The Threshing Floor of the World

“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 tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:13-14)

 

That reading was from Revelation 7:13-14.  I was raised on that fantastical image of white robes washed in the blood of the lamb, and many others images from the book of Revelation.  Revelation figured prominently in many sermons, church camps and Sunday School lessons.  And it was always interpreted literally, which was terrifying. We read the book of Revelation with one hand while holding the newspaper in the other. We saw in current world events signs of the imminent return of Jesus Christ to the earth, with all the attendant horrors of many-headed dragons and slaughter and final battles. 

 

That book held me hostage until I learned that it is not a newspaper. It is not a reporting of the facts. It is, instead, a practical message for suffering people, wrapped up in the apocalyptic language of music and poetry.  And it can only be understood on its own terms and in its own language.

 

This week I watched a video of the late Christopher Hitchens lambasting religion, and Christianity in particular.  He made some excellent points about the violence supposedly inherent in religion.  And he had me interested until he made a fatal rhetorical flaw.  With the broadest of brush strokes, Hitchens said that unless we religious people take the words of our holy books literally, then we are not true believers.  And with that, he fell into the trap of fundamentalism. Fundamentalists of all stripes, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew or atheist, insist that the holy books be read like newspapers, and thus strip them of their transformative power – a power expressed in poetry and nuance and song and drama.  And once thus stripped, these books loose their power to speak to us in transformative ways.

 

Soul language is purposefully imprecise because precision is not its objective.  Soul language is communication for that part of us which is beyond the mere intellectualization of words. Since the church’s beginning, and even farther back to our ancient Jewish roots, we have relied upon poetry and music and art to attempt to communicate those true things that are beyond a simple telling.  And we know from our own lives that art can speak to our suffering and longing unlike anything else.

 

One day John had a fantastical vision.  He wrote it down and sent it to the Christians of Asia Minor, located in modern day Turkey.  This nascent Christian community was suffering an intense persecution because of their refusal to worship the Roman Emperor.  And Christians in every age since have had to choose between Christ and Empire – we have to choose.

 

Some of those ancient Christians had been martyred for their faith in Jesus.  Others, fearing death, had defected.  It was completely within the realm of possibility that Rome might be able to blot out Christianity from the Empire. So John, caught up in the Spirit, began to paint and sing with words, and in these words was the promise of a time when all wrongs would be righted.

 

“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 tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:13-14)

 

The word tribulation is taken from the Latin “tribulum” which was actually the name of the threshing sledge used for beating the stems and husks of wheat.  With the tribulum, the farmer would grind down and extract the precious kernel of the wheat. This was John’s poetic way of naming the current suffering of the people, a dramatic way of saying that they were being ground down by life. 

 

Being ground down by life – being run down by a fanatic in a bicycle lane – being terrorized by politicians who use such tragedies to advance their own draconian agendas - we may not be living under the threat of Roman persecution, but we all know the threshing floor of this world.  We all know the Great Tribulation.  We get sick.  Those we love die.  We die.  Jobs disappear.  Lovers abandon.  Promises are broken.  We are ground down.

 

And yet here we are, gathered in this room, perhaps because some part of us clings to the belief that we are not alone in this Universe; that there is a Love that holds every molecule together.  And we too strain to hear the far-off song that promises that one day all wrongs are righted, and justice and peace are finally and fully realized.   We hear the music of Revelation.

 

In his book The Lamb's Supper: The Mass as Heaven on Earth, Scott Hahn argues that the whole book of Revelation is an art piece, a retelling of God’s great drama: creation, fall, judgment and redemption.  Our sisters and brothers in the Coptic Orthodox Church of Egypt take this concept of the book of Revelation as art very seriously.  Every Holy Week they gather in the shadows of Holy Saturday for a dramatic reading of the entire book that culminates just before the sun rises on Easter morning.  They gather to hear and experience the drama and music and poetry of these strange words, and they allow themselves to be carried away by the sheer beauty of it all – not an interpretation as much as a participation.

 

To be carried away, to participate in hope … why are we so afraid of that?  We allow ourselves to be moved to tears by Puccini or a great work of literature or the color and light of a master painter.  But these same emotions seem to embarrass us in church.  To our great detriment, the liberal church has become a club for the rational, the reasonable, the respectable.  Is it any wonder, then, that heaven seems lost to us?  We are no longer proficient in its language - the language of emotion; the language of art and beauty and transcendence that leads inevitably to hope. 

 

It’s been a hell of a week.  And all the cable news analysis and op-ed pieces in the Times and frantic, overwrought Facebook posts cannot give us what we actually need in this moment.  What we need is that far-off music.  What we need is the poetry of promise – the promise that the God of Justice never forgets us, the promise that history has purpose and meaning and a destination, a promise that the threshing floor is not our eternal home.

 

“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 tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”