St. Mark’s Presbyterian Church – The Rev. Bart Smith
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (August 6, 2017)
Ephesians 6:10-20 – “Suit Up”
Finally, be strengthened by the Lord and his powerful strength. Put on God’s armor so that you can make a stand against the tricks of the devil. We aren’t fighting against human enemies but against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens. Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you can stand your ground on the evil day and after you have done everything possible to still stand. So stand with the belt of truth around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and put shoes on your feet so that you are ready to spread the good news of peace. Above all, carry the shield of faith so that you can extinguish the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is God’s word.
Offer prayers and petitions in the Spirit all the time. Stay alert by hanging in there and praying for all believers. As for me, pray that when I open my mouth, I’ll get a message that confidently makes this secret plan of the gospel known. I’m an ambassador in chains for the sake of the gospel. Pray so that the Lord will give me the confidence to say what I have to say.
Have you ever had a problem that seems way beyond your capacity? A time when you’ve thrown your hands up and said, “I just can’t do this”?
There are those times when we feel like we’re outmatched. Like we’re fighting to keep our heads above water. A professor of mine called those types of situations “wicked challenges,” problems that are so complex that they defy solutions.
I think that’s what the writer of Ephesians is trying to describe: “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.” Whatever the “present darkness” the writer has in mind, it’s almost as it has taken on a life of its own. She can’t simply pull up her sleeves and fix it.
Problems like that can make us feel powerless, weak, vulnerable. So what do you do when you feel powerless?
Ephesians’ answer? Suit up.
Knowing that the real enemy isn’t the presenting problem in front of us, we suit up with spiritual armor.
But what does that even mean? Isn’t war-like language like this disturbing to we modern folk? It’s hard to get past talk of dressing for battle or of dealing with “the flaming arrows of the evil one,” and understandably so.
I was fortunate to have a chance to talk about this passage with colleagues at a seminar at Ghost Ranch up in Abiquiu, New Mexico, last week. We spent the week with a seminary professor who walked us through different ways of interpreting the Bible from different cultural contexts. Toward the end of the week, the professor asked us to split off into groups and apply some of those methods to a particular passage. I was like, “How about Ephesians 6:10-20, ‘put on the full armor of God? I gotta preach on that next week!”
A wonderfully diverse group gathered around it: two progressive pastors from New Mexico, women; a former Marine from Arizona, a more conservative man; another pastor, female, who claims Akimel O’Odham and Lakota ancestry; and then there was yours truly.
It was fascinating to read this text with people from different life experiences. If you ever want to wring something out of meaning down to the last drop, put in front of a bunch of preachers! But seriously, it was interesting to see how different our interpretations were and how many different places our minds could jump to. We were all over the map in defining what “the tricks of the devil” or “the armor of God” could be, metaphorically speaking.
The pastors from New Mexico were turned off by the militaristic imagery. They mused about how harmful it can be to think of oneself as a good warrior fending off threats from other, supposedly evil people. And they’re right; it wouldn’t take long to come up with a list of how us-versus-them thinking has been destructive in human history, although the former Marine didn’t really have a problem thinking along those terms…
Our colleague, Judy, the Native American in the group, finally spoke up: “The problem that you all have (and by “you all,” she meant European-Americans) is that you think of warriors as a conquerors. The warrior in this passage isn’t a conqueror! He/she is a protector, like the Water Protectors at the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock in North Dakota.”
That was a compelling interpretation, and it opened up this passage for me. Maybe these metaphors about armor and evil are about protection, not aggression; about defense, not offense. These symbols of war and violence are inverted to symbols of peace and nonviolence.
Still, our group differed on precisely what the struggle could be in this passage. Could it be the struggle of addiction? If you’ve ever fought that fight yourself or loved someone who has, addiction is definitely a spiritual battle, an enemy that can be described as a “cosmic darkness.”
Is it the struggle of spiritual warfare against demons and such? That’s a perspective that many people in Pentecostal traditions and Christians in Africa and Asia have.
Predictably so, I was the one who suggested that “the present darkness” can be conceived in political terms; the struggle is for social justice. There’s a scholar named Walter Wink who argues that the language about Satan, demons, and evil in the New Testament is really about structural evil and oppression. Also compelling.
In truth, the answer could be “C: All of the above” or “D: None of the above.”
But whatever the “battle” is—whether it’s personal, political, or somewhere in between—the defensive, protective, peaceful “armor” is the same. Suit up with truth, justice, peace, faith, salvation, Scripture, prayer.
Two examples from one of my personal heroes, the Rev. Dr. William Barber II. He’s the leader of Repairers of the Breach, pastor of a church, and a former head of the North Carolina NAACP. I love him because he’s all about what he calls “fusion politics,” bringing diverse peoples together for a common cause. I read his book The Third Reconstruction in June. Two stories he tells in that book stand out to me today in light of Ephesians.
Right after he got the call to pastor his second church, right on the heels of his first major community organizing victory, he was suddenly paralyzed with an extreme form of arthritis that locked his bones up. Doctors told him that he might regain some mobility with intensive physical therapy, but PT, he said, made him feel like a knife was stabbing him in the hip. He was in excruciating pain, bedridden, and went into a depression. Barber spent many long nights with tears streaming down his face.
But one night, a lady he didn’t even know, maybe a fellow patient, came into his room in a wheelchair. She said, “I heard you were in here. I’ve come to pray for you.” But Barber resisted, “Ma’am, I really don’t want to talk to you right now.” But the woman said to him, “Well, you can’t get out of bed. So I’m gonna talk, and you gonna listen.” She said to him, “Look, they’ve taken both my legs off. Now I’m goin’ on home to get me some new legs, but God’s not through with you yet. You remember that: you’ve got some work left to do.” Then she bowed her head and prayed and wheeled out of the room.
That was a turning point for Barber. He persisted with his grueling recovery. Today he is a leader of a national movement.
Another story he tells is from his time wrangling with the State House Speaker in North Carolina and a network funded by the Koch brothers. Barber’s coalition was in the State House protesting cuts to education. They were singing, doing call-and-response refrains (“Fund education, not incarceration!”), and quoting the Bible. The Speaker, irritated that they weren’t showing respect in “his” house, had them arrested.
One of the arresting officers pulled out an extra-large set of handcuffs and said to Barber, menacingly, “I bought these five months ago for you.” He cuffed him and another pastor and told them to walk down the stairs. Now, this is a large man who walks with a cane so Barber naturally refused. They went into the elevator instead.
As the doors of the elevator closed, one of the officers, a young white man, groaned to the other officer, “We’re going to hell for this.”
So Barber, sensing an opportunity, closed his eyes, looked up and prayed, “Lord, prove yourself.”
The elevator opened… and they were on the same floor! The crowd was so excited to see them again that they chanted even louder, “Fund education, not incarceration!”
As one officer furiously pushed the buttons, Barber prayed again, “Lord, prove yourself.”
The doors opened again. They were still on that same floor! The officers started to look nervous. So Barber said to his colleague, “Reverend Spearman, please ask the Lord to release this elevator.” The other pastor prayed aloud in his booming baritone voice, ‘In the name of Jesus, be thou released!’
With that, the elevator went directly to the first floor.”
As they were leaving the Capitol, the white officer, “who looked like a ghost” said to Barber “I really don’t want to be doing this.” He put Barber into the transport vehicle.
Do you know what he did then? The officer took the handcuffs off.
You never know how that “armor” might protect you.
Friends, these are notoriously difficult times in our country, times that require extra doses of vigilance and stamina, and on top of that, there are an unlimited number of personal challenges that many of us face. It’s easy to feel powerless. But whatever the struggle, the spiritual armor is the same. Whether it’s battling disease within our own bodies or despair within our own souls; whether it’s going toe-to-toe with powerful politicians, the tools are the same. We tell the truth. We seek justice. We read Scripture. We pray.
That’s what we suit up with for any wicked challenge.
Facebook image credit: Bill Moyers & Company, http://billmoyers.com/content/rev-william-j-barber/