August 23rd 2015
Based on Ephesians 6:10-20
I happened to be in the Thrift Shop a few weeks ago when a woman came in looking for a shawl for her mother in an extended care home. There was nothing quite suitable in the TS, but I remembered our trip out to St. David’s by the Lake in Celista last November where they gave Jim and I two prayer shawls to bring back. One had already been delivered but I found the remaining shawl in my office. It was as a soft dark green one. The woman was delighted and said it was perfect- right down to the colour. I was glad she liked it and I thought – it’s even more perfect than the shape and colour. Our energy and intention has power. The shawl was made with intention – that it be a blessing, a comfort and reminder of God’s presence with the one who receives the shawl. For me it is like soft armour. So, let’s talk about the armour of God….
Last week we talked about what gives us courage; this week the reading from Ephesians asks how do we arm/protect ourselves from evil – and what do we mean by that?
`Evil’ actions/malicious thoughts by `good’ people can be more devastating than those we’ve been taught to be afraid of, because we don’t expect them – we don’t know how to react, or counteract them. How do we protect others and ourselves from our own evil or hurtful impulses?
Paul’s letter to the Ephesian congregation, written while he was in prison he tries to instruct them on how to put belief and actions together. In `The Message’ a contemporary paraphrase of the scripture, vs 13 sounds like this: “Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. “
It doesn’t however use the armour imagery that is such a strong metaphor in the original text. Trying to be sensitive I suppose… but, to the first century audience, the armour imagery would have a very visual and visceral effect. Living within the Roman Empire, meant the people of Ephesus would be very familiar with the military dress of the Roman soldiers. It was designed to protect them well. Paul uses this imagery to talk about a very different kind of protection – protection not against military might, but against negative spiritual forces.
Ancient culture personified this force in a variety of ways: a demonic power called Satan; or `the devil’; “fallen” angels who had rebelled against God; powerful astrological bodies; and more.
In my United Church tradition we didn’t talk much about the power of evil, or where it comes from. In CS Lewis’s book from the 1950’s called the Screwtape Letters, the devil teaches his nephew that the best way to have control over human beings is to convince them that you don’t exist. So, whether we think of evil as a personified being such as Satan, or an energy, a way of being in the world that can overpower our more noble self, we know that there is something terribly wrong and tragic when we dehumanize one another – individually, or collectively.
It can go the gamut from wishing for another to suffer, to actual physical and mental abuse to genocide – the intended destruction of whole groups of people.
So, what do we have to protect us? What is the armour of God?
It begins with a belt of truth, circling the wearer as God’s truth encircles those who believe. Next is a breastplate of righteousness or justice to guard the heart. Ancient soldiers wore sandals that had spikes on the bottom that helped them stand firm, as the little congregation is asked to stand firm on the gospel. “In all circumstances, hold faith up before you as your shield, it will help you extinguish the fiery darts of the Evil One.” Says Paul. Back in the day, soldiers shields were made of wood covered in canvas and animal hide. Soaking the shields in water before going into battle meant that when the enemy’s flaming arrows hit the shields, they would fizzle out.
Helmets were made of skin and metal, while Roman swords were short and straight. From the belt of truth to the helmet of salvation, all of the elements in this list are designed for protection rather than attack except for one: the sword of the Spirit – the word of God.
Unfortunately the `Word of God’ has been misused and abused as much as it has been used. At BC Conference this past May, we were reminded of the `check list’ of that which is `of God.’
Does it bring more beauty; does it bring more justice; does it bring more love?
According to Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader, vol. 26, p 507 (a highly reputable source!), the nations with the most anxiety per capita is the United States. Please note this is also the most heavily armed nation in the world. I think we would find similar levels of worriers in other countries with an abundance of military might. Unfortunately our own national government seems intent on building fear in us, with the relentless push for greater security, despite the overwhelming evidence that more armour, tighter restrictions, less openness does not make people feel more secure.
For the true armour of God, is more the amour of God; the love of God. Surrounding ourselves with the presence of love, the freedom of forgiveness, the gospel of peace and justice for all. It won’t fix everything, it won’t be accepted by everyone; it won’t make everything alright. But I believe it will help us live in the world with less despair, with more hope, more compassion, more freedom and joy.
The gift of spiritual direction helps me to listen to the wisdom of my own body.
Our hymns today, are a form of armour – or amour – calling on God’s love and protection.
Praying for the presence and protection of the saints – e.g. in Merritt when I was asked to preside at the funeral for three children murdered by their father. It seemed like too big a burden to bear on my own. I prayed for God to send me support and strength and suddenly felt myself totally wrapped in love as the saints and loving souls surrounded me like a living prayer shawl around my shoulders.
Paul’s letter concludes with the exhortation to pray, to be alert, to persevere. Last night as I worked on what I would share today, I held the congregational household list in my hands, and I went through it, praying for each person on the list, giving thanks for each of you, and asking God’s blessing, strength and protection for you.
I invite you this week, to go into the world, with the armour, the full amour of God. Say a prayer of blessing and strength and protection for each one you meet, each person who comes to mind. See what it changes. Amen.