Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. Electric word, life. It means forever, and that’s a mighty long time, but I’m here to tell you, there’s something else: the after world. A world of never-ending happiness. You can always see the sun, day or night. So when you call up that shrink in Beverly Hills – you know the one, Dr. Everything’ll Be Alright – instead of asking him how much of your time is left, ask him how much of your mind, baby. ’Cause in this life, things are much harder than in the after world. In this life, you’re on your own. And if the elevator tries to bring you down, go crazy. Punch a higher floor.
Now some of you are undoubtedly wondering where this sermon is going and/or worrying that that I’ve gone around the bend. But some of you are giggling. Some of you, who were born in that sweet spot that means you can remember the 1980’s, know exactly what is going on and were probably saying those words along with me. Because you know that the words I just quoted are, in fact, the beginning of a song written by that recently late, always great rock star, Prince. Prince, who, in addition to being a funky, enigmatic celebrity, a surprisingly tender songwriter, and an absolutely fierce guitarist, was also, apparently, an amateur theologian.
Because the after-life that Prince describes in this little pre-song sermonette is actually pretty consistent with the description of that holy city that comes down out of heaven, the new Jerusalem, in the Book of Revelation. Prince is right. In this new world after world, there is never-ending happiness, and you can always see the sun, day or night. The city of St. John’s vision is a city of peace and order and tremendous beauty, a city that glitters with diamonds and pearls and every gem that sparkles under the sun. It is a city that contains within its borders all the fullness of Creation – a river bright as crystal that flashes and flows down the middle of the street; a tree of life that bears rich fruit all year with leaves that heal and strengthen. It is a city and a garden, where one can imagine bustling streets beside fields dotted with red, yellow, and purple; rain that washes the rooftops and sweetens the mown fields; the murmur of happy conversation mixing with the soft warble and coo that is heard when doves cry and bed down for the night.
And this new Jerusalem is also a city where, indeed, you can always see the sun – the glory of God, shining with such warmth and brightness that it is as if there is no night at all. The people who live in this city are filled with glory and honor and marked with God’s own name on their foreheads. They live in a world of great beauty, no fear, and the presence of God so wondrously immanent that the whole city has become a place of worship, where each side street and corner holds the holiest of holies. A world of never-ending happiness, indeed.
And a world that at times seems very, very far away. For here we sit, in a city drowning in trash, with roads that crumble away beneath our feet. Here we sit in a city where Creation has to struggle to keep a hand hold in tiny sanctuaries of green like the gardens that we will bless today. Here we sit in a city where we cannot even keep this church open during the day for fear of thieves in the temple, where more than a quarter of our people live in poverty, where thousands of our children go to school and to bed hungry each night, and where the darkness of gun violence descends each night like a shroud. In this life, things are much harder than the after world, for sure.
Now, bear with me a bit here, but I’m going to suggest that Prince actually knows the right answer to this problem. Prince actually describes the right means of closing the distance that seems to loom between our city and the holy city of Revelation, between our present and God’s future. When the elevator tries to bring you down, he advises, go crazy. Punch a higher floor. I think this is actually exactly what we need to do, and exactly what the book of Revelation is all about. When we feel ourselves sinking down into a world that feels stuck in political turmoil, flagrant self-interest, deceit and greed and sin and all of their painful consequences, we need to punch a higher floor. We need to look up and behold God’s vision for our world, God’s vision for us, God’s beautiful future bearing down on us. We need to punch a higher floor, to hold pictures like St. John’s holy city before our eyes, use them like beacons to guide and warm our hearts.
And this, frankly, seems a little crazy to the rest of the world. Get real, the world says. This isn’t time for some fantasy. You can’t focus on the after world – get your eyes down back here, down in the muck, where there is real work, and real people, and real life. That higher floor might be a tempting escape, the world says, but it doesn’t help us down here one bit. And lest you think that I’m talking only about the world out there, be assured, I’m also talking about the world in here. It’s a sign o’ the times that we, the Church, are just as tempted to think this way as the rest of the world is. When the elevator brings us down, with news of shrinking populations in main-line churches, or the Biblical illiteracy of millennials, or the disinterest of Generation X-ers in shaping their families in the church, we can tend to just get off the elevator and walk around for a while in the basement, muttering to ourselves about the good old days or how we need to become relevant again or how church buildings or organs or pews are the problem.
But to do this is to ignore one of God’s most wondrous and creative gifts. God has given us this image of the new Jerusalem exactly because God knows that we’re in the basement. We’re down here, in this world, where people are imperfect and life can be hard, and so God offers us the gift of knowing ahead of time what the fullness of God’s redeeming work looks like – not as an escape, not so that we can ignore the way our society can ravage Creation and People alike, but so that we will know how to help. We must keep this vision of beauty and safety, light and love, inclusion and blessing before our eyes now, because wherever the elevator lets us off, it’s our job to try as much as we can to grow that vision, to help make it real in this world. We must hold on to the gift of this revelation and lead a revolution of vision so that in looking to the future we will see more clearly our present. If we forget that we are, at our core, a people who are expecting the full redemption of this groaning Creation, we run the risk of losing our focus, losing our way, or – most unhappily – losing hope. But when we punch a higher floor and see that vision of God ruling in love in God’s own kingdom, we will find the hope that does not fail us. Crazy as it sounds.
Prince the amateur theologian did get one thing very wrong, though, so please allow me to correct him. It’s true that in this life, things are much harder than in the after world. We will not eradicate poverty in our lifetime, or prevent people from stealing, or eliminate all laws and policies that discriminate and spread hatred and mistrust. But in this life, we are not on our own. We are always moving and working and falling and hoping and trying to punch a higher floor in the presence of the living Christ. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ came among us to live and to teach, here, on this sub-floor level, and he has promised to be with us always, even to the end of the ages. When the elevator doors opened and he saw what lay before him, all he could think was that this was where he wanted to make his home. The kingdom of heaven is at hand, he told us. Love one another as I have loved you, he told us. I would die 4 U, he told us, and then he did, and then was raised to show us that we would never be on our own again.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. And not just to get through it, but to have life and have it abundantly. So do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. For God has prepared for us such good things as surpass our understanding. There will be no more night, nor lamp nor sun, for the Lord your God will be your light. And if you start to sink in worry and woe, go ahead. Go crazy. Punch a higher floor.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 1 May 2016
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
(with gratitude for lyrics and song titles by Prince)