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Psalm 84 (sung – see Hymn 402)
How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!
My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.
Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself,
where she may lay her young, at your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God.
Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.
Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.
As they go through the valley of Baca, they make it a place of springs;
the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength;
the God of gods will be seen in Zion.
O Lord God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!
Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you.
The psalmist claims: How happy, how blessed, how fortunate are those who find their strength in God.
They go from strength to strength.
The Lord God is a sun and a shield. I would rather be an usher in the house of God
than spend time in those places that I know shouldn’t go.
How blessed are we when we trust our lives with God.
Our New Testament reading comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus.
The letter was written centuries ago to a fledlging Christian community facing tremendous pressure.
These early Christians were seeking to be an intentional community of faith,
seeking to understand and follow the ways of Jesus Christ.
They were dealing with all the internal challenges that any gathering of people will face.
Externally, they were actively being persecuted by the powerful Roman government.
They were looked down upon by the local synagogue.
And their members were trying to live a different, more faithful way of life
in the midst of a very secular Roman culture.
This final section of the letter encourages the church to be ready, to be prepared,
for the challenges they will face, for the inevitable spiritual battles that will come their way,
both within and outside of the community.
Hear the word of God from Ephesians 6:10-20.
Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
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. 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.
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist,
and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet,
put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 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.
Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
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.
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, for which I am an ambassador in chains.
Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
Why do we need armor? Why the need to stand firm? Who or what is attacking us?
Paul is not talking about some physical battle against an enemy of “flesh and blood”,
but a spiritual battle. Paul talks about “cosmic powers and spiritual forces,”
which we will address in a few minutes,
but first, consider some of the spiritual markers of the age in which we live.
We live in an age of anxiety.
Historians will look back at this time and wonder about the frequency of panic attacks.
They will dig into the causes of the high number of suicide attempts.
They will explore the proliferation of pain pills and anti-depressent prescriptions.
They will recoil at the prevalence of additions – whether to substances or gambling or pornography.
They will wonder why, in a time of relative affluence, of high standards of living,
of increased levels of education, of longer life spans, that so many humans are suffering spiritually.
As the hymn we sang this morning reminds us: We have become “rich in things and poor in soul.”
We are fighting spiritual battles.
One of the books to be featured next weekend in the AJC Book Festival is Dopesick by Beth Macy,
in which she describes the Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America.
The opioid crisis that has wreaked havoc in Appalachia and beyond is at heart a spiritual battle.
On Friday night here at the church, many of us viewed the documentary “Trigger”,
about the ripple effects of gun violence.
The film was a powerful and stark reminder of how troubled is our society.
Persons spoke with grief and confusion abou the random, sporadic shootings in schools
and places of work, as well as about the heart-breaking, daily death of our young people
on the streets of America.
A traumatologist in the documentary spoke of the long term spiritual impact on all of us –
especially healthcare workers, EMT’s, teachers, and social workers –
of witnessing, again and again and again, the trauma of untimely death and senseless gun violence.
Yesterday, thousands gathered at Stone Mountain to address the simmering racial tensions in our nation.
This too is a spiritual battle against “cosmic powers and spiritual forces”.
Another spiritual crisis is the challenge of living in an age of global awareness,
which sometimes can lead to mass fearfulness.
An earthquake erupts on the other side of the world and within twenty minutes we become reminded
of what natural disasters we could face.
A bomb explodes in some urban market in a country far away and we hesitate going to the store.
The Chinese character for “crisis” is a combination of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”.
We are aware that we live in dangerous times, and yet, there is some much hopeful opportunity,
so much progress technologically and otherwise.
Fear, anxiety, constant concern for safety, division in politics instead of seeking the common good,
stark economic disparities, growing re-segregation of schools –
that’s no way to live in America, “the beautiful”.
We have much work to do as a society, and these are, at heart, spiritual problems.
What individual spiritual battles trouble your heart?
What keeps you up at night? What frightens you about your future or the future of your kids?
Some are troubled over their own physical condition; they know they are unhealthy,
that they have an illness or perhaps unhealthy habits, and cannot seem to get healthy again.
Some are worried about their vocational situation, wondering how long they can survive where they are,
wondering if they may need to make a change,
wondering if a change is going to be made for them through downsizing or some buyout or merger.
Some know that their life is good, but still do not feel at ease.
A young man told me that other day that he can look around and confirm that all seems well
about his life – his marriage, healthy children, a good job, he is blessed –
but still does not have a sense of peace in his heart and soul.
Many in our hyperactive, overstimulated, and fear-stoked nation confess that,
even in the best of circumstances, we are having difficulty experiencing a sense of shalom,
of well-being, of wholeness and peace in heart, mind and soul.
What are these powers that are eating away at our feelings of peacefulness?
And how can we stand firm in the midst of the battle?
Jesus said, “I have come that you may life, and have it abundantly.”
Elsewhere he said, “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you.
Not as the world gives do I give to you, so do not let your hearts be troubled neither let them be afraid.”
Paul tells the church in Ephesus that they must be prepared for a spiritual battle,
that there are forces at work that they cannot see or touch,
that they are at risk and in need of spiritual defenses.
Buckle up with the belt of truth, he writes.
Wrap the breastplate of righteousness over your vital organs.
Take up the shield of faith with which you can quench the flaming arrows
which inevitably will come your way.
Put on a helmet of salvation.
I’ve preached entire sermons just on these individual pieces of the armor.
What I always find the most intriguing is the shoes.
Paul encourages – wear on your feet whatever makes you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
Look around you; everyone’s shoes are different.
There may not be two pairs of identical shoes in this entire room.
Everyone is wearing something different to help them be ready for worship today.
I get a kick out of our acolyte’s shoes. Have you noticed?
The young people come forward all reverent in their white robes,
and sticking out beneath is often a glittering pair of tennis shoes,
or some cool pair of strap sandals, or maybe some kind of superhero sneaker.
I don’t know about you, but I imagine, like me you have different shoes for various events.
Dress shoes for office environment
Running shoes for taking a jog
Keen sandals for hanging out at a neighborhood gathering
Old Adidas slip on sandals for the lake or the beach.
Turf cleats for playing soccer on turf fields; regular cleats for soccer on grass fields.
For your feet, Paul writes, wear whatever makes you ready to proclaim good news of peace,
to lead with a spirit of peace, in whatever circumstance you find yourself.
What makes you more ready when you come home at the end of a day to be peaceful?
What helps you be prepared to be at peace with your co-workers before you arrive
at a challenging work meeting?
What enables you to be more encouraging and hopeful with your teammates at practice after school?
What makes you ready to proclaim unity instead of estrangement with extended family members?
We have resources at our disposal – spiritual resources,
like constant prayer for help and hope and guidance,
forgiveness instead of vengeance for one who has wronged you,
seeking calm instead of strife with the one who irritates you,
waging peace instead of war with those who disagree with you,
maintaining contentment with what we have instead of concern over what we don’t have…
What can your spirit “wear” that will make you ready to proclaim peace, to live in peace?
Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against “cosmic powers and spiritual forces”.
This is not the language we typically use in Church from week to week.
but Paul offers a clear warning that these adversaries are more than human,
more than flesh and blood.
Walter Wink in his book, Naming the Powers, claims that it really doesn’t matter
whether you believe in a personified Satan or Devil,
the point is that human beings face struggles with forces at work in the world
that bring us harm and not good.
Paul encourages the Church to put on the whole armor of God so that we may stand firm.
This is a defensive and not an offensive posture.
This is not an act of aggression against some enemy outside the church, but an of preparedness
to defend oneself against principalities and powers.
This encouragement is not addressed to individuals, but to the Church as a community.
We are not in this alone.
Paul was not talking about arming some lone ranger individual Christian
who would stand before the enemy ready to shoot and kill, like in an old Western movie.
He was not talking about some smartly armed warrior like in today’s very popular,
but certainly not very Christian, Fortnight game.
Nor was Paul talking about building barriers or walls around our sanctuaries
in order to keep “those people” out.
Paul was writing to a vulnerable, mostly powerless, community of fallible people
who were living in the culture but who were not of the culture.
They were not special. In and of themselves, they were not holy. They were not of noble birth.
But they had been called out of the world, into the church to worship together the name of Jesus.
They had been called to live and serve together for the sake of their community,
even if there were not of their community.
Faith, hope and love had begun to get the better of their fear, despair, and disconnection.
Their church had become salt and light in their lives,
and they had begun to share this good news with their neighbors.
The discovered joy and meaningful fellowship when they broke bread together,
and it was life-changing, but Paul knew, there would also be risks.
They would face inevitable spiritual battles, both within themselves and in their community.
Where are we? We are in worship! We are where we need to be.
We are suiting ourselves up with spiritual armor,
so that we will be ready for whatever this week may bring.
There is no better place for us to get prepared for the spiritual battles we will face.
This is a good place for you and your family to be.
This is a good place to gain strength, renew our defenses, to go from strength to strength.
And I am somewhat biased, but a Presbyterian Church with good theology
and a reasoned, intentional, contextual, serious study of Holy Scripture,
with an emphasis on corporate worship, meaningful fellowship and sacrificial service,
is an especially good place to be.
Friends, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power.
Put on the whole armor of God so that, together,
we may stand firm against whatever spiritual battles may come our way.
In a sermon Martin Luther King, Jr. preached four days before his death,
he spoke of the power of belonging to one another.
In “Remaining Awake Through the Great Revolution,”
King preached that among differences we may experience,
mutual vulnerability and humanity unites us more deeply:
“We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality.
Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.
And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.
This is the way God’s universe is made; this is the way it is structured.”
Friends, we take up the spiritual armor of truth, righteousness, faith, salvation, not alone, but together,
in order to stand firm. And finally, we pray. As Paul reminds us:
Pray at all times. Keep alert. Persevere in prayer for all the saints.
Pray for me!, he writes, so that I may continue to declare boldly the mystery of the gospel of peace.
To God be the glory. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
August 26, 2018
Allysen Schaaf graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia with a Master of Divinity and a Master of Arts in Christian Education. Prior to that she received a Bachelor of Arts in Exercise and Sport Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Rev. Dr. Todd Speed has served Decatur Presbyterian Church since August, 2007 and has been an integral part of the Decatur community ever since. As a part of his personal calling and service, Dr. Speed regularly serves on local non-profit or education-related boards, has led or co-led over 20 mission trips in various cultural contexts, and has participated in learning seminars on five continents.
Rev. Alexandra Rodgers was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. She grew up in a large Presbyterian church where she and her family were very involved. Alex has a degree in interdisciplinary studies from Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, and a master of divinity from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Austin, Texas.
Join us for worship on Sunday mornings at 10:30 a.m.
Worship is the heartbeat of Decatur Presbyterian Church, the most important hour of the week. In worship, we offer praise, receive forgiveness, listen to God's Word, pray for the needs of the world, and offer ourselves as living sacrifices to God.
The mission of DPC is to share Jesus Christ's love for the world.
Founded in 1825, Decatur Presbyterian Church has contributed in numerous ways to the cultural development of Decatur over nearly two centuries, transforming Decatur from a tiny frontier settlement to building the foundations of the city we live in today.
205 Sycamore Street, Decatur, GA 30030