On Sunday August 23, 2015 I was invited to preach at the Korean Presbyterian Church in Albany. My sermon was inspired by this photograph of a Syrian father escaping on a boat with his children. During worship we put this image up on the screen in front of us and looked at it as we read scripture and as we mediated on the Word of God.
Much of my sermon exegesis was inspired by Ched Myers and Elaine Enns in Ambassadors of Reconciliation
Scripture for the Sermon: Ephesians 6: 10-20
To give to help in Syria please visit the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance website.
On Monday of this week, at nearly 4AM local time on the shores of Kos, Greece a Syrian father walked off a small boat that was built for three people but ferried eight to safety. As he worked his way off the boat, that was badly damaged, he sobbed as he cradled the head of his young son who was leaning against his father and crying. In his arms he carried his young daughter, her little body held safely in a green lifejacket. Their mother was behind them and also about to get off the boat.
We know this because a freelance photographer from the New York Times was also there and caught this moment on film. A mix of emotions, gratitude, pain, and grief—all caught up in one photograph. During this month of August over 100 thousand refugees have attempted to gain access to Europe—fleeing one war or another. And like in our country, there has been a backlash of ugly, hate-filled anti-immigrant language and propaganda against these refugees. And this photograph of this father, sobbing as he walked onto shore has been a counter-narrative—to show the human face of war. And the human need that every parent has, to make a place of safety for their children.
I tell this story as a way of framing our scripture for today. Paul is writing to us from jail. He is writing with deep theological conviction about the “divided house” of his time and creating it anew, based on race, class and gender equality, “There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal. 3:28) As we see in Ephesians, and in our world today, that challenge, fight, and divided house is very present.
In Pauls’ time it was Jews and Gentiles, Romans and the underclass, wealth and grinding poverty.
In our time there are many lines of division, the ones that haunt us the most these days are human-made divisions of race and country.
How can we hear Paul’s words from so many years ago in a new way today?
How can we hear in Paul new things to help us in our ongoing work as disciples of the risen Christ?
Can we, as disciples of Jesus Christ—find new ways to live into our calling to be peace-makers and peace-seekers, especially in this time we live in?
Let us listen to Paul in Ephesians again:
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[a] 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,[b] 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,[c] for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
I must admit that this is a passage from Ephesians that has long has been a challenge to me. The images that on the surface, seem violent, even warlike have troubled me theologically. But how can I see these images in a new way, and how can they help us as we seek to be Christ in the situations we encounter today—situations that are so complex and so full of hatred and division?
And lastly—how can we name Evil when we see it? Paul does not shy away in this passage from using that name—Evil, to address the spiritual forces of divisiveness in heavenly places. The Evil of hatred, of division—one of my deepest questions today is, “What do we do when Evil is cloaked and excused by theological language or even our communities of faith? How deep must our spiritual work be as people of Jesus to root that out?”
Let us turn and listen to the metaphors and imagery that Paul puts before us today, perhaps in a new way:
- The Belt of Truth—Paul tells us to “fasten this around our waist.” This reminds me of the image of a worker, who has their tools fastened to their belt. When then put their belt on in the morning it has everything in it that they might need. In the same way as followers of Jesus we are called to fasten a Belt of Truth around our waists. Rather than physical tools what might be in our belt? Scripture, our faith, our experiences and interactions as those seeking to live out the way of Christ. Paul is not the first one to invite this image, it first comes from Isaiah 11, the messianic promise, “He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.”
- Breastplate of Righteousness—Paul continues his use of Isaiah with the image of the breastplace of righteousness. A breastplate as something we put over our torso to protect it, especially our hearts—from injury or harm. Later in Isaiah 59 we hear these words, “The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, and was appalled that there was no one to intervene; so his own arm brought him victory, and his righteousness upheld him. He put on righteousness like a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrapped himself in fury as in a mantle.” Paul brings us back to the idea in Isaiah that God is displeased with the idea that we do not handle evil for what it is, or that we do not intervene when peace or justice is at stake. This is a challenge that is issued to us and that that Paul was issuing to the community of faith around him at the time—to stand up, to act, to intervene, to get in the way. Even Paul, from jail is encouraging his fellow followers of Jesus to take bold peace-building steps of faith—even if it might land them back in the place where he is. Paul is inviting us to be protectors of vulnerable communities—taking God’s breastplate as our protection.
- Shoes—Paul tells us to put on our feet whatever “will make you ready to proclaim the Gospel of Peace.” Isaiah writes these words that Paul seems to be alluding to: “How welcome on the mountain are the feet of the one heralding peace.” (Isa 52:7). One translation of this passage from Isaiah that I love is, “How beautiful are the feet of the one who brings peace.” It is no wonder that Paul and Isaiah before him uses feet as the metaphor here. Feet in their time were dirty, they were not perfectly kept as so many of our feet are today, pedicured, placed in beautiful shoes, just another fashion accessory that we might have. Feet then were naked, or maybe with just sandals to protect them. The ground was dirty. Feet were oftentimes not beautiful. Years ago I preached a sermon on this passage in Isaiah and the title of my sermon was “Beautiful Feet.” Do you have beautiful feet? Do I? Do We? Our feet are only beautiful when they are the part of our body that carries us, walks us, runs us into the places where we bring about Christ’s peace. Where do your feet take you every day? Do they take you to a place where you are a peacemaker? This is the challenging question Paul is asking us here.
- Shield of Faith—In Psalm 91 the Psalmist writes these words, “You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.” It is true that as we seek to follow God, to be the people of peace we are called to be, that arrows will come our way. Some will seek to discredit us. Others to stop us. Paul of course, is very familiar with this issue; he is, after all, writing from jail! God will protect us—and Paul writes these words to remind us of God’s love, care and protection.
- Helmet of Salvation—Again, this image comes to Paul from Isaiah 59, it completes the image of the breastplate—together a helmet and breastplate were the best protection one had in battle in the time of Paul. He is turning militaristic imagery on its head to repurpose it for God’s peace—a powerful message as he was imprisoned by soldiers. A helmet’s purpose is to protect our heads—and what is inside…our brains, one of our most important and most vulnerable organs. What is most vulnerable in our communities? What is most in danger, or most unable to protect itself? These images we have of those who have been made vulnerable this summer—refugees, victims of war, children, the pastor and members of the church in Charleston who were gunned down simply because they were African-American. This is vulnerability—and I see God’s Spirit putting a new sort of helmet around them, a new sort of protection. How can we serve as God’s helmet of protection around those who are most vulnerable? How can doing so be our act of faith in Jesus Christ?
- Sword of the Spirit—the Word of God: God’s Word is our ultimate tool. We are reminded by Paul that it is not just our actions, but our words. It is not just how we are—but by what code we live. It is not just what we do but what we say. The Word of God is a gift that brings us new life in every stage of our lives and the life of this world. The Word of God is what we learn as children and then spend our entire lives deepening our understanding of. The Word of God is what gives us hope and what brings people to faith. As we proclaim peace—it is important that we do not just proclaim what we hear or what is said around us, but that our words are rooted and come out of the well of God’s peace, God’s love and God’s life that we see in Jesus—who was the living Word.
The belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shoes of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the spirit—the tools God gives to us to do the work of peace that is so urgently before us.
Let me close where I started. The image, the picture of the father clutching his children, tears filling his eyes as they got to a place of safety.
As the Church, the body of Christ, we are the heirs of the call to be peacemakers.
This is a call that is full of cost, danger and also promise. This summer we have seen and continue to hear the loud voices of racism and xenophobia all around us. As we enter into an election season in this country, these voices are especially loud. They are rewarded in our culture by television news shows that follow the god of ratings, money and viewers. And in doing so, these voices are amplified. And their harm increases.
The killings of African-American church goers earlier this summer haunts my soul every day. Since that day in June I just cannot get that massacre out of my mind. We are living in moments in the life of the Church and in the life of our faith that are pivot-points.
The invitation of Christ comes back to us again and again: