“The Enemy Within”
Rev. Phillip Blackburn
August 26, 2018
I always liked a good ghost story as a kid and I remember one of the first I ever heard, and odds are you have heard it too. A young woman is babysitting and the children have gone to bed and she is reading a magazine or something waiting for the parents to get home. The phone rings and she answers. A voice says, “have you checked on the children?” She nervously asks, “who is this!” The voice, however, just hangs up. Agitated she tries to return to her magazine. After a few minutes the call comes in again. “Hello.” “Have you checked on the children.” Scared this time she yells, “leave me alone,” and hangs up. Now she’s scared so she calls the police. They try to calm her down and they promise they will trace the next call that comes into the house. She sits quietly, not even pretending to read. After what seems like forever the phone rings again, “hello.” “You really should check on the children.” She hangs up and immediately starts to shake. The phone rings again, she answers, this time thank goodness it’s the police. They can tell her where the call is coming from. The police officers, shouting, says, “we’ve traced the call, it’s coming from inside the house! Get out!” As the babysitter goes to slam the phone down and run, she hears footsteps on the stairs.
And that is basically the story, with numerous variations on the ending, but you get the point. What makes the story so scary? It’s that the bad guy has been in the house the whole time! I feel like this is one of the great lessons of murder mysteries and horror movies and that whole genre in general. Most of the time the villain is not some faceless, unknown enemy. No, the villain is someone inside the house. Someone familiar to our hero or heroine, someone who could strike them where they felt they were safest. Over the last couple of weeks, I have been thinking about this idea not in relation to a movie I was watching or a book I was reading, but rather in relation to the Church. Now before you get anxious, no I do not mean this Church. I do not think anybody in this congregation is some axe murderer ready to pounce. No, I thought of it in relation to the news coming out of Pennsylvania.
A couple of weeks ago the story broke that, for decades, 300 priests had been involved in sexually assaulting young boys and girls in the Roman Catholic parishes of Pennsylvania. The story says there were over 1,000 victims. 1,000. If you start to think about it, it breaks your heart. And it would be bad enough if this were the first time, that would be terrible. But what makes it worse is that this was not the first time. This was yet another time where the Roman Catholic Church was found to have allowed pedophilia to run rampant in its midst. And I think about all those parents who were always so worried about and careful with their children. In all of their worries, I promise you they never imagined that the most dangerous place for their children would be the Church. Never did they think the call would be coming from inside the house, and yet there it was. The villains were right there the whole time.
Funnily enough, I thought about this issue with the Roman Catholics as I was reading this passage from Ephesians this week. It is the end of the letter and the themes of cosmic conflict permeate it. The language here is somewhat familiar to us, you know the armor of God, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith. These images evoke images of the Holy Christian warrior marching into battle against the heathen forces of Satan, and they are meant to. Most often this passage is associated with those times when the church is perceived to be in some sort of existential struggle when the last thing with which we have to defend ourselves is the armor of God. And yet more and more these days I do not see us needing to arm ourselves against foes outside seeking to do us harm, no. Instead, I see us needing to arm ourselves against, well, ourselves. It is entirely possible that the greatest threat to the Church in the Western World is not a government or a movement or a way of thinking but rather the Church itself.
It is easy to cherrypick the Roman Catholics and say, well, this is just them and it doesn’t have anything to do with us. But that is exactly the wrong thing to do. Doctrinal differences aside, they are part of the same Body of Christ as us. They pray to the same God. They rely on the same savior. They share in the same waters of baptism, as do all the Christians in our land. And it is not just them. It is the megachurch pastor who rails against homosexuality only to be caught in a motel room with a male prostitute. It is the church who cynically builds its entire mission and model to steal Christians from other churches. It is the wanton hypocrisy of the pastor who tells the battered woman to forgive her husband and stay because divorce is a sin. These things bring shame upon God’s people, upon God’s church, in ways that secular forces can never do, because they speak to an implied truth that this is all for show, that at the end of the day the Christian Church is not the Body of Christ but rather a corrupt institution peddling snake oil to desperate people to enrich themselves.
It is my belief that the current decline in Christianity in America has little to do with pop culture or bad government but rather is a symptom of the failure of the Church to both engage modern issues with a clear word and to act like we have even basic decency on occasion. Simply put, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is the most compelling story in human history. The story that God recognized our brokenness and our sin and instead of punishing us chose to send his only Son into this world NOT so that we would be condemned but so that we would be reconciled simply defies belief. And this brings me to the “what do we do now” section of this sermon.
It is one thing to be ready and willing to fight for something. It is another thing to recognize the fights which need fighting. And it is still another to fight with the right weapons. The story of the world is littered with instances when brave, strong, courageous armies arrayed themselves for battle with all the wrong weapons. So if you accept Ephesians point that we are in a cosmic battle, and if you accept my point that here in America some of the biggest evils lie not outside the Church but within, then you still need to know what to do. The wrong weapon is, for lack of a better word, your tongue. Going up to a Roman Catholic friend and ripping them for being Catholic is not going to help. Nor is talking to your fundamentalist friend about the ways their tradition sets women up for abuse. Rather this is where we must return to our text.
We are equipped with Armor, breastplate, sword, shoes, and shield. All the right images, but Ephesians attaches conditions to all these things. The Armor of God. The Breastplate of Righteousness. The Shoes of the proclamation of the Gospel of Peace. The sword of the Spirit and the Shield of Faith. Our battle is not rooted in the things we see around us, angry Facebook posts, heated confrontations or petty name calling. No, the best way to combat the rot we see in the American Church is to recommit ourselves to BEING the Church. Recommit ourselves to faith, to peace, to righteousness.
At worst, the Church is the source of trouble in this world, as it was in Pennsylvania and in countless other lives. At least it is no worse than the society around it, as it is most of the time. But at best, at best the Church looks radically different from the culture around it. And right now, as our culture encourages us to consume one another in the fires of partisan hatred and rage, the Church best stands apart by the ways in which we love one another and show that love to the people around us. Jesus did not fight his battle with violence and bile, save for the hypocritical religious leaders, rather he fought with sacrifice, selflessness, and love. These are our weapons because they are rooted in the truth of our savior. They are rooted in the Gospel.
We fight this battle by making sure this is a place marked by faith, peace, righteousness and the proclamation of the Gospel. We cannot control other churches but we can control ourselves, and we can remember that how we treat each other and share our faith together has consequences beyond our congregation. We are absolutely in a battle but it is not merely against some monolithic culture, it is a fight against those who seek to pervert the mission of the church, and this is where we must strive. The call is coming from inside the house and we have two choices, we can run away, or we can make sure the kids are alright. Amen.