Sunday, August 23, 2009

Armor Up!

Armor Up!

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
21st Sunday of Ordinary Time: August 23, 2009

Ephesians 6:10-20

I used to drive back and forth on Interstate 5 between Salem and Albany back in the days before they widened and improved that stretch of the freeway and the bridges that cross it. If you drove that stretch back then you might have noticed, as I always did, a certain old barn on the west side of the freeway which faced the traffic coming from the south. Ever since the introduction of the automobile onto roads, farmers have known that barns and other buildings facing the motoring public on public roadways can serve as pretty good advertising space. But this particular barn was not covered with a slick poster advertising an automobile, or painted with a four or five-color promotion for some product. No, through the years on this particular barn there were a few different messages, crudely painted in whitewash against the dark background of the roof. The last of these, before the barn came down to make room for the latest highway improvements, issued a command, in all caps, “ARMOR UP!”

I often wondered what the host of people driving by that old barn at highway speeds thought of its message. To immigrants from Mexico, making their way to harvesting jobs in the Willamette Valley, the type-A business professional, gabbing away on her cellular phone, the college student heading for school up north, the family vacationing from Kansas, the highway-hypnotized trucker on his fiftieth run of the summer from L.A. to Tacoma, the commuter from Albany or Corvallis who drove by that barn five mornings a week, the escaped felon trying to get to Canada, the believer, the non-believer, to all of them, that two-word phrase must have presented anything but a consistent meaning.

What did the folks who painted it mean to tell us with this urgent command? Immigrant farm workers are not likely to understand it, urgent or not. The business woman may be so wrapped up in her cell phone conversation she will not notice that she is going 85 MPH, let alone the whitewashed letters smeared on a barn. The college student, having finished a course last term on “The Bible As Literature,” may sniff at the primitive understanding of Ephesians 6 represented there. The family from Kansas, members of the Pillar of Fire church, smile and nod their heads in agreement. The trucker, if he snaps out of his reverie long enough, may recall momentarily his hitch in an armored division in Viet Nam. The commuter will not remember seeing the barn today, nor anything else between Albany and Wilsonville for the past six months.

So what does it mean, this urgent call to “armor up?”

Paul was not the first, nor is he likely to be the last, to compare life with combat. One thing a believer knows, though – and in this we all ought to be of pretty much one mind, from the fundamentalist to the mainliner, from the painter of the barn message to the author of sophisticated theological literature – anyone who wants to be a faithful Christian in Paul’s time or ours will be in for a fight. Paul said, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Do you remember John Steinbeck’s Dust Bowl classic, The Grapes of Wrath? The farmer wanted to know who had foreclosed on his land. The local banker said he was just doing the bidding of the home office. The home office was beholden to its Board of Directors, who weren’t at fault because they had to answer to their stock holders. The conclusion, of course, is that the system is at fault, so no one is to blame. Still, a family had lost their farm, was left alone to battle the powers.

Another grieving family, having lost their only daughter to the rage of a madman with an gun in a Post Office shootout with police, may also wonder who should be blamed. The gunman’s childhood was filled with abuse, so he may be excused; the dealer who sold him his weapon has a right to do so under current constitutional interpretation; the members of Congress who might change a portion of that interpretation of the law consistently defeat any bill threatenting to limit access to firearms; some folks continue to claim that, after all, guns don’t kill people, people kill people. We say to that grieving family that no one is at fault because the whole system is to blame. Still, a grieving family rages alone against the powers of darkness.

“We wrestle not against blood and flesh
but against rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of this present darkness.”

As I said, Paul was not the first, nor is he likely to be the last, to compare life with combat. But the combat he envisions has little two do with tanks, missiles, arms and armies. For the battle against Principalities, he suggests taking up the armor of God, and it should be helpful to us to remember that this is not the same as the armor of humanity. To follow that mistaken idea is to be guilty of the same humorless lack of understanding as those who threw “Onward Christian Soldiers” out of some hymnals because it was too militaristic. To think the line “marching as to war” is the same as “marching to war” is to be incapable of comprehending metaphor. What about “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” or “Soldiers of Christ, Arise”? I don’t much like “Onward Christian Soldiers” personally, but that is basically because of its thumping rhythm and Sunday-school lyrics more than because I fear it might inspire classrooms of sixth graders to run out and sign up to be Airborne Rangers or start subscriptions to Soldier of Fortune magazine.

Paul recognized that the real enemy is invisible, much bigger and more pervasive than we can imagine, and with human armor, our cause against such an enemy is hopeless. A poster used to hang in some churches a few years ago. Pictured there was a tiny white one-room church. A huge freeway populated by zillions of cars passed in front of the church. To one side was an X-rated movie theatre, on the other a armaments factory. One member, standing out front, said to the other, “Do you ever get the feeling that we are losing ground?”[1]

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out the truth of this observation. A fifteen-minute sermon on self-sacrifice stacks up against hundreds of broadcast hours of advertising paid for by the largest, wealthiest companies in the world, encouraging everyone to consume as much as possible; A least-coin church fellowship supports mission with a handful of dollars in a far-off land torn apart by competing armies of thugs armed with millions of dollars worth of weapons supplied by outside interests, ten tanks are sent for every sack of flour; Losing ground? Sometimes it feels as if there is no ground left to defend.

Still. Still there is the whole armor of God. The cause of believers is God’s cause. The armor Paul describes is defensive, meant for holding fast, meant to keep us from falling apart. There is a metaphorical belt, and shoes, and a shield, and a breastplate, and a helmet. I can imagine the apostle, sitting in his prison cell, looking at his guard and using the items of his uniform to help his readers remember the defensive assets of the faith. Against these cosmic and humanly uncontrollable forces we are to bring “an arsenal consisting of truth, righteousness, peace, faith, salvation, the Spirit, and the word of God. Against cosmic powers which appear to control the universe, we are to bring weapons whose effectiveness is less than obvious.”[2] It seems ludicrous on the surface. How, for example, does faith protect against an opponent whose own weapons are the stuff of human nightmares? But our weapons are for defense. Clearly the battle itself is left to God, for the sword of truth is God’s own Word. Against this present darkness, believers are only commanded to withstand. It is up to God to advance the cause.

If you face life’s crises the way I do, you know that it is not within human power to fully equip ourselves for facing all the traumas of our lives, battles of such magnitude that rugged individualism can’t help but fail us in the end. It’s certainly not in my power. So think of the pieces of armor that Paul used as an illustration, the qualities they represent suggesting ways God strengthens us.

If in the middle of our trials we find that there is truth to sustain us, it is likely to be God’s truth. If we find that we are unexpectedly getting some things right, it is likely to be a “right”-eousness that God has granted us, not our own faltering attempts to do things right. If we find that despite all expectations to the contrary we are able to hold our ground and remain standing even though everything familiar seems to be failing us, it is because our shoes have a firm foothold in the gospel of shalom, of peace. If we find that things which usually drive us crazy now seem insignificant, hardly relevant, it is because the sustaining word of our faith is shielding us from those things which we might ordinarily allow to bring us down. If we find that even though every human being around us has failed us but we find strength in the fact that God loves us in spite of it all, we are protected by the promise of salvation in Christ from having to rely on the strength of anyone else. If we find, astonishingly, that we can even talk to others about our difficulties and maybe even support a fellow sufferer by the ability to articulate our own pain, we are in reality giving voice to the word of God which lives within the heart of every believer through the strength of the Holy Spirit.

I once read about a Princeton University student who was interviewed by a reporter concerning the prospects of American troops being sent to this or that conflict somewhere in the world.[3] Her response was telling. She said, “There’s nothing worth dying for.” Since all human beings die some day, this means, of course, that she will one day “have the unpleasant task of dying for nothing.” I would think believers would expect more of themselves. Every life needs to be committed to something worth spending our lives on it, worth giving ourselves to it completely.

The gospel of Jesus Christ gives us something worth standing fast for, worth persevering for, worth enduring for, worth, if the times call for it, dying for. Paul said that he wrote as an “ambassador in chains” for the gospel. He was telling believers then — and if we have looked around our own culture with eyes to see, he is telling us today — that if we plan to follow Jesus, we had better get ready for a fight. And we will need each other more than ever. Remember the apostle’s advice:

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand... and Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.

[1] “Up Against the Powers that Be,” by David Buttrick, in Best Sermons 1, Harper Collins, 1988, p. 200.

[2] Walter Brueggemann et. al., Texts for Preaching: Year B, Fortress, 1993.

[3] William Willimon, Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, Abingdon, 1989, pp. 149-150.