Sermon – May 12, 2019 – Fourth Week in Eastertide
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield

Julian of Norwich

Scripture: Revelation 7:9-17

Some of you have noticed when we pass the peace that my hands are always cold. It’s always been that way. I’m just one of those people who runs cold.

It was that way when I was a kid. Every morning before school while everyone was eating breakfast, I sat on the floor over the heater vent. I’d pull my t-shirt over my knees to create a tent and position myself over the vent so it would trap the heat inside. From there, I would drink my juice and read my book.

And usually that book was the Bible. And usually that Bible was open to the book of Revelation. A lot of you know that I was raised in a fundamentalist evangelical church, so I was taught to read the book literally—that Revelation was a prophesy of what was to come. First, there would be a rapture where believers would be taken up in a twinkling of an eye (that imagery actually comes from Corinthians—it took a lot of pulling together random verses throughout the New Testament to piece together this rapture). Then the world would suffer a great tribulation of war, famine, pestilence, and unimaginable terrors brought on by the judgment of God to cleanse the earth of the dragon. The dragon was the devil, by the way. Part of the tribulation was the coming of a horribly fantastic beast. Not the dragon—a different beast. John of Patmos, the author, describes it like this:

“And I saw a beast rising out of the sea, having ten horns and seven heads; and on its horns were ten diadems, and on its heads were blasphemous names. And the beast that I saw was like a leopard, its feet were like a bear’s, and its mouth was like a lion’s mouth. And the dragon gave it his power and his throne and great authority. One of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed.”

This beast would conquer the world, according to Revelation.

But then the Lamb of God would come, and the beast and those on earth who followed him would be (quote) “thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur.”

This is what I read as a kid as I huddled around the heater vent. As I was reading, I believed that somehow all these things were going to happen in reality, and if my name wasn’t written in the Lamb’s book of life, I would suffer in this tribulation and eventually be sent to eternal suffering with those who followed the beast. It was terrifying.

How many of you knew that all of this is actually in the Bible?

You could be forgiven if you didn’t know, because most of Revelation is left out of our Sunday lectionary, or our Church’s schedule of Bible readings. We could go to an Episcopal church for our entire lives and never hear about any of that on Sunday mornings.

What is scheduled from Revelation are bits and pieces like we hear today:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

It’s beautiful. Hopeful. And only part of the story.

I’m sorry. This probably wasn’t the Mother’s Day sermon you were expecting. But we’re only halfway through, so stick with me!

I think, for some of us, Mother’s Day can feel a lot like the nice, hopeful parts picked out of Revelation. It’s a day of flowers, lovely cards, fancy brunches, and long, sincere odes on Facebook and Instagram.

And for those of us who’ve been raised by loving and supportive moms, and for those mothers with solid relationships with their kids, it’s a great day. Sure, there have been some rough patches, some disagreements. My mom still regularly asks when she’s getting grandchildren, which isn’t my favorite thing, but for the most part, she’s been a great mom. She’s gentle and hilarious. She argues with people on facebook when they post homophobic things. I love that about her.

But some of us have, well, complicated relationships with our mothers. And some of you mothers have, well, complicated relationships with your children. Some of us have lost our mothers, and some mothers have lost their children. To death, to estrangement, to addiction, to mental illness. Some of us have painfully discovered that we’re not biologically able to be mothers.

For some of us, this day serves to bring our attention to the absence of what so many others seem to have that we do not.

For some of us, this day can be rough.

When I was a kid, I read Revelation more than any other book in the Bible. It terrified me, but it also fascinated me. The imagery is vivid, the movement is dramatic, the stakes are high. I felt like it held truth somehow, but not in the way I’d been taught.

And then I discovered fantasy and science fiction. First, the Wrinkle in Time series. Then Lord of the Rings. Then the Hunger Games. Then Game of Thrones. And now the Broken Earth Series. I love it. I read it faster than I can find it.

And I don’t think I figured out why I love it so much until I got to seminary, when my theology professor made this statement: “Myth is a truth that is greater than fact.” Myth is about metaphor, symbolism—the ways we access truth through story, through feeling, and not just what our brains can rationally, factually explain.

Through that lens, Revelation is—to me—one of the most powerful and hopeful books in the Bible.

The author, John, was likely a Jewish follower of Christ who lived in Roman-controlled Palestine. He fled his home after the first Jewish revolt against the Romans, likely fearing retaliation and persecution, and he ended up in exile on the Greek island of Patmos.

And what does he do there? He tries to make sense of the truths of his world, of his community’s oppression, of his hope in Jesus Christ. And he does so using imagery from his people’s history,  from his religious tradition, and from his imagination, Then he creates his story using a genre that was popular at the time: a genre called apocalypse.

He steals military images from the Roman Empire and repurposes them to conquer evil forces. The beast in Revelation is an amalgamation of the four creatures in the book of Daniel. The book is full of allusions to the Old Testament, Greek mythology, and Roman culture.

All symbols that the people of his time would have understood.

I’m glad that Revelation is part of the Biblical canon. When I was ordained a priest, I declared that I believe that the Bible contains all things necessary to salvation. Revelation offers us a different way of understanding the paschal mystery, which is at the heart of salvation. Revelation brings death and resurrection and hope to life in fantastic and epic ways that open us to experiencing truths beyond the confines of facts.

It’s the way we understand truth through art, through music, through poetry. We’re not looking at facts when we look at a Van Gogh piece. We’re not listening to facts when we’re listening to Miles Davis. We’re experiencing sometimes ineffable truths with our whole selves.

Myth, art, music, Revelation are truths that are greater than fact.

This past week, the Church celebrated the feast day of St. Julian of Norwich who, way back in the 14th century, wrote:

Jesus Christ therefore, who himself overcame evil with good, is our true Mother. We received our ‘Being’ from Him ­and this is where His Maternity starts. ­And with it comes the gentle Protection and Guard of Love which will never cease to surround us.

from Revelation of Divine Love

I don’t think that Julian was arguing that Jesus was a woman or that Jesus literally gave birth to us. I think she’s doing what John of Patmos did: expanding the truth of Jesus through an image that we can understand. In doing this, she not only expands our understanding of Jesus but also our understanding of motherhood.

This Mother’s Day, let’s definitely celebrate those who nurtured us—our mothers, our grandmothers, or whoever else tended to us, encouraged us, and loved us unconditionally. Let’s give cards and flowers, go to brunch, give hugs.

But let’s also make room for the rich and complicated and sometimes ineffable truths of motherhood. However you understand it, may this day bless you and hold you.