The Radical Present

Sunday sermon from April 28, 2013
Text: Revelation 21:1-6
Given at Amherst Presbyterian Church, Amherst, VA

This morning’s sermon is largely about the difference between Star Trek, Star Wars, and Battlestar Galactica. I just felt like I should go ahead and come out and say that up front. I thought long and hard about how to try and weave Star Trek into the sermon, and it turns out that there was really no way of approaching it that had any kind of subtlety to it at all. I like a good, subtle, transition, but it turns out there’s not really any way to say, “Brothers and sisters, our Gospel lesson this morning is kind of like Star Trek” and not feel like the train has just come completely off the tracks. So I thought instead I’d let you know up front.

Now, when you think about Star Trek, or Star Wars, or Battlestar Galactica, or anything that we might call popular science fiction, you might have certain stereotypes. You might be tempted to lump all those movies and shows together. You might be tempted to lump the fans of those movies and shows together. But let me suggest for a moment that the differences mean something. When I was growing up, we were fully aware of the differences between Star Wars and Star Trek. We didn’t really have Battlestar Galactica; it was on the BBC before I was born, and didn’t really make the jump across the ocean until maybe ten years ago. No, basically, I grew up in the original golden age of Star Wars, and you could be a Star Wars kid, like everybody I knew, or you could be a Star Trek kid, like me.

So here’s the difference between Star Wars and Star Trek. Star Wars happens to other people, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but Star Trek has always been about us. Just a short time from now, really, just a couple of hundred years into our own future. Star Wars has always been about escaping the boundaries of real life; Star Trek has always been about imagining its possibilities. Imagine what we could do, the things we could learn and the places we could go, if we had ships that could travel faster than the speed of light; it’s not that far off, really, or so the the show would have us believe. Imagine who we could help, how we could grow, how we could thrive with machines that could beam our bodies hundreds of miles across interstellar space, or, my favorite, with machines where you just press a button and it replicates whatever you want — hot tea, or a cheeseburger, or a flashlight, or whatever the moment demands. And in the universe of Star Trek, these technologies don’t just make life easier; they actually make us better people. If you can feed everybody, if you can transport everything effortlessly, then we become better people, new people, people we might not even recognize as ourselves. In the universe of Star Trek, humanity doesn’t even bother with money anymore – what’s the point of it if you can just replicate anything you need? – instead, we have committed ourselves to the betterment of the species, to discovery, to advancement, to exploration, to boldly going where none of us have gone before. Star Trek is the aspirational dream of who we might possibly be, so much better than the people we currently are, if only but for a couple of small scientific discoveries.

Now, if there is some justification for preaching at length about Star Trek this morning it is that the strangeness of Star Trek – or Star Wars or Battlestar, for that matter – is surely and equally met by the strangeness of the book of Revelation. The vision given to a man named John on the island of Patmos resonates with all kinds of strange and fantastic imagery of what to John would certainly be not unlike science fiction. His science looks like a lot different than ours, of course; he has no more of a concept of a spaceship than he does of space itself. But John’s vision triggers the same kind of imaginative questions that the best science fiction does: namely, what will the future look like, and who will we be when we get there?

And not to cut too quickly to the point, but John’s vision for humanity’s future is not entirely rosy. It abounds with images of warfare and cosmic battle, of the judgment of God sweeping across the face of the earth in all kinds of terrifying forms. You know this part well enough, it’s the highway billboard version of Revelation, the sort of stuff that sends people flipping through their own calendar and marking the date when the end times will commence. It’s a far cry from being aspirational. More like the sort of future to be avoided at all costs. But then, just at the very end of the vision, we come across our text for today, one of the most poetic pieces of scripture anywhere in the canon, and one of the most aspirational: “Then,” John says, “Then, I saw a new heaven and a new earth … And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem … And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them as their God;
they will be his peoples,
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
See, I am making all things new.”

It’s an amazing vision of what we could be. Of what we will be, a humanity without death and pain and sorrow. “See, I am making all things new,” like God will just press a button on the Star Trek replicator, and we will emerge, entirely new, new creations; we won’t even recognize ourselves, not without tears and mourning and crying, not without all the sorrow that attends the regular state of affairs of being human. Never mind the violence and despair and destruction of the twenty chapters that went before; never mind the bleak landscape of cosmic warfare that John devotes so much of his letter to describing; here at the end is the only part we should really pay attention to, the part with all the new things. No wonder this text has such hold on our imagination; who doesn’t dream of being, more improved better version of ourselves? Who doesn’t dream of who we might possibly be. Who would’t aspire to such a future?

The only problem is that that’s not what the text says. New Testament Scholar (and Union Seminary President) Brian Blount notes that here “God is taking what is old and transforming it. Out of the destruction that occurs in the various plagues and battles for creation, God will weave God’s new thing. The old will remain a constituent part of the new, but it will be fiercely transfigured.” He goes on to quote another scholar: that there’s a big difference between making all new things and making all things new. It’s tempting to pretend that this moment of John’s vision erases everything that went before; after all, what’s the point of having new creations if the old ones stick around? And don’t we know the pain of creation well enough to understand that the only way to fix it is to throw it out and ask the replicator for a new one? Who wouldn’t want to do that, to throw out all the broken pieces of humanity and start fresh, to take all the guilt and and violence and jealousy and decay, to take all the anger and hatred that increases in us day by day, to take all of it and just throw it out the nearest airlock and press a button and start again? Who wouldn’t want that future? But John’s vision isn’t about starting over with all new things. It’s about making the old things new again. Which means that it has a lot less to do with Star Trek and a lot more to do with Battlestar Galactica.

Now, Galactica is the furthest thing from an aspirational universe. Most of humanity has been destroyed and those that remain are in permanent exodus, fleeing their persecutors across the galaxy in a fleet of ramshackle ships. And while the show has its small share of technological innovations, there aren’t any replicators, and there aren’t any transporters, and the people aren’t better versions of ourselves. They’re just us, in worse and dire circumstances, and instead of hoping to improve themselves or navigate the stars, they simply and only want to survive. Because they’re in exile, all they have is what they’ve carried with them, and new creations don’t just happen at the touch of a button. In fact in one episode, one of the ship engineers, desperate to create something amidst the bleakness of his existence, pieces together scrap metal and electric components from all over the fleet, scavenging and bartering and scrounging for every ounce, and then he actually builds a new ship, a new fighter, built from scrap, a new creation, built from the pieces of the old one. Surely this is the future that John sees; surely when he he writes that the home of God is among mortals, that God will dwell with all of us; surely this is the version of us he sees: that our future is not to be reborn at the touch of a button, but to be rebuilt, piece by piece. That God is not interested in throwing us out and starting again. That our future is not simply to be subjects of the power of God, but to be creatures of God’s grace. That’s a future worth our imagination.

But we’re not quite done. Because we’ve ignored the first rule of science fiction, as applicable to the book of Revelation as it is to anything you’d find on late-night reruns. The first rule of science fiction is that it’s never really about the future. That’s it’s always about the present. That no matter how many flying spaceships or super-intelligent robots or alien civilizations show up, science fiction is first and foremost a way of understanding the hopes and fears and dreams of its own place and time. Author Cory Doctorow calls this effect “radical presentism.” As he puts it, “Science fiction writers don’t predict the future … but if they’re very good, they may manage to predict the present.” What he means is that George Orwell was a lot less worried about a future society of surveillance and a lot more worried about the wartime growth of totalitarianism that he read in the papers. That Isaac Asimov’s utopian vision of helpful, obedient robot servants said a lot more about his own faith in technological progress than it did about what the actual future would look like. Science fiction is always about the present. Science fiction is about the now. Which means that Star Trek, at its core, is about unfettered faith in technological progress. It’s about the now. Battlestar Galactica is about understanding what makes humanity distinctive in a networked and computerized age. It’s about the now. And yes, even the book of Revelation, strange bedfellows to be sure with Asimov and Orwell, but even the futuristic visions of the book of Revelation are fundamentally and foundationally about the now. It’s not about what God will do. It’s about what God is doing right now.

So how’s this for right now? If you tuned out the first time I said Star Trek, this is a good time to come back. Last week in The Washington Post a woman named Elsa Walsh wrote a piece describing her own struggle to understand her professional and family identity in the wake of some of the promises made by the feminist movement. Walsh adds her voice to a debate that has sprung up, particularly in the wake of Marissa Mayer’s ascendancy as the CEO of Yahoo!, as to whether we have come to the point where women really can have it all; Walsh, rather than taking the bait to say yes or no, instead questions the premise, arguing in her words, for “why women should [instead] embrace a ‘good enough’ life,” that is, that no matter what you think of the economic and social structures of women in the workplace, that it’s okay for women to make compromises, especially in the name of family, friends, and the intangibles of life. Now, I have no wish to add to the specific debate about the state of women in the workplace. Instead, I want to submit that Walsh’s comment can be much more broadly applied than she perhaps realizes. After all, the dream of “having it all,” is not a man’s dream or a woman’s dream. It is perhaps the most quintessentially human dream, the dream of bettering ourselves, the dream of improving ourselves, the dream of making ourselves into new creations. It is why the future has such a grasp on our imaginations: because this time next year, I’ll be such a better employee, or such a better parent, or so much thinner, or so much healthier, or so much less angry, or so much more forgiving, or so much more Christian. That I’ll be such a better version of myself, you won’t even recognize me. We live our lives clinging to such aspirational dreams. The future is going to be amazing, as soon as I press this button!

But this Gospel isn’t about the future. It’s about the now. It’s about what God is doing right now – God who has already made a home with mortals, God who lived and dwelt among us, God who claimed us long before we could even begin to dream of anything better: right now, God embraces our “good enough life.” Right now, God loves us just as we are: broken, sinful, scarred, bitter, tired, all of it. No matter what, right now, God loves you just as you are, no matter what dreams haunt you, no matter what visions stoke your imagination, no matter how you’re going to do it all or live it up or keep it together or make it work, no matter what future version of yourself gets you out of bed in the morning, no matter the guilt and and violence and jealousy and decay, no matter the anger and hatred that increases in us day by day, no matter what, right now, God loves you. Yes, God’s love will change you. Yes, God’s love will grow you. Somewhere, somehow, even as we speak, God’s love will take all of the pieces inside you and put them together again and you will be, as we all will be, all things new, going where none of us have gone before. But this isn’t about the future. It’s about right now. And this, right now, is the radical present, that God loves you just as you are.



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