August 23, 2015
Rev. Debra Jene Collum
I want you to envision something this morning. You are visiting a famous beautiful public garden. There is a historical house in this garden restored to its original beauty. The garden is well kept, serene; flowers in bloom, trees lovingly cared for, pathways free of weeds and clutter.
It is a place of great historical significance. So you are pleased when a school bus, an iconic yellow school bus, pulls into the parking lot. Children are going to share this beautiful spot with you. They are going to learn of their heritage. Their excited voices as they disembark the bus are such a joy to hear.
You take very little notice when the last persons off the bus are two soldiers in full military camouflage uniforms, fully loaded bullet belts strapped across their bodies, carrying in their arms large ominous automatic assault rifles.
You take very little notice because this is routine for you. Every school bus in the country, whether they carry Israeli children, Palestinian children, Christian children, Arab or Jewish children, is escorted by fully armed military personnel. It is routine. It is routine because people like this, men and women in full military fighting regalia, not dress uniforms but war uniforms, walk the streets, patrol the roads and checkpoints, and eat at the same restaurants and coffee shops and shop at the same stores you do, daily.
This is modern day Israel/Palestine. This is also the Israel/Palestine of the time when Ephesians was written. The uniform just looked different. The writer of Ephesians was speaking to a people who were having daily experiences much like those in modern cities in the World. Not just Israel/Palestine, but Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, St Louis MO.
When I was a young person we would often do a youth bible lesson illustrated by a cute picture of a child dressed in the armor of God. Each part labeled: truth as your belt, righteousness your breastplate, the Gospel of peace firmly on your feet, salvation as your helmet, faith as your shield, and in your hand the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. It was very benign. It created a great opportunity for bible memorization. But it really didn’t mean anything to us. We didn’t confront soldiers or violence or threat on our street corners. We didn’t know what a modern day solider even looked like back in the late 50’s early 60’s.
And we certainly didn’t equate Ephesians 6 with real life military drama. But the original hearers of Ephesians 6 and modern day hearers of Eph 6 who live in war or violence filled streets do know what the author is speaking about.
And those of us removed from the actual violence but who watch it on our TVs and computers need to start paying attention a little more closely.
To the writer of the Ephesians and the hearers of Ephesians, the real danger of war isn’t the physical war itself; it is the powers of evil that perpetuate the war. That keep people’s minds focused on war. That keeps people’s minds controlled by a culture of violence.
What do you think it is like for a kindergartner to ride on a bus with a fully armed military personnel? How do you think that needing to be protected by fully armed military on every field trip will influence that Kindergartner’s mind?
What do you think it is like for a young person growing up in east St. Louis MO, black or white, or any other color of skin, seeing the debris from a night filled with violence as they walk to school this fall?
What do you think it is like for a young black person to have to ‘strategize how to approach or be approached by a police officer?’
What do you think it is like for the military personnel to escort little children in yellow school buses. Being on alert to the dangers of violence rather than the joys of children anticipating a day away from school?
What do you think it might be like to live in a culture of violence? Where principalities and powers and evil become a daily way of life? How would you approach each day? How would you protect yourself and your loved ones? How would you dress yourself, metaphorically speaking? What clothing would be in your household that could shelter you from the onslaught of a violence culture?
When I worked with victims of domestic violence one of the best things we did was invite police officers into the children’s’ groups. They came with their fully uniforms, squad cars, stickers, and coloring books. We taught the children the importance of 911, of talking to the police when they felt threatened. But most importantly we taught the children that the police officer was their friend. We taught them that talking to a police when they felt threatened, of telling a police officer the truth about the violence in their homes was the right thing to do. Most of these children, and I worked with preschool and kindergarten children, had experienced a police officer coming into their homes after an incident of violence. Many of them had seen their fathers in handcuffs being removed from their homes.
One of our tasks was to counter that culture of violence with one of assurance that police are not just arresters but are also peacekeepers. Those who protect and help.
This is how we helped our little children change their clothes and put on new ones that protected them from the powers of darkness that had come into their lives through violence.
This is all to say that while we aren’t confronted with the type of violence and garments of war that many in our world are, there are ways that we can help ourselves and others put on the garments that protect us and re-cloth us. Garments that are truth, righteousness, peace, salvation, faith and the word of God.
But even more, even more, we must acknowledge the presence of the principalities and powers of darkness and violence that create a need to re-cloth ourselves and our neighbors.
In our baptism vows we promise to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, AND to accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.
When I was learning about the armor of God, the need for clothing of righteousness and salvation, I was taught that I was warring against personal actions, “sins”, like swearing, drinking, card playing, dancing, hanging out with the wrong crowd.
No one challenged me to resist the powers of darkness that created a culture of violence. NO one challenged me to put down my homemade bows and arrows, rubber band guns. No one challenged me to consider the way my playing cowboy and Indians disrespected my neighbor who was a Native American. No one challenged me to consider the young people on the other side of the tracks as equal to me.
As long as I showed up at youth group, played Rook instead of real card games, went roller-skating instead of dancing, I was told I was wearing the armor of God.
We consider the 50 and 60’s a time of innocence. But I think it was a time of blindness of the worst kind. When principalities and powers of darkness were able to gain a foothold in our thinking and the fabric of our lives because we were focused on the superficial instead of the truly spiritual.
But it is not too late. We can now, take our vows seriously. And see how our complacency and lack of awareness has allowed hatred, fear and violence to become so common and so expected.
We can now accept the freedom and power that God gives us to name the powers that threaten us: a culture of violence, a suspicion of the neighbor, a fear of being cheated, racism, hatred of the enemy.
We may say, well this is how I’ve been taught. It is too late to teach an old dog new tricks. Or we may say, I’m afraid to look like a fool. To speak words into conversations that would be disruptive. Or make me look soft. Or put me out of step with the rest of the town.
I’m afraid to speak up. Putting on new clothes is too difficult.
But I have to tell you, when I saw those children’s eyes light up when they realized a police officer could be their friend instead of their enemy. Well, changing clothes is so worth it.
Moving from darkness into light, holding back the powers of violence and hatred, so worth it.
You never know who around the table needs to hear words of grace and peace. Who needs to hear a new way of speaking about what is truly wrong with this world. Not the enemy but the culture of violence, suspicion and hatred.
It is time to take our vows seriously, to declare to the principalities and powers that we have the freedom and power to resist in whatever form they present themselves.
To be the people of God baptized into the power of the spirit.