I remember walking into a religious book/gift store many years ago (down at Rockwood – Sign of the Fish) when I was still working as a DCE. As I went in, my eyes were drawn to a mom and a young boy, maybe 3 or 4, at the checkout counter. She was paying, and he was happily opening the package and putting on a small shield, helmet, gloves, and waving a sword. I remember thinking at the time, even many years ago, “No, no, no, that is wrong. It is not biblical.” Fastforward to August 5, 2018, and I saw the news from Portland, OR, where a Prayer Patriots Rally was taking place. The camera stopped on a man clad mostly in green, with long gloves and a mask, carrying a shield, and with something, either a megaphone or a weapon, slung over his shoulder, joining the crowd chanting, “Go home! Go home!” Again, my first thought was, “No, that is just wrong. If you are prayer patriots, you must know that is not what Jesus says.” And I was reminded of the little boy in armor, so happy to wear a shield and wield a sword in God’s name.
This epistle passage uses the language of war because that was a language the people of that time would understand. The people of Ephesus may even have been in a war at the time. Soldiers of that era would wear a belt around their waist to tie up their loose robes, in order to keep them out of their way in the battle. Special belts would signify higher office. They wore breastplates of leather or metal, on their front and sometimes on their backs. They wore sturdier shoes, for their time, so that they would not lose their footing. Any good soldier would carry a shield. Many shields in ancient times were big enough to cover the whole body. They were usually made of leather or of wood, and they might be soaked in water before battle, in order to extinguish flaming arrows. Helmets were needed to protect the head. And every good solder had a sword, in this time long before guns were invented. People of the first century would know these images because they saw them all the time.
But the writer, who was possibly Paul, but more likely a disciple of Paul writing in Paul’s name, took these familiar images and turned them on their head, much as Jesus did in his teachings. Instead of a belt, he said, Christians should wear truth. And instead of a breastplate, live in righteousness, in right relationship with God and with one another. Instead of worrying about the right shoes, Christians should make sure they are grounded firmly in the Gospel message. Christians are shielded by faith, and their heads and hearts are protected by salvation. The only sword a Christian should carry is the Word of God. These are the weapons needed to fight a never ending battle, says the author, this battle against evil.
When I was younger and more idealistic, I did not believe in evil in our world. I still believe there is a spark of divinity in every human being. We are all creations of a living and loving God. But the older I have gotten and the more I have seen, the more I sadly believe in the power of evil in our world. The biblical definition of evil, in both Old and New Testaments, refers to that which is worthless or corrupt, displeasing, painful, or hurtful to others. The word for “evil” means trouble, distress, or calamity that humankind has to endure. Evil occurs through human words and actions. We have all seen, or experienced, evil. The abuse of children, the genocide of whole peoples, prejudice and hate acted and shouted out, and so much more that we could name, is evil incarnate. There are probably underlying reasons for evil acts by those who commit them. Surely, again, no one is purely evil if we are all children of God. But people sure enact evil, and it seems to be a growing epidemic.
The author of Ephesians suggests that the way to combat evil, to sum it up, is with a kind heart, with an educated mind, with a faithful spirit. The way to fight evil is with the loving agenda of God. And to help that along, be sure to pray often. “Pray” says the writer as he sits chained, that he might “declare it boldly.”
Friends, I admit to you that my retiring now is a bit of a cop out. It has become much harder in recent years to preach the gospel message. We pastors, and perhaps many of you members too, have found ourselves chained, in a sense. We are more often the subject of criticism for the words we faithfully try to find for each Sunday morning than ever before. Our country, our state, our world, and yes, even the church, have become much more divisive and argumentative. And when church members disagree with us as preachers, they can threaten us by withholding their pledges or even leaving the church. It makes it a lot more difficult to “declare it boldly” when we know our very salaries may depend upon the words we say. It has become harder to be a pastor and to be a Christian. Many people have told me they no longer tell others who do not know them well that they are Christian because, unfortunately, the term Christian in America has become synonymous with things like judgment and prejudice, even with white supremacist views.
Christopher Edmonston, the head pastor at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh (a friend of both mine and Chris), wrote an article for “The Presbyterian Outlook” magazine in January of this year called “Pastoring a Purple Church.” In it, he asked, “How can we be pastoral for those whom our prophetic word will feel like a betrayal? How can we fail to be prophetic in an historical moment where multiple injustices require prophetic preaching?” As he endeavors to answer that question, he looks to Jesus. Jesus, he says, gives us the example of being both pastoral and prophetic. “At times he preaches with apocalyptic fire demanding the justice of the ages. Other times he calls sinners to him and does not choose to prophetically correct their errors, but pastorally offers them forgiveness. If the church is supposed to emulate Jesus,” says Christopher, “then we must remember that two of the three offices of Jesus were prophet and priest. One is not greater than the other. Both are necessary.” Being a purple church means somehow balancing these roles so that all feel heard.
As I retire, that is my hope for Westminster and for the church at large, that all might feel heard, and the church might be able to live as one even with our differences (purple church!). If the church is to set an example for the world, rather than to follow the ways of the world, we have to be better at this than everyone around us. So, friends, my parting advice is that when you disagree with a sermon, or a Sunday School class lesson, or an Aperture presentation, do not just walk away in anger. Go and discuss it with Chris or with the other leaders of the church, with the new staff who will come to serve here faithfully. But discuss it with open ears and hearts, on both sides of the aisle and issue. Search together for the real truth, and listen to one another with respect and love. That is the way to follow Jesus, that is the path to a better world. It starts here, in the church. But we have to be intentional about it. There is an urgency about this letter to the Ephesians for a reason. The battle against evil (and the division of people is part of that evil) may be cosmic, it may be always present. It cannot be ignored.
One of the books I have read recently that has been helpful in my faith journey is Jimmy Carter’s most recent book, Faith: A Journey for All. He begins by saying, “I believe now, more than ever, that Christians are called to plunge into the life of the world, and to inject the moral and ethical values of our faith into the process of governing.” (Carter, p. 9) He asks what the goals of people, or the church, or the country should be, and his answer is that they are all remarkably the same: “a desire for peace; a need for humility, for examining one’s faults and turning away from them; a commitment to human rights in the broadest sense of the words, based on a moral society concerned with the alleviation of suffering because of deprivation or hatred or hunger or physical afflictions; and a willingness, even an eagerness, to share one’s ideals, one’s faith, with others, to translate love in a person to justice.” (Carter, p.11)
When we find that what is going on in our world goes against the gospel message, we cannot, in good conscience, be silent. We have to “declare it boldly” that the way to right living is through doing just what the Lord requires of us: to make sure that justice happens for all, to live with loving kindness for all, and to walk humbly with God in all circumstances. We at Westminster see these words from Micah every week on our bulletins, but they are not easy pursuits, not ones we can do alone. And so the church, this church, needs to work hard at being in harmony, at listening to one another with love, at being humble. And not only should the pastors “declare it boldly” that God is all about love, not hatred, so should all the church members. “Declare it boldly” that the greatest commandment is to love God, and to love your neighbor as yourself. Declare it boldly that our ministry is to “the least of these’ – the hungry and thirsty, the homeless, the stranger, the prisoner. Declare it boldly that Jesus welcomed all with open arms – children, the sick, outcasts (refugees or immigrants), even the worst sinners (and we are all sinners) – and so should we welcome all in Jesus’ name.
One of my preaching professors at Duke Divinity School suggested that the better preachers do not necessarily preach what people want to hear, that they have to at times disturb the people to hear what God might be saying. As I retire from this position after a wonderfully blessed 19 years of service with you, I find myself more disturbed by the calling of the biblical message in response to the ways of the world than I ever have been before, in my life – and I actually hope that you are disturbed too. Maybe if we are disturbed enough, we will listen more closely, to God and to one another, and then maybe we will go out and declare the gospel truth in all our words and in our actions, in a world that desperately needs God’s message of love and hope, peace and justice.
So I want to end with a prayer attributed to Sir Francis Drake (a sea captain, naval officer, slave trader, perhaps a bit of a scoundrel), though that has been disputed. But the same words appear often, and they are helpful. They are my parting prayer for you and for me.
Let us pray:
Disturb us, Lord, when we are too pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true, because we have dreamed too little; when we arrived safely, because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity, and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of a new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push us into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love. Amen.