For the past several years, on the Sunday of the Cleveland Marathon, Trinity Cathedral, our Episcopal cathedral downtown, has taken to the streets during its education hour between services to cheer on the runners. The youth group and Sunday school classes make signs to hold up: keep going, you’re nearly there, Jesus loves you. One year, maybe more than one, but I know of at least one year, the congregation was so caught up in the drama of the final mile of the marathon runners’ journey that they didn’t want to leave to go inside when it came time for the service, so instead they moved a table out onto Euclid Avenue and celebrated right there in the midst of the race.
I didn’t watch the news on Monday. The words of the online reports that I read conjured up images that I had no desire to see in colour in my living room. Of course, too many people were unable to avoid the sight, and much more.
On Tuesday, I received a phone message from my daughter letting me know, in case I saw it on the news and worried, that the bomb squad had been out to her school campus.
On Wednesday, parents of the children killed in Newtown led the way to the White House Rose Garden after the failure of the Senate to come together to promote greater gun safety.
On Thursday, we awoke to the news that the town of West, Texas, had exploded overnight, because of a factory fire, and many first responders were among the lost.
By Friday, the entire city of Boston was under a lockdown after a frightful night.
On Saturday, the very earth trembled in China and hundreds fell.
We are still looking for answers, for reasons, for the why of what happened in our nation, and around the world this week.
The image of green pastures and still waters has been cast somewhat under the shadow of death.
Still, the memory of that street Eucharist, the body and blood poured out in the midst of sweat and toil, exhaustion and elation at the approach of the finish line – that image abides with me, an oasis of worship and refreshment amid the toil and strife.
The elder said to me, “These are the ones who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. The Lamb 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.”
The book of Revelation was written at a difficult and dangerous moment in the history of the church. Persecutions were common; the Roman empire did not enjoy the challenge to its authority that the new Christians posed, claiming as they did that God, not the emperor, was the eternal ruler of the world, not to mention that Jesus was living, even though Rome had killed him, that God could undo any evil that the Caesar wrought, that fear was no match for love.
Even among the populace of many of the places that Rome ruled, emperor worship was really no problem. In places of polytheistic worship, where many gods were recognized, adding a shrine to the emperor was not seen as unusual, or out of order. The Christians were out of line not only with the authorities, but with many of their peers. Of course, the Jews had suffered the same problem, and their temple had been destroyed in AD70, a catastrophic blow to that community; now, the new Christians fell under the same suspicion and similar threats of persecution and destruction.
It was an ordeal, to be a faithful follower of Jesus in the late first century and beyond. But fear was no match for love.
The visionary John who wrote the Revelation saw clearly that those who participated in the death of Christ were raised with him also to new life, worshiping joyfully and freely before the throne of God, protected from all harm and suffering as they sang songs and hymns of praise to the Lamb.
But theirs was not only life after death. The communities that were faithful were also protected in life from despair, from falling out of faith. They were preserved by their love for God and for one another from descending into evil, from turning away from what was good; they loved fiercely, they prayed fervently, they lived fully, as ones who knew the promises of God, that goodness and mercy would follow them, and that they would live in the house of the Lord forever.
I am reminded of the people who ran into the chaos last Monday, instead of running away, who ran to those wounded and helped them. I am reminded of the runners who kept going past the finish line and ran to the hospitals to give blood – can you imagine donating blood after running 26.2 miles? As depleted as they were, they knew that they had everything left to give, they had life left to give.
I am reminded of the first responders who were knowingly in harm’s way in West, Texas, but who stood by their hoses to protect others, and the law enforcement personnel who searched street to street around Boston, looking to stop a young man before he could harm anyone else, again, knowing the risk to their own lives.
I don’t know whether or not they were Christians, but I do know that those people bore witness to a faith that love is stronger than fear, that life outlasts death, that their own lives did not begin and end with themselves but were extended through the lives of their neighbours and their communities.
I think of those whose first thought Friday was to pray for our enemies, for those who would harm us, because that is what Jesus commanded us to do.
Fear is no match for love, nor cowardice for courage, nor darkness for light. If you think about it, a little darkness entering a room can only dim the light; but the tiniest spark of light breaks open the darkness and shatters it.
It is a good thing that we have these particular readings today, the readings we so often hear at a funeral, because they are a reminder that even in the midst of life, we know death, and that even in the shadow of death, we know life; real and eternal life, as Jesus says. Life that is lived fully, with hope and in the knowledge that we live in the temple of God, God’s own creation, ever before the throne; life that is not ended by death, that is not overcome by evil.
With our spiritual ancestors, who celebrated in the shadow of Rome, and with people of faith around the world today, in downtown Cleveland, in Boston and beyond, we defy the forces of darkness, we who are washed in the blood of the Lamb, because we know the promises of our God, the Good Shepherd who knows us each by name, who leads us beside still waters, who comforts us in the valley of the shadow of death, who shelters us from harm and wipes every tear from our eyes.
We celebrate in the midst of the races run around us, the lives of toil and effort, exhilaration and the exhaustion; our worship is an oasis of still waters while the turbulent waves beat around us; and with joy and defiance, we will continue to sing in the house of the Lord, forever.
 M. Eugene Boring, Revelation: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 21