August 22, 2021
13th Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
When I left for vacation at the end of July, the sun was an orange ball in the sky because of the Canadian wildfires. There were rumblings of changes in CDC recommendations because of the surging Delta variant. The planning for a fall transition from the sanctuary to the Gathering Place for renovation construction was creating cascades of tasks. After a year and half of constant adaptation, it was time.
It turned out to be beautiful time away, even with long periods of no cell coverage. A bit of freedom from the chains. Thank you to all of you for a generous time of vacation for all our staff.
The problem with vacation, if you’re privileged enough to have one, is that you always have to come back. And, here we are, another Sunday when the world seems complicated: eleven of our kids went to camp and ended up being exposed to a kid who had been asymptomatic but positive all week. The camp didn’t hear about it until the last day. Not what you want to be talking about in the car on the way home from camp. On Thursday, people will start lining up in our parking lot to take the bus to the fair. One MPR reporter this week called it, “The Great Minnesota Get-Sick Together.” Yesterday, the DNR closed the Boundary Waters because of the fire. The rains didn’t seem to stop the fire or the drought, or climate change. And the week’s visuals from Afghanistan: parents hoisting babies over the barb wire to America soldiers; masses clinging to the side of planes.
I have new appreciation for Paul’s advice in Ephesians, “Put on the whole armor of God. I’ve resisted the kind of metaphors that turn Christian faith into military gear. The sword of truth. The helmet of salvation. The breastplate of righteousness. It hasn’t seemed like good advice in our era to encourage one another to armor up, to be ready to defend ourselves.
Yet, I wonder if Paul is trying to find to nudge us to suit up with something different than we usually do. Armor, of course, is designed so that you can advance not retreat. The only way to keep going is to dress ourselves in faith and peace, righteousness and truth, love. To be clothed in Christ. When I put the garment of new creation on Elijah between the services, today I’m going to think of it as his armor against hate and despair, loneliness and a world that will not always go his way.
Grace may not keep us from experiencing the challenges of COVID, or climate change, or militaristic American policy, or the challenges of Monday morning, but it can give us a source that will hold us for the fight–which really does seem like a helpful metaphor sometimes. We do have to fight the virus and destructive consumption and immigration strategies that leave vulnerable people behind or in the way of violence and hunger. We have to fight racism that’s embedded so deeply most white people can go week to week without even seeing it. And, often, as many of us know all too well, we have to fight the “stuff” that’s going on inside ourselves.
The gospel isn’t that we can get away from it, or take a vacation, but that there is a source—a deeper truth–that provides us energy and life in the midst of it all, even joy.
When I was on internship in Junction City, Ohio way back in 1988, one member waxed nostalgic about the time when the church required people to come to confession on Saturday so that they would be pure to take communion on Sunday. But he then added, “The problem is that Saturday night was a really bad time to try to stay pure for Sunday morning. I really needed communion then if I was going to make it through Saturday night.”
Thankfully, we now announce on Sunday morning, “You made it. All are welcome.” We call those with great faith and those who wish they had more to come to the table. Those who fought the good fight, and those who just lost their energy and gave up. We count the bread of life, not as a reward for purity goodness, but as food for the starving, the meal that gives us enough foretaste of the feast to come to believe that might actually feed us right now.
The phrase that really struck me in the Ephesians reading was when Paul describes himself as an “ambassador in chains.” The light went on: that is true. We’ve been captured by love that IS bigger than all that faces us, a grace that is clearer than our skies, and a protection that’s better than anything we know. At the same time, we live a life that is bound by the world we live in; the world we create by our own behavior; the world that is on fire and is frantically trying to grab hold of anything that’s about to take off into freedom.
In good Lutheran paradoxical fashion: Paul is both filled and overflowing with Christ and bound by the chains of the world around him. He’s free of the chains, even though they still wrap around him.
In the gospel reading, the presence of Christ, literally taken into the body proved to be more than the people could take. God in flesh, love chained to a human being seemed incomprehensible. If you’ve been with us for the last six weeks, you know we’ve been reading through John, Chapter 6. It started with 5000 hanging on every word, even willing to have the free meal. Then the sermon starts. People begin to leave. Now we’re down to twelve, and Jesus hears them complaining, so he asks. “Do you want to go, too?” Peter prays the prayer that maybe we all need every morning, “Lord, to whom shall we go. You have the words of eternal life.”
Eternal life is really John’s way of saying real life; full life; life that streams with heaven, freedom.
It’s hard to believe that the Word is enough. Yet, Sunday by Sunday, we gather to remind one another other that is. Love is enough. This meal is enough. Grace is sufficient for the day—another mantra for this time.
We leave here as ambassadors of the way, truth, and the life, albeit in chains; ready, like Paul, to write a new future, to dream with our communities how we march forward; to put on the whole armor of God. All of it.