Sunday, May 10th, 2015 – The Sixth Sunday of Easter
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scriptures: Psalm 30:8-12, John 15:9-17, Revelation 2:1-11
Hymns: “Morning Has Broken”, “All Creatures of Our God and King”, “God Will Take Care of You”, “Be Still and Know”, “How Great Thou Art”, “Come Share the Lord”, “God of This City”, “He Lives!”
Special Music: “Fix You”, by Coldplay
Ten Days With the Devil
So there I was. It was a Wednesday. The twenty-ninth of August, 2012. My first non-training day on the job as a chaplain intern at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina. I had spent the bulk of the morning working on my rounds, going to the general care wards on the sixth and seventh floor, to the psych ward on the eighth floor, and now to the Community Living Center which occupied the first and second floors.
The Community Living Center, or CLC as the hospital employees referred to it, is essentially a nursing home that is part of the VA Medical Center. Several VAs across the country have them, although the Durham VA is a unique case in every aspect – situated directly across the street from Duke University, it serves as sort of an extension of the Duke University Teaching Hospital, and as such has a markedly higher quality of care than most of the centers in the VA system. The CLC itself was no different, and that was especially true in the hospice ward.
As I wandered through the CLC that morning, talking to the residents, I was approached by a nurse who had seen the blue “CHAPLAIN” embroidered on my lab coat. She didn’t know who I was, didn’t even know my name – after all, I was brand new – but she saw that word and knew that I could help. “Excuse me, Chaplain,” she said, approaching me, “Mr. Smith, in the hospice ward, is actively dying. Could you come sit with him until his family arrives?”
The tone that John strikes in the first two letters he writes – to the churches at Ephesus and Smyrna, respectively – is very different from the other five letters, and indeed from the rest of the book. Unlike the other five churches, John spends a great deal of time praising Ephesus and Smyrna, although even then there’s some admonishment to Ephesus for their faith being not as bright and active as it was in the beginning. However, it’s a comparatively minor admonishment when compared against the other churches, especially the church in Laodicea, from which letter we get the infamous text about being neither hot nor cold, but rather lukewarm, so that God is about to vomit. And really, let’s be honest – what church out there doesn’t see the energy and brightness of their initial faith fade after a few years of existing in the world?
Ephesus is otherwise commended, though, for doing all of the things that a “good” church should do. They do good works, they work hard to promote Gospel, they’re patient, they endure when they’re tested, they don’t tolerate evildoers, and they put down the false teachings of others who are preaching a corrupted version of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But as John mentions, we see that they’ve fallen into something of a trap. They’ve been so focused on doing all those things that they’ve forgotten to let their light shine before all. Their faith, their “love they had at first” is no longer the glowing beacon of witness to Christ that it once was. It’s a trap that churches have fallen into for centuries. They head down that road and then, unless somebody admonishes them like John does here, they begin to decline. Eventually, that congregation will reach the end of the road, and then enter what is essentially the church version of hospice care.
Now, for those of you who aren’t familiar with the vagaries of hospice care and the “active death” process, hospice care is generally the last step in life for many people. Their families place them in hospice care so that their transition from life to death can be as comfortable as possible. In very rare cases, people will move back from hospice care into general care – or even go home! – but I have only seen this happen once or twice in my own experience.
When somebody is “actively dying”, that means that the doctors are no longer talking about their lifespan in weeks or days, but in hours. Their bodily functions have begun to shut down, and it’s time for their family and friends to say goodbye. And that’s why the nurse wanted me to stay with Mr. Smith until his family arrived – just in case he passed before they arrived, she wanted there to be somebody, specifically a member of the clergy, in the room with him.
Actively dying is not what John had in mind for the church at Ephesus. Yes, he wanted the clergy to be there with them, but it’s because he wanted them to hear what the Spirit had to say. “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches!” he proclaimed. This world in which we live, he is saying to the Ephesians, is a world of Pentecost. This is a world where the Kingdom of God has already arrived, with the presence of the Spirit on earth. Listen to that Spirit, he tells them, because that’s what is going to keep you alive.
Indeed, we can go beyond John refusing to allow active death to come upon the Ephesian church. No, he wants them to hear and heed those words of the Spirit, and then turn and CONQUER death, and partake of the Tree of Life. And this, of course, isn’t a direct command – this is John’s encouragement to the Ephesians that they renew themselves in the Spirit, so that those within the church and those that see them can receive the fruit of the Tree of Life – the fruit that comes from the gift of grace and mercy through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And it’s a tree from which John knows that the church at Smyrna has already eaten. Indeed, it’s telling that he starts the letter to them by speaking specifically of the resurrection of Christ, the Son of God – “These are the words of the first and the last,” he says, “who was dead and came to life.” Smyrna is a church that has borne far more than the other churches to which John writes. It experiences regular persecution from both the other Jews in the city and from the Romans. And I say other Jews because at the time this is believed to have been written, the followers of Christ were merely regarded as a sect of Judaism. Indeed, in this letter, John proclaims them to be the RIGHTEOUS Jews, whereas the ones who persecute them are, to him, not Jews at all, but rather a synagogue of Satan. But in spite of what they have already borne, and because of the endurance they have shown, yet more persecution is going to fall upon them. The worst is yet to come for the church at Smyrna.
So I went to Mr. Smith’s room. When I walked in, I introduced myself, as was protocol, but he was completely unresponsive, which was completely unsurprising. After the nurse left, I sat down in the chair by his bedside, and I picked up his chart and began to look through it – again, as chaplains are supposed to do in these situations, so they can talk with some knowledge with the family members. I learned that Mr. Smith had been in the Community Living Center for just over a year, and that he had entered hospice care nine days before, on August 20th. I learned that he was dying of colorectal cancer, in spite of the chemotherapy, radiation treatment, and multiple surgeries that had preceded his move to the CLC. I learned that he had been awake, alert, responsive, and in a good mood until just a few days before.
Then I looked at his closet door and learned a great many more things. You see, hanging on the door was a color picture – an official US Army portrait. This was a much younger Mr. Smith, looking to be in about his early 50s, which meant, based on his age, that the picture had been taken in the late 1980s or early 1990s. He was wearing a US Army Class A dress uniform, with the rank of Sergeant Major clearly and proudly displayed on his sleeves. It was difficult to look at this robust, healthy, younger image of Mr. Smith, and then turn to see the withered shell of a man in the bed next to me.
I looked back at his chart. Mr. Smith was from Wilson, North Carolina, born and raised. His age and rank meant that he would certainly have served in Vietnam, and when he returned home, it would’ve been to a country that despised its soldiers and a state that had recently been wracked by race riots. As a young, African-American man in uniform, he would’ve at that time likely felt less at home in eastern North Carolina than he had in the jungles of southeast Asia. He would’ve never received the recognition and the thanks that his country, his state, and his home owed him.
The church at Smyrna is one that is not often recognized by Biblical scholars, which comes as something of a surprise. The city of Smyrna was not insignificant – it was a major port city, and in turn was also a center for the worship of the Roman gods. It seems that this would have been an ideal place for the church of Jesus Christ to gain a foothold, in a thriving city that already had a distinct culture of religion throughout. But aside from these four verses in Revelation, we do not hear of the church at Smyrna before or after.
It’s interesting to consider that, that even to this day, the church at Smyrna is, in a way, still afflicted by the lack of recognition. John recognized them, though. He KNEW of their affliction. He knew that even though they were wealthy in the ways of the world, they were still impoverished in the way they were put upon and oppressed by the other powers in Smyrna. And yet, they had endured all things – only for John to warn them that more was about to come. The devil was about to throw some of them into prison, he said, and for ten days they would have affliction. But if they had faith unto death, they would receive the crown of life. It was just a matter of holding out for that long, and John was giving them the encouraging word he believed that they needed. In essence, he was telling them to follow the light that they had seen from the first day they believed, and he would try to fix them – an effort which the Lord would complete.
To complete the efforts of my August morning in hospice care, though, there’s one final element about this story that you have to understand. This took place a mere two months after I had returned to North Carolina from the US Navy Officer Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island, where I had completed Officer Development School. Five weeks of having respect, protocol, tradition, and decorum hammered into my head. And so, as I sat there, pondering all these things, I decided I needed to do something of my own, a token of the respect that Sergeant Major Smith should’ve received decades before. After all, I was a junior officer, and he was a senior NCO. “Take care of your senior enlisted leaders and NCOs,” we had been told over, and over again. “Take care of them, because they are ALWAYS taking care of you.” That promise of relationship had to, somehow, be fulfilled.
When his family arrived, I introduced myself to them, prayed with them over Mr. Smith, and then, after the end of the prayer, I came to the position of attention at the end of his bed. I introduced myself to him again, but in a very different fashion than I had when I came in – “Sergeant Major Smith,” I said, “I am Ensign James Gawne. On behalf of the Chaplain Corps of the United States Navy, thank you for your service.” His wife smiled through the sadness on her face and thanked me, after which I took my leave. True story.
There come times in the lives of every man and woman called to the service of God where we can only do so much. There come times when we reach the limits of our own capabilities, and must leave the rest to the hands of God. When it comes to the words of the book of Revelation, there is only so much that I can tell you, and you must lean upon the understanding given to you through trust in God. But this little segment of it right here – it’s important to understand these two letters, their difference from the rest of the book, and their importance that carries down to every person living in God’s service today.
Sometimes, our efforts are not going to be enough to rescue somebody. There are certain facts about life that we cannot reverse. There are certain situations in life that we cannot undo. There were difficulties in the life of the church of Smyrna that John could not go away, and indeed, he could only warn them that they were going to get worse. But no matter the trials and tribulations that our sisters and our brothers in Christ encounter, we can always stand with them and be an encouragement to them.
The last time I preached on this text was for my senior chapel at Wake Forest University School of Divinity. This sermon has been completely different from that one, but the intent has remained the same. You see, when I preached on this text in April of 2013, I asked Caitie to sing a song by Mumford & Sons, entitled “Timshel”. “You are not alone in this,” the keystone line says. “You are not alone in this,” a message that is as true today as it was two years ago. The church at Ephesus was not alone in renewing their faith, for John was with them. The church at Smyrna was not alone in enduring their persecution, for John was with them. And because both a nurse and I had happened to be at the right place at the right time, Mr. Smith was not alone during his final hours, because I was there to be the presence of Christ with him.
I never saw Mr. Smith again. When I arrived at the VA the next Monday, I checked his chart, and saw that he had passed in the early hours of the morning on August 30th. After his own ten days with the devil, he had conquered death, and received the crown of life. I myself only sat by him for a very brief part of that time, but I was just one of many. Each of us, as Christians, stands next to somebody at some point in our lives, in that sacred space between life on earth and life in the presence of God. And while there is very rarely anything we can do to alleviate their physical suffering, we can certainly be the light and presence of Christ to them. It is how we say, “Let the lights guide you home, and I, in my own way, will try to fix you.”