St. Paul’s Congregational Church,
August 29 2021, Proper 16B
Rev. Cynthia Reynolds
Another reminder today from the gospel of John that Jesus is the bread of life plus an affirmation from Peter that “we have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” And Paul’s letter to the Ephesians this week continues the lessons for the early church – and today’s church too – as to what it means to be Christian and live in a Christian Community – we are all on a common journey, a common walk of discipleship – the same journey today here in Nutley as those people of Ephesis. We have heard Paul’s instructions for living that life of discipleship - be kind, be truthful, be forgiving and that really, really, hard one: be angry but do not sin. Last week he told us to be careful how we live: three things we must do: be wise, be sober, be thankful, be filled with the spirit – always and for everything give thanks to God in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Using familiar images, Paul is encouraging those early Christians, recognizing that what he’s been teaching is so very hard to live out in their daily world. And it’s still hard to live out in our daily world.
I’ve always had a lot of trouble with this passage – getting past the images of warfare and violence - the wearing of armor takes me to images of war and violent, militaristic terms. The talk of shields and swords and breast plates and helmets is not appealing to those of us who prefer the image of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.
All we have to do is turn on the news to see those very same images of war and violence – they are as real today as they were in Paul’s time, aren’t they. It seems like we’re surrounded by violence! And I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of it. But Paul is encouraging us too, as a community of God, struggling to walk the path of discipleship together just as he did that struggling early church community. Do we have ears to hear?
This week we’ve watched events unfold in Afghanistan: people desperate to leave, crowds at the Kabul airport, fearful of the Taliban and the violence against the Afghan people, especially to the women. Then the heartbreaking images in the aftermath of an explosion at the Kabul airport – so many dead and wounded, American soldiers, Afghan families including children.
And there’s more in the news: as investigations continue into the January 6 insurrection/attack in Washington DC, we keep seeing new pictures of incredible violence, both in words and actions. It’s still hard to watch.
COVID is spreading quickly, hospitalizations and deaths rising every day, even surpassing the numbers at the very beginning of the pandemic in some places, a war of words continues over vaccination, school re-openings, mask mandates.
And this weekend on the 58th anniversary of the March on Washington, we are seeing massive demonstrations across the country protesting voter suppression efforts, fear for the future of our country. All this increases our levels of frustration, deep sadness, even a little anger – it wears on us – I know it does me – but we cannot ignore those feelings.
We can no longer sit back and detach ourselves from a violent world because that violence has come so very close to us – it’s no longer out there somewhere – it’s right here – we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist here anymore.
So, how do we engage with this passage – what does it mean to us to put on the whole armor of God? How can this passage meet us where we are? Even if it’s uncomfortable, maybe we have to do is acknowledge that we are in battle too – it is this timeless, so very human war that Paul is referring to.
In his book The Magnificent Defeat Frederick Buechner brings this passage to our present-day concerns: he says, “Over the centuries we speak of life as a battle.” He goes on to talk about two major battles we all fight – the first is the war of conquest. What we fight to conquer is the world. A place in the world, in the sun, a place that is ours. We fight to be visible, to move into a place out of the shadows – a place in family, community, in our jobs – a place where we can belong. To conquer a territory that can be ours. Our adversaries are those of flesh and blood – The armor we wear in this war is the armor of humanity, not the armor of God.
Then there’s another war we all face – Buechner calls this the war of liberation – to liberate that part of ourselves that has somehow become lost. The reality is we’re all in the fight of our lives – coming out of our own darkness into the light of wholeness. The armor of God is what we need, not to restrain, but to liberate. To liberate ourselves and each other to become what God calls us to be – to become what God has created us to become – to be the very best we can be. And to encourage others to do that as well. That’s mission of the church, isn’t it! Paul teaches us – throughout his writings – there is only one truth: Jesus Christ – who has shown us what it means to be truly human. Jesus Christ who teaches us about who God really is. Jesus Christ who has taught us to live. Jesus Christ who has taught us how to love.
Buechner says, “Above all, we must take the shield of faith, and faith here is not so much believing this thing or that thing about God as it is hearing a voice that says, come unto me. We hear the voice, and then we start to go without really knowing what to believe either about the voice or about ourselves – and yet we go. Faith is standing in the darkness, and a hand is there, and we take it.”
The shield of faith: an image of the armor of God that’s become dramatically clear, powerfully real, and so very comforting to me this year – many of you know my story as you’ve walked with me on this journey. This week I remembered and thought a lot about the man who first showed me the power of the shield of faith at my first church in Connecticut.
I’d become very close with Dan and his family there – one of my first hospital visits was with Dan after the first of his series of back surgeries. Later, Dan was diagnosed with renal cell carcinoma, had surgery, followup treatments, and was determined he’d beat it. And he did – until tumors began to grow in his lungs and in his brain. Dan himself wrote at that time, “while many would think that this is certainly a grim chain of events, I found that this was the beginning of a battle I wasn’t willing to give into.” He was put on interferon for six months – and he came out of this too. He spent 5 months at Bethesda and was part of a National Institute for Health renal cell transplant trial and he was released from this, well enough to go back to work!
Dan’s youngest son, Andy, had been in my confirmation class and in the high school youth group. We’ve kept in touch through the years – college, job, marriage, and the birth of his two beautiful children – the day came when Andy called asked in his message that I call him on his cellphone as soon as possible – I knew it wasn’t going to be good news. And it wasn’t – just two weeks ago Dan was hospitalized terribly sick: Andy told me that he had died yesterday, surrounded by his family who loved him and who he loved so deeply. Andy and I talked about the battle he’d fought for over 10 years – and I suddenly had a new image in my mind of what the armor of God looks like. My own tears welled up as I remembered Dan and our times together, realizing what a mentor in the faith journey he had been to me.
Through his entire ordeal, Dan never lost his faith. He wrote, “God works in mysterious ways. He has a plan which only he knows. I’m a very fortunate man who has my family, my faith, my church family, friends, and even people who do not know me – they have all prayed for me and made me the person I am today.”
Dan knew his future was in God’s hands and that was ok with him. That’s not to say he didn’t have moments of fear and anxiety – moments of deep sadness – moments of anger - moments of asking why me – but his question became, why not me – surely one of the most profound faith statements I’ve ever heard.
He knew he was surrounded by God’s love – that shield of faith; surrounded by God’s love – an armor that can’t be violated, no matter what. Again, from Dan’s own writings: there is always hope and hope starts with faith in God.
Now if that’s not a wonderful description of the armor of God, I don’t know what is.
Amazing how God meets us where we are, isn’t it.
Buechner’s words: “Faith is standing in the darkness, and a hand is there and we take it: taking on the armor of God is about our relationship with God – not to close ourselves off or in, but to allow us to be free. Free to be who we are. Free to be human. Free to be rid of that which weighs us down. I’ve come to realize that Dan knew that – what a powerful testimony!
Maybe one lesson is to build our armor, our relationship with God, not just when our lives are hard but when we’re reasonably satisfied with our lives, when the glass is half full instead of when it’s half empty. Do we recognize God’s peace when there’s a lull in the battle? Does our faith speak to us when things are quiet, satisfying, happy – are we as quick to offer our prayers of praise and thanksgiving?
The armor of God was built up in both good and bad times for Dan – the armor of God that doesn’t restrain but liberates, frees us! What a free gift, a blessing that is free and available to each one of us as well. May we hear God’s voice that says, “Come unto me.”
And then may we go, even as we stand in the darkness, recognizing the hand which is there, and we take it: that’s the armor of God – the shield of faith that will sustain us now and always both as individuals and as church and will call us and empower us to do our part in bringing in God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven.
So may it be! Amen.