter what,” Sarah Goodyear writes.
As one of the captive riders says at the video’s end, with a smile, “I’m glad I was stuck with all you guys.”
This is the leaves of the tree; the healing of the nations revelation prophesies. This is what it means to be residents of the city of God: glad to be stuck together in paradise. The captive riders embody the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. The glory of God is their light. They are going to make it together no matter what.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, Magalia Pines Baptist Church in Paradise, California did not burn. After the fire, the pastor’s family transformed the facility into an aid station, a lifeline for up to 600 people per day. They come for free meals, to pick up donated clothes and shoes. They give out so much bottled water they have trouble keeping it in stock.
Paradise is raised up out of the ashes by the church being the church. Seven months later, the church is still serving two free hot meals a day including breakfast and lunch to survivors of the Camp Fire.
On their website, they thank generous donors to the church for
• Over 70,000 Meals Served to survivors
• Over $1 Million Bottles of Water Provided (donated by Sacramento area construction companies)
• Over 150 Kitchen Setups
• 20 Motor homes and RV’s
• 12 Vehicles
"Magalia is a hopeful place….Magalia is a place where people are looking to the future," said Doug Crowder, the Senior Pastor at Magalia Pines Baptist Church. "It's just people coming together and finding a way and a place to connect because that's really the important thing in all of this.”
Beloved, First Church in Sterling is a hopeful place where people are looking to the future. The saving of Paradise is always an act of faith: the labor itself is worth it because of the love it represents.
This church is a people gathered together to notice beauty wherever we can find it. This Church is an ethic, not a place. It is a movement to raise up paradise from the ashes.
We are the living, breathing, moving home of God. We can choose to live in paradise because paradise lives in us.
Rev. Robin Bartlett is the Senior Pastor at the First Church in Sterling, Massachusetts. www.fcsterling.org