May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
This past Monday there was an article in the Columbus Dispatch entitled, “Religion is best for lasting joy, study suggests.” According to the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers at the London School of Economics and the Erasmus University Medical Center in the Netherlands have found that the secret to sustained happiness lies in participation in religion. I am not sure what kinds of measurable factors determined the results that they came to, but they evidently looked at four areas: volunteering or working with a charity, participating in religious organizations, taking educational courses, and participating in a community or political organization. Of these four, only the participation in a religious organization produced sustained happiness. In some ways it confirms what many of us believe about the importance of being part of a community of faith, and encourages us as we invite others to be congregational family members; but in other ways, the scientific explanation behind the findings of this study only reinforces the misunderstanding that still exists between the spiritual aspects of life and the physical, flesh and blood aspects of earthly life.
n quoting Mauricio Avendano, an epidemiologist at the London school and the author of the study, the article says, “The church appears to play a very important social role in keeping depression at bay and also as a coping mechanism during periods of illness later in life. It is not clear to us how much this is about religion per se, or whether it may be about the sense of belonging and not being socially isolated.” This explanation from a scientifically trained researcher who is delving into the realm of the spiritual is evidence to me that there is an ever widening gap between the secular world where truth depends on logic and empirical evidence, and the spiritual world where there is a sense of mystery to life based on the fact that our God doesn't always work in logical, empirically measurable ways!
All three of our readings work well together as we consider the question of what it looks like for each one of us to be disciples in our everyday lives. As the author of the letter to the Ephesians comes near to the end of his letter, he reminds them that the struggle is not necessarily about enemies of blood and flesh – those things that threaten our health, government, finances, etc. Behind every little challenge that we face each day in our flesh and blood world is the reality that there is simultaneously a spiritual battle going on between God and the forces of evil. The strange, mysterious words describing the real struggle against cosmic powers, present darkness and the forces of evil in the heavenly places are not intended to scare us, but to remind us that the spiritual realm overlaps with the physical realm of life, and the most factor in facing the trials that disciples face every day is to become spiritually healthy, grounded in prayer and God's word. Now, that doesn't mean that you don't go to the doctor when you notice a rash or chest pains or something like that. It doesn't mean that you avoid your financial planner, or that you stop voting or getting involved in political and social causes that you believe in. It does mean that in all of these aspects of our physical life we recognize a battle going on behind them, and that we know that even though there may be victories and defeats in all of those realms, the spiritual battle goes on and God has promised to win that battle and restore everything to perfect peace and joy in Jesus Christ our Lord.
One of the books from the last ten weeks that had a lot of impact on me personally is called, “Falling Upwards,” written by a Franciscan monk named Richard Rohr. The premise of the book is this: In the first half of our lives, we are naturally and rightly preoccupied with establishing our physical identity – climbing, achieving and performing. But those concerns will not serve us as we grow older and begin to embark on a further journey, one that involves challenges, mistakes, loss of control, broader horizons, and necessary suffering that actually shocks us out of our prior comfort zone. Eventually, we need to see ourselves in a different and more life-giving way.
This message of "falling down"—that is in fact moving upward—is the most resisted and counterintuitive of messages in the world's religions, including and most especially Christianity. Drawing on the wisdom from time-honored myths, heroic poems, great thinkers, and sacred religious texts, Richard Rohr offers a new paradigm for understanding one of the most profound of life's mysteries: how the heartbreaks, disappointments, and first loves of life are actually stepping stones to the spiritual joys that the second half of life has in store for us.
In comparing this with our texts this morning, the disappointments and losses of life are not signs that the spiritual battle isn't going well in the heavenly places! As a matter of fact, these are opportunities for us to grow in our relationship with God, and as a result live more joyful, meaningful lives as a result. This brings me back to why I think that the results of that scientific study came out the way they did – it has nothing to do with the social aspects of religious organizations, except that those times for social activity grow out of our participation in the spiritual realm. The reason for the results from my perspective is that the primary reason for being the church is to share the spiritual in the midst of the physical. to hear God's Word and to share spiritual food and drink, which feeds us deeply in order that we might live more meaningfully during our earthly life, looking forward to the fulfillment of our spiritual life one day in the Church Triumphant.
As a result, we join Joshua and the Israelites from our first lesson in responding to the news of God's victories in the spiritual and physical realm by professing, “As for us and our households, we will serve the Lord! And we join Jesus' disciples – the ones who did not hear the hard sayings about spiritual food and drink and run away – and we stand up to the criticisms that come from those who do not understand all of this, and we echo Peter's words, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life! We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God.”
This day is about commitment and about making a choice to enter into the battle which is both on the physical and the spiritual level. Yesterday when I dropped one of the bags at a local business on High Street for next week's hunger walk, and explained to the young man what we were doing, he said that he is part of another community of faith in the area, then he said these words, “…so we are both part of the same battle.” I didn't think about that until I came back to the church to finish this sermon. We are about to sing a hymn that is not in the latest Lutheran hymnal called, “Onward Christian Soldiers.” It is not in the hymnal because some people find its images of war and battle offensive. We are, after all, people of peace! But I argue that many of the things that are of peace in the physical world help win the battle on the spiritual side of things. That store clerk was so right - we are part of the same battle with other Christians! We have this armor that isn't made up of bronze or steel, leather or other heavy metals. It is made up of things like truth, righteousness, the gospel of peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit and the word of God. Onward Christian soldiers, marching AS TO war – this is not a literal war, it is a metaphor. It involves worship – where we hear and remember God's mighty deeds. It involves prayer and it involves reading God's Word. And today we hear how it involves making a conscious decision to follow Jesus, recognizing our spiritual growth whenever we engage in the battle against poverty, greed or whatever. It also involves recognizing that even when we fail in the world's eyes, we are being made stronger in God's eyes.
Thank you all for your kind welcoming words to my family and me this morning – I am excited to be back, and to join with all of you as we engage in the spiritual battle to which we have been called. All of us – and even Connor and Addison – move from this place to grow in grace, peace and joy as we and our households serve the Lord. Amen.