“Be Ready!”

“Be Ready!”

Ephesians 6:10-20 (6:14) – August 22, 2021

            When I was a girl and a teenager, I was a Girl Scout. I still remember the Girl Scout motto: “Be prepared.” In the 1947 Girl Scout Handbook, the motto was explained like this: “A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed.” The Boy Scouts had the same motto, and my former-Boy-Scout husband occasionally reminds me of that, usually when we are packing to go on a trip. Be prepared! In other words, always be ready, for whatever comes your way.

            The apostle Paul had some important things – and encouraging words to say in this letter to his former congregation. Paul finishes up with a few practical, direct words for his long-time congregation. (I say long-time, because he spent about three years with this church, longer than with any other church he planted.)

            Many of these words involve being prepared. Being ready! The apostle Paul is very serious, and actually describes the kit of a Roman soldier. He knows what he is talking about here, too! Paul was in prison, in Rome, while writing this letter to the Ephesians. Paul was shackled to a Roman soldier inside of his cell, to make double sure he was going to stay put. And, Paul had the opportunity to become sadly familiar with the Roman soldier’s armor.  

            We had a prayer today, a Blessing of the Backpacks, before the sermon. We might think of the Scripture reading from Ephesians in terms of going back to school. We prayed for the school children in this congregation, as well as for all of those related to our church members. Children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, godchildren.

And, it does not matter whether we are remembering preschoolers or high schoolers or those in graduate school. We pray for them all to have a good year of study, an enjoyable year with their friends and classmates, and especially a safe year from anything they might come in contact with, whether an illness, an accident, or some other form of danger. We pray for all of the children, wherever they are, whichever school they attend.

I love the commentator Carolyn Brown. She was a Children’s Ministry Director for years and years at a Presbyterian church, now retired. She draws the innovative comparison between the list of pieces of God’s armor Paul talks about, and the list of new school supplies our children and their families have just assembled over the past weeks, to carry to school. Here is her list.

We had a Blessing of the Backpacks just today. Think of the backpack of truth our children and young people carry with them, each day at school. They can carry either good or bad things with them. Our young people need to be secure in God’s love, with God’s help.

Many students have a locker. Smaller children have cubbies, for storage. I can imagine the apostle Paul thinking of a locker of righteousness for our young people. Young people need to be prudent and even cautious about their lockers, what they post in them, and what kind of messages are passed to and fro, using the lockers.                                                                                                                                                                                                       

            Carolyn Brown makes a point of talking about “pencils, pens, markers to communicate God’s word – make every word you write with them a word you would say to God.”[1] And, our young people are now carrying computer tablets and laptops to school. I could imagine the apostle Paul cautioning our young people to not only be prepared, but be wise in what they say.

            Finally, our children almost always have new shoes! New school year, new shoes to wear. Yes, these new shoes might be cool. But, do our young people bring the message of peace while wearing them? That’s what the apostle Paul intended. He wanted believers to wear the shoes of peace, and communicate that sorely needed message to everyone they met.

            We might think that these are instructive words for our children and grandchildren to hear. However, as Paul describes these pieces of Godly armor, I am reminded of the dangers of the world this armor protects us from. In the book series (and movie series) about Harry Potter, one of the most chilling bad guys in the books are the dementors, “huge dark creatures that fly through the air, capture you, wrap you in cold darkness and suck all the happiness out of you.”[2]

The recent, horrible take-over of the country by the Taliban in Afghanistan is so much like the dementors, wrapping everyone in cold darkness and sucking all the happiness out of people. Especially women and girls! This horrendous military action is not only against feelings and emotions of people, like the dementors, but it involves machine guns, bombs and assassination squads. It means life or death for countless numbers of people across Afghanistan.

I receive a great deal of email weekly, including letters and articles about community and humanitarian concerns. I want to bring this excerpt to you. It comes from an email letter dated August 18th by Sheila Katz, the Chief Executive Officer of the National Council of Jewish Women. This paragraph shows us a different way, an open-hearted way for all of us to be ready.

“Welcoming the stranger — the immigrant, the refugee, the asylum-seeker — is one of Judaism’s most core values. The Torah commands us no fewer than 36 times to care for those whose homeland, language, social network, and resources may be elsewhere.  We hear this more than any other commandment in our most sacred of texts, perhaps because it’s all too tempting, when things are going well for us — when we, ourselves are comfortable, when we, ourselves are safe, to turn our backs on those who have come to us for shelter, for protection — because their own home has become untenable. It is so easy to forget. So the Torah has to remind us, again and again, until we remember.” 

Whether inside or outside the church, however and wherever we serve our Lord, God intends for us to be ready. That means being prepared by these words of caution. Paul used these words in Ephesians to advise all of us to be ready to deal with challenging, even dangerous situations. We all need this prudent caution of God’s armor, in our everyday walk as believers. Plus, we all need the reminder of our interfaith Jewish friend, about the 36 commands – that’s 36 commands! – in the Hebrew Scriptures, to be prepared to take in those who come to us for shelter, for protection, for refuge. We all need to be ready for the challenges of living, inside and out.

Final words, quoting Paul? Be strong in the Lord! Stand ready, inside and out. And, do all this in prayer, always asking for God’s help. Alleluia, amen!  

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my other blogs: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

(Thanks so much to Carolyn Brown and her marvelous insights from Ephesians 6 for children and young people – and older people, too! – from “Worshiping with Children,” a lectionary resource I often quote from.)


[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2015/08/year-b-proper-16-21st-sunday-in_7.html

Worshiping with Children, Proper 16B, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

Don’t Be Frightened!

“Don’t Be Frightened!”

1 Pet 3-14 don't be afraid

1 Peter 3:13-17 (3:14) – September 9, 2018 – from Dave Ivaska’s book Be Not Afraid

Do you know anyone who talks straight? Comes right to the point? Doesn’t pull any punches? Sometimes, a person who speaks this way can be refreshing. So unlike other speakers or politicians who sugar-coat problems or sometimes sweep difficult matters under the rug.

Except – I am not sure whether we might say the same about our New Testament scripture reading for today. Suffering and pain are not exactly the favorite topics of most Christians in the 21st century. Yet, the apostle Peter is just such a man as I just described. A man who talks straight, comes right to the point, and does not pull any punches. We ought to listen to him, a man who was loved deeply by our Lord Jesus Christ, and a man whom God appointed as leader, the person in charge of the band of disciples after our Lord Jesus ascended.

No one enjoys talking about suffering, pain and harm. But, what do we find here? Peter tells his fellow believers in Christ that suffering, pain and harm will surely come. We do not want to hear that. None of us do! Yet, let us listen again to the words from 1 Peter 3, once more: “13 Who is going to harm you if you are eager to do good? 14 But even if you should suffer for what is right, you are blessed. “Do not fear their threats; do not be frightened.”

Peter does not mess around. He comes straight to the point. Christianity is not a safe religion. Of course, the first century was not a safe time to live, either. One of the commentaries mentions “the situation referred to in 1 Peter 3:13-22 could range from mild abuse and mockery at the hands of the families of these new Christ-believers, to open, official, harsh persecution by Roman officials under [the emperor] Domitian (81-91 CE).” [1]

Christianity at the time of the apostle Peter was one of many religions, and a brand-new one, at that. It was closely related to Judaism, but the Jews were not high in the regard of the Roman Empire, either. As far as the Roman government was concerned, this new sect or religion called Christianity was nothing but a headache. Imagine, people running around, saying that there was only one God, instead of many gods and goddesses. How demeaning! How insulting to their families and the towns where they live, which all have patron gods and goddesses!

And, not wanting to, even demanding not to bow down to any other god, or call anyone else their Lord except this one particular God? Why, that was treason, pure and simple. On top of everything else, there were rumors that in the Christian worship services, there was cannibalism. They actually ate and drank the body and blood of their God. Imagine that!

If you and I step back from our current understandings of Christianity and try to see this brand-new religion in the same way that the Roman government of the first century did, we might get a little insight on the way that many others—both Jews and Gentiles—viewed this strange band of religious converts. Ridicule and open jeering at least, and harsh persecution, even death, by officials of the Empire. That means soldiers busting down doors in the middle of the night, dragging people into the streets, throwing them in prison. Maybe there was a trial, and maybe there wasn’t. Uncertainty, fear, pain, suffering.

Do you understand what Peter was talking about now? “Clearly, identifying one’s self as a Christ-believer in the first century CE was not something as common and mainstream as it is in certain places of the world today. Christianity as one of the leading world-religions did not yet exist as such.” [2]

Not only from the New Testament, but from other historical writings, we can see how persecuted the early Christians were. Peter had guts, I’ll say that for him. He did not have an easy life. Peter kept on the move, spreading the message of the Gospel, the Good News. He introduced people to his Lord and Savior, the risen and glorified Jesus Christ.

And yet—and yet, he told his fellow believers in Christ to “Be Not Afraid!” He knew very well what could (and quite possibly did) happen to some of them. Yet, he had the faith and assurance to write these very words. Don’t be frightened!

What is the next thing he says? Listen to Peter’s next verse: “15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect,” We need to stand up for what we believe, and who we believe in. Gently and respectfully.  

Peter knew that even if his friends gave a respectful defense for the Lord they believed in, persecution would come. “Peter wants his readers to understand that, although they may act in a good and right way toward others, they may still suffer. Suffering for doing right is something we may all have to experience.[3]

I am reminded of Olympic runner Eric Liddell, the man called “the Flying Scotsman.”. The movie Chariots of Fire was made about him and his story at the 1924 Paris Olympics. Liddell was a devout Christian. He refused to run in a race he very much wanted to run—the 100 meters—because it was scheduled on Sunday. Liddell believed that playing sports on Sunday was disrespectful to God. So, he calmly announced that he would not run in that particular race.

Eric Liddell’s decision was not popular, at all. “He had to be brave because lots of people got really angry with him.  He was however gentle.  He didn’t scream and shout about how wrong the officials were to schedule the race on Sunday.  He simply said that he would not run because much as he loved racing, he respected God more.” [4]

I would like us to imagine that we are overseas, today. In parts of Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan, or Thailand; in Algeria, Iran, Sudan, or in Saudi Arabia. Christians are less than 7 percent of the population of these countries, especially in Saudi Arabia. Let’s close the blinds and put out the lights. Shh! We can’t be too careful! The police are looking for people who go against the government, and the small minority of Christians are often arbitrarily persecuted. Several pastors and church leaders have recently been thrown in prison, so we need to be really careful and keep a low profile. No public church services! Keep quiet about meeting for bible study. And, make sure to hide your bibles!

In 1924, Eric Liddell still faced a great deal of opposition for his decision not to run. Imagine how much more difficult the apostle Peter and his fellow Christians had it, in the first century, with widespread persecution and suffering?

In the Beatitudes, in Matthew 5:10-12, Jesus tells us “blessed are the ones who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.”  What is another way of saying this Beatitude? To be righteous, to practice righteousness, is to be like our Lord Jesus. What would Jesus do? We need to do that. Show others the Gospel through our lives and words. Be like Jesus. Love others, with kindness, gentleness, and respect. Always. And, do not be frightened, because Jesus will always be right by our sides. No matter what. Peter would certainly agree.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=938

Commentary, 1 Peter 3:13-22 (Easter 6A), Valerie Nicolet-Anderson, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2011.

[3] http://www.lectionarystudies.com/easter5ae.html

“Raised to Life,” Rev. Bryan Findlayson, Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources.

[4] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/04/year-the-sixth-sunday-of-easter-may-25.html

Worshiping with Children, Easter 6A, Including children in the congregation’s worship, using the Revised Common Lectionary, Carolyn C. Brown, 2014.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Keep Watch!

“Keep Watch!”

Matt 25-12 I know you not

Matthew 25:1-13 (25:13) – November 12, 2017

Just two weeks ago, St. Luke’s Church had its big fall Spaghetti Dinner fundraiser. This dinner took quite a bit of planning and preparation. Just ask anyone who worked on planning, preparing, serving, or cleaning up. And, another big thank you to all of those who planned, worked, or ate at the Spaghetti Dinner. It all was much appreciated!

I am a person who is not naturally a planner. Or, rather, I was not the person who would be so very prepared. You know that sort of person. They always plan way in advance. They always bring more supplies, buy plenty of food, and especially are always there in plenty of time, for any occasion. I admire these people. Over time, I have learned how to copy certain aspects of their planning and preparation. However, I am not naturally one of these super-prepared people.

To recap from our scripture from Matthew 25, there are a bunch of young women—strictly speaking, the text calls them “virgins.” They are to accompany the bridegroom and the rest of the bridal party as he travels to the bride’s home, picks her up, and they all go to a large banquet hall to celebrate the ceremony. This was a common feature of weddings in that part of the world, and still is in places around the world, today.

Jesus’s parable from Matthew 25 is all about being prepared. Doing some advance planning. And, at face value, it seems really unfair.      As Dr. David Lose (one of my favorite commentators) said, “All the bridesmaids brought oil, all waited, all fell asleep. And the decision about who gets in comes down to who anticipated the bridegroom would be this incredibly late and so brought more oil. Okay, so maybe it’s not unfair. Maybe it’s just that I’m pretty darn certain that I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids.” [1]

Oh, Dr. Lose, I relate so much! I fear I would have been among the foolish bridesmaids, too! I am afraid I may not be welcomed to the wedding banquet, either.

I have a confession to make. I have never preached a sermon on this parable before. I have always been leery of it. Or afraid of it. I wrestled with the idea of preaching on this parable, and felt convicted by God. So, I decided—with God’s help, when this reading came up as a lectionary Gospel reading that I would definitely preach on it.

Let’s pull back from this brief parable, and look at the larger situation where the Rabbi Jesus tells it. This is sometime midway through Holy Week, where Jesus is being asked when the end times will come. That’s a big reason why He gives this long discourse called the Olivet Discourse, several chapters long in Matthew’s Gospel. Similar to now, people all through the centuries have been aware that the Bible has certain mysterious, even unclear prophecies concerning the end times, just before when the Messiah will come.

Jesus “lets them know that there will be signs, terrible signs, that will give people clues that the end is coming, encouraging them not to listen to idle rumors, but to trust His words. The parable of the bridesmaids compares the listeners to [bridesmaids], entrusted with a role,” [2] while waiting for the bridegroom to come.

Preparation and planning are often mixed up with waiting. Sure, we can plan the menu for a big dinner, and purchase the food for the big event. We prepare everything for the festive table, and get the table centerpieces and flowers and everything else. But sometimes, waiting is somehow involved in this process. Waiting for God to show up. How long do we wait? That was just what the disciples were anxious and worried about. That was one big reason why Jesus told several parables in this particular discourse.

A story one commentator told happened several years ago. Dr. Karoline Lewis relates: “My father-in-law was a World War II veteran and he died a year ago this past April at the age of 96. In the twenty-three years I have known my husband, it was only in the last few that Sam [my father-in-law] ever talked about the war. The last time I saw him was at his bequest to have as many of his grandchildren present, not necessarily for a final goodbye, but as you know, people can sense that death is soon. Of course, that truth elicits its own sense of what waiting is like.

“That day, Sam talked about the war. He talked about the waiting. You see, he had been selected, singled out, not to be sent to the front, but to stay behind. Why? He was good in math. He showed us his notebook in which he had calculated multiple ballistic measurements. And as he worked on his equations, he waited for his fellow soldiers, his friends, to return. Some did. Some did not. He could not understand how he was spared. Yet in the waiting and the wondering he knew God was there, and there was nothing else he could do but trust that truth.” [3]

I wonder how many of us can trust God when we are waiting and wondering? I wonder how many of us continue to have faith in God when things just don’t seem to make any sense? Like in the case of difficult scripture passages like this one, this parable from Matthew where the bridegroom—Jesus—sends the five foolish, unprepared bridesmaids away, not allowing them in to the wedding banquet?

All these bridesmaids were waiting. (As do we. We wait for Jesus to return, and we—the church—have been waiting for centuries.) Five of these bridesmaids were prepared, and had enough oil. Five did not. We can compare that to having extra batteries for your flashlight, like I told the boys during the children’s time before the sermon. But today’s parable does not highlight a shortage of oil for the lamps. No, the oil is plentiful. There is more than enough oil. However, the five bridesmaids forget they are going to need the oil. [4] I sometimes forget I need oil—which God bountifully supplies. Do you sometimes forget, too?

I want to highlight verse 13, where Jesus says “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

Yes, there is pain, suffering, loss, grief, sickness, anxiety, and all manner of other difficult things in this world. We are not certain when God will show up. Yet, we can glean some words of advice from this parable: Be prepared. Plan. Watch. Keep awake. And, wait.

“If only we will remember that we have a steady supply of precious ‘oil’ to help light our way. For we have already have Jesus as we await the ‘bridegroom’s’ return.’ We already have Jesus. If only we will pause long enough to recognize and receive this precious gift, it is already ours. All we have to do is fill our lamps.” [5]

We all have been called to lift our lamps—our lights—and lift them high, shining as signs of promise and hope in a dark world with little hope or brightness or light in it. The oil is provided for us. Jesus encourages us to lift our lights in an often dark world.

Indeed, isn’t this what the world needs most of all?

 

(A big thank you to David Lose, Liz Milner, Karoline Lewis and Janet Hunt for their helpful writings as I wrestled with this challenging text from Matthew 25.)

[1] http://www.davidlose.net/2014/11/pentecost-22-a/  “Hope and Help for Foolish Bridesmaids,” David Lose, …in the meantime, 2014.

[2] https://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/1534-my-bad-dream  “My Bad Dream,” Liz Milner, Journey with Jesus, 2017.

[3] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3413  “How To Wait,” Karoline Lewis, Dear Working Preacher, 2014.

[4] http://dancingwiththeword.com/oil-for-our-lamps/  “Oil for Our Lamps,” Janet H. Hunt, Dancing with the Word, 2017.  November 5, 2017

[5] Ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)