Scripture: Ephesians 6:10-20
In our struggle to build a better society, against what are we struggling?
This is actually not a rhetorical question – I want you to think of an answer. If we are struggling to live into the Kingdom of God, God’s government, who or what is our enemy? What’s holding us back?
In our search for enemies, let’s have a look at World War II. We’ve got some distance now, after all – we should be able to figure it out. I remember a story a friend told me. His dad’s English, flew in the RAF in World War II, and came out of that experience rather prejudiced against Germans. My friend’s dad lived in a small city in BC. Well, one year a German fellow immigrated to the same small city. He had flown with the Luftwaffe, had experienced the bad side of the Allied bombings. He hated the English.
Well, it so happened that there was a social occasion planned that was going to bring these two guys together. My friend saw it coming. He said, they’re both gonna be there, there’s gonna be drinking, and there are going to be fireworks.”
The occasion came. And guess who sat together all night, with their heads together, sharing stories and becoming fast friends? These two guys, one from each side of the war, who had more in common with each other than with anyone else in the room.
Tell me, who was the enemy in World War II? The soldiers on each end of the rifles were remarkably similar. Both doing what they think they had to do, both thinking God was on their side, both following orders from above, both having their souls seared by the need not only to risk their lives, but to take another’s.
So who was the enemy? The generals? But they were also following a certain necessity, just carrying out their own orders from above. Who was the enemy? The governments? The leaders? Was Hitler our only enemy in World War II? Could we have stopped the whole thing by taking him out of the picture, somehow? No. I mean that hasn’t worked for Al-Qaeda. It’s actually quite difficult to clearly identify the enemy, even in something as clear as the second world war. At least, if we want to put a human face on it.
There are three Christian thinkers who have really changed my thinking on this.
Jacques Ellul, William Stringfellow, and Walter Wink. Do those names mean anything to anyone here? These folks picked up the language of our rather strange reading today, and talked about spiritual forces behind and within our society’s institutions, nations, and movements. Walter Wink called them “the Powers.” This spiritual power makes an institution or nation more than the sum of its parts.
So, for instance, Nazi Germany and fascism were more than Hitler and his government, more than the armies assembled, more than the SS. There was an ethos, a set of beliefs, an historical necessity, a mob momentum – all of which added up to the power of Nazi Germany. Same with ISIS in our day. We could win a military victory in Syria and Iraq, but most of us would probably expect Al-Qaedas and Boko Harams and other forms of radical Islam to keep rising up. There’s a spiritual power there, an historical wound, a set of beliefs – and if we don’t deal with that spiritual power, we’re missing the point. Am I making sense?
So for Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement.
Racism was and is more than the Ku Klux Klan and a set of Jim Crow laws. There is a spiritual reality that gives racism life and power. The Truth and Reconciliation commission here in Canada identified that the problem is much more than Residential Schools – there is a spiritual force active here in Canada, something the TRC called “colonialism,” that holds aboriginal and immigrant populations in its spiritual power.
Ellul, Stringfellow and Wink said what our reading today says: “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,” but against these spiritual powers, these less-tangible but more important forces of evil.
If all we do is fight the radicalized men and women of ISIS, we’re missing the biggest part of the point. There is a vast spiritual sickness that must be healed here.
If all we do is decommission the residential schools and tinker with the Indian Act, we’re missing the biggest part of the issue.
There is a deep and painful spiritual wound in Canada that must be healed.
And since we’re in this election, let me also say this: if we just duke it out between political parties for the win, assuming that the right party in power will solve our issues, we’re missing the biggest part of the issue. I am afraid, the way this election is going, with all the scandals and attack ads, that at the end of 11 weeks we aren’t going to go to the polls to choose the vision of Canada’s future that is most exciting for us. We’re going to go to the polls to put an X by the clown who is least repugnant to us! There is a deeper political brokenness, if I may say it in these terms, a spiritual malaise at the heart of our political system, that needs to be healed. Am I still making sense?
The good news – and I think it’s great news – is that we are not each other’s enemies.
Trudeau, Harper, Mulcair, May – these aren’t the enemies. Not even ISIS is our enemy. There are deeper, spiritual problems to address. But how do we do that? How do we heal a spiritual wound?
I think the armour of God is a pretty good metaphor. Let me just look briefly at three parts of the armour. “Fasten the belt of truth around your waist.” Truth, and honesty, is a key strategy in a spiritual struggle. Part of it goes back to my last sermon: to say only what is true. I acknowledge, though, that this can be hard. Most of the time, I think we lie to protect ourselves, and sometimes to protect those we care about. To be honest is to be, at least somewhat, unprotected. Most of us, I think, are afraid of what others will think of us if they knew the whole truth. Honesty requires that we face that fear.
It also requires that we step out of the certainty of our own opinions and perspectives. I think the most valuable thing from my high school experience was my time as a debater. As a debater in Alberta, we were required at every tournament to debate both sides of every resolution. We had to research both sides, build a case for both sides – one that we could believe in! What if, before we built a pipeline, or blockaded a logging road, or divested from oil companies – what if we carefully researched both sides of the issue? I think our actions and decisions would be wiser, and we might begin to get at the spiritual issues behind the surface struggles.
Fasten the belt of truth.
In a spiritual struggle, honesty and research are tools that won’t let us down. The truth gets at the deeper struggle, and usually de-escalates the fight between people.
“And put on the breastplate of righteousness.”
“Righteousness” has a negative connotation these days – maybe “integrity” is a better translation. If we act with integrity – treating all others as we would like to be treated ourselves – that helps us stick to the deeper, truer issues. Of course, integrity is also quite difficult! When we get hurt, when we are stressed, when we are in a fight, we tend to lose our higher faculties! We hit back, or we run away and hide, or we seethe and plan revenge… If you have a really crazy family, or workplace, you know how hard it is to be healthy in the midst of craziness. But that, I think, is the challenge of the breastplate of integrity. As Gandhi put it – to be the change we want to see in the world.
And the helmet of salvation.
I talked about that in the story. It helps to remember, I think, that salvation doesn’t just belong to us. Each human being we encounter is loved by God just as much as we are. God is loyal to each person, even our enemies, just as God is loyal to us.
That’s gotta be plenty for one sermon.
I think this is a really key passage for us. “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the …spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” The good news is that we are not each other’s enemies. We’re really not. Not even Harper and Mulcair and Trudeau! In this polarized world, I think this is great and hopeful news.
It also means there is a tremendously important mission for us, for all churches and synagogues and temples and mosques. We are called to keep the world’s attention on the real struggles, the struggles that matter, the spiritual struggles. And we have the tools for the job.
So when the attack ads come on TV, I’m going to turn off the volume and look away. I’m also, by the way, going to stop reposting social media attacks on Stephen Harper. I’m going to try to look deeper, and higher. Let’s see if honesty, integrity, and respect are as contagious as fear.
You’ve heard the proverb, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me?” Well… it isn’t really true, is it? Names and nasty things people say may not hurt our bodies, but they get into our hearts and minds. At worst, if people keep calling us names, keep saying nasty things to us, we might actually come to believe that they’re true. We might actually say nasty things to ourselves, inside! No… names and nasty words, they DO hurt. They hurt our spirit.
That’s why, here at Knox, we want to banish nasty words from our community here. We want to say to each other only what encourages, what builds each other up. That’s pretty important. It makes this a safe place.
But everywhere’s not safe. In my life, I’ve had trouble with names and nasty words at school, sometimes at work, even sometimes at home. We all make mistakes, after all. So our Bible reading today tells us to keep ready the “armor of God.” Something to protect our spirits against stuff like nasty words.
Here’s one bit of the armor of God. It’s called the “helmet of salvation.” Okay, this isn’t exactly the helmet of salvation. It’s my hockey helmet – which, since I’m not a great hockey player, has in fact saved me a few times! It’s a symbol, a metaphor, for something we keep in our hearts.
Helmet of salvation. Something I try to say every single Sunday is something that Jesus was told when he was baptized. Here are the words: “you are my beloved Son. With you I am very pleased.” I believe that those words are for each and every one of us. You are my beloved son, or daughter. I am very pleased with who you are.” For me, that’s the helmet of salvation. If we remember those words, if we remember that who we are is beloved, then the nasty words often bounce off.
Sure God is not pleased with everything we do. We all make mistakes. But who you are – God is very pleased with that. You are beloved. Remember that, and the names won’t hurt you nearly as much.
Prayer of lovingkindness
May I (you, all beings) live in spirit and in truth.
May I (you, all beings) be delivered from evil.
May I (you, all beings) be healed;
May I (you, all beings) be whole.
May I (you, all beings) be at peace.