22 August, 2021- Thirteenth Sunday in Pentecost, Proper 16B
The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Richard Burden
Below is a DRAFT text of the homily. It may vary considerably from the recorded version. Please excuse typos and grammatical errors, and do not cite without permission.
“Put on the whole armor of God…the belt of truth…the breastplate of righteousness…the helmet of salvation”… the gauntlet of infinity…
No. It doesn’t say that, but it sort of sounds like something out of the Marvel Universe…doesn’t it…all this supernatural armor preparing us for battle with “spiritual forces of evil” in “this present darkness…”
All this overtly martial imagery is not what most Episcopalians are comfortable hearing on Sunday morning. It sounds too much like the militant, muscular, imperial Christianity that many of us are actively moving away from…It doesn’t sound like Jesus, does it? And that’s because it’s not Jesus…It’s probably not even Paul…but it is an exhortation to keep the faith…to keep practicing the faith—in the midst of what were clearly very trying times…(something we know something about). So while the passage probably doesn’t cause warm fuzzy feeling in you…and we may be tempted to say…“this teaching is difficult, who can accept it?” I’m going to invite us to sit with whatever discomfort we might have and see what we might learn from it.
Remember that Ephesians is grounded in the mystery of the cosmic body of Christ, into which, the author says, we have been incorporated, and “blessed…with every spiritual blessing” and “adopted as God’s children” (Eph 1:3-4). We have been “created in Christ for good works” (Eph 2:10), and therefore the author wants us —(“begs us)—to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” We do this, not with military aggression, but with “humility and gentleness, with patience, [and by] bearing with one another in love.” Ephesians insists that we (Jews and Gentiles—the people who seemingly cannot figure out how to get along with one another) that we are united in the body of Christ with “the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:1-4).
Let that sink in for a minute…What binds us together are not chains of iron…or duty, or loyalty, or obligation…certainly not the limp ties of “tolerance”…but “bonds of peace.” And peace—true peace—as Martin Luther King Jr. said, “is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.” What binds us to one another and God are the not the optional, negotiable—we’ll get to it when when it’s convenient for us—kinds of obligations and bonds …but bonds of peace…which presumes the presence of justice.
Justice is another way of translating both the Greek and the Hebrew term for righteousness. A breastplate of righteousness sounds rigid, invulnerable…but biblical righteousness is the practice of justice…God’s righteousness (which we are to be imitators of) is defined as “both justice and compassion as expressed in concern for the weak and vulnerable…” [Dict of Christian Ethics]. The Hebrew word for righteousness/justice is rooted in the concept of charity…so a breastplate of righteousness might really be a mark of vulnerability…a way of saying, “we are to lead with compassion and justice,” not rigid defensiveness.
Bound by peace…leading with vulnerability, compassion and justice…and we also have a belt—the belt of truth. I love this image. Because we can’t embody peace, or truly enact justice if we aren’t truthful. And not just a single truth…but truth that goes all the way around us… 360°. We need a full spectrum of truth—not just of our own lives—but of others’ lived experiences as well. This belt of truth image remind me of what Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [Chi-ma-man-de Ngozi Eh-di-che]calls “The danger of a single story.” In a brilliant Ted talk that I’d encourage everyone to watch, she says: “The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story….[and] The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult.” [source]. Who has multiple stories in our culture? And who only has a few or a single story?
We need more than a single story…we need a belt of truth…diverse stories from diverse people all around us…informing our decisions and our policies as we strive to enact justice and practice compassion and strengthen the bonds of peace.
What else do we have? A shield of faith…that can also seem rigid. Especially if we confuse with faith with belief…and confusing that with a set of logical propositions that I agree with. Believing that something is true because I can logically prove it, is not the same as believing in something…love for example…and even believing in something is not the same as having faith. Belief can sometimes feel like something that is self-generated…like if we only believed more something else would happen…like clapping to save Tinkerbell in Peter Pan. But faith is not self-generated. It’s a gift…something that has been given to me…for protection…to give me courage…to absorb and cushion the blows of whatever life throws at me…It’s protective, like a shield*, and not something I can understand…but something I can stand under.
The helmet of salvation…(all of these images are actually drawn from Hebrew scripture, BTW—Isaiah mostly), and in Jewish thought salvation tends to be more corporate than individual , there is salvation of individuals but it is tied directly to the salvation of Israel as a whole. We individualistic westerners too often forget that our own individual salvation is actually bound up in the salvation of the whole.Maybe the helmet of salvation could be a reminder that none of us is truly free until all of us are free.
“The sword of the Spirit which is the word of God,” it’s not clear that this is actually a reference to scripture, but the idea that scripture is a sword is intriguing…it’s certainly true that in the wrong hands scripture can be a very dangerous weapon…It’s certainly has been weaponized over the centuries. But a sword allows you to cleave things…I love the word “cleave”, because it’s a contronym—a word that has two meanings that contradict each other…cleave does mean to cut in two…but it also means to bind together. And with the word of God we certainly can cleave, damage, and maim…but we can also cleave together…bound in compassion, justice, and peace.
And what about shoes? Well, wear whatever will make you ready to proclaim this gospel of peace. Be comfortable…life is hard enough…wear comfortable shoes.
It doesn’t have to be martial, or magical, or even from the Marvel Universe…but we as Christians we need to equip ourselves and our communities with truth, justice, compassion, faith, vulnerability,…and maybe together, with God’s help, we can all move closer to salvation and redemption and wholeness.
Put on the whole armor of God…keep alert…pray…work…and “make known the mystery of the gospel.” Amen.
* and yes, I do imagine that the shield of faith is very similar to Captain America’s shield in that it’s virtually indestructible and can absorb, store, and transmit energy—because made of a combination of adamantium and vibranium.