Image from hellojenuine.
“But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” (Revelation 12:11)
The work of the People
One of the signs of a true artist is a willingness to work patiently and lovingly with even the most inferior materials. -David James Duncan
David James Duncan’s novel “The Brother’s K,” is about a family that lives in Camas. Papa is a paper mill worker who has gone semi-professional in Baseball and does fairly well until he has his thumb crushed in an accident at the mill. Consequently he falls into depression and begins to abuse substances. So in an attempt to regain ground and find life his healing he build a shed.
I read [page 105-106] & [117-188] from the book, excerpts of which can be read here.
What is striking about this is:
The materials he uses for his hand-built shed are inferior, just as his thumb. And the persistence with which he goes out night after night throwing that baseball around in such a wild manner. He didn’t do this with the hope that someday he would become pro again, but because he hoped his lost dignity would be found, that the muscle memory of throwing a ball would return to his once well-trained arm, and that he could create something out of those pitch-turned prayers that might bring life back to him.
I’d like to suggest to you that the building of this shed and the persistent practice of throwing those wild pitches was for Papa a kind of liturgy. He took what inferior materials he had and he turned it into beautiful art that was less about what he knew and more about what he worked to create.
Too often those of us in evangelical churches believe that “liturgy” or “ritual” is dead and meaningless, but Papa shows us something quite the opposite. There is nothing dead about Papa’s pitching, because what he creates is a new story for himself one pitch at a time.
In Revelation 12 we see not one, but two kinds of liturgy at work. Our passage falls right in the middle of three scenes of worship that take place between chapters 11-15. With a dramatic conflict symbolized by a dragon and a woman, Michael and angels, and then two beasts in chapter 13, John is us that the two religions in conflict both have their own respective liturgies.
Wes Howard-Brook writes:
This war took the form of ritual crucifixions, arena contests with lions, and other public spectacles of execution. John’s insight is that these are not merely “political” acts, but liturgical acts as well…[Even] “the courtrooms with the robed magistrates, the choreographed rising and sittings, collective responses and other ritual acts” are all a part of this “liturgical demeanor” (WHB 211).
In other words, the empire’s religion of temples, statutes, decrees, ordinances, and symbols, are for John a kind of liturgy that dulls the hearts and minds of its subjects.
Let’s define liturgy as a practice that is meant to form the worshipping community in a particular way.
Or as Quaker Ben Pink Dandelion, describes it in Liturgies of Quakerism – Liturgy is the work of the people. It is something that is done, acted upon or performed.
And therefore liturgy can be used for positive or negative formation. it dulls their hearts, stunts their imaginations, and makes them content with the way things are, or worse, leads them to believe that the way things are is divinely ordained but by the wrong god.
John’s Revelation is written to a second-generation church struggling with compromise and apathy, which has plateaued, lost steam and direction – I think it is a letter meant to spark their imaginations, reshape their liturgy, inspire hope, and, like Papa in BK, help them find life again before it is too late!
So John couching these conflicts of the great red dragon and the pregnant woman within the context of worship tells us something very important: Christian worship is a counter-political act.
If the liturgy of the empire is a “public spectacles of execution” then the liturgy of the lamb is the exact opposite, a “public spectacles of life, care-giving, and transformation.”
When I say worship is a political act, I don’t mean that worship is about politics in the way we often think about it today. Worship is not about having a platform to espouse certain ideals, whether Libertarian, Republican, Democrat, or Napoleon (Vote for Pedro). I know there are plenty of churches and preachers in the news on a daily basis who use their pulpit to push certain political agendas – this isn’t what I mean.
However, worship is not neutral either. What we do in worship does have an impact in how we live and interact with the world.
Worship is political in that the very act of a group of people gathering together to tell thousand-year-old stories about goodness and evil, peace and war, God and wickedness is a practice meant to shape the very core of our hearts, minds and and our actions.
Worship is political in that we as a group of people proclaim the lamb that was slain to be the victor and the one true God, over every other idol and power in society.
Worship is political because it unveils the illusions of the empire. It shows the exploitation and the spectacles of death that it creates for what they are. (Tells a certain story).
Worship is political in that it seeks to build a movement that brings about the kind of world that God intended, “heaven on earth,” or as we will see in a couple weeks the “new Jerusalem” coming down out of heaven at the end of Revelation.
In other words, John frames the conflict of the dragon and the woman with words of worship because he knows that the only way we can perceive the heart of the real struggle, and understand ourselves in relationship to it is through the liturgy of the lamb.
Something happens to us when we worship.
Whether we know or understand what that is, something happens when we worship.
Seeds are planted in the soil of our hearts, our imaginations are sharpened with new images, new stories, we are given new language for understanding the world when we worship.
Hearts are broken open toward the poor, the strangers, the enemies of the world when we worship.
When we worship, something happens; our love is deepened and our understanding and critique of the “religion of empire” is crystallized. We side with the woman of life who is on the run, and fortify ourselves against the red dragon of death.
This is John’s message:
Church, if you are to survive, if you are to see through the incessant demands of the empire, then you must worship, you must be formed by the liturgy of the lamb.
And here is the crux of our passage today — worship is not aimed at something that might happen someday, if we are good enough. Worship is the active participation in creating that different story right now.
In Chapter 11, worship breaks out from “loud voices” saying:
“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever.”” (Revelation 11:15)
And in 12 loud voices proclaim:
“Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.” (Revelation 12:10–11)
All of this is active. It is happening now. We conquer through the nonviolence of the lamb, and the witness or testimony of our lives in this world. Those are our tools, our weapons so to speak. And they find their origin in the Christian liturgy of the lamb that was slain.
When we worship something happens because when we worship we are creating something entirely new — we are, in fact, the woman, who symbolizes the church, giving birth to the baby Jesus in the world.
What Are We Creating?
So, Camas Friends, what are we creating with our lives? What are we creating when we worship together? How are we allowing our Quaker liturgies to be the shed where we practice over and over again in the hopes of forming our lives in a particular direction?
Because it’s not that Quakers don’t have a liturgy, it’s that we have a different kind of liturgy ours are based in: silence, discernment, listening, prayers, scripture reading, giving of what we have to sustain this community, consensus building, treating all people with dignity because they are children of God and singing the new song of the lamb?
- There is a world out there, in fact just down the street, of people living in destitute poverty.
*There is a world out there struck by fear, caught in cycles of violence, exploited by an economic system that benefits some while building on the backs of others.
- There is a world out there of people who are hurt and in need of healing, care-giving, or someone just to offer them a little bit of dignity.
- There are people who deeply long to hear the new song of the lamb sung to them, and to be asked to join the chorus.
- There are people who have not yet experienced the power and the freedom that comes when we gather in silence and follow Jesus as teacher and friend.
Our concern and care for the least of these, for those who want to come and be at this table, who are in need of a community who conquer by the lamb that was slain and the word of their testimony is our liturgy, it is our political act, it is our artistic creation – even if we feel that we are sometimes starting with inferior materials.
I want to close with a quote from Howard Thurman who once wrote (Deep is the Hunger, 20-21):
“The simplest definition of art is that it is the activity by which [people] realize their ideals…We are all artists in the sense that we are all engaged in some kind of activity by which we are realizing our ideals. What kind of ideas are you realizing? There is no neutrality here. Everybody is engaged in this activity. Is what you are realizing worthy of you, or are you engaged in the realization of ideals of which you are ashamed, and before which you stand condemned in your own sight? Long, long ago, it was said by a very wise and understanding friend, “By their fruits ye shall know them…”
When we come together. When we actively participate and receive the formation that comes from being shaped by the liturgy of the lamb. When we read these stories from scripture. When live out the word of our testimony by practicing hospitality, peacemaking, simple-living, truthfulness and the proclaiming of dignity of every human being – we realize the ideals that Revelation calls us too.
Something happens when we worship. Let us enter into silence.