“Begin Again” by Rev. Michael Livingston
Revelation 2:5 (1-7)
Happy New Year Riverside! 2020 is gone! It’s 2021. 2021. Don’t you just want to say that over and over again? 2020 sounded wonderful last January 1, cool. Twenty-twenty. Double-twenty, 2-0-2-0. It just looked good, seemed to promise good things. But it. Has. Been. A. Nightmare. Here we are, this third Sunday of the season of Christmas a few days before Epiphany, at the beginning of a New Year. Let’s just say it, the new year could not have come sooner even if we wished, hoped, prayed, bartered, begged, nearly wore out our last nerve wanting it, desperately, to be here!
Still, we are today 15 days short of the inauguration of a new era in the life of our nation, and we pray of our democracy. We are nowhere near done celebrating the election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as President and Vice President of an America that is still a great distance from realizing the promise hidden behind the celebrated words that soar above our beginnings: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness”. And those equally soaring and infamous words from the constitution that Obama held before us so effectively, “We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”—not Red States and Blue states, establish Justice…”—not Jim Crow and mass incarceration, “…insure domestic Tranquility…”—not what happened in Nashville, “…provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…” not global warming and the ongoing and escalating devastation of climate change, “…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
Well, not so much. Four sentences later “Indians” are excluded from citizenship as are “…three fifths of unnamed “all other Persons.” Though the “P” of persons is capitalized. The fraction of their “humanity” serves the purpose of inflating the number of representatives from slave owning states. Voter suppression instigated, validated in the constitution itself. Can you spell Georgia? Slavery is never mentioned by name. Women do not rate mention. Not even white women.
I want to insist that we are beginning again, starting, if not over, then re-starting in this place and time–daring to renounce what has long been the lie at our center, in our government at every level, in the DNA of our society and culture, that is the whiteness that excludes and obscures the true beauty of our darker, rich, made-in-God’s image—universal, colors. And whiteness could be narrowed to patriarchal whiteness. But, finally, that would be unnecessarily generous. We are one humanity, one human family, a towering truth that stands against the centuries of oppression perpetrated by those who could not accept this basic fact of creation and evolution, of life. We need to baptize ourselves in the truth of our history, first acknowledging the genocide and enslavement, the devastation of indigenous tribes whose land this was, and the theft of the bodies of the children of Africa held captive, exploited, and brutalized to build a nation for others to benefit from and enjoy.
Yes. I am talking in the broadest terms about the work the nation must do. And Yes, I am talking about the work of The Riverside Church in the City of New York. Riverside especially, but no church bearing the name Christian, can be understood apart from the work, John of Patmos would say, the witness, of the prophets and the churches—the people of God, whose Revelation, whose witness, is Jesus, Christ. “Whatever else he might appear to be to his followers…” (i.e., Lamb of God, Prince of Peace, Son of David, King of Kings, “…Jesus Christ is first and foremost God’s prime witness.” (Blount)
The Book of Revelation has always been this dense, deeply allegorical apocalypse written by an angry prophet about a violent God with wild beasts and impenetrable ideas, exploited by theological traditions still at work among us offering simplistic conclusions that don’t even do justice to a surface reading of the text. So, we get these inane literal interpretations that disrespect the 2,000 years that separate us from John and the social, cultural, political, scientific, and religious world in which he wrote his truth. We get a focus on trying to identify the “draconian beasts…” Russia maybe? China? These days Iran? North Korea? And we get misguided confidence about the date of the end-time as the consequence of catastrophe and war. The dates just come and go. We miss the prophetic and ethical impact of Revelation and the work of witnessing then and what it could mean today. It is about Witness; Dr. Brian Blount tells us in Can I Get a Witness. We are to be witnesses for God. In the fifth verse of the first chapter of Revelation, Jesus is identified with three roles, the first of them is “…the faithful witness,” then “…the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the Kings of the earth. Witnessing is the key to understanding the book of Revelation.
We think “witness” and the image that comes is someone sitting and observing, passively, watching something happen and then reporting to others. “This car was just sitting at the light and then all of sudden, out of nowhere this other car slams into the first car.” That’s not what John has in mind at all. “The idea of witness in the Apocalypse is very much a live metaphor and is to be understood in terms of Christians actually bearing witness before Roman courts of law.” Refusing to deny Christ and accept false gods, writes biblical scholar Allison Trites.
The imperial magistrate Pliny the Younger wrote to the Roman Emperor Trajan, 112 C.E. about how he handled cases brought to him of people charged with being Christian. He would ask if they were Christians and if they said yes, he’d ask a second and third time, under the threat of death.
“If they persisted…in their confession, I had them executed. For whatever it is that they are actually advocating, it seems to me that obstinacy and stubbornness must be punished in any case”. He would release those who denied Christ “…since they invoked our gods according to the formula I gave them and since they offered sacrifices of wine and incense before your image…I also had them curse Christ. It is said that real Christians cannot be forced to do any of these things.”
In this first of the seven letters addressed to the churches, Jesus speaks the words of John and praises the people of the church at Ephesus, from Dr. Blount’s translation of the Greek, “I know your works, which are your struggle and your nonviolent resistance. Because you cannot bear evil people, you tested the ones who call themselves apostles but are not and you found them to be liars…you bear up for the sake of my name and have not grown weary.”
Evil. Liars. That has the ring of 2020. And 1920, and 1820. In his Commentary on the Book of Revelation Blount asks, “How would the Ephesians have tested them? …by judging whether they accommodated themselves to the lordship claims of Rome or defiantly proclaimed the lordship claims of God and Christ” Did they acquiesce in the face of the economic, social, political oppression and the cultic activities of Rome. Did they deny Christ out of fear? Or did they bear witness?
“Begin Again.” Yes. The title is borrowed from Dr. Eddie Glaude’s book, revisiting the work of the incomparable James Baldwin. “…remember how far you have fallen and repent and do your former works..” Or in the King James language Baldwin would have heard in his Pentecostal church “Remember therefore from whence thou art fallen, and repent, and do the first works.” Begin again. In Baldwin’s words, “To do your first works over means to reexamine everything. Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know whence you came.”
That is a good word for the start of any new year. And especially this one. We have been through a waking hell. Pandemic, denial of pandemic, resistance to science, three hundred thirty-five thousand deaths, so many of them avoidable. We’ve reached the threshold of 1 death for every 1,000 of us. That’s a painfully astounding rate. And by now all of us, all of us know someone who has died from COVID-19. These are not just numbers. The most vulnerable among us are more likely to die and among those called upon to serve the ill and the dying and to keep our society moving. Beyond that: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor. Lives that seem not to matter. I watched the NY Times reconstruction of the assault on Breonna Taylor’s apartment—the rousing of a sleeping couple to meet death. She never knew why she had to die. Her death linked to the great lie of our history. Only white lives matter. You won’t see that poster. But it’s written in the hollow center of the Constitution. This lie must be put to shame and rooted from the institutions that rule our lives. We have to begin again.
How about in policing? “Defund the police” has become an example of going too far. Let’s be more cautious in our language, that’s too radical. I understand the impulse. In 2016, construction workers called the police after they saw a homeless man break into a private home owned by David and Gretchen Jessen in Clovis, CA. When they got home their house was surrounded by law enforcement. Fifty-five vehicles had been deployed: two helicopters, a fire truck, a crisis negotiation team in a motor home, a SWAT team, a backup SWAT team, a robot. They teargassed six rooms and flash bombed two more rooms, pulled a wall off the foundation, destroyed ninety feet of fencing, sent the robot crashing through a sliding glass window. The homeless man, Chanley Un, “stole an ice cream bar, some milk, and half a tomato.” Yes, the money spent destroying the Jessen home could have been better spent.
Let’s narrow the frame. What is it about your own life, my life that needs re-examination? How far have I fallen, have we fallen in the accommodations we have made for little lies that have found a home in our thoughts and actions, in the structures of our daily lives? How passive have you and I become in the presence of what we see and know is wrong, of what we hear and know is hurtful and abusive? How often have we withheld a kindness, failed to encourage, given less than we could, turned away, remained silent when our presence, our words, our witness might have made a difference? It isn’t that we simply refrain from a good deed. It is that we deny Christ. In little interpersonal ways and in the matter of citizenship, we have work to do, good trouble to make—John Lewis reminds us, from now, beyond the grave.
Guilt is useless left untended. Guilt isn’t what I’m after here. I’m saying we can Begin Again in this new year because it is clear how much is at stake. Little Richard once said, famously, “I’m not conceited, I’m confident.” We can be confident that God is with us, among us. That together we can comfort one another, strengthen one another, stand with one another through any trial, any circumstance. Nothing is greater than the bonds of our community in the grace of God. We can begin again, this year, “…travel our road…” and tell the truth about who we are, heal our church, rebuild our nation with honor and integrity.
We can witness together that God is with us, Emmanuel, now and always, and that we will stand against injustice in every form, in the everyday living of our lives and in the life of the nation. The glorious good news is we begin this new year with the gifts the child brings, “…new life, new hope, new joy he brings. Glory, glory, glory! AMEN.