This post is Rev. Renee Machiniak’s service from last Sunday. For those of you who missed it, we hope you receive some spiritual insight and inspiration.
“Have We Abandoned Our First Love?”
Genesis 28:15; Revelation 1:9-2:7; TCR 571
The other day, I was standing in line in a CVS Pharmacy and there were two people in front of me; the east Indian women fumbling for a coupon at the cash register and taking too much time paying for her goods and an angry man standing immediately behind her. He held a bottle of Jim Beam whiskey and kept mumbling out loud saying things like “You foreigners should get the hell out of our country!” As the woman kept fumbling and getting more and more nervous, the cashier (who was Middle Eastern), kept glancing down at the floor trying to avoid eye contact and confrontation with the angry customer whose eyes were wickedly hostile, staring down the Indian woman, ready to pounce and escalate. There was no one else in sight in the store, no other customer, no security guard or witness. I was nervous and praying with every heart beat. I quickly checked out at the cashier and ran to keep watch outside to make sure the Indian woman safely reached her vehicle.
These are unsettling times. There is much unrest in communities throughout our country. Intolerance and hatred are increasing and it’s gotten so out of hand that Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists are congregating and gaining ground in pockets of society that would shock us to the core, if we knew that some of them were our doctors, lawyers and colleagues.
Portions of the remainder of today’s message are drawn from both a sermon reflection and live witness offered by Presbyterian minister, Rev. Shelli Latham, and clergy/activists who were present during the KKK / white supremacy rallies in Charlottesville – these leaders shared their impressions with me, and many other clergy around our nation, in a live conference call on Tuesday, August 22nd . The Holy One is paying attention; we must also pay attention and pray to return to our first love, our love for the One God of all people, so that we might participate in the healing of our nation, world and ourselves.
So let us pause; let us consider our reading this morning from the Book of Revelation; John of Patmos is summoned by the Spirit. He was instructed to write down the revelation given to him and to then send it to the Seven Churches in Asia at a time when their world seemed confusing and scary. The message is: God is paying attention and wants the churches to know that we are not forgotten.
The revelation is unveiled. John sees 7 shiny golden lamp stands. And, in the middle of all those lanterns, he sees someone who looked like the Son of God; his hair white as spun cotton. His face like a blazing sun – the kind of brilliant sun some of us witnessed behind the moon during the eclipse! Radiant, shining and powerful.
With all that sparkle & fire, John also noticed the shimmer in the Holy One’s hands; there they were: 7 shining stars. God explains that “these 7 stars, here in my right hand, they’re the angels of the churches. And the lanterns, flickering all warm and aglow, they are the churches.” And then each of the churches gets her own individual divine prophecy.
This morning, we pay close attention to Ephesus’ note. And God is paying attention. John tells the church that the one, who holds the 7 stars in his right hand, who walks among the golden lamp stands, has seen their hard work . . . how they persevere when times are tough. God has noticed how they stand up to evil, the way they’ve rejected the false teachings of the Nicolaitans, a group that was known for idol worship and reckless behavior.
God is paying attention to the times when the church’s light is shining against the false prophets of the day, today we think of the Neo-Nazis and White Supremacists, who bow to their own god . . . paying attention to their agenda, their fear and love of dominion.
But there is some critique too for Ephesus. In Ephesus’ case, we are reminded: You have abandoned the love you had at first: your love of the One true God of us ALL. Some translations say, “You have forgotten the love you had,” “You have forsaken the love you had” and “You have let go of your first love.”
And then the giver of the light says, “Remember who you were before . . . back when you knew how to love . . . before you fell away. . . Remember, repent, and start living in a more loving way . . . or I’ll be forced to remove your lamp stand.” If you’re not acting like a church – loving your neighbor as yourself – the light isn’t in you. Our challenge is our Christian RESPONSE to White Supremacy. What shall we do now?
It is just Ephesus’ evaluation we heard this morning, but all of the churches receive one. Poor and trampled Smyrna receives a word of encouragement and a note to “be brave.” Sardis is told that despite their stellar reputation at being alive, the Holy One warns that they are, in fact, dead. “Wake up. Wake up and strengthen whatever you have left, for your works are lack luster in the eyes of God.”
And then, we read the words to written to Laodicea: “I know your works,” says God, “You are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So because you are lukewarm . . . I’m about to spit you out of my mouth.” Our God of starlight and fire is not so much a fan of wishy-washy, lukewarm, living.
This letter to the churches gives them encouragement when they’re loving, and passionate, when they’re caring for the poor, and worshiping the true God alone and THIS GOD calls out the church when it’s just going through the motions – when it says the words of love but doesn’t do them . . . when it’s not alive . . . not awake . . . when it forgets the One who forged the sun, and fixed the stars in the sky, and poured the oceans into their basins – this is a dynamic God, a restless, a stirring God. And when the church forgets that . . . when the church maintains rather than shines, when she scrambles for self-preservation rather than sacrifice . . . when she forgets that, at her core, she was made for love and beaming hope into the darkness, the light of Christ – is not in her, not in us.
There are images in the minds of the clergy who were present at the recent KKK Rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, on July th and August 11th & 12th . The images made them hold their breath as they thought about white supremacists holding torches, gathering in hate and instilling fear in so many who feel marginalized and disadvantaged. Our Risen Lord was present in the people gathered there, in the people of every faith and background who shined like they were armed with the company of star-holding angels . . . like they were entrusted with the holy light of the first and the last, of the living one. The rally was a fervor brought on by a months-long conversation about the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue. I am a distant relative of Robert E Lee! I am called by my colleagues and peers to consider how I am a part of history and of the larger system and how I might help to bring healing where there is pain and sorrow.
The Ephesians faced the false witness of the Nicolaitans, who perverted God’s word for a self-serving way. And while the Christian church, in general, might be losing its way and is struggling to survive, representatives of different faith traditions knew enough to stand together against the sparkle that looked to them like the light – but it wasn’t the light. Those glimmers of light looked like candle sparks – but they were torches of hate that have caused the children in neighboring synagogues and black churches to be afraid to go outside … again. One synagogue in Charlottesville now pays security guards to stand watch over the congregation.
At the center of the scene, right at the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue, where the circle grew dark, clergy in attendance report that there was a flash of white – a sheet-painted banner that read, “VA Students Act Against White Supremacy.” Surrounded by the torches of hate, this small band of students stood their ground against the KKK and White Supremacists. Rev. Latham proclaims that they weren’t lukewarm. They were awake, and alive and brave. They later took a beating for the sake of love. We are unsure about the belief systems of this group of students, but it sure looked like a true church – the kind of church the Son of Man, walking amongst the congregations fanning the flames of love, calls us to be.
Where would we have been if this had happened in Cincinnati or Detroit or anywhere else? Would we have posted a sign of peace in the midst of a pretty scary scene? Those who live in Charlottesville said that most of the churches had messages of love and inclusion on their marquees and staked into their front lawns. What are we called to do in this world in which God is pushed to the sidelines of sporting events . . . because we’ve gotten too busy, and too numb, to keep God in our lives?
God writes a letter to Thyatira and Smyrna and Pergamum and Laodicea – an individual message of hope and challenge that says, “I’m paying attention . . . I’m on the move amongst you … God writes a letter to Ephesus and Philadelphia and Sardis. What would God’s letter say to us? How would it lift up our life – right in this moment as a beacon and what would be our growing edges? God is paying attention, because we are a part of the whole church and part of everything that is happening culturally and spiritually. But the whole of what we do in this particular church, our Swedenborgian church, matters. It matters to God. You matter to God.
Immediately following the rallies, an interfaith gathering worshipped at St. Paul’s Memorial Church, bearing witness to the light of love for all people and the call for people of faith to speak up . . . to sing love at the top of their lungs. When the hateful torch bearers drew in close to this peaceful service of worship and prayer, the worshipers were forced to hunker down inside and wait it out before they could safely head for home. But the sun eventually came up, and with it a new opportunity to say, “Torchlight and Christ’s light – they are not the same thing.” Sojourners United Church of Christ had formed a peaceful counter-protest, through Congregate Charlottesville. In faithful fashion, their action was rooted in worship. So they gathered in prayer under the leadership of Dr. Cornell West and Rev. Traci Blackmon. And then a line of clergy formed, linked arms, and sang “This little light of mine” against the chants of “Take our country back,” leading a procession of witness to love. Row after row after row of religious leaders, about six lines deep, and their gutsy congregation members backfilled the streets.
But they didn’t just wake up and decide: today looks like a good day to be the light. No; they planned and they trained. For weeks those who would take up the front lines against hate and bigotry, who would walk with courage in the conviction that God doesn’t make second-class citizens and that love is sometimes called to be brave . . . they planned and trained in nonviolent protest.
Moments to share and to be the light crop up every day, for you and me, and for everyone.
And in our hyper-charged country clamoring for more, from a core of emptiness, and a push to return to the good ol’ glory days (which were neither good nor glorious if you were poor, or brown, or wore a head covering, or spoke with an accent) . . . in our hyper-charged country, just like in Ephesus, the Christian Church in America is called to bear witness to the difference between torch light and the Christ light. The church is called to be brave and awake and on fire for love. If we want to be that church – a light-of- Christ, we can’t sit around and wait and think that when the real darkness (whatever that is) arrives, we will be ready, we will be church. All evil needs to do to flourish is for good people to do nothing.
As a Swedenborgian, I am then called to a new, and unusual, level of repentance, reformation and regeneration! Not only must I search my heart and mind for any insidious complacency and prejudice, but I must also search out where darkness creeps in regarding my actions and lukewarm response as evil rears its ugly head in many ways, including rallies, in a CVS pharmacy, when a co-worker speaks with cruelty about someone who is different or … in any circumstance when another human being’s life and basic rights are threatened. The Lord protects the good … and the evil alike, in an infinitely wise providence, and we are asked to participate in this healing and restoration process. How might we do this?
When we know the quality of the love we have been given from God, when we dare to risk empathy for those hated and rejected, we cannot sit idly by and let torches be paraded around as beacons of a good light. If we do, we have, in the words of the keeper of the lamp stands, “abandoned the love we had at first.”
So, today let us reflect together, and in an ongoing sense quietly within, what it might mean for us as Swedenborgians regarding our response to the meaning of the present moment and these times. What do these times mean for our individual regeneration journey and how might we join with our community, arm-in- arm, to stand for the Christ-light?