Sunday, October 1, 2017

10-1-17 “It’s Your Choice,” 4th in the series “There Is UNITY in CommUNITY!”

10-1-17 Sermon  “It’s Your Choice” the fourth in the series “There Is UNITY in CommUNITY!”

   Do you ever think about how many choices you make in any given day? I think the number would be mind-boggling if we actually counted. I means it begins with if or when to get out of bed, doesn’t it? 
And then it just continues throughout the day.
We choose what to wear in the morning - and what we wear in some ways determines how we feel about ourselves and how others feel about us
   We choose what, when, and where to eat - whether to eat healthy foods or unhealthy foods, and how much. 
We choose whether or not to watch TV, and if so then what we watch or don’t watch - what channels we watch, whether we watch comedies or dramas, whether we watch broadcast stations, public stations, cable stations or streaming tv.
   We choose how we spend our days - even if our workday is primarily spent at a job it’s still our choice of jobs, of workplaces, even of whether to go to work that day or not.
   We choose our attitude - whether we feel happy, or angry, irritated or motivated; how we feel about something is a choice we make - a choice about how to respond to stimuli or circumstances around us. 
We often don’t think of it that way, but at its core, how we feel emotionally is a choice we make. Nobody can make us feel anything - it’s always a choice we make. We choose our friends - who we’re friends with, how close we are with those friends, how much we trust those friends, how much time we spend with those friends - all choices. And we choose whether or not to be in community - it’s our choice as to whether we seek out community or engage when community seeks us out, or whether we reject or neglect community, possibly ending up a social cast away.

We can live in isolation like Tom Hanks in the film “Cast Away,” with his volleyball turned companion Wilson, or we can live in, be a part of, surround ourselves with community. And then even what kind of community becomes a choice. Do we choose to be with live people or is our community on Facebook or social media? Is Facebook even a real community? 
   These are all choices we make…every day, all day. 
And all of these choices, to one degree or another, require some kind of preparation - some understanding of what’s expected, what could happen, what involvement or inclusion in that community means.
   Some people choose to drop out of community, out of relationship for whatever reason. They’re there one day and then just kind of slip off the face of the earth in manner of speaking. We sometimes lose touch with people after major life changes happen, someone moves, career changes, children are born, someone dies. Or sometimes we’re in the middle of a larger community and never really connect with some of those on the edges. The apostle Paul reminds us, though, in Ephesians 6:18, of the importance of community, he writes, 
Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. 
Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. (Eph 6:18 CEB)

   Another translation puts it this way, “Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out”.  Sometimes we feel like dropping out, like throwing in the towel, like going off to some dark corner alone. 
But this verse is clear that community is vital in our lives. We all need people to have our spirits lifted. We need encouragement and support from others. 
We need the hope and companionship that others provide for us, just as we provide that for them. The human creature requires that kind of social interaction to walk with us through difficulty, hardship, and hurt so that we can be healthier in our lives, our families, our churches, and our communities.

   And while Paul’s message is pretty clearly about community, we don’t often think of the passage from Exodus that we read in quite this way, in terms of community, of relationship. But Lori Wilhite and Brandi Wilson, in their book Leading and Loving It, share an interpretation of this story that really speaks to our need for community. They write, 
   “The Israelites were camped out in Rephidim, where there was no water to drink: a dry and dusty place where the people were “tormented by thirst” until the Lord instructed Moses to strike a rock so that water would gush forth and provide refreshment for the people. 
In that place, with only the Lord’s provision to sustain them, the warriors of Amalek attacked. Joshua, following Moses’s command, chose men to go out and fight the army of Amalek. 
And Moses was moved to stand at the top of the hill, gripping in his hand the staff of God that had provided the people with water to quench their thirst.
   While Joshua was waging war against the Amalekites on the battlefield, Moses, Aaron, and Hur were waging war in their own way. Verse 11 says: 
As long as Moses held up the staff in his hand, the Israelites had the advantage. But whenever he dropped his hand, the Amalekites gained the advantage. 
Moses’ arms soon became so tired he could no longer hold them up. So Aaron and Hur found a stone for him to sit on. Then they stood on each side of Moses, holding up his hands. So his hands held steady until sunset. 
As a result, Joshua overwhelmed the army of Amalek in battle.”

   And then these two offer up some insights about that passage that we might overlook. “First, God is the provider of water when we are thirsty. When your soul is parched, when your spirit is weary, when you think you can’t stand the desert one more minute, God can and will work miracles, sending water gushing forth in a fountain to fill you and soothe you. [God] can open fountains where we least expect them. [God] gave the Israelites a constant, abundant supply of water. [God] will provide for your tired soul and provide abundantly.”
   “Secondly, God is the provider of victory when we are attacked. Our attackers may not be horse-riding, armor-bearing, sword-wielding armies. The battles may be with familiar faces armed with well-aimed verbal blows [at] committee meetings, or the darker spiritual battles fought in and around us. 
Either way, God is the provider of victory. 
And look carefully; don’t miss this. God is also the provider of friends to literally hold up our arms when we cannot anymore.”
   Paul, throughout Ephesians, in one way or another, points out to us the importance of being in community with one another, but also of being community for one another, even those who are currently outside of our community. We are so blessed, within the walls of this church, to have this church family, this grove of redwoods who literally hold us up when we need it. 
But there are people we know, friends, family, co-workers, who don’t have that - who would give anything to be a part of a loving, supportive, community like this one. We live in a world today where anything and everything can be potentially divisive or hurtful. What Paul referred to as the “powers and principalities,” the institutional forces of sin and evil in the world, seeks to drive us apart from one another, to divide and conquer as it were. And Paul calls us, as a community, to rise up and gird our loins, if you will, to stand against this power of evil in the world.

   This last reading in our series on Ephesians gives voice to our sense that many of the problems our neighborhood, our world, and that we ourselves face are beyond our capacity just to roll up our sleeves and muscle our way to a solution. We cannot fight this fight alone, and we cannot fight it without preparation. Throughout Paul’s letter, he writes of sin as an overarching power, a force of evil, rather than as a type of human action, as merely the things individuals do. And that’s an important distinction. When we think of sin as merely what an individual does, whether it’s taking the Lord’s name in vein, killing, adultery, or whatever, then the onus is placed on a person. And our natural inclination as humans, rather than seek or surround that person with community, is to separate from them, to keep our distance, to ostracize that “sinner” as “other,” as “them.” And that’s exactly how the “powers and principalities” that Paul describes, want us to think about it - divide and conquer - because if we think about it that way it enables the powers to thrive while keeping resistance in the community in check. 

   But Paul writes in Ephesians 6:12 “Our battle is not against enemies of blood and flesh.” That is, our battle is not against one another, it’s not a battle against other people, other groups, other races, cultures, or societies; this is a spiritual battle against the forces of evil, the powers of wickedness, the domination system that epitomizes the forces of sin and evil in the world today. And we’ve talked about these forces, these systems before: racism that seeks to divide us along racial lines, consumerism that seeks to separate us along economic lines of “haves” and “have nots” while also lulling us into a sense of false security of “stuff,” nationalism that seeks to present a “my way or the highway” face to the rest of the worldwide community, and so many others. 

When the biblical image of the powers and principalities is examined, it shines a revealing light on our modern landscape. We discover the frequent fallenness of money, sex, fashion, sports, and religion in our culture. 
We see how we’re encouraged by subliminal forces to turn a blind eye to things like chronic brain injury in football players because football is a billion dollar entertainment industry. We see how fortunes are made and political careers maintained through military spending on weapons systems that even the military says it neither wants nor needs, and amid constant saber rattling and war waging by political leaders who never served. We learn that investing in the stocks of companies that market to human vices, like smoking, drinking, or gambling can earn us higher returns than with what is referred to as “socially responsible” investing. Which in turns begs the question, what should a Christian’s 401(k) or 403(b) look like?
   In unmasking the powers, one thinks of segregation, apartheid and racist systems that seek to systematically disadvantage and even eliminate people based on the color of their skin. We uncover sexism and misogyny that subjugates and seeks to control, demean, even traffic in women as either inferior or as nothing more than sexual objects intended for male pleasure, striving to keep women out of places of power and denying equal pay for equal work. And it reveals even more: the Mafia, slow responses to addiction in minority communities, governmental support for totalitarian states, a culture that glamorizes celebrity, militarism and the “military-industrial complex” that President Eisenhower warned us about, attempted bribery of legislatures through large campaign contributions, and of genocide ignored. 
These kinds of systematic, institutionalized separation and depersonalization tactics create a long line of faceless, defeated, and eventually angry folk who think of themselves as nothing more than a Social Security number or faceless cogs in a machine. One thinks of Nazi or white supremacist philosophy, unbridled nationalism, violence, hunger, obscenity, addictions, nuclear weapons, tobacco companies and more. The powers and principalities are extensive,  they’re everywhere, they’re sly and underhanded, and it’s in their best interest to drive wedges within our communities, because a divided people are much easier to control and manipulate than is a united community. 

   So Paul tells us we must be prepared, we must put on our metaphorical armor. Christian life, individually or collectively, means persevering in the still-contested arena of human life, standing firm when we would prefer to fold or flee. Ephesians tells us that God’s own armor is available to us; that we have God’s own protection as we stand against the “powers of this present darkness.” 
The armor is all defensive, with the exception of the side arm “sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” The “armor of God” consists of the resources that are available to us in the battle against the powers of evil. These resources are identified as truth, peace, and faith. How can these resources help us as Christians?

   First, we are truthful people. Our witness has integrity because it points to the truth. Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and Jesus confessed to his disciples, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32). The truth of the gospel is that we are all God’s children, all part of God’s beloved community, and that God’s grace extends to all of us. But often we’re tempted, or persuaded by the powers, to tell only a portion of the truth, or to distort that truth for some purpose that seems justifiable to us in the moment. 
However, truth is always the most powerful weapon; in time, lies and falsehoods come to light and the truth is disclosed. Those who speak the truth, through words and actions, even when that’s not what people want to hear, possess great power in confronting evil. Lies have a life-span, it is said, but truth endures.

   Second, as followers of Jesus we are a peaceful people. The prophet Isaiah announced the coming of the “prince of peace;” Zechariah spoke in the Gospel of Luke of a child who would “guide our feet into the way of peace;” and the beatitude of Jesus states simply, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” It seems paradoxical to speak of peace as a weapon, and yet God always uses peace and love to overcome violence and hatred. The cycle of retribution and vengeance—responding to evil with evil—is not the will of God. Some are quick to throw out, “but the Bible says ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ forgetting that Jesus said, “but I tell you, turn the other cheek,” and “go the extra mile.” In fact, it has been said that, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth produces a people who are blind and cannot eat!”

   Third, we are a faithful people. 
“We are justified by faith,” Paul writes (Romans 5:1). 
“By grace you have been saved through faith,” we read earlier in Ephesians, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8). Faith is our belief and our trust in the truth of God’s love, it’s both intellectual knowledge and emotional risk. Faith is hearing the word of God and obediently trusting and following in its meaning. Only faith allows us to trust in the unseen providence of God, which works within human events and beyond them. Only faith allows us to trust in the unmerited grace of God, which works alongside human efforts and in spite of them!

   We are in a battle, but it should not be with one another, but rather with the powers and principalities, the spiritual forces of wickedness, sin, and evil. And we do not dare engage in that spiritual warfare unequipped. We have been trained in the knowledge of truth, in the practice of peace, in the wisdom of faith. The “whole armor of God” includes each of these resources. Without any one of them, we place ourselves in danger. With the whole armor of truth, peace, and faith, we can “stand firm,” not against, but alongside, one another in community and with those for whom we battle whose voices go unheard in society. 

   Every Christian comes to a moment in life when it is necessary to make a decision to stand firm. 
We face a choice that seems like a compromise to us. 
We encounter racism in the workplace and choose how or whether to respond. We are exposed to values in the culture that are at odds with how Jesus taught us to be and choose whether to stand firm or to “go along to get along.” We’re faced with situations that tempt us into putting some other god or idol ahead of our Creator and we have to make a choice as to what god we will really worship. We need to set boundaries for ourselves and for our children because they’re facing many of the same choices we are, and many that we’ve never faced. 
There are pressures in every facet of life that threaten to knock us off course.

   If we are going to stand firm, we will need a strength that comes from beyond ourselves. Our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous refer to this as a “higher power.” We call this higher power, “God.”
 In the Letter to the Ephesians, the Christians are urged to “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.” The challenge for the Christian is to stand firm, to engage in acts of spiritual resistance from the forces of evil that surround us on all sides and come at us from seemingly innocent or unsuspecting places, or from places that claim to be “on our side” but at their core are only out for themselves. The comfort to the Christian is that God provides us with a way to do this and with the people to support us. God equips us with the armor. 
We become aware of the armor that we need, of course, as we read scripture, “the sword of the spirit, the word of God.” We can only know ourselves—our strengths and our weaknesses, our gifts and our limitations— by reading the scripture and by praying with and for one another. We can only know our world—its beauty and its terror, its goodness and its evil—by reading the scripture and by praying with and for one another. We wouldn’t go into warfare without knowing as much as possible about our own resources and about what we face. In the same way, we proceed in the spiritual life only as we avail ourselves of the resources God has given to us, and these are revealed to us in the Scriptures, they are modeled for us in the sacraments, and they support us in the unity of the community who support us, who hold up our arms when we can no longer do so.  

   As followers of Christ, we are often in the arm-holding business. As our spouses or partners deal with loss or struggle, we lift their arms. As our children experience their first breakup or when the stress of hours of homework takes its toll, we lift their arms. 
When our friend has just discovered that their spouse has been unfaithful, or debt is about to drown a woman in our Bible study, we hold up their arms. We support the arms of our coworker who just got that dreaded phone call from the doctor, and the arms of a church member who is being strangled by depression. And the list could go on. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are arm holders.
   But the passage in Exodus begs the question: 
Who is holding up your arms? 
Who is joining you in your pain, struggle, hurt, and weariness? 
Who is grabbing hold of your exhausted hands and helping to lift them to the Lord?

   Paul gives us the answer. It is in the unity found in community that we find our arm holders. It is in the unity of the community that we hold up the arms of others, that we support others in their faith journeys and in their battles against the evil that shows up like a mythical snake in a garden, promising life but delivering death. As Paul tells us, “our battle is not against enemies of flesh and blood.” Do not let evil, in whatever form it presents itself, seek to separate you or anyone else from the beloved community of God. 
But rather, as people of truth, of faith, and of peace, as followers of Jesus the Christ, be a beacon of love and light to the community in all that you do and in all that you are.  Let us live truthfully, peaceably, faithfully. 
Let us hear the word of God and obey it. 
And let us choose to live into the unity that God provides in the community of God. It is our choice. Choose wisely. Amen.

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