In August 2009, I returned to the United States for family reasons after 20 years of living in the UK. I left the Northeast Ohio / Cleveland area in 1975 when I went to university, and I never expected either to leave the UK or to return to Northeast Ohio. But life brings us unexpected twists and turns along the way.
I am not currently employed as a pastor although I'm currently doing s small amount of supply preaching. Below is the first sermon I preached as a "supply preacher" in the US. I am switching to US dating and spelling conventions. The sermon is longer than many of the previous sermons on this blog due to different custom.
I was asked to preach this sermon in a series of sermons on the broad topic of "return from exile". (Ironic, isn't it?)
This is a thematic sermon and the texts used were Zechariah 8:1-8 and Revelation 21:1-7.
Good morning everyone, and thank you for your hospitality here this morning and for inviting me to share in your worship and your meditation on Holy Scripture this morning.
Today is one of those instances that demonstrates what I believe is God’s sense of humor. As you heard earlier, I’m an ordained minister (“Elder”) in the Methodist Church of Great Britain and I lived in England for just over 20 years from 1989 until August of this year.
But I was born in East Cleveland and raised in Euclid. I left Northeast Ohio in 1975 to go to college and, as the years went on, I began to assume that I would never return to live in this area of the world. But my British husband and I moved to Hudson this past August to be nearer to my parents who are aging and need family near them.
And this morning is not only the first sermon that I have preached in American Methodism; it is also the first sermon that I have ever preached in the United States.
So you can see that today is something of a milestone for me, but I have to tell you that I do think it’s indicative of God’s sense of humor that the broad topic that I was asked to preach on is the topic of the Return from Exile.
Being From Somewhere – What Does it Mean?
Because a big question in my life recently has been: After 34 years away from Northeast Ohio, have I returned home or have I left home?
What, exactly does it mean to “be from” somewhere and how does “being from” a place shape our lives and who we are?
As I was preparing for this sermon, I immediately thought of Mr. Singh. Mr. Singh works at my local gas station just up the road. The first time I went into the gas station, he asked me if I was British and I explained my story to him.
Now it turns out that Mr. Singh was born in the Punjab, in India. I’m not sure, but I think he’s about my age. Mr. Singh came to this area of the world when he was ten years old. So he’s actually lived here longer that I have!
It starts you thinking: What does it mean to be “be from” somewhere? Especially in this day and age when people can move around very freely.
And I imagine that the Judeans who were returning to Jerusalem from Babylon might have understood this question of identity and “being from a place”. Because it took about a generation and a half for the Judeans to be able to leave Babylon and to make the journey back to Jerusalem.
So we can suppose that the vast majority of people who “returned” to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple had never lived in Jerusalem and they had never lived in a free Judea.
And I think that there is a parallel with us, as Christians. We are asked, as part of our Christian discipleship, to be part of God’s plan in building a New Jerusalem, but none of us have ever lived there.
So today, I just want to stop and take our bearings and ask the question: Are we still on course for our trip to the New Jerusalem? Do we, in fact, know where we are going?
Where is the New Jerusalem and what does it look like?
The New Jerusalem, of course, is a metaphor. And, like all good metaphors, it needs unpacking. Also, like all good metaphors, there are probably no Right Answers either. So I’m going to try to unpack it now with the caveat that this is my perspective. If you disagree with me, so much the better because it will get you thinking about what it is you believe.
The New Jerusalem
So, “The New Jerusalem”: Where is it? What is it? What does it look like?
Of course, the City of Jerusalem itself meant something important to those people who had been in Exile in Babylon.
Jerusalem – Zion – was the City of God. The place where the Temple was located and therefore the place where Judah believed their God physically dwelled. The dream of the Judeans (Southern Kingdom) in Exile was that they would return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, and once more Yahweh would dwell with them and he would be their God and they would be his people.
But, the thing is that, although you can go back to where you came from, you can’t go back to when you came from.
I can come back to Northeast Ohio, but I can’t come back to Northeast Ohio in 1975 and I can’t come back to Northeast Ohio as a 17 year old girl.
During the generation that Judah has been in Exile, Judah has begun to understand its God in a different light.
Judah’s original understanding of its God was that God was on their side; and we see this idea reflected in a lot of the earlier Old Testament literature. Judah thought that God was for Judah and against other people. Their God would defend them from other nations and he would smash their enemies, when necessary.
But then came the Exile. And what was previously unthinkable happened: Jerusalem was defeated and the people of Judah were suddenly confronted with a new reality.
And so, in much of the biblical literature dealing with the story of the Exile, we begin see the development of ideas like God using foreign powers and kings to carry out his will – something that was previously unthinkable. And we also see the development of the idea that God cares about righteousness and justice and – something that was really unthinkable before – that even foreign Kings can be viewed by God as righteous and just.
Slowly, in the post-Exilic and prophetic tradition, the idea developed that God was not just the God of Judah, but God was the God of all the world. Judah came to understand that God’s sovereignty was not limited to Judah but that his sovereignty was universal.
So here comes our first piece of Good News this morning: The City of God, the New Jerusalem, is a place to which everyone is invited.
Unlike Judah’s earlier understanding, God is not a tribal god. God is not against anyone; he is not against any sort of person. God is for everyone.
No matter who you are or where you are from God wants you to be a citizen of his New Jerusalem. No matter what language you speak, no matter what the color of your skin, no matter what your gender, your marital status, whether or not you are a respected member of your community, God wants you to be a citizen of his New Jerusalem.
God is not just the God of Judah or of the UMC or the Presbyterian Church. God is not just the God of men or women or white people or Native Americans or African-Americans. God is the God of all people.
Ad I don’t know about you, but I think this is really good news! This is the stuff that makes me excited. The gates of the City of God are always open. No one needs a visa to get in. As long as we live, God will never, ever stop inviting us into his New Jerusalem.
The New Jerusalem – a Place of Justice
Now I’m thinking that there might be some people in the congregation who are starting to squirm right about now.
I’m betting that some people might be thinking “Hold on a minute, here! If God invites everyone into the City of God, does that mean that God doesn’t care about right and wrong? Does that mean that God doesn’t care about justice?”
I’m thinking you’re thinking “Pam, if you start telling me that everyone is invited into the New Jerusalem, then what does that say about the existence of right and wrong? Are you trying to tell me that, in the New Jerusalem, anything goes?”
And this is our second piece of good news this morning: that God cares about justice and righteousness. God cares about right and wrong.
No, I’m not trying to tell you that anything goes in the New Jerusalem. I’m trying to tell you that the New Jerusalem is a place where victims can find justice and where the discriminated-against can find opportunity. The City of God is a place where power is not used for personal gain but for the good of the entire community.
This, by the way, is what much of Old Testament tradition tells us is the function of a righteous King: to pursue the good of the entire community and to make sure that the powerful don’t exploit those with less power.
This idea of a Just King is why the prophet Samuel warned ancient Israel not to replace God as its king with a human king, like the other peoples. Samuel warned that human kings would misuse power, send Israel’s sons to war and grab power and wealth for themselves. Which is precisely what happened.
But in the New Jerusalem, God’s people dream of a reign of perfect justice and righteousness where God is once again King.
And no doubt, this is also what the Judean people dreamed of as they returned to Jerusalem from Exile to rebuild the Temple and the City of God.
So the second piece of good news this morning is that the New Jerusalem is a place where God’s justice is the order of the day.
The Church’s Mission
You may, however, have noticed that God’s justice might not seem quite like our human notions of justice. Human justice often majors on punishing the wrong-doer. Human justice relies on the threat of punishment to keep society in order.
In the New Jerusalem, however, justice and righteousness are the order of the day because people’s hearts have been changed by God.
Because of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, the Spirit of God changes the hearts of human beings so that we can accept God’s love and forgiveness, return that love to God and then pass it on to others. The reason that the New Jerusalem is a place where death will be no more and where mourning and crying and pain will be no more is because the hearts of its inhabitants have been converted to the love and service of God.
Now, you might be thinking “Hold on a minute here. You’re talking about the day when Christ will come again; you’re talking about the next life. And all this is fine and good and hunkey-dorey for the next life, but what about this life?”
ell, the thing is that I *am* talking about the day when Christ will come and I *am* talking about the eternal New Jerusalem. But I’m also talking about life here on earth. Because the New Jerusalem, the New Creation, the City of God is something that was inaugurated after the death and resurrection of Christ.
New Jerusalem may be “not yet”, but it is also now. It is both now and not yet.
The reason that there will be justice and righteousness in the New Jerusalem is because the hearts of its inhabitants have been converted to the love of service of God and humanity. And we – the universal church of Christ, those people of all denominations whose lives have been changed and transformed by the love of Christ – we are inhabitants of the New Jerusalem in the here and now as much as in the there and not yet.
As I think Pastor Jim is going to talk to you about next week, it is the job of the church – it is our mission - to build the Temple in the New Jerusalem. It is our job as the church to make the worship and love of God central to our lives. And, in consequence, it is our job to make love and service to our fellow human beings central to our lives.
We have been chosen to proclaim and witness to God’s love and forgiveness in both word and in deed. We are called to tell people of the love and forgiveness of God. And we are called to live as an example to others: to lives of righteousness, justice and truth.
And, for me, this is the third and final piece of Good News for this morning: That the church has an awesome, worthwhile and exciting mission; and that when we are empowered and used by the Holy Spirit, that God can change the world that we live in; God can change the lives of people around us.
And, I don’t know about you, but *I* find it exciting that the God-given purpose of my life is something so worthwhile. The God-given purpose of my life is to let God use me to transform the world. I think that’s awesome.
As we go from this place today, I’d like to remember what this New Jerusalem that we are traveling to looks like and to remember the Good News that we heard this morning.
So our first piece of good news is that citizenship in the New Jerusalem is open to everyone, no matter who you are, where you come from or what you have done in the past.God does not discriminate. Or, as they said in the old days, God is no respecter of persons.
The second piece of Good News that we heard this morning is that the New Jerusalem is a place where human lives are transformed and where God’s values of righteousness and justice reign. The New Jerusalem is a place where human hearts are converted to God’s standards and converted away from the standards of the world.
And the final piece of Good News that we heard this morning is that, as members of God’s Church universal, our lives not only have purpose, but they have purposes of eternal significance. When God entrusted us with the mission of being citizens of the New Jerusalem, he entrusted us with a mission that is both awesome and exciting.
And he promised us his Holy Spirit to help us in our task. The Church is not God; we are only God’s servants. We are God’s hands on earth. It is God who will finally build the New Jerusalem.
As we go forward into a new week, let’s remember where we are going. Let’s contemplate the awe and beauty of the New Jerusalem, but let’s also think and pray about how God might want to use us to build that City.
I pray that God will give each of us wisdom and insight as we contemplate our calling and I pray for that same insight for this congregation. And may the Spirit of God give you strength and courage to be his hands and heart in the world. Amen