Sisters and brothers in Christ, we put on the whole armor of God in the midst of incomprehensible evil in this world.
This is a challenging text because it talks about evil—evil that is all around us, and evil that is inside us as well.
There was a trend in some theologies during the 20th century to downplay evil. “To say that humans are evil is just too negative,” some said in the 1920’s & 30’s. Then comes Nazi Germany: millions of Jews were tortured and killed during WWII. And theologians started rethinking the human potential for evil, not only because of the horrible evils inflicted by the Nazis, but also when they considered how many stood by…while the Jews were being murdered.
And evil is real in our lives today, too. One of my professors in seminary drove this point home for me when he said, “If you don’t believe in sin, just open your window and breathe the air.” Air pollution is a constant reminder of our recklessness, apathy, self-centeredness, ultimately our sin. This is not a fun text, here in Ephesians, to deal with…especially now—at the end of the summer, we’re getting geared up for the fall, new ministry is stretching its wings, revitalization all around, and here we are talking about evil. It might be easier to discuss, if I could just point to some group of people and pin blame and sinfulness and evil on them. Or, if I could just point to an individual engaged in some sort of sexual impropriety that would make us all gasp, that I know we would never be a part of, but Ephesians nips this one in the bud and says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against cosmic powers of this world, against spiritual forces of evil in high places.” Evil is much greater than one person or a group of persons -- “the wiles of the devil” are much more elusive and very hard to pin down.
How do we address world hunger, for example?
I preached a sermon once on my internship in St. Louis, and I was talking about a service trip that we took to Nicaragua, and I said something like, “poverty isn’t just an issue, it’s a face” and went on to describe sweet little Olivia who I at one point even carried on my shoulders there. A woman came up to me afterwards and told me that she liked my sermon, but hated that I had put a sweet face on poverty. “Poverty is not Olivia,” she said to me with tears in her eyes, “Olivia is a victim of poverty. Poverty is a horrendous monster.” Hunger, poverty—these are elusive, gargantuan evils, too great to pin on any face.
How do we battle—to borrow the imagery that worked well for the people of Ephesus—the cosmic forces of evil? How do we acknowledge, confront and defend against sin?
You ask me these questions directly, and I’m afraid I’ll tell you that I cope with these things usually by ignoring them—barricading myself from them with my own preoccupations. I’m on the mailing lists for orgs that send out alerts, and I can’t even tell you how many of those emails I’ve deleted. Sometimes I do pay attention to such great evils, but just to assuage my conscience I write a check or even take a trip. I go down to Mexico to build a house. Then I come back across the border and get back into MY life.
These elusive and tremendous evils—hunger, war, famine, poverty, environmental degradation—are not easy or fun things to talk about. Very quickly we can talk ourselves silly and just give up. It’s not REALISTIC to care that much. It’s not PRACTICAL or LOGICAL.
But then, neither is our God.
If God was realistic or practical, I’d never be standing here preaching. Who am I to speak? I’m too new, too young, too old, too inexperienced, too imperfect, too shy and self-conscious. But God says, “I have chosen you Dan for special things. I need you.”
If God was realistic or practical, we couldn’t call ourselves God’s children. There are far too many terrible things that we have done to each other, to our neighbors, our families, our friends and even to our own bodies…way too many things to really call ourselves “little Christs.” But God is unrealistic and says, “I have chosen you, Zoe, Tim, Jay, Barb, Marva, Adam for great things.” I have chosen you to be my messengers. I have chosen you to go out into the world and share the Good News of my love, offer hope…despite all the dangers, all the hopelessness, despite hunger, war, famine…not because you’re gonna fix it all (only God can do that), but because this is what God “splashes us in baptism” to do.
Not to belabor this, but if God was realistic or practical, why would God become human? Why would God come down to earth in the form of a peasant to take on all the sin of the world? God became human! That defies all logic and reason. It is completely unrealistic! Why would the God of the cosmos choose to do such a thing? Christianity, by its very definition, defies all logic and reason. God forgives us all our sin. That’s crazy!! God lifts the burden and frees us all!!
So here in Ephesians, we hear of what we are offered for defense amid this chaotic and evil world: standard issue. Freely forgiven of our sin, in the midst of the swirling powers of evil, God covers us with something completely new. Not just armor…that’s something old. It’s a metaphor. The Pauline author takes imagery that was very effective for the people of that time, who were used to seeing Roman centurions, pushing everyone around, forcing them back into place if they got out of line. But Ephesians speaks of a different kind of armor: THE ARMOR OF GOD. The NEW image breaks into the OLD. I’d like to reflect on a few of these articles of God’s armor this morning:
First, the belt…of truth. Big word these days: truth. Putting on God’s belt of truth, all that we say and do becomes honest, caring and sincere. Gone are the days of double talk, trickery, gossip, deceit. God, through this letter to the Ephesians, invites us into a new communication and lifestyle—one that is genuine and clear, speaking the truth in love. (Bonhoeffer)
The breast plate of righteousness. We don’t show respect for our neighbors because we have to, or because we are guilted into it, or because it’s politically correct. We respect and even advocate for our neighbors because it’s simply the right thing to do. Righteousness is about right living; I think the Greek word is even better translated as “justice-orientation.” When we put on the breast-plate of righteousness, we orient our lives in a way that resembles God’s justice and love. When we put on the breast-plate of righteousness, issues of hunger, poverty, harassment, racism, sexism, heterosexism—these become important to us because they are about God’s justice. When people are treated unjustly or as objects, subjected to another’s abuse, we move into that fray, chest first, heart first, to care and speak as people of God, even if an end to injustice seems unrealistic.
“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” (combat boots) Shoes take us to new places. This passage calls to mind another scripture passage from Luke 1: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us…[and] guide our feet into the way of peace.” To talk about peace, or to have a moment of silence to “visualize world peace,” is not enough. In the midst of violence and apathy, God invites us and leads us into moving our feet into the way of peace, from war to dancing.
The Shield of Faith. Faith is what we live by. It is [get ready, definition :) ] “the ability to trust the promise”. Thinking about faith as a shield helps us think about faith as actually protecting us, as opposed to so many other things we are tempted to use to protect us from harm.
I’ll never forget, when I was in college, I had this position on our student congregation council called Global Peace and Justice Coordinator. And we’d put on events that were designed to be thought provoking. We’d bring in two people on different sides of an issue, and let them go at it. The most intense event was when we had this guy from the National Rifle Association come and literally face off with a guy from some organization called the Coalition for Peace in the Inner City. And they fit their stereotypes to the T. Also present in the audience at the event was this old and pretty famous Lutheran scholar named Eric Gritsch. The NRA guy really seemed to be dominating in the “discussion,” but I’ll never forget when Professor Gritsch entered the conversation using his faith as a counter-response to arming oneself against danger. He was challenging the NRA representative, and he was doing while sitting cool and collected. He eventually made the NRA guy so upset that he was literally standing over Gritsch barking all the reasons why he should carry a gun. And Gritsch just kept saying essentially that God was his protection. It makes me think of the shield of faith. I can’t remember Gritsch’s eloquent words, but I certainly remember his body language. I’ve never been more amazed with that visual image of this angry, seemingly paranoid, “protected” man standing over a calm, cool, even humorous, faithful man. Now was Gritsch being stupid or unrealistic? I mean there are some dangerous places in this world. Maybe he was, but maybe he was simply choosing to carry a different type of shield.
Helmet of salvation. Our heads sure can mess with us, can’t they? I don’t know how, but one constant source of distress is thinking that we have to earn God’s favor. Whether it’s by doing good things, or stating out loud our beliefs and commitments, somehow we hope that God is hearing and seeing it all and will reward us. (Lifelong Lutherans stiill.) But friends in Christ, OURS IS A GOD OF GRACE!! The helmet of salvation is what covers our heads with the promise of salvation. It protects our heads against all those other voices... Maybe we think of the helmet of salvation as BAPTISMAL water. It is that ever-present protection that allows us to stop trying to win-over God, for God has already won-over us! Jesus died so that we could live, and so we LIVE in that joy.
Joy is the final concept here, in thinking about God’s whole armor. Joy spreads through every aspect of these articles of equipment and sinks into our flesh and bones too! We could be terrified at what lies ahead on the journey that God has set before us. Many soldiers are traumatized by battle, and understandably so. But God is doing a new thing here with us, instead of marching ultimately in fear, and in aggression, and in trauma, and in joylessness -- we march, completely covered with God’s joy. We are “marching in the light of God.”
Evil is real. But so is our God, who abides with us today.
And so we press on, day by day, despite the cosmic forces of evil, we continue on, marching, singing, dancing in the light of God, covered and protected with divine joy, peace, the promise of forgiveness, love, and the hope that only God can provide…this day and forever. AMEN.
Blessing for the New School Year
God our creator,
you surround us with the marvels of this world
and give us the ability to explore
the mysteries of creation.
You fill the earth with the Spirit of wisdom
and inspire us to search for the truth.
You have sent us prophets and teachers
as witnesses to your love for us.
You have come among us in Jesus Christ
to teach us your saving truth by word and example.
We pray for all who are beginning a new school year,
that both students and teachers
will be blessed in their academic endeavors and explorations.
Almighty God, you give true wisdom and knowledge.
Grant teachers the gift of joy and insight,
and students the gift of diligence and openness,
that all may grow in what is good and honest and true.
Support and cover with peace all who teach and all who learn,
that together we may know and follow your ways;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
that together we may know and follow your ways;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.