Dressed for Success
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DRESSED FOR SUCCESS
A reflection given at Holladay United Church of Christ on July 30, 2017 (Eighth Sunday after Pentecost)
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.
19Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, 20for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
- Ephesians 6:10-20
It is traditional for leaders who are leaving their position of leadership to offer words of encouragement and inspiration to the people they are leaving behind. How could I do any different? General Douglas MacArthur, after being forced to escape from the Philippines during World War II, famously said, “I came through and I shall return.” Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator said, “ll be back!” My word to you is, “Don’t make me come back here!
Although this is my last Sunday as your Sustaining Pastor, and I am leaving to go serve another congregation Rev. Erin Gilmore has left behind, I still care about you, and I want this church to continue to be a community of welcome and service here in the Salt Lake City area. And so I leave you with these words from another religious leader to one or more congregations almost 20 centuries ago.
The author of Ephesians encouraged his community to “get dressed.” What we wear affects how people view us. Apparently, both William Shakespeare and Mark Twain are given some credit for making the observation that “Clothes make the man (or woman).” Successful business men and women wear “power ties” and “power suits.” You can be sure that any top political candidate has advisors helping to pick out apparel that will help that person be seen in a positive light. I have a highly-paid consultant who helps me pick out my bow ties for Sunday mornings. Today I am wearing my Holy Spirit tie and socks.
What did you wear today to express your faith?
Actually, the author of Ephesians was not just giving advice for how to dress. He believed the community he served was engaged in an epic battle against spiritual forces in the world — working through political, economic and religious authorities and institutions. The Jewish religious leaders were antagonistic to the upstart offshoot of Judaism that became the Christian church. The Roman Empire was suspicious of this new religious movement, and sometimes violently persecuted its followers. The writer was encouraging those in his community to put on their armor for battle — but armor of a different kind.
I believe people of faith these days are also engaged in a battle against dangerous forces. It isn’t just change — change happens all the time at an ever-increasing pace, and sometimes change is good. Many people are concerned these days about blurring gender definitions and roles; about challenges to institutions like our government, law enforcement, the economy, and religious communities. Many of our core assumptions about how the world works are being questioned, and that has people anxious. They are willing to go into battle to hold onto the past.
That is not the conflict we should be concerned about. I see no need to battle to get prayer back in our public schools, or to insist that people say “Merry Christmas” during the holiday season. Those are struggles of blood and flesh — human institutions. They are not really important.
Our struggle, just like the Ephesian community, is against spiritual enemies — enemies that try to convince us that wrong is right, and evil is good, and a bold lie is better than truth.
Our struggle is also against rulers who would use their power for their own personal gain rather than the good of the people they govern. It is against the authorities — like the religious authorities who claim that God is out to punish particular sinners, or bless one nation over others, or bring material prosperity to believers. Our struggle is against the spiritual forces of evil that hype up our fears and suspicions, causing us to watch out for ourselves first before thinking about our neighbors — to build walls instead of bridges.
It will be tough to battle those ideas in these days. It may even be dangerous — just like 19 centuries ago. And so we need to put on our armor — we need to dress for success.”
Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Truth seems to be a quaint antique these days. There is some wisdom in the post-modern worldview that truth is often in the eye of the beholder — that we all see a different truth based on our perspective of life. Women view the world differently than men; racial minorities in our country have a vastly different perspective than the white majority. But the total disregard for facts — whether scientific or historical or personal — is a dangerous trend. So put on the belt of truth, and keep seeking and speaking truth as people of faith. Seek to hear the truth spoken by those who are voiceless and powerless, but also by those with whom we may disagree. And keep listening for God’s truth for us — especially when it is uncomfortable.”
“Put on the breastplate of righteousness.” At all times, try your best to do what is right, to do what God asks us to do — even when it is dangerous or costly. As one of our UCC slogans says — Be the church: Protect the environment, care for the poor, reject racism, fight for the powerless, love God.”
“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” Yes, there are noble truths in all of the world’s religions, and it is good to learn about them. But this church was begun as a church of Jesus Christ, and I still have this crazy belief that the gospel of Jesus uniquely offers this world a hope for peace. The message of the cross and the empty tomb have been distorted and co-opted over the centuries to the detriment of many. But the power for liberation and transformation and hope are still there — like a diamond in the rough. Find it. Believe it. Trust it. Proclaim it.”
“Take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.” When I first came here I talked about my belief that Christian faith helps us to overcome our fear. Evil takes root in our world by making us irrationally afraid — of strangers, of rejection, of suffering and death. You name it — someone will make us afraid of it and try to profit from our fear.Â= Faith helps to calm our fears, by assuring us that we are mortal, but we are loved, and nothing in all creation will separate us from the love of God in Christ. One of my favorite Bible verses is 1 John 4:18, which says that “perfect love casts out fear.” That is a sturdy shield.”
“Take the helmet of salvation.” Salvation has often been defined for Christian believers as being saved from condemnation to eternal punishment after we die. But the original meaning of the Greek word includes being restored to a state of safety, soundness, health and well-being. It is being protected from harm, and from finitude. Because we are saved through faith in Christ, we don’t have to earn God’s love. We are already loved more deeply than any human affection. We are saved from having to depend on powers that promise to offer us a better life, but would suck the life out of us and then fail us when we are most in need.
“Take… the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The word of God is found in these ancient texts that have sustained faith in believers for centuries. But the word of God can also be heard in people throughout history and even today who speak words that encourage and challenge us. There is an old saying that it is the job of a prophet or a pastor to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Those who do so are speaking the word of God today.
But we believe that the most perfect word of God is not in a book, but a person — Jesus — whom we can get to know through the stories and letters written by those who knew him. And we can develop a relationship with Jesus through prayer.
“Pray in the Spirit at all times.” Pray for this church — that it will carry on after I am gone — which it most certainly will. Pray for a good relationship with a new pastor. Pray to be faithful to what got this church started 64 years ago, and what will sustain and empower it — hopefully for many great years to come. Pray to be a welcoming, Open and Affirming, Whole Earth, teaching church of Jesus Christ.
And pray for me — that my interim ministry will be a blessing to other congregations.
I have loved being here at Holladay United Church of Christ. Jill and I have enjoyed getting to know you — and becoming friends. We have enjoyed exploring Utah. We will keep our church membership here for now. We may be getting “sent out“ like Jesus sent out the disciples in our gospel lesson from last week, but our hearts will be here. Maybe we shall return in the future. And you will be in my prayers. May God bless you — Holladay United Church of Christ. And may you be a blessing to many.
Robert J. von Trebra