Last week was a bad week.
Back when the Twin Towers fell, I was glued to the TV - it was almost impossible not to be. When Saddam Hussein went to the gallows, I gave in to curiosity and watched - once - the disgusting on-line footage of the prelude to his execution. I could go no further.
All during this past week I have been aware that the Internet is full of images that portray both the melee of confusion at Virginia Tech this week as well as the so-called manifesto of the killer of 32 people. But I am unable to bring myself to watch either the footage from Blacksburg or the killer's homemade videos. It is too much for me, to tell you the truth. And I am not sure I am yet blasé enough to watch again the evidence of such evil cruelty, as though it were just another day of the evening news. There are times when the reality of dark forces in this world is just too plain to be ignored. And how will we ever make sense of the killings in Virginia this week?
It is, of course, the scale of the tragedy that makes it too hard to watch - as well as the odor of evil that must surely linger around all the yellow emergency tape strung up by the Police, and in the envelope that arrived at NBC containing the gunman's deranged testimony.
But even if I do not watch these images up close, I cannot escape the dark power of their awful consequences. And even if I never switched on the TV or the computer or read the paper, I would surely encounter the darkness more locally. There is the idiot who mowed down two pedestrians just a block from here on Friday as he tried to evade responsibility for a traffic accident he had caused - and sent one bystander to the hospital in critical condition. There are the diagnoses of illness that bring life-changing (and life-threatening) news to people's lives every day. There are the statistics of poverty that place our own city at the top of some lists in America, since up to a quarter of the people in this city live in serious want. I could go on, and so could you; we each know the smaller-scale (but no less painful) tragedies that touch our lives deeply, and make us cringe at the power of darkness, even though there is no footage of them to watch on the Internet or TV.
And so, I cannot watch the gun-waving rants of a young man whose life was somehow - inexplicably to me - lost to darkness. I cannot even read anymore the endless and immediate analyses of his personal history, his state of mind, or his writings. I do not want to get any closer to that darkness - that evil - than I have to. Darkness will find its ways to get close enough to me, and to you.
There are those who call religion little more than a collective emotional salve to be applied to the frightening power of that darkness. Is our proclamation of good news just a pretty garden of denial that makes us feel better, since we have no ready answer for the painful question of why bad things happen to good people?
In the face of that question we come today to a reading from the Book of Revelation, which is the type of thing we would normally pay little attention to, because, after all, who can make any sense of this stuff? Saint John the Divine writes about his vision in which he sees a Lamb with seven horns and seven eyes which are the seven spirits of God. (I'm already starting to get confused.) And there are the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders, each with a golden harp and a golden bowl of incense (which means this is already a nightmare for some people). And there is the song they are singing - Worthy is the Lamb - which is perfectly nice when sung to Handel's music, but is it really anything more than good material for an oratorio? What is going on here?
What the twenty-four elders are singing about; what the Lamb is worthy for; the occasion for all the incense and the harps and the bowing, etc…. What it's all about is this scroll that the Lamb has taken from the one who is seated on the throne. The scroll has writing on both sides, and it is sealed with seven seals. And a couple of chapters earlier in John's Revelation a mighty angel had asked the pregnant question: Who is worthy to open the scroll and break the seals? And the episode we read today is the answer to that question. And if you are still with me here, you may be asking, "Who cares?"
Because if you are familiar with the vision of Saint John the Divine, you know that things do not get any simpler or any easy any time soon. The Lamb will begin to open the seven seals of the scroll. And four horsemen will bring conquering power and, slaughter, and justice, and death. And then the souls of the righteous will be robed in white and told to rest a little longer. And when the Lamb gets to the sixth seal there is an earthquake, and the sun turns black, and the moon becomes like blood, and the stars fall to earth, and the sky vanishes like a scroll rolling itself up, and so frightening is all this that even the kings of the earth shout out to the mountains, "Fall on us!"
And do I want to watch this? Can I possibly want to learn about what's going to happen when the seventh seal is opened? Do I want to read on and hear any more of this? It seems like too much for me. Is this really any better than the TV news or the Internet - which at least, mostly, doesn't claim to be a vision of God?
Sure enough, when we get to the seventh seal and the angels start to blow their horns, it sounds more like all hell has broken loose than all of heaven. If this is the journey God is calling us to go one, I feel perfectly happy to be left behind!
More often than not we have stopped paying attention to the rantings of Saint John the Divine long before the Lamb gets to the seventh seal, anyway. In fact, many of us would give more time to the rantings of the Virginia Tech gunman than we would to the seer of Patmos. We get it so typically backwards: absorbed by the musings of madness that illustrate nothing but evil, but almost completely inoculated to the vision that points to a heavenly intent.
All week long, as the heaviness of the sadness of what happened at Virginia Tech has been weighted down in my life even further by the sadness of other deaths closer to home, and the question of why bad things happen to good people has been ringing in my ears, I have been thinking about that scroll: the scroll that the Lamb has taken and is worthy to un-seal. Saint John is very clear in his vision that the scroll has writing on it. But nowhere are its contents read. It is the opening of the seals that unleashes apocalyptic events, not the reading of the scroll. But it seems to me that the scroll - the opening of which sets in motion events that both horrify and confuse me - the scroll itself may be more than what it appears to be. And maybe I am just indulging in the soothing balm of religion when I try to convince myself that written somewhere in the heavens (maybe on that scroll) is an answer to this awful question of why bad things happen to good people.
It seems hopeful to me, you see, that John sees that the scroll has writing on both sides - because I feel certain that the answer to this awful question cannot be simple. And since the opening of the seals on the scroll begins an avalanche of conquering might, slaughter, justice and death; since it clothes the righteous in white and then un-hooks the stars from the sky; since it shakes the earth with the force of every natural disaster ever known… it seems not unreasonable that the text of the scroll - which John never gets to read - may provide some answer about why these things happen. It may provide some end point for all the unanswered "Whys?" uttered in countless, grasping prayers.
Because we give up so easily on John's Revelation, we often forget that it does not end with opening of the seventh seal and the angels blowing their trumpets. We forget that all this drama, this calamity is leading somewhere. We forget that the vision John is given to watch is finally a vision not of tragedy but of hope: a new heaven and a new earth, without sorrow or sighing.
When we give up on the vision too soon, it is often because we read it too much like a set of directions from Mapquest, as though they were a literal description of the route we must follow. And why go there since it sounds so unpleasant as one seal after another is opened? We forget that there is writing on the scroll that might be worth reading - should we ever get to see it. We forget that while John sees much, he is not shown everything.
And we forget that at the end of John's vision there is a new Jerusalem (frankly, something that it is almost impossible for us to imagine, since in my lifetime the real Jerusalem has never stood for anything more than conflict, and violence, and discord, and warfare, and terror). But John sees a vision of a new Jerusalem: a city of peace and hope, where a river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flows through the middle of the street of the city. And that anyone who wishes may take the water of life as a gift.
Last week was a bad week, so bad that I found myself averting my eyes from the evidence of it. It was a week that will have filled many hearts with anguished, one-word prayers: Why?
… to which I have many words of consolation but no real answer.
But there is a scroll, somewhere in the heavens, whose opened seals might unlock the power of every anguished "Why?" ever uttered, and which may, for all I know, hold the answer to those cries.
And since there is hardly an apocalyptic moment described in the vision of Saint John that we have not seen in our lifetimes - conquering power, slaughter, justice, and death:at the very least, the work of the four horsemen - then I am not ready to give up on the final destination of John's vision. I am not ready to stop watching because it seems too much for me. Because if the havoc unleashed by the opening of those seven seals - which is havoc very much like the havoc taking place all around us - if all this havoc is worth paying attention to, then maybe there is also something written on that scroll to be read - maybe there is more to be revealed.
And there is a Lamb who was slain and who is worthy to open the seals of that scroll.
And there is a holy city. There is a new Jerusalem, thank God!
And there is an answer to all our anguished "Whys?"
There is a 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.
And that is a vision of God's promise and our hope that I am willing to watch and to wait for!
22 April 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia