Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Week before last when I was at our annual diocesan clergy conference, I was talking with a colleague who has some similar interests to mine who told me that he had recently read a “thinkpiece” which claimed that the quality of a film or television adaptation of a novel was primarily dependent on that adaptation’s faithfulness to the source material. I told him that this seemed manifestly untrue, since different media necessarily require different approaches, and several examples immediately came to mind for me. Stanley Kubrick’s film version of the Stephen King horror novel The Shining is superior in almost every way to the later ABC miniseries based on the same, despite being far less faithful to the book. The film version of Laurence Sterne’s bizarre 18th Century novel Tristram Shandy was only successful, I think, insofar as it diverged from reliance on the putatively unfilmable book.

But the counter-example which I gave my colleague, because I suspected he’d be familiar with both the novel and the film, was Starship Troopers. I said that Robert Heinlein’s 1959 novel was a piece of dangerous, fascist garbage and that the 1997 movie only worked because it was a satire which held its source material in contempt. I was surprised and not a little disappointed when my friend started to look a bit irritated and proceeded to tell me that the novel was one of his favorites, that he had read it six times, and that he did not see how I could find it problematic. Goes to show that sometimes I should know my audience better, or at least I shouldn’t assume my interlocutor always sees things the way I do.

Anyway, his response made me wonder if I had a similar appreciation for a work of art or literature whose actual message would not sync up with what I actually believed or how I really felt. I’m sure there are many examples of this but the one which came to mind immediately was William Blake’s 1804 poem which is most famous for being sung to Hubert Parry’s hymntune “Jerusalem” with Edward Elgar’s rousing orchestration. I’ll avoid the temptation to sing it at you; it goes like this:

And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green:
And was the holy Lamb of God,
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance Divine,
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold:
Bring me my arrows of desire:
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.

The heartbreaking thing for me is that this is such a wonderful poem with such compelling sentiments, but the last two lines lose me when I think about it.

Blake begins with these rhetorical questions based on a legend that Joseph of Arimethea brought a young Jesus to England, and the obvious answer to them, the poet realizes” is “no, those feet did not in ancient time walk upon England’s mountains green nor did his countenance divine shine forth upon the clouded hills.” Blake fully realized that Jerusalem was not built on his lovely homeland then being despoiled by “the dark satanic mills” of encroaching industrialization. The second half of the poem is a rousing call to action, inspiring the reader to take up the arms of spiritual warfare against the forces of evil. So far so good. But then he gets to the point, and it’s this point (the whole point of the poem) that I, sadly cannot affirm: namely, that it is up to us to build Jerusalem, to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.

The message we get from scripture is precisely the opposite. It is God’s divine intervention that brings about the New Jerusaelem on the last day, as we heard in this morning’s lesson from St. John’s Apocalypse. Listen to those words again:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God,[not being built by us, but coming down out of heaven from God] … And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” [I, God, make it so, not human effort and ingenuity, but the divine will working out that which we cannot.]

We are no doubt called to make the world a better place, but if we think our own efforts can eliminate sadness or death, we are sadly mistaken. If we think it’s all on us to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land or in Western Ohio’s cornfields, we are setting ourselves in the place of God, and we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

This might at first sound discouraging, but it is, in the final analysis, very good news indeed. It means that eternal life in the presence of God is not some metaphor for peaceful human society built by human ingenuity, but is exactly what it sounds like: eternal life with God. It’s good news because it means that it’s not all on us to make it a reality. God makes all things new. He’s not just in some process of helping humanity perfect itself and build its own Kingdom; he will on the last day raise us from the dead and he will dwell with us in eternity. This takes a lot of the pressure off. It does not, of course, exempt us from living a Christian life and loving our neighbors in word and deed; but it does mean that our own eternal happiness is not ours to effect, but God’s to give as his greatest gift. We need only to be humble enough to recognize that it is God who gives us the victory and not we ourselves, and to offer Him the only thing we can, which is genuine gratitude.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.