The Armor We Wear
St. Paul's Episcopal Church | Louisburg, NC | August 23, 2015
Good Morning. I have just finished my involvement with a large Public Art work downtown titled ESSE QUAM VIDERI, To Be Rather Than to Seem. It has several meanings to me, to walk the talk of my faith, and to do the right thing when no one is watching are at the top of my list. These words of St. Francis are also weaving their presence throughout my remarks this morning, “you can only know as much as you can do.”
You can only know as much as you can do.
Take a look at the life of St. Francis who was born in 1181 in Assisi, Italy. Europe was in a constant battle of religious ideology. This fractious culture of his youth was obsessed with war and he joined that fight and was captured. Francis came out of prison dazed and disillusioned. He felt there must be something more than all this torture and aggression. Francis seemed to realize that there is an intrinsic connection between violence and the need to protect one's possessions and privileges. He realized that his father's obsession with money had in many ways destroyed his father's soul, and so Francis set out on a radically different path.
Francis went about the work of taking off the armor of this world and putting on the armor of God. He concluded that the only way out of such a world for him was to live a life of voluntary poverty. Even the rope that he wore around the waist of his robe was a sign that he carried no money, since the leather belt at that time also served as a wallet. Francis knew that once you felt you owned anything, you would have to protect it and increase it. It is the inherent nature of greed--there is never enough. For some interesting and seductive reasons this is no longer considered a capital sin in our capitalist society. These thoughts are from a biography which was written about Francis while he was still alive in the 13th century, “Look brothers, if we have any possessions, we will need arms to protect them, and then this will cause many disputes and lawsuits, and possessions impede the love of God and neighbor. Therefore, let us decide we do not want to possess anything in this world." Now that was a radical idea, then and 800 years later. The more we own, the thicker our armor of this world needs to be. It becomes impossible for our generosity to breathe through these layers of selfish orientation.
The armor of this world will eventually morph into our own personal straight jacket. Francis was a model for us to enter pain and suffering and not to seek to avoid it. This vulnerability is fueled by forgiveness and grace, not fear and judgment. The same is true today. He saw the Gospel journey from violence to non-violence, from wealth to poverty, from pride to humility, from indifference to love, from vengeance to forgiveness, from killing enemies to loving enemies. He lived his adult life as a model of what being a disciple of Jesus was to look like. Our faith asks us walk this path unprotected, with no sword and with no shield.
The Old Testament reading for today from 1st Kings shares with us Solomon’s seven year construction of the Temple which was to house the Ark of the Covenant. Cedar and cypress, blocked and dressed stone, all gilded with gold leaf were dovetailed in the security of this inner sanctuary. Yet the cloud of the Lord entered, and immediately permeated this embellished earthly Kingdom. The covenant which bound these Jewish people and their God was not bound by earthly dimensions of time and judgment. This is the Armor of Imagination.
Today’s Psalm 84 whispers to those in hearing distance of grace which permeates our body, mind, and spirit. The Psalmist, possibly David accepts that desire plays a role in all our lives, with the weight of our envy and our covetous nature of the physical and financial at times weighing us down. Yet our hope and salvation rise with these singing sparrows, mysteriously unbound by gravity, in a very similar manner to the clouds which entered the tabernacle in 1st Kings. God is our shield as we journey through our own desert of Baca, finding our way home to our own Jerusalem. Our burden is made lighter by our God who animates the upward song of the sparrow. This is the Armor of Potential.
Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus is a command to gird your loins, to brace yourself for spiritual warfare. Look at these words; armor, strength, struggle, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit. Paul was speaking in the local vernacular of the Roman infantry. Could this congregation walk with these metaphors to his greater truth? I don’t know. To a different community in Colossus, and at a different time, Paul used different terms. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Forgive each other, just as the Lord has forgiven you. Clothe yourself with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Although the words are different, I find the meanings of the messages very similar. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul gives us the courage to live into the radical invitation which he is revealing to the church in Colossus. This is the Armor of Empathy.
These three readings join with the Gospel reading from John today. Jesus turns to the twelve asking them, and at the same time is asking us, “Do you wish to go away.” Our call is to answer with Simon Peter, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” This is the Armor of Trust.
Most of the time, we treat our neighbor to the same doubt and shame which we have for ourself. This reminds me of the story of the wealthy American business man who spends a couple of days in Calcutta with Mother Theresa. At the end of his experience, he tells her that he wouldn’t do what she was doing, living with these lepers, for a million dollars. She looks at him and says neither would she. He could not comprehend the type of armor she was wearing. Her faith spoke a language with which he was not familiar with.
The Armor of God does not cordon us off from others. Instead, this armor welcomes the other. It is the objects, events, and interactions in our lives which we cannot control which tell us the most about who we are. This is the porosity of love. A shield of armor in the traditional sense is of no use here and of course is a hindrance and a handicap in our interactions with our sisters and our brothers. An exoskeleton of armor only hinders this return to love. Armor in this context is a handicap. This is sadly played out in our society today where folks cower behind security system signs in their yard, dead bolt locks on their doors, with pistols nestled in their bedside table. How’s that working for you?
The message of the Christ is that in order to invest in your true safety, nurture your acceptance of vulnerability. Now that is a radical proposition. Radical means to go deep, down to the root, as in a radical medical procedure. A kinder image is to pull a radish out of your garden, same word, same root. To be radical is to be counter-cultural. The business man was flummoxed, why didn’t this slight of frame woman Theresa contract leprosy, being exposed to these open wounds daily. Well, she was wearing the armor of God, this radical woman of God.
I like to think that this is what baseball great and civil rights champion Jackie Robinson meant when he said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” This statement was sadly brought to my attention because it was the last text that Tywanza Sanders wrote before going to his Bible Study at Mother Emmanual AME Zion church in Charleston last month. In word and in deed our sense of safety is too often infected by race and warped by a fearful political agenda.
This world’s armor keeps us from being connected. The Holy is not up in the clouds, born in some chariot in the wind. It is in the eyes of the sick, in the want of a child, in the nervous doubt of her mother, in the anger of a hungry man. We can’t feel our kinship as long as we wear the armor of this world.
But, when we say yes to love, we are also saying yes to accepting suffering into our daily lives. Our ability to really change and heal people is often the fruit of suffering. Suffering occurs whenever we are not in control. Some form of suffering is absolutely necessary to teach us how to live beyond the illusion that we are in control. It is God’s armor, not ours. We then become usable instruments, because God's power works through us.
We live in a world of false and seductive dualistic thinking, perched on opinions of right or wrong, good and bad, beautiful or ugly. If we can wear the Armor of God we can walk away from this illusion to a place of non-judgmental contemplation. We can be present without labeling things and people. Contemplation occurs with clear quiet eyes. This Armor of God is woven with Imagination, Empathy, Potential and Trust, not Kevlar.
Once we have this armor of God on we can simply be with our problems, and not be driven to solve them. We come to God, not by doing right but by when we do wrong. This awareness of our own brokenness is the place where we can stand and simply say, “Who am I to Judge?” This letting go is the fabric which God’s armor is woven from. When others see this manner of living, we become catalysts of graceful change and peaceful acceptance; To Be Rather Than To Seem.