(A sermon for Proper 16B, 12th Sunday after Pentecost–August 23, 2009– Ephesians 6:10-20)
On a bright, hot Saturday morning, I made my way in bumper-to-bumper traffic through the curving roads inside Deering Oaks Park, eager to shop at the Farmers Market. It’s a journey made repeatedly in the summertime, for many years. This week I bought a cantaloupe from the children of a man I used to look forward to seeing every week, and lettuce from a farm right here in Yarmouth that I visited many, many years ago, when “organic” stood out as a category at the Farmers Market.
Now half the farms represented belong to MOFGA, the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, and instead of a cozy-looking older lady selling cookies at one end there are tables for handmade jewelry and handspun yarn and over on the grass a juggler and on the other side of the path a brother and sister playing musical instruments.
And then there are the tables for causes. I found an old friend standing in the hot sun collecting signatures. He must be new at this. More experienced folk set up deeper in the park, where it stays shady. Or perhaps his cause matters to him enough that standing in the sunshine seems a small price to pay to reach people who may leave him with a bumper sticker or a pin.
They are all lined up, smiling, ready to talk about marriage equality or health care reform or the drawbacks of a flat tax. The Farmers Market in its mostly organic, artsy-crafty glory feels like a pretty safe place for liberal causes to advertise.
But I wonder if I would want to be the one standing in the sun, or even sitting in the shade, hoping to recognize friendly faces among all those streaming by, hoping some will stop and speak to me, hoping among those people the response will be receptive rather than insulting.
It takes courage to stand up for what you believe.
I’m the advisor to two women who are what we now call “members in discernment” in the Cumberland Association of the United Church of Christ. One is nearing the end of the process and will have an interview with the Church and Ministry committee in the next few months. After reading her ordination paper and reviewing her recommendations and asking her questions, that committee of people will decide whether she will go on to do something even more nerve-wracking. If all goes well with the committee, she will present her paper to an Ecclesiastical Council made up of clergy and lay delegates from Association churches.
Now, it’s possible that for some people, this would not be nerve-wracking, but I remember approaching mine with a sense that any outcome might occur, that the people on the committee and later the people at the Council had not only the power to make a decision about my call to ministry, but a responsibility to take the process seriously and prayerfully. I labored over my paper, reviewed by two seminary professors and two trusted pastors and a church committee before it ever got to the point I would present it to the Association. I trusted them when they told me it was a good paper, but still, I knew my future depended on that group of people on that particular day.
I had been kicking around the Association for quite a while, first as an active lay member and later as a seminarian on the “Isn’t she through yet?” plan. I imagine to most people my approval seemed like a pretty safe bet.
The apostle Paul spent two years under a special sort of arrest in Rome. Under guard, he could leave his house in the company of the assigned Roman soldiers, a sort of live electronic ankle bracelet. Perhaps they thought his credibility would be damaged enough simply by being under arrest that they would not need to worry about him. It seems the Roman authorities thought he would be hampered enough by the guards to be pretty safe to have around.
But Paul received guests and wrote letters, and he reached out to those who needed to hear him and learn from his experience and his example. The Romans didn’t understand what sort of person they had among them, or how powerfully he would call on the images of the very soldiers who limited his comings and goings. For it is their armor he describes and turns to his own purposes in this letter, in a set of images famous in all walks of Christian life.
Put on the whole armor of God.
“It’s what I do every morning,” the tall, quiet woman told me. Brought in to manage a department full of people who resented her, people who expected a friend from within to become the boss, she felt the resentment every day. And so, in the morning, she put on her armor.
Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:14-17, NRSV)
Every morning she recited this passage to herself while getting dressed for work. Nothing she could do in the workplace seemed to help the situation, and because it involved the safety and health of some very fragile infants, she moved from crisis to crisis and could not resolve the management dilemma. She believed she was doing God’s work, and these words from Ephesians gave her strength and courage to do her best even when others seemed determined to undermine her. I felt sorry that this nice person, working so hard in a position that helped others, felt threatened and maligned and even endangered. If you’ve ever worked in a place where people did not want you there, you’ll know how she felt. But armor? I must admit the image made me uncomfortable.
Paul did not expect his readers to imagine literal Christian armies, destroying infidels. He did not imagine a Christian state or government or empire. He expected Jesus to return, SOON and to bring to an end life as he knew it. He lived in a faithful present that was also a difficult meantime, chased out of town and stoned and arrested simply for sharing his faith in the radical notion of Jesus. And like any good preacher and teacher, he used what happened to him every day to transmit his message.
I believe what Paul really wanted us to have was more like Under Armour.
Pure Luck is an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker, and since he came into my life nine years ago, I’ve been exposed to products and companies I never knew existed. They make tiny little stoves and lightweight pads to go under your sleeping bag and chamois towels not much bigger than a dishcloth expected to dry off a whole person.
One of those is Under Armour, the maker of athletic wear including the sort of hiking underpinnings that wick away your sweat so you don’t find yourself in damp clothes when the weather turns suddenly colder or night falls. In preparation for a spring hike four years ago, Don bought a new set of close-fitting, Under Armour long johns, and he was grateful to have them as he shivered in his tent, discovering the nights were still quite chilly on the rocky trails of Pennsylvania.
In the wee hours of life, the dark of conflict from within or without, the whole armor of God offers one way to imagine ourselves shielded and strengthened.
It’s that sense of inner protection that allows us to go out into the world and say and do the things we believe matter, whether they are pretty safe or not safe at all. We put on that breastplate, although it may look just like a t-shirt to everyone else, and we stand at the Farmers Market or at the Ecclesiastical Council or in the workplace or under the watchful eye of the authorities.
Paul stood in marketplaces telling everyone who would listen about the one wh
o shields us from all darkness, Jesus Christ. He knew about the use of strength to harm the opposition, and he used it himself to persecute Jesus’ followers before he became one himself. This is when he found his real gifts and strengths, and he employed those gifts to encourage others with words that continue to speak to us so many centuries later.
To help them in the difficult meantime, Paul gave a young church an image of its own strength, a power based not in armor but in God; he gave them spiritual Under Armour. We can still put it on like a second skin, creating a resilience that empowers us to embody Christ’s peace and to speak Christ’s loving, living truth. May we wear it in his name. Amen.