A Presbyterian pastor from a fashionable suburb on Long Island described his parish as follows: “When I talk to my people, they talk about themselves as if they are under assault. It is as if they are in a kind of war. Here are people who have got the tools, skills, education, and intelligence to compete well in American culture. But when you talk to them about their children, their marriages, their jobs, it’s like talking to people in combat. They tell me, in so many words, that their [communities’] values have broken down and they don’t know what to do about it.They come to church, not because it’s the ‘thing to do’... They come to church out of desperation.”
We expect people to take desperate defensive measures in lock down drills, in terrorist raids, in shoot-outs. When people are under attack, they resort to extreme measures. In an instant, they fall prone onto muddy ground. They burrow into foxholes. They huddle in shelters. They pile rubble into barricades. They position their bodies as human shields to protect children against bullets.
People under attack take desperate measures to defend themselves, but some of us may not appreciate that for some followers of Jesus coming to worship is a genuinely desperate act. We are especially surprised to hear that such Christians live across Long Island Sound. We expect Christians who are persecuted for their faith in countries such as Sudan, Iran, or Libya, to come to church out of desperation for refuge, but we hardly expect Christians on Long Island to describe their church attendance as a desperate act.
We may not sense how desperate their behavior is because we do not realize how much they sense they are under attack. We may not sense how desperately vital coming to worship is because we do not realize how much we are under attack.
We mistakenly think that being a Christian means being nice. That mentality accounts for why one person proposed, in jest, omitting a long-standing Prayer for Enemies from new editions of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. The prayer reads:
"O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."
The person proposed omitting the prayer because, “Episcopalians are now so nice that we no longer make enemies.” We could as easily say the same about members of the United Church of Christ, or Presbyterians or Methodists.
For good reasons this room is called a sanctuary. It is a safe haven from the battle, a refuge from the struggles against injustice, violence, and deceit that threaten some of us at work, some at home, some in our own psyches. This is a place for Christians, who like those anonymous Christians on Long Island, are desperate enough to want God to defend them and dispirited enough to need God to inspire them.
For those besieged Christians on Long Island, being part of a church is not a leisurely Sunday morning alternative activity when they have nothing more pressing to do, but a struggle to keep one’s head together and one’s heart in tune with God. Sounding quite similar to those Christians on Long Island, the apostle Paul described what it meant to be a Christian in terms of a fight, in terms of a battle.
At the conclusion of his letter to the Christians in Ephesus, Paul challenged Christians to prepare for battle: “Put on the whole armor of God" Paul wrote, "for we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against...the spiritual hosts of wickedness...therefore...gird your waist with truth...put on the breastplate of righteousness...shod your feet with the gospel of peace...take the shield of faith...the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit.” (Ephesians 6:10-20)
Followers of Jesus are to be on alert, on guard, to resist the crafty tactics of all wicked powers, not only at large in the world, but also alive and well in your office and streaming live on our television sets. Christians are to arm for a fight as thoroughly as an ancient Roman infantry soldier was geared for combat. A leather belt or apron, akin to what weightlifters wear, braced the soldier for action. A metal breastplate protected the soldier’s chest and vital organs from injury. Proper footwear enabled one to march quickly or stand firm. A large shield made of wood with a thick coating of leather offered protection, even against archers’ burning arrows. A bronze helmet shielded the soldier’s head. A short sword was a vital weapon in hand-to-hand combat. These pieces of armor were largely needed for defending one's self, not for attacking.
The challenge for the Christian was, and is still, not chiefly to press forward, attack and kill, but to stand, to hold one’s ground against the assault of the enemy. These military weapons God dispensed were notintended for Christians to crusade against the Muslims, or stage Inquisitions against the Jews. The weapons that were dispensed by God are for defense, not against human foes with assault rifles and suicide bombs, but against spiritual foes that threaten to undo us and overthrow all that Jesus achieved.
We may not be familiar with the terrors and scenes of such immortal combat, but the early Christians in Ephesus knew such threats firsthand. The city was the chief cultic site for the worship of Artemis, the goddess of the underworld who was extolled as the supreme cosmic power able to raise the dead, to heal the sick, and to safeguard regional security. The region was also the center for numerous astrological and magical practices.
Common people had an extraordinary fear of these hostile “spiritual" powers. Local astrologists, mediums, and magicians offered relief from the oppression of invisible, evil “spirits” by securing contact with departed spirits or haunting ghosts. When people decided to follow Jesus, they faced a dilemma. Was Jesus strong enough to protect them without resorting to the deep, dark magical powers? Is Jesus still strong enough to protect us without resorting to drugs, or drink, or dropping out?
Paul considered the consultation of mediums and any forms of spirits to be an affront, an insult to Christ. To ward off the spirits one did not need magic, instead one needed virtues, or armor, in keeping with God’s character, in keeping with truth, peace, and faithfulness.
Christians at Ephesus realized that they were in for a fight as long as they sought to live out God’s values in their society. The culture around them was not compatible with their newfound Christian convictions. Their culture promoted indulgence, greed, cheating, violence, and lust. The society around them sounds much like ours. Paul warned the Christians in Ephesus not to go out on the streets unarmed. It is tough out there.
William Willimon, while chaplain of Duke University, was invited to preach at an inner city congregation. The congregation was entirely Afro-Americans who lived in tenement houses within a few blocks of the church. Willimon arrived at eleven o’clock, expecting to participate in about an hour worship service. Before the preaching, there were six hymns and numerous gospel songs, a great deal of hand clapping, testifying, and praying. He did not mount the pulpit to preach until nearly twelve-thirty. The service did not end until nearly one hour later.
“Why do these people stay in church so long?” Willimon later asked his friend. “Worship in my home church never lasts much more than one hour.”
The pastor smiled. Then he explained. “Unemployment runs nearly fifty percent here. For our youth, the unemployment rate is much higher. That means that, when our people go about during the week, everything they see, everything they hear tells them, ‘You are a failure. You are nobody. You are nothing because you do not have a good job, you do not have a fine car, you have no money.’”
“So I must gather them here, once a week, and get their heads straight. I get them together, here in the sanctuary, and through the hymns, the prayers, the preaching I say 'That is a lie. You are somebody. You are royalty! God has bought you with a price and loves you as his Chosen People'”
“It takes me so long to get them straight in here because the world out there perverts them so terribly."
Genuine followers of Jesus--whether in the ancient city of Ephesus or in suburban Long Island, whether in Stamford or in Bridgeport--genuine Christians are under attack. The assault is recurrent, calling into question integrity, sobriety, loyalty, and even sanity. The accusations, whether spoken aloud in our faces or quietly in our hearts, tell us, “You are a failure. You are a nobody. Your life, your family, your reputation, is a shambles. You ought to be ashamed. And you dare call yourself a Christian?”
When the hurts and hurries we carry crowd out Christ, the world around us is winning the war. Sadly, we don’t even realize sometimes that we are in danger.
The forces behind these lies have declared war on Christ and his ways. Why else would they have been so angry with him that they killed him? Because he was such a nice guy? Or because he was such a threat? This war continues, sometimes in ways so subtle that we do not know we are losing until the battle is over. Even worse, sometimes we do not even notice that we are at war.
For those desperate for a safe haven from the battle out there, there is a sanctuary in here. Here is a compelling reason to come to church, not because it is the thing to do, nor because there is nothing better to do on Sunday morning. Come to church out of desperation, desperately needing a higher power to shield and defend you before going back out into the fray. Why else do you think they call this room a sanctuary?
Watch out when you go out there! Get ready for a fight.