19 November 2014

Nibblers No More!

Revelation 3:14-22

23rd Sunday after Pentecost/ 16th November 2014

“It was the deciding game of the Divisional Series between the [Nationals] and the St. Louis Cardinals [in 2012]; the winner would play in the National League Championship Series.  The Nats got off to an amazing start, building a 6 to 0 lead in just the first few innings. But then the Cardinals slowly chipped away at that lead. Even so, the Nats could have won the game with just one more out in the ninth inning.  In fact, all that they needed was one pitch, the right pitch, to get a final out.  But they couldn’t get it.  The Cardinals got strategic hits to get on base, the Nats walked too many batters and couldn’t get that last strike, that last out; and thus they lost the game.”  After that painful loss that ended the season, Nats manager Davey Johnson had this to say about his pitchers.  “They were nibbling, and it was painful to watch.”  “By nibbling he meant that the Nats pitchers weren’t challenging the batters with their best stuff: they were nibbling around the edge of the strike zone and throwing too many balls.”  Toward the end of the game, the pitching coach said to the pitchers as they made their way to the mound each time:  “Stop nibbling!”[1]

What did he mean by “nibbling”?   The word “nibble” has its origins in Low German and emerged around 1800.  It means, “to show cautious interest in a project or proposal.”  “Nibbling is when our efforts are half-baked, lackluster, ill-conceived, and insufficient—when we’re not putting forth our best stuff.”[2]  We nibble when we hold something back, hold something in reserve, fail to give it our all.  We’re cautious, suspicious, dubious, perhaps fearful about an outcome, so we pull back.  When our hearts aren’t in what we’re doing, we’re nibbling.  It’s “halfhearted devotion.”[3]

The church in Laodicea was a congregation full of nibblers.  You won’t find that word in the text, of course, but it’s a good word to describe a word that is: “lukewarm.”  That’s Christ’s chief complaint with the Laodiceans, one of the seven churches in Asia Minor. Of the seven churches—Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea—Christ has the strongest words for the church in Laodicea.  By contrast, the churches in Ephesus and in Philadelphia are affirmed for their faithfulness. Not the Laodiceans. Christ can’t find anything to praise in them. Christ still loves the church there, but they have issues.  Lots of issues.  What was going on there?

Laodicea, first colonized by the Greeks in the third century BC was the richest city in the region of Phrygia.  It was so wealthy that after a devastating earthquake in 60 AD, the city proudly refused imperial disaster assistance from Rome and rebuilt the city with its own resources.  Laodicea was located six miles south of the major Roman city of Hierapolis, ten miles northwest of Colossae, and a hundred miles east of Ephesus, which was along the coast.  Laodicea was situated at a major intersection along many trade routes, especially the east-west route from port at Ephesus in the west to remote regions of Asia Minor in the east.  The city was well known and well endowed by its textile, banking, and medical industries.  It was particularly known for its signature commercial items: shiny black wool and Phrygian powder, used in the making of an eye salve. 

The city also had a major water problem.  It had no water source of its own, so it had to pipe in water down from the hot medicinal springs in Hierapolis. (The springs are still there today. On the tour I led to Turkey and Greece, back in 2011, we spent an afternoon in Hierapolis and even played in the medicinal springs.)
Mineral springs of Pammukkale (Hierapolis), Turkey.
As a result, “by the time [the water] arrived [in Laodicea], its tepidness and mineral content made the water nauseating.”[4]  People were prone to spit it from their mouths.

 “I know your works,” Christ says, “you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were either cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16).   “Spit” is too mild here.  “Vomit” is better.  “I am about to vomit you out of my mouth.”  It’s what the Laodiceans often did after drinking water piped in from Hierapolis. 

Neither hot nor cold.  Nibblers. Half-hearted.  Lackluster in their commitment.  The adjectives “hot” and “cold” should not be used to describe different kinds of Christians.  “Christ opposes the hot and the cold to the lukewarm.”  If you’re going to be hot, then be hot; if you’re going to be cold, then be cold.  But you can’t be lukewarm, indecisive, in the middle.  Take a stand!  “Declare yourselves!  Be hot or cold!  Be clear!” Be a witness!

Take a stand for Christ where you live, in the world: a world that demands undying allegiance to its twisted values, a world that demands tribute to its gods, a world that demands authority to principalities and powers and imperial Caesars.  In such a world, declare your devotion. 

This won’t be easy.  Why?  Because the Laodiceans think they’re self-sufficient.  They’re so wealthy they don’t need financial assistance from Rome.  They’re full of themselves.  They’re the opposite of the Smyrna church, which was materially destitute but rich in witness (Rev. 2:9).  Not the Laodiceans.  They’re sophisticated, cultured.  They’ve thoroughly accommodated themselves to the values of Greco-Roman society and their profiting from it.  They sold out. Christ mimics what Laodiceans often said about themselves, “You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing’” (Rev. 3:17).  But, Christ says to them, “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev. 3:17).

“This city of wealthy bankers would feel [annoyed] at being labeled poor. This city of medical schools that pioneered pharmaceuticals for the betterment of sight would not appreciate an insult that labeled their entire municipality blind.  This city full of merchants who outfitted the Greco-Roman world in the finest textiles, particularly their famous black wool, would be amused to hear someone call them naked.”[5]  As far as Christ is concerned, they are fooling themselves.  They think they have it all, but they actually have nothing.

Christ offers them a different way to live.  He invites them to become “rich” in other ways.  “Buy gold from me refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes that you may see” (Rev. 3:18).  In other words, step out, take a stand, declare who is Lord of your life: commit!  “Their blindness is their lukewarmness, their accommodation to the values of the Greco-Roman world.”[6]  The salve that Christ offers will really cure their blindness.

And so he gives them an opportunity to take a stand.  “Repent,” Christ says.  Metanoison.  Repent.  Change your mind.  Change the way you’re thinking.  Change the way you’re living.  Be earnest about it.  Not half-hearted.  Stop nibbling.  Throw yourself into it.  Repent.  And then, listen for that knock on the door—“Listen!  I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me” (Rev. 3:20). 

Can you hear his voice?  Do you hear his knock on the door of your live?  Then open it, open the door—not just a little, not just a crack to see who’s on the other side, but without caution, without suspicion, open it wide!

Christ wants our commitment.  And, I believe, deep down in our hearts, we want to be fully committed to him.  But we all know how difficult this is at times.  There are so many things vying for our attention, our focus, our energy, and our resources.  And then there’s the fear and anxiety that always come with commitment.  We’re afraid of being disappointed.  We’re afraid of betrayal.  We’re afraid of failure and so we never try.  We’re anxious about where that level of commitment might lead us.  What might be required of us?  Asked of us?  Do we have the courage for that kind of commitment?  It’s easier to be lukewarm, non-committal, halfhearted—one half of the heart engaged in action, the other half reserved, held back, protecting itself from getting hurt (or getting hurt again).

How’s this for a motto: Nibblers no more!   No more half-heartedness.  Instead, let us throw ourselves more fully into the work that Christ has called us to do.  Let us invest ourselves completely—all our heart, soul, strength, and mind (Luke 10:27)—to God’s call in our lives.  Let us take some risks and open the door and allow Christ to enter our lives, let us invite Christ to enter this church in new ways!  Let us give our very best to the Lord and to our neighbors.  

On this Mission Sunday we celebrate and give thanks for the work of our mission partners.  I’m grateful, as I know you are too, for the mission support this church provides.  And yet we all know there’s so much more to be done.  We’re only scratching the surface.  We are grateful for what we are doing, but we know the needs are great and deep.  We can’t settle and say what we’re doing is good enough.  Something more is needed.  The church’s mission work is more than charity and it has to be more than offering Band-Aid solutions to the wounds of the work.  This is one of the major reasons why mission needs to be linked with advocacy; that is, working to remove the conditions in society that create hunger and homeless and suffering and violence.  I’m looking forward to seeing the ways our new Envision Fund will support current and new mission endeavors, but also peace and justice and advocacy issues. 

Nibblers no more!  We can walk a thousand miles in a CROP Walk, but if we’re not addressing the reasons for widespread hunger in society, we’re nibbling.  How can we say we’re passionate about feeding the hungry when we’re not eradicating the reasons why they’re hungry?  And how can we say we’re concerned about homelessness when we’re not addressing the societal structures and economic injustices that cause people to lose their homes and their jobs? 

Nibblers no more!  Full-heartedness in all that we do.  Giving our best to God and to our neighbors and to ourselves.  This is what we’re committing to next Sunday when we make our pledge to CPC.  It’s not called Pledge Sunday or Stewardship Sunday (every Sunday is really stewardship Sunday), but Commitment Sunday—and your financial pledge to CPC is a demonstration of your commitment to Christ’s work in the world.  It’s not the only measure of your commitment, but it’s a major one.  And we are being to asked to pledge to “even greater works” (John 14:12) with full hearts to God’s work among us.

Last summer, I had a chance to play golf with my brother, Craig, in Savannah.  He’s an amazing golfer, very gifted.  I’m not very good at it.  I don’t play that often—which is why I’m not very good at it.  He’s a good teacher and I’m not always the best student.  This time I heard Craig say something that really struck me, it was advice regarding my swing.  As you probably know, swinging a golf club at a ball is no guarantee that one will actually hit the ball.  It’s possible to swing and soon realize that the ball is still sitting there on the tee, staring at you—laughing at you.  Craig said, “Commit to the ball.  Then swing.”  Golf is mostly a head and heart game, you know.  Commit, then swing.  You can’t be lukewarm about it.  Commit.  (I can tell you this made a noticeable difference in my score!)   

Sir Edmund Hillary ascending Mt. Everest in 1953.
Sir Edmund Hillary (1919-2008) knew something about commitment.  He was the first to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, in 1953.   He once said, “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness, concerning all acts of initiative [and creation]. There is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans; that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”   He’s right: the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too.

“Listen.  I am standing at the door, knocking if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”  May it be so.

[1] I’m grateful for Roger Gench’s telling of this story and his reflection on the phenomenon of “nibbling,” found in his recent work Theology From the Trenches: Reflections on Urban Ministry (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 64.
[2] Gench, 65.
[3] Gench, 65.
[4] Cited in Brian Blount, Revelation: A Commentary (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 80.
[5] Blount, 82.
[6] Blount, 83.