Sermon Text: Revelation 21.1
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’.
Given the tumult within Jamaican politics beginning in the mid-sixties and continuing for the next three decades, it is easy to forget the scholarly and pioneering contributions which Edward Seaga made to the Living Heritage of our national life. I will leave others to judge whether he succeeded to weave something of a religious and social synthesis that contributed to our common life. What cannot be ignored was the important role religion and culture played in his life and thought. Seaga remained an Anglican to his death but recognized the critical role which Revivalism and folk culture played in shaping the world view of the Jamaican people during and long after slavery. That, he believed, is the undisputed fact of our history and must be accounted for despite whatever resistance came from the social elite. Without this affirmation, the majority of Jamaicans are not likely to feel they belong to anything. And where you do not belong, you are not likely to feel like an equal partner, and therefore, not likely to make sacrifices for the collective good.
Today, a grateful nation joins with Carla, Anabella, Andrew, Christopher and Gabrielle in celebrating over five decades of public service by Edward George Seaga.
The book of Revelation, from which our second lesson was taken, is a tale of two cities. One city reflects the corrupting influences of a world which was no longer sustainable; the other city reflects God’s dream for a new world order which speaks of the deepest yearnings of humankind. In this alternate city, the New Jerusalem, the old afflictions of humanity all disappear; the things that make us sick, that grieve the hearts of parents and children are no more. “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the former things have passed away.” This City, of which John of Patmos dreamt, is of course, no actual city. One cannot imagine it ever existing. So why make a big deal about it? Because it is a world God himself promises – not for another world somewhere else – but for this world – A world where God’s compassion, mercy, justice, righteousness, truth and equity reign. God’s dream then, is for humanity to live together, free from all the evil and corrupting influences that undermine the prospects for a good life. Scripture wants us to understand that until we are able to dream God’s dream for a New World, we will continue propping up the old systems that are falling away. So the Book of Revelation, even with its sometime strange language, is as relevant today as it was to the first century Christian community under the rule of the Empire. The book speaks not so much about the end of the world as the falling apart of a world that has lost its relevance.
What transforming power will be great and saving enough to break the spell of old social arrangements that no longer serve the common good? What new thing will emerge that will break the curse of corruption, which for decades lay waste the valuable resources of our nation and people? What new thing will have the saving power to break the cycle of violence in this culture of death?
Advancing social change, in accordance with God’s dream for the world, may seem very elusive when we observe what is happening around us today. It may seem that God is not creating anything new, but if we believe this to be true, then we are not looking in the right places. In many ways, the new creation, of which our text speaks, is up to us to embody. It says we must have sufficient trust in God to find and experience the renewal we seek and need. Such a renewal can come, only at that moment when the old becomes visible as old and tragic and dying; when there is no way out, but to look beyond for the alternative, which God has already provided. We live in such a moment; such a moment is our situation. Yet, despite the fact that we have reached many tipping points in our history; despite our weariness about the irrelevance of the old social arrangements (which we speak about daily on our talk shows) we find it hard to make the personal commitment to change. Despite praying in the Lord’s Prayer; “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” we fail to realize our own complicity in blocking the establishment of that kind of world.
Consistently today, we hear the argument that human beings cannot change. ‘You can’t turn back the tide’, they say, so ‘Go with the flow’. This, sadly, is the narrative we have bought into and accepted. We accept as inevitable the breakdown of family life, and have long given up on promoting civility in our public space. And so; “what if there is too much violence in the media? If that is what people want, that is what they should be given”. I heard that kind of conversation days ago, where it was said society needs no gate keeper, everyone is his or her own final arbiter.
So we resign ourselves in accepting these things to be true because, regrettably, we have focused our attention on personalities and institutions that reinforce, rather than change human behaviour. Governments reflect what they believe the voters want. Political parties follow opinion polls. The market mirrors consumer choices, and our therapists tell us we are OK as we are. There is only one thing missing in this constellation; the idea that whatever we are, we can still change and become different. I believe it was this idea that ignited Seaga’s passion for Public Service. Our people, he thought, do not have to remain “no-bodies”; we can grow and develop because each one of us has an immortal longing to be “a somebody” – to be better than we are. The social order is not fixed; conditions can change. “God did not create a system that makes poverty exist alongside great wealth; humanity made it, and humanity can change it! The poor have proven that however powerful the forces are working against them, given the opportunity, they will always find the resources to act creatively in their own interest.
When a society comes to the collective verdict that it can no longer change, it has reached what Rousseau, the Swiss philosopher, calls “the age of incorrigibility”. Perhaps we have reached that point in our History. The point when we have to turn elsewhere, to the only institution that can help us see – not only what we are, but also – what we might become. That is to say we have to turn to religion, which of course is why we are here. We are here because ultimately, in the face of death, only faith matters. And this is why Christian Faith, despite its imperfect manifestations, has such power, and why it will never be eclipsed. It sets forth a vision of the world in which I have dignity because I can make a difference.
Making that difference,
Seaga believed, went beyond whatever could be achieved through economics and
politics. In his contribution to the1963-64 Budget Debate: he said something
that many today would find surprising. I quote; “There will come a time when
the planning of the country will not only be concerned with economic and social
development but will take into account spiritual development, so that we will
work on all three prongs of development in the improvement of the people”.
I am grateful to Patrick Bryan who cited these words in his book, Edward Seaga and the Challenges of Modern Jamaica, since they remind us that spirituality is not confined to the religious practitioner, but everyone who is willing to acknowledge his aliveness in God and in things Godly. Spirituality is vital for holding contending views together as it transcends diversity. And yet, it is the one thing mission when Government and sectoral leaders meet to design a social contract. Perhaps the challenge lies with an unwillingness to have a discourse about habits and values, about whom and what we want to be – as individuals, as a nation, and as a human community. We postpone having such conversations because it is easier to place the blame on others than to change the ways we think, act, and decide things; how we prioritize and value our collective interests, and how we live our lives. The young Seaga was right in identifying these as spiritual issues, not as activities that take place in a sanctuary, but virtues that inform the humanity we wish for. We ignore these to the detriment of our national flourishing.
The wonderful genius of Christianity is not its creed, institutions or rituals, but the vision of a new possibility for human life rooted in an understanding of God, articulated and lived out by a Nazarene carpenter. The Church, as well as, our political institutions has again and again fallen away from that task of completing God’s dream for a world where there are no outsiders. In his early years, the young Edward Seaga dreamt of that world, where the divisions between the “haves and the have nots” is replaced by a world where everyone would have equal access to opportunities that make for a fulfilled life. Until then, the deep distrust between those at the bottom and those ruling at the top will remain.
I say one final thing about this text from the Book of Revelation. Because it gives us a vision of a future guaranteed by God, and not limited by our own efforts, it invites us to embrace new possibilities. Life then, is experienced not simply as a task, but as a mission and that we are a part of that larger story created by God our ultimate Being. Edward Seaga was, perhaps, the most enigmatic of all our modern day leaders and our memories of him are equally complex, if not conflicting. And yet, the common thread that runs through all that has been said of him is that he was a man of vision with a passion for getting things done. This is the one thing around which we can unite, regardless of our political affiliation.
“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away’.
When you know that your future is guaranteed through the promise of the Resurrection, you begin to write your story with a different slant. You can live in the midst of evil, doubt and darkness without being defined by them. This is the message of the Christian Gospel. That evil, and oppression and sickness with all their dark and terrible manifestations, do not hold the last word in defining our ultimate value as human beings. And so, amidst all the life-denying forces that confront us, God announces “a new heaven and a new earth, as the alternative script for living. Glory belongs to God and not to the forces of death. Once you can genuinely acknowledge this; once you can affirm God’s all-encompassing love for humanity as we are doing in this service, then we can be assured that all will be well.
Rt. Rev. Robert Thompson
Suffragan Bishop of Kingston
June 23, 2019