Sermon from August 26, 2012

August 30, 2012

Protection Enabled

Ephesians: 6:10-20

 10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For 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. 13 Therefore 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. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18 Pray 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. 19 Pray 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, 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

I live in a country where we generally fight our wars on the soil of other nations. I live in a zip-code where there is very little violent crime. I have a job-title that often causes people to be on their best behavior. About the only time I feel threatened is when I’m around a bunch of other United Methodist ministers, but they really aren’t that dangerous – you just don’t want them to be praying for the wrong thing for you.

I feel that I live in a pretty safe world. I don’t generally suit-up for protection from other people, but Paul’s image isn’t lost on me. I don’t go out in the sun without the protection of my hat and sunscreen if necessary. I know how the sun can hurt me if I don’t take good precautions. And I wear a helmet when I ride my scooter or bicycle. I think the most humiliating thing in life would be to be going about 10 mph on a scooter or bicycle and have an accident that leaves me brain-damaged. I understand the value of protective gear.

And I see this little message on the bottom of my computer screen every now and then that says “Protection enabled”. I have no idea how any of that works, but it assures me that I’m current on the premium for my anti-virus software. I like to imagine that I’ve got these digital soldiers on the perimeter of my computer fending off the onslaught of cyber criminals who are trying to break in to steal my identity and scramble my stuff.

Of course I know there are people who actually do need body armor for protection against violent attack. Certainly police officers need that kind of actual protection from men and women who are inclined to behave in violent ways. It’s really distressing to hear how much violent crime happens in Arkansas as well as other places. I’m grateful to have little exposure to it, but violence happens in our community, and I appreciate the men and women who are willing to strap on protection and step in to dangerous situations. There are some ill motivated people out there who need to be stopped.

I guess I’m a little more sensitive to the presence of malicious individuals “out there” because our church was recently the victim of a rogue company that hijacked our phone lines. I inadvertently discovered this last week when I called AT&T to get them to do some rerouting of the way our lines come in to the church and I was told we had recently switched our service to another company. Given the fact that I was looking at a bill that had come to us this month I was somewhat surprised by that, but sure enough we were the victims of some kind of scam that took control of our phone service for a few days.

You would think people who are smart enough to put together that kind of illicit enterprise could figure out a way to make money doing something useful, but there clearly are some people who are out to take advantage of other people in many different ways, and they do a lot of harm.

If you’ve watched the news at all lately you’ve seen or heard about the civil war raging in Syria right now. Putting on the equipment for battle is not a metaphor over there, and it’s terrible to see the ways that people’s lives are literally being torn apart by the hatred that exists between the ruling party and the rebels. It’s horrible to think that things can go so wrong that average citizens become motivated to do as much harm as possible to their adversary. I don’t know how that happens, but we all know that it does.

The presence of evil in this world is mysterious. I don’t know where it comes from, how it is fueled, or why God allows it to remain, but I don’t underestimate it’s ability to wreak havoc in our lives. As I mentioned earlier, I live in an environment that is largely immune from violent forms of evil, but I know that it lurks in my neighborhood as well. I’m sure I’m surrounded by neighbors who are driven by jealousy, prejudice and greed to do cruel and selfish things. In fact I can be one of those people. People like me don’t use violent weapons to get our way, but the work of evil can be done in very subtle ways.

So I resonate to these words of Paul, who spoke of the need to generate protection for our souls. And it was the vulnerability of our souls that concerned Paul. He knew how hard it is to live in this world without reacting to the world in ways that do harm to our souls. Paul was using some imagery that would have been very familiar to the residents of Ephesus to illustrate the importance of living in an unfamiliar way, and to put people on guard against the things that do harm to our souls.

The Roman-ruled world was a place with some very clear rules, and the primary rule was to live in complete obedience to Ceasar. The Roman Empire offered an avenue to a form of peace on earth, but the so-called peace that Rome provided was brought about through the violent domination of anyone who challenged their authority. And it was in stark contrast to that Roman formula for peace that Paul constructed the message that we have read this morning.

Paul was an advocate of personal transformation. He recognized the absolute difference between living under the rule of love as opposed to the rule of the empire. He also knew how hard it was to live in this world without being ruled by the powers of this world. He knew that we are often inclined to suit-up with the belt of deception, the breastplate of intimidation, the shoes of blame, the shield of aggression, the helmet of ignorance, and the sword of oppression. We like to get our way in large and small ways, and the use of such tactics not only hurt other people – they do damage to our souls.

From his vantage point of being in chains in prison, Paul could see very clearly the value of responding to the harshness of this world with the effort to love. He knew what it looked like to be spiritually strong and he knew how hard it was to be strong in that way. Paul was highly conscious of what it meant for Jesus to be Crucified. Paul knew that this world doesn’t value the way that Jesus taught us to live, but he trusted his life completely to wisdom of Christ who revealed the avenue to true peace and personal salvation.

And let me say what I think about this word, salvation. I don’t use the word, salvation, lightly. I always fear people will think I’m just talking about cutting a deal with God that assures nice real-estate in the world beyond this one. I trust that God does provide for us well when we depart this world, but I don’t think we only access the benefits of heaven after we expire from this world.

I think Paul felt saved while he was still in prison in this world. Paul was in touch with the presence of the living God while he was bound by chains and sharing space with rats. Paul’s perspective on life was totally transformed by his encounter with Christ, and he wanted us all to have that same experience.

I know a lot of people have trouble accepting anything that Paul says because Paul is reported to have said some terribly backward things. I have my doubts that everything attributed to Paul is something he actually wrote. Of course we don’t know all the details of how his letters came in to being, and he may well have written some regrettable things. I doubt if you can find a writer who would stand by everything they ever wrote, but in my opinion Paul got it right more than he got it wrong, and he was right about this.

We don’t need as much protection from those who would do us harm as we need to learn to protect our souls from the damage we can do when we seize the sword of selfish promotion and forget the tools of love. We live a long way off from the old man who was writing from that Roman prison, but his words have very current bearing on the words we text, the things we tweet, and in every other way we interact with our neighbors. If we will be as vigilant in protecting our souls as we are in protecting our devices – God will be glorified and our souls will be saved.

The next time you see that little “Protection Enabled” message at the bottom of your computer screen, do a little check to see if your soul is as safe as your hard drive.



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