The Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
Revelation 21:10, 22–22:5
So the first thing I have to say is that I’ve been way too busy to see the movie “Everything, Everywhere, At the Same Time,” starring the amazing Michelle Yeoh, but will see it as soon as I have a free moment, because this kind of movie is just exactly up my alley. To top it off, just read the plot synopsis:
“When an interdimensional rupture unravels reality, an unlikely hero must channel her newfound powers to fight bizarre and bewildering dangers from the multiverse as the fate of the world hangs in the balance.”
Huh! That sounds like a perfect description of my life right now!
And it probably sounds a lot like St. Stephen’s life at this moment, too. An interdimensional rupture, your pastor of 18 years is leaving, in the midst of bizarre and bewildering dangers unleashed by a multiverse of things including the ongoing threat of Covid, political disagreement and upheaval, war in Ukraine, increased interest rates and insane gas prices, the Texas power grid (again) under stress, and racially inspired gun violence. Not to mention implementing a capital campaign and getting folks to come back to church regularly after Covid. Hey, it’s great to see you all here, but I can’t resign every Sunday.
And this church full of unlikely heroes must channel newfound powers to navigate the bizarre and bewildering waters that lie ahead.
It almost sounds like something out of the Book of Revelation—and what a coincidence! One of our lectionary readings is from the Book of Revelation! And the Book of Revelation, as it happens, is precisely about how a bunch of unlikely heroes, the disciples and followers of Jesus Christ, will navigate and by God’s grace emerge victorious in the interdimensional turmoil of the heavenly battle of good versus evil impacting the world in which we live. When Revelation was written, Christians had to face persecution, torture and execution during the time of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. This was an enemy against which they stood no chance. Talk about unlikely heroes–these poor early Christians were as true a bunch of underdogs as underdogs can get. The only force they could bring to bear was their unwavering faith and trust in their Lord Jesus Christ—and according to Revelation that heroic faith was more than enough not only to secure their eternal victory, but also to make them participants in bringing the recreated Holy City of Jerusalem down from heaven and establishing it on earth forevermore—a place of eternal light, the fulness of the presence of God, the River of Unending Life, and all the nations and their glory celebrated and living together in the peace of God.
Their only weapon, their only resource, and the thing that most assured their victory: faith in Jesus Christ.
I confess I am offput and a bit embarrassed by our lectionary readings for today—Moses’ death in Deuteronomy and Jesus prepping his disciples for his death and return to heaven in the Gospel of John. One could be forgiven for thinking I am comparing my leaving St. Stephen to the death of Moses or the Ascension of Jesus Christ. Truly I’m not—I can honestly blame this on the Lectionary, the international calendar of Bible readings used the world over, and I had nothing to do with it!
These readings include Jesus’ paradoxical promise that “I am going away, and I am coming to you.” Jesus has left, but Jesus is coming—that paradox lies at the heart of Christian experience. Jesus has left means that at one level, we’ve been left here on our own to figure out how to manage to shape the world in a way that brings it closer to God’s Kingdom. Doing it without Jesus’ direct hand to guide us, his physical presence to lead us, can seem like an overwhelming task.
But on the other hand, Jesus is coming. From one perspective that means, he is returning one day, someday, to establish his kingdom. But Jesus wants to reassure his perplexed disciples that he is also sending the Holy Spirit to them, to give them right here and right now, in this bewildering reality in which we live, the newfound powers they need to wage that interdimensional battle for the soul of the earth. He is not abandoning them. Because he lives in them through the Holy Spirit, he is far more present for them now than he ever could be if he was still a physical person walking the earth.
This certainly speaks to the inevitable sense of abandonment and aloneness we all feel at various times of life, whether when a leader leaves, or in times of a health crisis, or at the death of a loved one, or when one is in some kind of terrible situation that makes her feel like, like the song says, “You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley; you’ve got to walk it by yourself. Nobody else can walk it for you; you got to walk it by yourself.” Jesus is telling all of us, those times of feeling abandoned and alone will come, but you aren’t abandoned and alone: he’s with you. He has never left you, and never will.
This paradoxical faith that Jesus is most with us when we feel most abandoned is the faith that sustained those early Christians in their times of persecution, and in fact has sustained the church for two thousand years of waiting and wondering when exactly we will see the Promised Land. The promise of Jesus, and the promise of Revelation, is that this faithful confidence in God’s promise and Jesus’ presence is the very bedrock of the Kingdom of God—trusting the promise in the hard times is what assures the victory of God’s Kingdom.
That promise sustains us all the time. It will, I hope, sustain Margaret and me as we go into a time of uncertainty—despite stepping off a bit into the unknown and without much of a roadmap, we know that Jesus is with us, and that God is good, and that no matter how rocky the road, God’s Kingdom is always in front of us. All of us need to remember that in hard times.
That promise also sustains St. Stephen. Have faith in Christ’s presence and in God’s goodness; have faith that no matter how rocky the road gets, the Kingdom is always in front of you.
Like the man said, times like these try one’s soul. It’s easy to fall into negativity. I’ve heard some people saying already that they don’t know why others are so positive about this transition process; surely we won’t find good candidates. Etc., etc. I have been the pastor or associate pastor or intern or member at something like ten churches and let me assure you—negativity can run rampant in churches in challenging times. Any church. But I’ll tell you something else, and I want you really to think about it: NEGATIVITY IS LACK OF FAITH. It’s one thing to be realistic in assessing strengths and weaknesses. It’s another thing to jump from realistic assessment to “we’re doomed!” That is not faith that Jesus is always with us and it is not trust in the goodness of God.
St. Stephen has leadership and moxie and resources like crazy. You have battle-tested skills in handling crisis. But more than anything, more than leadership, moxie, resources or skills, what is most needed in challenging times is faith.
I have often wondered about God taking Moses up on the mountain to see the Promised Land just before he died. It almost feels cruel, like a tease: the Promised Land is just over there, but guess what? You’ll never make it. There are even traditions that say God was punishing Moses for a mistake he made early in his career. But I don’t see it that way. I think God was assuring Moses that the Promised Land is always just ahead, and even if he doesn’t arrive there in person, those whom he prepared and led will reach it. The legacy will live on, even if he doesn’t. The vision remains, and the vision is worth a lifetime of striving.
For any believer, for any church, the Promised Land has never arrived. It always lies just ahead. That’s why we can never rest on our laurels. We may be good—St. Stephen is very good—but we can be better. We are always called to renewal, to growth, to change. This time of transition is nothing new. Once again you face the unknown. Been there, done that. It may wear a different face, but in substance it’s really nothing new: As Ecclesiastes says, “There is nothing new under the sun.” And your response is the same as well. Just like the saints in Revelation, just like all the saints who have preceded you and all the saints who will follow you, we are once again called upon to have faith.
The writer of Hebrews tells us that faith “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen.” Faith is what makes our hopes and dreams a concrete reality in the real world. Faith is what makes the unseen visible. Throughout the Bible, hope is understood as the vision glorious, the inspiration, the goal that awaits us and God’s world at the finish line. Hope is what makes us want to run the race—but faith is actually running the race. It’s the way we put our hopes and dreams into action.
I have known many people who’ve run races, including a whole lot who just one day up and decide, you know what? Even though I don’t actually run regularly and am pretty out of shape, I really want to run this race. So I’ll start training and dieting.
Those people often blow me away with their dedication. They’ll try to start dieting and keep falling off the wagon—but they persist. They sweat and groan and ache and gasp their way through a bunch of embarrassing attempts to run just a mile or two, but they do not let discouragement or difficulty get them down. They keep at it. They aren’t out to win the gold. They’re just out to run a race to completion. But that vision, that possibility, that hope, is more than enough to push them past every obstacle. People might even watch them run by and shake their heads, that person will never make it. But the runner believes they’ll make it. And because of that, when the time comes, they tie up their Nikes, stretch their newly limber legs, and put one foot in front of another, for tens of thousands of steps, no matter how difficult it gets, and suddenly they cross the finish line that not that long before was nothing more than a pipe dream. That, friends, is faith.
God puts the vision before us not to tease us with what we can’t accomplish, but to tantalize us with what we can accomplish. Have you ever thought about this? That you are in the present stressful, uncertain moment, assailed by a multiverse of challenges, because God knows that you have the ability and the possibility to do this! The moment we are in, whatever it may be, is the moment God has called us to be in—and that means one or both of two things: we either already have the resources we need to make it to the other side—or we can learn and develop the resources we need to make it to the other side.
And that’s exactly what it means to trust that Jesus is most with us in our most difficult and challenging moments—that we can trust that by God’s grace and by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can find within ourselves and among ourselves the resources we need to persist to the other side.
I shared with all of you in my good-bye letter a saying I’ve heard that gives me hope and inspiration to face the new path before me: Our faith is that, when we face an unknown future, we face it with a known God. In times of trial, when we’re assailed by the multiverse of madness that life sometimes throws our way, our rock, our salvation, our shield, our hope, our inspiration, and our strength, all rest in our assurance that we may not know what’s ahead, but we know who God is: God is love. God is grace. God is forgiveness. God is renewal. God can empower us to overcome any obstacle. God is faithful. And God is with us. How do we know this?
Because God is Jesus. And he will never leave us or forsake us.
One of the hymns I most associate with St. Stephen is “Be Thou My Vision,” that great hymn based on Celtic Christian poetry.
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art
Thou my best thought, by day or by night
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
Thou and Thou only first in my heart
High King of heaven, my treasure Thou art
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall
Still be my vision, O ruler of all
St. Stephen’s treasure is not riches, or prominence in the community, or fame, or great music, or wonderful community service, or a great preacher in the pulpit, or a sanctuary full to bursting. St. Stephen’s treasure is the High King of Heaven. St. Stephen’s treasure is Jesus Christ. He is both always just ahead of you, your vision and your inspiration, your leader and your guide; and always and ever with you, his presence your light. Hold on to this, St. Stephen. God has upheld St. Stephen through many a multiverse of madness in its nearly 140-year history. Keep the Lord of your heart as your best thought, by day or by night, in peace or in crisis, in good times and in bad, waking or sleeping, his presence your light. And then you yourselves will be a light. And St. Stephen, that great city set upon a hill, will continue to be a light to Fort Worth, to Tarrant County, and the world—as Jesus has always meant it to be.