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Robina Marie Winbush - closing sermon

23 February 2006

Revelation 22: 1 - 5

To the Moderator, Vice Moderators, Presidents, General Secretary and staff, delegates, representatives, observers, friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ and creation, I greet you this afternoon in the name of and with the awesome joy of Jesus—the One who is, now and forever, the Head of the Church.

Would you join me in prayer?

Hide your servant daughter behind the cross, that your glory might come forth, your people might be blessed, and your healing leaves might emerge; in the name of the one who is the Living Word, Jesus the Christ, we dare to pray and I dare to preach. Amen.


I've known rivers:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood

in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when the dawns were young.

I built my hut by the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans,

and I've seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I've known rivers.

Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

In this classic poem by Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers," Hughes writes to remind a people who had been enslaved that their history began long before 1619,when their ancestors who had been snatched from their homelands, survived the horrors of the Middle Passage and were brought in chains to the United States, the Caribbean, Europe, and Brazil. He writes to remind them that theirs is not a legacy of enslavement, but that their history began along the rivers of Africa, and that they were connected to a people and carried within their spiritual DNA the rich resources of a people and land from whom they had been separated.

As we prepare to leave Porto Alegre and the 9th Assembly of the World Council of Churches, concluding a week of phenomenal worship; edifying Bible studies; challenging plenaries; long committee meetings and business sessions; motivating offerings in the mutario; meeting, greeting and networking with sisters and brothers of a common faith and common family; we pause for just one more opportunity to see if there is one more "word from the Lord." Something that we can carry home with us—not another piece of paper, not a wristband or souvenir, not another book or media resource, but something we can carry deep within our spiritual reservoir that will allow the energy, the renewal, and the commitments not to be lost in the busyness and routines of our lives when we return home.

I was initially drawn to the Revelation text because of the baptismal and Eucharistic images and the eschatological themes of a new and transformed world. I thought it would be an appropriate ending to an assembly that had prayed and sought to understand the transforming power of God. What greater transformation than a vision of the New Jerusalem and the eschatological promises given to us through John's vision!

John, the writer of Revelation, has been exiled to an island called Patmos. He writes to a people living under persecution and domination by the Roman Empire, telling them that their current reality is not the definitive word of God. They are part of a larger, cosmic plan, and he writes to remind them that theirs is not the seduction of the empire, but ultimately the victory of the Divine and reign of Christ. Nester Miguez notes:

Revelation is written and originally read in a situation of powerlessness. John of Patmos and his readers live in a situation in which they are the subjects of an imperial power that admits no dissent …The small communities of Christians in Asia Minor do not constitute any real challenge to Roman power, but if they manifest any kind of symbolic opposition to the Emperor's claim to unchecked dominion they are in trouble. And that is the case in Revelation.1

Miguez notes that "when read under that condition Revelation gives a message that is quite different from its use by the powerful and mighty."2 Miguez suggest "the original intention of Revelation as a challenge to imperial power was co-opted when the Christian church became the Church of the Empire and the missionary enterprise became the partner (willing or not) of the expansion of western culture and power."3

So we approach the Revelation of Jesus to John on the island of Patmos, both as an eschatological promise of what is to come and as a socio-political-religious critique of the Roman Empire and the empty claims of empire over the eternal assurances of the God of creation and the resurrected Christ who reigns in victory. John writes of the collusion of systems of economic, military, cultural, and, yes, religious powers that wage war against the Divine, the faithful, and all of creation that have not bowed down to the images of the empire's temporal glory. He reminds the churches of Asia Minor and, yes, the church universal, that their primary—no, our only—allegiance must be to the Lamb who was slain, but now reigns upon the throne. We must resist the temptation to be co-opted by systems of domination and exploitation. In the midst of cosmic chaos and global imperial systems, it is a call—a reminder—that we are never to abandon our posts as faithful witnesses to the resurrected Christ—the living Lord. Ours is never to be an easy, comfortable relationship with empire, but a relationship that measures the work of empire by the self-sacrificing standards of the cross. Brian Blount suggest that "Revelation craves witnesses as engaged, resistant, transformative activism that is willing to sacrifice everything in an effort to make the world over into a reality that responds to and operates from Jesus' role as ruler and savior of all."4

Yes, to read Revelation is to understand with powerful images Paul's words to the church at Ephesus: "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places."5

Sue Davies also reminds us, "while John's apocalypse offers fertile ground for identifying the death dealing powers of our own day, he also affirms in the strongest terms God's sovereignty over human and earthly history."6 It is this affirmation that I invite you to explore with me this afternoon as we finish packing our spiritual bags to go home.

Yes, Revelation is filled with eschatological hope. However, what if we were to consider that Revelation is not simply a vision of what is to come, but a vision of what is already? I have been blessed to have traveling with me a dear sister who has not been involved in the intricacies of this assembly. Whenever I get frustrated or bothered by something that has happened, she is always good to remind me, "God is not finished. God is still moving." We don't have to wait for God to be sovereign—God is sovereign now! John shares with us a glimpse of what is already in the realms beyond our reality and the limitations of our current comprehension. It becomes an invitation to live as though the reign of God and the community of God's beloved kin-dom are already.

When I was a child, there was a simple song we used to sing in my home church, Bethany Presbyterian in Columbus, Ohio. I must admit that we didn't sing it often during formal Sunday worship, but it could be heard during revival or mid-week services or any time we would dare to allow ourselves the feel the freedom and power of the Holy Spirit. The words were very simple,

God is already here. Can't you feel [God's] presence? God's already here.

All you have to do is open up your heart, for God is already here.

It carried a simple, but profound message. The God we serve is not far off in some distant realm, but because of the grace of God in the incarnation event, God has chosen to make God's dwelling in the midst of human reality. It isn't that our worlds are perfected, but in the very messiness and problems of human reality, God chooses to dwell.

We have been praying throughout this 9th Assembly, "God, in your grace, transform the world." It is a prayer that carries, as most prayers do, a confession of faith. It is a confession that we believe that the world needs to be transformed. It is a confession that we believe that the world can be transformed. It is a confession that we believe it is the free gift of God's love we know as grace that will accomplish the transformation. It is a powerful prayer and a powerful confession.

God, through the prophet Isaiah, assures us that before we call, God will answer us, and while we are yet speaking, God hears us.7

Would you consider with me the possibility that God has been whispering to our spirits throughout this assembly, "I am transforming the world"?

We are meeting in the same location as the World Social Forum that has previously declared, "Another World is Possible." As people of faith—as those who claim the name of the anointed one, Jesus of Nazareth—we come to give spiritual testimony to that truth. Another world really is possible.

The final vision that John records is of a world in transformation. John writes of a river not contaminated with the excess waste of the empire or the waste of cosmic catastrophes, but of a life-giving river that nourishes the earth and all creation. It is a river that cannot be privatized or exploited for the benefit of a few. Unlike Ezekiel's vision, John's vision of the river is not restricted to the Temple as God's dwelling place, but it flows freely and directly from the throne of God. Could it be possible that "the river which makes glad the city of God," as described by the psalmist, is not limited or control by our ecclesiastical houses, but is the free-flowing power of the Spirit of God in our midst? Could it be possible that we who are washed in the baptismal waters of God's grace and nurtured with the very life force of the Lamb—the body and blood of the crucified and resurrected Christ—are invited to be participants in God's transforming work of creation?

Unlike the Genesis narrative, the tree of life is no longer inaccessible to humanity, but as it grows alongside the river, it draws from the free-flowing Spirit that comes from the presence of God in the midst of the city. Because the tree draws from the river of life, its fruit is plentiful and sufficient. Its leaves are filled with the medicinal qualities that heal and transform nations.

Tell me, have you seen any leaves lately that God is using to heal nations and transform a world?

Before we arrived in Porto Alegre, a small group of us stopped by Salvador, Bahia. We were privileged to visit with some powerful women related to the Institute for Theological Education in Bahia (ITEBA). They have formed a group called YAMI—symbolized by cactus growing fruit in the desert. Theirs is a commitment to give voice and agency to black, indigenous, and poor women of northeastern Brazil. They invited us to visit a community center the women are building on land that had been used as a "quilombo." Quilombos were highly organized communities of Africans that refused to be enslaved when brought to Brazil. This particular quilombo was named after a black woman named Zeferina, who was known for her strong resistance to oppression. You didn't mess with this sister! The Zeferina Quilombo community center is being built to give voice and agency to the women and children of the surrounding community so that they can take control of their own lives. I don't know about you, but to me that's a healing leaf!

  • In the nightmare of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, instead of waiting for the moral consciousness of northern and western pharmaceutical companies to be awakened, I am told that Brazil produces medicines that can be made available for use in countries that cannot afford them. That's a healing leaf!

  • When Cindy Sheehan, a mother whose son was killed in the war on Iraq mobilizes other mothers and families to openly challenge the Bush administration on their corrupt war policies, that's a healing leaf!

  • When a former U.S. military base in Cuba is transformed into a university, training over 7,000 medical doctors in Latin America, that's literally a healing leaf.

  • When Palestinian Christian youth tell us they cannot be silent in the face of occupation and oppression, that they must teach hope and commit themselves to be agents of hope in the midst of violence, that's a healing leaf!

  • When one young person in Europe believes that they can make a difference and organizes an international movement of youth and young adults who are committed to be change makers, that's a healing leaf!

  • When we experience the growth of Christianity in Africa and Asia and Latin America, and the paradigm shift from a Christianity defined by the rich and powerful, that's a healing leaf!

  • When the World Council of Churches can break the silence and the denial and begin to talk openly and honestly about issues of human sexuality and facilitate dialogue between and within our churches, that's a healing leaf!

  • When the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network can help us redefine our understanding of healing and wholeness, and while everyone may not have the same physical and mental abilities—that all are created in the image of God—that's a healing leaf!

I could go on, but I suspect everyone here could testify to the healing leaves that you have experienced and seen.

There is a question I need to ask you before you go.

God is transforming the world: Are you willing to be a leaf on the tree of life, whom God uses for the healing of the nations? Are you willing to resist bowing down to the temporal gods of exploitation and domination and allow your life and your churches to be used for the healing of the nations and transformation of the world?

Remember that the power and strength to be a leaf does not belong to you. It is a result of being attached to the tree of life whose roots are watered by the river of life that flows from the throne of God and the Lamb. When you grow weary and tired, rest assured that the river of life will nourish you. You will be reminded that you are connected to something far greater than your current reality, and the words of Langston will still speak to us: "I've known rivers—ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the river."

Rev. Robina Marie Winbush

February 23, 2006

Porto Alegre, Brazil

1 Nestor O Miquez, Plurality, Power and Mission: Intercontextual Theological Explorations on the Role of Religion in the New Millennium. ed by Philip Wickeri, with Janice K. Wickeri and Damayanthi M. A. Niles. (London: The Council for World Mission, 2000) p. 239.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Brian K. Blount, Can I Get a Witness: Reading Revelation through African American Culture. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), p. 38.

5 Ephesians 6:12 KJV

6 Susan E. Davies, The Accra Confession: A View From the Belly of the Beast. While here in Porto Alegre, Sue shared with me this paper, which was presented at a World Alliance of Reformed Churches consultation on Women and Globalization in August 2005, in Jamaica.

7 Isaiah 65:24