Sermon for Sunday, May 12, 2013

Revelation 22:12-14

“Clean Robes”

Franklin Circle Christian Church (Disciples Of Christ)

Cleveland, Ohio ~ http://www.FranklinCircleChurch.org

Rev. Allen V. Harris, Pastor & Preacher

[Editor’s Note: There was neither a podcast nor a videocast made of this sermon.  I apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.]

 

Today we conclude our brief, but vivid, look at the last few chapters of the book of Revelation.  Through these few verses we have seen a “sneak peak” of the vision God has for the Church of Jesus Christ on earth, as well as for humanity as a whole.  I hope we will remember some of this as our New Visioning Team helps us to explore what God is calling this church to do and be in the future.

It isn’t too hard to note as you read all of Chapter 22 that John offers a bit of a synopsis of the imagery he’s been offering throughout the entire vision, a sort of “best of the best.”  The few verses I have parsed out are no exception, and include two images we looked at the past two Sundays, the “tree of life” and the “gates of the city,” and from Revelation 1:8 one of the most famous images of the divine, the Alpha and the Omega.  Immortalized in many a stained glass window, wood carving, and, in the case of the front of this very church building, stone.

Alpha & Omega, front facade of Franklin Circle Christian Church, 1884, Cudell & Richardson, architects

Alpha & Omega, front facade of Franklin Circle Christian Church, 1884, Cudell & Richardson, architects

Describing God as the “Alpha and the Omega,” which are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, is to describe God as all-encompassing, complete, whole.  As if to make sure the reader or listener didn’t catch his drift, he emphasizes the imagery with “the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”  I find great comfort in this description of the divine, as it makes me feel enfolded in God’s love.  As the psalmist described it, “Where can I go from your spirit?  Or where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.” (Psalm 139:7-12)

But in addition to these more well known images, we also have this quirky, less well known representation of what one must do to be “holy” is found in the “robes” which one cleans.   This is a direct reference back to Revelation 7 where it reads, “Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, ‘Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?’  I said to him, ‘Sir, you are the one that knows.’ Then he said to me, ‘These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Let’s first talk a bit about the paradoxes and dilemmas theologians and even casual readers of this text ought to address.  Here, and in other well-known places in the Bible, the correlation of “white” with “sinless, pure, sacred, and holy” is made… and made quite often and shamelessly.  Besides the utterly illogical and paradoxical cleansing to a state of pure whiteness through the use of blood, one of the most difficult staining agents known on earth, there are the many theological and moral conundrums one comes up with in equating whiteness with purity.

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Of course, this association comes directly from the purity codes of the levitical laws that demanded the most unblemished, apparently healthy animal to be used as a sacrifice to God.   Any disfigurement and certainly any discoloration or color other than pure white would be considered unclean, at least in terms of being worthy of an offering to God.

Clearly we have moved on beyond such an understanding of what is clean and unclean, what is pure and impure.  As a prime example Jesus, “Lamb of God,” who was literally bruised and broken before he was, as some understand,  “offered” as a sacrifice to God showed that “pure” had nothing to do with whiteness, wholeness, nor bodily perfection (1 Peter 3:17-18).  But long before Jesus came, dee

p within the Hebrew tradition itself, we discover that holiness, devotion, and worthiness have more to do with keeping God’s commandments and observing the Sabbath than it does with being “pure” or even “white.”  Isaiah 56 celebrates the eunuchs who, literally and figuratively, felt they were “cut off” from the lineage of God.  Isaiah reminds them that if they keep the Sabbath they will be considered “better than sons or daughters.”  That’s quite a promise within such a family-focused tradition.  Foreigners, unequivocally considered outcasts and outsiders, who “love the name of the Lord,” will be allowed in the temple and in the family of faith.  Again, this is mind-blowing knowing the strict liturgical rules that seem to define much of the Hebrew tradition post-Deuteronomy.IMG_9794

Holiness and faithfulness must be separated from any physical or human characteristics in order to be faithful to God’s desire for God seeks a clean heart and a right spirit (Psalm 51) as well as deeper understandings of faithfulness, such as kindness, justice, and humility (Micah 6:6-8).  If you examine my ministry and my preaching you will note that I no longer use white/black imagery, and certainly never in terms of good or evil.  Such representations are loaded with too many preconceived notions and simply do not reflect the Gospel of Christ adequately.

[On a side note, as I was exploring this text, I came across some unexpected variations in texts.  I tracked down the variation to the King James Version of the Bible where verse 22:14 is translated “Blessed are those who do God’s commandments…”  The King James version, where this is found, was possibly an attempt to sidestep the imagery of the robe washing, a funky image at best, although quite clearly the original Greek text reads “wash their robes.”  If this is the reason for exchanging “do God’s commandments” with “wash their robes” is true, I find it hilarious.  If translators somehow thought the imagery of “robe washing” was just a bit too obscure for the average listener or reader, how is it they left completely untouched the dozens and dozens of literally bizarre and otherworldly images such as:  locusts with scorpion tales, the four horsemen of the apocalypse, seven branched lamp stands, the whore of Babylon, seas turning to blood, and the dragon with seven heads!!!  Can you handle “washing robes?”  Brrrr!!!!  Too outlandish for me!  And ultimately, it is more fitting for John, whose entire vision is abundant to overflowing with metaphor, allegory, and rich complex imagery to use the paradoxical “wash their robes” rather than the dictatorial “do God’s commandments.”]

IMG_3030Now, obviously I was drawn to this text for a very immediate and pastoral reason.  In a few minutes I, along with our candidate for baptism, will appear in white robes.  I can personally verify that I tried my best to wash these robes as clean as they could possibly come!  In doing so, I also became viscerally connected to the act of clothes washing and, on this day that celebrates mothers who have far too often been expected to do the majority of washing in households for most of human history and in almost every culture, tribe and nation, I thought some practical observations about washing clothes might be a fitting way to exegete this text.

+ Not All Spots Come Out

I am painfully aware that no matter which new and improved laundry detergent I might use, no matter what I use to try to “shout it out,” not every stain and spot comes out. (1)  Sometimes this makes an item of clothing useless.  But not very often in my household!  In fact, I have some favorite items of clothing that I absolutely *love* that are permanently stained that I still wear, and wear proudly.  Some even on Sunday mornings!  Have you noticed that odd little oil spill that is always on my favorite green knit shirt?  That’s not from breakfast… that’s from dinner… three years ago!

>Theologically what this might mean is that sometimes we live with our imperfections and they become an acceptable, even natural part of who we are and how we serve God in the world. (1 Corinthians 4:5-12)

IMG_9796+ It IS Possible To Use Too Much Bleach

I have also learned in clothes washing, mostly through trial-and-error training, that one can use too much bleach.  Early on in my adult life I owned many a pair of white underwear and white t-shirts that grew to have an unnerving yellow cast to them, a sure sign of using too much bleach too many times.  Also, there was that one time that Craig did the shopping and brought home stain remover that was *not* color-safe like I always do.  I have a whole load of clothes with weird ghost-like swirls and wiggles all over them, an eternal reminder of my creative artwork in using stain removing solutions.  Like my favorite clothes with clothes with stains, several of these still get worn in public.

>Theologically what this might mean is that sometimes even our attempts at becoming “holy” or “faithful” can get out of hand.  It begs the question, when does “righteousness” become “overzealousness?” (Matthew 23:1-12, 1 Corinthians 13)

+Some Clothes Don’t Need To Be Cleaned! (Quite So Often)

IMG_0036In know some people who wash clothes religiously… within an inch of their lives, as they say.  Certainly I am a clean person, but I also recognize that some items just don’t need to be washed that frequently.  My favorite t-shirts will get faded way too fast if I wash them every single time I wear them.  I am lucky to have a body that doesn’t make such constant cleaning of my garments necessary , and I acknowledge that isn’t the same for everybody.  One particularly fun instance of this hesitancy to launder an item of clothing revolves around a particular coffee shop in St. Paul, Minnesota: J&S Ben Factory.  They roast coffee right there in the coffee shop and I would love to hang out there when visiting my friends in Minneapolis/St. Paul.  On my first trip, I had enjoyed myself so much there I bought one of their t-shirts.  Upon returning home I put it in my drawer, only to discover when getting it out to wear for the first time that it was saturated with the aroma of roasting coffee!  I LOVED WEARING IT!  I wore it over and over again, reveling in the fragrant memories of my time spent relaxing and reflecting on life.

Allen enjoying the coffee roasting smells in his J&S t-shirt!

Allen enjoying the coffee roasting smells in his J&S t-shirt!

>Theologically what this might mean is that not everything that “stains” us is sin, and sometimes we are called to be immersed in things of this world in order to be better, richer, fuller, deeper, and more human beings! (1 Corinthians 9:19-23)

+The Eternal Life Of Some Clothes

Even the worst stained, torn, and too-small or too-big clothes can have multiple lives.  Now, those that are clean enough and nice enough usually come to our Disciples Closet clothing room.  That’s a fantastic way to give clothes a second or third life.  But if they really aren’t appropriate for others to wear – never fear – these clothes become “Work Clothes.”  And in our household, there can be no more sacred distinction than for an item of clothing to be made into “Work Clothes.”  T-shirt a size too small?  I can vacuum and dust with that on!  Huge grass stain that won’t come out?  Those paints will be used when painting the house.  Shirt that has a pocket torn off?  I’ll use that when I cut the grass.  And, of course, there is the ultimate destination for clothes that have gone well beyond their life span as clothes, especially underwear: the rag bag!  There’s nothing like dusting your fine living room furniture with odd scraps of your partner’s old BVD’s!!! (2)

>Theologically what this might mean is that even the most “broken,” “torn,” “stained,” and “used up” person is a person of value and worth, and deserves dignity, respect, and love.  Everyone has a place in the household of God! (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)

So, today we bring to summation one of the most vivid, well-known, controversial, and powerful books of the Bible, the book of the Revelation of John, with the most mundane image of cleaning clothes.  I think we will be good followers of Christ and disciples of the Gospel if we worry less about how bright our clothes are and more about living them well as we do what Christ calls us to do: love God with all that we are, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

Amen.

(1)To be reminded of our culture’s insistence on getting every spot out, watch this commercial: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWhNhbRIIAQ

SomethingFromNothingbyPhoebeGilman(2)There is a wonderful children’s book that illustrates this point in not one, but two delightful storylines, called “Something From Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman, found online at http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/887573.Something_From_Nothing

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