Homily for the 14th Sunday of Pentecost August 23, 2015
I started playing hockey at a very early age (6) and I kept playing until I was in my late 40’s. I became aware fairly early on that for some people, putting on the equipment gave them an excuse to go out and try to destroy the opposition.
Playing Bantam hockey about the age of 12, we were playing an “exhibition game”. The word “exhibition” pretty much indicates meaningless, and the word “game” suggests having fun, right? Well, not as I experienced it. Early in the game I was skating up the left wing and I glanced to my right to see some kid from the other team charging at me from the far side of the ice.
Perhaps his coach told him to go out and hit something; perhaps he was just a budding sociopath or a bully. In my mind, there was no reason for him to be coming at me in that way. I felt a kind of disillusionment along with a strong sense of indignation (this entire thought process happened in the space of about a second and a half). Being a rather quick kid, I ducked just as he arrived to take my head off, and he went flying through the air and landed against the boards with a thump (and, as I recall, he spent the rest of the game trying to kill me, without much success).
I put on a lot of other uniforms and equipment over the years, mostly I played on losing teams, which I think was a blessing in disguise. But I continued to love sports, despite the fact that the odd person couldn’t seem to distinguish sport from war, or fun from fanaticism. Along the way I became aware of what happens when people lose perspective to such a degree that a game becomes something like war or survival of the fittest, and sportsmanship and principles are sacrificed to win at any cost.
Much as I enjoy sport, I look at recent indications by the federal government that they want to ensure that every Canadian child is involved in organized sports, and I have some reservations. For me “organized sports” conjures up images of hockey parents fighting in the stands while their 8 year olds try to play hockey on the ice; adults screaming obscenities and threats at 14 year old referees, at the young players on the opposing team and at their coaches, not to mention the negative effects of poorly trained coaches screaming at and shaming children who don’t conform or excel; mobs of drunken sports fans trashing cities; and it also brings to mind the cheating and bribery involved in almost every level of sport.
What about those kids who are not interested in sports but may want to spend their time playing violin, painting or dancing? What about those kids who prefer to invent things and explore their environments? (God forbid that we oblige a potential Einstein to commit to hockey practice and games 20 hours a week!) What about kids who might actually want to go to church and explore their spirituality? It’s interesting that in our society, supposedly “organized spirituality” or “organized religion” are bad, but apparently “organized sports” are good!
Sports can be a good thing and organized sport can have an important place in the scheme of things. But our development as human beings cannot be seen as strictly a physical, or even social, process. As Jesus said: “It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless.”
Paul* says to the Church at Ephesus: “Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand firm in the evil day …”
For some people, this has meant taking an antagonistic, hostile, even warlike attitude toward anyone not wearing our colours, not professing our creed, or not showing sufficient conformity to our cause.
As I look at Koreans firing shots and threats at fellow Koreans this past week, I am reminded of the dangers of equipping ourselves, outfitting ourselves, for the wrong reasons. In sports, the partisan spirit is bad enough, but when you put guns and rockets in people’s hands, it gets ugly.
One of the uniforms I wore at one point was that of my High School Football team, the Sheldon “Spartans.” (Historically, Spartans were a fearsome lot; we weren’t. We were actually never victorious in the two years I played with the team.) Fr Paul Scalia writes: “The Church, like a nation, must defend herself and her faith. She must fight for the truth and for the salvation of souls. This demands doing battle, for which reason we call ourselves the Church Militant. Like a nation, however, the Church also encounters a danger: that the fighting spirit of the Church Militant turn against her. The danger is not of fighting—but of only fighting, and fighting in the wrong way. The danger is that the Church becomes not the New Jerusalem, but the New Sparta. And Sparta was known for only one thing: fighting. Ruthlessly, effectively, heroically at times, but only fighting. Sparta produced no great artwork, poetry, plays, or philosophy. It produced only war. In short, the risk is to cease being the Church Militant and to become instead the ‘Church Belligerent.’”
In our world, the Spartan mentality is very popular. A recent movie (300) celebrated that spirit; MMA schools routinely reference that spirit and culture. But Baptisms at the point of a sword do no honour to the Christ who preached peace and urged us to love our enemies.
In reaction, there have been some in the Church who have become so opposed to military images in the Church that they have declared war on hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers, and convinced many Christians that we are required to be passive, submissive, basically willing to be doormats for the rest of the world.
I don’t think this is a helpful way to shed our history of empire, colony, violence, etc. This kind of literalistic and politically correct thinking never seems to work. And: how arrogant to be so dismissive of the wisdom and inspiration in the teaching of someone of the stature of St Paul; how clueless and naive to think that there is never an occasion when Christians must stand up and fight for something.
But yet, in that spirit, well-meaning revisers took one of our great hymns, Be Thou My Vision (which we are singing today) and gutted it of one of its great verses:
Be Thou my battle shield, sword for the fight;
Be Thou my dignity, Thou my delight;
Thou my soul’s shelter, Thou my high tower:
Raise Thou me heav’nward, O Pow’r of my pow’r.
I believe I carry that sword – the sword of the spirit; the sword of truth; the sword of proclamation. One of my vestments features that sword very prominently and I make no apologies for it. And we will sing that verse!
The moment I put on the uniform and vestments of a priest, I was conscious of a potential for division, exclusion, unhealthy authoritarianism, and self-righteousness, but how absolutely stupid and arrogant to throw away the potential for good because there is some risk involved or some potential for failing. One of the key gifts of the Spirit after all is discernment – the ability to choose the right way; the wisdom to know the difference between good and evil.
The image of the Christian warrior or crusader, equipped for a great challenge, has at times been understood too literally and can indeed inspire a very militant, conquest-oriented approach to faith. I prefer the concept of the peaceful warrior. Paul is not promoting violence or aggression; he is not promoting hatred; he is not promoting world domination; he is not suggesting that the Church adopt the methods of the Roman Empire — that was not the way of Jesus, and Paul knew that probably better than anyone.
Whether it is the Knights of Columbus or the Ku Klux Klan or ISIS, men marching around in silly outfits with swords, or thugs carrying out gratuitous and thoughtless acts of sectarian violence, are not St Paul’s aim – that is not what he is talking about.
It was never about that. It was always about knowing that even against impossible odds, God equips the faithful; that God is present as shield, as buckler, as today’s Psalm indicates (Psalm 84).
All King David needed against Goliath was a rock, and all he needed against the threatening nature of King Saul was a harp; all William Wilberforce needed was the weapon of a Christian conscience to stand up against slavery; all Rosa Parks needed against American segregation was a refusal to continue to cooperate with injustice; all Martin Luther King needed was a dream; all Desmond Tutu needed in the fight against apartheid was a fierce belief in the validity of the prophetic writings in the Bible. I think you get the idea.
“To wear the whole armor of God is not to be strong in the way that we already know to be strong but to be strong in the way that the Jesus is strong” (The Rev. Doug Lee). As one of our great hymns says
“For not with swords loud clashing,
nor roll of stirring drums;
with deeds of love and mercy
the heavenly kingdom comes.
So Paul says: “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”
Be aware – many people, thinking about this passage, get this grandiose image of themselves in shining armour, about to ride off to slay the dragon. If you go outside wearing nothing but the armour of God, you will be quite naked!
But the armour and the “weapons” we are given enable us:
To fight for peace and justice
To confront by debate and persuasion – to engage in the realm of intellectual discourse and to propose distinctly Christian
To seek courageously for truth and be open to its implications
n To aim for a meaningful and useful life, a life of integrity
Even C.S. Lewis, who very much believed that Christianity simply must contend with the forces of darkness, when confronted in church during the Second World War by a prayer saying: “Prosper, O Lord, our righteous cause…” Lewis confronted the priest about “the audacity of informing God that our cause was righteous — a point on which God may have his own view… I hope it is quite like ours, of course, but you never know with Him!” (Letters 324-25). Clear as he was about good and evil, Lewis was not one who casually promoted finding someone to destroy, flinging ourselves into conflict, or victimizing others. The enemies we face, as Paul states it, are not “flesh and blood” in any case – they are ideologies, principles and attitudes that are antagonistic toward the principles of life, equality and freedom proclaimed in the Gospel. Let it be noted as well that the invisible enemy often turns up inside our own lives, and that is often a necessary place of battle.
Let us consider that a person struggling to find a cure for Alzheimer’s is engaging in that same fight; women marching to take back the night are taking up that same fight; that peace protesters are involved in that same fight; that those who speak up against economic oppression and the 1% are also fighting in that same overall cause; as well as those who speak up to defend the environment.
The concept of the Church Militant is not an outmoded concept; it is a necessary aspect of our overall identity, reminding us that we must know when to stand up (e.g. to defend the powerless against oppression); when to speak up (against falsehood and corruption); when to fight (when what is right and good is under threat). The armour equips us not to destroy but to generate new life; not to oppress but to liberate; not to promote violence but to fight for peace.
Paul never steered people away from active involvement in the world – never encouraged people just to blithely accept whatever was happening. Instead, in the spirit of the Old Testament prophets, and in the Spirit of Christ, he equipped them in a way that they could help the world find its soul, its true motivations and purpose, and Paul never let people forget that love is the ultimate guiding factor in the life of every Christian person (see 1 Corinthians 13).
We live in a time when we have to believe that what we are doing here has relevance and significance in people’s lives, for their sake and for the sake of our society in general – to realize that we are in a contest, even a battle, of competing values, principles, priorities, directions and wills – for the kind of community we are going to have and that our grandchildren are going to have.
I think sometimes we seriously underestimate how big we are and what kind of impact we can make. Recently I was obliged to get a new suit, and not having been fitted for one for a long time, was shocked at the size I now require. I am a lot bigger than I thought I was! This is not just a physical thing. We are bigger than we think, so let’s believe we can make a difference.
Let us remember, if we are tempted to dismiss this passage, that at the time when Paul proposed this image of putting on the armour of God, the Church was a small minority with no potential for carrying out military conquest or terrorist acts of violence; they were virtually powerless in that way. Yet the first Christians engaged that challenge with a distinctive grace, compassion and perseverance in the face of threats we can only imagine. Their fight transformed the world.
We are not fighting for our lives, as they were, but for the life of a society desperately in need of a genuinely Christian witness and example. Let us have the courage to stand up and be that witness, confident that God has already equipped us with whatever we need to fight the good fight.
The Ven. Grant Rodgers+
*Scholars are pretty much uniform in the attitude that Paul himself did not write Ephesians – that it is an expansion and continuation of his work by someone close to him and eager to represent and spread Paul’s thinking and authority.
Ephesians 6:10-20 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.
I tend to think that it is what is inside a person that makes them beautiful, not what they look like and in fact some of the most interesting people in history have been people who would get rudely tossed from any self-respecting gym or fitness club — I think of people like Albert Einstein – CS Lewis – Mother Teresa — Abraham Lincoln – Oprah Winfrey — Winston Churchill. But aren’t we glad they pursued their course of action rather than the perfect six-pack or looking hot in spandex.
Run! Jump! Throw things! Hit people! Is not the only formula for leading a good life