23 October 2016, 09:33
Revelation 2:18-29 and Luke 18:15-17
© Stacey Steck
If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you heard me talk about the four characteristics ascribed to the early Church at Thyatira, that love, faith, service, and faithful endurance, as the four columns of Thyatira, those ways of being and doing which provide the bedrock of support for the church of Jesus Christ in this community. Yes, Jesus Christ is our foundation, so I suppose we can say that those four columns rest on Christ, and in turn the rest of the structure depends on those columns. Those columns support whatever we might try to do together as a church, whatever efforts we make to raise our children in the faith, whatever impact we might make in our community. It is essential that we are always seeking to strengthen our love, our faith, our service and our patient endurance. Those columns need to be inspected from time to time, checked for rot or pests or damage from the storms of life. If any one of them were to give out, the rest of the structure would be in a precarious position.
Of course, the second chapter of Revelation doesn’t call those characteristics columns. That’s my own invention, but I think it is a helpful way to think about our church. What Christ calls them in his words to the angel are “works,” which suggests the daily activities of the faithful in that place. And as I suggested a couple of weeks ago, perhaps it was because those same works were evident in the lives of the faithful in Millbridge in the late eighteenth century that this church received the name Thyatira. Evidence of that reasoning has yet to surface, but let this sermon be preserved to note in the history books that in the early twenty-first century, the church at Thyatira is still known for those same works of love, faith, service, and patient endurance.
The other day a couple dropped by the church looking for some information on their ancestors, and asked to see the museum. So I went over and opened it up and they looked around, and as they did so, I noticed that although a few artifacts from more recent times have been added, that most of the collection is stuff from and about a fairly long time ago. And it occurred to me that the impetus for the museum in the first place was curiosity and interest about the past, but that the past is always creeping up on us, and that there will be future generations who will be interested not only in what happened here in the eighteenth century, but also what happened way back when in the twenty-first century, and that perhaps we should give some thought not only to preserving some of the artifacts of our time, but also consider what this period would be remembered for. When Thyatira celebrates its 400th anniversary, what characteristics will this generation be remembered for? Our ancestors here started this place, and kept up the cemetery, but what will we have contributed to Millbridge and the world?
I’m provoked by this question because Jesus doesn’t make the praise of the works of Thyatira his last word. He doesn’t say, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into your rest.” No, he says, “I know that your last works are greater than the first,” in other words, “I’m not finished with you yet! You still have something to accomplish before I come back in glory. And what you WILL do is even greater than what you HAVE done.” It’s not just that they have improved since the church was founded, that they have merely grown in love, faith, service, and faithful endurance, but that those great works are just the starting point. The Greek word Jesus uses for “last” is a common word for things done most recently, but it is also a word used to describe the ultimate end of things way on into the future, and I think that it the way it is to be taken here. The church at Thyatira, in any age, should never be content to be praised for its good works but to always strive toward even greater ones.
So I was thinking about what might be Thyatira’s fifth column, what good work this generation of the faithful at Thyatira could be praised for if Jesus got up to do a two thousand year checkup, give or take a few years, if Jesus gave another message to the Angel of the Church of Thyatira. It seems reasonable to think that adding another good work or two might be something to shoot for. And in light of what I know about your most recent works, in places like Zambia and Brazil and Jamaica, and in the way I have experienced you interacting with me and with one another and with your community, I’d like to think that the additional characteristic, our latest work, our fifth column, should be generosity, your spirit of giving and sharing with each other and with those in great need. Wouldn’t it be incredible if that were what Jesus chose to commend if he sent us another message? I can’t think of a better complement to the other four that would help ensure that this church does in fact make it to that four hundredth anniversary.
But is that what church is all about? Making it to a milestone anniversary? Well, I know that none of you believe that any more than I do. There’s more to it than that. You can describe church in a whole lot of ways but in the end they all boil down to being part of God’s desire for creation to become all that God created it to be, that wonderful, abundant, growing, thriving place that is described in Genesis, but that was nowhere to be found in the Roman Empire of Jesus’ time. And when we see the description of Thyatira’s works in the second chapter of Revelation, they are all things that ran contrary to the way the Empire conducted its business.
So what Jesus is saying to the church at Thyatira is, “I know your subversive ways of love faith, service, and patient endurance. Keep on doing them there in Thyatira, while I’m making my plans to come back and pull it all together.” Yes, that little church in the middle of nowhere was a living, breathing, revolutionary front working in the middle of hostile territory to help bring God’s purposes for the world into being. It was bearing witness to a way of being human that gave glory to the one true God of eternity rather than the one human leader who by whatever means necessary had ascended to the throne.
Despite our own country’s founding on the basis of a Revolutionary War against the English, revolution is a word people feel a little uncomfortable with today. We’ve had our 240 years of stability and we’d like to keep it that way, thank you very much. We want to avoid the turmoil other nations seem to face on a regular basis as they twist themselves up in revolution. So it might seem hard to view ourselves as Christians in revolutionary terms. But we don’t need to look any further than Jesus sitting down with some children to see how revolutionary the founder of our faith really was. In Jesus’ time, people didn't think about children and childhood the way we do now. Childhood was largely a necessary waiting period for people to become adults who could contribute to a family’s or a nation’s survival. Mostly, kids were kind of an expensive nuisance one had to abide until they could one day provide for their parent’s wellbeing in their old age. It was a harsh life for children. They were second class citizens, only a small step above slaves and other kinds of property.
And that’s what makes Jesus’ invitation to children such a remarkable and yes, even revolutionary, act. Jesus was turning his society’s notions upside down and showing them what they could be, instead of what their culture had shaped them to be. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Sounds almost as tough as a camel passing through the eye of a needle. But with God, and a fifth column, all things are possible.
Yes, back to that fifth column of generosity. Maybe you’ve heard that term, “fifth column” before. It’s a political term actually, one born out of a revolutionary struggle. It comes from the Spanish Civil War that took place between 1936 and 1939, and a general on the Nationalist side, the side seeking to overthrow the existing government, coined the phrase when he suggested that in addition to his four military columns, or units, that were advancing on Madrid, that there was a “fifth column” of his supporters who were already in Madrid who would rise up at the right time and join the battle from behind enemy lines. The phrase caught on and today basically describes any group that is working subversively behind the scenes against the status quo.
Now, I’m not a big fan of using military language to talk about ushering in the reign of God, but there’s something about that metaphor that rings true. I think it is fair to say that there is no society that is as just or righteous as God would like it to be, that takes care of its widows and orphans and foreigners the way the Bible tells it to, that makes sure that the least and the last and the lost are cared for as well as the movie stars and the sports heroes. Our nations are at war, our planet is polluted, and our children are sold as slaves right under our noses. I’d like to think, however, that God’s got a plan for turning all of that upside down, to stage a revolution so to speak, and that right now there are four columns advancing on the headquarters of whatever and whoever holds the power over this earthly empire. And while those four columns of love, faith, service, and patient endurance are marching forward, there’s also a fifth column at work from within, a fifth column called generosity that slowly but surely undermines the greed and materialism that keep that empire rolling, a fifth column that demonstrates that there is another way to live, a way that doesn’t depend on accumulation, and keeping up with Joneses, but a way which helps us all become the little children Jesus said we needed to be to enter into the kingdom of Heaven. If we can’t protect our children, we’ll never become one of them.
This morning, we’re celebrating the Children’s Sabbath, a day which shouldn’t even have to be celebrated, because there shouldn’t be any children who need a break from poverty, or malnutrition, or illiteracy, or human trafficking. But as long as there are, as long as there is even one child who is in slavery of any kind, our fifth column needs to be at work, undermining any kind of thinking, or any activity that that keeps God’s kingdom from becoming a reality for every single child. It will be our generosity, of spirit and of wallet, that will make that possible, and that’s what this church, and indeed any church needs to be known for.
You have a chance to express part of that revolutionary generosity each week as you come to worship. That’s why we have these offering plates and why we take up an offering, because we need constant reminders that we are a kind of fifth column. And we need to remember what Jesus said to the church of Thyatira, that their last works would be greater than their first. Let me suggest that although any kind of generosity is revolutionary, there are some kinds which are truly, divinely subversive. These are the ones that come from the wisdom of the Bible, and maybe the most outrageous and powerful is the idea of the tithe, or giving ten percent of our income toward the revolution of grace. On one hand, ten percent seems like a lot. We like our inflation at less than three percent, our unemployment rate at less than five percent, and our sales tax, heaven forbid, at no more than seven percent. So ten percent may seem like a lot. But on the other hand, it sounds like a discount. A discount? Yes, and a pretty big one when you consider that what God really asks of us is our whole life, all of our possessions, all of our love, faith, service and patient endurance. And yet, God only asks for ten percent, which even by my mathematically challenged brain turns out to be a ninety percent discount.
You may not yet be ready, willing, or able to tithe to Christ’s ministry through Thyatira. And that’s OK. It really is. Jesus did say, “Your last works will be greater than your first.” But let me encourage you to start somewhere, at some disciplined, thoughtful point by which in the future you will be able to measure just how subversive your generosity has become. Proportional giving is the best way I know to strengthen the fifth column for which Thyatira should become known, and by proportional I mean a specific percentage of your income. No matter what you’re already giving, you’re at some percentage. But do you know what it is and how close it is to being revolutionary? Once you figure that out, pray about it, and if you’re at one percent, think about going up to two percent, and if you’re already at ten percent, think about going even higher. You see, the sky’s the limit with God’s generosity. And it can be with ours too. May God help each of us to answer the question, “What percentage of my income is God calling me to give so that every child, myself included, might truly experience the kingdom of God.” Amen.
16 October 2016, 10:07
Acts 16:11-15 and Luke 18:18-30
© Stacey Steck
The outrageous image of a camel passing through the eye of a needle is one of Jesus’ best. It’s a picture of impossibility far better than the ones about mountains being thrown into the sea, or tiny mustard seeds becoming huge trees. And it is comical as well, showing Jesus’ sense of humor. But it is also one of the most daunting of his images as well, because, frankly, we are that camel and the eye of that needle looks painfully small, no matter what size we are. The words Jesus speaks to the rich young ruler are some of the most challenging words in all the Bible, especially for we who have a significant share of the world’s wealth, at least by comparison, and whether or not we think our bank accounts support that claim. Can you imagine God coming to you some night in a dream saying, “Listen, you’re almost there. All you have to do is sell everything you’ve got, empty out that retirement fund, give it all to charity, and then go, follow Jesus.” Oh, that’s all, eh? It’s a wonder we don’t all go away sad, and leave Jesus in our rearview mirrors. We are rich, and if we haven’t yet asked the same question his disciples raised when they asked, “Then who can be saved?”, we probably should!
But fear not, there is good news coming out of Thyatira. Yes, there is another story in Scripture about a rich person who was saved, who did enter into the kingdom of God, and of course, this woman named Lydia came from a noble place called Thyatira – maybe not the church of Thyatira, but since she comes across as one of the biblical heroes, we’ll claim her as our own. For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that one day Lydia returned home from Philippi and became a pillar of the church at Thyatira. It would be nice if the story gave us more information about her, but the details of Lydia’s life are as mysterious as the reason this church was given the name Thyatira. There are, however, a few things we can deduce about her that are in line with the four characteristics for which the church in her hometown was later praised. She is described as a worshipper of God, which probably meant that she was not Jewish but had decided that the God of Israel was worth following. So she had faith. She seems to have been a patiently enduring woman of faith because she listened eagerly to Paul talk, and we know how longwinded he could be. She is willing to serve, as she convinced them all to come and stay at her home. And it is not a stretch to think that she did all of this with a spirit of love. So, Lydia is consistent with the shape of the church which would one day form in her hometown, and maybe she even had something to do with that.
We know Lydia of Thyatira was a woman of some means because she was a “dealer of purple,” most likely purple cloth, and purple was an industry associated with wealth. In those days, purple dye was incredibly hard to come by because its source was a very small type of shellfish, and it took something like 12,000 of these mollusks to produce the gram and a half of dye needed for a couple of yards of fabric for such things as the Emperor’s toga. To give you an idea of the value we’re talking about, “one gram of purple dye was worth more than ten grams of gold and a pound of wool dyed purple could be sold for 1,000 denarii, a sum that would take a laborer three years to earn.” Historically, Thyatira was known as the center of the dyeing industry because the characteristics of its water supply helped the dyes stick better to whatever material was being dyed, and it was best known for its red dyes that come from a local root, the kind of red you see in the famous Turkish carpets. The purple dyes come from the coastal region so it is most likely that workers in Thyatira used their local water with the purple dye from the coast to make the things that Lydia sold. In any case, Lydia was right in the middle of this lucrative industry and knew what it meant to be rich and what it might mean to give it away. She was, after all, a woman, probably an unmarried woman given the independence the passage seems to suggest she had, because there’s no husband mentioned, and she could ill afford to put herself in a precarious situation that wouldn’t pay off. But she was willing to take the risk, unlike the rich young ruler. Rather than go away sad upon hearing the Gospel, she responds by opening her home to Paul and his companions. She begins the process of giving herself away. She is willing to see what generosity is all about rather than close herself off to the possibility from the beginning. She and the rich young ruler heard essentially the same message, maybe not put as pointedly in economic terms to Lydia, but with the same punchline: that loving God and loving neighbor costs something. And she was willing to ante up.
So here we have two people who are quite similar in terms of their situation before encountering the Gospel, but who are as different as they can be upon hearing it. So getting that camel through the eye of a needle isn’t impossible after all, at least not for Lydia. But is it possible for us? Can God open our hearts the way Lydia’s heart was opened when she heard Paul’s words and was baptized and opened her home to the disciples in Philippi? Our question becomes the same as the rich young ruler: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And clearly, the answer is simply that you have to be from Thyatira. And any Thyatira will do, right?
Well, the truth is that life, eternal and otherwise, is found practicing those four columns of Thyatira we looked at last Sunday, the love, faith, service, and patient endurance with which we approach God, which just so happen to be the same characteristics with which God approaches us. The story of the rich young ruler who went away sad is told in three of the Gospels, each with a little different twist, and Mark’s account gives us a glimpse of Jesus’ motivation. In Mark, there’s this wonderful little line that says, “Jesus, looking at him, loved him,” and then said what needed to be said. Jesus may have seen the man’s clothing and deduced that the only way he could have accumulated so much wealth as to be standing there dressed in so much finery was because he was one of those people the prophet Amos railed against who “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals, [people] who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way,” one of those people who has missed what should be obvious, that the finer points of the law and faith include issues related to our wealth, and that we can’t compartmentalize faith and finances, that they are two sides of the same coin.
This motivation of Jesus is the key part of the story because to leave the man deluded into believing that his wealth was not a part of the spiritual equation would not have been a very loving thing to do. Love, to Jesus’ way of thinking, means speaking the truth and saying what is uncomfortable, risking rejection, jeopardizing relationships, calling people to justice. It is for this same reason that the church risks alienating each of you about this time of year when stewardship season rolls around and you are asked to consider your giving to God’s purposes through our church. It is, I believe Jesus to be saying, dereliction of duty to avoid taking about issues of money, wealth, and giving, precisely because they are such profoundly spiritual and Biblical issues. We don’t need to look any further than the conclusion to today’s story to see that money and wealth should be a part of any discussion of faith and eternal life. For that rich young ruler, the opportunity to inherit what does not perish was lost for the need to cling to what rusts and is eaten by moths.
The disciples who hear what Jesus tells the man, and hear the man’s response, start feeling a little nervous. You see, it’s the rich who usually get their way, and here is Jesus telling a rich person that it’s not as easy as it looks. And so what are they to think about their own situations? The poor never get very lucky.
But with his usual grace, Jesus tells them not to worry about it, that God’s got it covered. You see, what is impossible for mortals is possible for God. God can help us to respond, and it’s in our response that we experience the miracle. With God’s help we can love and serve and give far more abundantly than we could ever imagine, even like Lydia of Thyatira. So, how do we become more like our namesake sister in the faith? Let me suggest that we adopt the Thyatira way, that way of thinking that made a difference and opened Lydia’s heart and home. What is the Thyatira way you might ask?
The Thyatira way is the difference between thinking about stewardship as paying for some product you get at church, and giving from the grateful part of your heart even when others seem to get “more for their money.”
The Thyatira way is the difference between giving the least you can get away with giving, and somehow giving more than you dreamed possible of being able to give.
The Thyatira way is the difference between thinking about what is my share of how much the church needs and thinking about how much God is calling me
to give to grow in my faith.
The Thyatira way is the difference between giving haphazardly and from what is left after all the other bills are paid and giving with discipline and from the first fruits of your income.
The Thyatira way is the difference between giving something and giving a specific percentage.
The Thyatira way is the difference between giving at the same level as last year, and taking a step up, as Bill described earlier in the service.
As you think about the camels and needles in your life in preparation for Consecration Sunday, take this final thought home with you. When Peter asks about himself, and his place in the kingdom, since he has seemingly given it all, Jesus responds by saying that not only does Peter have a place, but that God gives back far more than we can ever give up front. Whoever leaves house or family, he says, will receive them back a hundredfold, both now and forevermore. But do not mistake this for some kind of prosperity gospel. That hundredfold return is certainly of the greatest value, but it is not the same stuff which was given in the first place. When Jesus describes a hundredfold return of houses, he does not mean Peter will become a wealthy, rent collecting property owner, but that he will experience a profound and miraculous sense of hospitality, both among fellow Christians and in heaven. When Jesus describes a hundredfold return on family members, he does not mean Peter’s family will grow in size and influence but that he will experience an amazing and miraculous community of fellow believers, both on earth and in heaven. In a way, what Jesus is saying is this: “Peter, one day you will meet a woman called Lydia of Thyatira and she will show you that with God, all things are possible.” In our giving, may we truly be Lydia’s descendants and show the world that with God all things are possible – in our day and age, and in our Thyatira, as well as hers. Amen.
09 October 2016, 12:28
© Stacey Steck
A couple of weeks ago when I was inviting my friend Pat to join us for Invite-A-Friend Sunday, I had to admit that Thyatira is a pretty funny sounding word. It’s not one you hear used much in public, not even in the church, because it only appears in two places in the Bible, and one of those doesn’t get read very often. It gets used so infrequently that there is not even a consensus on how to pronounce the word. Back in May, I was at a conference and attended a workshop by a supposed expert on the book of Revelation who proceeded to pronounce the name of our beloved church as “Thyatiria,” as if there were an extra letter “i” in there somewhere. But I must also must admit that when I was being interviewed by the search committee, I decided to ask how it was pronounced before giving it a try on my own. As the old saying goes, it is better to be silent and thought a fool than to mispronounce Thyatira and remove all doubt. For what it’s worth, however, in the original Greek, it’s pronounced thu-a-tay-ra, but the way we say it is clearly the best way to go!
Once I arrived, I began to inquire about why the name Thyatira was chosen, as uncommon as it, but no one has come forth with a satisfactory historical answer about why we chose this obscure name from Scripture when so many other good ones were probably still available out here on the frontier. You may have noticed that there are not many other churches named Thyatira. In fact, in the United States, there is only one other Thyatira Presbyterian Church, found in Jackson, Georgia, and according to their history, they took their name because we took them under our wing and sponsored them back in 1828. I have found mention of a couple of old Thyatira Baptist Churches, but they seem to have closed a while back. Maybe there aren’t many churches called Thyatira because even if you were determined to choose a name from the book of Revelation, there are two other options in the first three chapters that got better reviews from Jesus. There are a lot more places and churches called Smyrna and Philadelphia out there then there are Thyatira. Perhaps our ancestors in the faith here in Millbridge simply became enamored of the name Thyatira spoken in a southern drawl. Perhaps in those days they really saw in the people who had gathered here the same things Jesus saw in the people who had gathered at Thyatira in Asia Minor, the same good works of love, faith, service and patient endurance we still see here today. Perhaps the church back in the eighteenth century exhibited those four great characteristics but was being threatened by someone who was trying to lead it astray, a Jezebel of its own time. We may never know. But what we do know is that we still practice those four virtues and that in every age, we will face challenges to remain the kind of counter cultural witness John reminded the churches in Asia they needed to be.
Thyatira is the fourth of the seven churches addressed by Jesus through the vision of Saint John. In each of these visions, Jesus speaks to the angel of each church and offers words of encouragement and challenge. It was a hard time to be the church. When Revelation was written, the church had no status, no privilege, no constitution protecting it from the state. Christianity was still a new religion among many in the Roman empire, one that had come out of a backwater province, one that was based on a dubious claim that its leader had come back to life, one that attracted for the most part the dregs of society. Most scholars are agreed that although from time to time the Empire actively scapegoated and punished the early church, these seven churches in Asia were not facing that type of persecution, but were in fact up against something even more challenging, something we see in the words spoken to the angel of Thyatira. It gets its share of praise for its good works of love, faith, service and patient endurance, but it also gets challenged to confront the influence of a certain Jezebel, who has been leading them astray by making accommodations to the culture around them, confusing worship of the God of Israel with worship of the emperor. Specifically, this is spelled out as being willing to eat meat sacrificed for idolatrous purposes, and engaging in other kinds of socially acceptable activities that were ethically questionable for Christians. These get labeled as adultery or fornication, but most scholars agree that these words are most likely euphemisms, rather than the crimes themselves per se.
Who was this Jezebel? We are pretty sure that Jezebel wasn’t the real name of this false prophet, but a code word that everyone would have understood if they remembered the story of her namesake in the Old Testament which gives us some clue as to what kind of person she was in the church at Thyatira. Jezebel was the wife of Ahab, perhaps the most corrupt of all the kings of Israel. Now what is important about the first Jezebel is that she was not an Israelite, but a Sidonian, a foreigner, and even though Ahab was no saint in his own right, the way the story gets told, it is pretty clear that the real corrupter of Israel is in fact Jezebel, who went on to kill the prophets, pursue the prophet Elijah, and plot the death of the innocent Naboth so she and Ahab could confiscate the poor man’s vineyard. I will spare you the gory details this morning but if you want to read about her rather gruesome death, you can find it in 2 Kings 9.
All of that gives us a clue about what was happening at the church at Thyatira, and that just as the first Jezebel helped bring ruin on the Israelites, John warns that this Jezebel will bring the church at Thyatira to a bad end if they are not careful. The Gospel that Jezebel was preaching was one that led to a confusion between the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of Caesar, a Gospel that watered down the distinctiveness of this new movement that included everyone, a Gospel that made it easy to accept what everyone else around it was doing even if what they were doing was contrary to the Gospel Jesus preached. In the simplest terms, if you ate meat sacrificed to idols, it suggested that you acknowledged that those other gods existed, or that you were afraid of the repercussions of what would happen if you refused, which would have meant acknowledging that your loyalty was not ultimately to the emperor, but to God, the very same impulse that helped Pontius Pilate decide to crucify Jesus. The empire could tolerate a lot of things, but disloyalty was not one of them, and Jezebel was helping to turn the church into good citizens of the Empire rather than good servants of the King of Kings.
We don’t have too many issues these days with meat sacrificed to idols, but from time to time the church has had to confront what from some corners appears to be the kind of accommodation to the culture around it that Jesus warns the church at Thyatira that it must stand up against. It’s murky territory to be sure, deciding what is and what is not appropriate, what is godly and what is not. In our own time, the debate continues about things like worship that looks more like the entertainment you’d see at a Brittney Spears concert, or about social issues about which people of good faith disagree. That’s the ongoing challenge of the church at Thyatira, not just this Thyatira, but all the places that could be named Thyatira, places where love, faith, service, and patient endurance are truly the hallmarks of their communities, but who also have to live in the real world, and read the news of the day, and be discerning about what God is doing in their midst.
It’s tricky stuff, as the current issue of people choosing to sit or kneel during the playing of the national anthem has made clear. We may or may not agree with what Colin Kaepernick and other athletes have decided to do, but it does gives us a very current example of what the church in Thyatira was up against. Putting aside our feelings about the issues that have provoked these protests, suppose that there were a good Christian reason for any one of us to refuse to give honor to a government that opposed what our faith required of us. Would we be willing to incur the ire of the culture around us to make our statement of loyalty to God rather than our culture or our government? What are we saying to the world around us about our distinctiveness, our values, by participating in practices that do not always conform to our understanding of the life that God calls us to lead? Love of country is a good thing, but no nation should be confused with the reign of God even if at times we do find ways to cooperate with it. The same could be said for the Roman Empire that John warned the church at Thyatira about. It did some good things, but it was by no means perfect. And in those places that the kingdom of heaven clashes with the empire, the church needs to side with God. The church not only has the right to dissent, but in fact the duty, when faithfulness to Christ's commands to love, serve, and patiently endure come into conflict with the culture's demands for loyalty.
All of this is to say that even those who don't agree with why Kaepernick did what he did, should support his right to do so, and even more than that, we should ask ourselves what we’d be willing to stand up for, or sit down for, because one day it might be us protesting, and protest shouldn’t have to lead to martyrdom for athletes or for people of faith. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago when the church confronted some of these very same questions, and had to take a stand. Almost as soon as Hitler took power in Germany in the 1930s, the government began to pressure the churches to adopt the Third Reich’s policies and many of them did, unquestioningly. But there was a small group of Christians and churches that said wait a minute, this isn't how it’s supposed to work. Our loyalty is to God and God’s purposes, not Hitler and his purposes. And so they drafted what they called the Theological Declaration of Barmen in which they outlined their reasons for dissent and opposition and called upon others to turn away from the Jezebels of their age, those church leaders who couldn’t see the difference between the kingdom of heaven and the vision Hitler was casting. The Barmen Declaration has since been adopted as part of the Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) and several other denominations, because it offers the same kind of warning that was offered to the church at Thyatira so many years earlier.
It’s not printed in the bulletin this morning, but I’d like to ask if you would rise and say together a portion of that Barmen Declaration that you’ll find on the video monitors. If for whatever reason you choose not to stand, that’s OK; we honor that, as we must honor the conscience of all who confess faith in Jesus Christ.
“The Christian Church is the congregation of the brethren in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament through the Holy Spirit. As the Church of pardoned sinners, it has to testify in the midst of a sinful world, with its faith as with its obedience, with its message as with its order, that it is solely his property, and that it lives and wants to live solely from his comfort and from his direction in the expectation of his appearance. We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.” Please be seated.
So here’s my last word on the subject. Before Jesus warns the church at Thyatira about its Jezebel, he reminds them of who they are. He reminds them that their church, their community, rests on the firm foundation of the love, faith, service, and patient endurance that they have been practicing. I like to think of them as the four columns of Thyatira. And I think what he was saying is that if those four columns remain strong, we'll recognize those moments when we need to stand up, or sit down, for what Jesus Christ has bequeathed us. And we’ll have the strength to “hold fast” to what we have until Jesus comes, and our last works will indeed be greater than our first works. May God continue to give this Thyatira the strength of the first Thyatira, until the rising of the morning star. Amen.
02 October 2016, 12:43
Genesis 18:1-15 and Luke 22:14-20
© Stacey Steck
Before Flora and I were engaged to be married, I steadfastly refused to discuss the possibility. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to get married, I just did not wish to negotiate a wedding. I would ask her when I was ready and she would accept when she was ready. It was a very simple formula. So it was quite a surprise for her when I pulled out the ring that Christmas morning and asked her to spend the rest of her life with me. I’m not sure if she was more shocked that I wanted to get married or that I had actually come up with a ring, she knowing me for the cheapskate that I am. You see, as I slipped my grandmother’s ring on her finger, my beautiful bride-to-be uttered three words I will never forget: She said, “Is it real?”
Hard as it was to believe, especially coming from me, the ring was, in fact, real, and apparently quite a shock. I believe she was beginning to think I was not ever going to be interested in marrying her. And we had dated for only two years! So it is not too hard for me to understand why Sarah, the Patron Saint of late bloomers, let loose a laugh when she heard that after ninety years of waiting, she too would be blessed with a son to care for her in her old age, and of course, the ancient middle eastern versions of dirty diapers and lost pacifiers.
You may remember that this is a real turning point in the early part of the story of God’s people. God has promised to Abraham that he will have descendants as numerous as the grains of sand in the ocean, or the stars in the sky, but its getting a little late, middle age has come and gone, and no kids are coming. The future is looking as bleak as the desert they live in. Abraham even goes so far as to engage Sarah’s servant Hagar, to provide for him an heir, because in those days, such an occasion of surrogacy counted for the real thing, or so they thought. But God had other plans, and says to Abraham, after he has gone to all the trouble with Hagar, sorry, this boy Ishmael, the slave girl’s son, he’s not the one through whom the promise will be kept. That honor awaits the one you will call Isaac. In fact, we should not be so surprised that Sarah laughs, because, it says, “Abraham fell on his face and laughed,” when God reveals a little earlier in the story what Sarah learns tonight.
There is something very sweet about this story, but I wonder if the way we usually read this story of Abraham’s hospitality, Sarah’s incredulous laugh, and God’s promise of the coming of Isaac overshadows what might be the more important observation of the passage. Tucked in there in verse 14 is the real kicker: Is anything too difficult for the Lord? It reads like a rhetorical question, the kind we are not meant to answer, because when we think about Sarah’s womb compared to something like God creating the heavens and the earth, it seems like a no-brainer. Of course there is nothing beyond the power of God. But we human beings don’t always think with our brains. Often, it is our hearts that rule both our minds and our tongues and we become prone to wondering, if, in fact, there actually is something that is too difficult for God to do, something in our lives, or in our world that God is really not up to the task of handling. And when we go there, when we start down the road of asking questions we’d really rather not have to ask in the first place, they aren’t the philosophical musings that wonder if God can create a stone so heavy that not even God can lift it. No, they are the gut-wrenching, middle of the night anxiety attacks about things that really matter in our lives, and the lives of those we love, and even the lives of those whom nobody loves.
That understandable tendency in our own lives is affirmed for us by Sarah’s shock and by her laugh. I think it was not that Sarah didn’t believe the pronouncement so much as she found it completely unexpected and confusing, a little ironic, and perhaps even somewhat cruel. “After I have grown old,” she says, now “shall I have pleasure?” The best years of her life have passed in anguish, and maybe “better late than never” just doesn’t sound like such a great consolation prize for so many years of waiting. Besides, consider the source: three complete strangers for whom she has just had to make a meal on the spur of the moment, who she has to overhear to learn this! They don’t even make the announcement to her directly. Despite being the primary agent in God’s unfolding drama, Sarah is the last to know. I cannot begrudge Sarah a little chuckle about this one because it’s a little hard to swallow whole.
Now if we put these two things together -- and I mean Sarah’s situation and this rhetorical, but often asked, question about God – mix them up a little, let the mixture settle for a couple thousand years and take the lid off, I wonder if we don’t find thirteen people sitting together in an upper room around the time of Passover, twelve of those people wondering if there is anything left that is too difficult for Jesus to do, a pronouncement by God that is a little hard to swallow whole, a whole lot of dropped jaws and maybe even a couple of nervous chuckles. The scene around the table at our Lord’s last supper must have been a sight to behold.
The disciples have seen Jesus do everything from changing water into wine to moving the moneychangers out of the temple. From their perspective there is nothing he can’t or won’t do. Peter has identified Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus has come to Jerusalem to shake things up. They are now probably as close as they have ever been to truly understanding just how rhetorical the question, “Is there anything too difficult for the Lord?” should be. And then Jesus drops his bomb of a statement as he prepares for his final meal with them, He says to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Now if you thought my wife was surprised by her cheapskate boyfriend! If you thought Sarah was surprised by three strangers stopping by the tent with some unexpected news! The disciples have just been blindsided. Consider the source! Their leader, who has been their teacher and companion, is really serious about getting ready to die. He was supposed to take his rightful place as God’s Anointed, the one who would bring in their people’s glory days, and usher in an era of peace. But now he is saying that the dream is almost over, the future not as clear as they might have envisioned. Imagine the confusion, the irony, the cruelty. I cannot say I would begrudge any one of the disciples if they too had laughed, just as Sarah did.
This morning we celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper and in a few minutes I will repeat the words of Jesus telling you that this bread is the broken body of our savior and that this cup contains the shed blood of our friend. And I will invite you to take these elements in remembrance of Christ, and to experience his grace. And I will not begrudge a single one of you if you laugh. The body of Jesus? The blood of Christ? What an absurd notion! How confusing, how ironic, how cruel. But look around this room, see your brothers and sisters in Christ, listen to the Word of God, sing to the Lord hymns and songs and spiritual songs – observe the church almost two thousand years after that last supper and ask yourself, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?”
When I ask myself that question in my more human moments, I think of the engagement ring my wife is wearing. As I said, it belonged to my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who lived in Texas all her life, side by side with Mexicans whom she despised, and never failed to blame, along with blacks, for whatever problem she, and the city of San Antonio, might have been experiencing. I sincerely doubt she would have been able to distinguish between Costa Ricans and Mexicans, and if she had been alive when I met Flora, my strong suspicion is that she would have had a very, very difficult time coming to terms with my marrying a Mexican, er, I mean, a Costa Rican, much less using her ring. There are many intractable issues in the world, but few more personal and influential than racism and discrimination. That in two short generations, a transformation like this could take place in my family, is, to me, nothing short of miraculous, and that helps me to remember the answer to that truly rhetorical but essential question, and it makes me chuckle as I picture my grandmother, God rest her soul, rolling over in her grave.
You may have noticed that there is no condemnation of Sarah for her laugh. I think that is because not only is our God a God of grace, and second chances, but also a God with a sense of humor, one who isn’t threatened by our humanity. If the question, “Is anything too difficult for the Lord?” is really a rhetorical one, so too is the question “Is there anything that God can’t handle?” about my doubts, my fears, my hopes, my longings. Do you think God hasn’t heard it all before? What kind of faithless people did God create, that over and over we keep asking questions we really don’t need to ask? And yet there is no condemnation. We can laugh all we want when God does what God has promised in Jesus Christ, when God brings peace to that dispute with our neighbor, when God heals that broken relationship with a family member, when God breaks the power of an addiction, when God helps us overcome that grudge we’ve been nursing and just can’t let go. Those are things that keep us up at night, the things we are sure must be quite impossible, even for God, but that God takes just as seriously as we do, even though there really is nothing too difficult for God.
God has been doing the unexpected long before we got here. God does the unexpected in our lives and God will do the unexpected in the lives of our children and their children and theirs. And every generation will ponder “Is anything too difficult for the Lord,” with a fortunate few from each generation realizing that asking the question doesn’t mean we are faithless, far from it, but simply human. In this sacrament of Holy Communion, let us laugh at the unexpected and be in awe of the power and glory of the Lord. Lord, forgive us if we laugh too hard, for it is not that we do not believe that these elements are the body and blood of your son, it’s just that you have surprised us once again with your immeasurable your love for us. Amen.