Monday, August 17, 2015

__stand__ -- a sermon on Ephesians 6

Rev. Teri Peterson
__ stand __
Ephesians 6.10-20
16 August 2015, P2-5 (We Follow By Grace)

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

Stand firm. Take a stand. Stand up. Withstand.

I confess that I am usually one of those people firmly against using war metaphors for faith. Military clothing and tactics, battle imagery…it doesn’t seem to jive with following the Prince of Peace, the one who defeats death. Jesus tells us to turn the other cheek and to pray for our enemies. The letters of Paul tell us to clothe ourselves in compassion and kindness, to bear one another’s burdens, to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice, to work together the way a body works together, to turn swords into plows and rely on the power of love.

And yet in this stirring speech to end the letter, the writer of Ephesians—who, remember, is from the workshop of Paul—calls us to battle.

Or, more accurately, calls us to stand firm. To hold the line against those powers and principalities that would dearly love to claim every inch of culture and creation for their own purposes.

The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the helmet of salvation, the shoes of the gospel of peace, the sword of God’s word…none of these are for attacking. None of them give us an ounce of power over another person on earth. And the battle is not against human beings anyway. There’s nothing here about fighting each other—it’s all about standing fast in the face of powers larger than any one of us.

Sometimes it seems that those who take a stand for truth and peace are indeed embattled in our world of spin and justification. Grace is often in short supply, and even two thousand years after Christ defeated death we still face death-dealing powers every day: powers of sexism and racism, of nationalism and greed, of fear and power-mongering and self-interest. These cosmic forces are so much bigger than any one of us, and even when we try individually not to give in to them, we can’t help it—it’s the water we swim in and the air we breathe.

These are not enemies of flesh and blood—there’s no one person or nation or religion or ethnicity we can fight. Nor should we—that is the opposite of our call.

Our call is to stand firm. To hold the line. To refuse to cede another inch to hate and fear, to violence and greed, to racism and sexism.

Easier said than done, I know. But here is some good news: this letter, remember, is addressed not to individuals, but to the whole community, the whole body of Christ—the church that is already doing this work and needs some encouragement to keep going. This is not about individuals tying each other up with the truth as we see it—it is about the whole body of Christ being held together by the truth of God’s love. It is about the whole body of Christ lacing up shoes that will carry us near and far with a message of peace. This is about the whole body of Christ wearing these gifts together, standing together.

The shield of faith is the perfect visual. The shields of the Roman army were one-and-a-half people wide. So when the army stood together there was no break in the line, because each person was holding a shield that covered themselves and their neighbor. As long as the whole body stands fast and holds the line together, everyone is shielded by the faith of others. And, as JOHN (not Paul) Bunyan noted in the Pilgrim’s Progress, there is no armor for the back or sides. There is no option to turn back, only to stand together. It is the big picture version of turning the other cheek, which was a nonviolent way of resisting the powers that be, by forcing them to back down or to acknowledge your equality and treat you accordingly.

And stand we must. 
When the powers call for violence, we must stand together for peace. 
When the powers call for silence, we must stand together and speak. 
When the powers call for ignoring the plight of the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant, we must stand firm for justice. 
When the powers call for going along to get along, for endless expansion at the expense of creation, for using people for our own profits, we must stand firm against them and insist on a more excellent way.

The Body of Christ is clothed in the armor of God…in compassion and kindness, in willingness to bear one another’s burdens and to rejoice with those who rejoice, in the belief that every member of the body is equally important. 
Will we hold the line of justice when our brothers and sisters are killed in the streets, standing firm and speaking the truth that life, including black lives, matter to God and to us? 
Will we hold the line of hope when our culture is fractured into marketing segments, withstanding the onslaught of those who would divide and conquer with greed and self-interest, insisting on God’s desire for right relationship and wholeness? 
Will we plant our feet on peace when our leaders call for fear and violence as a means to achieve their ends, insisting that violence can never drive out violence—only love can do that?

It feels like an impossible task. And it is—but nothing is impossible for God. Remember when the Israelites left Egypt, and the Egyptian army pursued them to the banks of the sea—the people were terrified, and God spoke: “Stand firm, and see what the Lord will do.” We do not stand under our own power—we are gifted everything we need for this task. Now here, at the end of the letter, facing a world of uncertainty and persecution, comes the big speech. The one that the king gives as the army stands arrayed before him, to give them courage and hope as they make their stand.

In the classic allegory of the battle between good and evil, Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings series, the day comes when the men who stand for justice and peace are lined up outside the gates of Mordor, the land of shadows and terror and despair. They are surrounded and outnumbered by all the monsters of greed and hatred and violence and fear. And the king speaks to them before they hold the line to give Frodo a chance to accomplish the task of destroying death:

Hold your ground!
Sons of Gondor, of Rohan, my brothers,
I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me.
A day may come when the courage of men fails,
when we forsake our friends
and break all bonds of fellowship,
but it is not this day.
An hour of wolves and shattered shields,
when the age of men comes crashing down,
but it is not this day!
Today, we fight.
I bid you stand, Men of the West!!!

Here in this place and time, in the bonds of fellowship and friendship, we make our stand, with prayer and action for God’s vision of the kingdom of justice, peace, truth, and grace.

May it be so. Amen.

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