Rev. Maggie’s All Saints’ Day sermon: “Pay Attention”

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In my other life, when I am not rectoring, I am a historian. I’ve always loved the past—when I walked to school, as a child, I walked on the grass, not the sidewalk, so that I could pretend I was a pioneer girl, walking through the meadows to a one-room schoolhouse. I’ve never really felt that the past was passed—I can feel it all around me, all the time. I love to dive into the sixteenth century and not come back for hours. Part of the attraction of the work of research and writing about these distant centuries, I confess, has been the thought that you can’t hurt anyone, doing it. No matter what you say or what you get wrong, you can’t hurt them, because, to put it bluntly, they’re all dead.

It turns out to be a bit more complicated than that. It’s not a pain-free endeavor. There are moments, in reading about what we have done to each other, to our fellow Christians and to those of other faiths, when you have to stop, when your heart is broken. For me that moment first came when I was studying the religious wars in France between Catholics and Protestants after the Reformation. There were massacres, and people who claimed to be following Jesus’ teaching murdered one another by the thousands. I read about one case in which a group of religious zealots killed the parents of a little girl, the same age as my own daughter, at the time I was reading, and they bathed her in her parents’ blood, to teach her a lesson, the lesson of how to hate in God’s name. There are people who have learned that lesson well, and who still teach it in our world today. It is the sacred work of the historian, never to let those evils be forgotten. We owe it to the victims of hatred and violence to stop for a while, to stay with them, and then to take up their story in its completeness, even when it’s as hard and harrowing as that little girl’s story, to be their witnesses.

I listened, this week, to an interview with one of the Jewish rabbis in Pittsburgh, whose responsibility it is to collect every part of those who were killed at worship last Saturday, down to the last drop of blood. It is part of their practice to lay to rest each person in their fullness, just as God made them, insofar as they can. That is the work of witnessing, to which we are also called, as people of faith. God has promised us that nothing will be lost, nothing wasted—every part of Creation will be gathered in, known and remembered, literally re-membering what the world has torn apart, until it is whole again. As a historian I get to do that work, putting together scraps of papers and images, words brought back from the silence and pictures from the darkness, until the story of a life, a community, is revealed, not completely, but more fully.

My vocation is therefore to be a pastor whose congregation includes the dead. People I’ve talked to about this have thought it’s weird, admittedly. Our world is so much about moving on, after a loss, aren’t we counseled to make that our goal, after a trauma? When is she going to move on? Is he ready to move on, yet? But the life of the church, God’s church, is not limited to those who happen to be alive right now. We have this enormous gift, of honouring those who have gone before us, and knowing them to be with us. They are always there, encouraging us with their examples, inspiring and comforting us with their stories, and calling out our grief, because they deserve it. All we have to do is pay attention, and they are around us all the time.

Paying attention is a good way to describe the job of the historian. It has also helped me in thinking about the work of being a pastor to living people, as well. When I first began to visit people in the hospital, as part of the training you do during the ordination process, I was intimidated by the prospect of going into a room with someone who had just lost a child, or been told that they were dying, or that their lives would never be the same. I came to realize that what I was being called to do in those rooms was not fix people or situations, which I couldn’t do, but to be a historian again, for that living and dying child of God in front of me. To listen to them, to let them know that their stories were not lost or forgotten, not unimportant, but heard, understood, and cherished. That’s my job, I would argue, the best job in the world, getting to be the steward of all this life that God has made, its witness, its chronicler, even of the small part that I get to see, of eternity.

The eternal life talk in our faith can be challenging. Our world teaches us to go forward, even our churches can insist that we focus on moving toward salvation, or building God’s kingdom on earth, depending on their theological orientation. But eternity is not really something we go forward to; it’s backwards, and sideways as well. It’s all time and none at all, and getting out of that rat race altogether. Sometimes Christians are disparaged as thinking about eternal life as “life after death,” in this linear way, as some kind of pie in the sky when you die fantasy, as if we weren’t brave enough to admit that people die. It’s hopelessly old-fashioned, nobody talks about death anymore, it’s morbid, and defeatist. Modern medicine doesn’t address the possibility until all options have been exhausted, and then it’s an after-thought, a profoundly uncomfortable, unaccounted-for thing, a final mistake, that nobody knows how not to make. We’ll make them feel bad, if we pay too much attention, so we have to pretend it’s not happening, or hasn’t happened. Focus on the living. Move on. Look away.

Paying attention is exactly what Jesus calls us to do. When he reaches the tomb of his friend—never mind the smell, the gruesomeness of the place, Lazarus is here! From the silence and darkness of the grave, call him back, hear him speak, make a place for him again at the center of his family, his community, the place of a beloved brother. His story isn’t over, even if they all thought it was.

Eternal life is not about avoiding death. It’s about paying just as much attention to the dead as to the living. Jesus is always reminding us to notice what the world ignores, to value what the world discards. Pay just as much attention to rich and to poor, to adults and to children, to those on the bottom and to those in power. What’s small is not insignificant. What’s last is not even late, but right on time. What’s gone is not gone at all, but here all along. What Jesus tells us is that in him, our death and our life are one, in the heart of God. God is the historian of us all, every life, every story. “See, I am making all things new.” “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”

 

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon: “Two Love Stories– The Book of Job and The Princess Bride”

For a few weeks now, we’ve been reading the Book of Job as our lesson from the Old Testament. It’s the story of a prosperous, good man in the prime of his life, with a family and a large farm, and because the devil wants to tempt him, and talks God into going along with this plan, everything is taken away—Job loses it all. Hearing about the terrible things that happened to him, it doesn’t seem like the kind of book that could be described as a love story. But it is.

In a way, it’s like the story of the Princess Bride—you may have seen the fabulous movie, or read the even more wonderful book. It’s a fairy tale. Young Westley is a poor farm boy, who loves the beautiful Buttercup. She lives on the farm and generally makes his life miserable, telling him what to do from dawn to dusk. All Westley would say to her, when she was rude to him was, “as you wish.” He goes off to make his fortune, and loses everything. He is kidnapped by the Dread Pirate Roberts and his gang, who make him work for them and threaten him with death every morning. He is separated from his beloved Buttercup, who, in fact, becomes engaged to Prince Humperdink. In these desperate circumstances, when the pirate captain is about to put him to the sword, Westley only asks humbly, “please, I need to live.”  Why, asks the cynical pirate? True love, replies our young hero. Even when, in disguise and unrecognized, Westley is pushed off a cliff by Buttercup, he simply says again, “as you wish.” That’s when she realizes it’s him, and throws herself off the cliff, too. As you can see, it’s just like the story of Job.

The story of Job is so hard to read; it’s one that resonates with us so profoundly. It speaks to us of the randomness of loss. Sometimes when faced with the onslaught of illness, or work we depend on being taken from us, or the death of a person we love or death, plucking people from the world when they should still be here, we can feel as if someone were playing with us. How else can we explain our suffering, or that of others? And then there are the different ways in which we can respond to life’s tragedies and misfortunes; our responses can be as harmful as the events themselves. Most of the Book of Job is not a description of what happens to him—that only takes a few lines. The majority of the text is a series of conversations between Job and his friends about what has happened, and why. It goes the way it so often does, when we confront our fears—cancer or dementia, failure, violence, betrayal. Trying to be helpful, the friends come up with interpretations that force Job’s losses into some meaningful shape, to ease his pain, and perhaps their own anxiety. You caused this when…, you deserved this because…, you’ll do better if you just… Don’t those little voices whisper in our own minds, when something happens to someone we know, even if we don’t say them out loud—we’ll I’m safe because I eat better than she does, or I exercise, or I would never act like that, thank goodness my family isn’t like theirs. We need to shore up our own sense of security by explaining why it happened to them, why it won’t happen to us. But none of their pat explanations is enough for Job, and he insists, with terrifying honesty, on the injustice of what he’s suffering. He rejects their rationalizations and demands an explanation from God, the only one who could give it. Are we afraid, to look the unfairness of the world in the face? To admit the frank horror of life—even of natural processes, aging, the vicissitudes of love, the passage of time, much less the evils we do to each other on purpose. To be alive, to understand something about how the world is for people, is to be angry, at this condition we find ourselves in. Do we doubt, or give up on God, when faced with the unanswerable questions of suffering and evil? Or do we allow anger to have its time, trusting that God can take it?

At different times in our lives we can understand different things, make sense of things differently. Sometimes we are Job getting crushed by life. Sometimes we are looking back, reflecting on our ignorance or confusion, with new insight. We may look back and despise our former selves, wish we could have been otherwise, been the right person for that time or for those people, made the right choice. We long for fairness, for conditions we could try to live up to, and hold other people to, even hold God to. We are limited, and small of mind and spirit. We would settle for a conditional love, if it would be something we can count on. That is what we find ourselves doing in life, if we don’t believe we’re worth much. An “I’ll love you if,” is good enough, is all we can manage. But God is so much more than that. Love that doles itself out according to conditions is not love, it’s a way to control. And God is not interested in controlling us; God doesn’t need to. God’s love sets us free.

At the end of Job’s story comes his final conversation, with God. God’s response to him is not, you deserved it or there was a reason, but, I am wild, unknowable, not on a scale you can comprehend. Don’t try to explain or control me. We might want, or think we want, a conditional relationship with God, but we don’t get that. What we get is unconditional. What we get, is Westley and Buttercup—a comedy, a tragedy, a fairy tale. We get a God who jumps off a cliff for us. We get a God who acts incomprehensibly, always offering that “as you wish,” and listening to see if we might say it back. What we get is true love. As Job says, “Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

As Westley says: I told you I would always come for you. Why didn’t you wait for me?
Buttercup: Well…you were dead.
Westley: Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.

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Hear this now: I will always come for you.
Buttercup: But how can you be sure?
Westley: This is true love-you think this happens every day?

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon for 10/21/18: “Humility”

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be always acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord our strength, and our Redeemer. Amen.

 

Humility is not very fashionable. A few minutes spent watching television, or on the Internet, will tell us that. What do we share on Facebook—updates to our “status.” We share pictures of beautifully curated lives, we follow the achievements and retweet the pronouncements of the wealthy and provocative. There is an entire genre of self-portraiture, self-promotion, that has democratized the kind of self-absorption of a Louis XIV. There is even an anxiety over not participating in this competitive arena, a fear, of missing out on other’s experiences, or our own, if they are not sufficiently publicized and influential. But humility never was fashionable. That’s sort of the point, really—if it were popular, or a way to gain power and influence over others, it wouldn’t be humility.

Jesus makes the contrast plain, between His way of humility and the world’s infatuation with fame and power. The world’s values are not subtle thing, even if it walks softly, it’s always got that big stick ready: domination, being first, getting whatever you want by the necessary means. I sometimes wonder if the whole unfolding of evolution, survival of the fittest, is the working out of original sin, a sort of existential Hunger Games in which we are forced into a battle to the death with the rest of Creation. The coming of Christ into our world begins the unworking of that evil, the redemption of God’s good will. It starts, though, so small. It starts by just doing the opposite. Jesus’ way, as He has to explain over and over again to His followers, is so different from what we’ve been taught about surviving, adapting and succeeding. He had said it so many times, how unexpected God’s invitation to new life is: come to me like a little child, don’t labor to impress God with your perfection, but still the disciples are trying to fit Him back into the world’s reassuring, predictable box. It’s the world’s most predictable box, of course, a coffin, but they can’t see it.

Walking down the road one day, James and John come to Jesus and make a bid for recognition, in the vocabulary of their time and place. They want to prove their loyalty, and secure his, in return. Give us what we ask for, put us at the places of honour, make us your right and left hand men. They want this to be the kind of movement that needs a hierarchy of authority, a shadow-cabinet, ready for the revolution and the establishment of a new power structure. With infinite tenderness, and not a little grief, Jesus sets them straight. It’s not going to be like that, this is not just another regime change, taking one party in power (them) and putting another in its place (us). This is a subversion of the whole idea of power itself.

They had thought they were making progress, getting somewhere, as they gained followers and momentum. Jesus stops them in their tracks, and asks, where do you think we’re going? What do they think He’s been talking about, along the way? When He asks them, can you be baptized, with the Baptism that I am baptized with, what does He mean? He doesn’t mean a special ceremony, a celebration. He means His death—and it will not be a glorious death in battle, ushering in the victory, but a shameful death, a public execution, a humiliation of his movement and his followers. When He asks them, are you able to drink the cup that I drink, what is Jesus’ cup? Suffering. Not the noble suffering of an athlete or a warrior in training, building from strength to strength, but the pitiless, pointless suffering of a terminal case, the moment-by-moment poisoning of life and hope. All of this is going nowhere they expect, nowhere they want. But it is going, in a way they cannot understand, towards us, to a changed future, to life. Because the road they were on, the road they thought was speeding them on their way to power, the shortest distance between them and success, was carrying them inevitably to ultimate alienation from God and each other.

Power over others is isolating, we set ourselves against others and we end up alone, fearful of losing what we have and unable to trust anyone. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, the saying goes. When you’re at the top, you’ve got to watch your back constantly, keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, sleep with one eye open. God doesn’t want that for His children. Would you want it for yours? Jesus knows there is no possibility of peace, when we set ourselves in opposition to, in competition with one another. What ends that cycle, what brings us together, is humility. To serve each other truly, not just handing people things we think they ought to want and congratulating ourselves, but asking, listening, to find out what others really need.

Wonder of wonders, in this crazy, mixed-up world, there is a place where we get to do that. This is the place where we get to practice Jesus’ way, for our own healing, for the good of our community, and as a witness to the world. This is where we try out Jesus’ model of humble service, of coming together. We learn how to do it in our Godly Play story circles and youth groups, which teach us how to pay attention to our children’s needs and discoveries. We practice it in offering our members pastoral care, taking time with those who are dealing with illness or loss, making sure to include them in our common life so that they know they are not forgotten or alone in their struggles. We follow Jesus’ way in praying for and with each other in worship. He told the disciples that they would share in His Baptism of death, and His cup of suffering, and so will we. We share them in transformed ways in this place, in washing that leads to new life, in food that nourishes and brings us together. Then we take His way out into the world, feeding and clothing and visiting and teaching and testifying.

Sometimes you hear the state of our world lamented as a race to the bottom, a corruption of our standards until we reach the lowest common denominator of civilized society. But I think that Christian life, as Jesus talked about it, is its own race to the bottom. The first shall be last, and the last shall be first. Before we are too quick to claim our lifestyle or even our faith tradition as honorable or enviable, as exemplary or divinely approved, let’s think about how we can take our places at the back of the line, with those fortune hasn’t smiled on much lately. As Christians, our call is not, “Faster, better, stronger,” but “Slow it down, make it smaller, come close.” Slow down until we’re alongside those who can’t keep up with the world’s feverish pace. Admit, with humility, how often we fail, how we see ourselves in one another’s weaknesses. Come close enough to hear quiet voices, to take someone’s hand in love and help, to share what we have. We often hear, when we encounter stories of hardship, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” No doubt that is true. But perhaps we could also say, and make it our prayer and our action: “Here, thanks to the grace of God, go I with you, my neighbor and friend, the last and least, together.”

 

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Rev. Maggie’s (gulp) Stewardship Sermon

Church Window - croppedAnd now, the much-loved stewardship sermon, in which the priest hectors you to give more money, and you feel resentful, in the time-honoured cycle. Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy homily. We have just read that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Sell what you have and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Is Jesus really saying this, to us? Is that what we need to do, if we are going to be His followers? Is this the set of instructions for Christian living? That is what we often hear, when this passage is interpreted—here, Jesus is telling it, straight, if we all just sold everything we had and gave the money to the poor, everything would be fine. If you don’t do that, you’re a bad Christian. We put up with you, and we’re really grateful for your money, actually, it’s really useful, but you should know that you’re basically a schmuck. Virtuous poverty vs. filthy lucre, perhaps you are familiar with that idea? It’s a very old one. Medieval theologians pulled out this text and others from the Gospels, about possessions, and sex, and devotion to God, and called them the Counsels of Perfection. They were supposed to be descriptions of the perfect life, the life lived by Jesus, which we are supposed to imitate as closely as possible. Clearly, though, not everyone is capable of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Those who manage it, the Mother Teresas, are promoted to the ranks of the saints. The rest of us just wind up feeling that God must love us less.

But is that really what’s going on here? A serious, demanding Jesus, presenting humanity with the terms for righteousness, straight-up? I think, perhaps, that here, as so often, Jesus tells the truth, but tells it slant. Let’s look more closely at that conversation. The young man comes up to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” He doesn’t say, Jesus, I see a lot of suffering among my brothers and sisters, how can I help? Not, Rabbi, I see our faith being neglected and forgotten, how can I teach people about God? No, the young man is concerned for himself, his own salvation. He frames it as an inheritance. He wants to get what’s coming to him, his legacy, he wants to ensure his place in heaven as if his claim to the family property were locked down in an air-tight will. He’s pretty sure of himself already. He notes smugly that he has kept the 10 Commandments, every article of the divine Law, all his life. What does he need to do now, he asks, secretly confident that he doesn’t needanything at all, that he’s about to get a pat on the back. What does he want from Jesus? Praise. Affirmation. Job well done, young man. Jesus just won’t play his game. He won’t reward this kind of striving for status with God. He takes the young man’s swollen little balloon of self-righteousness, and He pricks it. But here is the amazing turn, in the story. It doesn’t say, Jesus was angry with the young man, and ripped into him with well-deserved, almighty wrath. It says, Jesus loved him, and in fact, Jesus does what we often do with people we love when we feel they’re going off the rails a bit, he turns around and teases him, makes a joke at his expense. So to the young man who’s done it all right, earned everything honestly and made a good name for himself, Jesus says, oh, there’s just one more little thing you need to do: give it all up, give everything away. If you listen, perhaps you can hear him smiling through the words. Perhaps we can hear the roar of laughter, from those who were standing around, watching all of this. And the young man runs away in shock, feeling insulted, because Jesus saw through him, made fun of him.  Just like in the next verse, about the camel trying in vain to squeeze through the eye of a needle. It’s a funny image, whether the needle in question was actually a sewing needle, or the nickname of a low gate in the walls of Jerusalem. Either way, we know that camel is not going to fit, and we laugh at it, but if we’re wise we laugh with some rueful self-awareness. Jesus is making fun of our desire to save ourselves, to torture ourselves into different shapes and sizes, to rid ourselves of what’s impure, to get it all right, to be perfect. But we can’t save ourselves. We aren’t perfect. Even if we were, the desire to do it to save ourselves wipes away all the perfection, because what we’re doing comes from a place of selfishness, and fear.

So perhaps this story is not an instruction manual, for the perfect life. Perhaps it’s a gentle reminder, with a wink and a nudge, not to look in the wrong direction, not to look at ourselves, at all. There is a positive set of instructions to be found, though, it comes in the verses just before this story.  We read it last week, you might not have noticed it, it came just after that memorable passage about divorce. Jesus speaks to the disciples, and this time he is angry, he rebukes them for trying to manage the crowds pressing in on him and he says, “Let the children come to me, and do not stop them.” That’s our commandment, unambiguous and clear, no joke this time. It’s not about us, individually, and what we can do better, or get right, or even good enough. We are called to look around ourselves, to look outwards, at who we can welcome and let in. To look at those who are small, in all kinds of ways, in the world’s terms, and vulnerable, bringing their own needs but also their own wonder and love. What might stop them, from coming in and finding Jesus here? Judgment? The too-busy, no time for this self-importance that the disciples had? Our Lord gets right down on the ground and scoops the children up, takes them in his arms and lets them climb all over him—his robe probably gets sticky from their hands, they mess up his hair, they scream and giggle in his ear, one of them probably gave him a cold. Jesus had all the time in the world for the little ones this world sees as worthless, for all kinds of reasons. There was nothing to be gained, in being a friend to children, to disabled beggars, to outcasts and sinners, to me, and you.  Jesus doesn’t seem to have been a very practical person. And not even a very serious one, much of the time—he only took a few things seriously, things and people no one else took seriously at all.

Giving money to the church is not practical, and it won’t save you. I’m not going to pretend that it will. I’m not going to tell you how much to give, because I think you’re the best people to figure out how to manage your lives and your money. You’re grown-ups, not bad little boys and girls who need a lecture. And it’s not some sort of extortion, where I lean on you with threats about God’s anger until you cough up. I’m just going to remind you, with a smile, I hope, that we do a lot of impractical things, here, some of them expensive things, if I’m honest. We spend time, with little ones, with people in their need and wonder and love. Time the world doesn’t have to spare.

Jesus never asks us to save ourselves. For us, it is impossible. But for God, all things are possible. He is the one offering to give up everything, all of himself, offering us eternal life. It’s a free gift, it’s not a trade, not a negotiation. Jesus sets the terms of salvation, and they are not the world’s terms. In fact, it’s such a ridiculously unequal exchange, the only way we can really talk about it is as play, an absurd joke, except not at our expense this time, because even grown ups like us are little ones to God, the one who welcomes us with laughter and open arms.

 

 

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon for 9/30/18: “Pray about it”

Pray about it. I’ll pray for you. My prayers were answered. These can be loaded words, can they not? We hear, in the Letter of James, that prayer is powerful and effective. But how? Prayer can be a difficult subject. There are problems, questions that come up, especially for the modern mind. In some situations, being told to “pray about it” seems like a cop out, or even a slap in the face. Is it what gets said, when we don’t know what to say? Or when we know exactly what we want to say, but can’t say it? Asking for things in prayer can seem like begging—indeed, that’s often just what it is—and that puts the pray-er in a demeaning position. The very position Queen Esther assumes, when she begs her husband, the King, to spare her life, and those of her people, from genocide. Why should she have to beg for their lives, the lives of innocent people? Why do people in power, the world over, threaten the vulnerable, so that their only recourse is to turn to prayer?  Why can’t they have so-called real help? And what about all those times when those prayers, our prayers, are not answered? Powerful and effective? Not at Auschwitz. Not in Rwanda, or Myanmar, or Syria. Not in countless emergency rooms and battlefields and highways. So often, we strain to hear anything, in prayer, but the pathetic echo of our own helplessness. What is the point? In our results-oriented, product-driven world, surely there are other places we should be focusing our attention, our efforts?

And yet, so much of Jesus’ recorded ministry was about prayer. Going off alone to pray—his ministry is framed by times of agonizing, solitary prayer—being tempted by the devil in the desert, under the angry glare of the sun for forty days, and then, in the cool and dark of the Garden of Gethsemane, asking not to have to suffer the living nightmare to come. He taught the disciples to pray to God and for each other, giving us the words we still use, encouraging us to talk to God as our Father, to ask for what we need, to plead for help and deliverance. He prayed for his friends, as He prepared leave them in a dangerous world—this one prayer occupies an entire chapter of the Gospel of John. And the early Christians clearly put prayer at the center of their lives together, as we learn from James, with his instructions to pray in bad and good times alike. Paul commanded the early followers of Jesus to pray without ceasing. But prayer was more than just a holy way to pass the time. Prayer was the foundation of their belief, in the ancient formula, Lex orandi, lex credendi, the law of prayer is the law of belief—the way we pray is what we believe. The statements of belief that come to us from that time, our creeds, are in the form of prayers. These aren’t decorative ornaments around the edges of our spiritual lives, embellishing the real substance of doctrine or theory. The prayers are the words of our trust, and our fear, our joy and our grief.

But, in our modern minds, many times prayer is the lesser option, as opposed to action or, at least, rational thought. Modern people want to do research, make smart plans, take action. We want to use our strength and skill to solve the problem. There is a television show from a few years ago, for which I have a perverse love, perhaps because I also love its literary references. House is about a brilliant doctor who solves medical mysteries, just as Sherlock Holmes detected criminal puzzles. Like Holmes, House is cerebral and eccentric, without the sentiment and personal attachments that might cloud his judgment. House has no bedside manner, and terrible relationships with colleagues and students. He exists only to apply his mind to an abstract problem. If and when there’s nothing more to be done, he is gone. I must admit, there is a certain cathartic fascination in this kind of freedom, for a person employed in pastoral care.

Dr. House and Sherlock Holmes are extreme versions of the universal, understandable, even admirable desire to meet the world’s problems with the best that we can produce, to be equal to the challenges we face. The strengths and skills we bring can help, but they can also get in the way. In our Gospel reading, we find a caution from Jesus, about the importance of letting go, even of our strengths, if they become an obstacle, hurting someone else or yourself. He talks about our human habit of putting stumbling blocks in front of others, or getting ourselves into trouble. He’s talking about things that are, in themselves, not bad things at all, in fact, they’re good, they’re sources of our ability: hands and feet and eyes. He’s not talking about the more, shall we say, controversial parts of us, the parts that do get us into trouble frequently; he’s talking about the parts that help us get good things done in the world.

As hard as it may be for us to accept, especially those of us who love to check off boxes on our to-do lists, is that getting things done is not the heart of our call as Christians, those who follow Jesus. What did Jesus do, after all? Not really very much, in our human accounting. Those bracelets, WWJD, stand for What Would Jesus Do, because you have to extrapolate from a fairly scant record. He talked to a few people, in a small corner of the world, not a commercial or political center, by any means. There were no military campaigns, no exotic travels, he didn’t write any epic poetry or paint any paintings. He simply spent time with people that most others looked down on or ignored. He healed a few from illnesses. Had meals, went fishing. Died young, at a point when almost no one had heard of him.

 

What he did a lot of, was pray. The great thing about prayer (or, one of the great things) is that it is not about our strength. It does nothing. It is a reminder of our dependence on God. To pray is to say thank you, or ask for help, or just to be at peace with God and with those around us. It’s got nothing to do with our achievement, what we have gotten done, or what we should be getting done. I love to run, and I realized that one of the reasons I love it is because it’s the one time in a day when I don’t feel as though I should be doing a list of other things. That list haunts me, through every other hour, when I’m with my family, when I’m falling asleep at night, but out on a run, I know, this is what I need to do, right now. That’s prayer. When we are able to let go, to relax completely into God’s joy in us, or forget ourselves utterly in our concern for another, because we know there’s nothing more that we can do, all that’s left is to ask, to beg, for help.

When he died, the great theologian Martin Luther had a piece of paper crumpled in his hand. It read, “We are beggars, it is true.” It is true, thanks be to God. For it is not our strength or ability that moves God to come toward us. We don’t need to do anything. Only let go, of everything else.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon for 9/23/18: “Ode to a Capable Wife”

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When I was a little girl, I wanted to be just like my Dad when I grew up. He had earned a Master’s degree in Astro-Physics, then went to Law School. He could sail across St. Margaret’s Bay, bike 50 K, swim so far out into the frigid North Atlantic that none of us could see him from the beach, and always come back. He would dress in suits and ties, and shoes that I had helped him shine, going off every morning to the impressive office tower downtown and do work that people respected so much they called him Mr. Arnold. I wanted to be just like that. As I’ve grown up, I found out that even with hard work and determination I needed one other thing to make it happen – a wife.

Everyone needs a wife. Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to expect it, as the wisdom teachers in Proverbs do? Their task is to advise young men starting out in life and they offer guidance on being honest, practicing self-discipline, not being too impressed with wealth, sharing what you can. But clearly one of the most important pieces of counsel the sages have to give is that in order to make it successfully through life, you need a good wife. Someone to do all those never-ending, repetitive jobs that do not get you a fancy title or an office downtown: the cooking, cleaning, nursing, baby-sitting, Christmas card writing, birthday remembering, home-making stuff. The volunteering in the classroom, errand-running, car-pooling, chaperoning, fund-raising, neighbourhood watching stuff. The jobs for which my mother was called, not Mrs. Arnold, but Kathryn. Those ofus privileged with education and resources can be out there in the world, doing fascinating and fulfilling work, but as the authors of these sayings knew all those centuries ago, and it still seems to be true today, no one can do it all. Somebody needs to knit up that raveled sleeve of care when we get ragged. That’s why, for thousands of years, there have been wives, right? Well, what does it mean to be a wife? And who should do it?

This picture of the virtuous wife includes a lot. She has her husband’s trust, and rightly so, because she does him good, and not harm. She feeds the members of her household – growing food, cooking and serving and presumably cleaning up afterwards. She keeps herself strong, so that she has the energy to care for them. She gets up early in the morning, and her lamp burns late into the night. She extends the boundaries of her household, opening her hand to the poor and needy. She is also a steward of the beauty of life, clothing herself and her family, not just adequately, but richly, in crimson, fine linen, and purple. She is a teacher, sharing the wisdom she has earned from experience. When her husband takes his place in the city, it is her support that undergirds that place. And all this is not done grudgingly, it is not an odious burden that she suffers with resentment; she is confident, laughing at the time to come; she is happy, in her ability to care for her family and see them flourish, and she praises God for the blessing she has received in being able to do so much.

That, then, is the work. It is good work. The work of someone who values, and creates life, by giving of herself. The work of love. Who else do we know who values and creates life in joyful self-giving? Who invented the work of love? So if this is God’s work, then perhaps this is all of our work.

The first life you have to learn to value and nurture is your own. Sometimes, you will need to be your own wife. Like the husband in Proverbs, you will need to learn to trust yourself, because you do yourself good, and not harm. This is harder than it sounds. Begin by identifying what is self-destructive in your life, and know that you are worth more than that. Then think about how you nurture yourself, how you feed your body and soul, how you invite beauty into your life, and how you celebrate your accomplishments. As we learn to value ourselves, we learn a tiny bit about how God values, how God treasures, each one of us.

Then, if we are very lucky, we get a chance to be a wife to someone else. It doesn’t have to be an actual spouse – we can practice this work in many ways. Rejoicing with friends in their moments of triumph, tending them in times of sickness or depression. Extending the circle of friendship, the household, to include someone new. Sharing what we have with the poor. Offering your insights as a teacher and mentor. Bringing a little beauty into someone’s life, with a kind word, a song you love, a meal, a phone call. Above all, let this be joyful work.

And if you are very blessed indeed, you will find that which is far more precious than jewels, and someone will be a wife to you. This, too, does not happen only within the context of a marriage – it happens whenever we receive loving, creative nurture from someone else. Think about how much you, and I, all of us, have been supported for the work we do. Think of the mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers,and friends who lift us up, feed us, clothe us, stay up late with us and get up early the next morning to do it all over again.

There is a famous children’s book about caring, which, in a way, I can’t really stand. Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Treeis about a very one-sided relationship between a boy and a tree. It starts out with a young, strong, thriving tree and a little boy. At first the boy plays in and around the tree, and both are happy. As the boy grows up, however, his desires change, and he demands things from the tree: money, food, a house, a boat, all of which the tree gives. Finally the boy, now an old man, bitter and tired, comes and sits on the stump that remains, and the tree is happy.

We could think of the story as an image of how God cares for us, and perhaps we do look very much like that little boy to God – self-absorbed and demanding, using and abusing until there is nothing left. Maybe we are meant to be reassured about the infinite nature of divine mercy – the tree, after all that it gives and endures, still welcomes the old man in the end. This story seems to me to be founded on a passive-aggressive image of God as offering a forgiveness we do not deserve, and making sure we know it.

But there is another image of God in our tradition, that we find here in Proverbs: God as faithful wife and loving mother, who cares for her family with joy, who is not used up in some masochistic calculus but thrives on the well-being of those she nurtures. This is the image of God, laughing, wise, generous, creative, and caring, that we all carry within us. That little boy could have learned to be a wife to that tree. We all could.

This mothering, this loving care, this work of a wife, is God’s work, in and for us. It is in the experience of having a wife, receiving love and care from others, that we learn how God cares for us. And it is in being a wife, to yourself and others, that you share God’s love with the world. God doesn’t do it because it’s God’s least favourite job but it has to be done, all the while carping and complaining, slamming the cupboard doors, then storming off to God’s room and nursing a solitary glass of wine. God is not withholding the best of God’s self for some other, better person that might come along. God knows each of us, inside and out, and finds us worthy of that most precious treasure, God’s own self.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/16/18: “The Power of Words”

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Of all the human abilities, perhaps the most powerful, and the most dangerous, is language.  I think we’ve become really aware of this recently, with the advent of infinitely reproduceable speech through social media, and with the increasingly hostile tone of our civic and political discourse. It can be extremely fraught, these days, just trying to have a conversation. And yet, without conversation, we can’t connect with each other. How do we speak in a way that connects us, rather than divides?

In our reading from the Old Testament, the character of Wisdom gives us an interesting example of speech as condemnation. So it didn’t start with Facebook. The prophets specialized in calling people out, for bad conduct, in the midst of disagreements over religious practice and theology, issuing dire warnings about God’s wrath. Their words are hard to hear for us, now, and must have been agonizing, for those who heard the messages delivered in person, who felt the furious spittle landing on their foreheads. Often the images the prophets used were in themselves damaging, especially since their favorite metaphor for going astray from God’s plan was talking about Israel as an unfaithful wife or a promiscuous woman. Not to criticize biblical figures, but, How well did it work, what the prophets were doing? How well does confrontation work, as a technique for changing people’s hearts, and their actions? When should we go to that nuclear option, how bad do things have to be, before we have to take a stand against society’s wrongs, or risk being hypocrites? Surely some part of the battle is already lost, by the time you feel you have to go to battle, verbally or otherwise? Is there anything we could do, before we get to that point, that might work better?

 

As always, when we are trying to conform our lives to God’s will, we might take a look at how we are taught to pray. Today’s beautiful psalm guides us to say, “May the words of my mouth be acceptable in Thy sight.” How can I make my words acceptable to God? Acceptable seems like a good goal, not over-reaching. Pleasing to God seems ambitious, but I might try acceptable. The letter of James, which we’ve been reading for the past few weeks, has moved from telling us about the importance of our actions, to focusing on our words. We often think of the Epistle of James as being about doing, not talking: faith without works is dead, he famously says; don’t pay lip-service to people’s well-being without really helping to meet their needs. And yet, in the passage we’ve come to today, he returns to words, for speech is an action, too, and a crucial one. He reminds us to consider how much what we say (internally or out loud) directs what we do.  “If we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, we guide their whole bodies. Or look at ships: though they are so large that it takes strong winds to drive them, yet they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs.”

You are most likely more self-disciplined than I am, but do you ever catch yourself , as I do, having conversations, not to say arguments with the people in your life, but when they aren’t there, so just in your own head, and then going forward in your relationship as if those had been real conversations? Then I wonder, why don’t they know how I feel? I’ve been over it so many times! I’ve talked it through! How we frame things for ourselves, how we tell our stories to ourselves, has huge impact on how we live, and the decisions we make. And when we manage to get out of our own heads, and talk to those around us, that is how we create, and destroy, the relationships that can sustain our lives, or hurt them. When we think about how God wants us to live, we have to think about how God wants us to speak. What kinds of words is God looking for?

God has given us this great gift, the creative power of language. From the beginning, made in God’s image, we spoke, we named the animals, we began to know each other and to share our wonder in Creation. We can be a blessing, with our words. A 17 year-old that I love and respect very much told me that it had occurred to her recently, “What if we let ourselves say every good thing we thought?” Now, with the caveat, let’s say appropriate good things. I’m sure we can all think of good things that we think about other people but cannot say, we need to be respectful and polite. But there are so many good things that we don’t have the courage to say out loud, or don’t think are important enough. Taking the time to tell someone that you notice them, you see and are grateful for what they’re doing, the style and grace with which they pass through the world, that can be an enormous thing. We never know how much a kindness will mean to someone on a given day. How much does it mean to us, who often walk through our days counting over the mistakes and failures, to hear from even one person that we were helpful, perhaps even an answer to prayer?

Of course, if we can bless others with our words, we can also curse them. Every power, every good gift, comes with the potential to be twisted and abused. The Old Testament prophets did it, with the best of intentions, and Peter dared to rebuke Jesus himself., as we also heard today We don’t know exactly what Peter said, but the version of this story in the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Peter did not want Jesus to talk about his coming death, did not want him to suffer and die. Essentially, he’s asking, Why can’t you be the Messiah I had in mind? Why can’t you stick to things I’d feel comfortable talking about? Why can’t it be my script?

Our words can be good and helpful, or ill-considered and harmful. But, in the end, it is not ourwords that matter most. Our words are not going to save us. We betray ourselves too easily. Jesus shows us the way. “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves.” To use that power of language against the self, to reject our own claims. He asks, “What can they give, in exchange for their life?” We don’t have anything to bargain with, no fancy speeches, and no threats—they’re all empty, before God. We can give one thing, and that is words. Not our own, that we might make up in our own defense, but God’s, spoken into the world, born into the world, so that we could hear them in a human voice. So that we could follow that voice when it calls our names. So that we could hear the words that matter, the words that give life, cried out from the Cross we put him on to die, “Father, forgive them.”

 

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/9/2018: “The Hidden God”

Why does Jesus want to keep Himself a secret? In today’s Gospel, we find Him doing some amazing things, things we often wish someone would do or could do for us today—he heals people who’ve been terribly, catastrophically ill, people no one could figure out how to help, lost causes. He has come to this area, wanting no one to know he is there, and he works these miracles, but he asks those he helps to tell no one about how they were healed, who brought about their miraculous cure. Why? He doesn’t even, at first, want to share his power with the Gentile woman who comes to him, in one of the hardest passages to read about Jesus, I think, how could he want to withhold his healing power from anyone who needed it? what’s going on, here? If God has decided to come to earth, to be here among us, why doesn’t he just come, all in?

There are a few possible explanations: perhaps he is showing us an example of humility, that God doesn’t want to be all, get me, I’m the Messiah; God wants to offer us a face of gentle modesty. Certainly, Jesus does show us that, in many places. He doesn’t claim any status, he hangs out with outcasts, with the poor. Not boasting about what he can do is consistent with his self-effacing approach to humanity. Perhaps, as we see during his forty days in the wilderness, or in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ sometimes had a profound need for solitude, especially as a counterweight to the constant demands of people pressing in on him from every side, wanting and needing, hoping and asking. Or maybe this secrecy was part of a calculated plan, indicating that the right time for Christ’s identity to be fully revealed had not yet arrived, just as when he says to his mother, when she asks him to do something about the wine situation at the wedding in Cana, “My time has not yet come.”

There could have been many reasons for Jesus to want to keep himself secret, to keep his true nature and destiny hidden—we don’t know what the reason was, but we know that he did desire it, at this point in his story, and that he often still does. God is still hidden from us, so much of the time. His motives, his presence, are kept from us, we feel it. And God seems hidden from some of us, more than from others—how is that fair? We all know people, people close to us, who just don’t seem to feel the need for God, or any sense of connection to faith, even though we wish so much that we could share that with them. And we all know times and ways in which God just seems to be absent from us, from our lives or from the whole, desolate world, usually when we need him most.

We can be in crisis, like the woman with her sick daughter, desperate and finding no help, nothing in our experience or resources providing a solution. Or we can have a chronic need, like the man who cannot walk, and we’re daily brought up again the atrocious injustice of God’s apparent favour on some, who are so readily given abilities and normalcy. When will God smile on our lives, as he seems to do with such unthinking ease on so many others?

The sense of God’s withdrawing from the world, from our reach, is so palpable and so universal that the church has developed a vocabulary for it. Deus absconditus, they called it in the Latin of medieval theology—the God who has absconded, run away, concealed himself from us. That is the God we meet in today’s Gospel, a Jesus who doesn’t want to be there for us, who is unavailable.

But there was a parallel term, the other side of the theological coin: Deus revelatus, the God who is revealed to us. When we look, we find him here, even in this enigmatic text. For just as much as Christ wants time to himself, wants to keep his miracles a secret, just as much do the people desire to make him known. This irrepressible desire bubbles up and must find its expression. They get the word out, that he’s here, and more and more show up. He’s close by, they say, he can be approached and petitioned for help—beg him, for whatever you want, he can’t refuse, he never does. Those who are healed, even though they are warned to keep silent, immediately go and tell everyone they know about the relief that has come unexpectedly, joyfully, into their lives.

God is revealed, even when God is hidden. In moments when we feel most abandoned and alone, we can be surprise by the kindness we are shown, by the presence and understanding of someone who is close by and approachable. God is revealed, in the midst of our darkness, by words that manage to move us out of places where we were trapped or stuck, and free us to discover some grace, wherever we are.

Who has revealed God to you? Who have made love real and visible, perhaps in a new way, or perhaps just reminding you of something you’d forgotten or become afraid to hope for? Who has shown up for you, friend or stranger, in your time of need? What if God hides his glorious face so that we, in our weakness, can see him in smaller places, in the sordid rooms and dim twilights or our existence, in these latter days. Could he be daring us to hear his distant, growing triumph, in the voices of our neighbours, and our not-so-neighbours, speaking familiar words in new ways?

How are we revealing God to our world? What is the part of the story that is bubbling up in you, that you cannot help but tell? Even if the world will think it’s weird, even if it seems more cool or more acceptable to keep quiet about it? Let’s notice, after all, that Jesus doesn’t punish or send away those who cry out for his help, or make him known—he praises and rewards them for their audacity. To the Gentile woman who dared to address him, much less ask him for something, Jesus says, “For saying that, you may go, your daughter has been made well.”

God is the one who is going to remain, in some way, hidden, until the end of time, until the day breaks and the shadows flee away. But we’re not supposed to—not supposed to hide our light under a bushel, not supposed to bury our treasure, not supposed to keep the Good News quiet. Our job is to speak, to tell his story, in every language and with every means we can think of, and some we haven’t thought of yet. Say it with words. Say it with acts of service and compassion. Say it to our children, to each other, to anyone who will listen, and even to those you think aren’t listening or can’t hear.

If Jesus were here, if he had come close by, and walked among us, would he say now, as he never did then, I love your silence about me, as you go about your business? What can we say, with all our lives and every moment we’ve got left, so that he will turn to us and answer, as he did to that woman, “For saying that,” I will heal.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 9/2/2018: “Fake vs. real”

I remember that, growing up, when I came to the end of childhood, right around the transition to middle school, I became overwhelmed with a sense of the fakeness of the adult world. As we grow up, we get to that point, that pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz moment, when we see that the earnest and supportive environment our parents presented to us (if we’ve been lucky) isn’t the whole thing. There are a lot of ugly truths that we begin to wake up to. There’s so much competition, concern about appearances, and daily, grinding unhappiness that we soldier on with. Within a year, I went from being a fairy-believing, neighbourhood ballet choreographing little elf, to being sunk in depression and disillusionment about the whole project of human society.

Perhaps the suddenness and completeness of the realization happened because I experienced two suicides, early on—there was a colleague of my father’s, at his law firm, a man who was heavily involved in national politics; he took the fall for a campaign fundraising scandal, and consumed with shame, took his own life in a motel room. And there was a friend my age, a boy whose household always seemed strange and chaotic; one day he leapt, inexplicably, from the ninth floor of an apartment building. These tragedies seemed to underscore the fact that no one was admitting, that everything was a sham.

Then I started Confirmation classes, because that was the age I was, not because I was particularly interested, or had ever gotten very much out of Sunday School. The teacher was Father Fred, the young assistant at the church we went to. There were only a few kids, maybe half a dozen. All we did was sit in parlors much like the ones here, in ancient chintz armchairs in sunny rooms on long afternoons, and we read through the Gospel of Mark together. There were no bells and whistles, no particularly ambitious program. Just respecting us enough, and trusting the Gospel enough, to let us encounter the Word for ourselves, not explained or illustrated, just Jesus. And there He was, right in front of us, pointing to everything I had seen and been so devastated by. Calling out hypocrisy, the fake life, and saying, “That’s not all there is; there’s something else, something much bigger.” There is something real, something true, that you can pour all your love into and never see the end.

The Jesus we meet in Mark is not about appearances. Everything that’s ever made you think, that’s wrong, doesn’t anybody see that’s fake and worthless, doesn’t anyone care? Jesus just makes it plain, and doesn’t let us off the hook for an instant, doesn’t soft pedal it or clean it up. Yes, all these things people do are real and terrible, and you can’t put human scaffolding around them to hide it. You can’t make up little rules and rituals to make the bad go away like magic (if I wash my hands three times before eating, it won’t matter that I hate the job that pays for the meal, or if I recite the words of a prayer all the way through, it won’t matter that I berated my spouse). All that stuff that we try to fool others and even ourselves with, God is not fooled.

This revelation could have been even more depressing, but I have found it to be just the opposite, to be the most hopeful thing ever. We are seen by God, understood and known, with everything stripped bare, all that we do and even all we think, all the secrets we guard so closely. The darkness is not dark to you, O Lord, the night is as bright as the day. We are, in fact, judged, and judged with perfect justice, with perfect insight and accuracy. Growing up and coming to awareness of the world’s horrors, great and petty, I craved the sense that someone was watching, that someone was a witness. That sense was instantly satisfying. But, even that whole reality that I had come to, and found myself joined in by Jesus, isn’t the end. It’s just the next step, after we leave the safety and ignorance that we know, again, if we’re lucky, in childhood. We graduate to harder things, often with a shocking suddenness. It’s what happens next that has taken a lifetime to fall down before, a lifetime to serve. Because we learn that the God who sees, who gets it and admits it and pulls back the curtain, God doesn’t stand back at an infinite distance with cold condemnation, “Look what you did, look who you are,” but is the same Jesus who comes and stands in our place. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. Only God can bear it, and God does. That is not the moment’s dawning awareness of youthful anger. That is the rest of our lives. As Saint Paul tells us, this morning, “Your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” We have horror and anger, at what we have done. God has chosen to make something even more; God has not chosen to destroy, but to give His own life. The answer to hypocrisy, it turns out, is not a righteous, purifying anger, but humility.

At the Beach Service this morning, we baptized Louisa Greco, in the ocean. At every Baptism, Jesus stands beside us (He was there today, in the water, at Sandy Beach), saying yes, for you, I’ll do it all again, take up the life of being misunderstanding, mistrust, betrayal, torture, abandonment, and death. That fake life is our Creation, our whole reality, that we weave around each other until there’s no way out. No way out but through, so God will go through death itself, and take our hand, dive beneath the waves with us, and bring us up again into new life, into the sunshine of a beautiful day, surrounded by love.

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Rev. Maggie’s sermon from 8/26/2018: “The Whole Armor of God”

I love the passage we read from Paul’s Letter to the people of Ephesus, with its imagery of the whole armor of God, not because I love going into battle, but because I love a system. A plan. If life were a James Bond movie, then I would be the Q character, the nerdy, awkward, scientist with the neat little gadgets for every emergency. This text from St. Paul is basically that scene, for the early Christians. This is what you’re going to need, he tells them, this is your gear. I love how it’s all mapped out.

God doesn’t want us to be without a plan, doesn’t intend to leave us defenseless, for whatever life throws at us, the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Really, the whole of the Bible is a map of that plan, taking us from the place we found ourselves—lost, there be dragons—all the way through our lives to home, you are here, right where you need to be. God’s plan of salvation takes shape through the Creator’s guidance, in Christ’s Incarnation, death, and resurrection, and with the coming of the Holy Spirit, the follow-up. The implementation strategy.

Paul wants the strategy to be clear. This isn’t rocket science, actually, even though I might want there to be a souped-up Aston Martin involved. The plan isn’t supposed to be some esoteric mystery, available only to the spiritual elite. It’s meant to be accessible to all. So what does Paul describe, what is God offering us, so that we can face what’s coming and stand firm? It starts with the Truth. “Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Honesty is the plan. I really love this plan. It’s grounded on something so basic, so fundamental, we begin with living in Christ, who told us, “I am the Truth.” We have to start there. Whatever else we do, the truth will be the right guide, the truth will set us free.

 

But there’s more, because honesty isn’t enough. It’s the place we’ve got to start, but the truth can put you in danger, as Jesus’ own life shows us. So, next, we put on the breastplate of righteousness. Now righteousness is a tricky thing for us, because it’s so perilously close to self-righteousness, which we can see all around us in our world—in fact, as Christians, we are known for it, and that reputation can be a huge obstacle, when we’re trying to tell people about the Jesus who loves and forgives. We don’t want to use righteousness as a weapon to wound or dominate others. But, if we pay attention to what the text actually says, righteousness is not being proposed as a weapon at all, here. It’s not the sword of righteousness, or even the club of righteousness, definitely not the machete of righteousness. It’s the breastplate, the protection, for the most vulnerable place, the heart. Without that righteousness, we expose ourselves to all kinds of damage. We hurt our own hearts, when we do wrong, when we become the kind of person who is used to hurting others. Being just and living with integrity, is the best way to make ourselves and those around us safe from the spiritual erosion of callousness and cruelty. Bad actions endanger us, and those we love; eventually, inevitably, they lead to death. Living in God’s way is the only way out of that dead end.

The working out of God’s way, God’s desire for our lives, will be a little different for each person. Paul says, “As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” The instruction here is graciously flexible; there is no one right answer. What helps you get ready, to proclaim the Gospel of peace? What gives you energy, feeds your passions, makes you more understanding and patient, more generous? Or, conversely, what do you know you need, to fill up your bucket of good will, or else you get cranky and mean? Running? Time by yourself or in nature? Enough sleep? Serious study and reading? Talking with a friend? Meditation? Experiences of the world and other people? Do what fuels you, make sure you’re equipped with what you need, to do the work and to be there for others.

So we’ve come this far, we’ve been cautioned not to get ourselves into trouble with dishonesty or bad actions, and to provide ourselves with those particular things that nourish us. What else do we need, to confront the forces of evil? Paul reminds us to take shelter, under the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. That’s one way evil works, especially in our world today, it makes everything seem so urgent, I must do this right now! I’ve got to respond to this horrible post on Facebook, or correct my neighbor who’s in the wrong, or make a judgment on this question of national importance, quick, now, before my own position is at risk, or I look foolish, or am judged, myself. I’ve got to handle everything, take every opportunity, or I’ll lose my chance, I, or my family, might be disadvantaged. It’s all got to happen now. Faith meets this temptation by taking the long view, faith trusts, faith waits, it abides, in the old language, resting secure in the knowledge of who God is, and therefore of who I am—God’s child.

We are under the shield of faith and we are under the helmet of salvation. For all of those temptations of urgency are really fears of our own mortality, disguised as the possibility of achievement. What wounds our minds? Fears. What wakes us up at 2 in the morning, racing round our heads? Fears. What keeps us from being in each moment, and cherishing what is, the gift of those around us? It is fear, that eats away at our life, our joy. God has promised, God has spent a lifetime, telling us that we are saved. That every hair on our heads has been counted. That each tear we shed is collected in a bottle. That we are not to worry, not to be afraid, for God loves us, and will gather us all in and make us new. Know that you are loved. Know that God has done everything, has given everything, for you. It’s not on you, saving yourself is not your job. You can’t get any more beautiful in God’s eyes than you are right now, because you are Christ’s, brothers and sisters of Jesus and one another. That is all the protection we need, that is the whole armour of God.

Paul only mentions one weapon, in this passage. It comes at the end, and it’s not a weapon in the conventional sense: the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The Word that we are forgiven, sought out, loved as Christ by God, that is how we stand up and fight the forces of evil. Just those words. That they are true for me, true for you, true for everyone—no one is beneath God’s notice, no one is uninvited to the feast of the bread of life.

And always, there is prayer. Pray in the Spirit at all times. That is how we live in the awareness of God’s mercy and love. Prayer for everyone. Pray also for me. We rely on each other’s prayers. Feel them all at your back, when you need them, because they are there. Feel the protection of the truth, of righteousness, of the gifts you are given, of faith and salvation. Walk around in the strength of God’s power. Now we are strong enough to go and serve.

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