Joshua 24:1-2, 15
Within days of the final pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the apparent end of our 20-year occupation of that country, Taliban forces took control. Heartbreaking, gut-wrenching chaos quickly ensued and, just as quickly, most of the pundits and politicians who had called for an end to our “forever war” began pointing fingers, casting blame, and—most surprising of all—actually professing to care about Afghan women, girls, and refugees.
And so it is that one week after the fall of Afghanistan, a week filled with vivid reminders of the costs of war and the failings of violence, the lectionary gives us a passage that speaks of fighting and enemies and armor.
Such talk is jarring to our peace-making hearts. Most of us find the metaphors off-putting, at best.
I will admit that the very premise of the passage—that of fighting and armor— is problematic enough that I’m pretty sure I have never preached on it before. And today I confess to you that I think that’s been a mistake.
Because if the past five years have taught us nothing else, it is that we are engaged in a spiritual struggle against principalities and powers, whole systems of oppression, injustice, racism, and poverty, and, yes, forces of cosmic evil. And surely the past few weeks—weeks in which it seems that the whole world is either burning, collapsing, falling apart, or refusing and even prohibiting the public health measures that would protect people from COVID—have driven home the point that there are mighty forces at work in the world.
It is only natural to feel somewhat powerless in the face of such forces. We try to organize not agonize, but it’s perfectly normal to feel discouraged to the point of despair. Then when resistance seems pointless, we are tempted to harden our hearts and pretend that things really aren’t all that bad. Perhaps the most human response of all is to get so angry at all the pain and injustice in the world that we need someone or something to blame. And so we focus our vitriol on individuals, political parties or positions, anti-vaxxers, entire religions and races, or some other leader who’s less than perfect.
It is so easy to get stuck in that place of blame and anger, name-calling, dehumanization, and projection. But that rarely gets us anywhere good. More to the point, it usually gets us exactly where so much of our country is today: deeply and passionately divided, with opponents not merely disagreeing but also hating and demonizing one another.
I think this is one of the reasons Paul is clear in telling the Christians in Ephesus that they’re not fighting against human enemies—be that Caesar in Rome, Caesar’s local surrogates, the corrupt tax collector, an annoying neighbor, or a racist relative.
We aren’t fighting against human enemies, Paul says, but againstsystems and forces, against evil itself.
What?!? I can imagine the Ephesians responding. The human enemies are intimidating enough, but now you’re telling us that we’re up against the whole world?!? We’re doomed!
Which, I think, is why Paul wants them to know not only that they are NOT doomed—that, in fact, they can be strengthened by the very strength of Jesus—but also that they have important spiritual tools to aid them in the struggle.
We’ll get to what Paul calls the “armor of God” in a minute, but first I want to share with you some other, more modern, metaphors and tactics for surviving and even thriving in this hot mess of a world that God so loves.
Nadia Bolz-Weber, the celebrity Lutheran pastor and writer, recently compared her sense of overwhelm to an overloaded electrical fuse box.
“I just do not think our psyches were developed to hold, feel, and respond to everything coming at them right now, . . . in real time every minute of every day,” she says. “The human heart and spirit were developed to be able to hold, feel, and respond to any tragedy, injustice, sorrow or natural disaster that was happening in our village. So my emotional circuit breaker keeps overloading because the hardware was built for an earlier time.”
Noting that the world is on fire but she has only one bucket of water, Bolz-Weber stays strong in the Lord by using the tools of discernment. She prayerfully asks to know what is hers to do and what is not hers to do.
“The world is on fire literally and metaphorically,” she says, but I only have so much water in my bucket. The more exposure I have to the fires I have no water to fight, the more likely I am to get so burned, and inhale so much smoke that I cannot help anymore with the fires” closest to me. “So I try and tell myself that it’s ok to focus on one fire. It’s okay to do what is yours to do. Say what is yours to say. Care about what is yours to care about. That is enough.”
The Sikh writer and and revolutionary love activist Valarie Kaur offers a “guided inquiry” for considering how to engage the struggle against injustice, exclusion, suffering, and division. First, she encourages us to pay attention to the grief we feel about what is happening in the world and how we carry that grief in our bodies. Then, she invites us to notice how it feels to want to”fight back”—and to honor those feelings.
“What will you do with this energy?” she asks. “How will you channel the fight impulse into something that gives life? You have a role to play that no one else can play. You don’t have to know all the answers now. You simply need to allow yourself to feel the power that you have, the abilities that you have, the voice that you have, and invite that deepest wisdom inside of you to guide you into what you need to do now and next.”
Nadia Bolz-Weber gives us permission to acknowledge that our circuits are overloaded with suffering and to recognize the limits in what we can do. Valarie Kaur encourages us to channel our own energy and power in the struggle against injustice.
This is all very concrete, practical, and, I would say, important and even valuable advice.
And … Paul offers us something altogether different—and, at least, equally valuable, which is the power and the armor of God. He also proposes a different purpose: not so much self-preservation or self-empowerment or even victory over anyone or anything, but rather a community-based, faith-filled struggle that will succeed in nothing less than preventing the triumph of evil. Listen:
Therefore, pick up the full armor of God so that you—and the you here is plural; he is speaking to a congregation of Christians—so that you stand your ground on the evil day, and after you have done everything possible to still stand.
After you have done everything possible to still stand.
And what is the “armor”—the protective outfit—of God?
Well, if truth be told, I find myself distracted by the belt, the breastplate, the shield, the helmet, and the sword. These are not items I normally wear.
But if we strip all that away and look at what the outfit of God is made of—well, that’s a different story: What we need for making a stand against the powers is truth. What God gives us for confronting dehumanizing evil is the knowledge of justice. For those times when things get really serious, we have the gift of faith. For the moments when we are being attacked for who we are, we have the grace of knowing we are God’s beloved and we have been delivered from our brokenness and wounds—delivered from evil itself. And when push comes to shove, we can rely on the very Spirit-word of God.
Against the powers and principalities and cosmic forces, we also have the power of prayer and the strength of persistence. And against the greatest evil of all, the power of hatred and violence, we have the capacity—and the shoes—to spread the good news of peace. And, while Paul fails to mention it in this letter, I’m pretty sure the thing that ties the whole outfit together and makes it work is the strong thread of love.
And that is an outfit I am honored to wear. This is the outfit we are all born to wear.
So let us be strengthened by the Lord of Love and Love’s powerful strength. And when all is said and done, let it be said that we are still standing, still grounded in love and faith and hope, wearing nothing but the glorious outfit of God.