Armored in Grace
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 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. Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
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This week we learned of yet another act of gun violence, this time in New York City near the Empire State Building. This, after other terrible incidents in Aurora, Colorado, a Sikh temple in Wisconsin, Texas A&M University, and others. The humor website The Onion captured it well in a headline from Friday:
Nation Celebrates Full Week Without Deadly Mass Shooting UPDATE: Never Mind
It’s an example of satire that isn’t necessarily funny, but instead is pointed as it illustrates a deeper truth in our world. It’s been an unusally grisly summer for such acts.
There is a heaviness in the air. The election doesn’t help, with still more heated rhetoric coming our way, along with frenzied reporting over the latest gaffes, and all-around conduct unbecoming of those seeking to hold political office.
Meanwhile Tropical Storm Isaac pounded Haiti yesterday, a country in which thousands of people are still living in tents after the deadly earthquake some three years ago.
And of course, we remain very concerned about little Jacob as he continues to fight his battle with ALD.
It is very easy to lose heart.
Paul comes along in the midst of this and frames the world he lived in, and the world we live in now, as a cosmic battle between good and evil.
How are we to respond?
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
In last week’s sermon I gave a summary of The Hunger Games and talked about how the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to fight in place of her sister Prim. The male tribute from district 12 is a boy Katniss’s age named Peeta Mellark. There is a conversation between Kat and Peeta as they prepare to enter the arena the next day. Peeta says, Whatever happens tomorrow, even if I die, I want to die as myself. I don’t want the Capitol to take that away from me. I won’t let them turn me into something I am not.
Katniss doesn’t understand: What difference does it make if you’re dead either way? It seems foolish to care about such things.
But Peeta knows: in dark times, we may not prevail, but we can remain faithful to the values and principles that we hold dear. We can keep the faith. Who will we be in this world, as we seek to serve God and love as Christ loved? That is the question. As Viktor Frankl realized in the death camps of the Holocaust: “Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.”
Paul would approve of this impulse of Peeta, and of Viktor Frankl. The battle is on, Paul writes, and so we must clothe ourselves with the things of God:
The belt of truth; the breastplate of righteousness; the helmet of salvation; and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Note that the only offensive weapon is the word of God. You may have heard of “fight or flight.” But the armor of God equips us for a third task, which is to freeze: to stand with integrity and courage, where we are. We are not meant to be on the attack. We are not people of destruction. We are people of the Word, and the Word is love.
Now, Katniss says she doesn’t understand Peeta’s desire to die “as himself.” But her behavior shows that she does understand, very well.
Katniss befriends a fellow tribute named Rue. Rue is young, like Prim. She is not tough or strong—an alliance with her is not a tremendous asset to Katniss. But Rue is clever and her heart is true, and she and Kat are able to gain a couple of advantages over the others… but then, sadly, Rue loses her life.
And something breaks open in Katniss.
Remember that the Hunger Games is a reality show. Everything the tributes do in the arena is broadcast for the entire country to see. Katniss knows that a hovercraft will be along soon to pick up Rue’s body and remove it from the arena. Katniss feels moved to do something to acknowledge her friend but she knows she doesn’t have much time. She must show the Capitol that there is a part of her that they cannot control.
And so she gathers white flowers and places them around Rue’s head, in her arms, around the body. She does this in memory of her friend, in recognition of her dignity, her worth, not just as a pawn in the Capitol’s power games, but as a human being. She does this so everyone will see, and know.
There is a dignity that can never be taken away.
The interesting thing about the book is that it’s told from Katniss’s point of view and hers alone. She does not know what effect her honoring of Rue might have, if any. What the movie makes clear, however, is that her actions inspire the people of Rue’s district to rise up. A revolution is beginning that will unfold over the three books in the Hunger Games trilogy. And it begins with an act of goodness and grace, in which Katniss refuses to be a pawn.
Now here’s what’s brilliant about Paul’s words. He gives us these robust images of armor:
And we might picture chain mail, a suit of steel like a medieval knight. Or maybe kevlar. Something bulletproof. But then there’s this reversal: The armor of God is made of…
Which turns out to pretty thin armor. When you’re wearing righteousness, truth, peace, faith, you still feel the pain of the world. You still hurt when others hurt. To clothes ourselves with the things of God does not protect us from grief. But it gives us strength to stand in faith. It gives us hope and courage to fight another day.
I was with a group of clergy women a few weeks ago, leading them in a retreat. We spent some time talking about the anxiety that pervades so much of our culture. As an illustration of this, we created a large collage using newspapers and magazines. The headlines we read, the images we ingest—so many of them convey this anxiety: We’re not thin enough. We’re not young enough. We’re not rich enough. We don’t have enough stuff.
Then we shared the story together of the days following 9/11 in New York. A writer named Sally Schneider describes the experience of wandering the deserted and devastated streets, and finding a restaurant open. It was Mario Batali’s Italian restaurant. Mario himself said, “Yes, we’re open,” and welcomed them in. There was something so comforting in the food people shared in that place—as if life was normal, somehow. It almost felt defiant… like Katniss decorating the body of an “expendable” tribute with flowers.
Sally described the experience later to a friend—what was it about that meal that made it so significant?—and her friend said, “Of course. We fight back with beauty.”
And so this group of clergy women considered how we fight back against the anxiety, against the despair, against the darkness, with beauty and righteousness and truth, all those things Paul wrote about. And we tore pieces of colored paper and wrote acts of beauty on them and pasted them on that board. And the anxiety still poked through but a new picture began to emerge, a crazy quilt of beauty.
That is our task…
to fight back with beauty.
to fight back with righteousness.
to fight back with peace, and grace, and truth.
May we do so, armed only with the Word of God… the Word which is Love. Amen.