“Is Life a Battlefield?”
by the Reverend Doctor Peter W. Allen
Hingham Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
August 23, 2015
When I was in fourth grade, I was in our local grocery store, helping my mom shop, and I saw my schoolteacher in one of the aisles. Without a thought, I walked up to her and asked, What are you doing here? She looked at me funny and said, I’m buying food, just like you!
And in that moment, it hit me: My teacher was a person who needed to eat in order to live. She was not just someone who played a role in my life; she had her own life as well.
In a different way, when I left home for college, I came to understand that the perspective and experience of, for example, African Americans in our country, was vastly different from mine. Even though they, too, went to the grocery store and brushed their teeth, just like I did, they (for the most part) grew up in a very different America than I did as a white person of privilege.
When we are young, before we become conscious, before we understand ourselves as individuals in a very diverse world full of other individuals, we think that our experience is the only experience, that our problems are the only problems, that our desires are the only desires. We think that we are the center of the universe and everyone else exists to make our lives good.
And when the truth is revealed to us – that our parents and teachers and doctors, that the store clerks and waiters and other “role players” in our lives are actually human beings with their own stories and their own challenges – it’s then that we begin to be able to understand more fully what it is to be human.
When we refuse to acknowledge different realities and different stories, we blind ourselves to the truth and we create barriers between ourselves and others. When we do recognize differences, we create openings and opportunities for connection.
As a church, this is a very important idea.
For example, even though I am a pastor, as an air breathing, grocery store frequenting human being, I have my own spiritual needs. And yet, as a member of our church family and as your leader, it is critical that I acknowledge the fact that your spiritual needs may be very different from mine.
I often imagine myself as someone on a long journey, sometimes focused and purposeful, sometimes a little wandering. And on this journey, I am searching for safety and connection and meaning. So, for me, God is Home and the church is a vehicle to get us there.
Many of you might share that same primary yearning for God as Home, but not all of you. If I am to be an empathetic and effective pastor, and if we want to be a strong and loving community, it’s important for us to listen to and understand each other’s thirsts and desires and not just assume that they are the same as our own.
A few years ago, I discovered a theologian named Paul Jones, on whom I lean heavily in this sermon. His book, Theological Worlds, has become a guide for me as I have sought to understand where people are coming from in terms of their basic spiritual concerns and what role the church might play in addressing their needs.
For me, God is Home, in whom I find acceptance and stability and a source of creativity. But for some of you, God is the Great Liberator, the one who will finally bring justice to a world that is fundamentally unfair. Those of you who live in this theological world may have experienced prejudice yourselves or are deeply troubled by the inequities that you witness in the media or in your daily life.
As I’ve observed the Black Lives Matter movement take shape and gain momentum, I have begun to understand much more clearly why many see God as the One who will ultimately bring justice.
Some experience life as a theater of right and wrong, where judgment and forgiveness are the main dynamics. Residents of this world are acutely aware of their own and others’ sins and shortcomings. God’s role is one of Judge or Gracious Forgiver.
Others of you might feel alienated from the people around you. No matter where you go, you don’t seem to belong. Maybe you were bullied as a kid. Maybe there is something about you that separates you from others. In your isolation, you look to God as the Key that unlocks the door to belonging and connection and meaningful relationships.
Others of you are so used to living with pain, illness, loss, and disappointment, that the primary role of God in your life is as the One who provides the strength to endure. When suffering is all we know, God is an Anchor or a Soothing Balm.
Do you recognize yourself in any of these descriptions? Which ones?
In this morning’s reading from Ephesians, Paul writes about putting on the whole armor of God, which is a metaphor for faith. When we put on faith, faith in the God of Jesus Christ, we have all we need to gain victory over the forces of sin and evil, mostly within ourselves but also in the world around us, according to Paul.
In this world, evil looms large. We can see this point of view represented in the Psalms, where the author often writes about being surrounded by enemies.
Do you feel like that sometimes… or most of the time? Do you feel as though your life has been one long battle against people or forces or systems that are seeking to defeat you?
It’s not surprising that Paul was a resident of this theological world or that he chose this image of the armor of God. All around him, it seems, people in power were constantly questioning, attacking, and imprisoning him. And yet he saw his primary foes not as individuals, but as what he calls, spiritual forces of evil, which are much more difficult to define, but were very real to him.
Paul saw God as his Sure Defender, as the one who would not only protect him against violence and rejection and imprisonment, but who would help him to reach his goal of spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ and establishing churches.
Many of us live lives characterized by relative comfort and success. We may not relate to this idea of having to defend ourselves against a threatening enemy.
And yet many wage an internal battle with addiction every day. Others battle depression. Some fight unfairness in our legal system and many speak up against bigotry with whatever voice they have, no matter who is listening or what it costs them.
It is important for those of us who populate other theological worlds to try to understand those who are engaged in these internal and external struggles. Part of loving our neighbors as ourselves means listening, trying our best to understand, and offering what support we can for their fight.
As we continue to build a loving community of faith here at HCC, no matter what theological world is our home, let’s be sure to share our own stories and points of view so that others will be able to understand us — and vice versa.
When we are able to look beyond our own concerns, our own worlds, and see that there are other worlds right here in our own church, we begin to fulfill our call to be the presence of God for one another. When we seek understanding, we lay the foundation for a better world — the world of which Jesus dreamed, and for which he died, and for which he lives within us to bring to reality.