Sermon for 13th Sunday after Pentecost 2021
I Kings 8:22-30, 41-43 Psalms 84 Ephesians 6:10-20 John 6:56-69
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 every time, 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 indispensable weapon. 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. I am reminded of Mother Teresa had to say... People are often unreasonable, illogical and self-centered; Forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; Be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; Succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; Build anyway
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; Be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; Do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see in the final analysis, it is between you and God; It was never between you and them anyway.
When we think of “putting n the armor of God”, we have to do some much anyway. 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 regardless of what others do or think.
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 20th century 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 indispensable weapon. 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, emphasized in the Gospel reading, 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.