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Sermon Following White Supremacy Rally in Charlottesville, VA

Written in the Stars, A Sermon on Revelation 1:9-2:7*

Reverend Shelli Latham, August 13, 2017

I watched you as I read, your eyes closed and taking in the stunning imagery of this text. As there is a lot going on in this passage, so I want to recap a little bit of what happened. Right out of the chute, John of Patmos gets tapped on the shoulder, by the trumpeting Spirit, and instructed to write down this revelation and send it to the Seven Churches in Asia – to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea. This is a letter for the churches, when their world seems wacky, and confusing, and scary. God is paying attention and wants the churches to know they are not forgotten.

Then the revelation rolls out like this. John spins around to see who’s talking to him and sees seven shiny golden lampstands. And, in the middle of all those lanterns, someone who looked like he just maybe he might be the Son of God – decked out in a long robe, with a snazzy golden sash. His hair white as spun cotton. His face like a blazing sun on the perfect beach day, while his voice flows like a waterfall. This guy looked holy from head to toe – with his fiery bronze footwear fresh from the goldsmith’s furnace.

With all that sparkle and fire, it’s a wonder John noticed the shimmer in the Holy One’s hands, but there they were: seven shining stars. After the prophet/letter writer’s well-deserved fainting spell, the Holy One explains that “these seven 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 set of divine prophecy.

This morning, we eavesdropped on Ephesus’ note. And God’s paying attention. John tells the church that the one, who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the golden lampstands, has seen their hard work . . . how they keep-on keeping-on, when times are tough. God has noticed how they stand up to the evil doers, the way they’ve rejected the false teachings of the Nicolaitans, a group that was known for idol worship and all matters of risqué behavior. God is paying attention to the times when the church’s light is shining against the false prophets of the day, who bow to this god and that god . . . paying attention to their work and their witness.

But there’s some critique too. No site report would be authentic if it didn’t note the successes as well as the “growing edges”. And the “growing edge” in Ephesus’ case says this: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Some versions say they’ve “forgotten love”, or “let go of love”.

And then the giver of the light says, “Remember who you were before . . . back when you knew how to love . . . before you fell . . . down, down, down from who you were made to be . . . Remember, repent, and start living the old loving way . . . or I’ll be forced to remove your lampstand.” Oooh, yikes! Sounds like the standard church-issued lampstand has a use-it-or-lose it clause. If you’re not acting like a church – Christ’s big-loving, neighbor-caring, God-praising church – the light isn’t in you.

It’s just Ephesus’ evaluation we got to read 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 has it on good account 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, I read the words to written to Laodicea, and I think, “Crud . . .”

“I know your works,” says the Ruler of all Creation, “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.” Right, our God of starlight and fire is not so much a fan of that wishy-washy, sorta-kinda, lukewarm discipleship.

This letter to the churches that gives them props when they’re loving, and passionate, when they’re caring for the poor, and worshipping God alone, calls out 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 woke . . . when it forgets the one who forged the sun, and fixed the stars in the sky, and poured the oceans into their basins is a dynamic God, a restless, big gestures, endless love sort of God. And when the church forgets that . . . when the church maintains rather than shines, when she scrambles for self-preservation rather than self-sacrifice . . . when she forgets that, at her core, she was made for love and beaming hope into the darkness, the light of Christ, the holy lamp on the lampstand is not in her.

White nationalists rallied at a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the grounds of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville on Friday. Student protesters resisting the rally stood with a banner at the foot of the statue. Credit Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share, via Reuters

Credit Alejandro Alvarez/News2Share, via Reuters

There is an image from this weekend that has burned itself in my mind and made me hold my breath a little – a picture of a vigil, or rather vig-ill. Ill as in bad, Ill as in sick. Christ’s had a pretty unavoidable opportunity to be the church this weekend – to shine like we’ve been armed with the company of star-holding angels . . . like we’ve been entrusted with the holy light of the first and the last, of the living one. The light in this vig-ill picture is a collection of white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, this weekend. The rally was promoted as “Unite the Right” and drew thousands of white nationalists, from groups like the KKK and neo-Nazis, who gathered in a fervor brought on by a months-long conversation about the removal of a Robert E. Lee statue.

I forgot for a moment that white supremacy looks an awful lot like everyday whiteness – not hoods and burning crosses but a lot of khaki shorts and Polo shirts. And then it went and had the nerve to light candles. “Oh no you didn’t,” I think, “The candles . . . the vigils . . . the light shining in the darkness . . . uh-uh. How dare you carry that sign of hope and light and chant, “All White Lives Matter” and shout “You will not replace us . . . the Jews will not replace us”?

The Ephesians faced the false witness of the Nicolaitans, who perverted God’s word for a watered down, self-serving, pleasure-seeking, faux gospel. And while the church might have forgotten how to show their love, they knew to stand against the sparkle that looks like the light but isn’t the light. Those glimmers of light, from the photo etched in my mind, look like candle sparks but actually torches – like the kind that you’d use to burn citronella in your yard or use for a luau party. It would be comical if it weren’t so dangerous.

At the center of the scene, right at the base of the Thomas Jefferson statue, where the circle grows dark, there’s a flash of white – a sheet-painted banner that reads, “VA Students Act Against White Supremacy”. Surrounded by the torches of hate, carried by people who believe that the more apt you are to sunburn the more deserving you are of full inclusion in this country, this small band of students stood their ground against hate. They weren’t lukewarm; that’s for sure. They were awake, and alive and brave. They later took a beating for the sake of love. I have no idea the belief systems of this group of students, but it sure looked a lot like church to me – 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 Atlanta? Would Druid Hills Presbyterian have posted a sign of peace? A friend of mine who lives in Charlottesville said when she left the gym, yesterday morning, most of the churches had messages of love and inclusion on their marquees and staked into their front lawns. You don’t have to be too hot or too cold to post a sign, that’s a nice lukewarm, safe for a baby’s bottle sort of action in a time of cultural, moral, religious crisis. What would Druid Hills have done? What are we called to do in this world in which God is pushed to the sidelines of the soccer field . . . in which believing in Jesus and following Jesus aren’t necessarily the same thing . . . in this world where our poorer, darker, accented, neighbors are told that their existence is a threat that should be extinguished?

God writes a letter to Thyatira and Smyrna and Pergamum and that L-one that’s hard to pronounce – an individual message of hope and challenge that says, “I’m paying attention . . . I’m on the move amongst you . . . And I expect my light to be put to good use.” 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 this moment as a beacon, and what would be our light-squandering, growing edges? God is paying attention, because we are a part of the whole church. But the whole of what we do in this particular church matters. It matters to God.

Last Friday, as the night settled in, 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 torch bearers drew in close to this peaceful service of worship and prayer, the worshippers were forced to hunker down inside and wait out the hate before they could safely head for home. But the sun came up, and with it a new opportunity to say, “Torchlight and Christ’s light – you better believe they are not the same thing.”

clergy lineupSojourners 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 be the light crop up every day. And in our hyper-charged country clamoring for bigger walls, and a 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 light of Christ. 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, lamp-blazing-on-the-lampstand kind-of-church, 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.

I want to share the reflection of a friend of mine, and many of yours, who gathered at sunrise in Charlottesville to bear witness to love. Paul Garrity grew up in Charlottesville and returned this weekend, when he knew his hometown was to be set-upon by false prophets and hate-mongers. If you watch the sunrise worship service, you’ll see Paul and his dad singing in the corner by the piano. This was his reflection: I have come to understand my white privilege differently today. I have had a deeply rooted fear for my own life since we stepped out of the church this morning. I did not march with the clergy this morning, because of that fear. We walked near them and sang with them. We came home at 12 because of that fear. This is the fear that our brothers and sisters of color live with in their daily lives. What a privilege it is to feel that fear for the first time at age 30. And here I am tonight, in the safety of the home I grew up in, not willing to step outside again, so I may live to speak/work/teach/stand another day. I hope that I am able to live differently with this new understanding.

When we know the love we have been given, when we dare to risk empathy, we cannot sit idly by and let torches be paraded around as beacons of light. If we do, we have, in the words of the keeper of the lampstands, “abandoned the love we had at first.” But being the church is an every day project. It’s not all hugs and singing, “This Little Light of Mine,” at just the perfect time with the perfect, sparkly, liturgical decorations. Ask the Ephesians, and the Philadelphians, and the folks in Thyatira: being the church, in a world that thinks church is irrelevant, weird, dangerous . . . is a grind. But we keep tending the light, keeping oil in the lamps and polishing up the lamp glass. We keep practicing in work and worship and ever enlarging acts of love so that we will not be afraid to proclaim what God’s love is for everyone . . . We would stake ourselves on it.

Family of God, we are called to boldness, to big love – in this neighborhood, every day, and in our aching and hate-charged world. And it is scary, and it requires conviction, and passion, and hope, and fire. But we do not do it alone. The one who bestows the lamps and the lampstands is on the move amongst the churches he loves and believes in. We do not do it alone; we were placed into ministry with the very guardians of the stars. But we were not made to leave the shining up to them. We have been entrusted with a light, a God-given, shine-in-the-darkness-even-when-it-seems-impossible light. And if we are to be the church, we are called to make it burn more brightly than any tiki torch wielded over the head of a white supremacist ever could. This isn’t some lukewarm flicker, some candle burning down in the dregs of leftovers kind-of-light. This is Christ’s light. And if we are to really be the church, we must let it burn. Amen.


*This Sunday, Druid Hills Presbyterian Church kicked off a five-week series on Revelation. Contextual/Education introductory information was removed for publication. This text was pre-selected last spring to guide us through a conversation about what our last book of the Bible reveals about The Church. Needless to say, the church was called to step up this past weekend.