Our second reading today comes from the strange and wonderful Book of Revelation, a book most Episcopalians associate with televangelists and other crazies. Revelation is actually a fascinating political commentary, asserting Christ’s power and authority even over the Roman Empire – and whatever human power we might substitute for Rome in our own day. This morning’s reading paints a picture of a great multitude, people blessed, through their tribulation on earth, to stand before the very presence of God.
We’re blessed with our own moments of transcendence from time to time. When we get to see through the veil and catch a glimpse of Jesus Christ reigning in glory – what does that look like? On Easter morning, in Revelation’s words set to Handel’s glorious accompaniment, we sang out that “the kingdom of the world is become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ. And he shall reign for ever and ever.” (Revelation 11:15) So what do you think that looks like, when “the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our God and of his Christ”?
Well, as we stumble upon that scene in today’s reading, we find ourselves in the heavenly throne room. We come along with a “great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). Wait, standing before what? The Lamb? What lamb?
If we back up a couple of chapters, we learn who this Lamb is. When the writer of Revelation sees the heavenly throne for the first time, as the Messiah is about to make his appearance, the writer expects to see the “Lion of … Judah” (5:5), the powerful liberating king the Jewish people had been waiting for. But the writer looks up and sees instead “a Lamb, standing [though] it had been slaughtered” (5:6). The kingdom of the Lord God Almighty has been given to a slaughtered Lamb. It turns out the ultimate power of God – the roar of the lion – is fully revealed on the Cross, in the suffering of the Lamb.1 And now that slaughtered Lamb stands strong, ready to complete God’s project of reuniting heaven and earth, returning all of creation back to the garden God made “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1).
Now, we have trouble wrapping our minds around all that, and I think we’re supposed to. The Book of Revelation is not a news report, or a fortune teller’s prediction, or a copy of God’s day-by-day planning calendar. It’s poetry – a mystical vision that brings together “in the beginning” and “world without end.”
So hold that thought, because I think I got a glimpse of that heavenly throne room two Sundays ago. And because God is not only sovereign of all creation but also a comic genius, the scene even comes with a little humor.
Here’s something I never imagined myself saying: I got to worship at the altar of God along with two chickens and a goat. The occasion was a grand celebration, the 150th anniversary of the Church of St. Sauveur in Les Cayes, Haiti. The rector there is our partner priest, Père Colbert, who has been here with us several times. The worship began with the congregation and about 30 clergy all processing through the streets of Les Cayes, led by incense and the Cross. It was an incarnation of intersection, of the blurred boundary between heaven and earth that the Book of Revelation points toward. Arriving at the church, about a thousand people filled every space, including the stairs to the balcony; and others crowded at the doorways. Stunning choirs transported the congregation with the full-throated praise Haitians always offer, singing like their lives depend on it, because they do. Clouds of incense filled the chancel at the Gospel procession; more clouds of incense would envelop the altar before the Eucharistic prayer. Dancers interpreted God’s Word in body and in Spirit.
And then came the offertory. Of course, none of us knew what was coming, other than figuring they’d take up a collection. Well, I have never seen such a deeply sacramental sacrifice of thanksgiving, such a full presentation of people’s life and labor to the Lord. For us, we offer bread, wine, and money at the offertory. When we get really symbolic, we add canned food to share with people in need. In Les Cayes two weeks ago, they presented tokens of everything God had given them. As the choir and people sang for joy, members swayed down the aisle and toward the altar bearing bananas, and mangos, and okra, and peppers; beans, and rice, and potatoes, and onions; squash, and wood, and flowers, and sugar cane – and two chickens, and a goat.
And then, because God is a comic genius, just as I was getting all wrapped up in the deep meaning of this stunning offering, the chickens started pecking at each other. Now, they had been laid literally before the altar, as had the goat – each animal with its legs bound, and with the chickens’ wings wrapped in small, thin, black trash sacks. But the liturgical planning committee hadn’t considered three key elements: First, chickens don’t like to be right next to each other and out of control. Second, chickens have wings, and they can move by flapping those wings even if their feet are bound together. And third, thin black plastic is no match for an angry chicken. And so, we witnessed a literal chicken fight before the altar of God. Now, in the eyes of the people there, it wasn’t that big a deal. Someone simply came over, grabbed the chickens by their bound legs, and hauled them out.
Now, all this time, the goat was just lying there, minding his own business, looking exhausted after his long trip bouncing around in the back of a truck. But the chickens’ misbehavior made people think twice about leaving the goat up there for the Eucharistic prayer, so he was hauled out, too. Now, this left open two holes in the offertory décor; and this is an Episcopal church, after all, with a certain sense of order and propriety. So, to fill the holes in the tableau left by the absent chickens and the absent goat, the Altar Guild sacristan ran up to rearrange the flowers and bananas and mangoes and sugar cane into a balanced and aesthetically pleasing visual presentation. And, I believe, the Lord God did grin.
Now, the next scene I want to describe came a few days later, as we drove between Les Cayes and Port-au-Prince. It was market day, so everywhere, people were bringing the products of their life and labor to the village gathering place. We ended up following a truck on its way to market – with chickens and goats dangling by their legs off the back and the sides of the truck, clearly in great pain. It’s a necessity of life in a culture without refrigeration: You get fresh meat by keeping that meat alive as long as possible before you eat it. So, creeping along the road into the village, we were eye to eye with a goat, dangling by its legs, in its last hours. There is little more pitiable, and maybe nothing more vulnerable, than a goat or a lamb about to be slaughtered.
Of course, all the Americans in our pickup wanted to get out and untie the goat, and take him down, and ease his pain. And of course, that impulse was more about our discomfort than the goat’s well-being. We’d been happy to have roasted goat for dinner the night before, but we weren’t so interested in looking dinner in the eye as it suffered.
In a place like Haiti, you see sacrifice up close and personal. Everything – and especially every good thing – comes at a cost. At our partner school in Maniche, enrollment has increased by 50 percent from last year. In a classroom smaller than my office, in tropical heat, there’s a first-grade teacher who every day shapes the hearts and minds of 47 little people in that small room. Picture that. Feel the heat. Hear the fidgeting. Smell the closeness. Now, this teacher comes to work every day from her house near Les Cayes, so she bounces around the back of a truck for an hour and a half every morning and for an hour and a half every afternoon. Sacrifice is her job description. She is paid pretty well in a culture where the average person tries to live on $2 to $3 a day. But she earns every penny, two or three times over.
That sacrifice will cost the teacher her life, one day at a time. But it also brings life, and hope, to those 47 first graders, one day at a time. That teacher’s work inspires her students’ dreams – dreams of becoming doctors, or teachers, or nurses, or agronomists, or business owners, or soccer players, or linguists, or presidents – each of them professions kids actually told us they wanted to pursue. And it’s not just the teachers who sacrifice. Two cooks prepare beans and rice for 300 kids every day in two pots on open fires. The headmaster keeps the peace and maintains morale among teachers pushed to the limit, all the while teaching sixth grade, too. Their day-to-day sacrifices bring new life to children who otherwise would simply occupy their parents’ huts in the next generation but might, instead, be president.
Of course, the other sacrifice is yours. About 1 percent of your pledge giving goes to support these ministries in Maniche. In addition, the Advent Card Fundraiser in the Jewell Room pays the teachers’ salaries and buys textbooks. The Fools for Christ’s Sake Dinner next Sunday funds the school’s lunch program. These are not small investments that you, and we, make. We, too, offer our sacrifice of thanksgiving when we pay our pledge, or buy an Advent card, or come to the Fools dinner.
But you see sacrifice up close and personal in Haiti. Living and dying happens right before your eyes. And so does rising again. That Lamb at the center of the heavenly throne made his choice to live, and die, and rise again for you, and for me, and for our Haitian friends. And the Lamb calls us to follow him as he shepherds us into eternal life, now and forever. He leads us to make our own life-giving sacrifice – a life of self-giving that leaves you, and the world around you, stronger and healthier than self-preservation ever could. This is life that truly “revives [your] soul” (Psalm 23:3). For when we follow where he leads, the Lamb who is our shepherd will guide us to springs of the water of life, where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes (Revelation 7:17).
1. Harrington, Wilfrid J. Revelation. Sacra Pagina Series, Vol, 16, Daniel J. Harrington, ed. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993. 87