April 9th, 2013 – Second week of Easter
Texts: Psalm 30:8-12, Revelation 2:8-11
Hymns: “Morning Has Broken”, “All Creatures of Our God and King”
Anthems: “Timshel” (M. Mumford & T. Dwane for the Mumford & Sons album Sigh No More, sung by Caitie Smith), “Fix You” (C. Martin & W. Champion for the Coldplay album X&Y, arr. by J. Gawne, sung by Michelle Butler, Tasharia Harris, and Jessica Place, with Hillary Irusta on guitar)
You can download an audio recording of this sermon from Wake Forest University’s Deacnet.
“Ten Days with the Devil”
On Sunday, February 3rd, my mom arrived in her home town of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Having spent the first two decades of her life there prior to moving to Arizona, ordinarily, trips home were joyous occasions, marking holidays, anniversaries, birthdays, family reunions, or simply vacations back to her familial home.
Such was not the reason for this trip. On this trip, my mother was heading home to be with her family in a time of grief and need. Her younger sister, Barbie, had admitted to the Hiawatha Hospice of Mercy outside of Cedar Rapids that weekend. After nearly a decade of battling breast and ovarian cancer, the end of her pain and struggle was near.
The following days were very difficult, both for Barbie and for the rest of my mom’s family. There were certainly positives – many family and friends were able to come and see Barbie for one last time, as she had coherent, lucid periods most days where she was able to visit with them – but for the most part, her pain and suffering simply increased. So labored was her breathing and so difficult was it for her body to function at some points that her doctors admitted they simply did not understand how she was still alive.
Finally, though, on the morning of Wednesday, February 13th, my Aunt Barbie let go of her pain, and entered into the embrace of the Creator. For her, it was a release from the weaknesses and suffering brought on by ten years of illness, and for the rest of my mom’s family, it marked the end of ten excruciating days.
(Scripture read by Amy Russell)
To the angel of the church in Smyrna write:
These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:
“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.”
The Church at Smyrna. Of the seven churches to which John the Revelator wrote letters at the beginning of Revelation, Smyrna was one of two, along with Philadelphia, that John did not call to repentance for some sort of sin. In fact, he acknowledged the suffering that the church at Smyrna had undergone and encouraged them to remain faithful!
Not that they had a particularly easy time remaining faithful. This community of Christians, like the other six to which the Revelator wrote, existed in a major city of the Roman Empire. Smyrna was a port city, and also a center of worship – it had been designated a temple city for the cult of the Emperor. The city existed under a constant state of scrutiny from Rome, for there were certain standards that had to be maintained in order to retain its important status in the Empire.
However, the Church at Smyrna was under a particularly greater deal of persecution than the other churches. They suffered for their faith, forced into poverty, unable to take part in the power and wealth of the city, oppressed by the government – but not because the government had identified them as troublemakers or insurrectionists. No, the cause of the oppression of the Church at Smyrna came from their own theological cousins – the Jewish community of Smyrna; the Synagogue of Satan.
Now, to be fair, this is not automatically a condemnation of the entire Jewish community at Smyrna. J. Massyngberde Ford of the University of Notre Dame has suggested that the background for the Revelator’s condemnation of the synagogue was that he himself was raised as an orthodox Jew, and felt that the Christian community at Smyrna was doing a better job of holding to Jewish practices and customs than was the Jewish community. Not least among these, of course, would be the practice of hospitality – the Jewish community of which the Revelator speaks had rejected the Christian community at Smyrna, committing the sort of violation which led Jesus to instruct his disciples to “shake the dust off of their feet” as they left towns where they had been rejected, and in fact, the sort of violation which had brought destruction and doom upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
And so, the impoverishment and the persecution which the Church at Smyrna endured were well known to John the Revelator. He was specifically instructed to speak to those things when the letter was dictated to him. And surely, the leader of the Church at Smyrna – the “angel of the church in Smyrna”, as the letter says – would have expected that John would’ve next said something along the lines of, “But take heart, for the Lord is about to unburden you of this synagogue of Satan!”
But no. The letter doesn’t say that. In fact, for the Church in Smyrna, things were about to get worse.
“The devil is about to throw some of you into prison,” the Revelator says, “and for ten days you will have affliction.”
Well, things just aren’t going well for the Church in Smyrna, now are they? Ten days of affliction. Would those be in a literal prison? Quite possibly so. Why, the Revelator does not explain; however, New Testament professor and President of Union Presbyterian Seminary Brian Blount suggests that this is a continuation of the persecution they have experienced because of the collaboration of the synagogue at Smyrna, and is representative of the Satanic activity that takes place throughout the book of Revelation.
But the period of time is brief – ten days. And ten is no random number, at least not in Hebrew tradition. The number ten, like the number seven, indicated completion, that something was finished. It is entirely possible that the Revelator is telling the Church in Smyrna that these coming ten days will mark the completion of their persecution. And because the period of time is so brief, he considers it to be entirely survivable. “Do not fear what you are about to suffer,” the Revelator instructs them. “Be faithful, even unto death.”
Okay, so survival may be a relative term in this case. Physical survival may be possible, but even if not, then it is still important that the Church in Smyrna maintain their faith up until the end. It will not be an easy task, maintaining that faith, but that’s why the Revelator is writing them – he is there to walk alongside them in spirit, to encourage them. “You’re about to be out of your depth,” he tells them, “but the Lord is with you. Keep your faith, even if it means the end of your life, and you will not be forgotten.”
(Reading by Jessica Place)
“Warning! You are now at 7,000 feet. Use extreme caution during athletic participation. If you feel light headed or dizzy, cease activity immediately. Physical exertion at high altitude can be harmful to athletic participants. Welcome to Flagstaff, Arizona!”
That warning is posted throughout the J. Lawrence Walkup Skydome on the campus of Northern Arizona University. In most places, it is meant in a light-hearted fashion, to intimidate the opponent and to give the NAU Lumberjacks a certain feeling of advantage – generally, the only advantage Northern Arizona athletics has. But in one place, it is meant entirely seriously.
It is posted directly outside the exit to the visitors’ locker room, and there, it is meant to say, “Be careful. Your body is not used to these altitudes. You could hurt yourself if you’re not careful, because like the Church at Smyrna, you are out of your depth.”
Perhaps nobody better understands the concept of being out of their depth better than the family and friends of an individual who has found themselves in hospice care. Their loved one is going to die. They know this, and there is nothing that they can do about it. And so they gather at the place of care, simultaneously desperate to spend time with their loved one and reluctant to see them in such a place, knowing that they have very little time left with them and yet loath to see them as they deteriorate unto death.
And the time an individual spends in hospice care can seem like an eternity – but realistically, it’s a very brief period of time. According to a 2010 study conducted by the National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization, the majority of those who receive hospice care do so for no more than 21 days. Three weeks.
Think about how short a period of time that is. It’s been more than three weeks since Spring Break ended. It’s only three weeks until the last day of classes. It is not a very long time. But if you are the family member of somebody in hospice care, it can seem like an eternity. Watching your loved one as they slowly slip from this world, often in pain, praying for their release, calling out as the prophet Habakkuk, “How long, oh Lord, will you hear my prayer and not answer,” praying desperately for the pain to end. Just like the church at Smyrna, for my mom, sitting with her sister, it was ten days. Her own personal ten days with the devil.
Hospice care seems to me to be the modern day church at Smyrna. Affliction of the faithful for such a brief period of time, but to the extent that it could break their faith. And like John the Revelator, there is a responsibility for caregivers – for doctors, for nurses, and perhaps most of all, for pastors and chaplains – to be the source of encouragement for those family members. Yes, the job of caregivers is certainly to ensure that the patient spends their last days with a minimum of pain and suffering, but it seems that it is equally important that they ensure that the family of the loved one can experience this transition of life with a minimum of trauma.
This was a lesson that I learned early on in my unit of CPE at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Durham. My area of responsibility at the VA included the Community Living Center, which is essentially a nursing home and hospice care facility within the hospital, run by the VA.
On my second day of CPE, I was conducting normal rounds in the Community Living Center, when a floor nurse approached me and told me that she needed me to come with her right away. “Mr. Smith* is actively dying,” she told me, “and I need you to stay with him until his family members arrive.”
And so, I went into Mr. Smith’s room, to see a man, unconscious, body wasted away. His difficulty breathing was evident, and he was very clearly close to death. I took a seat next to his bed, to keep watch until his family arrived.
As I sat there, I began looking around the room – and my eye fell on a picture on his closet door. In that picture was a robust, strong, healthy man of about fifty, wearing the green Class A dress uniform of the US Army, the stripes of a Sergeant Major gleaming on his sleeves. “SMITH”, his nametag proclaimed. This man in the picture was somehow the same man lying in the bed next to where I sat.
And as I processed this information, my mind began to churn. This man’s age meant that he would have served in Vietnam. This man’s ethnicity – African-American – meant that the period of time when he came of age would have been profoundly affected by the Civil Rights movement. This man’s place of origin – eastern North Carolina – meant that he would have returned home from Vietnam to a country that despised him for his uniform, and to a place where many despised him for his skin color.
As I pondered all this, something else began to sneak into my mind. I was, at that time, barely two months removed from officer training at the Naval Officer Training Command in Newport, Rhode Island. One of the things that our instructors had made very clear to us was that as junior officers, if we made sure to take care of our senior enlisted officers, they too would take care of us. And the voices of those instructors saying that to us crept into my head as I, a junior officer, sat there next to a senior enlisted officer, unable to do anything for him but just sit by his side.
That was not good enough. And so it was that when his sister and cousin arrived a short while later, I felt the need to do something. So, I stood, greeted them, and as I was leaving, came to attention at the foot of his bed, and said, “Sergeant Major Smith, on behalf of the United States Navy and of the Navy Chaplain Corps, thank you for your service.”
His sister and his cousin both smiled through their tears as I did that and thanked me. “Thank you, and God bless you,” his sister said to me as I left, but I was still frustrated. In a move that I’m sure will shock and amaze all of you, I later took to Facebook to vent my frustrations on the matter.
What came as a surprise to me was the email I got that evening from Ensign Stephanie Horigan, a Navy nurse who had been in my training company at Newport, who herself has spent a great deal of time working in palliative and hospice care, and who had read my Facebook posts on the matter. “Being with someone who is dying can be one of the most trying things about any profession that puts service above self,” she said. “It can be devastating, but at the same time, think of what an incredible gift you gave his family – you gave them comfort, knowing that their loved one was not alone in his final hours.”
Looking back on that day nearly eight months ago, I realize now that in that moment, Sergeant Major Smith’s family was like the Church at Smyrna. They had been taken from a place of love and experiences with family into an unknown, frightening place where emotional trauma occurred every day as they watched their loved one leave them. And in that moment, my job was to be like John the Revelator, to walk alongside them and provide them the encouragement to be faithful and strong.
It was what John was called to do, and it is what we are each called to do. In their ten days of affliction, we stand alongside those family members. We take them by the hand, and we say, “Remain faithful, for you are not alone in this.”
* – Name changed to comply with HIPAA
1. Ford, J. Massyngberd . Anchor Bible – Revelation. New Haven: Yale. p.395
2. Blount, Brian . Revelation. Louisville: Westminster John Knox. p.54
3. Sinclair, Christian . Hospice facts and figures 2010 released by NHCPO. In End of life/palliative education resource center. Retrieved from http://www.eperc.mcw.edu/EPERC/WhatsNew/News/HospiceFactsandFigures2010ReleasedbyNHPCO.