Let’s start with salaries. The average salary for a public school teacher in the United States is around $59,000 a year. Law enforcement officers are right there, with an average of $61,000. Firefighters are at only $43,000. The average salary of an NFL player is $1.9 million. The minimum NFL salary is $480,000. But NFL players are at the bottom of the heap when it comes to what we might call the major sports. The average salary in the National Hockey League is $2.4 million. For Major League Baseball it’s $3.2 million and in the NBA it’s $5.15 million. We know that big name actors make millions per movie, and the two top guys in The Big Bang Theory make a million dollars per episode.
We live in an entertainment culture. With the exception of the CEOs of huge companies, by far the highest paid people in our society are those who entertain us in one way or another. We complain about Congress, but the salary for most Senators and Congress folk is $174,000 a year. By the way, the House and Senate chaplains get paid almost that much. I might look into that. Anyhow, maybe if we paid our members of Congress an average of two or three million dollars a year, we might get better politicians. Probably not, right?
All I’m trying to say is that to a large extent, money, income is probably the main way in which we express the value we place on someone in our society. Sure, things like level of education and experience, one’s resume, play a part, but in the grand scheme of things, we pay people according to how important, how valuable, we think they are. And it is obvious that for us, in our society, we place a very high value on entertainers and entertainment.
Which means we can relate to what the early Christians faced. Entertainment was a big deal in the Roman world as well. When you look at the remains of the Roman Empire today, certainly one of the most impressive buildings is what’s left of the Colosseum in Rome. And even more would have been standing had not its bricks been used for other structures over the centuries. We know about the gladiators and the lion fights and chariot races. The Colosseum could even be flooded for naval battles. The Romans took their entertainment seriously.
We also know that, more and more like our society today, the early Christians lived in a largely secular world, which did not care about them and their practice of Sunday worship. The Romans did have their own gods, and I don’t know what the schedule of worship was like, if there was any, but Christians were a small minority who were sometimes overlooked and sometimes actively persecuted. We may not be thrown to the lions these days, but we can identify with the being overlooked thing, can’t we? Long gone are the days when everything except churches wase closed on Sundays.
Fortunately, that doesn’t mean nobody goes to church anymore, or that nobody contributes to their church or place of worship any more. One study I saw said that Americans contributed $123 billion to religious institutions in 2016. That’s an impressive number. It’s also a bit more than a third on what we spend on entertainment every year, which is around $313 billion. Yeah, let that soak in. We spend $12 billion a year going to movie theaters, and a billion and a half renting movies from RedBox. $56 billion a year on sporting events, which I take it is a chunk of the $313 billion we spend on entertainment. Enough numbers. You get the picture.
The writer of Ephesians says that in order to live in a world which does not favor Christianity, one needs to be prepared. And fortunately God gives us what we need. In today’s text from Ephesians the writer advises that we “take up the whole armor of God,” using the image of a Roman soldier, which includes “the belt of truth” and “the breastplate of righteousness.” We are instructed to put on whatever shoes “will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace,” and we also need “the shield of faith…the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” That’s a pretty good suit of armor. That ought to equip us to fend off just about anything that comes our way.
One of the things which comes our way is competition for our time and energy and money. I’m quite sure our worship services are not as entertaining as what you can find in a theater or stadium or such. Now, some churches do compete pretty well. I remember going to a service at a big church on one of my sabbaticals and thinking they had the sound and lighting and space to do Broadway plays. Here at TCC our staging is a bit more modest.
Ephesians puts it this way, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” That’s quite a list, isn’t it? But after two thousand years, it may not sound all that strange to us. Rulers and authorities? Sometimes our own, but we can name the countries which have dictators who oppress their people and pose a danger to others, sometimes to us. “Cosmic powers of this present darkness”? We can name poverty and human trafficking and terrorism and hunger and keep going from there. “Spiritual forces of evil”? Maybe we’d list greed and self-centeredness and apathy and addictions. Maybe there are some things which never change.
So maybe we do need “the whole armor of God,” truth and righteousness and all the rest. Maybe we do need to remember that when it comes to living the Christian life in today’s world, God gives us what we need.
But how does that happen? Where, how, when do we find truth and righteousness and faith? How do we come to have the ability “to proclaim the gospel”?
Ephesians gives us at least one good piece of advice. “Pray in the Spirit at all times,” the writer says. With the busy lives so many of us lead, it’s not a matter of finding time to pray. We have to make time to pray. Some people do well praying while driving to and/or from work. For others first thing in the morning works well. For others it’s right before bedtime. What matters is to keep at it, to establish a routine, so that we don’t find ourselves saying, I forgot to pray yesterday – or the day before – or for the past week or so.
Prayer can and does take many forms and can and should include asking God to give us what we need to faithfully follow in Jesus’ footsteps. It’s important that we ask God to help us understand the truth and to live it out every day. It’s important that we ask God for righteousness, that is, to put us and keep us in right relationship with God and with others. It’s important that we ask God to help us be messengers of the gospel in all that we say and do. It’s important that we ask God to strengthen and deepen our faith through Christ. Such prayer helps keep us on track, helps defend us against the temptations to become those who are just entertained instead of those who work to bring the reign of God.
A bit beyond our reading for today in Ephesians, we read, “Peace be to the whole community.” The very title of the book is a reminder that our faith is not a solo act. We live out our faith with others, in community. And in addition to prayer and our personal devotional life, community is where we can find the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness and the rest of the armor we need. The Christian community is another arena where God gives us what we need.
One of the temptations we face in our culture is the temptation to believe that we can and should go it alone. Individualism is planted deep in the American psyche. Certainly a healthy respect for the importance of caring for ourselves and taking responsibility for our own actions is necessary. We can and should believe that whatever our circumstances in life, we are ultimately accountable for what we do.
However, Christianity is a communal faith. We believe that where two or three are gathered together, the Spirit of God, the risen Christ, is with us. We learn from one another. We support one another. We engage in the work of Jesus with one another. And we need to be accountable to one another. We need each other to help us remember that God really does give us what we need.
There’s plenty of evil to go around these days. And sometimes it doesn’t look like evil when we first see it. There are plenty of temptations to go around. And sometimes they can be hard to recognize as well. So we need the whole armor of God. We need the belt of truth and the breastplate of righteousness. We need the shoes which will help us carry the good news of God’s love. We need the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit. Fortunately, we don’t have to go out and buy them. Nor can we earn them as a reward for good behavior. They come to us as gifts, gifts from God, who gives us what we need. Amen.