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O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. Amen.

“Pray for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the Gospel.” Paul’s words are an elegant expression of my reaction when I was asked to preach this morning. And because one can never be too careful, if any of you wish to offer up a quick prayer, I’ll give you a moment.

We’ve had a journey during this pandemic. We’re still on that journey, really. We’re traveling together, even though physically we have been apart. At this time, we are fortunate – many of us are able to gather in this building to pray together. And we are doubly fortunate that we have the ability, through technology, to be together while distant.

Let’s take a moment to compare our ability to communicate to what Paul had at his disposal. Writing a letter takes as much time as it always did – perhaps a little less if you are a good touch-typist or have a nimble scribe at your disposal – but the process of composing your words with care is the same. Starting about twenty years ago, we could send a letter like Paul’s around the globe with a few keystrokes and a click of the mouse. Go forty years back, and your quickest method would likely be a phone call and sharing information that way. A hundred years? Just as Paul did, you’re sending a physical letter. The postal service probably got it there a little faster, at least. But while our ability to communicate is faster, and has undoubtedly helped us stay connected during pandemic, just like Paul many of us may have felt, and may still feel, that we are in chains. Those chains might be our inability to leave our homes safely. They might have held us back from embracing loved ones. They might be the necessity to work in a front-line job, risking exposure to the virus. We all of us may have wished, when we need to go out, for armor to wear.

Paul and his audience would of course be quite familiar with armor. The Roman conquerors of his day would be girded in breastplate and helmet, shield in hand and sword belted on. Indeed, Paul likely saw many such guards outside his door during his enforced stay in Rome. But interestingly, the armor Paul exhorts Christ’s servants to put on is not physical. They were – and we are – reminded that our struggle is not against enemies of the flesh, but rather against the forces of evil. We are called upon to mantle ourselves with truth, righteousness, faith, and salvation. And the focus of the text is on protection – on defense. The only weapon mentioned is the Holy Spirit. At all times, with every prayer, we are to wield the Spirit. And one cannot just go to the armory to collect a spirit – the Spirit must be invited. Last week Keith reminded that we must find a quiet place and look to the heavens and ask what we are to learn. When we do that, we invite the Spirit into ourselves. When we invite the Spirit into ourselves, we are empowered to carry that lesson with us. We cannot strike a blow to force that lesson into another, but we can share what we have learned and hope they take it to heart.

When we carry the Spirit with us, we are emboldened to spread the Word, to speak out against oppression, against inequity, against racism and sexism and all the other -isms which have their root in what the armor of God will protect us against – fear. Fear that someone else might want what I have, that then there might be less for me, so I’d better keep them down however I can. We see that fear in unjust laws, passed by whites, which preventing people of color from having equal opportunities for employment, for education, for homes. We see that fear in male employers paying women less for the same work that men are doing. We see that fear in healthy people in our nation seeking a third dose of the COVID vaccine while many in less affluent nations have yet to even receive their first shot.

But we are called to put aside our fear. Jesus doesn’t ask us to do the easy thing. Jesus’ teachings always challenge us. It is perhaps heartening to realize that the disciples were people, too. They were presented with a difficult teaching, and just like we might when we face a difficult task, they complained. I know I’m no better, when presented with two weeks of tasks to accomplish, which my employer of course wants in one week. But after we complain, when we know it’s something we should do, we can get down to work. And our work is to be brave enough to love our neighbor, to strive to help them the same way we would help ourselves, our family, our friends. We must remember that our neighbor isn’t just the person next door, or in the cul-de-sac, or down the block. Our neighbor, our sibling in Christ, might be in the next pew or they might be in the next town. With the advantage of rapid communication which we enjoy today, our neighbor might be anywhere on the globe.

I am more aware of that now than ever, due to working with Jenny (who is controlling the vertical and horizontal today) and others on our media team. That ministry has been such a blessing. We’ve been able to bring services to you when you have been unable to gather in the building. No matter where my neighbor might be, we can pray in church together. And on a very personal note, because of that ministry, my family was able to attend my wedding, in the midst of pandemic, early this year. One of my cousins is a frontline worker, and all the nurses at her station attended with her, as they were able. I know I’m fortunate. Many of our church milestones have been delayed. We’ve finally been able to celebrate baptisms, but we haven’t had opportunity to come together to grieve our losses.

I wonder if it is that dichotomy, my being in the building while so many of you could not be, that made today’s other readings resonate. This dwelling-place is dear to me. I know it is dear to many of you as well. Certainly, the pandemic has made us aware of the difference between one day spent in a desired place and a thousand spent alone. (Mercifully, not a thousand. But it does feel like it sometimes.) When Solomon built the temple, which his father David could not, and dedicated it to the Lord, in that dedication he called on the Lord to hear the prayers offered in the temple – the prayers offered “toward this place.” And even when the pandemic forced us to remain in our own places, have we not been praying toward God’s house? Even when Jered and Craig were leading us in worship from their homes, when our lay readers were bringing the words of Scripture from theirs, when we have had a guest preacher from another city or state (without need to wait for a messenger bearing a scroll, by the way), I would suspect that many of us think of this building and have been praying toward this place. This is not to say that God dwells in this building alone, of course, but it is a focus, a place where we dedicate ourselves to God’s work.

In this way, we are brought together, in common prayer. And whether in this building or out of it, we will continue to be together. We don’t know what the next stage of the pandemic will bring: staying our present course? renewed restrictions? increased vaccine production, distribution, and acceptance? (God willing.) Whatever does come, we can face it – together with our neighbors near and far – with bravery and wisdom. And when we stumble and fail, as inevitably we humans must do, our neighbors will be there to support us as we find our feet again.

So put on the armor of God. Put aside your fear and walk with the Spirit. Wherever you may be, pray toward this house with me: Let us commend one another to Christ, and do those things which challenge us, so that we may grow, and serve the world. Amen.

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