Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Isaiah 50: 4-9
The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens--
wakens my ear
to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backwards.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
he who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who are my adversaries?
Let them confront me.
It is the Lord God who helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
All of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.
The Challenge of Teaching
Here at Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, we follow a set of scripture readings called the Revised Common Lectionary. At this point in our church year, we have been asked to spend some time with the Gospel of Mark. One important theme of Mark is the question of Jesus' identity. Throughout this Gospel, Jesus is addressed with many titles. Had we had three scripture readings for the day instead of our usual two, we would have also read a portion of Mark 8, where Jesus asked his followers, "Who do you say that I am?" They replied in a variety of ways. Some said, prophet. Some said that they had even heard people say that he was Elijah or John the Baptist. Even those these titles seem important, there are two titles that seem even more important, both in this chapter, and in all of Mark. These are "Messiah" and "Son of God." And yet, even as I know that Messiah and Son of God are vitally important ways to understand Jesus' life and ministry, given that today is the first Sunday of our program year, it seems important to talk about yet one more term that is used to describe Jesus. Now, this term isn't used in Mark 8, but it is used 14 other times in the rest of the book. That tells me that it's pretty important. This term is "teacher." Since today is the day that we begin our program year and the kids head back to Sunday School, it seems important to talk about the work of the teacher... and the challenge of teaching.
As we read about Jesus' life in ministry through the book of Mark, we see him most often doing two things, teaching and doing miracles that provide people with health or safety. In many cases, these two activities are specifically related. In four of the places where he is addressed as teacher, he is also shown to be healing the sick, raising the dead, calming storms in the ocean, or explaining to his disciples how to offer healing themselves. Jesus' teaching is also directly connected to his willingness to stand up to authorities and elites in his community. It is his through his role as a teacher that he is able to challenge the rich young man to examine his own life to see if his attachment to his material belongings is preventing him from following God. It is his role as a teacher that allows him rebut religious scholars who value the letter of the law over love of God and neighbor. It is his role as a teacher that allows him to speak of the living God, who radically disrupts any way of life that we know and helps us to create a more just and loving way to live in this world. I think that it is telling that just before his trial and execution, when he sent his disciples ahead to prepare the meal for them, he tells the disciples to explain what they need this way, "The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?" That's right. In the hours before his death, with his role as Messiah and Son of God in clear sight, he chose to describe himself as Teacher so that their host would recognize his disciples. So, when he asked his disciples, "Who do you say that I am?," I'm a little puzzled that no one answered teacher. His ministry was so obviously deeply infused with teaching. How could teacher not be one of the titles that they responded with?
I wonder if part of the answer can be found in today's reading from the book of Isaiah. When early Christians looked to Jewish tradition to understand the life and ministry of Jesus, they often looked to the book of Isaiah. It would be helpful for us to look there, too. Here's a little background on this book. The book that we call Isaiah is really a collection of writing that were recorded and collected over about a 600 year period. During that time, there was much upheaval. First Israel and, then, Judah fell to the hands of the Assyrian empire. Then, they all were defeated by the Babylonian empire. When the Babylonian empire took control of Judah, they destroyed the temple in Jerusalem and forced much of the population of the city, which would have included most of the ruling, educated, and priestly classes, to live in exile in Babylon. Many of the people left in Judah would have lived in abject poverty amidst the ruins of their country. It is important to remember that most of the book of Isaiah is prophetic poetry intended to help the Jewish people navigate the reality of war and exile, and also to articulate the hope required to rebuild their nation.
Key to our conversation today is the a figure in Isaiah called the Servant. In some cases, this servant can appear to be one person who will come and lead the people. At other times, the Servant seems to be a personified Israel, with all the people acting collectively to do God's will... that is, to return from exile and rebuild Jerusalem. Many people would come to understand Jesus in terms of this servant, as one sent by God to do God's will. It is likely that Jesus, and his followers, as devout Jews, would have been familiar with the ways that the book of Isaiah understood prophetic leadership and service. And, in the Servant, the book of Isaiah draws a clear link between prophecy and teaching. You don't seem to have one without the other.
Today's reading from Isaiah begins with this lovely phrase, "The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word." Even here, nearly 600 years before Jesus was born, we have a connection between teaching, healing, and compassion. In Isaiah, we learn of a teacher, a prophet, who has been given a gift from God to be used to sustain the weary. Doesn't that remind you of the way that Jesus acted as a teacher during his ministry? The teacher/prophet/servant in Isaiah doesn't just teach, though. The teacher is ready to learn. This teacher speaks of a great calling from God to teach. God opened the teacher's ear and the teacher did not turn away. Each morning, this teacher learns anew from God and then goes about sharing this new learning. This sounds a little like Jesus, too, who was willing to learn from the Syro-Phoenecian woman and then completely re-orient his mission to the Gentiles based on their interaction.
But, the work of the teacher is not easy. This servant/teacher in Isaiah is prepared to be attacked for the lessons that he brought. He would be beaten. People would attempt to shame him. But, he would not hide. This teacher/servant is confident that God is there, right in the middle of all of the derision and violence. The teacher says, "The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; the one who vindicates me is near." What strength is in these few verses. Imagine a people having been wracked by war and needing to hear some good news, hearing these lines. The Lord God helps me. I have set my face like flint. I will not be shamed. Whether they understood this to be a description of the confidence of their leader or as aspirations for themselves as a unified nation, the words must have inspired hope. They were assured that God would inspire them and that they would be able to teach the lessons they learned to more people. They were assured that even as they faced adversaries, God would not leave them. And, they would be able to rebuild and renew their community. This prophet, the servant/teacher nation, would hear guidance from God, and would use this guidance to reconstruct the reign of God.
Now, when I hear Jesus described as Messiah and prophet, this servant/teacher is on my mind and I wonder if it was on his, too. Because Jesus was have likely been raised to understand that prophets were teachers, too, and that the truth-telling and justice-seeking role of the prophet was deeply intertwined with the compassionate and healing role of the teacher. If his own self-understanding was as informed by the Servant images in Isaiah as our current understanding of Messiah is, I don't think he would have understood one without the other. We have evidence of this in his life. He regularly lived a life of a teacher who comforted the weary. He did not shy away from the hard work of teaching, even when teaching the truth put him in danger. I hope he had Isaiah on his mind when he taught. I hope that these words gave him strength and comfort.
Being a teacher is not easy. As the book of James notes, teachers can be judged pretty harshly and often have an added level of scrutiny because of the importance of their job. But, Christ never told us to avoid hard things. He just promised that he'd be there alongside us while we do them together. In that teaching spirit, I'm going to invite you to do participate in our own version of a teacher/servant nation. I hope that you'll do two things with me. First, I invite you to start seeing yourself as a teacher... to start seeing all of your actions as ways to teach people about your understanding of God and about this church. Sure, this seems like a lot of pressure. But, God is with you. And, you already work to live out your faith everyday. Let's just try to be more intentional about it. Inspired by the book of Isaiah, I hope that when people ask why you do what you do, that you won't be afraid to say that your actions are rooted in your faith. And, here's my second challenge: I'm going to invite you to volunteer to help teach our kids, either by working with me on a children's moment or by teaching one Sunday school class to help give our three Sunday school teachers a break. I know. Kids can be scary and do unexpected things. It's going to be ok though. We know that we are in this together and that Christ is accompanying us. So, be a teacher. You might just get to bring comfort to the weary and maybe even challenge some authority. Don't worry, though. Jesus is right there with you. He was a teacher, too.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Patricia Tull's Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9:
Anathea Portier-Young's Commentary on Isaiah 50: 4-9:
Frank M. Yamada's Commentary on Isaiah 50:4-9:
Patricia Tull's Commentary on Isaiah 35: 4-7a:
The introduction to Isaiah in the New Oxford Annotated Bible
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, ‘Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.’ Then he said to her, ‘For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.’ So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’
No Other Story Quite Like This
I have been thinking a lot about displaced people these last couple of weeks. Last weekend was the 10th anniversary of the landfall of Hurricane Katrina, a storm that devastated the coasts of Louisiana and Mississippi. New Orleans, in particular, was nearly destroyed when the levees broke, a crisis that many had predicted would happen if a large storm hit the city. One and a half million people had to flee the Gulf Coast. Some of them ended up in Knoxville, Tennessee, at the hospital where I had just begun my chaplaincy training. On the morning of my first on-call as a chaplain resident, I received word that evacuees from New Orleans would be arriving that day. When the hospital administration first told the staff that people were coming, they weren't sure how many. What they did know was that they would be spread through several hospitals in the area and would be housed in a church in the next city over. The chaplain, on top of our normal role of providing spiritual and emotional care for the people who walked through our doors, was to help make sure people had food, clean clothes if they needed them, and to pay for their transportation to the shelter.
I spent the better part of the rest of the day with about two dozen people who had just watched their homes wash away into the Gulf of Mexico. Several of the folks there were related. Some people were by themselves. Some people had very serious health problems and needed to be hospitalized. Others were doing pretty well, and, after a shower, change of clothes, and a bite to eat, could head on over to the church. As the day wore on, everyone who was in good health had been transported to the shelter except for two teenagers and their mom. Two elderly relatives of theirs had been admitted to the hospital. Their mother was making sure that the sick family members were being tended to properly and it was taking quite a while. The staff who had been assigned to help the evacuees was ready to get back to their regular assignments. When the woman, who had been upstairs with her ill family members came back downstairs to where her children were waiting, I asked if she was ready to go to the shelter. I had already asked a few other times.
She explained that she had her own money and really wanted to stay with her elderly family to get them settled. This is a totally reasonable request. However, those of us who had been working with the evacuees had a timeline in our minds about how we would help them. We had a plan and knew what resources we had to offer. We weren't sure what to do with this woman who had her own priorities in mind. We tried to explain that it wasn't a great idea for her teenagers to have to stick around a hospital waiting room. And we also pointed out that it was really no telling how long it would take to get her loved ones admitted upstairs. These things can take a long time. Did she really want, or need, to stay the whole time. She hadn't showered in who knows how long and hardly had more than the clothes on her back with her. But, she wanted to make sure the folks she loved were ok. She went upstairs one more time. When she came back downstairs, she came to me and said, in a defeated tone, "Fine. Let's go." I called transportation and she and her two teenagers were off to the next town.
I think of that day often. Of everything that happened during that busy day, what I remember most is my encounter with this woman. I remember thinking, "Here. I have this way to help you. Why won't you take it?" I remember my colleagues feeling thoroughly disgruntled about the fact that this family wasn't following the timeline that we had in our heads for how we were going to get all of the evacuees in and out of the hospital in an orderly fashion. I remember her saying, "I have my own money. I need to see about my family." When I remember her, I realize that she taught me something that day, something I didn't actually figure out for a while later. She taught me that when someone needs help and I can help them, I need to actually listen to them when they say what kind of help they need. Because, undoubtedly, they know their own needs better than I do. Our relationship shouldn't have just been about what I could give... clean shirt, free ride... but what she needed... assurances that her family was being tended to, a safe place for her teenagers to wait. She taught me a lesson that has helped me be a better minister.
As I read the Gospel story this week, I wonder if Jesus felt the same way about the Syro-phoenician woman that he met in Tyre. I wonder if he talked to his disciples or to God or to his mom, and said, "Wow. I'm glad she said what she said. She taught me something new today." Jesus had a lot going on, too, when he met his unexpected teacher. He had just left rural Galilee where he'd been arguing with Pharisees about handwashing and holiness. Remember, Jesus said not to let attention to detail in religious rituals distract you from the generosity and compassion that God demands. We talked about that last week with the hand sanitizer. After that encounter, he seemed to need some rest and went to hide out in a house in Gentile territory. It was very hard for him to escape notice, with all the healings and wise teachings and everything. Eventually this strange woman with a sick child found him and asked for his help. In Mark, she is described as being Syro-phoenician. The naming of her ethnicity seems intentional. These residents of what is now known as Syria weren't known to be great neighbors to Israel. Local Tyrians had even oppressed local Jews. In naming her ethnicity, the author of Mark is making sure that we know that she is probably an enemy.
And, yet, with all this history of bad blood, she still came to Jesus and begged at his feet for him to save her daughter. Now, like me and my co-workers, Jesus must have had already had a plan for his day. He wasn't just hanging around in Tyre for no reason. Or, maybe he was just exhausted. Whatever was going on, he got caught, as one scholar describes it, with his compassion down. He called this woman and her daughter dogs and told her that he had other work to tend to first before he would help someone the likes of her. And, yet, even though he called her a dog, she didn't let his petty insult stop her. Her daughter was in great need and she knew that Jesus could help her. She knew that Jesus had more grace at hand that very moment than even he was able to imagine. He had so much grace that it could even spill over onto people he's been taught to ignore and despise. So, she called him on it. She said, "Fine, whatever, Jesus. We're dogs. But, we're dogs who are smart enough to know that you will drop something delicious off of this table at any moment. So, why don't we cut to the chase and you do what you know that you can do to save my child." And, quite suddenly, he realized that he couldn't argue with her. He offered the grace he had and, she went home to find her little girl healthy and happy.
This little girl wasn't the only one healed in this encounter. Jesus seems have been changed, too. It turns out that this woman was the first Gentile to come to him to ask to be healed. At this point in his ministry, he seemed to think that it was not the time to be healing people beyond the bounds of his own religious and ethnic community. All of that changed after he met this woman. The very next story shows him healing another man in a Gentile community. And, the next story after that is the story of Jesus feeding 4,000 people. That, too, was in another predominantly Gentile region. I cannot help but wonder if that man would have been healed or those 4,000 people would have been fed if Jesus hadn't first met this Syro-Phoencian woman. I cannot help but think this woman changed Jesus' ministry for the better. I hope that he was grateful for it. I hope that we modern-day followers of Jesus are grateful for this Syrian voice, too.
Over the last several weeks, even as I remember the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, another tragedy, this time a war, is displacing millions of people. According to Global Ministries, the UCC and Disciples of Christ international missions organization, over 7 million Syrians have been displaced in the last 33 months, 2 million of whom have had to seek refuge in neighboring countries. To put that in perspective, almost 7 Katrinas-worth of people have had to leave their homes, with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs and the people they love by their sides. And, while we have far too many stories of people turning them away like dogs, we are beginning to here more and more stories of people being like Jesus... being willing to be changed by the persistent, inventive, direct, and compelling faith of the Syrian people who trust that their neighbors will receive them with grace and hospitality as they escape the devastating civil war in their homeland.
On the Greek island of Kos, a main entry point into Europe for refugees, a physics teacher has started an organization of 50 volunteers to help provide food, clothes, hygiene supplies, and safe places to sleep and bathe to refugees. In Berlin, a couple have set up a website to help refugees find German citizens who are willing to host them. So far, 122 refugees have found a safe place to stay through their efforts. In Iceland, when the government said that they could only take 50 refugees, 10,000 Icelandic citizens stepped up and offered to open up their homes to people who needed it. This generosity shows that people across Europe have learned, like Jesus once learned, that they can share their bounty much more widely than they had first imagined. We can help here in the US, too. We can donate to Global Ministries. I'll have information for you after church if you'd like to do that. We can also welcome any refugees who are moving into our own community. Given that about a thousand Syrian refugees have already been settled here in the US, it is not hard to imagine that some may make their way here to Maine, just as the Somali refugees have over the last several years. Right now, Refugee and Immigration Services needs volunteers to help mentor new arrivals to Maine. And, they can always use refugee welcome kits, kits that are a lot like the ones we prepare for Church World Service and the Domestic Violence Shelter.
The Syrian voice that we're hearing today isn't just one woman trying to help her child. It is millions of people who need the hospitality that we can provide. We have the opportunity to be a little more like Jesus, the one who heard the Syrian woman and helped her, and in so doing, helped an entire Gentil community. His ministry was improved by this act of compassion. I think our ministry can be, too. But, only if we listen and are willing to act in the best interest of our neighbors. So, church, let's be willing to be like Jesus. Let's be willing to spread out our grace just a little farther than we could have first imagined.
*Do you want to help people who have been displaced from their homes?
- You can donate to Global Ministries: http://www.globalministries.org/relief_for_displaced_syrians
- You can also support refugee services here in Maine by collecting donations for for people new to Maine: http://www.ccmaine.org/refugee-immigration-services/support/other-ways-to-help
- Refugee and Immigrant Services also needs volunteers:
Resources that Pastor Chrissy consulted while writing this sermon
David Henson's Commentary:
Matt Skinner's Commentary: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1382
Karoline Lewis' "God Said Yes to Me": http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=3679
"3 Views on a Tragedy: Reporters Recall First Days After Katrina":
Bonnie Bowman Thurston, Preaching Mark, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002).
"Iceland Caps Syrian Refugees at 50; MOre than 10,000 Respond with Support for Syrian Refugees": http://www.slate.com/blogs/the_slatest/2015/08/31/_10_000_icelanders_offer_to_house_syrian_refugees.html
"Migrant Crisis: The Volunteers Stepping in to Help": http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-34130639
"Of 4 Million Syrian Refugees, the US has taken in Few than 1000":
Sermon for August 30, 2015: What Does It Mean To Be A Doer of the Word? James 1:17-27, Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
What Does It Mean to Be Doers of the Word?
One of our most important tasks as Christians is to try to figure out how to take Jesus' teachings and live them out in our everyday lives. It seems that for as long as Jesus has had followers, they have been trying to figure out how to actually apply his parables and teaching. We see examples of this in both our reading from Mark and our reading from James today. At the heart of these two scriptures is the very important task of making sure that your faith actually shapes how you live in the world. As we learned as we made our way through Ephesians, our faith is not just about how we talk, it's about what we do. Jesus calls us not to just be talkers of the word, but to be doers of the word. But, what does it mean to be a doer of the word?
This seems to be a very important question on most days, but, today, it may be even more important than usual. You see, today is the day that we set aside to bless our teachers and students. Today is the day that we make sure that these people in particular know that we love them and that God loves them, and we try to help them start their new year off well. So, we ask them to bring in their backpacks and lesson plans and tote bags and iPads... all the different things that symbolize their roles as teachers and learners. And, we're going to bless them, and their backpacks, and send them home with a symbol of that blessing, a small key chain that they can attach to their zipper. When they see it, I hope they remember that they are beloved children of God and that they remember that their actions can help change the world.
All this talk of backpacks has gotten me thinking about all the stuff that goes in them. I remember carrying my own backpacks, full of books, papers, crayons, pencils, those big pink erasers. What kind of things do you all have in your backpacks today? (Wait a minute to see what people say.) How did you decide what goes in your backpack? (Wait a minute) It sounds like you decide what to put in your backpack based on what you think you might need to do your homework or do your job. These are the tools that help you get through your day. If the authors of James and Mark were going to fill up a backpack with tools to help you be a doer of the word, what kind of things do you think they'd put in there. While I don't know for sure what they'd say, I decided that I'd try to put together a few things that I think could help someone be a doer of the word.
Now, before I begin, it's probably worth remembering that Jesus never asked his disciples to carry a lot of stuff with them when they were traveling the countryside teaching and healing people. It is totally possible to be a follower of Christ and not have these things in particular, or really even much of anything at all. Jesus' followers never even took an extra cloak with them! That being said, those of us who've done some teaching know that it is helpful to have some examples to follow when we're learning something new. So, let's open this backpack, and see what tools we can find.
A flashlight- Sometimes you need a little help seeing or finding things in dark places. A flashlight can help. Many different authors in the Bible talk about God and the light. They believed that God created the stars, the lights in our sky. These lights might shift in the sky as the earth rotates or might be covered up by clouds, but they are always there. The author of James thought that it was important to remember that God created the lights, that God is always there, just like the stars are there, and that God will help us navigate through life, just like the light and the stars help us to see. Oh, and here's a little star to help us remember.
Birthday candles- What do we do with birthday candles? That's right. We remember our birthdays, the day that we were born. One of the most important ways that the Bible talks about our lives of faith is by talking about being born again when we learn about Jesus. Jesus changes our lives so much that it can almost feel like we are starting over, like we've been born again, except for this time, we have already learned a lot of stuff that can help us along our way. The letter of James was written to some of the very first Christians. They were some of the first people born in a new way through their faith. The author wanted to make sure that they understood that they were able to start a new kind of life with God's help and to remind them that God indeed would help them
Headphones- The author of James seemed to worry a lot about how the people in the church spoke to each other. During our children's moment today, we heard how important it is to speak to each other respectfully and how doing so honors God. It's also important to take time to listen to one another. These headphones remind us that it is important to listen to other people, even when they say things that challenge us or may seem strange. We shouldn't use them to block out people, but to help us listen so much more carefully.
Salt water taffy- Sometimes, we have a hard time being patient and paying attention when people are speaking to us, especially if they are saying something we might not like or if we're distracted and paying attention to other things. Sometimes, when we have a hard time listening or when we get mad, we speak too quickly and we say things that we don't really mean or that hurt other's feelings. This author says that it's important to be slow to speak. That can help give you more time to think about what is happening, and say things more clearly and with more compassion. Here's some salt water taffy. What happens when you eat taffy? Your mouth gets stuck and it's hard to talk. Having a stuck-together mouth certainly helps slow you down and makes sure you don't speak more quickly than is helpful. When we eat the taffy, maybe we can remember that sometimes it is helpful to slow down and think a little more before we speak
A tea pot- Something that can happen when you have a hard time listening and when you say things to other people too quickly is that you can get mad. Now, the person who wrote this letter doesn't think it's wrong to be angry. This person does think that is important to not get angry too quickly. When you get angry very fast, then you can stop listening and say mean things before you realize it. Your anger can be like the steam that builds up in this teapot, making it screech really loud. If you don't want it to screech anymore, you have to flip open this little lid. It lets the steam out so it doesn't get so loud. So, if you don't want to screech like the teapot, you have to find your own way to let out steam.
A family tree- The person who wrote James thought it was very important to take care of people who really needed it. Part of the way you live out your faith is by making sure that people who really need your help have it. During the time when this was written, orphans and widows were some of the people who most needed help. When they talk about widows here, they don't just mean people whose husband's died. They mean people who didn't have any family left to take care of them. That's what they mean when they talk about orphans, too. When we see this family tree, we can remember the people who don't have many family members and we can become like family to them. We can help them and they can help us.
Hand-sanitizer- Sometimes Jesus' followers got in trouble for not following all of the religious rules of their community. In Mark, we learn about a time that Jesus' followers didn't follow all the rituals about how to clean your hands before you eat. The leaders in Jesus' community thought it was important to follow the religious traditions about how to wash your hands. Now, Jesus never said that you shouldn't wash your hands. He did say that you shouldn't let making sure you follow every rule about rituals get in the way of what the rituals are really supposed to be doing. In our churches today, we have rituals to bring us closer to God and to serve our neighbor. We have communion and baptism. If we worry about every detail of these rituals as we try to get them right, but forget what the ritual is for,, which is learning more about God and loving our neighbors, then we've really got a problem. So, I think Jesus would say make sure to wash your hands. But, make sure that you are trying to learn more about God and be kind to your neighbors, too. If you wash your hands, but still go out and cheat people, steal things, and say mean things, you aren't actually doing what God asks us to do.
Now, that's all that I've got in my backpack. I've got things that remind me to listen to people, to speak kindly to my neighbors, and to try to make sure that my anger does not get out of control. I've got things that remind me that I'm a child of God and that God will help me make a way in my life. I've also got things that remind me what is most important: loving God and loving my neighbor. I think these things will help me be a better doer of the word. I hope that they can help you, too. Now, these aren't the only things that I could carry in my backpack to help me be a better doer of the word. I could put a whole lot more things in there. But, this is a good start. I hope that these stories from James and Mark have been a good start for you, too. I hope that we all can leave this place today, backpacks full, ready to be doers of the word. Students and teachers, good luck as you begin your new year. We'll be praying for you. I hope you have all the tools you need to make it great.
Resources Pastor Chrissy consulted when writing this sermon
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3678
Elizabeth Webb: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2607
A.K.M. Adam: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2605
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Where Did You Get Your Armor? Ephesians 6:10-20
With the exception of last week's excursion to a feast with God's Wisdom, a feast that we find in the book of Proverbs, we've been spending a lot of time with the book of Ephesians lately. The three-year cycle of Scripture readings has given us a great opportunity to delve into a close reading of this letter over the last several weeks. Through these several weeks of study, I have shared with you what I think is a portrait of a biblical writer who is trying to help his beloved church community work through some significant ethnic conflict and social changes. This book has some beautiful language around how Christ offers grace to all people and breaks down the walls between ethnic groups, walls that prevented them from truly living out the Gospel together. This author assured this church, and maybe other churches who would receive this letter, that through Christ, Jew and Gentile were no longer strangers but friends who served together to form the body of Christ.
This author assured the followers of Christ that Christ had indeed equipped them to be one church together, and had given them a model through his own life and ministry of how to live out the Gospel. He assured them that unity is possible, but must be pursued through love and with an understanding that people bring different gifts to the table. He said to speak the truth in love, even in you're angry. Just don't let that anger consume and destroy you. Do the good and work to imitate God by living in love, just as Christ did. I think these sections of the book are so life-giving and can speak so clearly to some of the issues that are important in our contemporary culture. As I watch the news and read social media, I can't help but remember these words: Speak the truth in love... Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger... Do the Good... be imitators of God... You are no longer strangers, but friends. I hear these words and they inspire me to continue to work to do the Gospel, even as I see the division and malice that has so thoroughly infected our public discourse. It also kind of helps me to be reminded that division is not a new thing, and that Christians have been working through Christ against it for a very, very long time.
This author even gave some very specific instructions to different classes of people, instruction was intended to help them live a more Christ-centered life. As I said in the first sermon I shared about Ephesians, I am troubled by this part of the letter. This advice, found in chapter 5 and part of chapter 6 and known collectively as an example of a Household Code, is firmly rooted in inherently unequal relationships between spouses and also never questions the righteousness of the practice of slavery. So many of our current injustices have roots in the unquestioned abuse of these passages and other household codes. We cannot read Ephesians without acknowledging that these ideas are problematic, even as we hold up other portions of the book as beautiful examples of the ways that Christ brings about positive changes in our lives. We do best when remember that we are glimpsing the author of Ephesians as he is being changed through Christ. Even though he has worked through some of the issues he learned through his culture, we can recognize that others kinds of divisions, divisions that surely run counter to the Gospel, are simply not on his radar. The thing is, that's part of my story, too, even though I don't really like to admit it and it might be part of why I have so much trouble with this part of the book. I'd much rather have a perfect writer and be pretty close to perfect myself. I have neither of those things. Recognizing that I still have unexamined parts of my life keeps me going down this Gospel road, too.
And, finally, today, we've come to the end of the letter, the part where the writer wants to make sure that the people know why this whole Gospel project matters. This is his last opportunity to inspire the people he's writing to. And, what does he say? Stand fast. Put on the whole armor of the God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. Yes, he talks about the devil. This writer believes that the forces that could destroy the church and keep the Gospel from coming to fruition are not merely flesh and blood enemies, but are instead wholes forces beyond what we can directly observe or control. The scope of the Gospel project is not small or simple. The Gospel is grandiose and complex, measured in cosmic proportions through forces that are better felt than seen. Because we are straining not against other people who we may be able to overpower by sheer human will, but within spiritual systems and forces, we can't do this alone. We must come prepared. This author even says that we need to prepare as though it were for battle.
Now, just as I have misgivings about the Household Code section of the letter, I worry a little about describing spiritual development as in any way similar to war. Too often, the language of God and faith have been co-opted to justify horrific wars and terrible acts against our neighbors. Christians are just as guilty of this as anyone else. When I come to passages that use militant metaphors, I worry that these passages can slip too easily that problematic territory where people end up saying, "God told me to go to war and destroy you." As I researched my sermon this week, I was reminded something important by several different scholars. When this author uses militant imagery to describe a life of faith, his audience is not a large and powerful army who he trying to inspire to destroy the flesh and blood enemies they face. He's not even talking to a single, individual soldier who he wants to help do his job better. He is talking to a small minority group, a group of people from mixed ethnic groups and different social classes, who are finding themselves at odds with the dominant culture. He's talking to people who don't have much power. He's talking to people who've experienced Rome's violent take-over of the whole Mediterranean. He's talking to people who live under the thumb of an empire who's leader believes himself to be a god. He is not speaking to the people who do the destroying. He's speaking to the people who could easily be destroyed... wiped off the planet by Rome's power. He's talking to people who could use a little armor.
As I've talked about before, while Rome did not necessarily prevent people from practicing their native religions, Rome did reserve the right to decide what gods were legitimately worthy of worship. All religions had to be approved by the State. And, the State religion, which was worship of the Caesar, held supremacy over them all. This was a system, a force larger than any one person could battle themselves, that shaped the life of every single person in it. This was a system built on intimidation and violence, very much unlike the ideal of unification in love through difference as described by this author. It is completely possible that for the Christians to whom this letter was addressed found themselves at odds with their neighbors, their family, their city, and their nation simply by virtue of their faith in Christ. Christ called them to love, not dominance. Christ called them to peace not fear, and to anger that does not destroy the downtrodden. How could they not have found themselves at odds with the Empire? How could they not have felt that they were resisting the evil forces of the entire cosmos?
And, yet, here they are... imitators of God called to be strong in the Lord and called to be steadfast... to hold their ground. Several scholars that I read pointed out that most of this armor is intended for defensive purposes. There is a belt that would hold your garments in place and keep you from tripping over the fabric. There is a breastplate that guards your heart and shoes that protect you from the things that make you stumble. There is a shield that protects you from assaults from high places, and a helmet, so you can keep your head in one piece. Truth, righteousness, willingness to share the Gospel, faith, and salvation that is a gift from God, gift that you can use to defend yourself from the powers that want to destroy you. All of these things will surround you and protect you and help you to stand fast. For these people, who have seen the power of the Roman legions, who had seen the soldiers advance on forces wholly unprepared for their power, forces who would quickly be pushed by, what a powerful image this must have been. Imagine having enough armor to stand fast... to withstand all that the powers and principalities had to throw at them. Take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, stand firm.
It is also worth noting that there is only one offensive weapon. It is called the Sword of the Spirit, that is the word of God. And, yet, even the offensive weapon is not for destruction. Remember, when this author told us to use our words, our words are to be filled with love. And, this love is the connective tissue that binds together the body of Christ. Let us not forget that Christ himself has been called the Word of God. The Word is essentially a creative force, like Wisdom that we learned about last week in Proverbs. The Word brings light and life, not death and darkness. When these people imitated God, imitated the Word, imitated Christ, they did what Christ did. They created what one scholar called a "considered, corporate resistance to evil." I think that's what we're still called to do today. We're still asked to make use of this holy armor and stand fast in the promise of God's unity and grace. We pull on those holy shoes and helmet every time we work to live life anew through Christ. And, we keep praying. Because this whole body of Christ is not complete yet. But we've been assured that we will be provided with the strength to stand firm during all the construction. This armor will not fail us. Our shields will help protect us and our neighbors. And, our friends, the other members of the body, will stand fast. Let us hold this line together.
Resources Pastor Chrissy used in writing this sermon
Sarah Henrich's commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2600
Melinda Quivick's commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1380
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.