Jesus Christ calls us to be a joyful community that celebrates God's love, transforms lives, and is a force for justice in the world.

Wake Up

St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (August 13, 2017)
Revelation 3:1-6 (CEB) – “Wake Up”

The Narrative Lectionary gives two options for sermon series for August. At our last meeting I presented both to the Worship Committee, the first being a series on the Sacraments (Baptism and the Eucharist). I’m not going to name names, but somebody yawned. The second option was a four-part series on Revelation. Eyebrows raised and somebody at the end of the table perked up: “Ooooo, let’s do that one!”

As happens from time to time, my sermon was already written and polished as of Friday evening. I was going to get us started on this four-part series on Revelation, a book that is not often read and is more often misunderstood. I was going to preach on chapter four, a scene from the throne room of heaven, and talk about the ways that prayer and worship shape us for living as God’s people in the world. But two events happened last week that pushed me in a different direction.

The first, on Thursday, was the Trans-Gay Caravan down in Nogales. Also called the “Rainbow 16” these are people, transgender and gay, from Central America and Mexico who presented themselves for asylum at the port of entry in Nogales. I can’t tell you how powerful it was to see these braves folx take that step and to see all those supporting them. I was glad to go down there with Elizabeth and represent St. Mark’s at an important action like this that stood at the intersection of LGTBQ rights and migrants rights.

The second, on Saturday, was the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. The horrors yesterday weren’t an isolated incident, but symptoms of much larger problems in this country. I am relieved to say that the people I know who were there counter-protesting are all safe. We pray for all those who were injured. We mourn the three deaths while also realizing that those incidents added more to the countless death toll of white supremacy over the centuries.

In the face of such glaring, obvious expressions of social sin—those frayed threads in our “inescapable network of mutuality, the single garment of destiny,” as Dr. King called it—there is a word that God has for the church, I believe, and it also comes to us from John’s Revelation. I picked another section, this one from the third chapter. Now, a little context would be helpful: Revelation was written by a person we’ll call John of Patmos, who was imprisoned, writing letters to seven churches in Asia Minor, present day Turkey. John has a wild, fantastical vision of Jesus Christ, who tells him…

“Write this to the angel of the church in Sardis:

These are the words of the one who holds God’s seven spirits and the seven stars: I know your works. You have the reputation of being alive, and you are in fact dead. Wake up and strengthen whatever you have left, teetering on the brink of death, for I’ve found that your works are far from complete in the eyes of my God. So remember what you received and heard. Hold on to it and change your hearts and lives. If you don’t wake up, I will come like a thief, and you won’t know what time I will come upon you. But you do have a few people in Sardis who haven’t stained their clothing. They will walk with me clothed in white because they are worthy. Those who emerge victorious will wear white clothing like this. I won’t scratch out their names from the scroll of life, but will declare their names in the presence of my Father and his angels. If you can hear, listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.

This is Holy Wisdom, Holy Word… Thanks be to God!

To make sense of much of the bizarre, sometimes violent imagery in Revelation, you’d have to find yourself among the oppressed. All the talk of dragons, beasts, locusts, and cosmic battles and such for which Revelation is known only makes sense if your back is against the wall. If you’re in that camp, throughout the letter John is encouraging you, “to the one who endures…” to hang in there. But if you dwell in relative prosperity and safety, as most of us do, then Revelation is a hard letter to latch onto, because it has some harsh warnings in store for you.

In certain sections of John’s letter aren’t addressed the oppressed; they’re addressed to those who are rather comfortable. Two of the seven churches might be described as persecuted communities, but the majority of John’s churches are indicted for their accommodation to the ways of the Roman Empire. Sardis is one of those churches.

The city of Sardis was renown for its defenses. It had the reputation for being invulnerable because of its high, fortified walls. It also had a reputation for the one time that it was proved vulnerable; long ago one of Cyrus of Persia’s soldiers stealthily snuck in through an unguarded spot. Over time, then, Greek writers would often use Sardis in moral tales to warn against pride and arrogance. John of Patmos is riffing off that same tradition, saying to the church in Sardis, a church that has a reputation for its “strong” witness to the gospel, “Actually, you’re more vulnerable than you think. You have the reputation of being alive, and you are in fact dead.

One commentator on this passage puts it this way:

“One might suspect… that John’s Sardis believers were worshiping together every Lord’s Day. Yet they were not doing the other necessary work of resisting the lure of Greco-Roman cultic-social life by witnessing transformatively to the lordship of Christ… Unless they upgraded their remaining work of cultic observance by adding acts of transformative resistance, it too would soon wither and die.” [1]

John is telling the Sardis church to wake up or die.
And I believe John is telling the American church the same: to wake up or die.
John is telling the Sardis church to choose who it will serve: the lord emperor, or the Lord Jesus Christ.
John is telling the American church to choose what it will serve: the dominating, exploitating, ways of empire; or the radically loving, justice-seeking ways of Jesus Christ.

It is indeed time for the American church, namely the white members within it, to wake up to the reality of our country as it is today, the reality as it has been, the reality of all those who suffer and have suffered under the weight of oppression and violence. We who wash our hands of responsibility for what has happened in our country, for what is happening in our country, are asleep to the truth.

Transgender folx are dying. They are also ostracized from their families, denied employment, and harassed. Down in Nogales this week, as we watched these brave people present themselves at the border, we shuttered to think of where they’ll go, likely to be housed in immigrant detention facilities for men.

People of color are dying. Young people dead at the hands of our criminal justice system and others dying a slow death in prisons, both in disproportionate numbers. And we ought to condemn the rhetoric from our political leaders and others, the allegation that, “both sides are equally guilty of stoking the fires of conflict.” That’s ludicrous! The death toll, the casualties of inequality are more than lopsided.

And while we’re on the subject of revelation, Revelation got its title from the first phrase in the letter, “The Revelation of Jesus Christ…” That Greek word there, apokalypsis, from which we get the English word “apocalypse,” means “to unveil.” That’s what happened Charlottesville this weekend: the racism, the sins of white supremacy and racism that pervasively infect our common life, were unveiled. Its ugliness was brought to light in full, glaring view. The hoods came off and we saw what was truly underneath. Know we know.

John of Patmos wrote to the church at Sardis: So remember what you received and heard. Hold on to it and change your hearts and lives. Friends, let’s remember the liberating Word we once received. Let us hold tightly onto the message of the gospel: that God has reconciled the world and God’s reign has come near to us in Jesus Christ. Because we trust that transforming truth, we are the ones called to love radically, serve passionately, speak courageously, to live compassionately, even when it’s difficult. Even when that entails honestly confronting how we benefit from and are complicit in the structures that oppress others. Even when doing all that means taking a hard look in the mirror. Even when that means facing the fear and prejudice within ourselves.

Let’s wake up, church, and hear what the Spirit of God is saying in our time.

[1] Brian K. Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (2009), p. 87.

Featured image: