The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 7/13/97
Text: Eph. 6:10-17
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

There is a book in my library called In Search of Excellence.(1) You may very well have read it - it sold about a zillion copies. It was published a few years ago by two business consultants, Tom Peters and Bob Waterman, in response to the perception that American industry was in serious decline, losing out to foreign competition, and that something had to be done to reverse that trend. In preparing for publication, the authors visited a number of our nation's most successful companies. They talked to both labor and management to find out what these organizations were thinking and doing to make them the industrial giants they had become. After much analysis and reflection, the book was published and eventually made #1 on the best-seller lists.

I mention it here because of this summer season in which we currently swelter. Vacation time. A time for R & R. A time to recharge our batteries in the middle of the year to give us the "juice" to keep on keeping on. Summer can be a productive time of self-examination, a relaxed period to reflect on where we have been and perhaps refine a direction for the future. Just as Peters and Waterman looked closely at American business and then pondered on what they saw, you and I can take some time this summer to do the same on a personal level, and in the context of our Christian commitment, an expressly spiritual level.

To be honest, a long, close look in a mirror is not very appealing to me - I see too many things WRONG...physically AND spiritually. I would only get depressed. I need something to lift me up rather than pull me down. Like any other fly, I am attracted more by honey than vinegar. Perhaps the Peters and Waterman approach might be helpful: focus on the things that make for excellence and use them as a challenge for improvement. This year, I propose that we use these weeks in the summer together as a chance to pursue SPIRITUAL excellence for ourselves and our church.

Our epistle lesson provides a point of departure, the Apostle Paul's brief collection of metaphors describing what Christians need to successfully withstand all the forces that would bring us down. He calls it the armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit. Over the next several weeks, Lord willing, we will consider each of these pieces of equipment. We have to, because if our search is for spiritual excellence, Paul's message is that we need all of it...the WHOLE armor of God.

Before we begin, a word about Paul's descriptive language. Just before he talks about this equipment Christians need to fight the good fight, he talks about our adversaries...rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of this present darkness, spiritual forces of evil. Paul was convinced that evil was not merely something perpetrated by nasty individuals. That is a concept that modern minds tend to view as outmoded - since the Renaissance, we think of evil as the free choice of hardened hearts, not some external force. We no longer accept excuses like "the devil made me do it." But I wonder if our 20th-century minds therefore miss something that Paul and his contemporaries understood better: that evil DOES exist in the world as a power outside of ourselves and beyond the control of men and women of good will.

For example, do you think it is evil that little children in America will sleep on sidewalks or in doorways tonight because they have no home? Of course it is. Whose fault is it? Some Simon LaGree-type building owner who refuses them a decent room? Or is it the fault of a system that sees its priorities as bombs before beds. Do you think it is evil to have teenagers make a better living selling drugs in the schoolyard than selling hamburgers at McDonald's? I do. Whose fault is it? Abominable drug dealers who pay too much...or upstanding employers who pay too little? There is a system here. Do you think it is evil to allow sick people to go without available medical treatment or nursing home care when it is needed? Certainly it is. But treatment and care cost money. Is it the mean and greedy health care providers' fault that some folks die without proper attention? Or is it the system which loves words like "Read My Lips - No New Taxes" and then has no money to fund humanitarian concerns? My point is that there is evil out there that is beyond the capacity of you or me to correct. Paul understood that...probably better than we do.

So how do we cope with it, and in the process move toward spiritual excellence? Paul says prepare yourself; put on the armor...because life is more battleground than playground.

First, the belt...the "girdle" for you who hark back to the old King James Version term...that which holds things together. The belt of truth. Now, we might be tempted to shrug that off as something that goes without saying. Little children are taught to be truthful as soon as they are old enough to understand. We punish them when they lie to us. We tell them the story of the little boy who cried WOLF. Our system of justice is based on "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Why would Paul say something so obvious?

Part of the answer is that the truth is often difficult to come by. The temptation is to echo the question Pontius Pilate posed to Jesus, "What is truth?" Sometimes it is hard to know. As Oscar Wilde commented, "The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple."(2)

I recall the story of an art dealer who was trying to sell some Gothic tapestries to J. P. Morgan. One morning, at about 3:00 AM, the dealer awakened his wife and said, "Quickly, say `I'll give you a million dollars for those tapestries.'" She could see no sense in that. She was not interested in making any purchase, and she did not have a million dollars anyway. But he persisted: "Just SAY it, please." So she did, and the next day, the dealer marched into Morgan's office and proclaimed, "I can swear on a stack of Bibles that at 3 o'clock this morning I had an offer of a million dollars for those tapestries."(3) Rarely pure and never simple.

Sometimes people do not want the truth - it can be more of a challenge than they wish to have. In a former church, one of my Session members was Principal in a local high school. One night, the conversation at the Session meeting turned to newspaper accounts of a growing incidence of drug abuse among the young people in the community. The Principal said in all seriousness and with great conviction, "We don't have any problem with drugs in our school. We told our kids several years ago that if we caught them with drugs, they would be in trouble, and we have never had any difficulty since." Several other Session members whose children attended that school looked at the man in amazement, holding their laughter at the absurdity of his claim only because they could see he really believed it. But they knew the truth - their own youngsters had been coming home with stories of drugs being bought and sold in the locker rooms, the cafeteria, the schoolyard. No one in the room could imagine that this school Principal could be so naive. He did not want the truth, because to know the truth would have forced him to take action.

Some people do not want the truth because it is too painful. As some wag has said, "If tombstones told the truth, everyone would want to be buried at sea." In thinking about Socrates' ancient phrase, "Know thyself," Goethe responded, "If I knew myself, I would run away." How many times have you seen the drama of the hospital waiting room played out between the doctor and the family of the dying patient - "Let's not tell him just now." The truth can sometimes deeply hurt.

It has not been that long ago that we sat mesmerized in front of our TV sets as O. J. Simpson was tried for the vicious stabbing deaths of his wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. "The truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God." For months the testimony dragged on and on and on. Evidence was piled on evidence - blood, hair, fibers, DNA, even an eerily barking dog. We all know how it came out, but do you remember the day the verdict was read? America was on "hold" as we all dropped what we were doing to hear the decision. Not guilty. A surprise to me.

But even more of a surprise was the reaction to the verdict around the country. The vast majority of white people were convinced that O. J. had literally gotten away with murder. But the majority of black people thought that, amazingly, justice was done. The system had actually worked. I was shocked. Then when the civil trial was over, when this time O. J. was found liable for the deaths to the tune of $33-million, the reaction was the opposite: white folks found that appealing, black folks found it appalling. I had no idea that such a deep divide still existed between the races in this country.

A few weeks ago I was asked to come to a meeting with some of Greensboro's African-American clergy. They were concerned about the actions of the Guilford County Council (and who is NOT), and in particular, the dismissal of two officials from the Department of Social Services - they wanted something done. In my estimation, the firings were nothing more than the blatantly and embarrassingly partisan political behavior that lately has been typical of our Commissioners - one more sad chapter in an increasingly odious administration story. That was NOT the view of my black colleagues - they were convinced that the firings were racially motivated. How could we who think so much alike in so many other areas come to such a different conclusion on this issue?

This past week, the Nevada State Athletic Commission fined Mike Tyson $3-million and banned him from the boxing ring for a year in response to his awful conduct in the Heavyweight Championship fight with Evander Holyfield. A heavy penalty, the maximum that the law allowed. Deserved? I was intrigued to hear people's responses to the question. Most thought so. But some black folks expressed the conviction that the only reason Tyson was punished so severely was that he was black. I heard no white person suggest such a thing. Why the difference?

After all the work that has been done to heal the divisions of racial hatred, after all the progress that has been made in establishing equal opportunity in housing, employment, education, politics, virtually every sphere of life, is racism still such a problem? Apparently.

Is that the truth about our home, this place that only a few years ago we wanted to call "a kinder, gentler America?" It is...and for someone who loves this country and has worked to so little avail to overcome those divisions, it is painful.

The truth may be hard to come by, it can be challenging, it can hurt. But a search for spiritual excellence cannot avoid a prior commitment to the truth. Over 200 years ago, our Presbyterian forebears recognized that as they drew up the covenants which led to the formation our denomination. Even today their words are included in our Book of Order. They wrote:

Truth is in order to [or comes before] goodness... we are persuaded that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth or to embrace it.(4)
Until we know the truth, we cannot begin to act properly, intelligently, or faithfully. The breastplate of righteousness without truth can make us bigots. Without truth, the shoes of peace can make us wimps. The shield of faith without truth can make us foolhardy. Without truth the helmet of salvation can turn us into idle dreamers. Without truth, the sword of the Spirit (the Bible) can turn into a bludgeon. Truth DOES precede goodness.

What then is this truth the Apostle would have us use for a belt? With all those rulers and authorities, cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil out there, those huddled hungry children, those who cannot make a decent living honestly, those who lie ignored on beds of pain, and all the rest that is wrong in this frightened and frightening world, what is the belt of truth to help us hold things together?

One very familiar verse jumps to mind: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life." God loves us. Those are more than words of comfort; those are words that empower, that get us through all the muck and misery that are part and parcel of human existence. God loves us.

Does love really hold things together? Oh, yes. Once upon a time, a sweet lady whom I know well married a young man with whom I am also more than passingly acquainted who would one day become a minister. Through all the ups and downs of the seminary years, the challenges of small congregations in unfamiliar rural settings, the discouragements that come with wondering whether or not his words were falling on deaf ears, her love kept him going. As he moved on into the demands of larger parish settings, many more hours were required for hospitals, weddings, funerals, meetings; fewer and fewer were available for him to watch their children grow. Even with all that, word would come that this one or that one was dissatisfied about one thing or another and feeling neglected and angry...mostly at him. There was more wondering about deaf ears. There were times when he was utterly exhausted and felt at absolute bottom. But he would come home, know that he could share even his deepest hurts with this special lady and be rejuvenated by her care, compassion, and concern. He would never have been able to do it without her. Once again, he would be ready to meet the challenges. Why? The truth that held him together was that she loved him, and I love her, and that was all it took.

The belt of truth, that which holds it all together and empowers us for faithful and useful discipleship - God loves this world, and gave Jesus to redeem it, to die the death of the cross for it. Not only you and me and the "good folk" just like us, but those babies in the street, the kids making a living pushing dope, the aging poor confined to soiled beds in ramshackle homes. "Red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in his sight." That is the truth. Is it YOUR truth? That is the question the mirror of summer calls you to answer. Your search for spiritual excellence starts with that truth. It will keep you going with that truth. And one day, when you meet the Lord in glory, it will end in that truth.

Let us pray.

O God, we confess that a search for truth is rarely high on our spiritual agenda. We are grateful for those dedicated men and women who taught us the ultimate truth through the years. Help us to take that truth as a challenge to faithful discipleship. For we pray it in the name of the one who loved us and gave himself for us, your son, our Savior. Amen!

1. New York: Harper & Row, 1982

2. Correct Quotes, diskette, WordStar International Incorporated, Copyright © 1990-92

3. Jacob Braude, Braude's Treasury of Wit and Humor, (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964), p. 215

4. G-1.0304

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