Meg Peery McLaughlin
Labor Day Weekend 2023
September 3, 2023
Revelation 3: 14-22
This morning we are going to read a letter written by an Elder named John
to a church in Laodicea, which today is in Central Turkey.
Before we read it, some background about the town.
Laodicea was the richest city in the area.
Along a major intersection of trade,
it was well-endowed by its textile, banking, and medical industries.
Its signature commercial items were a shiny black wool
and a special powder, from which a medicinal eye salve was made.
The city also had a water problem.
It had no water source of its own but had to pipe water in from hot medicinal springs from a neighboring town. By the time the water arrived to Laodicea,
it’s tepidness and mineral content made it nauseating to drink.
People were prone to spit it out of their mouths .
I think this history will help us to hear this word. Now, before I read from the book of Revelation, chapter 3, please go to God with me in prayer:
Your word, O Lord, is a lamp unto our feet and a light to our path.
That’s especially true when we feel disoriented and despairing.
So speak to us once more your truth.
Help us be shaped–not by our fears–but by your gospel.
We ask it in Christ’s name. Amen.
14 “And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation:
15 “I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot.
I wish that you were either cold or hot.
16 So, because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot,
I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
17 For you say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’
You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.
18 Therefore I advise you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich, and white robes to clothe yourself and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
19 I reprove and discipline those whom I love.
Be earnest, therefore, and repent.
20 Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in and eat with you, and you with me.
21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne,
just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
22 Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.”
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
On Monday, the first day of school,
at almost 5pm, I was outside waiting on the twins’ school bus. I was hot.
A mom-friend gave me a hug as we waited and waited,
and I could feel her press my sweat against my back.
Hurricane Idalia had not yet sucked the humidity out of the air,
so the heat was part of it, but truth is, I was hot with a holy rage.
Rage that our educators have to be so, so adept at protection,
rage that we have come to relativize violence: we find ourselves saying:
at least it wasn’t a mass shooting,
only one person died,
thank goodness it wasn’t motivated by race or ideology,
rage that the news will move on until it happens again to someone else’s babies, in some other town.
On Monday, I had not yet chosen a text for this Sunday,
and knew that today the church needed to hear a word,
and the church needed to speak a word into the world.
Jarrett suggested we use the prophet Isaiah,
beat those swords into plowshares, he said,
but he added to the text some more spicy adjectives that are not church appropriate; and I knew he was hot, too.
I kept coming back to feeling of the sweat on my back,
so I turned to this letter to the church in Laodicea from the Book of Revelation.
Jarrett preached from Revelation a few weeks back,
and I’d guess it was more of what you’d expect from this apocalyptic book—
a wild image of thrones amid peals of thunder,
with living creatures covered with eyes in back and front,
the scene ending with elders casting down their crowns,
lost in wonder love and praise .
As with all of Revelation, the thrust is: to whom do we give our loyalty.
Our selection from the book comes just before this,
and on the surface, our chapter is a bit more pedestrian.
It’s not filled with wild images, instead it’s a letter,
a letter to a group of Christians, a church.
Before I made my way to the bus stop on Monday
I was texting with Tarheels, like all of you.
UPC’s Beth Keith is Associate Vice Chancellor for Communications
and I knew she’d be groping for words, so I texted her husband, Ted.
Ted will forever be imprinted in my memory here at UPC for being the guy who knows his Bible, having been raised by both a Presbyterian and a Catholic. Once when Jarrett asked if anyone in the congregation knew who took the body of Jesus from the cross to the tomb, a singular hand popped up. It was Ted.
(And the answer was Joseph of Arimathea, for the record).
I told Ted I was praying for Beth, for their family.
Ted responded with something that has stuck in my craw all week.
He said: I’m extremely unchristian in these situations, I’m afraid.
I have no tolerance or patience with people who disagree with me.
Now, hear me right,
civility in critical conversations is indeed part of our call as people of faith,
but I know Ted to be a Christian, and his discipleship is inclusive of his strong convictions, that very well be at odds with some of his neighbors.
So I just kept Ted’s words in tension with these:
Because you are lukewarm and neither cold nor hot,
I am about to spit you out of my mouth.
Church, is there not a time for heat, for action? Hasn’t this gone on too long?
There are more guns in our nation than there are people.
We lose more preschoolers to guns each year
than we do the police officers who protect us.
In North Carolina, you need a permit to drive a car, but not to buy a gun.
In North Carolina, you have to buckle your seatbelt,
but your gun doesn’t have to have childproof features.
And I know it is nuanced. And I know it is complicated.
And I know there is a balance when it comes to individual and collective rights.
But in this nation, I also know. that. this. keeps. happening.
And it’s times like these when I think we are nauseating our Lord Jesus Christ.
So I sat down with this text for us. And as it goes with the Word of the Lord,
it messed with me.
I read Brian Blount’s commentary on Revelation.
I love Brian, but what he said challenged me.
A careful, faithful reader of scripture, Brian writes,
“the adjectives “hot” or “cold” should not be taken to represent different kinds of Christian witness, so that for example, the cold Christian does not witness properly, whereas the hot one maintains the zeal and fire that Christ commands.
Christ wishes the church were one or the other, but not one as opposed to the other. Christ simply wants the church to know where they stand.
And they should surely stand where all other witnesses should stand,
against any form of accommodation to Roman imperial or pagan lordship.
The lukewarm believer is therefore the accommodating believer.
The hot or cold Laodicean is the one who has made a decision to identify oneself with the Lordship of Christ .
There was a part of me that wanted to—and still wants to—
help us as a church to work up a sweat. Get fired up!
But if I understand the text,
the hot witness for Christ is not the only kind:
the one heated for change,
the one on fire for justice,
the one who sees red
whenever they see the gap between our world and God’s kingdom.
That is not the only faithful option.
So, too, can the cold witness stand:
the one who calmly and cooly calculates the way forward to change,
the one whose icy glare sees the long game, not just the immediate crisis
the one who is committed to that glacial speed,
that isn’t at all fast, but can cut through mountains.
The point is not necessarily the manner in which we witness to the Lordship of Christ, the point is that we are clear who we are following, and what we are about in his name.
Whether we be hot, or cold, church, are we clear?
Clear about who we are?
Going back to Ted’s text,
are we extremely Christian or unchristian based on
whether we agree with our neighbors?
Or rather are we Christian because we are Christ’s.
A book by a couple of political scientists was released a couple weeks back.
It’s called The Great Dechurching and while I just cracked the spine,
the amount of articles about it have been plentiful .
The authors report that more people have left the church in the last 25 years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening and Billy Graham crusades combined. That’s 40 million people in the past 25 years. There are many responses as to why, one being that, to many people, the church hasn’t seemed very Christian.
People are nauseated by who we are; they just spit us out. Ouch.
It’s a harsh wake up call, no doubt. It was for the Laodicean church too.
In this text, Jesus calls the Laodicean church poor, blind and naked.
And you can imagine that
a city of wealthy bankers would feel chagrined at being labeled poor;
a city of medical schools that pioneered pharmaceuticals for the betterment of sight would not appreciate an insult that labeled their entire municipality blind;
a city full of merchants who outfitted the Greco-Roman world in finest textiles, particularly their famous black wool, would not be amused to hear someone call them naked .
But this little letter doesn’t end with rebuke, but it goes on with an invitation,
a way forward: Christ, standing on the front porch knocking, saying:
Buy from me, gold refined by fire so that you may be rich,
and white robes to clothe yourself and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen, and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.
In other words, be clear about being Christian:
center your worth in truth that has been purged of all lies, that’s when you’ll be rich,
dress yourself in reminders of your baptism, then you’ll be in the style that matters,
be honest and humble about yourself and your need for grace,
and open your eyes to the world that is around you, then you’ll actually be able to see.
Get clear, church,
that you are witnesses to Christ,
the one in whom God’s love and justice has come fully alive.
Do not be lukewarm about that. Stand up! Be clear!
One of the many articles responding to that book I mentioned
was an article from the Atlantic.
A handful of you sent it to me to make sure I’d read it. It says many of the things we already know, or at least sense—
that America isn’t set up for church anymore,
instead it’s designed to maximize individual accomplishment,
prioritizing time for work and more work,
and pushing our children up the ladder of success.
And it seems to me that oftentimes the church’s response to this has been to ask less,
to make things easier, just accommodate to cultural norms.
But the article suggests that maybe churches could better serve their members by asking more of them saying:
“A vibrant, life-giving church requires more, not less, time and energy from its members. It asks people to prioritize one another over careers,
to prioritize prayer and time reading scripture over accomplishment.
Churches could model better, truer sorts of communities,
ones in which the hungry are fed, the weak are lifted up,
and the proud are cast down.”
Creating an environment where people can ask more of one another,
and give more in turn, seems like a wise rule of thumb for any community.
If only American life didn’t make such a prospect feel so daunting.
Daunting sure sounds like the right word for the week that most of us just lived through.
And yet, and still Jesus stands at the door and knocks.
And still the invitation is to answer that door:
to sit at table with the one who feeds us grace,
to integrate our human lives with God’s holy purposes
purposes that surely include:
beating every (stinking) sword into a plowshare.
And yet, and still, the invitation is to feel sweat rolling down your back,
or to shiver so hard your teeth rattle.
Church, be hot, be cold,
just be the Lord’s– and point boldly toward what his love can do.
So Be It.