Sermon for Sunday, May 26th, 2019
The bible begins and ends with a city. There are two important cities in the bible: one at the very beginning in the book of Genesis and the other all the way at the end in the book of Revelation. Whenever I see that kind of parallel structure in the scriptures I feel compelled to look at them together, (and mind you the scriptures love to do this. The scriptures love to create parallels across books, authors and testaments. Either by editorial design or divine providence, the bible is full of these wonderful parallels). So let’s look at these two cities that bookend our holy writings.
The first city we find in the bible, comes in Genesis chapter 11. Now this is after the Garden of Eden, after Cain and Abel, after Noah and the flood. After all those stories we are told about the first city that humans built: Babel. All the peoples of the earth were gathered together in that one city and there was one language…they didn’t just have unity, they had uniformity. So the first city the bible shows us is a place where all the people of the earth are gathered together as one: one language, one culture, they understand each other, they work together and they are smart. They start to figure out how to build things; in fact, they figure out that if you fire bricks in an oven they get a lot stronger and you can build bigger buildings. And so in the middle of this city they build a great tower as a symbol of their achievement. The city and the tower are built as a tribute to themselves…they say it is to make a name for themselves. These people are confident that their salvation lies in their ability to work together and build together; they are terrified of what may happen if they end up scattered across the earth. Their salvation is technology and uniformity and the great symbol of that salvation is this one great tower stretching up into the heavens. That is the first city in the bible.
The last city we see in the bible comes in Revelation, chapters 21 and 22, part of our scripture readings this morning. This city comes at the end of the story, the end of creation, the end of all time. This is the New Jerusalem, the new city that is a part of the new heaven and new earth. Now our passage this morning sadly cuts out a chunk of John’s description of this city, because its long and the lectionary thinks you might find it boring, and maybe you would, but what John describes is this massive glorious city with twelve gates, one for each of the tribes of Israel. So symbolically, this is a city where all of God’s people are coming together again, but they aren’t one…not the way that the people in Babel were one. These tribes have different names and are coming from different directions. These people are one, but they are not the same. There is diversity here, not uniformity. And the city isn’t built with manmade bricks. It is made of gold and jewels and precious stones, things only God can make. And the gates to the city, which never shut because the people don’t have anything to be afraid of anymore, the gates are made of twelve pearls (you’ve heard of the pearly gates, well this is where that comes from). And in the middle of this city, the source if its identity and unity is not a manmade tower celebrating human progress, not even a temple. In the center of this city is God himself. God, who has come down to live among his peoples. That is the last city we are shown.
In one city we have people focused on saving themselves and building a tower up to God. In the other city, what John sees is the heavenly city, a city made of stuff only God could create, coming down to earth, with diverse peoples gathered in it that feel no need to celebrate themselves or save themselves, but only want to celebrate the fact that their God has chosen to dwell among them. This is the parallel or the comparison that I think we need to look at this morning. I think it is a parallel that the bible or God speaking through the bible wants to show us. There is something in our human nature that the Bible wants us to see: a tension that runs through religious life and secular life and political life; the church is frequently getting mixed up in this tension because the church is made up of humans and human nature is what it is. And at the heart of the tension is this: humans like to think that they can build a stairway to heaven through their own good sense and accomplishment, and God stands back and laughs, because God is planning to bring heaven down to earth. The New Jerusalem in John’s vision comes down from heaven, it isn’t made by man. God comes down to dwell among his people, they don’t muscle their way up to him by being clever or even good. God comes down. We want to climb up to God, and we can’t. God wants to come down to us, and he can. That is what all of this is about. And in John’s vision of the New Jerusalem, humans are finally so aware of God in their midst that they can finally stop trying to be him. That is John’s vision.
But despite the fact that we have placed John’s vision as the culmination of all our scriptures, I don’t think that we are really ready to give up on Babel yet. We still desperately want to build that stairway to heaven. We still want to save ourselves and celebrate ourselves. You may know the musical Godspell. Great music…a lot of the lyrics come from our own hymnal, but there is this one song that was added later: “We can build a beautiful city. Yes we can, yes we can.” It’s a pretty song but when I hear it I always want to sing to myself: “no we can’t no we can’t.” Maybe God can build a beautiful city, the perfect city, but real humans? I don’t think so. Even Walt Disney couldn’t do it.
Some of you may know the story behind Walt Disney World, which I grew up not very far from. When we think of Disney World we think of Cinderella’s castle and Mickey Mouse and the Magic Kingdom and amusement parks, but building another Disneyland type amusement park was only a minor part of Walt’s vision for his Florida project. His main vision, the heart of his project, was this thing he called EPCOT…the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow: the perfect city of the future that would not only celebrate the best of American industry, but would also celebrate the cultures of the world and serve as a vision, as a beacon of optimism and hope for how we might live in the future. The city of EPCOT was to show us how technology could transform how we live and create a better tomorrow and its symbol would be one great big tower stretching to the heavens. Sound familiar? You can still see the model Walt had built. But the city was never meant to be.
Walt died and those following after him realized for a moment at least the fundamental flaw in Walt’s plan: you can’t have a perfect city if you have real people living in it. Real people are a mess. Real people are unclean, real people practice abominations and falsehoods. It is hard enough dealing with real people as guests in the park, how on earth are they going to manage with them living there all the time? So that project was shelved and eventually turned into another amusement park: Epcot Center. The Disney company would try again though, the idea of building the perfect city is just too enticing I guess…they would try again to build a perfect town down the road, called Celebration, and that didn’t work out so well for them either. We never learn. We will keep trying to build Babel until the Lord returns and finally builds his own beautiful city. We will keep trying I am sure, but I am thankful for the vision that John and his Book of Revelation and the bible give me. I am thankful for the revelation that God is coming down to me and that I don’t have to claw my way up a ladder to heaven. I am thankful for the Good News that I don’t have to build the perfect city, because once in a while it actually gets through my head. Once in a while, I am able to put down the bricks and the trowel, to stop trying to build something and just rejoice in the beauty of God’s presence.
Walt’s vision was never built, but you know, Epcot Center, the park that was made, is my favorite of the Disney parks. If you have ever been there then you know that the first half of the park, future world, was built to be a celebration of progress and technology, much like Walt had envisioned, and the back half, World Showcase, was built to be an international exposition of different cultures and countries. The whole thing was envisioned as some sort of permanent World’s Fair. Well as a child I was fascinated by future world and all the technology, but as I have grown older my focus and my heart have moved to the back of the park, to the World Showcase, because what I have realized is that while my cellphone and my computer are useful, they don’t really add value to my life in quite the same was as listening to the Voices of Liberty sing in the American Pavilion, or having a croissant in the France Pavilion, or a beer in the German Pavilion. In other words, I have realized that culture and language and food, and the God given diversity of the peoples of the world means more to me than any piece of manmade technology. Sure, we can say that culture is something that humans are a part of and influence, but it is always bigger than any one of us and shaped by elements that are beyond our control. Culture and language are, in my opinion, a gift from God worthy to be celebrated. And what I love about Epcot now, the back of the park, is that for me it is a vision of what the real city of God might look like: a place where all the people of the world gather together, celebrating all the glory that God has given them and shown them and feeling no need to put their neighbor down in order to build themselves up. A place where God’s people can celebrate what God created them to be. A city where the sinfulness and dirtiness and messiness of this life has been washed away. A city where people are one, but they are not the same. A city that never gets old or outdated. A city where people aren’t afraid, because with God in their midst there is nothing to fear.
Now, I know Epcot is not all that. It isn’t made out of gold or jasper or pearl or carnelian…it is plastic. I know it. Still, I love it. For one thing it is a theme park and Lord knows I love a theme. But more importantly I love it because it is a reminder to me, that as I go through life I am often faced with a decision: I often find myself pulled between two cities, which really represent two philosophies or ways of life. I can either keep trying to build and update future world, always toiling and struggling to figure out how to build the next new Babel, just like Disney is struggling to figure out what to do with the front of Epcot which is outdated and doesn’t make sense anymore; or I can take a walk over to the Mexico Pavilion, sit in the sun by the water and have a margarita and enjoy the day God gave me. I think I know which one I’ll choose.