Pergamum and Thyatira

Revelation 2:12-17 & 2: 18-29

Pergamum and Thyatira

There are two references to the Hebrew Scriptures in those letters. The second one is Jezebel who is somewhat well known for being the foreign wife of King Ahab who led him and therefore the rest of Israel into idolatry.

The other one is Balaam, whose story is less well known and a lot more complicated. Balak, king of Moab, tried to hire Balaam to curse Israel – either to encourage Moab or discourage Israel – but Balaam said he could only say the words God gave him so that didn’t seem like a good idea. Balak hired him anyways and Balaam gave in, and ended up blessing Israel four times on Balak’s dime. So that story ends with a triumph for Israel.

The interesting thing about that story is actually after the Balaam drops out of the story. Somehow the Israelites (the men) were seduced by the daughters of Moab – first sexually and then theologically – and the next thing you knew Israel had yoked itself to the god Baal of Peor, leaving behind the God who had led them out of Israel, manna in the wilderness, water from a rock, smiting Amalekites and the pillar of fire by day, cloud by night, and implying that Israel, supposedly so strong and blessed, was actually pretty weak and wretched.

Writing to the community of Pergamum, John blamed Balaam for all this even though he was out of the story by then.

So one thing to take from this is not blaming other people for your own bad decisions, but the other is just how easy it is to go down the path that isn’t the one we thought we were on. Whether it happens all at once or gradually, there comes a point when you may realize that this is not what you thought you believed.

More seductive, I think, than actually worshipping another god (which we would never do) is the shifting of priorities and values away from neighbour and God and towards ourselves, our self and our clan. After all, if we’re going to love our neighbour as our self, we need to be able to love our self.

Jesus did say we were all to have abundant life. And even if our Scriptures come from a time when community was much more significant than any individual, we know now that God made each us of unique and wonderful, loves us each one and sends us out into the world to shine bright like a diamond.

Welcome to the wonderful world of sneaky seduction, which leads us to forget that if you and I and all of us are wonderful, loved and brilliant, so are all of them – the ones like us, the ones not like us, the ones we like and the ones we don’t and the ones we don’t understand and the ones we don’t know.

Transcending difference has always been hard and there are things that are different that we don’t necessarily want to accept. But the fundamental humanity and right to safety, life, and love of all is not one of them.

I wore a Jersey for Humboldt on Thursday. For a visual display of support and compassion even though I have not gone to Humboldt to hold a hand, bring a casserole or conduct a funeral for emotionally and spiritually overburdened colleagues. I didn’t wear anything for the 40 or more people killed by chemical attacks the day after the bus crash. Or for the 23 children and 4 adults killed in a bus crash in India the day after that.

Why? Because a tragedy of this magnitude is so uncommon here that we have insulating layers of habit or distance or other-ness to take away our sense that that could my community, my child, my team, my hopes and dreams and love?

Is it because we cannot say “well that’s what it’s like there” when there is here?

That we cannot care deeply for everyone whose pain crosses our path is true. It would wear us out. But it is also a sneaky wedge that comes between us and our values of compassion for all, of inclusion, acceptance and diversity. We might not expect people in India to become part of our community, but that does not make them less worthy of our love, compassion and whatever support we can offer.

Of course there are the practical issues. How to give? What kind of support? What symbolic action can we take that will move people the world over? What meme can we create?

Those are true and valid. But they are not more significant than our call to love “even the least of these”. They are not more important that loving our neighbour like the Good Samaritan. They do not overrule love, faith, service and patient endurance.

John offers two reminders to call back those who hold to the teachings of Balaam and tolerate that woman Jezebel. First, that two edged sword which is the Word of God – dangerous, it cuts both ways. Kind of like if you point a finger at someone else there are always three pointing back at you. The sword of God’s Word is not just for others. It’s for us too. And then the eyes like flame – flame is purifying. It burns away what is bad and can nurture what is worth saving.

The Word of God reminds us to love all others – and that sometimes one bunch of others need love more right now – and those eyes of flame burn away all the reasons we might not be able to do that just right for everyone right now.

If I seem a little strident it’s because in addition to all the rest, I went to see Cabaret on Friday night. And I was reminded of how easy it is to say They are not like us and so they matter less. And how those little wedges of self-protection can create the cracks that develop into great yawning chasms of no longer being the faithful people we think we are.

We know that separating us from them has always been a problem for the people of our Scriptures. If it weren’t there wouldn’t be so many good stories about it – like Ruth and the Good Samaritan and the Woman at the Well – and there wouldn’t be some instructions on how to include the strangers among us. But those books are also full of separations – Christians from Jews, Israelites from Moabites, Samaria from Galilee – and some of those seem to be divinely endorsed.

If we pay attention though, we will probably recognize that God’s overall movement is always to include. Where it isn’t there is usually a reason why for now a group needs to be set apart. Or because somebody wanted to make sure that we didn’t have to include them and was pretty sure God would agree – no matter what the evidence suggested.

May that not be so for us.

And may our struggle for that, create a new identity for us and a new authority over the nations of our world.

May that be so for us.

Loving a Zealous Church

Revelation 2:1-7 & 8-11

Loving a Zealous Church

One of the things that the Whole Bible Bible Study has been good for is context. There is always way more to put into a sermon in terms of context than there is time for and trying to make the connections to real life without me telling you what your life is about is the other problem.

This week in particular I struggled to come up with a sermon that was either judgemental about us or too easily dismissed as applying primarily to other people. A feel good sermon in the worst possible sense. Because I think that these letters have something to say to us. To the church in every generation. To the saints in every age. To every single person trying to live faithfully in their own context.

So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to tell you a little about Ephesus and give you some time to think about how that might apply to your life – crazy as it seems. And then I’m going to ask you to find one other person and tell them one thing that occurred to you. Not the most profound necessarily and you don’t have to bare the darkest secrets of your soul. Just one thing. Then anyone who wants to can tell the us all – briefly – what they came up with.

Then we’ll do the same thing with Smyrna only this time we’re going to focus on the church – this church, The United Church, the mainline church, the church universal. And we’ll jump right from thinking to the whole group of us. Brief, though.

Then we’ll wonder what John’s advice to those two church might apply for us. And – I hope and trust – that I will be able to wind it up with some theological reflections. Now, we have a big agenda so let’s get going.

Ephesus and Smyrna were both sea ports. And they were both cities with a lot of temples, a lot of wealth and a lot of business. You’ve probably heard of Ephesus – definitely as the people who got the letter to the Ephesians and maybe because the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But it wasn’t the only temple there. There were a bunch and one of them was an Imperial Temple – the gods who had been Caesar. That temple featured a statue of one of those gods that was 25 feet tall. Only the head remains, but it was clearly meant to show that this was no ordinary man – bigger and better and definitely divine. Politically savvy worship was just one of those things you did because you belong to a certain profession or social group or whatever. It cemented relationships, set the right tone and showed people you knew how things were done.

In that culture “worship [was] a profoundly political act. Who or what we worship reflects our deepest values and our deepest beliefs.”

So what I want you to think about is not what you worship – because that’s too easy. We worship the living God. But if an anthropologist were observing your life, what would be taking up the most time and space? What would they figure was the most important thing to you based on how much time you spend on it?

For example – there was a guy who wrote in the paper about how he was trying to turn off his cellphone as soon as he got home from work instead of spending all evening on it – including scrolling through messages while sitting with his daughter at bedtime. I have noticed a huge trend among my colleagues where a whole lot of value is placed on how much they work for how long and how many funerals they do. And I know that from the outside looking in, food and emails would probably look really significant in my life. And British mystery shows.

It doesn’t matter why – or it may be true and unavoidable that you need to be on your blackberry because your boss demands it. This isn’t about judging the rhythm of your year or the healthiness of your work/life balance. We know we worship the living God and we’re doing the best that we can right now. It’s simply about noticing what is taking up a lot of space in our life. It’s entirely up to you whether that’s something you want to change – the guy with the cellphone problem tried and failed. So far – he hasn’t given up.

And now Smyrna. The letters and the whole Revelation to John were not written at a time when Christian persecution by the Romans was particularly fierce. Their biggest source of persecution was ill-usage from the Jews who had been their sisters and brothers in faith until recently. The Jews thought they were theologically dubious and probably didn’t appreciate being told they were behind the times. So what the anticipated testing and affliction were is unclear – but it’s fair enough to say that every faith community has troubles. If you’re too small, you’re too small and if you get big you have rifts and schisms.

But what is interesting in this letter, and very relevant to us, is that the church is poor and afflicted, even though they are rich. But those riches are not material. They don’t have wealthy members and investment accounts. Their wealth is spiritual.

So my question is – how are we rich? We don’t have huge membership numbers, our budget is shrinking, our volunteers are tired – but enthusiastic and creative. We do not all have white hair – which cannot be said of a lot of  more financially settled churches! What other wealth do we have?

Without these kinds of things – all the money, all the resources, all the able and willing volunteers in the world are useless. Hear what the spirit is saying to the church.

In the letter to the church at Ephesus, John warns about the Nicolaitans. Nobody knows what they are but one theory is that they represented a heresy in which Christians figured that they could engage in social sacrifices and other practices that were part of the imperial cult as good citizens. Because they knew it was meaningless. The zeal that the church at Ephesus had had at first wouldn’t have allowed for that and in spite of all the challenges they had faced since then, that was one fault they had never developed. If they could just take that line and keep pushing it back towards their early passion and enthusiasm and willingness to love extravagantly, they would get permission to eat from the tree of life – which was not just about eternal life, it was also about not toiling, not growing wearing and discovering wisdom.

The church at Smyrna, on the other hand, was rich even though it was poor and the reward that it was promised if it could hang in there was the crown of life. Not a royal crown for the poor church though – a victor’s crown, the crown of an athlete that had trained for years, developing strength, endurance and mental stamina.