A sermon preached on August 23, 2009 based upon Ephesians 6:10 – 20, entitled, “Standing and Falling.”
There is irony running throughout these words from Paul. On a certain level, it sounds like a pep rally. You can almost hear a marching band playing in the back ground. “Be strong! Stand firm in the strength of the Lord! Put on all the armor of God.”
The irony is that the reason you have to talk about this at all is that we human beings are, in fact, so very fragile to begin with; so very vulnerable.
Paul draws his metaphors from the life of a soldier, because we associate soldiers with strength — with standing firm. I read an article in the newspaper this week that said the army is instituting a new program, the likes of which it’s never known, in which every one of the 1.1 million soldiers in our army will be required to participate. It’s a mental health training program. In the article, some of the sergeants being trained in the program expressed some skepticism regarding how well the rank and file soldiers would take to this program: it seemed a little too “touchy feely” for guys (in particular) who weren’t into talking about their feelings.
But the generals who are implementing this program said they have no choice; they have been driven to institute this program by the distressing rate at which soldiers are committing suicide.
Two other professions where the suicide rate far exceeds the norm include medical doctors and police officers; both of which project strength and competence. Stereo-typically men are viewed as the stronger sex, but men check out of life twice as often as women.
Of course, women are vulnerable to falling as well. The sad tale this week out of Morristown of the mother who strangled her young daughter, and then attempted to take her own life, give evidence to the emotional burdens that can pile up in a woman’s life.
We all go around with our game day faces on; but we live far closer to the precipice than any of us care to admit. Paul encourages us to stand firm precisely because it is so very easy to fall into the abyss.
Perhaps the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes has it right; we are afraid to say what we know is true, because we’re afraid we’re the only ones teetering on the edge.
I was talking to someone who was going through a divorce, in the process of which he had seen the reliable emotional constants he took for granted unexpectedly disappear. He felt as though he were in free fall. A striking thing for him had been that when word got around at his work place that his marriage had fallen apart, several co-workers made a point of quietly coming up and sharing the fact that their home life, as well, was in disarray. The Emperor has no clothes.
It would be one thing, Paul says, if we were up against enemies of flesh and blood, that is, if the enemies were nothing more than the adversaries we can see opposing us on the far hill side. If this were the case, we could keep an eye on them — keep the threat under control.
But no, says Paul “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.”
That’s a mouth full, but the point is, our adversary is always much more than the particular individuals who may, at the moment have us worked up into a lather.
We are, in fact, at the mercy of great systems of darkness that diminish life. We use various names to allude to these great systems, such as “wall street” and the “advertising industry”, the “military industrial complex” and “big government”, “big money” and “special interests”, the “news media” and the “television and movie industry”, all the various impersonal “bureaucracies” we deal with routinely and even “organized religion”, all of which have a demonic dimension to them, in so far as they are concerned in large part with holding onto, and expanding their power, in the face of which the individual, whom God always sees and cherishes, becomes invisible.
When Jesus was out in the wilderness being tempted by the devil, he is offered all the power of the kingdoms of this world. The devil can offer this power because in their dedication to their own preservation as opposed to God, they belong to the devil.
And remember Jesus on the cross, crying, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” — the “them” being both the soldiers who crucified him, because they were merely pawns of systemic darkness far greater than themselves — and the disciples who fled, because they never really understood how pervasive the darkness they were up against; they didn’t have a clue.
In the day to day struggle to live in this world, the evil one tempts us to think that our enemy is nothing more than say our spouse, or our boss, or the guy speeding next to us, because if we succumb to this delusion we will get lost in the vicious cycle of hatred and violence that devours this world.
And so, Paul says, put on the whole armor of God. The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit.
The first thing to notice here is that it is God’s armor, and not ours, because our armor is inadequate. There is this subtle distinction between what is generally thought of as “self-confidence” and “God confidence.”
At the night when Jesus was arrested and the disciples had gone into free fall, Peter wanted to believe that he had the right stuff, that, unlike the others, he wouldn’t fall way. It was necessary for Peter, to come to realize just how truly fragile his sense of self was, in order for him to discover in contrast what it meant to trust the One who is present in every dark valley. In doing so, he became the “rock” upon which the Jesus’ church was built.
“Take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one.”
We are all familiar with the flaming arrows of the evil one. Most commonly, these arrows come in the form of words. Some times the words are spoken by others; more often perhaps, they are spoken by ourselves, to ourselves. “You messed up. You can’t do anything right. You are a worthless loser.”
The shield of faith makes it possible for us to disarm those arrows. It allows us to say, “Yep, that’s me: a messed up loser who hasn’t got a chance in hell of making a stand except but for the grace of God. Fortunately, being a winner isn’t where I make my stand. I make my stand on the simple truth, that in spite of all the unseemly qualities that are a part of the mess that is me, I am loved by my savior with an everlasting love.”
The gospel of peace gives us a new way of viewing the people with whom we come in conflict. It reminds us who the real enemy is: the deep darkness that would eventually seek to do us all in. It reminds me that the one I am tempted to call “enemy” is just another loser on the bus of life not unlike myself, bullied about by the “spiritual forces of evil”, with little clue regarding what we are doing as we plod through life. It reminds me that in the end, we’re all in this thing called life together.