Sunday, August 26, 2018
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
First Congregational United Church of Christ of Manhattan, KS
Sermon by the Rev. Caela Simmons Wood
One of the great things about our congregation is the diversity of faith stories that gather every Sunday under one roof. Every week when we gather we know we have former Catholics and current Catholics; people who grew up Methodist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Pentecostal, Quaker, Muslim and those who were never affiliated with any faith at all until they started coming to First Congregational.
For us preachers, this means we have to remember that a phrase of idea that makes total sense to ME might be totally foreign to YOU. Or it might carry a lot of baggage for some people in this room but not others. I grew up in a faith tradition where this passage from Ephesians about putting on the armor of God was pretty central. We sang songs about it. I probably had it on a t-shirt or bookmark at some point. I went to youth groups where I learned about how important it was to defend myself against Satan’s powers. I had friends who were very certain they were battling daily against demons. We talked about Spiritual Warfare, Spiritual Self-Defense, and more.
Now, I have to say, I was always skeptical about all of this. It seemed a bit too “Defense Against the Dark Arts,” you know? Plus, as a child who was taught early and often about brain science, I knew that things like depression, anxiety, sexual desire, anger, love are things that have explanations that this exist in THIS WORLD. I learned that if you were depressed, you needed to go to a doctor, not just “pray it away.” I knew that if you fell in love with someone who was the same gender as you, it’s wasn’t because Satan was trying to ruin your life, it’s just because you were born that way and love is love and it’s all good.
I am aware that we have people in this room who have never heard the phrase “Spiritual Warfare” before and probably grew up in churches where Evil (the kind with a capital E) was never mentioned. I am aware that we have people who absolutely believe Evil is real and that we have to be on guard against it. I am aware that we have people who have been harmed by theologies that teach that mental illness, homosexuality, gender diversity are signs that God is testing you. The way some churches and religious leaders have used concepts like Spiritual Warfare to control people is not right and not okay.
Additionally, it seems important to note today that if you go and pick up your Bible and peruse the rest of the book of Ephesians you’re going to find some pretty problematic stuff. This letter, which was, incidentally, probably not actually written by the Apostle Paul, is like a “greatest hits” collection of problematic passages. Ephesians is where we hear that slaves should obey their masters and wives should obey their husbands. It has also been used to bash people who are gay. Not good.
Today’s passage, though, from the end of the 6th chapter isn’t bashing anyone. Instead, it’s all about finding strength and power through our faith. It’s about finding ways to resist Evil, persist in love, and rest assured in God’s protection when things get really rough. In short, it’s a very relevant chapter for this particular moment in history when we are frequently flabbergasted by atrocities that humans commit against one another and wonder, “how could anyone do that to another person?”
I don’t know about you, but I’m constantly revising my understanding of God and humanity. In recent years, I’ve found myself thinking about Evil a lot. I find myself currently in a space where it seems to me that there are evil forces that exist in the world. I imagine them out there like a big invisible blanket, exerting pressure on all of us. And when those forces act upon us and we are unable to resist, we can find ourselves committing acts of evil. I generally believe there’s no such thing as a good person or bad person - we are all sinners and saints - and all people can end up committing evil acts just like all people are capable of doing amazing, good, kind things.
To make it more concrete: white supremacy is an evil force that exists in the United States. It’s been there since the founding of our country and has not yet been eradicated. To live in the U.S. and to breathe the cultural air here is to be covered in an invisible blanket of racism. It exerts pressure on everyone, whether or not we are aware of it. And if we do not adopt an actively anti-racist identity - if we do not intentionally resist the evil of white supremacy - we can easily end up acting in ways that privilege whiteness and harm people of color. Persisting in the ways of love is a daily struggle in a culture steeped in white supremacy. We have to be on guard.
Now, one of the things about this Ephesians passage that can feel uncomfortable - to me, at least - is how militaristic it is. Militaristic faith language makes me uncomfortable because, too often, Christians have used the Bible as a weapon. Christians have literally committed murder “in God’s name,” so militaristic language makes me very uncomfortable when we find it in our sacred texts.
Something important about this text in Ephesians is that it’s about defense, not offense. The author of Ephesians exhorts the reader to put on God’s armor in order to resist evil. We are going to use the tools available to withstand attack, resist evil. Even the specific parts of armor named are primarily defensive - breastplates, shields, helmets. Nowhere in this passage are we being encouraged to go out and slaughter evil or attack “bad people.” We are, instead, being encouraged to be on guard, aware that evil is out there, and to prepare ourselves for withstanding it so that we can persist in the ways of God’s peace and justice and love.
Further, the “you” that is being addressed in this passage is plural. So it’s not that the author is writing to one person and saying, “Suit up. Defend yourself!” The author is speaking to a group of Jesus-followers and saying, “All of you - together - stand firm, pray, keep alert. Know that you are strong in God’s love.”
I am reminded of a powerful piece of art by Do Ho Suh, called “Floor.” You may have already noticed you have a photograph of it in your bulletin. This installation is a large glass floor that the viewer is invited to walk on. It’s only when you get closer that you realize there are more than 100,000 tiny plastic figurines underneath holding up the clear glass panels that create the floor. They are all standing with their arms overhead, pushing the glass away together.
They are like us humans - resisting the powers of evil that press down on us. Working together to protect ourselves. Standing firm in the knowledge that God goes alongside us and is closer than our own breath.
The problem of Evil is not going away. Like our faith ancestors, we are called to stand firm, pray, and stay alert. We are called to resist evil and persist in love. We are called to nurture our connection to Truth, Righteousness, Faith, Peace, and always hold out hope that healing is possible.
I have found that, in my own life, there are many spiritual practices that help me keep doing my part of holding up the heavy glass overhead. The regular practice of Sabbath - knowing that the world will keep turning even if I take a break - is essential. A commitment to gratitude and joy - even when (especially when!) - things feel heavy and awful. Taking a moment to simply sit quietly and notice the beauty of creation. Laughing at a silly joke until my sides hurt. Reminding myself of all the good that is present in my life even when things feel scary and anxious.
And then, from that place of gratitude, reaching out to share. Being around people who inspire generosity and hospitality. Continuing to be mindful about the balance of giving and receiving - trying to be generous with my time, my heart, my resources.
I am also strengthened by remembering that ours is an incarnational faith. In the beginning, God created bodies and stuff. We aren’t just floating spirits. We are heaps of flesh and blood and God cares about our bodies. So much so that we call Jesus Emmanuel - God dwelling among us. A part of standing firm, praying, staying alert is taking care of and celebrating the bodies we have been given.
Those are some of the ways I am trying to stand firm, pray, and keep alert as I stand elbow-to-elbow with you, holding up that big invisible heavy glass.
How are YOU managing to resist evil and persist in love? In a time of reflection, you are invited to sit with that photo of Do Ho Suh’s “Floor.” You might want to draw or write down the places you notice evil acting in the world - or the ways you put on that defensive armor to stand firm. You won’t have to share your thoughts with anyone - this is just a moment for your own private reflection and prayer. Let’s keep silence together….