Sermon for 14th Sunday after Pentecost 2018
An Episcopal priest and an Italian taxi cab driver die and meet St. Peter at the pearly gates. St. Peter thanks the priest for all his work for the Lord and calls a Lincoln Town car up for him to be transported. As they are waiting, a Lexus limo shows up and St. Peter says it is for the taxi driver. The priest questions him. St. Peter said, “People came to God through your sermons and actions, but everytime, thousands of folks, every time the taxi cab driver drove, people prayed and found Jesus.”
We Americans tend to value flexibility. “Bend, don’t break,” “swim with the stream” “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” “Don’t get stuck, go with the flow,” we tell ourselves. It is this attitude that makes today’s passage of scripture so difficult for us, because here Paul reminds us to stand firm: “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” This is the opposite of going with the flow.
Hear the reading from 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 indispensableweapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out. And don’t forget to pray for me. Pray that I’ll know what to say and have the courage to say it at the right time, telling the mystery to one and all, the Message that I, jailbird preacher that I am, am responsible for getting out.
Paul doesn’t encourage conformity. If so, he would have urged the Christian Church to blend with conventional morality and wisdom. Paul’s guidance can make us unpopular. But, still Paul urges us to stand firm on our convictions. Who can do this? Who can stand firm on convictions when the tide of popularity turns against us and the strong winds of criticism blow and push us this way and that. Is this all about lone individuals standing rigidly and resolute? No, Paul is talking about Christian identity and the roots of our common faith. To be able to stand firm, we must be nurtured in a tradition, to be a part of a faithful community, and to grow deep in its rich fertile soil of spirituality.
On my vacation to the Holy Land, I was back and forth in telling people I was an Episcopal priest. I wanted to just be with the group and not have any responsibility. When you tell people you are a priest, they have these expectations and I wanted to be free of expectations and just be. But, when we were heading to the Jordan River, I started to think about those people who weren’t being dunked and if they may want the option of being sprinkled or blessed. So, to be able to “put on the armor of God”, I had to empty myself of those feelings, of those obstacles, of that apprehension, to open myself to the possibilities. When I offered to serve, several people came up to me, appreciative of the opportunity. So, I knew it was the right thing. It was the most amazing feeling standing in the water of the Jordan River. I was about ankle deep and there were little tiny fish nibbling on my ankles.
At first, they were an annoyance and I kind of did a holiness dance to move away from them. Someone told me they were eating the dead skin, but I think they were eating the sin to better equip me to bless and baptize others. God uses everything to prepare us for the next thing. It was amazing and I might have missed it if I had followed my own limitations, instead of listening to God.
That is why Paul encourages us to “put on the whole armor of God.” To be able to be strong in our faith, we must embrace truth, righteousness, peace and salvation. To be followers of Jesus, we must equip ourselves, embrace our God-given gifts and be grounded in the Word of God.
We see in this passage, a difference between being stubborn and standing firm. Paul isn’t asking us to be stubborn, wedded to an opinion, rooted in prejudice, or closed-minded. He is asking us to stand on something that is transcendent, real and renewing. This means being willing to be humble and to risk being unpopular, even to suffer ridicule, as a faithful person in the community of faith. A stubborn person won’t listen to ideas that differ from his or her own. Stubbornness rejects alternatives and refuses to change their position. Stubbornness is not self discerning. It‘s not well informed, and it doesn’t grow. It is enshrined in a closed circle of certainty and becomes fearful, boisterous, and one dimensional. The stubborn heart and mind are impervious to reason and may be one way of hiding our insecurity.
Standing firm is different. Standing firm means that we are willing to debate, listen, and consider alternatives to reach a beneficial goal, while at the same time not sacrificing basic principles. Martin Luther King Jr. stood firm on non-violence. Margaret Sanger, the 20thcentury suffragette, stood firm on women’s rights. Nelson Mandela stood firm and resolute against apartheid. All of them stood firm against injustice. The lesson we draw from them is that to have a strong sense of self, a concern for justice and compassion, is to be grounded in the convictions of the community and open to critical evaluation. Paul reminds us, that this is how we stand firm.
Soren Kierkegaard said, “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” We can do this, “will one thing”, staying focused and having singleness of purpose, without being stubborn about it. Paul is not asking us to get stuck on one strategy, idea or position. He has in mind a larger goal, a bigger picture of God’s wider mercies. He is not encouraging stubbornness, tunnel vision or judgmental mentality.
Paul’s words, “put on the whole armor of God,” prepare us for struggle. The helmet of salvation regulates our thoughts and attitudes. The belt of truth helps us know that God’s truth in our lives, that we are God’s beloved. The breastplate of righteousness protects our hearts and keeps us in the will of God. Stress and anxiety come when we prepare to engage things that really matter. No one in his or her right mind prepares for struggle without a plan, a strategy, without forethought. We want to know what we are up against so that we can prepare appropriately and engage the struggle successfully.
Standing firm gives the struggle purpose and gives us meaning. In the midst of controversy we may ask, “Is the price to be paid worth the struggle?” Sometimes, in the midst of struggle and fatigue, we find our strength renewed. We may find ourselves assessing and reassessing our situations and coming to new resolve.
Paul reminds us - 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 indispensableweapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.
When we follow these truths, when we rely on Jesus Christ, when we meet regularly as the body of Christ, when we participate in the living sacrament of Eucharist, then we are equipped to meet the challenges in our lives. In that moment when we choose to eat Jesus’ flesh and to drink his blood, and we truly abide in him and he in us – we choose life. We turn over to God all those things within ourselves that may pull us away from trusting. We put on the whole armor of God and accept the love of God that is pure grace, and love flows from us and we are able to love others. And we remember that – “Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words.” Amen.