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.