Not Against Flesh and Blood

Most of you know that Mariah and I have a dachshund named Hildegard. A while ago, we started having a little problem with her: she started refusing to go for walks. She would be fine in the fenced-in yard, and she was willing to step out into the rest of the yard and maybe even walk around the house a little bit. But, once we got to the sidewalk, she would tuck her tail and shake and sit down and refuse to move.

A trip to the vet ruled out any medical problems. And we know that Hildegard has had some scary run-ins with loose dogs in the neighborhood… and fireworks over the summer… and loud noises like motorcycles and backfiring trucks.

So now we’re taking a behavioral approach. Hildegard thinks that the world outside of our fenced-in yard is scary, and we need to do the long hard work of teaching her that it is not. Or, at least, of giving her the resilience to overcome that fear and go for a walk.

Today’s reading is from the letter to the Ephesians. Our reading a couple of weeks ago was also from this book. In that the sermon I gave then, I told you a few important things about this letter… but I thought a refresher might be in order.

So, four things:

First, this letter is almost certainly not by Paul, even though his name is right there at the beginning. It’s probably by an anonymous person who followed Paul and who wanted to borrow some of Paul’s credibility for his own letter.

Second, this letter was almost certainly not written to the church in Ephesus, even though its name is right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, sent from church to church, with each sender writing the recipient’s name into the letter: to the saints who are in Ephesus, to the saints who are in Laodicea, to the saints who are in DeWitt.

Third, this letter by an anonymous author, passed from church to church, is sometimes very wrong. And fourth, it is sometimes very right.

In today’s passage, the author takes a moment to recognize the struggles that his audience faces. For the the early church, these struggles included conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, and challenges in figuring out who they were and how they lived and what they believed.

For us, two thousand years later, these struggles are different. In some parts of the world, our Christian friends and neighbors are persecuted and threatened. In some parts of our nation, our friends and neighbors — Christian or not — are marginalized and oppressed. And even in this relatively privileged congregation, we face loss, illness, loneliness, and heartache.

Struggle is real… every one of us is facing our own version of a big world beyond the fenced-in yard.

When Hildegard faces her world beyond the fenced-in yard, she does it as a dog, and dogs don’t think the way that we do.

Hildegard doesn’t think in abstractions. She doesn’t think about walks-in-general, or other-dogs-in-general, or parks-in-general. She can’t have one good walk and think that’s what walks are like.

And she doesn’t quite have the same kind of episodic memory that we have. She probably can’t quite remember the time that a dog ran out from a house and started a fight with her… at least, not in the same way that I can.

She might not even know that the world outside the fenced-in yard is scary; she probably doesn’t think to herself, “I am now in the world outside the fenced-in yard and bad things have happened here and they might happen again.” Her knowledge of the world, I think, is deeper in her bones. She steps into the world beyond the fenced-in yard and she is just scared. It’s a brute fact.

We are different.

When I am afraid, I can sit down and think about why I am afraid. When I am upset, I can sit down and think about why I am upset. When I am angry, I can sit down and think about why I am angry.

And, if I think through those things and work on them — by myself or with a therapist — I might be able to overcome them. I might be able to go through my struggles and come out the other side… different, but whole and healthy.

But sometimes, that doesn’t work. Sometimes, when we sit and think about our struggles, we find someone to blame. And Lord, there are people out there who will tell us who to blame for our problems.

There are people in our families and communities and churches who will tell us who to blame for our our struggles. There are people in the paper and on the radio and on the television who will tell us who to blame for our struggles.

There are people who will tell us to blame our family members. There are people who will tell us to blame strangers. But the message is consistent: “Here is the cause of your problems… it’s their fault.”

There are people who try and push us apart from each other… who want us to believe that our struggles are against each other.

Hildegard doesn’t see the world that way. She doesn’t blame her struggles on that dog that got loose or those people who set off the fireworks. She just knows that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is a world of struggle.

And the author of Ephesians doesn’t see the world that way. He knows that our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil.

Now, I know, we’re good modern twenty-first century mainline protestant Christians and good sensible practical Iowas. We don’t usually talk about cosmic powers and spiritual forces. We are too level headed for that. But I think Hildegard might know something we don’t. And I think the author of Ephesians might know something we aren’t always aware of.

All of us — all of us: you and me and everyone — are subject to forces that we do not understand and that we might not even be aware of. Some of those are wonderful, like that pull to help a stranger stranded on the side of the road. Some of them are terrible, like those unconscious biases that push us to be suspicious of people who are too different from us.

We don’t always know why we do things… and, sometimes, the things that we do are the wrong things. And that’s true for all of us. And that is the key.

You see, our struggle is not against flesh and blood. It is not against our family or friends or neighbors or strangers. You see, all of them are caught in the same struggle that we are. All of them are having to endure the world beyond the fenced-in yard. All of them are subject to forces that they do not understand and may not even be aware of. All of them are going through what we’re going through.

And the only way to help them through that struggle — the only way to help them through that struggle; a struggle that they might not even know they’re engaged in — is to love them. The only way to get through this world of struggle is to love each other.

The author of Ephesians wants us to be safe in this struggle. He wants us to put on the armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and — the metaphor rapidly losing steam — the shoes of whatever will help you proclaim the gospel.

And he’s not wrong. The world is full of struggle. But…

The thing about a suit of armor is that only one person can fit inside. And truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit and the gospel aren’t like that. We’re gonna need a bigger metaphor.

Enter the house of God. Not just the house, but the mansion of God. A great mansion with hallways that stretch on forever, with room after room after room, with space for everyone. This is the beauty of that gospel that holds within it truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit: it is big enough for everyone. This is the beauty of God’s love: there is more than enough to go around.

Hildegard is scared of the world beyond the fenced-in yard. And there are reasons for her to be scared. There are forces she does not understand. Some of them will try to hurt her. Some of them won’t try, but will hurt her anyway. And the only way through that fear is for Mariah and I to show her that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is also full of treats and scritchies and love.

The world that we live in is a world of struggle. For all of us. And the only way through that struggle is for us to share the assurance that we have and to show each other that this world is also a world of love. That it is mostly a world of love. That it is intended to be entirely a world of love.

That is the call… to take up this armor and share it around until it is something more, until the world is full of the gospel; until the world overflows with the presence of the God who is love.

Life, Together

As we have established in earlier sermons, I am a nerd. Almost every week, I get together with a group of friends and we play… well, not Dungeons & Dragons, but a similar game. For a few hours, we play characters who are wizards and thieves and warriors, who are elves and dwarves and halflings, who are fighting dragons and defeating evil sorcerers and saving the world.

And what it all comes down to is this: we sit around a table and work together to tell a story. And because we are working together to tell a story, one of the first things we have to do is decide what kind of story it is. Are we telling a story of epic high fantasy like The Lord of the Rings, or are we telling a comedy like Monty Python and the Holy Grail? After all, if some of us are telling one of those stories, and some of us are telling the other, no one will have any fun.

So we ask: for the next few hours at this table… who are we going to be? And I want to be clear: that’s a different question from ‘who am I going to be… or what are my aspirations?’ Who are we, as a group of friends telling a story together going to be?’

And that’s an important question. At some point, you’ve probably worked on it yourselves.

We ask it when we talk about workplace culture: who are we, as a business, going to be?

We ask it when we go through things in romantic relationships: who are we, as a couple or a family, going to be?

We ask it when we go through a church visioning process: who are we, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

We ask it when we go into a voting booth: who are we, as a city or a state or a nation, going to be?

Not just ‘who am I going to be?’ but ‘how are we going to live together?’

And that might be one of the most important questions we can ask. We are creatures of community. No matter how much we like alone time, we don’t do well in isolation. And in order to be happy in community, we have to ask how we want to be in community. All of us. How are we going to live together?

Today’s reading is from a book in the New Testament that we call Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. And, if I can put on a different nerd hat for a minute, that’s a terrible name for this book. For two reasons.

First, it almost certainly wasn’t written by Paul, even though it has his name right there at the beginning. It was probably written by someone who followed Paul, who admired Paul, and who wanted to add some of Paul’s credibility to his own letter. He wanted to say something like, ‘this is what Paul would tell us.’

Second, it almost certainly wasn’t written to the church in Ephesus, even though it has their name right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, meaning that it was sent from church to church to church, all around the ancient near east. And that little spot at the beginning would be filled in with different names, depending on the church that someone was sending it to.

To the saints who are in Ephesus… to the saints who are in Laodicea… to the saints who are in DeWitt.

It was personalized and it went viral. And the author was asking that question: who are we, as people who live together in this world, as followers of Christ who strive to live out his gospel, going to be?

And while I don’t what to downplay the importance and authority of a book of the Bible, the fact that this was a viral letter written by an anonymous author can be helpful. Because, like a lot of people who try to say who we are called to be with certainty and clarity, the author writes out a lot of rules. And, sometimes, he is very very wrong about who we want to be and who we are called to be.

“Wives, submit to your husbands,” he says, “slaves obey your masters.” And, of centuries, we were those people: people who treated women as second class citizens, people who owned other people. We were once people who quoted this book to justify oppression. And, while we’re not out of the shadow of that history yet — while we still have a long way to go — I think that we’ve made some progress.

But, just because the author of Ephesians is wrong sometimes doesn’t mean he’s wrong all the time. And, in our passage today, I think that he has some things exactly right.

Our reading today is a list of rules, a list of ideas, a list of ‘try to be this way’ statements. And I’m only going to look at one, one ‘try to be this way’ statement that I think our anonymous author gets exactly right: “Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

In general, I’m a pretty calm person. I’m pretty steady. I’m not led by my passions. But, I admit, there are things happening in the world today that make me angry.

Right now, there are children in detention centers near the border. They and their parents trekked for hundreds of miles in search of a better and safer life. They were arrested and separated. And some of those children will never see their parents again, because their parents were deported, and they don’t have a way back to their children.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people to separate children from their families and keep those kids in detention centers.

Right now, there are schools planning their active shooter drills for the coming school year. And there are people working to make things so that, if you can afford a 3-D printer and download some files from the internet, you can print an untraceable and almost undetectable gun in your own home.

And that makes me angry… because I don’t think we should be a people whose children have to be afraid that someone will print a gun at home and then show up at their school.

Right now, and I mean right now, white nationalists and neo-Nazis are preparing for a rally in Washington, D.C., in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, later today.

And that makes me angry… because I really don’t think we should be a people where voices of hatred and oppression are accepted and amplified.

There are things happening in the world today that make me angry. There are things happening in the world today that make you angry. And that’s okay. There is a place for anger… and there is especially a place for anger in the service of love for our neighbors.

And, sometimes, when we are talking about how we are going to live together, we are going to get angry… and, sometimes, that anger is going to be appropriate, it is going to be necessary, and it is going to be righteous. There are times for civility and there are times for incivility. Anger is not always wrong.

But…

We are angrier than we used to be. Maybe not you, and not all the time, and, hopefully, not in this sanctuary or at each other… though we are a church and a community and a family… and those are all places where anger happens. But, out there in the world, in general, we are angrier than we used to be.

And there is a difference between being a person who gets angry in the service of righteousness, and being an angry person. There is a difference between being people who sometimes get angry when we talk about how we are going to live together, and being people who live together in anger.

And I think that the author of Ephesians knew that.

“Be angry,” he says, “but do not sin. Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.”

When the author of Ephesians wrote a letter to the saints who were in Ephesus… and the saints who were in Laodicea… and the saints who are in DeWitt, a town he had never heard of in a land he knew nothing about… when the author of Ephesians wrote this letter, the Christian community was small and persecuted and a little bit at war with itself. This was a community of Jews and Gentiles from across the Roman Empire and there were disagreements about how they were going to live… together… as one body.

And I have no doubt there was anger. And bitterness and wrath and wrangling and slander and malice.

And they needed that reminder — and, sometimes, we need that reminder — that anger is okay, but sin is not. That after the anger there is a call to be kind and tenderhearted and forgiving.

Because God was kind and tenderhearted and forgiving towards us.

As a church, we are entering a season of visioning. We are asking how we are going to live together. And while it might not seem like it, as we discover a vision together and live into that vision together, there may be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I hope that anger is in the service of righteousness.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

As a nation, we are entering a season of campaigns and elections. We are asking how we are going to live together. And I guarantee you there will be times when we get angry; and, if we do, I pray that anger is in the service of justice.

But we are not called to live together in anger. We are called to live together in love. And by God’s grace, we can do that.

And here is the thing: when my friends and I sit down together and enter a world of thieves and elves and dragons, we know that we are telling a story together. And that story only works if everyone at that table has a voice… and if everyone at that table is having fun.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from having fun — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can work to love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone has fun.

And when we come together as a community — as a church, as a city, as a nation — we know that we are living a life together. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone has a voice. And that life doesn’t work unless everyone is being loved.

And when someone is preventing someone else from having a voice — when someone is preventing someone else from loving or from being loved — we can, in our anger, tell them that is the wrong thing to do. And we can love them back into the practices of our community, where everyone has a voice and everyone is loved.

And I believe — I really believe — that if we recognize that we are all in this together, as one body, then we can live the life that we are called to: a life rooted in the love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit.

We can be imitators of God, beloved children. By the grace of God, may that be so.

Even Me. Even You.

This sermon was delivered at First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa, on March 11, 2018. The scriptures for this sermon are Ephesians 2:1-10 and John 3:14-21.

When I was in college, I met some Christians who believed in the contract. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the contract, but I’ve seen it many times. It’s usually at the end of a thin little pamphlet.

These pamphlets lay out a version of Christianity that’s neat and simple and clean. God is good and you are a sinner. And because God is good and you are a sinner, God has no choice but to condemn you to eternal punishment in hell. But God sent his — and in these pamphlets, God is emphatically a him — God sent his son to take your punishment. Christ died on the cross in your place. He took the punishment you so richly deserve. And if you accept him as your personal lord and savior, you can trade eternal hellfire for eternal bliss. And you should do it now. Because you could die.

That’s the first part of the contract: believe these things.

Then these pamphlets have some version of the sinner’s prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner, and I ask for Your forgiveness. I believe You died for my sins and rose from the dead. I turn from my sins and invite You to come into my heart and life. I want to trust and follow You as my Lord and Savior. In Your Name. Amen. 1Billy Graham’s Sinner’s Prayer, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinner%27s_prayer

That’s the second part of the contract: say this prayer.

And then, right below that prayer, there’s a place to sign and date. And there are a lot of people who can tell you the year and month and day — the hour and the minute — that they signed on the dotted line and gave their life to Jesus Christ.

That’s the third part of the contract: sign here.

And that’s okay. Different people walk different paths. Different people have different stories. And while I might not have signed a contract on the back of a pamphlet, other people have. And that matters to them. And the fact that it matters to them, matters to me.

These Christians who I knew believed in the contract. Maybe not literally — most of them had probably never signed the back of a pamphlet — but they believed in it all the same. They believed the things they were supposed to believe. They prayed the sinner’s prayer. They knew when they had accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior.

And I was never one of them.

Don’t get me wrong. I get it. It would be nice to have that kind of control over my fate. It would be nice to be that sure of my salvation. It would be nice if I could guarantee eternal life just by believing these things and saying this prayer and signing on the dotted line. It would be nice.

And there’s always the temptation to believe that I have that power. To think that I’m in control. To think that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul.

But I don’t. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.

There’s something that comes along with the temptation to be in control: the temptation to judge. And there’s something that comes along with the temptation to judge: the temptation to condemn. If I know the list of things that we have to believe, then I can scrutinize your beliefs and tell you where you fall short. If I know the prayer that we have to pray, then I can listen to your prayer and tell you which words are wrong. If I know that my signature is on the contract, then I can tell you why it’s wrong if yours isn’t.

And I can look at the world and all of its horrors — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — can condemn it. I can do that. I’m good at it.

But I don’t have that power. I’m not in control. I’m neither a master nor a captain. Thank God.

Because when God saw this world — its poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred; or, in simpler language, its sin — God did not condemn it. God loved it.

And God loved the world this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.

And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world.

We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. Soon, we’ll remember that Jesus was betrayed, that he died, that he was buried, and that he rose again.

We are in the middle of Lent. We’re almost to the end. For not, we remember that we have been dead. We have been dead through our trespasses. We have been dead through poverty and exploitation and oppression and war and hatred. In the simplest of language, we have been dead through sin.

That doesn’t mean we’ve been in the ground; it means something worse. It might seem hard to believe, but we have been walking around like zombies. We’ve been missing out on the chance to really live. We have stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to to let the world see us. We’ve stayed in the dark because we’ve been too afraid to let God see us.

We’ve been so afraid that God will condemn us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.

We’ve been so afraid that God is like us, that we’ve condemned ourselves.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Even in this season of Lent — even in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news. Especially in this season of Lent — especially in this season of prayer and penance — there is good news.

Because God saw us, dead through our sin, shambling in the dark, and loved us. And God loved us this way: God gave his only begotten son so that everyone who had faith in him would not perish, but have eternal life. God did not send her son to condemn the world, but to save it.

And that means all of it. Not half of it. Not some of it. But the entire world. Even you. Even me.

Now, I want to be fair. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner. I am a sinner because I choose to sin. I am a sinner because I’m caught up in systems that leave me no choice but to sin. I am trapped in a world where I do not know how to be the person who I believe God is calling me to be. The pamphlets are right. I am a sinner.

And if it were up to me, I would condemn myself.

And I want to be even more fair. The pamphlets are right. I can be sure of my salvation. I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. The pamphlets are right. Another life is possible.

But here is something I am sure of, here is a way that the pamphlets are wrong: There is nothing I can do that will save me.

There is nothing that I can believe that will make God love me. There is no prayer I can say that will make God save me from my sin. There is nowhere I can sign that will make God extend her grace to me.

Because God has always loved me. God has already saved me. God is grace-filled and grace-giving. That is who God is.

Grace is not a contract. Grace is not a deal. Grace is a gift.

And there is nothing we can do to earn it. God gives it to us because that’s who God is.

Being a Christian — having faith in Christ — doesn’t mean believing a list of things or praying a certain way or praying or signing on the dotted line. Christians around the world and throughout history have believed so many things and prayed in so many ways. Being Christian must be about more than the list of things we believe or the ways that we pray.

Being a Christian means — at least in part — trusting that God is rich in mercy. It means trusting that even when we were dead through our sins, God raised us up. It means trusting that we do not need to stay in the darkness and condemn ourselves for our sins. It means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us.

Being Christian means trusting that we can step into the light, in all of our brokenness, and God will still love us. Click To Tweet

That is why I can be sure of my salvation. That is why I can know that eternal and abundant life is there. That is the other life that is possible.

And it means trusting that this is true for everyone. Not half of us. Not some of us. But the entire world. Even me. Even you.

And here’s the thing. That work is much harder than believing the things and saying the prayer and signing on the dotted line. That work is much more important than having a moment of conversion. That work is much braver than judging ourselves and the world. Because when we can walk into the light and open up to God — when we can be vulnerable to God’s love — then we can begin to love others.

And then we can be what God intended us for be: created in Jesus Christ for good works, which God created beforehand to be our way of life. Amen.

Footnotes   [ + ]

Pin It on Pinterest