Salted by Fire (September 30th, 2018)
by Paul Smith
Shortly after graduating college, when I was trying to figure out what I believed, I lived in Nepal for a couple years. While I was there I had the privilege of getting to know a missionary couple who had been invited to Nepal in the early 1950s, before the country was opened to foreigners. They appeared quite ordinary, more like a pair of kind grandparents than groundbreaking missionaries. But they were good listeners, and I liked being around them. However, one never would have guessed the important role they played in establishing the church in Nepal—a church that now numbers about 400,000.
One thing in particular that I appreciated about Carl and Betty Anne was the attention that they showed each other—the way they smiled at each other, and the way Carl held doors open for Betty Anne. This sort of behavior was unfortunately something that was absent in my family. One day I asked them about their relationship, hungry to know how they did it. There was a pause. I think I caught them by surprise. Most people of that generation do not easily talk about relationships. But they recovered and said that it takes three, that God was part of their marriage. I picked up that perhaps their relationship had not always been so easy as it appeared, and that they were surprised that I saw their marriage as a model.
Carl and Betty Anne were the type of people who we often call “the salt of the earth.” Unpretentious, good people whose character has been shaped by the gospel. People who are different because of the action of Christ in their life.
The expression “salt of the earth” comes straight from the gospels, where Jesus depicts his disciples as salt. This morning I only have time to unpack a portion of this rich, multi-layered image, as I want to primarily look at what today’s scriptures teach us about how to become salty. But it’s worth mentioning that in biblical times…
Salt was used in healing, to disinfect and purify wounds.
Salt was used to preserve food.
And salt brings out the taste in food, causing everything to taste better.
In the same way, we are called to purify and preserve what is good, as well as to add flavor to life. Have you noticed how, when you’re in the presence of someone like Carl or Betty Anne, everything seems to make more sense, to be more alive, to be full of hope and beauty? Have you noticed that these are the kind of people you would trust to do the right thing? As disciples of Christ, we are called to be a life-giving presence wherever we go.
I’ve visited a church in the middle east that receives large donations from Muslims in the Gulf States, because it is widely known that they will distribute aid fairly and efficiently to Syrian refugees. This is what it looks like to be salt.
I would add that in addition to purifying, preserving, and flavoring, salt makes us thirsty. When we see Christ’s character displayed in someone, we are drawn to it and want what they have. That was certainly the case for me when I asked Carl and Betty Anne about their relationship, a relationship that was the result of years of them being shaped by Christ.
So how do we become salty? How do become disciples of Christ who are formed into his life-giving image, rather than mere admirers of Jesus? How are we to become different from the world?
First, rather than pretending that we are different, we must intend to actually be different. We are not to focus on appearances—mature followers of Christ usually appear very normal, even as life flourishes around them. Actual transformation requires going deeper, making wrenching changes to way our entire life is organized. What’s central is that we make up our minds to see the process through—to follow Jesus, come what may.
In the words of the old hymn, I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. I have decided to follow Jesus. No turning back, no turning back.
This morning’s gospel gives a sobering glimpses of the level of determination involved in following Jesus:
“If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off…”
“If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off…”
“If your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out…”
Or again, one interpretation of the enigmatic phrase “everyone will be salted with fire” is that we become salty by passing through purifying trials.
So as we embark on the adventure of Life Groups in this congregation, we believe that we are responding to God’s invitation to growth. We believe that lives will be changed, that God will be glorified, and that the groups will be life-giving. But I need to tell you up front that it will be difficult at times. You need to pause and to make up your mind, to decide if you are determined to let God change you.
Our Old Testament lesson provides insight on the process of change.
The Israelites have escaped from Egypt, but at this point they’re realizing that slavery had certain advantages. “If only we had meat to eat!” they say. “We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.”
I think that the Israelites are not just bemoaning their diet, but even more their lack of control over their own diet. In Egypt, they could eat what they wanted, but in the desert, they must rely on God’s provision.
There’s something deep inside each one of us that wants to be in control of meeting our own needs, independent of God. We can hear this frustrated self-reliance in the passage as the Israelites focus on their strength being dried up. However when they talk about the food “we used to eat in Egypt for free,” that is an illusion. The price for that food was bondage.
As the Lord leads us out of bondage, we can expect to retrace the journey of Israel out of Egypt. Initially, there may be great relief and joy. “Hallelujah, we’re free!” But then there’s a period in the desert, before we get to the promised land, where we discover the hidden bargains we made with our captors, where we must develop new habits of trusting the Lord to meet our needs. Only then are we ready to enter the rich land that He has prepared for us.
Let me sketch a few examples quickly.
Suppose, for example, that you have a bad habit of exploding in angry outbursts. It damages your relationships with those who are closest to you. And you sense that the Lord is calling you to attend to this.
As you start working on your patience, you see some improvement and rejoice when things start going more smoothly.
But after a while, you begin to realize that your angry outbursts gave you an opportunity to say what you were feeling, to be real. And that they gave you a means of presenting your viewpoint with enough force so that people wouldn’t contradict you. Legitimate needs were being met by your anger—the need to by real, the need to be heard. It will take some time to develop new, more godly ways, of meeting those needs. And those new ways of being real and being heard involve becoming more vulnerable.
Our growth often involves letting go of sinful ways of protecting ourselves, and vulnerably placing ourselves in God’s hands.
Lest you get the false impression that I’m saying anger is always bad, it’s possible to go wrong in the opposite direction as well, by being conflict avoidant. This can rob you of the ability to creatively engage and resolve your differences with others. And as you work on this, you will have to face the fear of being misunderstood and rejected.
One area that many of us are currently confronting is that our schedules is too full. We’re too busy. As I’ve started pushing back by keeping a Sabbath, a whole host of issues have arisen. Why do I have difficulty saying “no” to certain things, even when I know I shouldn’t do them? How can I vulnerably deal with expectations of others? Where do I find my significance? Can I trust the Lord to protect me, even if I haven’t done every last thing that might be done in my situation? Why do I feel empty when I’m not doing anything? It’s not pleasant to have all these questions come up, but I experience more life when I wrestle with them regularly.
One thing that has been driving my busyness, is how difficult it has been, as a widower, to come home to an empty house. Yet I’m starting to see clearly that being too busy precludes developing the friendships that I need in this season of my life. I share this not because it’s about me, but because it shows so clearly how the very way I protect myself from the pain of being alone, interferes with the relationships I need. It’s circular, as are so may of the places of bondage in our life. So I must meet my grief head-on. And as I do so, I find it opening up into new life.
As the Lord leads us to adopt new ways of navigating life, we find that some of the old ways are deeply engrained and that they serve our needs.
And so it may very well feel like we are lopping off an arm or a leg when we say “No” to the old way of doing things, and venture on new paths. This is hard. So hard, that we need help, both from Jesus and from the body of Christ.
What I find fascinating about God’s response to the Israelites is that, after a bit of honest communication between God and Moses about their mutual frustration, the Lord appoints 70 elders. He recognizes that the people will need more support in order to navigate this crisis, so he multiplies their leadership.
Today’s epistle provides a picture of what this looks like in practice.
It shows the people of Christ suffering and rejoicing together, confessing their sins to each other, bringing back those who are straying, and above all else, praying for each other. For the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. As we look towards our Life Groups, let us do likewise. The Lord will remake us in answer to our concerted prayer.
About twenty-five years after I talked with Carl and Betty Anne, I finally got married. For about fifteen of those years, the main focus of God’s work in my life was in revamping how I approached intimate relationships. I had to step away from patterns that I’d learned in my family and try things that felt new and different. There were other times when I was deeply touched and healed by God’s love, and times when the only thing that got me through was the love and care of my community.
A couple who accompanied me the entire way are visiting this Sunday.
My wife used to take the bus home from work most days, and since the Fair Haven bus can be a bit rough at times, she would call me when she left her office, and I would walk a half block down from our apartment to the bus stop to meet her. One day, as I was walking to meet her, a young woman greeted me, saying how much it meant to her to watch me and my wife walk home each day hand-in-hand. I don’t know how conscious I was of holding hands, and I certainly didn’t realize anybody was noticing. But I understood what it was like to see light and salt, and how it changes lives.
Servant Leadership (September 23rd, 2018)
by Phil Coy
Good morning. We on the vestry hear the following from people just about every week: “we want short sermons that are deep.” Some of us have a hard time with short and some of us have a hard time with deep. But we all try. This morning is my attempt at short and deep.
How many of you saw the movie Hacksaw Ridge? It is the true story of Desmond Doss a conscientious objector in WW2 who as a medic would not even pick up a weapon but when his unit went into battle on Okinawa, he did his duty and kept going back into the battleground over and over again to save every last man he could. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery. Let me ask you, was he a leader or a servant? It’s not so clear is it? The last scene in the movie has a company of soldiers refusing to go into battle until Desmond prayed for them.
In September we have been focusing on the character of God. Today we will focus on the concept of servant leadership from our lectionary readings. This is highly relevant to me since I’m deeply involved personally and professionally in organizational change management. I’ve seen major corporations spend literally tens of millions of dollars attempting to transform themselves yet see their efforts come apart due to not knowing how to manage the people side and failing to get people to cooperate towards a common goal. In the past 15 years, “Servant Leadership” is emerging as a preferred management style over the more traditional top-down, autocratic, “scientific management” philosophies that had come to predominate in the 20’s.
With that let’s turn to our lectionary readings since they speak so clearly to servant leadership. We need to “unpack” both the word “leader” and the word “servant” to get to the heart of this.
The context here is leadership but not just any leadership, it is the style of leadership that is adopted so we will start with “leader” as the noun and move on to “servant” as the adjective. Many in our culture shy away from the term leader at all as if its inherently evil, but we cannot get away from the fact that leading is as essential as serving.
Since Jesus understood this be to a figure of speech, I’m going to do the same and liken the Good Shepherd to a good leader. Then we’ll move on to contrast the good leader to the bad leader [pause] and the good servant versus the bad servant. Instead of a black and white distinction, let’s concentrate on effective vs. ineffective and recognize that there’s a spectrum from highly effective leaders to highly ineffective leaders, and effective serving vs. ineffective serving.
From John 10:
Very truly I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” Jesus used this figure of speech, but the Pharisees did not understand what he was telling them.
Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who have come before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep have not listened to them. I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. They will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.
I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.
I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep.
From this reading, the effective leader knows the people he or she leads. Not just knows them but knows all about them. From the greatest to the least, they are valued. The analogy in the passage is to the way the Father loves the Son, this is a deep knowing within the Trinity the closest might be the love described in 1 Cor 13. They are valued in ways that they may not yet be able to see for themselves. The effective leader is willing to sacrifice all for the people he or she leads. And make no mistake, he or she leads them intentionally towards his goal. At times he or she must fight to protect the people he leads even to the point of laying down his life.
In John 15:15, Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.”
The effective leader is not content to leave those who he leads as servants only. He calls them friends and teaches them and releases them into increasing independence and shared vision.
This is confirmed in the latest research into leadership. Psychologists Edward Deci and Richard Ryan developed the concept of Self Determination Theory which has gained wide acceptance. Their research shows that the most important inherent need is the need for autonomy. This is, the ability to exhibit control and volition over the things that affect our lives. They made it clear this is a “need” not just a desire.
Many years ago our chief salesman would go off just looking for business literally going to bars where he heard that customers would hang out. A two-day trip to Thailand would end up with him gone for 3 weeks and a suitcases of tailored suits because he didn’t pack enough clothing. We used to joke about him “So many countries, so little time”. The problem was that we were left without any idea what to do. His chaos controlled us.
Rather than controlling the situation, the situation was controlling us. It wasn’t intentional but it was the result.
Another boss seemed to adopt a strategy that was intentional. He would never answer a question but always respond with another question until I had no answer. Same result, when I had no answer, I didn’t know what to do. But I knew he was controlling me.
While casting far too broad a brush, a new term has emerged in recent but unpublished research, the pseudo-transformational leader. In brief, a pseudo-transformational leader, uses overblown promises, scapegoating, and dividing, injecting fear as a way to control. There is no transparency and chaos is the result.
Let’s look at the character and results of the ineffective leaders, the hired hands, thieves and robbers from our reading.
The results from the thief are destruction, from the hired hand abandonment.
Back to the Scripture, it’s clear that the effective leader loves his people, knows when to fight to protect them and care for them when they are wounded. From 1 Co 13, when you see an effective leader, you will see patience, kindness, honoring, no self-seeking, and no record of wrongs.
Under an effective leader you will find calm people thriving who happily work together knowing how they fit into the common mission. They see their own personal gifts are being maximized and expect that at the right time they will pass along what they’ve been given to equip and empower the next generation since the mission goes on.
What are the kinds of initiatives that an effective leader takes? To see a need and then meet that need not waiting to be asked. To be the first to seek forgiveness, to be the first to mend relationships, to be the first to apologize.
Who would not want an effective leader over an ineffective leader?
Let’s move on to consider “servant” the style of leadership that is so critical.
Our first lesson is the Proverbs 31 woman. Let’s agree to leave the gender roles aside since in Christ we are neither male nor female and all called to mutually submit one to another. The key point from the passage is that there is one who serves and one who is being served. Proverbs 31 is then about the effective servant. Again, let’s reconsider black and white distinctions, let’s concentrate on effective serving vs. ineffective serving and recognize that there’s a spectrum here as well.
Let’s look at the characteristics and the results of an effective servant.
A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The effective servant is valued by the one served.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
The result is the one served trusts the effective servant
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life.
The effective servant does the one served good and not harm
She seeks wool and flax,
and works with willing hands.
The effective servant works on behalf of the one served
Look at the character of the effective servant.
- Provides food
- Provides strength
- Looks to the welfare of the one served
- Provides wisdom
- Teaches kindness
Very briefly from James. “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.
Effective leadership brings peace, gentleness, avoids partiality and hypocrisy and results peace for those who make peace.
From our gospel, we get a final glimpse at an effective servant.
“Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Not only will an effective servant serve some but all. Not one is excluded.
No one benefits from an ineffective servant. In fact we should seek to get away from an ineffective servant.
The difficulty is that Jesus also behaved at times like the ineffective leader, he didn’t explain, he questioned their motives. We come full circle to my opening question, was Desmond Doss a servant or a leader. That is not easy to answer.
You see the actions of the effective leader are often identical to the actions of the ineffective leader. And so only by going deeper to look at character can we really separate the effective leader from the ineffective leader and most often it is by looking at the results, the fruit of effective leadership follows the most excellent way – love, joy, and peace. The fruit of ineffective leadership results in chaos, partiality, hypocracy and control. Only discernment of character can tell them apart. An ineffective leader puts his own interests ahead of his people, uses people for his ends, manipulates and controls people to remain in charge, and creates disorganization and chaos whether willfully or not.
But a true servant leader is to be greatly valued. This why discernment is at the heart of following Jesus. So we don’t fall into formulaic assumptions and general characteristics.
God grant us all the eyes to see and the ears to hear what the Spirit is saying to the church and the discernment to know when it is not all that clear.
But when we find true servant leaders, we can trust them.
Self-Denial (September 16th, 2018)
by Dr. John Hare
In the words of our psalm for today, May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be now and always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.
The Gospel reading today is the turning point in Mark’s Gospel, where Jesus asks ‘Who do you say that I am?’, and Peter answers ‘You are the Messiah.’ Jesus has been leading the disciples up to this moment. Peter’s answer is validated in the next story in Mark, which is the Transfiguration, when the voice comes from heaven: ‘This is my son, the beloved; listen to him.’ But what I want to focus on is what comes between Peter’s declaration and this revelation on the mountain.
Jesus begins to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and after three days rise again. And he teaches them, Mark says, quite openly. Before this there had been hints. In other Gospels, we have heard of the sword that pierced Mary’s heart, of John the Baptist saying ‘Behold the Lamb of God’, of Jesus telling Nicodemus of the lifting up of the son of Man as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, in Capernaum that he would give his flesh for the life of the world. But now he speaks openly, and Peter is offended. This same Peter. He pulls him aside, by the hand or by the robe, and remonstrates with him. And Jesus turns and looks at the disciples and says, ‘Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’
I think of what Jesus said to Satan in the wilderness. Matthew tells us that Satan had taken him up a high mountain and shown him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and said to him, I will give you all of these if you will fall down and worship me. And Jesus says to him ‘Away with you, Satan’, and it is the same words in the Greek as in the Mark passage, Hupage, Satana. Jesus is addressing Peter as though he were Satan, and that is because Peter is representing the same temptation. Jesus spells this out for us. ‘You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ There is another time where this same testing happens to Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says to his disciples there (Mark 14: 38), ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial’. I think he means, Pray that you do not have to go through what I am about to go through, another spiritual battle with the enemy on the same old ground. When he had withdrawn from them, he prayed, ‘Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’
This choice here, between the things of God and human things, is the key to what comes next in our text in Mark. Jesus calls the crowd and his disciples, and he makes open declaration of the cost of following him, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.’ Let them deny themselves and take up their cross. This is Jesus’s first word about the cross. He has said that he is going to be killed, but he has said nothing about being killed by the Romans, and crucifixion is a Roman punishment. What can the disciples and the crowd think Jesus is talking about? I don’t think they understand, and this regularly happens with Jesus. It is only later that they see what he meant. What are the followers of Jesus supposed to deny here? Jesus talks of saving a life and losing a life, but how can you save a life by losing it? What does Jesus mean? I think the key is this choice between the things of God and merely human things, the same choice that Jesus faced in the Garden.
There is a danger in this teaching about self-denial, and I want to start with this, because of its importance. Self-denial has been taught in a way that has meant in practice that some people have to sacrifice themselves for others. I remember when I was growing up we had a sweet Victorian picture with the words ‘Serve one another in love’, and it was a picture of a lovely young woman kneeling down by the side of her sick husband. And when I mentioned to my wife Terry that we might hang it up in our home, on reflection we decided we didn’t want it. There was something very good about it, but also something not good. The problem is that women have all too often been expected by Christian teaching to serve and sacrifice and deny themselves for men, for males. If we are going to teach self-denial, our teaching has to pass a smell test. Is it in practice going to mean that one group of people have to ‘not think of themselves higher than they ought to think’ and another group can reap the benefit? I will come back to this.
Karl Barth has something illuminating to say about this passage in Mark, but it needs qualification. Barth says that there are two different lives here: the life we are to lose and the life we are to save. The life we are to lose is the life we think we can control and the life we are to save is our life ‘before God’. What does this mean? We can open up something to God, and I try to do this at the beginning of every day with my agenda for the day. I try to say, ‘God, here is what I have to do today, and then I try to hear what God says about it. Barth is saying that the life we are to save is the life that is open to God in this way. I quote: The life we are to save is not ‘the ‘I’ or ‘Self’ which a man thinks he can find and possess and know in himself. …To love in this sense one’s own particular life is the very thing which is not demanded but prohibited by the command of God.’ To be before God is what the prophet Habbakuk calls for when he says, ‘The Lord is in his hoy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before him.’
I can see that in one way we have to say that the life we lose and the life we win are different. Because how could we lose something, and by losing it gain the very same thing? And there are indeed many passages in Scripture where there is a contrast drawn between two selves, a new self and an old self, and the old passes away and gives place to the new. Paul says, in II Corinthians 5: 16, ‘From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new!’ But this does not seem exactly right as an interpretation of what Jesus is saying in our passage in Mark. It does not capture the point that Jesus is saying that by losing something we save it; not something else, but it.
So here is a tentative suggestion about what he means. I think there is something like our life before God which we need to save, even if we do not know that we need this. This is what Barth gets right. And saving this life requires that we surrender something else, the life we think we control. This also Barth gets right. But I think Jesus is saying these are in fact the same life. This life that is saved is the same life as the one we were trying to control. Jesus talks here about our saving this life, but I think the witness of Scripture as a whole is that God saves it. What is this life before God? Duns Scotus, the medieval Franciscan theologian, says it is being a co-lover of God, entering into the love which is between the members of the Trinity. But it is a particular life. This way of loving God is unique to each of us, and heaven is where we all join together in loving God in all these unique ways. Wanting to save our life is, on this reading, wanting to control it, and God has given us the freedom that if we make this choice, we can in fact lose our lives and lose this entry into the divine love. And Jesus says this will be of no profit even if we gain the whole world. Again, I think of Satan’s temptation of Jesus, when he takes him up to the high mountain and shows him the kingdoms of the world, and says ‘I will give you all of these.’
What I want to emphasize in this sermon is the question ‘How do we give up control?’, and to relate this to the life of Jesus. What does the practice of giving up control look like? I think Jesus tells us in the key sentence where he explains to Peter why he is rebuking him and the others: ‘You are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.’ Jesus does not mean that we should stop thinking about human beings. He does not mean, for example, that we should stop loving our neighbors as ourselves. He wants Peter to recognize that suffering is coming, and rejection, and death. And all these are, in a sense, human things. But they are not merely human things. The contrast is important, ‘not on divine things’ which includes ‘not on our human situation before God’, or open to God in the way I mentioned. Peter is setting his mind on the things he values and wants Jesus to value that are in his purview, things like success in the mission Peter has set for the Messiah. I can imagine him thinking: ‘Look Jesus, you want us to be fishers of human beings, to attract people to your cause. All this talk of suffering and rejection and death is a bad strategy for this. It’s going to get in the way. People are going to leave us.’ But Jesus turns and looks at the disciples and says, ‘Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.’ I want to emphasize ‘setting your mind’.
I said last month, when I was talking to you about spiritual warfare, that there is a principle that we become like what we think about. That is why, I suggested, Paul does not say in Ephesians ‘Scope out your enemy’. He says, think about the good, not: think about the evil. So, we need to set our minds on divine things and our situation before God. And how do we do that? I think one helpful practice here consists of two steps. The first is that we need to practice being in the presence of things of value that we do not control, things that have the power to take us, as the phrase is, ‘out of ourselves’. There are many such things, and if you believe, as I do, that God is the source of all value, then when you are in the presence of those things and acknowledging their value, you are in the presence of God and acknowledging God’s value whether you know you are doing that or not. For me, one of those things is beauty. When I am feeling that everything is just too much, and the stress is killing me, or when I am wondering what the point is in what I am spending my life on, I have a book of beautiful pictures and I take it out and look, or I read a poem, or I go out to Farnam Gardens and look at the Japanese maple that is starting to change the colour of its leaves, and then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate.
Now we are, deep in our nature, social beings. Actually, the things of value that have the power to take us outside ourselves are, primarily, other people. The Sonnet of Shakespeare I just quoted is about another person. When I am, he says ‘in these thoughts myself almost despising, haply I think on thee. And then my state, like to the lark at break of day arising from sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate; for thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings that then I scorn to change my state with kings.’ God has given us this power to break into each other’s self-preoccupation. When I am thinking about you, you in yourself – not you as I can control you – I am released from myself.
So, part of the practice of giving up control is the practice of putting ourselves in the presence of things of value that have the power to take us outside ourselves, and one primary place this happens is our deep relationship with other people we care about. You will see where I am headed here. The church is a place that should make possible this putting of ourselves at the service of others, because this is a primary way that we can lose our lives in the way that Jesus commands us, so that those same lives can be saved.
But this is just the first step. In order to qualify as ‘setting our minds on divine things’, not just any being in the presence of others we care about will count. The encounter has to be, as Barth puts it, ‘before God’. This is the second step. I don’t think this means we have to be thinking explicitly about God all the time in order to be before God; but explicitly directing our attention together to God is going to be a help. If God is the source of everything good, as I believe, being conscious of the source makes the reception more transparent. This is how it was, I think, with Jesus. His suffering and rejection and death were for us. He was thinking about us. And he was thinking about us before his Father. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed ‘Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’ There is a pattern of thought here. I think of Moses, in Exodus 32: 32, who says to God ‘But now, if you will only forgive their sin – but if not, blot me out of the book that you have written’. Moses is willing, for the sake of God’s people whom he loves, to be blotted out of the book of life. I think of Paul in Romans 9: 3, where Paul says ‘I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh.’ Paul is willing, for the sake of the people whom he loves, to become a curse. In the Garden, Jesus is willing to give up the human life he controls because he is thinking about God’s people whom he loves, that is to say, he is thinking about us and our relation with his Father.
Putting ourselves at the service of others can become dangerous in the way I started with: this reading of the text can fail the smell test I mentioned. A person can lose herself in the wrong way. Sometimes a person can lose touch with who she is because she is serving and is not also being served. But this second step, this putting ourselves and others before God, can be a help here. The picture of our destination as being co-lovers of God requires that there is a unique way of loving God for each person, and that way has to be chosen. It cannot simply be imposed or expected, because then it is not really loving, which is an activity of the will. I think the preaching of self-denial is dangerous when it is combined with expectations, socially enforced, about which people in which groups will deny themselves which good things. In these life groups we are setting up, we have left it up to each group to decide what loving God, loving oneself, loving one’s brother and sister and loving one’s neighbor looks like. What one group chooses may look very different from what another group chooses. We have also tried to make resources available in the rest of the church in case things do not go well, and the wrong kinds of expectations are being introduced, though I know there is no guarantee. The very best things are always at the same time a risk. The point about surrendering the life in our control and opening up to God is much larger than just life groups. God can ask us to give beyond what we see we can manage, and it is always seems like a risk.
I want to end by going back to Mark 8, and the end of the passage. Jesus says, ‘For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the Glory of his Father with the holy angels.’ Jesus here puts the need for the right kind of losing and saving of our lives into a context. It is not as though we start in neutral. Sometimes, to be sure, our choices are relatively context-free. Should I play the violin or should I play the viola? But Jesus says here that his disciples are already placed in the middle of an adulterous and sinful generation, and perhaps this is true of us as well. What does he mean by ‘adulterous’? I am not sure, but I think of Hosea. The Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits a great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ Hosea married Gomer the prostitute, as a sign of the adultery of Israel. If this word to the disciples is also a word to us, we are already in a context in which our generation is unfaithful, and because, again, we are social creatures, we are deeply influenced by this context. The unfaithful ways of our contemporaries are already corrupting us. We do not start in neutral. This means that there is an urgency to our choices here. There is no standing still. We are moving towards God or away from God, and the default if we do not choose well, is away from God.
I say this to myself as well as to you. We need places where we can be in the presence of things of value that can take us out of ourselves, and the primary place where this happens is the presence of other people we care about. And we need to be able to put these other people and ourselves before God in the way that Jesus did. If we do this, we can practice not being ashamed of Jesus and of his words, and we can hope that the Son of Man will not be ashamed of us when he comes in the glory of his Father and the holy angels. What we can hope for, instead, is the ‘Well done, you good and faithful servant. You have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master’ (Matthew 25: 21).
Let us pray. Father, I pray that together we can learn how to practice this good way of loving each other. I pray that you would guide us as we form our groups and try to live faithfully in them before you. Amen.
The Syrophoenician Woman (September 9th, 2018)
by Paul Smith
This summer, as the vestry and ministry leaders of St. John’s met to seek the Lord’s direction for our congregation, we were reminded that our worship is not fundamentally about ourselves. Each one of us is weak and has our foibles. In our efforts to follow Christ, we stumble and fall, sometimes resisting his direction or slouching along half-heartedly.
We don’t gather here because we’re great, we gather because our Lord Jesus is great. We have a role to play in encouraging and supporting each other, but first of all that consists of turning our gaze towards Jesus; of knowing him better and loving him more. For we become like what we love.
To that end, our sermons series this fall will focus on what the lectionary readings teach us about the character and work of Christ.
Speaking of Christ’s character, what are we to make of the first part of this week’s gospel reading? It’s a doozie.
At first glance, Jesus appears to indulge in a bit of ethnic snobbery, brushing off a needy woman because she’s a gentile, using a derogatory slur in the process. What is going on? Is Jesus having a bad day? Does he really believe that gentiles are second class?
This interaction seems completely out of character with the picture of Christ’s love and compassion portrayed throughout scripture, as well as with everything I have experienced about him. When something in scripture appears to be unloving—or when someone I know and trust appears to be acting out of character, I’ve learned to step back and ask whether there might be more going on than meets the eye.
I’m fortunate to have a good friend, D. Michael Crow, who has written an entire book on this passage. He specializes in helping third world church leaders understand the cultural context of the gospels, so they can better know and serve Christ in their own cultures. He has certainly helped me to better understand the cultural nuances in this passage and to appreciate the extraordinary creativity that Jesus shows in a loaded situation.
Before sketching the cultural background, however, I need to point out that throughout the gospels Jesus is portrayed teaching and healing gentiles, as well as challenging Jewish prejudices. The third chapter of Mark, for example, specifically mentions him teaching and healing people who have come from Tyre and Sidon. A common misconception is that Jesus focused on ministering to the Jews, postponing ministry to the gentiles until after the resurrection. But this interpretation ignores the healings of Geresene demoniac and the centurion’s servant, the two healings recounted in today’s gospel, and a number of other passages.
We cannot take Jesus’ response to the Syrophoenician woman at face value. The compassion and care he shows to gentiles throughout his ministry contradicts it.
Let’s go straight to the ugliest part of this passage. Calling gentiles “dogs” was a familiar racial epithet in the Old Testament. It didn’t refer to
adorable pets, but rather to packs of street dogs like those that I saw when I lived in the third world—mangy, flea-bitten animals, lurking around the edges of town looking to scavenge anything available, viciously attacking after dark. In Nepal I used to have nightmares about being bitten by a rabid dog. For Jews who used this slur, gentiles who didn’t follow their customs of washing were impure—like the filthy street dogs. Gentiles who didn’t follow Jewish dietary restrictions were defiled—like dogs that scavenged dead bodies and ate excrement. And gentiles were religiously and sexually promiscuous—like dogs mating in the street. Both gentiles and dogs were seen as vicious and dangerous. So calling a gentile a dog was a loaded term. Rabbi Eliezer summed up the prevalent attitude by saying “Anyone who eats with an idolater is like someone who eats with a dog.”
It’s not that dogs as pets were completely unheard of. House dogs were considered entirely different and were listed by the rabbis as clean animals. But calling someone a street dog was a sign of contempt
If that wasn’t bad enough, the Judeans had particular animosity toward the people of Tyre and Sidon. These cities were wealthy Phoenician ports in modern-day Lebanon, known for their luxury and cosmopolitan life. Last week’s responsive psalm, for example, referred to fine robes from Tyre. Most first century Jews would also think of Tyre as the birthplace of Israel’s notorious Queen Jezebel, antagonist of the prophet Elijah. When Jezebel married King Ahab, she brought priests of Baal with her to establish her religion in Israel. She was also ruthless and corrupt, not hesitating to have an innocent man murdered when he refused to sell his land to the king. So there was no love lost between the Jews and the Canaanites of Tyre.
Several times in his ministry, Jesus used the example of Tyre to Sidon to challenge the lack of faith and prejudice of his listeners.
He told them “If the miracles I did in you had been done in wicked Tyre and Sidon, their people would have repented of their sins long ago.”
When he returned to his hometown of Nazareth, he confronted the idea that God would show favoritism by saying “I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.” At the height of the conflict between Elijah and Jezebel, God led Elijah to reach out one of her countrywomen.
Jesus clearly saw the Father’s love for the people of Tyre and Sidon.
Yet when he spoke of it, his neighbors became so enraged that they tired to kill him. They can’t hear what he is saying to them.
The Syrophoenician woman, for her part, has reasons to look down on the Jews as well. As a Greek-speaker with Syrian connections, she is part of the political and economic elite of the region. In the Roman system of government, Judea was part of the province of Syria, and the Procurator of Judea reported to the governor of Syria. Coming from Tyre, we would expect her to be wealthy. The text attests to this subtly by mentioning that her daughter has a bed. Everywhere else in Mark the word used for “bed” refers to a straw mattress, but in this passage, we’re talking about an honest-to-goodness bed, for a child! This woman’s daughter has more than most entire families in Galilee.
The third piece of the puzzle with regards this passage concerns where it fits into the arc of Jesus’ ministry. After calling the disciples, Jesus modeled proclamation of the gospel, casting out demons, and healing. Then he commissioned the twelve apostles to go out and do the same ministry among the people of Israel. When they came back together, Jesus expanded the disciples’ understanding of what was possible in feeding the 5000. This event attracted widespread attention, with the common people agitating to proclaim Jesus king and the leaders of the Pharisees in Jerusalem sending a delegation to check out the situation. I’m sure it was immediately evident to the Pharisees in Jerusalem that Jesus was undermining their traditions of ritual purity by feeding common people who didn’t follow all their rules. So when they arrived, they challenged Jesus on this point of purity, as we saw in last week’s gospel reading.
Jesus responds by teaching about what constitutes true purity—not man-made rules about washing and eating, but what is in our hearts. Then, as we see in today’s Gospel, he takes his disciples and goes on an extended trip into Gentile territory, ministering along the way. The culmination of this trip will be the feeding of 4000 gentiles. When the Pharisees raise concerns about whether the Jews in Jesus’ entourage are pure enough, he responds by going out and feeding the gentiles! I don’t believe Jesus does this to irritate the Pharisees. No, I think he does it to teach and develop his disciples, to purge the “yeast of the Pharisees” from them.
He needs to deal with their racial attitudes. They need to understand the depth of his love towards all people.
At various points in the gospels, as well as in Acts and the epistles, it is clear that the disciples harbor discriminatory attitudes towards gentiles.
They probably misunderstood Jesus’ intent when he sent them out to go “only to the lost sheep of Israel,” not realizing that his instructions came from an assessment of their capacity rather than from the people of Israel being more valuable than the gentiles. Jesus wasn’t going to send them cross-culturally on their first assignment! But he’s about to remedy that now. He recognizes that in order to accomplish this, face-to-face interactions with gentiles will be needed.
There’s a lot in this scenario that’s familiar to us today …
Polarization between two groups of people that look down on each other with contempt. A social/political/economic elite on one side and a ethnic/religious movement on the other side. As I’m sure you’ve discovered from bitter experience, there’s not much one say in a situation like this that will change people’s hearts, minds, or behavior.
Let’s see how Jesus handles this situation.
In Matthew’s account of the Syrophoenician woman, the first thing that happens is that the disciples ask Jesus to send the woman away. She is clearly not a priority for them. Jesus responds by mimicking their attitude, expressing what they would consider an appropriate response, so he can stand it on its head. Somehow he signals to the woman, and she plays along with him brilliantly. I can imagine a subtle wink or nod passing between the two of them. But more than that, there is one crucial word that gives away the whole game. When he says that it is not right to throw the children’s food to the dogs, he does not use the common word for dog, “kyon”, instead he uses “kynarion,” the much rarer word for “house dog”, “puppy”, or “pet”. While clearly referencing the derogatory epithet, this term implies a clean, much loved animal. The woman doesn’t miss a beat, but presses in to claim her share of Christ’s overflowing love. More importantly, she shows that she is willing to humble herself, despite her cultural and economic position.
Angie O’Gorman writes that it is impossible for wonder and cruelty to coexist in a person at the one time. In this passage, we see Jesus dismantling the disciples’ prejudice by surprising them. Instead of telling them something they weren’t prepared to hear, Jesus allows them to see the faith and humility of someone they were ready to write off.
The disciples remembered this lesson for the rest of their lives and retold it, which is how came to be part of our scripture.
Jesus makes it clear that his love extends to all, without favoritism. He brings to fruition the prophecy that we read in our responsive psalm,
that there will be people among all nations—with Babylon and Tyre mentioned explicitly—who know God and of whom it can be said
“This one was born in Zion.”
We also see that Jesus knows how to get past our divisions and to knit us together. All of us have prejudices and consider some people as less worthy of God’s love. It’s part of the human condition. But the good news that Jesus is brilliant and can deal with this, if only we set ourselves to following him. And from time to time, when we are our own worst enemy and consider ourselves not to be worthy of God’s love, we can discover the mercy and joy of his love extending even to us.
Missions and Means (September 2nd, 2018)
by Phil Coy
Good morning and welcome. It is good to see you all. Often times Labor Day is seen as a holiday weekend with more people worried about the beach and end of summer. There have been services here with under 20 people worshipping in their usual way. Today however is a change as we bring some exciting news about where we believe God is calling us as a parish.
How many of you here today have started coming after July 2016, when our time without a priest began? I’m going to start with a snapshot of where we have been.
Since that time we have resolved our finances with the diocese and are affirmed to be in solid standing as a parish. We have had stable attendance and met all of our financial obligations. And have seen an encouraging recent rise. We transitioned into a lay led ministry model relying only on supply clergy who matched our theological position.
The one constant that seems to be a universal challenge for everyone is not having enough time. And lack of time hampers our attempts to develop the level of community that we say we want but sadly don’t often find.
We at St. Johns face three current and significant challenges. First is the annual transition brought on with a new academic year with the loss of friends who have graduated and moved on to pursue new challenges. And with the fall each year we welcome new friends looking for a place to worship God and to find their “tribe” where they can feel comfortable hopefully before the pressures of the academy consume their attention. Second, our desires and prayer for a missional priest have become increasingly urgent. Two years without a priest is a long time and some people have left feeling the lack of stability and consistency. Every church needs a priest and as an Episcopal church we miss that most personal and life-giving portion of our shared liturgy, the Eucharist. As I’ve shared with the bishop, we are slowly starving. Must we wait for a priest to lead us or may we engage the gifts and talents that the Lord has given in lay people to seek and act to follow the Lord without clergy? And the third challenge that lurks out there even if we try to deny it is this, do we have a future together as a parish? Do we have the vision, leadership, and resources to continue on together in a building we love but may not be able to afford?
But more substantial questions remain:
Are we willing to become both unified enough and distinctive enough to stand out and be a compelling alternative in the culture?
How can we expect the blessing of God who wants us to be either hot or cold and not lukewarm?
And so we have been surviving, but not thriving. Yet we have a sense that the Lord has a unique call to this parish, that we contribute something to the Body of Christ that would be missing if we were not here.
The response to this in most churches resembles the annual rebranding to a new marketing campaign to “sell the product”. And in the past, we’ve attempted to do the same.
Until something rather extraordinary happened at our July 2 vestry meeting. A concept perhaps even a single word galvanized all of us in just a few minutes. God is calling us to a different approach. The sense of unity that sprang up was profound and the sense we all had was that this needed to be pursued. The word that gripped us all was “together”. And we were convinced that what we sensed had an urgency that now was the time. We were not to hold it in check waiting for clergy. What I’m sharing this morning is the result of the work of our lay leadership at every level as we met in teams to work out the practical details to allow this to be shared and implemented immediately yet with enough preparation to be successful. Some of the work came easily yet in other areas, a great deal of listening and willingness to give up on closely held positions was needed. We struggled to find the right balance of complex academic wording and simple expression for all to grasp. In the end, we crafted documents that will be published this week to communicate to all. While the final unanimous decision of the vestry was only voted on Wednesday of this week to go forward, we’ve been working toward this since July.
Who we are as a parish will be profoundly impacted and our sense of mission will be transformed. Today we’ll get the context and an overall vision. The rest of September will provide increasing details. We will start immediately with whoever will join us.
We pray for direction for the next period and seek to gain God’s perspective on both the needs of the parish and His intentions for us. We do so in the context of the appointed lectionary and therefore from Scripture. The theme that emerged as of fundamental importance is not from the actions of God in the past but from who He is and His character to look at the heart of things. By focusing on God’s character rather than activity we gain insights we may otherwise miss. And so with Christ, his character and not just his work are to be our focus. And that focus leads in practical ways both to how we understand our calling and how we live our lives.
With that as our context, let’s consider our liturgical and Scripture readings for today.
The mission of any church must start from alignment with who God is and His mission. As a Christian church, we hold to a Trinitarian theology repeated each week in the creed that reminds us of the created order:
“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.”
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,”
“I believe in the Holy Spirit”.
We also get hints that not all is right with the world.
“crucified, died, and was buried”
“forgiveness of sins”
“the resurrection of the body, life everlasting.”
These don’t sound like the created order of a Triune God in perfect harmony.
God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit exists eternally as a community that can be characterized by completeness, soundness, welfare, and peace. The Jewish concept of this is “shalom”. We too are to incarnate a community of shalom. Yet this shalom is “broken” in our world and in ourselves at the deepest level. We see this “brokenness” or “evil” in every element of creation. Between nations, between peoples, between families and within our own selves. This “brokenness” extends to the creation itself with evil, sickness, and disease as I have so clearly have evidenced. No one can say that disease and sickness are for God’s purposes since we know that in heaven, these will not be found. And the final “break” in our relationship with God himself is death.
Scripture clearly teaches that the mission of God is to redeem and restore this brokenness in all of creation to its intended order of shalom and that this mission cannot be done alone, it must be done together and it must be done through Jesus uniquely. The Father, Son, and Spirit always are together and we, created in his image are also created to be together. It is not good for man to be alone, yet alone we are.
From the Song of Songs, we find both love and action continually. “The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. And “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away;
And from Psalm 46, love and action is met with righteousness “you love righteousness and hate iniquity”
This is the language of lovers intentionally pursuing each other and establishing righteousness in community. Love and righteousness is at the heart of our Father God both within the Trinity and with us as the crown of his creation. There is continuous love and continuous action moving toward one another. This expression of love and action is reinforced in our James passage where we are cautioned to “be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves”.
Our gospel reinforces that this transformation is not external but from the heart. “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Here we have the key concepts of what our relationships, our doing and our direction should be. Love and action, working together as separate individuals, with hearts reconciled only by the love of Jesus. What gripped us from different perspectives but has since coalesced into a common vision is that this both describes God’s mission and how we are to live it out.
It’s easy to fall into the myth that it is sufficient to just know something. 1 Corinthians 13 reminds us: If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And later: where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
It is also easy to assume that we can do this apart from the centrality of Jesus. Indeed reliance on Jesus is mandatory, without him we have no reconciliation, an exclusivity rejected by the world.
So we find that knowledge will one day pass away as will the consequences of our deepest break with God and all that will remain is love in action enabled by the sacrifice of Jesus who brought reconciliation to cleanse our hearts from the brokenness and evil within.
This is both God’s mission and our recipe for living.
When asked about the greatest commandment, Jesus replied:
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’
So we come full circle to the mission of God and to how we are to live. We are called to increasingly know and to increasingly love God, to increasingly know and to increasingly love ourselves, to increasingly know and increasingly love our brothers and sisters, terms that seem to indicate those who are already in the family of God working together with us towards the mission of God, and to increasingly know and increasingly love our neighbors who have not yet joined us in God’s mission. All of which relies only on Jesus for reconciliation at every level including with God.
This is a call to go deeper than the superficial and the external, but to increasingly put love in action though Jesus. It will challenge us as deeply as it challenges our culture. To embrace this will require deep change but that change only comes when we do this together rather than in isolation. Attempts to do this alone will not work and we will find ourselves stuck. But doing this together unlocks change and brings new freedom to grow.
What struck us was how this is both a mission and a way of living together that we can start now.
The ache and cry of our hearts is that despite being surrounded by people most of us do not do life together. Our entire culture is disconnected and in truth we are as well. We are disconnected from one another in fundamental ways. Without life-giving relationships we don’t know who we truly are and we cannot be objective about ourselves. Jesus himself provides divine objectivity to name what is true and good from what is false and evil. We help one another to do this as well as we encourage intimacy, transparency and vulnerability. Indeed we can only grow by knowing together and being truly known together. We call these Life Groups, living our lives out together.
This is a process of learning to know ourselves anew but only in relationship. It requires falsehood to be put away and truth to be manifest. We must grow but we can only attempt this together in Life Groups.
The excitement raised as one after another saw ways that this could address their specific situations. One was concerned about how to move forward with a personal situation requiring prayer and consideration in a safe and prolonged period of support with a very few committed friends alongside, another was concerned with how we preach the centrality of Christ. We all sensed the need for commitment to one another over time. Growth does not occur in one or two times together but as we intentionally go deeper together. Perhaps deeply enough to challenge our protective shells, perhaps to bring healing so our protection is internal rather than external or no longer needed. This impacts how we relate to our brothers and sisters and how we reach out to our neighbors and maintain a distinctive witness within our culture. I was concerned with how this can be used in mission. Others were concerned with reaching out to the culture or with helping to pass on what we’ve learned to new people. In short, we need to align ourselves in small communities which we call Life Groups. These must be flexible to meet the needs of specific people, be oriented to longer term commitment that allows intimacy and growth together and be led with a supportive structure that is flexible to meet the real needs of real people.
As we put love in action toward God, ourselves, our brothers and sisters and our neighbors we are aligned with God’s mission of redemption and restoration till He comes. This must be our mission as well.
Starting this week we will provide more details about our Mission and Life Groups as the means to mission, how they are formed and nurtured. Life Groups will be forming immediately with a training scheduled for October 6. We are not waiting, the need is pressing, now is the time.
Spiritual Warfare (August 26th, 2018)
by Dr. John Hare
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be now and always acceptable to You, O Lord our strength and our redeemer.
I have been asked to preach today about spiritual warfare, focusing on the passage from Ephesians 6 about the whole armor of God. In one way I am not the right person to preach about this. When Father George was here, he told us about times when he confronted demons in the name of Jesus. I have no doubt that he did, and I admire him for it. Revd. Chuck told us last week about his ministry of deliverance. Terry and I have supported missionaries in Indonesia who reported continual assault from evil forces, and told us they could not return to that country unless they had the prayers of their supporters. But I myself have not had those experiences. I have experienced evil, but not in a way that made me think of a personal spiritual evil agent, a demon. Again, I do not doubt that there are such, because the Bible teaches it and my fellow-Christians experience it. But it is a vocabulary I do not know how to use well for my own life.
The Bible teaches the existence of evil forces in our passage today: ‘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.’ Who are these enemies? Paul is repeating some of the language from chapter one of Ephesians, where he says that God raised Christ ‘far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.’ Paul is here being inclusive; I think he is saying that earthly power and authority, flesh and blood, are not autonomous, but are under spiritual power and authority. In Romans the same term is used for ‘authorities’ and Paul says we should be subject to them because they are under God. I think it is a biblical pattern of thought, especially when the last times are being thought about, that behind human institutions, like the churches John writes to in Asia, there are spiritual beings, and some of them are good and some of them are bad, so that we need discernment between them. In Daniel, there is ‘Michael, the great prince, the protector of your people’. When we read in the Psalms that God is the God of gods, the Lord of lords, I think we should hear this also as saying that there are rulers who are spiritual beings as well as rulers who are earthly beings, but all of them are finally subject to God. So Paul in our passage is including the whole cosmic array of evil, in its concrete manifestations on earth, where we see forces of oppression and greed, and in the heavenly places, and it is not just institutions that are ruled by spiritual forces but disease and death and decay.
But how does Paul say we should deal with this cosmic array? First something he does not say. He does not say: ‘Scope out your enemy’. Not like a football coach endlessly poring over the tapes of his opponent’s plays. Not like Hannibal, who defeated the Romans at the battle of Cannae in 216 BCE. He knew his enemy because he had spent many hours studying their strategy, and he knew they fought in three lines, thickly packed. His own plan was the first known pincer movement, withdrawing from the center so that the Roman lines charged forward, and then wheeling around behind them on both sides. Paul does not say, think about evil: he says, think about good. There is a principle here. We become like what we think about. If we study evil, we give it power over us. We have to know that it exists and that we are in constant danger, but we should not be giving it our sustained attention. We may have to think about the fiery darts of the enemy in order to defend ourselves from them, but we should not be thinking constantly about the evil one who throws them at us.
Paul says: Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand. And then he tells us what this armor is in six parts, and I think Aquinas is right that Paul pictures us putting it on in the order a Roman soldier would put in on. I had fun preparing this, because I went online and looked at the outfits of Roman infantrymen that you can buy for about $900, for purposes of re-enacting ancient battles. I contemplated renting a set, and wearing it for your instruction, but I decided against it. We do not know exactly what Paul had in mind, but the Ephesians would have been quite familiar with Roman infantry and their outfits. What makes it difficult, however, and I think this is typical of Paul, is that he is combining reference to contemporary experience with reference back to the Hebrew scriptures, and in this case especially to Isaiah. In fact, in these few verses he recollects Isaiah five times in reference to the six weapons. So we have to remember the prophet and see the infantryman at the same time in the same verses.
The Ephesians are to fasten the belt of truth around their waists. The Roman infantryman wore a kind of leather apron, sometimes fortified with metal, to protect the lower abdomen and the private parts. But there is also Isaiah 11.5, ‘Righteousness shall be the girdle of his waist, and faithfulness the girdle of his loins’. The prophet here takes God’s own equipment of warfare. So Isaiah says of God, in 59.17, ‘He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head.’ This is a picture of God as warrior, repaying ‘wrath to his adversaries, requital to his enemies.’ But Isaiah also pictures God as giving gifts of this armor to the Messiah, a belt, a sword, an arrow. And then Paul takes this a step further. He pictures the Messiah giving these gifts to us, his saints. We should take the gifts here, the truth, the righteousness, the peace, the faith, the salvation, and the word, as God’s truth, God’s righteousness, God’s peace, God’s faith, God’s salvation, and God’s word, all of them given to us through our belonging to Christ, the Messiah. With respect to the belt of truth, in Ephesians 4 Paul says that we used to be darkened in our understanding, but now we have been ‘taught in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus.’ Perhaps God’s truth is the first thing we put on because without it we cannot see even our own need. When we see our need, we then cry out to God for help.
The second piece of armor is the breastplate. For the Roman infantryman it could be a simple leather sleeveless tunic, or one protected with metal strips or chain mail, or a separate metal front-piece tied on over the shoulders. But again there is Isaiah, righteousness like a breastplate, and the background in the Pentateuch is Aaron’s breastplate in Exodus 28, which is the breastplate worn by a judge who brings justice to the people. Perhaps God’s righteousness is what protects our hearts and guts, our will and our emotions, so that even when they feel weak, we have this power from beyond ourselves to keep us safe.
The third piece of equipment is shoes or boots for the feet. This was probably the Roman half-boot, made of leather, which left the toes free, and had studded soles which enabled long marches and prevented slipping while throwing spear or wielding sword. We are to be shod with the gospel, the good message, of peace. And again there is Isaiah 52:7, ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace.’ What is this peace? Again, God’s peace. But we tend to hear ‘peace’ wrongly as tranquility, as in the phrase ‘peace and quiet’, because we value so highly the absence of stress and turbulence. But at the end of Bach’s B minor mass there is the Dona Nobis Pacem, ‘Give us Peace’, and the chorus gets more and more triumphant until finally the trumpets take the ascending theme to its greatest height. Peace here is not so much tranquil as glorious. Perhaps God’s peace keeps us stable and able to respond to the enemy with confidence and strength.
The fourth piece of armor is the shield. This is a large door-shaped shield, with an iron frame and sometimes a metal boss at the center of the front. One maneuver was called the testudo, or ‘tortoise’, when the soldiers held these shields above their heads in close formation, and advanced rather like a modern tank, immune to the missiles of the enemy. In Psalm 7 God is our shield, and God prepares arrows like fiery shafts. Paul interprets the image. The shield is the shield of faith. But again this is God’s faith, meaning the faith that is a gift of God. We can note that the fiery darts are the enemy’s. We are given the defense, so that we can resist, and stand our ground. We are not here given weapons of attack. Perhaps faith is the assurance that we will finally prevail, whatever the enemy throws against us.
The same point about defense is true with the fifth piece, the helmet. The Roman solider wore a bronze helmet equipped with cheek pieces. The ‘helmet of salvation’ in Isaiah 59.17 may be the Messiah’s adornment when he stands on a mountain and announces to Israel that her salvation is at hand. The head in the ancient world is mostly seen as where we take in and process sight and sound and smell and air. Perhaps God’s salvation protects us from taking in anything that would finally separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
Finally, the sixth piece, the sword. This is a short sword, or knife, in contrast to the long sword that the soldier also carried. In Isaiah 49.2, the Messiah says ‘he made my mouth like a sharp sword.’ This is also Paul’s interpretation of the image. This is the sword provided by the Spirit which is the word of God, as it were from God’s mouth. We can think of Jesus in the desert, tempted by Satan, who defends himself with the word of God. ‘It is written’, he says to Satan, three times to the three temptations, and then the devil left him. Perhaps we too can use God’s word to counter the devil’s suggestions about how we should live our lives in our own power.
So here are the six pieces of armor. The main point I want to make about them is that they are given to us, plural. For our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, Paul says, but against the spiritual forces of evil. Consider the Roman infantryman. He puts on the armor, and he does the years of training, not so that he can fight by himself against the enemy, which would not make any sense, but so that he can fight together with his comrades in arms. This is why I started with Hannibal who knew that the Romans fought in lines and why I mentioned the maneuver called ‘the tortoise’ where they formed a tank together. A person does not arm herself so that swe can fight alone against the forces of evil, and it is not just her and God against them. God has given these gifts to us as a body, so that we can fight the enemy together. That is why Paul goes on immediately to say that we have to pray for each other: ‘keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints’. This has been his theme throughout Ephesians. I was moved greatly by Meghan two weeks ago, who talked about Ephesians 4 and building up the body. Again, the devil is the enemy in that passage, and Paul’s instruction is to avoid the things that make room for the devil, things like a spirit of bitterness and wrangling and slander. Live in love, he says, as Christ loved us. The spiritual warfare is one we fight together.
We can see some of the dangers that give room for the devil in Ephesians 6 by looking at the protective equipment we are to put on. We are to put on the belt of truth, and that is to protect us against lies. Satan is the father of lies. But what kind of lies? I think we are surrounded by lies, cocooned in them. They are lies about ourselves and what we are entitled to, and lies about our world and what is valuable and worthless in it. But my point again is that we are not well-equipped to fight these lies by ourselves. We need each other. We can help each other to see truth, which can be hard truth, when our inclinations are to stay with the lies.
We are to put on the breastplate of righteousness. The same Greek word can be translated ‘justice’, and the enemy’s weapon is injustice. But do you think we can defend ourselves against our own and others’ injustice by ourselves? We need each other. I need to be held accountable for the way I spend my money and my time. Otherwise, I will drift always into the easy, the unjust way. Justice and righteousness lie not only in our relation to God, but our relation to each other and to the world. We can help each other meet God’s standards for how we should live our lives in relation to the needs of the world.
We are to put on the shoes of the gospel of peace. Peace, shalom, is not just quietness, I suggested, or undisturbedness. It is where we dwell together in unity. Psalm 132 (1-3) says: ‘How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.’ The enemy wants us divided, in wrangling and slander. But living together in unity, that is something we have to do together. It is a glory that we can have, when we grow up into Christ, as Ephesians 4 says, ‘from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.’
We are to put on the helmet of salvation, which is our hope. In Thessalonians (5.8) Paul talks of the helmet of the hope of salvation. The danger that gives room to the devil here is the loss of hope. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and the world seems to me like Nietzsche’s world, the battle of the weak and the strong. Or sometimes everything seems grey, and I do not see the point in anything. But hope is something that we can help each other with. If you have kept your hope, it can be contagious. It is extraordinary how dependent we are on each other. At least, let me speak for myself. If someone I love and respect sees value in me, or sees value in something in the world, I can start to see it too. We tend to think of our thought lives as in our control because they are in our heads; but in fact we are massively dependent on each other. We are saved into a life together. The pictures in the Bible are of a song together or a feast together. And we get a taste of this already in the life we live together in the Spirit.
We are to take up the shield of faith. We tend to think of faith as individual, my personal belief in God, and we think of coming to faith as an individual matter: I decide whether I believe or not. But to an alarming extent what we believe is a product of what the people around us believe. Our culture is full of doubt; at least in academic culture doubt is fashionable, almost taken for granted. I do not mean all doubt, but doubt about the fundamentals of the faith. This is a spiritual battle. I remember when I was an undergraduate hearing Michael Green saying, ‘We have to learn to doubt our doubts.’ When examined, the doubts often turn out to be less securely based than they at first seem. But because the doubt is pervasive, we tend to absorb it by osmosis. It seeps into our thinking without our ever deciding to let it do so. We need each other. Standing up to prevailing norms is hard, and we need solidarity. I am not saying that we have to adopt a bunker mentality, us against the world. There is a great deal that is good in the world, for us to embrace and enjoy. But there is also much to resist, and we need each other to do this.
Finally, we are to put on the sword provided by the Spirit, that is, the word of God. God speaks to us. I mentioned the Word of God that Jesus uses to send the devil away. But I think there is a closer reference, the most recent use of the Greek term rhema, which is not Paul’s usual word for ‘word’, which is logos. In Ephesians 5. 26, Paul has just said that Christ ‘loved the church and gave himself up for her in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word’ (in Greek, rhemati). What word is this? I am not sure. It is some word by which Christ the bridegroom pledges himself to the bride, as God pledges Godself in saying ‘I will be your God, and you shall be my people’. In that case, the word of God here in Ephesians 6 is the word that makes us a church, makes us the bride of Christ. But God also speaks in other ways. God speaks in Scripture. God speaks in creation. I want to end with one other way. God speaks to us through each other. We can receive guidance from each other, words of wisdom, because God uses us as instruments for this guidance. God puts us next to the people we can help. This is partly physical help, as when God put the Samaritan next to the wounded Jew by the side of the road. But it is also spiritual help, when someone does not see clearly the way to go. But that means we need to discern whom we are being put next to, and we need to make opportunities for this kind of helping.
I have been missing such opportunities, and the vestry at St. John’s has been thinking about how to create them. Now is not the time to unveil this, but the unveiling is coming soon, and I think it is exciting. I will close with one example of an opportunity missed. I am being personal here, but I think in this matter the truth is personal. I have preached a couple of times to you about my mother’s dying, and what it has meant for me. You will think that I am, as Augustine says, curved in on myself, and preoccupied with my own life. But I want to say one more thing about it. For about six months after she died, I was unable to do any serious philosophical work. This was because I could not concentrate. Fortunately, I was on leave, and I did not have to teach. I think this kind of suspension of capacity is not that uncommon, and I am glad that the juices have again started to flow. But during this time, I would have been glad to have had a small group of Christian friends with whom to share what I was going through. I think there was a need for comrades in arms. But I am not good at sharing my needs. I think this is one of the cultural obstacles we face, perhaps particularly as males, though I am not sure about that. In any case, we all go through these things and we need each other’s support. Stay tuned for announcements from the vestry in the next few weeks.
I pray that we can learn together how to be strong in the Lord and in the power of God’s might, and how to use together the equipment that God has given us to fight the good fight. Especially as we go to take communion, we should reflect that being incorporated into Christ gives us access to God’s truth, God’s righteousness, God’s peace, God’s faith, God’s salvation, and God’s word. Amen.
Growing Toward the Light (August 12, 2018)
by Meghan Bathgate
We’ve been attending St. John’s for about two years and I am honored and humbled to be asked to speak today. I’m going to lean mostly on our reading from Ephesians today and I’d like to begin by telling a story about what has been happening in our home recently.
Over the past two years, I’ve introduced gardening to our older daughter. Being a novice myself, I am learning with her how to care for tiny growing seeds and sprouting plants. We cleaned out a small raised bed in our yard, used egg cartons and little pots for starters, and picked out vegetable seeds basically on a whim. If Mae suggested broccoli, that’s what we tried. Rob insisted we try growing a cantaloupe seed from a cantaloupe we bought at the grocery store. We really have no business growing red pepper, squash, tomatoes, and cantaloupe in a 4×5 plot, but we are certainly enjoying the process. Last year we got a few tomatoes and this year we have at least–or possibly only–one squash. Although that cantaloupe seed is growing. We are learning.
One of the most exciting days in our house is the day we see these tiny sprouts break the surface of the dirt—the first sign that our work and care is producing something lovely. These seeds reach out and are this striking shade of green that you just want to care for. There is a newness and tenderness to them.
However, more times than I like to dwell on, we have also had sprouts that didn’t last. And it’s always dreadful. They turn brittle and dark. It’s at this point that I remember that they need to be watered and try to compensate by dumping cupfulls of water on these little plants. But at some point, they stop incorporating the water we give them. The very thing they needed to survive, they reject, no longer capable of taking it in. They become numb, stagnate, and then blow away.
As I was praying and preparing for this message today, my mind was directed back towards these tiny sprouts. And how the tiny green seedlings stand in stark contrast to this idea of brittle, numb, and darkness. Both experiences can arise from the same seeds—and I see the ideas in this passage echoed in these seeds.
When we put on our new self in God—there is a radical transformation in our hearts and minds. We sprout! Thinking about verse 23 where we hear about “putting on our new self” I think back to these plants and what it means to be new. When I hear the word, I think of refreshment, of release, of opportunity, of excitement. Think about the marketing world. When something is labeled “NEW!” it’s shouted from the roof tops. There are giant yellow stickers in all bold put on food items or commercial after commercial about new phones and new phone updates.
Everybody wants to see what they haven’t seen before! People like new. But when I hear “new,” I also think of delicacy, sensitivity, receptivity, and even vulnerability. Like these little seeds that are both strong enough to emerge through dirt, but also delicate enough to bend towards the light at each morning.
I think of the pea plants that twist themselves towards wires and trellises. They send out shoots sensing, twisting, being guided and pulled, ever sensitive to the source of light.
And I think we need to be all these things when we are new in God’s redemption. We need to be strong enough to hold tight to Him in this world and light enough to be molded by Him. As we grow, we respond to the light. We reach for it, angle ourselves towards it, sensing, knowing that our growth is dependent on this source. It’s effortful.
These verses talk about those who don’t understand this source and having not undergone this transformation as having darkened understanding. They are separated from the life of God—through this hardening of their hearts. And I think of these small brittle plants. There is no sensitivity to the light. No inward sense of navigation and direction. There is danger in this lack of receptivity and direction. In fact, these verses tie together the idea of numbness and danger. Verse 19 says that, the Gentiles, “19 Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, and they are full of greed.” It’s somewhat reminiscent of these little plants who became immune to the water they needed; The thing itself that would touch their thirst. Thankfully God is a much better tender of sprouts than I am and there is always water provided to those who seek it. But it seems that the Gentiles here, as a way of fulfilling what they are lacking, are constantly seeking elsewhere, and to great multitude—it reminds me of desperation. Not a thoughtful effort towards being satiated but of being so desperate for it that they seek anything in any amount—but it never is meeting their need.
People have a need to feel purpose and even in the bitterness, people seek this comfort or belonging or efficacy in other ways when they aren’t secured and rooted in love. But none of it will satisfy for very long. But it might get them through their day. And sometimes that is the way people live: With just enough feelings of validation to get through the day, making no progress internally or externally, and having no direction.
When people are just getting through the day, this day-by-day gratification can lead to this numbness. The things that people lean on to get them through become more and more consuming, disordered, and the bigger picture ideas that require longer-term investment and vision are starved. I think of relationships or passions that aren’t invested in that, over time, grow numb and are often not even missed more than a passing thought.
But there is a world filled with water and light and breath…it’s right there. But there’s this callousness that builds and keeps them from perceiving it. What a frustrating place to be. I think of a light at the end of a tunnel that they just won’t or can’t turn and see.
So how does this callousness arise? Well, the later verses of today’s scripture speak on this idea. Derision in the body: falsehood, anger, bitterness, rage, slander, malice. I get the sense reading this description that this is not the passing disagreement or upset. This isn’t a bad day. Rather, these are the kinds of things that people can wallow in, that sits deep. The kind of bitterness that sits at the core of a person and colors what they see. It’s this repeated exposure to this negativity, to this ire, that give rise to a darkly filtered way of perceiving the world and one’s place in it. Callousness that develops after letting these thoughts and feelings permeate into deep places of the mind and heart.
I think people often fall into these patterns that lead to darkness somewhat passively and don’t recognize it until they are brittle and breaking. Darkness doesn’t always descend quickly like a cloud. Sometimes it’s like the light fading at dusk. We don’t realize how dark it’s become until something shakes our attention and we realize we can no longer see what we are doing. This numbness can arise from slowly stretching our boundaries for what is acceptable. Soon we can look back and don’t recognize where we are. Again, it comes back to this lack of direction but a desire to be moving towards something.
People are terrific at rationalizing their behaviors. People don’t generally set out to be bitter and angry. Rather, it can come from feeling like we are right and that there has been some type of injustice against us. I think of rifts I’ve seen in families, where there are broken relationships from years of hurt and miscommunication. Each side feels they are right. Each side feels unheard, undervalued, and as if the onus is on the other to reconcile. And in this rift arises this deep bitterness. When I’ve spoken to people in this type of situation about their broken relationships, there is a depth of bitterness that is seemingly unending and also a sense of delayed justice. Each sees their side as the victim.
And so when we think about this bitterness and anger, I think about the idea of “giving one’s self over” to these things. It’s often more passive than we realize. And I think this makes it all the more sad and perhaps all the more important to think about. It’s easy to look at someone already pretty far down this road of greed and anger and see distance between ourselves and them. But there are places that I know I bend my boundaries more than I want to and I let callouses form where I want openness. And I bet that most people at the end of that path of greed would not have expected to be so far down it themselves.
What is difficult is that sometimes we are wronged. Sometimes we are undervalued and unheard. What distinguishes us as followers of Christ is an ability to hold onto hope and love through it. And ultimately to lay down our hurt and anger at His feet. Thankfully, oh so thankfully, we don’t do this of our own strength. God gives us direction in these dark places so that we always are turning towards the light.
What is a terrific thought is that we can not only hold these sources of bitterness and darkness off, but actively combat them in ourselves and each other—as a body, as brothers, sisters, and friends in Christ. So how do we do that?
These verses talk about truth, sharing, encouragement…
I want to pause on verse 29 for a moment: “29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” There is a deep sense of community here. It’s not just about avoiding the unwholesome talk. This is more than avoiding the big swears and sticking to the saying “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
“Building other up according to their needs” gives us a sense that we should know each other’s needs. It’s more than just avoiding the bad. It’s about knowing and meeting a need in our community. Further, “building others up” is also much more structural than “wishing them well,” for example. Other translations say “edifying,” which conveys that it’s more instructional. So I get the sense again that much like how the anger and bitterness isn’t just having a bad day, I think that really taking on “building others up” and “meeting their needs” goes beyond just having a good day. It’s continued practice that sits at the deep center of who we are. The kind of hope that sits at the core of us and becomes our way of perceiving, interaction with, and experiencing the world.
The verse goes on to say “…that it may benefit those who listen.” There is the idea of expansion here—that we listen to each other and have this hope that permeates our hearts and minds—that what is in our hearts and on our lips does not just affect us. It can speak life to each other, sometimes in ways in which we are unaware. There is expansion.
It makes me wonder if boundaries work in the other direction than that of which we just spoke—both in a personal and broader scale. That we can open our boundaries of ourselves to move towards God, and that we, as a body, by building up others and investing in each other, can move the boundaries of what is holding back the light in our community and in the world.
I think of an empathetic ear to understand each other’s needs, a kindness that rooted in God’s example of love, and a commitment to providing words, acts, and goods that meet the needs in a community. To figure out what those needs are and to act where we are. This can be difficulty in a world with that, at least I find, difficult to keep up with. To slow down and to listen. To live empathetically and with grace for ourselves and each other, continuously receptive to God’s movement, like those tiny new sprouts bending towards His light. Much like the sun, God is stable, but He does move. And we need to be receptive to His movement.
It’s this light that combats the darkness and gives us a sense of where we are and a direction; of where we, personally and as a body, are going. I pray that we keep our sense of direction. That we are open, growing, and ever sensitive to God’s movement in our life so that we constantly moving ourselves and each other towards His light.