Sunday, September 24, 2006

According to the Message, this is what happened in the house in Capernaum: “He put a child in the middle of the room. Then, cradling the little one in his arms, he said, "Whoever embraces one of these children as I do embraces me, and far more than me—God who sent me.” Now, the New Revised Standard Version is a translation. I trust that Mark’s original text probably says something closer to its language of Jesus taking a child and putting it among the Disciples. Yet Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase captures the tenderness we believe that Jesus would have demonstrated toward a small child. He cradles and embraces the little one. This is the language of love. The first lesson children are taught in Sunday school is that Jesus loves the little children, and this scripture bears witness to that love.

It can be hard to hear the fullness of this gospel text about power and greatness, humility and servanthood, discipleship and childhood, and what it really means to welcome God. Our own culture and context can deafen us to the Bible. We live in a culture that values children. We have an educational system that provides schooling to rich and poor children alike. And though laws are often broken, the mere fact that children are legally protected from abuse, neglect, and labor is significant. In ancient times, children were socially on par with slaves. They were completely powerless. Even today, children are endangered in certain cultures. So while we hear Jesus’ call to welcome children in light of our culture that, as a whole, agrees that children are to be cherished and protected, we might miss how off-key this lesson sounded to the Disciples’ ears. This is yet another example illustrating the upside-down, topsy-turvy Kingdom of God, where a servant is the greatest and one can welcome God by welcoming a child.

So as Disciples, our lesson is that we are to take the risks of servanthood. “Greatness is achieved in Jesus's eyes, not just by the fact that we serve others, not just by the fact that we pour out our time and our talent for the sake of others, greatness in the eyes of Jesus is found in the willingness of his disciples to receive, to accept, and indeed to really welcome those they would normally consider un-receivable, unacceptable, and unwelcome.” Including a child.

As wonderful and necessary that lesson is, it isn’t the one I’m called to preach today. In my study this week, I practiced a prayerful way of reading the Bible that was taught by St. Ignatius, one of the great guides of Christian spirituality. The Ignatian method of bible reading encourages Christians to put one of God’s greatest gifts to use—our imaginations.

“Generally, Ignatian prayer works best with narrative material in which actual characters live a story of faith. The idea is to place yourself into the text as a careful observer -- a fly on the wall. Ignatius commended the use of the five senses in such meditation. You taste, hear, see, smell and feel your way through the passage. Occasionally you become one of the characters, seeing the story unfold from his or her viewpoint. Most of all, the aim is to help you perceive the narrative from the viewpoint of Jesus so that you may more fully participate in his mind, heart, and work.”

While the Ignatian method doesn’t replace traditional bible study, it is a wonderful way to interact with the living word of God.

So I imagined my way into the gospel text. So much to see, so much to relate to. I started by acknowledging how very tired the whole group must have been, walking so many miles to fulfill their mission. I felt the Disciples’ fear and bewilderment when Jesus again preached that he would be killed and after three days rise again. I overheard the bickering about which Disciple would be greatest—and I recognized their shame and heard their silence when Jesus wondered what they were arguing about. It’s easy for me to relate to the Disciples in the Gospel of Mark, for he is the evangelist who is most brutally honest about their many blunders.

But just as I thought my practice of the Ignatian Method would lead me to remain with the disciples and see the whole story through their searching eyes, Jesus draws the child into the circle. And as I contemplated the simple beauty of the Son of God cradling a little child in his arms, I realized that I wanted, and needed, to be the child. I squeezed my eyes shut and summoned every drop of my imagination into becoming the object of Jesus’ lesson, the little one whom he embraced.

Most of the folks who gather for worship are grown-up Christians. We’re supposed to be learning the lessons the Disciples had to learn, because we are part of the communion of saints before us who spent their lives trying to faithfully follow Christ. And so I am not surprised that every commentary and sermon I read about this passage interpreted it in light of what it calls the Disciples to do to do.

Its lesson is important and startling. Welcome a child, serve the powerless, and you welcome and serve not only Christ but the One who sent him. We need to be challenged to understand what this really means. I have a friend who is both a pastor and a mother, and she is using this opportunity to remind her congregation that they can’t just welcome her kids when they are on their best behavior; if they really want to welcome her kids they have to welcome, in her words, “crumbs in the pews and poop and all kids of unwelcoming things.” Jesus isn’t calling his followers to welcome Precious Moments figurines of children; he cradles before them a living and breathing child who needs care.

We are the Disciples learning how to truly welcome, but we are that child, too, hungry for love and acceptance, needing to know that no matter how small we are, we are great in the eyes of God. Our journey with Jesus starts when we realize, with all the simplicity of a child, that Jesus really does love us. Just as Jesus cradled and embraced that little one in Galilee, he welcomes each and every one of us to rest in his arms.

It is all too easy to teach a child the opposite. I remember the burning feeling I had when I was yelled at in my childhood church for running in the sanctuary during the midweek ministry program. I was sternly told that I was in the house of the Lord. The sanctuary no longer felt safe; the Father’s mansion suddenly didn’t seem to have room for me. No one but Jesus could have drawn me out of my shame. No one but Jesus could erase the harsh words that separated me from feeling like I was welcome in the sanctuary. No one but Jesus.

Fred Craddock tells a story. “Used to have a kid down home who’d believe anything you’d tell him. You could say, “The schoolhouse burned down. We’re not having school tomorrow.”

“Oh boy!” He’d believe it.

“They’re giving away free watermelons down at the town hall.”

“Really? Free watermelons?” He’d go running off.

“Did you know the president of the United States is coming to our town tomorrow?”

“He is? Really? Whoopee!” He just believed everything.

I remember once there was an evangelist who came to our town, and he said to that kid, “God loves you and cares for you and comes to you in Jesus Christ.” And do you know, that kid believed it? He actually believed it.”

I hope that you believe it, too.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Jesus and his Disciples are making their way to a new territory, a new set of villages in which to teach and heal and bear witness to the goodness of God. And as they journey to Caesarea Philippi, the unfamiliar landscape draws forth a new set of questions. Jesus asks what the people are saying about him. The Disciples certainly would have been keeping up with the public perception of their prophet, and so they are quick to answer what they have heard. That this man from Nazareth is something special goes without saying, and so people have speculated that he might be an incarnation of John the Baptist, or Elijah, or perhaps a prophet sent by God to proclaim a new word for the Israelites.

Jesus' question is more than a straw poll. Knowing what other people say about Jesus can be helpful as we prepare ourselves to answer the second of Jesus' questions. One of my first assignments in seminary was to analyze and compare how the reformers John Calvin and Martin Luther understood who Jesus is and what his life and death means for humanity.

It was an exhausting paper to research, full of nitpicky details and fine distinctions. It felt like calculating how many angels dance on the head of a pin. And yet, when I timidly met my strict German professor for a conference about the paper, we ended up talking at length about my own understanding of who Jesus was and is. I was surprised to realize how much learning about the church's traditional interpretations of Jesus Christ informed my own confession of faith.

On the road to Caesarea Philippi, Jesus pushed the Disciples to answer for themselves just who they thought they were following. Whether he was blessed by unique wisdom or courage, Peter alone responded, and his answer was correct: their rabbi was no ordinary man, but the Messiah.

Peter thought he knew what it meant to stand in the presence of the Messiah. He believed that Israel's hope for a restored earthly kingdom was fulfilled in Jesus. After centuries of slavery and exile, turmoil and oppression, the Israelites would finally emerge from under the iron thumb of their most recent enemies and be sovereign over their promised land again. Jesus would be the victorious King, born from the house of David. All of these expectations swirled in Peter's head as he proudly proclaimed Jesus' true identity.

The Disciples’ high hopes were dashed, as Jesus took Peter's spark of understanding as an invitation to go deeper into the real meaning of Messiah. The Disciples had seen a lot since Jesus called them out of their fishing boats. They had seen Jesus scatter Demons, vanquish leprosy, chill fevers. They had seen loaves and fish split into five thousand servings, and paralysis give way to movement. They had heard the astounding authority in Jesus' words. They had seen more than enough to believe that Jesus was the Christ, worthy of their trust and adoration.

Yet nothing prepared them for this new teaching. What is this about suffering and rejection? What is this about death? I wonder if Peter even heard the part about rising again after three days, so appalled was he at the thought of his beloved master denied by their brethren.

We hear this teaching in much the same way as the Disciples. We did not gather today expecting the doom and drear of Lent. This is the time of the Christian year in which we simply hear the stories about Jesus. We're supposed to be growing in our Discipleship of the risen Lord by rehearsing the gospel accounts of miracles and parables. And yet in the midst of our journey with Jesus, suddenly we find ourselves on another road altogether. We thought we were going to Caesarea Philippi, but it turns out the path leads to Calvary.
Jesus wants his Disciples to understand who he really is.

And if the finger is pointed in our direction, if we take on the boldness of Peter and proclaim that Jesus is the Messiah, do we know what that means? The life and death and life of Jesus will reveal an utterly unexpected Messiah, and an utterly unexpected God. For Jesus is not an exception in the life of God, a momentary lapse of divine power. Jesus is the Christ, the anointed one, the sharpest reflection of the heart of our Creator. The fierce tribal god of battles and retribution turns out to be a falsehood. The cheerful and shiny god of smashing success is just another idol. Jesus reveals that the God who lit the stars and stirred the seas, the true God, is loving and compassionate. His faithfulness to his people renders him completely vulnerable, and so through Christ we learn that the One who created us is the One who suffers with us, and for us. And though we might believe that the opposite of power is vulnerability, the Messiah lives and dies to show us that the greatest expression of power is the vulnerability of sacrificial love.

To claim Jesus as the Messiah demands that we recognize the breadth and the depth, the joy and the sorrow, of who Jesus is and what he brought about. Why did the Disciples bother to leave their nets behind and follow this strange teacher throughout the hills and plains of Galilee? And, for that matter, why do we bother to follow him in this time and in this place?

This week I encountered one pastor’s answer to this question that took my breath away and had me drawing stars in the margins of the page. Why do we follow? “Because Jesus told Nathanael, the Samaritan woman and others the truth about themselves. Because he fulfilled the longing of Israel. Because he brought healing and forgiveness that embodied the new regime of which he spoke. Because he practiced and pictured the character and possibility of all people, and breathed purpose and destiny into all creation.

Because he opened out an everlasting communion with the Father that made the Romans, the conventional powers and authorities, all the destructive and craven impulses of the world, even death itself, seem paltry and pitiful. He formed around himself a community, and gave them the practices and the gifts to be his body through pain and joy. His were the words and deeds of eternal life, and there have been none to match them before or since.”

Peter’s lack of understanding frustrated Jesus, and if we join Peter in denying the fullness of who Jesus is, we will frustrate our Lord just as surely. Jesus spoke harshly to Peter not because he didn’t love this bold yet flawed Disciple. Jesus knew how crucial it was for those closest to him, those who had heard and responded to his call on their lives, to know the truth about their leader and the mission he shared with them. No one can say that Jesus didn’t warn his followers that proclaiming the gospel could result in suffering and death.

Just as Jesus could not evade the cruelty of the cross, neither could his followers. "If any want to become my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me." This is not a battle cry for martyrdom; this is an honest evaluation of the cost of discipleship.

Peter thought he was on the road to Caesarea Philippi with a man whose reputation echoed that of Elijah and John the Baptist. He found out he was following the Messiah on a path to Calvary, and for the life of him, he could not discern any good news in this detour. Yet what we overhear in this challenging passage is a story about a disciple ever so slowly realizing that he is in the presence of the only one who can lead him home.

In this geography of discipleship, Jesus is the leader. We must either follow or get out of the way. If we cannot accept the God whom Jesus reveals, if we cannot abide that our Savior should be anything other than an untainted idol of success, we will be rebuked and told to get back. The journey will continue without us. But if we look at this incredible map and see the way, the truth, and the life, we will be given the grace and the strength to take up our cross and follow him to the lowest hell and the highest heaven.

At this intersection, who do you say that He is?


Sunday, September 10th, 2006

Our gospel reading today tells of a healing. Jesus restores sound and speech to a man who had spent his years imprisoned and isolated by silence. Unlike Matthew, who excludes some of the uncomfortable details from this story, Mark describes the strange healing techniques Jesus employed in the healing. He stuck his fingers in the man's ears, and touched the man's tongue with his own saliva. Some biblical commentaries speculate that these actions embarrassed Matthew, for they were the same methods used by a host of ancient sorcerers. Letting on that Jesus used the same procedures as ordinary charlatans opened the early Church to ridicule and scorn.

I was, in a small way, in a similar position as the deaf man this week. I needed healing. I have a slight curve to my spine that acts up every so often. A couple times a year I'm knocked out of commission for three or four days by spasms of pain. Sometimes a visit to the chiropractor grants some relief, and so this week I ended up in the office of a holistic doctor who also practices chiropractic medicine. Unfortunately, this doctor was awful. Instead of the chiropractic adjustments I came in for, I was subjected to a host of alternative healing methods that were questionable at best and an outright sham at worst. The worst of which involved a laser pointer. The good doctor pointed it into my ear and expected my back to suddenly be healed. Needless to say, I left that office in just as much pain as I'd carried in with me.

And so I can imagine how the deaf man might have felt when Jesus started poking around in his ears and mouth. The man quite possibly had already been treated, unsuccessfully, with the same tiresome and useless techniques. I wonder if his eyes rolled with disbelief and disappointment, frustrated that his friends had forced him to face yet another scam artist.

But then something changed. Though Jesus began his treatment with ordinary spit, he diverged from the ordinary practice of faith healers. He groaned, and looked at the Heavens, and with the power of God he spoke a commandment in Aramaic: Ephphtha! Be opened!

Be opened. And the man's ears were opened, his tongue released. He was healed.

The deaf man had no reason to believe he would ever be the man who could hear. He was locked in silence and sealed with a feeling of utter desperation. And maybe he had given in to the fact of his existence. He didn't volunteer to be healed; his friends lead him to

Jesus to receive a healing touch. And then he was taken aside by the Son of God, subjected to a dubious drama of healing, and then-- surprise of all surprises-- healed.

Isaiah had spoken of a day in which the blind would be released from darkness and the deaf set free from silence. And in Jesus, this prophecy is realized. Through his ministry on earth, Jesus shared gifts of healing and wholeness. Jesus set men and women free from spiritual-- and physical-- captivity.

For Jesus, spiritual healing was infinitely more important. He didn't even want the crowd that overheard the healing of the deaf man to share what they had seen. His compassion for those who suffered was so intense that it caused him to groan, and yet he knew that physical relief was only a fragment of his mission.

Though the gospels bear witness to miraculous physical healings, the primary work of Jesus was not to cure ailments but to open eyes and ears, hearts and minds, to the good news of God's redeeming love. Be open, he commanded. Open your eyes to imagine a restored Creation. See what Isaiah saw-- the hope that roses will bloom where now there is only parched dust. Open your ears to hear the Word that transforms cries of mourning into shouts of praise. Be open to the amazing grace of God, and you will be transformed, you will be healed.

The words of Isaiah are echoed and fulfilled in the healing acts of Christ. Isaiah promised that God would save his people and extend healing to his children. Mark’s account of the healing of the deaf man signifies that the age of salvation has arrived. But I think the authors of the lectionary—the pastors and scholars who prayerfully discerned that churches throughout the world would consider these scriptures in tandem—recognized a second connection between these passages from the Old and New testaments. Isaiah charges those with fearful hearts to “Be strong.” Despite his often difficult message to the Israelites, he reminds God’s people that God will come and save them. “Do not fear,” he proclaims.

These two commands— “do not fear” and “be opened” are two sides of the same coin. We cannot be open when we are afraid. When fear holds us in its grip we are anything but open. We lock our doors and shutter our windows. Anything and anyone that is different is perceived as a threat, a danger. And so we live a smaller existence when we fear, an existence that does not leave room for good news, for pure joy, for abiding hope.

Fear is a fist: held tightly closed, defensive, untrusting. Beginning to trust God, to really believe that God is really doing something about the mess of the world, feels to me like slowly unfurling a fist I’ve gripped for far too long. Nothing illustrates trust and hope and openness and faith for me like a hand, held open. Open to share and receive love, open to share and receive healing.

We could easily dismiss the prophecy of Isaiah and the promise of Christ. We could arm ourselves with fearful skepticism, blind and deaf to the healing power of God. We could join the early detractors of the Church in dismissing Jesus as a sorcerer, or we the contemporary detractors of the Church in writing him off as a very wise man that affected people so deeply that they made up stories of miracles and healing. Or, we can trust that the invitation to give up fear and be opened to good news is an invitation worth heeding. We can entrust the most wounded and terrified parts of our bodies and souls to God, not in blind faith but because we see that Christ alone is the source of all healing.

Five years ago tomorrow, we were commanded to fear. Our nation was wounded and many people were killed so that we would be afraid, so that we would live in a prison of terror. And yet the wisdom of our faith instructs us not to fear. Just as Isaiah encouraged the exiles to trust in their God and hope for the restoration of their land, we must fearlessly place our trust in the One who heals our suffering and redeems our souls. We must hope for a transformed world where terror is no longer a weapon, where death no longer holds a sting. This caliber of hope is impossible if we do not heed the groan of Jesus to be courageously open to the gospel.

As the United States commemorates September 11th this week, we will be reminded of the horror and the heroism that emerged from the destruction. For as much evil as we saw that day, we also witnessed the human capacity for compassion and courage.

One of the simple yet profound images from the rescue and recovery operations was that of a rugged steel cross, discovered amidst the bent and twisted ruins of the World Trade Center. That cross was a fierce and glorious reminder that our God transforms suffering and death into hope and resurrection. The rescue operation continued beneath the foot of the cross, a constant reminder that God has given us every reason to hope for new life.

God will come and save us, God will repair what has been broken, God will restore what has been lost. We will be healed.

Sunday, September 3, 2006

Despite the fact that I’m a huge fan of National Public Radio, I rarely catch Morning Edition, one of their primary news shows. Its title doesn’t lie: it’s on in the Morning, and I am definitely not on in the morning. But the other day on my way to Westwood to spend some time with a few young clergywomen, I caught a brief installment of StoryCorps, their weekly series in which friends and family members interview one another in sound booths set up throughout the United States. Just as Morning Edition airs in the morning, StoryCorps specializes in stories. I heard a third-generation steel worker named Ken Kobus tell a simple yet beautiful story about his father, John, and the labor that they shared. I loved the story enough to buy the transcript, because I knew I couldn’t retell it with the grace of the original. So here’s what Ken said. [Truncated due to copyright.]

...I know that [working in the mill] stuck with my father for all his life. I mean, when he was dying - he had cancer. We had him in a hospice and he was in a lot of pain, so they were giving him lots of morphine.

And I was watching him in the bed once. And the doctor came in and my dad was laying on his back and he, like, had his hands up in the air and he was turning and manipulating. And the doctor saw it - I was looking at my dad - and he says we’re wondering what the heck he’s doing? Because, you know, he did it all the time. He would be laying on his back and he would be doing this stuff and they had no clue as to what he was doing.

And I said, oh, I says, I could tell you. He’s making steel. He was opening furnace doors and he was adjusting the gas on the furnace and the draft. I could see. I could see what he was doing. And the doctor was amazed, you know.

To the day he died, that’s what he lived. He lived steel-making.

Maybe I wouldn’t have heard what I heard in this story if I hadn’t been contemplating the letter of James this week. James is a bit of a rogue character in the canon of Christian scripture. The letter has been the subject of nearly as much controversy as the Book of Revelation. Many early Christian scripture collections did not include it, and the reformer Martin Luther called it a letter of straw compared to the writings of Paul.

Whereas Paul emphasizes that we are saved by grace through faith, not by good works, James proclaims that faith without works is dead. He is, I believe, unfairly accused of not giving grace the credit it deserves. But I think he’s asking an entirely different question. He doesn’t explore how we are saved; he is primarily concerned with how faith forms and shapes our lives. How do we live as Christians?

For James, the Christian faith requires action. He doesn’t claim that our actions save us; indeed, he celebrates the implanted word that has the power to save our souls. I especially like the way Eugene Peterson renders this—“ In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.” God’s grace is clearly the source of our salvation—but that doesn’t let us of the hook. We are to be more than passive recipients of the word. More than people who let the gospel go in one ear and out the other. We are to be doers of the word. We are to be shaped by the Word. Our lives are to take on a distinct pattern of compassion and service. As Christians, we do not simply believe the gospel. We are called to embody the gospel, to live it.

And that is how the apparently secular story Ken Kobus told about his father landed in the pulpit this Sunday. Ken confessed that his father lived the steel mills. The ordinary habits of his career were so much a part of him that they became a source of comfort and meaning in the delirium of his cancer. So long as he was carefully monitoring the dynamics of the furnace, he was still a strong laborer, not a man lost to the ravages of illness. He knew the movements of his trade by heart, so that as long as his heart was beating, he was a steel maker.

We often think of habits only negatively. We think of bad habits—procrastination, overspending, nailbiting. Even good habits are considered to be sort of mindless. Going to church out of habit doesn’t exactly sound as romantic as being drawn to worship out of joy in the Lord. But Rick Warren, the author of the Purpose Driven Life, teaches that adopting spiritual habits leads to spiritual maturity.

He writes, “Anyone can become physically fit if he or she will regularly do certain exercises and practice good health habits. Likewise, spiritual fitness is no mystery. It is simply a matter of learning certain spiritual exercises and being disciplined to do them until they become habits.” Pastor Warren preaches here the same message as our Brother James: be doers of the word. Live your faith. Embody the gospel. Don’t simply admire Jesus; walk in his footsteps.

John Kobus worked a difficult job for thirty-seven years. His work was tedious at times. Every cent he brought home was earned with sweat and danger. He did the same things over, and over, and over again until they became second nature.

God’s vision for us—the salvation-garden He labors to plant within the soil of each of our lives—is to be just as shaped by the work of discipleship. Our work is prayer, witness, compassion, service. Our work is bible study, communion, love, kindness. Our work is worship, justice, generosity, sacrifice. May our new lives in Christ be consumed by this work, as a faithful response to God’s great works of grace. Amen.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

When I was in seminary, I could be a bit of a firecracker; if I had an opinion, I was more than happy to make it known. This mode of operation worked out just fine, with a couple exceptions. I couldn’t skip class much, because my absence would be altogether too apparent. Just as thunder strikes after lightening during Midwestern summer storms, it was a safe gamble that I would pipe up when certain theological issues came up. One of those issues was—and is—violence. Violence and the bible, violence and Christian history, violence and video games. And it was on one of those occasions that violence came up in class that my tendency to mouth off bit back. It was History of Christianity, pre-reformation. We had made it as far as the Crusades, the brutal “Holy Wars” that Christians and Muslims waged in Medieval times. Little bewilders and angers me more than killing in the name of the Prince of Peace.

I took one look at the textbook illustration of a soldier dressed in armor adorned with a cross, and my hand shot up. I don’t remember precisely what I said, but it had something to do with dismissing the Crusaders as true followers of Christ. Now, if I was a firecracker, my professor was a cannonball. She hastily put me in my place, lecturing me on the need for respect and historical objectivity.

I learned a few things that day. Though my conviction regarding church-sanctioned violence did not change, I learned that respecting my brothers and sisters in Christ is crucial, even when their beliefs differ from mine, and even when they have been dead for a millennium. And I also learned that I was not cut out to be a historian. I was incapable of putting my core beliefs on the back burner to explore Christian history as an even-handed academic. I cannot study the Crusades without tearing my hair out. I am one of those Christians who are glad that Onward, Christians Soldiers was left out of our hymn book, though I have grown up enough not to dismiss your faith if it is your favorite hymn.

As you can imagine, I struggle with this week’s scripture from the book of Ephesians. In this rousing closure to his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul borrows the language of battle to describe the divine power that strengthens and protects Christians. We are to put on the whole armor of God, to encircle ourselves with God’s might so that we may be kept safe and secure from the powers of evil. This scripture, as with every scripture that reveals the works of our Heavenly Father, bears witness to good news. Yet I confess that it is a challenge to hear the gospel enfolded in the metaphor of tools for battle, when throughout history Christians have drawn swords sharpened not for the Spirit but for the killing of men, women, and children created in the image of God. It is jarring to consider the gospel in metaphorical images of war, when literal images of war are altogether too commonplace.

I read an article this week about a Reformed Rabbi who preached against the war in Iraq in her Orange County congregation. As she condemned the mistreatment of prisoners by members of the US military, she was abruptly interrupted. The commotion in the pews was so pronounced that she assumed there must be a medical emergency. But then a man raised his arms in an X, and shouted, “You have no right to talk about politics in the pulpit. It has no place here!”

I don’t know if I agree with that man. I don’t know if I agree with that Rabbi, either. I do know that it is neither responsible to ignore what is going on in the world around us, nor to paint the pulpit Republican-red or Democrat-blue. Today I heed Paul’s teaching to proclaim the Gospel of Peace. It is impossible to wear the shoes of peace during a time of war without treading in a complex current that includes politics.

Know that I do not intend to stand behind a bully pulpit. You are welcome to disagree with me. I do not intend to draw a line and invite each of you to stand on one side or the other. My prayer for us is that we become ever more shaped by that bold supplication we raise every time we worship: that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in Heaven.

Paul talks about a present darkness, about spiritual forces of evil, about powers and principalities. And sure enough, God’s earth is cloaked by evil. We live in a world corrupted by disaster and plagued by illness. Though the soil and water of Creation produce an abundance of food, some starve while others count a surplus. Nations battle for access to resources. The intoxicating lure of power, privilege, and prestige infects human hearts. Dictators scramble for control. People inflict harm and terror upon other people, and whether it is on the scale of genocide between warring nations or domestic abuse between a husband and wife, God weeps for the evil power clutching his children.

As followers of the Risen Lord, we are invited to involve ourselves in a force more powerful than hatred, than violence, than evil. We are given tools: truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, the Word of God. Through that Holy Word, we receive Christ’s teachings about a peaceable Kingdom where God lives and reigns forever. No matter our convictions about war in general or any war in particular, as Christians we share a vision of a world no longer marred by violence and conflict, a fully redeemed Creation in which justice replaces inequality, mourning gives way to dancing, and the nations gather for worship, not war. The present darkness may seem dense, but our God has already begun the work of redemption through the radical love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. The forces of evil have no chance against the power of God’s gentle and Holy Spirit.

That we are a nation at war troubles me deeply. My heart broke anew this week as I saw a photograph of a young mother preparing to leave her five-month-old child to return to active duty in Iraq. Her sacrifice is too great for me to fathom. And yet as a Christian, my compassion cannot stop with her. I know that God’s love and grace flow just as freely in other lands and languages.

Paul ends this passage with a reminder to pray in the Spirit at all times. It would seem that this is what our shiny armor prepares us for: the simple act of communicating with our Creator. And pray we must. In a time when it seems the world, and even our own nation, is divided into enemy camps, we must remind one another that Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will, not ours, to be done. We must share the gift of prayer generously, praying not only for the men and women proudly recognized in the Narthex, but that all persons might know the peace and protection of God.

The Christian struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but spiritual powers. As persons entrusted with the whole armor of God, not only our nation but every nation desperately needs our continual prayer for peace, witness for peace, and work for peace. We are clad in spiritual armor so that all of Creation may be released from the force of evil and ushered in to God’s just and peaceful Kingdom. This is a battle that cannot be lost, for in this battle, we are all on the side of God. May it be so.