Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Letter to the Ephesians --- The Director's Cut

A sermon preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, August 26, 2012

“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God… Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit!”

Man, that feels good to stand in a pulpit and say.

Makes me feel strong. Makes me feel powerful. Makes me feel good!

But here’s the thing … What is the armor of God? What is the sword of the Spirit?

The first thing I saw when I stepped off the plane onto the dirt airstrip in Lui, Sudan, was spent shell casings … the remains of bullets that had been fired in the not too distant past right there where we had just landed.

This was evidence of Sudan’s civil war … a two-decade holy war between the Muslim north and the primarily Christian south that killed more than two million people. There was a fragile peace but still much evidence of war – mine craters in the road and teenagers with automatic weapons.

But more than that, there was what I came to call the “arming of the heart.” The same eyes that embraced us with love brimmed with hate when they talked about the soldiers and planes from the north. Choirs sang Onward, Christian Soldiers with a passion and fire of people for whom the armor of God, the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit were not metaphors but physical instruments of their very survival against an enemy they saw as nothing short of demonic.

And I imagined that if I had lived the life they were living, my heart would be armed the same.

As we gathered our last evening, Bishop Smith asked Bishop Bullen, may he rest in peace, what it was that they needed most from us. I expected him to say bore-wells or school buildings. But Bishop Bullen knew his people, and he knew Jesus. And so he looked at us and said, “We need you to teach us about reconciliation.”

This man, whose own brother was brutally murdered in front of his eyes was begging us to help them reconcile with his murderers. Peace agreements might get rid of the bombs and the guns. But what about the armor of the heart?

“Teach us about reconciliation.”

What he was saying was, “Teach us how to be the Body of Christ.” What he was saying was the words of the Greeks who come to Philip late in John’s Gospel: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Words which prompt Jesus to tell his disciples that the hour had now come for him to go to the cross.

Those words have stayed with me since that night. They have stayed with me as I have realized this is not something we have to teach and our sisters and brothers in Lui have to learn, but something that we desperately need Christ to teach us all. We all need to see Jesus.

We are a heavily armed people … and I’m not just talking about the size of our military or the guns on our streets and the gates on our communities. We are armed with airtight, self-reinforcing political, theological, social and cultural ideologies. Our armor has labels on it: Fox News and MSNBC. Liberal and Conservative. Red and Blue. Black and White. City and County. Gay and, as Desmond Tutu calls it “so-called straight.” The list goes on and on and on and on … and on.

This arming of our hearts has made our necks stiffen and our ears close. It has convinced us that our own wisdom is God’s wisdom and those with whom we disagree, those whose views we find offensive are enemies not just of us but of God as well.

In this nation and in our own Episcopal Church, it has even turned us into opposing armies of Christian soldiers marching as to war, each convinced that Jesus sides with us and wants nothing more than our victory over the foe. Each convinced that we alone are putting on the armor of God. That we alone are wearing the helmet of salvation. That we alone are wielding the sword of the Spirit. Each afraid to give an inch to the other for fear of losing face with our fellow soldiers or betraying the righteousness of our cause.

It is an arming of the heart made much easier by the internet and 24-hour cable networks. Never have we been able to label and demonize one another so quickly and so often. To get that adrenaline rush of self-righteousness, like a patient pushing the button for the next hit of morphine to dull the pain and make him feel good.

Yet though it’s easier and faster now, this arming of the heart is nothing new. It’s been around for thousands of years. And we need to look no further than the letter to the Ephesians. A letter that answers not just Bishop Bullen’s need for his people, but our own for ourselves.

Teach us about reconciliation. Teach us how to be the Body of Christ. Show us Jesus.

Ephesus was a center of international commerce, and the newborn Christian community there reflected its diversity of background and nationality and opinion. And they were a lot like us. Like us, the Ephesians struggled mightily with diversity and authority and the temptation to demonize the different. Like us, they probably struggled with reading that Second Song of Isaiah. You know it:

Seek the LORD while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.

Like I imagine the Ephesians did, we struggle with it because we assume “the wicked and unrighteous” are always those other people and “returning to the Lord” means “come to believe like me.” And we forget that God is speaking to everyone when God says “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways.”

And so to this church in Ephesus and to our church today, this amazing letter is written. And as we have heard the second half of it here the past several weeks we have heard a poetic appeal for living together in love and striving for unity of the faith. An appeal to hold one another to the highest in ethical behavior.

Now, all of these things are wonderful, but they are so difficult because, well, what happens when we honestly and passionately disagree about what that is? What happens when we disagree so much we believe truth and blasphemy are literally the two choices … and each believes they are on the side of truth?

And where we left off last week, the letter is just about to get to that point … and our lectionary absolutely butchers it, skipping over, cutting out and tossing aside the most important part.

You see, if we do what the lectionary does … jump straight from the middle of Ephesians 5 to the middle of Ephesians 6 … there is nothing to prevent us from believing that the answer when we are in deep conflict is to hunker down and cowboy up. That putting on the armor of God means to get with those who believe like we do and withstand all the assaults of the enemy, knowing that God is on our side and we will ultimately prevail.

But the author of this letter doesn’t just jump there. In your service leaflet, there is the missing piece between what we heard last week and what we hear this morning. I call it "the Director's Cut". And it starts with the verse that more than any other sums up not just what comes next but the letter’s whole message to the Ephesians and to us.

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

We are going to disagree. We are going to have deep and passionate divisions. And that is nothing to fear. On the contrary, it’s great because it shows the realm of God is being built in our midst. But when that conflict comes, we are not to lord over one another, we are not to demonize one another, we are not to excommunicate one another. We are to be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

And then the letter goes on. And the author uses three categories of relationship as examples. Husband and wife. Parent and child. Master and slave. Now here’s where we usually run off the rails with Ephesians. Because we forget that now we’ve gotta hear this with first century ears and not get sidetracked by how our understandings of these categories might be different today. Regardless of what we think should be, for the people of Ephesus, these were three relationships where there was absolute and unquestioned power of one over another. If ever there were relationships where you could lord over, abuse and even banish the other it was husband over wife, parent over child, master over slave. Even the law said so.

But into each of these three relationships, Christ introduces the principle of mutuality. And this isn’t just lip service, either.

This isn’t just “You’ve got the power, just don’t abuse it.”

This isn’t even just “be sure you take each other’s needs into account.”

This isn’t even just “be subject to one another.” Not even just “politicians listen to your constituents and constituents obey the rulings of your politicians.”

This is “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

This is a mutual relationship where our love for one another is rooted in, imitates and honors that God loves each of us and all of us so much that in Christ God is willing to go to the cross rather than renounce that love.

This is not grudging tolerance, “live and let live” or some kind of nonchallenging, segregated diversity. This is hard core relationship. This is lions and lambs laying down together. This is Compton Street Crips and Latin Kings walking side by side through disputed territory This is not all the Whos in Whooville joining hands and singing on Christmas Day. This is Ellen DeGeneres and Rick Santorum laying it all on the table and getting real with each other and saying to each other “I’ve got your back and you’ve got mine.”

The church the author of this letter is inviting the Ephesians and us to be is a church that seeks and embraces diversity at every level realizing that the rainbow only comes after the thunderstorm. This is one of the texts that our baptismal promise of “will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself” comes from, and to which we answer with one voice, “I will, with God’s help.” … cause God knows we need it

So knowing that is the kind of relationship that God calls us into, we ask ourselves the questions again. What is the armor of God? What is the sword of the Spirit?

And what we find is that the armor of God is truly the armor of God. The armor that Christ wore. It is an armor that preserves us to eternal life not by being impenetrable but by being completely permeable. It is the armor of one who hangs naked nailed to a cross and still can say, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” It is an armor that stands against the wiles of the devil, knowing that the devil’s great power is to tempt us to organize around our differences and deny our oneness and truest identity in Christ. It is an armor that recognizes that our struggles are not against each other, against the enemies of blood and flesh .. but against the institutions of this world and the spiritual forces of evil that convince us that our energy is best spent waging war on one another than searching for truth together.

What is the sword of the Spirit? It is not the well-placed barb or point scored in debate or Facebook posting with the most likes. It is the spear that pierced Christ’s side on the cross. It is the sword that Simeon sang of to the new mother Mary in the Temple, a “sword (that) will pierce your heart also.” The sword of the Spirit is all of our willingness to be pierced by the Spirit. To endure pain for the sake of one another. To submit our wisdom to God’s wisdom revealed in scripture and in community, in breaking of bread and in prayer. To be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Putting on the armor of God does not mean being silent or playing small so that others will feel more comfortable. After all, the letter closes with the author asking we pray that his proclamation be bold. But what he prays to make known with boldness is not a narrow ideology he holds with absolute certainty. No, he says, “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.”

That is the bold proclamation we are called to make … and we must never be silent or play small in doing it. But it is not a parroting of any pre-held political viewpoint, now matter how deeply felt, but a bold proclamation of a love so mysterious that we can never pretend to understand it much less claim it as our sole property. A Christ that calls us to follow him to the cross before we would renounce our love for even those who believe Christ denies his love to us.

For us as a Cathedral, being an armory of God means not being just one more liberal Christian church. One more screaming voice in the cacophony between the religious left and religious right. We have a historic and incredibly counter-cultural opportunity at this moment in time to be a sacred public space open to anyone who agrees to try to abide by that rule of Christ. Who tries to be subject to one another with the same love that Christ has for all of us. Grasping the opportunity to be an armory of God means that this Cathedral be a place where a member of the Green Party and a member of the Tea Party can come to Christ’s table together. Where Todd Akin and Angela Davis, Gene Robinson and Peter Akinola, Rachel Maddow and Fred Phelps, Larry Rice and Bill Siedhoff are all welcome as long as they join us in seeking a wisdom that is higher than our own and join us in our commitment to seek, serve and love Christ in one another.

By the way, this is not only good theology, practically speaking, it’s the only thing that works. Because while indoctrination might work on blank slates, I don’t know one liberal who has been converted to the other side by a Rush Limbaugh rant or one conservative by a Bill Maher one-liner. But I know plenty of people – and I’m one of them -- who have been made to feel superior and self-righteous by listening to their favorite one. We aren’t converted by Facebook statuses and clever slogans. We are converted by the living Christ met in scripture, in the breaking of the bread and in the deep messiness of our lives honestly shared with one another.

We are converted when together we seek to find and claim the strength not of our own convictions but of Christ and Christ’s power.

We are converted when we are ready to have the sword of the Spirit pierce all of our hearts. When we pray in that Spirit at all times. When, in the words of Nelson Mandela, we see our opponents never as enemies but always as future friends. And when together we dream and work for that day where together in one voice, we proclaim the gospel of peace.

We are converted when we take off the armor of the world and when we put on the whole armor of God. When being subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, we become the Body of Christ. When the stranger who asks “Show me Jesus” only has to look at us.

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