Earlier this month, my husband Dave and I went on vacation and drove to Washington State so we could visit Holden Village, a Lutheran retreat center in the Cascade Mountains of Washington. Since we were driving, there was plenty of room for luggage, and since Dave wears a size 16 shoe, we took an extra bag just for shoes.
Hiking is one of our favorite things to do at Holden, so, of course, we took our hiking boots along. They’re particularly helpful on uneven ground and slippery rocks.
On Friday of our week at Holden, it was our chance to go hiking. We packed a lunch, loaded up the backpack, and laced up our hiking boots. Our destination was Holden Lake, a lovely glacier-fed lake about four-and-a-half miles from the Village. In order to get there, we would ford three or four streams, tromp through forests and avalanche shoots, traverse several switchbacks, and climb some 2,000 feet.
Wouldn’t you know, about three miles into the hike after crossing the second stream, Dave encountered a problem with his boot: the back 2/3 of his sole delaminated, and the rubber bottom that protected his feet hung on by a thread, so to speak. Would it last through the hike? Should we turn around and head back or risk it and continue on? We found an elastic strap on the backpack that could be jerry-rigged to hold the boots together, at least for a while.
We continued on through the forest and crossed another stream, only to have the second boot become unglued as well. Would I be hiking down alone to bring back a spare pair of tennis shoes, I wondered? The backpack had one more elastic strap, so Dave repurposed that for his second boot, as well. And we crossed our fingers that that would be enough to get him through the whole hike. (By the way, we have since discovered that seasoned hikers often pack duct tape!)
Coincidentally, my colleagues Ben and Chris were beginning a new sermon series that Sunday called, “Sturdy Shoes.” We’ve been reading the Book of Ephesians together this month, and today is the fourth and final week in that series. The Apostle Paul (or perhaps one of his followers) wrote this lovely letter to the early church as a word of encouragement, because it’s hard to live as followers of Jesus.
This journey of life is long, and there are some tough climbs and deep descents. There’s uncertainty about what lies around the next bend. And so sturdy shoes are essential to putting one foot in front of the other. Sturdy shoes provide support to help you move beyond the familiar and to stand with confidence, grounded in a new identity. A good pair of shoes can help you weather the storms as you follow your call. The book of Ephesians is just such a tool, something that equips us for the journey.
It’s not easy to live as followers of Jesus because it runs contrary to so much of what the world tells us, and it even differs from what we think our faith has told us. “Live a good life, and then you’ll go to heaven,” is how we tend to think it works. But the Book of Ephesians gives us different footing. “For by grace you have been saved through faith,” Ephesians 2 says, “and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” No, it’s not dependent on who we are or what we have done but on whose we are. Period. There is nothing we can do to make God love us any more or any less. Each one of us is a beloved child of God – made in God’s image and redeemed in Christ Jesus. And already, that is where it gets tough because we live in a world where we keep score. We have a hard time not thinking that some of us are a little more deserving or maybe born lucky, entitled to the life that we have, especially if our life is comfortable. But Ephesians makes it clear, in Christ Jesus, the walls that separate us from God and each other are broken down, the barrier that divides is destroyed, and peace comes through Christ.
These words written so long ago speak to us today, too, because we know the fear that divides us from others, both those close to us and those who are different from us. This month of July has been especially intense – racially inspired gun violence, shootings by police and of police, shooting of black men and by black men, political posturing. We still long for the realization of the peace that Christ brings.
The first half of Ephesians talks about what God has done for us and through whom, and the second half talks about “so what?” What does that mean for us, and how will we live in response?
Last week, we heard Paul say, “Live a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called,” Paul says. “Be humble and gentle, patient, and bear with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” Practice these things so that you might grow in faith and that your life might look like what we see in Jesus. “Practice,” we said last week.
And so we come to today, and we have this rather startling text: “Put on the full armor of God so that you might be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.” We don’t know quite what to make of the military imagery and the talk about cosmic powers of darkness and spiritual forces of evil. Paul uses the language and concepts of his time to express the sense of vulnerability that we have toward forces that are beyond our control.
We know that feeling today, too. There are things that defy God – things that challenge God’s way in the world. Racism and sectarianism, hunger and poverty, human trafficking, war, addiction, abuse, violence – all these things are contrary God. All these things separate us from what God has intended for us – for individuals, for humanity. We feel powerless against them.
Paul is in prison when he writes this letter, so we imagine that he looks at a Roman guard and sees the implements that he wears, and he remembers words from Isaiah as he articulates a metaphor for the life of faith:
- Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.
- Put righteousness, goodness, justice close to the heart.
- As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
- Take the shield of faith; put your trust in God. Find your security and your hope in God.
- Speak the truth. And pray.
Paul is talking about here is something well beyond our capability. He’s not calling us to roll up our sleeves and work harder, he’s not calling us to pick ourselves up by the bootstraps and do it on our own. He’s saying there’s something outside us that equips us to weather the storm, to stand firm when forces are beyond our control.
Eight years ago, CNN did a documentary featuring survivors of the genocide that took place in Rwanda in 1994. Over a hundred days’ time, Hutu extremists killed between 800,000 and 1,000,000 people, most of them from the Tutsi tribe.
As the story begins, a Tutsi woman named Iphigenia sits in front of her house weaving baskets with a friend. During the genocide fourteen years earlier, Iphigenia’s husband and five children were clubbed and hacked to death by a mob of Hutus. One of her neighbors, Jean-Bosco, was part of the mob – that’s right, her neighbor. Iphigenia did not speak to him or his wife for four years…not surprisingly.
Jean-Bosco, the neighbor, spent seven years in prison, and then he went before a tribal court, where he asked for forgiveness from Iphigenia and the whole community. Somehow, Iphigenia found it in her heart to forgive her neighbor.
Iphigenia is a master weaver, and since the massacre, she has taught women from both tribes in the village to weave – including the wife of the man who participated in the murder of her family. Iphigenia not only taught Jean-Bosco’s wife how to weave baskets; they became friends, and they’re now business partners.
On the day that CNN filmed this story, Iphigenia invited these neighbors to her home for dinner. Yes, she was serving dinner to the man who killed her husband and children. When the interviewer asked how she found it in her heart to forgive, Iphigenia said simply, “I am a Christian, and I pray a lot.”
This kind of love and forgiveness would be inconceivable if left to our human resources. It’s possible for her to forgive, however, because of the one who loves us fully and completely – even to the cross and grave and back.”
“Put on the full armor of God,” Paul says. “As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
There’s no promise that seeking the path of peace will be easy. We might encounter significant impediments that make walking the path difficult – even a delaminated sole on our hiking boots. The power to persevere comes from outside us; it is the gift of God, nurtured by prayer.
We’re coming to the end of our time with the book of Ephesians. If you haven’t spent time with it on your own, I encourage you to do that this week; you can read the whole thing in less than an hour.
There are several prayers woven throughout the book of Ephesians, and I’d like to read one now. Please receive it as a blessing:
“I pray that out of his glorious riches God may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Amen.