Revelation 7:9-17; Psalm 23
Note: I wrote a version of this sermon years ago. The bombing at the Boston Marathon coincided with these lectionary readings this week. The sermon seemed especially suited to speaking to a community of people in pain, longing for a vision of hope from God.
All night long, I dream I am washing clothes.
When I was a child, my sister and I would help my grandmother with the laundry. Between us, we would carry the creaking wicker basket laden down with wet clothes out across the vast lawn to a clothesline that was strung between two trees. Being the taller of the two, my sister would reach up to pull the clothesline toward us. She would put the clothes on the line while I dug into the cloth bag for the wooden clothespins. One by one we hoisted wet sheets, towels, dresses, undergarments onto the line, and by the time all of the laundry was securely attached to the line, the weight of it would almost drag the whole operation to the ground. Then we would run to get our grandmother, “Nannie Ease” to help us. My grandfather had jerry-rigged a contraption, a pole attached to the line, which when pushed into place by my grandmother, would elevate the clothesline high above the ground. There the laundry would become light and dry in the mix of wind and sun and sultry summer heat.
In my dream, my grandmother is standing under the clothesline, out on the lawn that sweeps down to the country road that runs past their house,“Oakcrest,” named after the tall oaks that line the crest of the hill. My grandmother was a woman of great faith, but after my grandfather’s death she seemed to run out of steam, and lost her energy and vitality. But in the dream she is younger, looking as she did when we used to call her the “gypsy grandmother.” Those were the days when she didn’t think twice about jumping in the car and going for an impulsive road trip, ending up at one of her children’s houses in a distant city. In my mind she always looks like she did in a photograph I have of her standing on someone’s front porch, gazing out toward the horizon, toward her next adventure. Still drop dead beautiful at seventy-five, stylish dress, slim ankles, chocolate brown hair and deep green eyes, a look of wistful longing on her face. Here she is again in her better years, long before the force of suffering sapped the life out of her. Nannie Ease stands on the lawn surrounded by baskets of laundry, next to an old-fashioned tin laundry tub with a wringer attached on top. She turns to the house and calls for my grandfather: “Gip! Can you come help me?” But it is not my grandfather who comes across the lawn to help. It is a man I have never laid eyes on before, but I know at once that it is John, the author of Revelation. The strange and holy language of dreams is at work: in my mind the dream transitions to active imagination and they blur together in a mosaic of the soul.
John, who wrote the book of Revelation, was writing love letters to a church in despair. He understood what it was to live an interrupted life. He knew the shape and feel of violence, tragedy, and exile. Left adrift on the island of Patmos, John thinks of the churches he left behind. These people dwell in his heart, and he longs to reach them with the power of his love, which he can only express through the power of language and imagination. The apocalyptic language he chooses may sound strange to our ears, but to those who heard the letter read aloud in their worship services, the images were understandable.
John writes to a church in trouble. At the end of the first century, the church was living in violent, tumultuous times. When the Roman Empire wasn’t engaging in wars, they were trying to stamp out anything that might look like internal rebellion. Famine had swept the land in the 90's. Natural disasters were common: the earth itself was unstable as earthquakes shook the foundations and Mt. Vesuvius erupted leaving Pompeii covered with ashes. The struggling Christian community was trying to reconcile their belief that God was in charge and Jesus was ruler over all with the fact that the world seemed to be falling apart around them. As if to add insult to injury, Christians were considered suspect in their communities. Rumors were told about these strange people who reportedly ate flesh and drank blood. Being made up primarily of people who were hard hit by poverty; this community of believers was an easy scapegoat in their society. From his solitary post on Patmos, John could see the handwriting on the wall, the coming persecution. He writes to give the struggling church comfort.
In my night vision, John walks toward my grandmother, and together they turn and reach into the piles of clothes and dip them into soapy water that turns red with blood. Others have joined to help John and my grandmother, their faces full of compassion. A man in a cowboy hat named Carlos, others who have risked their lives to bring comfort and safety to strangers, caring to the brokenhearted. They bend and dip, bend and dip, over and over again: pressing the wet garments through the hard jaws of the wringer, shaking out the wet clothes that are now impossibly clean and bright, attaching them to the clothesline with the wooden pins I fish out of the cloth bag. On and on this goes... Where did all this laundry come from?
John hears the cry of God’s people, of those crushed by violence and dislocation. He senses their despair, and intuits the suffering that lies ahead of them. He reaches into his heart with his religious imagination and draws out an image of heaven, a vision of hope. John points to a place where a God who has suffered and triumphed welcomes others who have passed through a terrible vale of suffering. Thousands surround the throne of God, wearing glowing robes of white, singing with abandon to God.
Now there are many who focus on the number, 144,000, and pull out their calculators and try to figure out who is in and who is out. But John takes the twelve tribes of Israel, and multiplies them by the twelve disciples to arrive at this number. The past times the present will equal a glorious and unlimited future. To us, the number seems small, even though the passage says that there are thousands more uncounted. But to a tiny group of Christians, who were clinging to survival, the number seems enormous, generous, and hopeful. It speaks of the abundance of God’s grace toward not only the church, but toward the whole world.
As John’s words are read aloud in these worshipping communities, the people of God begin to have hope that their suffering will not be the end of them. Even their deaths will not be the final word. The lamb, once slain, is now the living shepherd who loves and comforts in the midst of those who have suffered so terribly. It is not just the Christian church who has suffered, but also all of humanity who has known loss and despair, all who have been crushed by violence and the weight of their own sadness. Christ brings healing to the whole world, because he has suffered alongside all of humanity. Christ brings hope to all who suffer, because he is alive.
People come to us on my grandmother’s lawn, as if out of nowhere. Some are slipping into the fresh, clean robes that seem to drift down from a clothesline. An American soldier carries an Afghan child as he walks across the lawn, both killed by the same bomb in Afghanistan; they drop their blood-soaked shirts into the water. Many, many others, whose faces speak of deep sorrow, drop their garments into the washtub. Off come the tattered T Shirts of two teenaged boys, killed in a clash between Muslim and Christian gangs in Indonesia; off comes the favorite sweat suit the beloved wife wore daily in those long, last months of battling with cancer. Off come the burned clothes of those killed in the explosion of the fertilizer factory in West, Texas.
Off come the backpacks and sweatshirts of the children shot in Newtown, CT. Off comes the tribal garb of women murdered in the Rwandan genocide, off comes the threadbare gray-stripped uniform of the prison camp, the garments removed by bone thin hands.
Off comes the suit jacket the young businessman grabbed at the last minute as he ran out of his office in the Twin Towers, and the uniform that the MIT police officer, Sean Collier, was wearing when he was gunned down in the line of duty. The pile of clothes on the lawn grows with the attire of loss and tragedy and tribulation; garments of shame and sadness and suffering,
Again and again, my grandmother and John and the others plunge the clothes into the bloody water, and we watch astonished as they come out as robes shining clean, not only white, but also every color of the rainbow. And together, John and my grandmother put their practiced hands on the pole and hoist the line with its wet, clean robes up into the air where they become light with sun and wind and hope and promise.
And those who have suffered so greatly slip their arms into the clean bright garments from God’s laundry. They pull the robes over their heads and smooth them down like they are wearing their Sunday best, their faces astonished as they move towards the One who now stands in their midst. They reach their hands out, tentative at first, they reach their hands out to touch the robe of the shepherd, the shepherd who reaches toward them all.
We turn and watch as two young women move across the lawn. Krystle and Lu Lingzi each hold a hand of the little boy, Martin who walks between then. The shepherd opens his arms to welcome, to embrace them; he wipes the tears from their anguished faces. The shepherd gives them each a clean robe in exchange for their blood stained clothes. All those who have passed through a great tribulation gather around the Holy One, who welcomes them one by one.
Each sob of sadness turns into a cry of gladness, as the shepherd wipes the tears from each and every face. We watch in amazement, as their weeping becomes laughter; their faces shine with joy. A song that began as a keening moan now soars into a grand and glorious Alleluia! And on that summer day with its endlessly blue sky, out on the lawn that slopes toward forever, the tender mercy of God is falling all around us. The tender mercy of God is all around us. AMEN.
 All exegetical information in this sermon is from Revelation, in the Interpretation series of commentaries, by Eugene Boring.