You may remember the Cohen Brothers’ film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” which hit theaters in 2000. It’s set in 1930s Mississippi about Ulysses Everett McGill—played masterfully by George Clooney—and his two companions who escape from the chain gang on the search for buried treasure. Interestingly, the soundtrack did even better than the film itself, selling millions of copies along the way and winning a Best Album Grammy. It includes the old gospel tune, “I’ll Fly Away” sung by bluegrass musicians Allison Krause and Gillian Welch. In the film, the song covers a montage of the three escapees as they begin their journey, enjoying their new found freedom.
An Eastertide sermon based on Revelation 21.
“Some bright morning when this life is o’er, I’ll fly away. To that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away. I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away. When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.” The next verse describes a bird flying out of its prison, hence its use for the movie, but the meaning is clearly centered on leaving this life for the next. “I’ll fly away” is purported to be the most recorded gospel song ever, and I know that it’s a favorite for funerals.
Because that’s what we believe, right? That at the end of this life, our souls will be able to cast off the weight of this physical world in order to find ourselves free in that spiritual one. And that is the whole point of our salvation, we’re told. We follow Jesus so we can get into heaven, that place where our souls can live on forever with God. Clearly for Albert E. Brumley, who wrote the song in 1929, there was a desire to get out from under the strain of this life. He said in an interview after the song’s success that he came up with the idea while he was picking cotton as the son of a sharecropper in Oklahoma. The hard work and living conditions certainly influenced his desire to be free from the pain of this world. We can’t wait to get this world behind us and be on the way to that celestial shore where we can be with God forever.
Now listen to the word of God from the book of Revelation, “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, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them.’” (Rev 21:1-3)
Did you notice something different here? At the end of the age, there’ll be a new heaven and a new earth. And not only that, but a new Jerusalem—that holy city—will come down out of heaven and be established here on that new earth. “See, the home of God is among mortals,” a voice proclaims. Instead of our home being among God and the angels, St. John the Divine tells us it’s the other way round. God coming down to us. This physical world not being bad, but very good and simply needing to be redeemed. It’s clear in this scripture that God’s kingdom will be established here on a renewed earth.
You see, the problem is that we’ve taken the idea that the soul is good and the body is bad from none other than Greek philosopher Plato. In fact, the Early Church worked hard to counteract that belief, including its Christian form of gnosticism. Notice Jesus’ words from the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Or in teaching us to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This world and all living in it are dear to God, and God desires for the kingdom to be established here.
Yet we assume God treats things as we generally do. When things are no longer useful to us, we toss them out, and so we imagine God will do the same this world and those who don’t deserve God’s love. We get rid of electronics once a newer model comes out. We write off places of violence, or where drugs flourish as no longer beneficial or necessary for our world or our lives. And we do the same for people that we think don’t add much to our world or society, those on the margins. You can notice it in the impact of Covid-19: prisoners were three times more likely to die of the virus than the general population, and ethnic minorities experienced higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death compared to White people, particularly when accounting for age differences across racial and ethnic groups. Or the simple fact that the Flint, Michigan lead pipe water crisis which began more than 7 years ago isn’t fully resolved with some lead pipes still not replaced and the $640 million settlement agreement with families not yet dispersed—although the lawyers will get almost a third of that money.
Our track record on the environment, on our use of natural resources, with Native Americans, and non-documented people—all in the news recently—is poor at best. And of course the horrifying shooting in Buffalo yesterday, where an 18 year old white man drove more than three and a half hours to the Blackest neighborhood he could find, in order to kill people. The perpetrator describes in his writings his “perceptions of the dwindling size of the White population and claims of ethnic and cultural replacement of Whites.”
But that is not the way of Jesus. We heard this in both of our other readings as well. Peter is told in his vision not to call anything—or anyone—unclean, and so he goes to the house of Cornelius to bring the good news of Christ, even though Cornelius was a Gentile. (And notice how this ruffles quite a few feather there back at HQ, where it takes the work of the Spirit to show God’s intent that the gospel is for all people.) Jesus himself tells his disciples that in order to follow him they should embrace his way of love.
So what does it look like for us to participate in bringing the justice of heaven to the earth? To live as those who embody the love of Jesus and refusing to call anyone or anyplace on this world created by God as “unclean”? I think it begins by imagining the world we yearn for, the one shown to us by Jesus, and then seeking to further it now.
Rabbi Rami M. Shapiro puts it this way: “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.” So commit to join with others doing work that is close to your heart. Is it to end systemic racism? Then engage in that work with Jesus’ love. Are you called to stop gun violence? Put your energies there. Is God helping you dream of a place where poverty is stemmed and people can live modest and meaningful lives? Join with the Poor People’s Campaign or organizations like it. Do you imagine a world that is free of environmental destruction? Embrace a life that ends climate change.
We aren’t just here on this earth so that one day we can fly away from it and leave everything else behind. We have been called to follow the Risen Christ in order to join with him in establishing the kingdom of God here and now. We all know that this world could be so much more if we lived the call of Micah to act justly, and love mercy and walk humbly with our God. If we truly centered our lives on Jesus’ love and in refusing to call any child of God unclean. “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” If we want others to know we are followers of Jesus, we must love just as he commanded us.
I close with words from the Torah, the book of Deuteronomy, that Jesus would have heard in the synagogue throughout his life. “Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?’ No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.” Let us follow that call to establish the kingdom of God with all that we have. Alleluia! Christ is risen!