Friday, August 28, 2015

Dress Like a Christian

Sermon preached  August 23, 2015

Texts: Ephesians 6:10-20

            “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Hat” Bob Dylan
            We just got back from vacation on Thursday, late in the day.  It was an interesting vacation to pack for.  Saturday, August 16 we attended a wedding – the son of one of Julie’s cousins.  I officiated at the wedding so I had to pack appropriate clothing for that.  On our way out to Montana, where the wedding was held, we encountered days that were near 100 degrees.  The morning of the wedding we went for a mountain hike.  The temperatures were in the 50s and I had a t-shirt and shorts on.  I stayed warm enough, but barely.  Tuesday morning we woke to temperatures in the 30s near Yellowstone Park and during our day there the temperatures never got out of the 50s.  Driving out of Yellowstone, on the Beartooth Pass Highway, we encountered some snow.  We packed as best we could and managed well-enough.
            Paul, or the author of Ephesians writing in the name of Paul – a common first-century practice, uses imagery of clothing, particularly of dressing for battle, to talk about the journey with Jesus.  This is not necessarily my favorite set of images, and perhaps even less so after listening on our vacation to a reading of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth with its scenes of bloody sword fighting and rapacious knights.
            Other translations don’t help much either.  The Message: And that about wraps it up. God is strong, and he wants you strong. So take everything the Master has set out for you, well-made weapons of the best materials. And put them to use so you will be able to stand up to everything the Devil throws your way. This is no afternoon athletic contest that we’ll walk away from and forget about in a couple of hours. This is for keeps, a life-or-death fight to the finish against the Devil and all his angels.  Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare.
            I am helped some by this note in The Discipleship Study BibleThese verses do not condone human warfare, but depict the Christian life as part of the cosmic struggle between God and the forces of fallen creation.  The war against the forces that seek to dominate and destroy God’s creation is fought not with the traditional tools of battle, which destroy life, but with weapons that build community and nurture reconciled relationships.
            That helps, and it also helps to acknowledge that life has its battles, its struggles.  When we baptize, we ask a challenging question, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness?”  Tough question, but there is meaning in it.  When I think of “spiritual forces of wickedness, I think of things like slavery and the racism which has followed and continues to plague us as a nation.  Human decisions created the institutions of slavery, but the racism that followed pulls people in beyond conscious decisions.  I think of the Holocaust, where a virulent anti-Semitism was let loose in Europe, and people got caught up in it beyond conscious choice.  That such forces exist does not absolve people from responsibility, but to use this language helps us understand the persistence of some of our human problems.
            Those are large spiritual forces of wickedness, but there are smaller ones.  Many of you have heard that former president Jimmy Carter’s cancer has spread into his brain.  I never voted for Jimmy Carter.  I was too young to vote in 1976. In 1980, I voted for a third party candidate.  Jimmy Carter may never be ranked among our best presidents, but he may be ranked among our strongest former presidents.  I don’t always agree with President Carter, but I believe him to be a person of deep intelligence and an even deeper conscience.
            So how did some greet the news of the spread of Carter’s cancer?  Here are a couple of posts from the Fox News Facebook page.  “That’s karma Jimmy, it will get you.  You said Homosexuality was OK and you claim to be a Christian?  And a Baptist preacher?  And Now you have cancer?  Karma Buddy.”  "The only thing I am appreciative of peanut Jimmy is that his incompetence made it that much easier for Ronald Reagan to win. Good riddance peanut Jimmy." "I'm so sorry he has cancer, but he needs to keep his mouth shut, because he is a complete idiot."  How coarse. How demeaning.  This lack of compassion, this mean-spiritedness, is a kind of spiritual force of wickedness, certainly not on par with slavery or the Holocaust, not even close, but a certain kind of wickedness nonetheless – people getting caught up in trying to outdo one another in insensitivity masking behind the relative anonymity of social media.
            So what can we do, as followers of Jesus to resist spiritual forces of wickedness great and small?  What can we do as followers of Jesus to live better?  Dress like a Christian, not on the outside, as in the internet suggestions in the call to worship, but in our hearts, minds, and souls.  Let me discuss some of the elements of this inner wardrobe as described in Ephesians.
            The writer recommends the belt of truth.  Let me suggest that truth is not a simple idea.  We often think it is – something is true or not true.  For a certain class of ideas and events, this is an adequate understanding of truth, but it is an inadequate understanding of truth when we think about the complexity and nuance of human existence. Listen to this discussion of “truth” from a Church of England theologian named Andrew Shanks.  Opinions are either correct or incorrect….  But the truth that belongs to the poetry of faith is not exactly a matter of correctness.  Far rather, it is the truth of a true challenge: to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more.  And so to be inwardly changed.  Changed in the sense of saved. (What is Truth?, 5) There is truth here, in the idea that truth is complicated.  I also appreciate Parker Palmer’s working definition of truth.  Truth is an eternal conversation about things that matter, conducted with passion and discipline (A Hidden Wholeness, 127).  When asking about the truth of deep statements about human existence, I have learned to ask not simply “Is it true?” but rather “In what way might this be true?” or “How does this illumine my life?”
            The writer encourages wearing the breastplate of righteousness.  Righteousness is a challenging word. It is not one we use in our everyday speech.  I think it has everything to do with right relationships – to God, to others, to ourselves.  When our relationships are in relatively good order, our hearts are guarded, our souls protected. 
            For shoes, the writer tells us to wear “whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”  The good news of God’s love as known in Jesus is meant to be a word of peace – peace with God, peace with others, peace within, peace in the world, peace with creation.  It is good and joyful news that we can live differently - imagine more, feel more, think more, love more, and so be inwardly changed, changed in the sense of saved.  This is news too good to be kept to ourselves and so we want to share it, share it, perhaps by sharing its joy.  The shoes are dancing shoes.
            And for a shield, the writer tells us, we have faith.  Faith is less a matter of belief, less a cognitive/head matter, than a matter of trust.  The religious philosopher Donald Evans argues that “the most crucial personal struggle in religion, morality, and life is between trust and distrust” (Struggle and Fulfillment, 2).  Evans argues that it is a struggle between basic trust and basic distrust, where basic trust is “an initial openness to whatever is life-affirming and other people and oneself” (2).  Faith is that kind of basic trust.  I appreciate the way Andrew Shanks links faith, trust and truth.  Faith… is a community-building or community-transformative appropriation of the very deepest poetic truth (What is Truth, 5).  This is trust in the meaningfulness of life and the meaningfulness of the struggles for growth and change.  That kind of faith is a shield, protecting us against paralyzing cynicism and despair.
            What’s a good wardrobe without a hat – the helmet of salvation.  Salvation is another one of those words like “righteousness” that is often hard to understand.  “Are you saved?” some ask out of the blue.  Salvation is not simply something that takes care of us after we die, though from many understandings of Christianity, that seems to be about it. Salvation has something to do with overall well-being.  It has to do with the process of being transformed, with the process of growing into all that God desires for us to be.
            The writer ends his discussion of dressing like a Christian with carrying a sword – “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  When we hear that, we are often directed to think of the Bible – the Bible as a sword.  Many use it just like that, wielding it with a certain sense of their own rightness.  To view the Bible as a weapon is not terribly fitting, however.  For one thing, there was no “Bible” in our sense when this letter was written.  There were the sacred Scriptures of the Hebrew people, of the Jewish community, but for the emerging Jesus movement, there was a sense that God was up to something new in Jesus, who was seen as an embodied word.  “The word of God” here has a more dynamic sense.  It has to do with paying attention to the active Spirit of God, which requires openness and listening.  The church has come to teach that we hear the Spirit of God in a unique way in the Bible, in an important and authoritative way, but it is not the only place where the Spirit speaks.
            So how might all of this fit together?  Let me share how they fit together for me.  This wardrobe of the “well-dressed Christian” encourages me to try and find some balance, some centering when life feels a little like a battle, even if it is not necessarily a battle with spiritual forces of wickedness.

            I arrived back from vacation Thursday evening.  Friday I met with two families about upcoming funerals – one was yesterday, one is tomorrow.  I also found out about another death, and that funeral will be September 4.  Saturday I visited Jon Dallman at Solvay Hospice House.  Just before worship, I found out he died this morning.  We are gearing up for our Capital Campaign, and for the fall program year.  The campaign and programs are good things.  That we are here for others in times of death, is a good thing and I take that ministry very seriously.  And it all can be wearing, wearying.  What keeps me from sliding into weariness is finding some time for conversations about truth, even if some of those conversations are with authors I am reading.  I try and make time to listen to the Spirit.  I try to tend to relationships, though sometimes my balance here is not always so good.  Most of all, I am trusting in God for my well-being, my salvation.  I trust God that the struggles are worth it, that being there for others matters, that the energy expended in ministry makes a difference even when that might be difficult to see.  And I put on my dancing shoes to share joyfully that God’s love and grace are there for us all, including for me.  That’s dressing like a Christian.  Amen.

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