1 Kings 8: (1, 6, 10-11), 22-30, 41-43
Paul writes: “Take up the whole armor of God. So that you may be able to withstand on that evil day…Fasten the belt of truth around your waist. Put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace …Take the helmet of salvation…And the sword of the spirit… (Ephesians 6).
It is a wonderful image, the armor of God. But the whole concept is predicated on one essential belief:
that there is something precious behind the shield, sword and breastplate.
That there is something within us worth protecting.
That within here, there is something just as precious as life…
It is faith.
Faith is not just about ideas or creeds or the flavor of Christian that we are. Faith is belief that God loves us so much that he lives in us, and we in him. Faith is not just about believing that God exists. As Jesus says, even Satan knows that God exists.
No faith is the belief that God is involved in your life, and you are in his.
Faith is awareness that God in not just here, he is here.
Without faith we cannot choose the good.
Without faith we cannot discern evil.
Without faith we will never truly believe that we are loved.
And like our very lives, faith is a precious and delicate thing. It does not exist in a vacuum, but it is alive.
Being a gardener, I can’t help but think of faith as those tender plants we put in the soil after vigilantly watching the weather and hoping the final frost has packed its bags. A good gardener is careful with their spring plantings. They nurture them and protect them in colder climes, lay fleece on the soil, so the frost wont burst their fledgling leaves.
A gardener is so careful with her plants, how much more careful should we be with our precious faith?
Paul tells us that we are at battle, not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against evil. The kind of evil that erodes our faith and leaves us weak in spirit. Because the day will come, he says, that we will be tested. But none of us, not even the wisest among us, knows when that day will come. The day that Paul is talking about is not apocalyptic. It won’t involve winged angels or pearly gates or a wrathful God. No, the days Paul warns us against are reserved for this life. They are the days when we get that life changing phone call, when we hear that unfathomable news, when we see those horrific images on TV. Those days when our faith in God, and therefore our very selves, are tested.
They are the days when we are tempted to believe others criticism, to take others hurts and make them our own. These are the difficult days when the quality of what we carry inside decides what happens to us outside.
These are the days that Paul is telling us to prepare for.
So Paul says suit up. Put on the whole armor of God. Protect the God that abides within you with truth, righteousness, salvation and spirit and take the offensive so as to proclaim what is in you. Peace. Suit up and be ready with faith strong enough that not only will you endure, you will thrive.
Think about what is valuable to you. Both people and possessions. What lengths do you go to protect your valuables? Your family, you would do anything for them, wouldn’t you? Or what about your possessions? Money, homes, cars, jewelry… You have spent countless hours securing your valuables…
But what do you do, daily, to protect your faith?
Why do all of us so often treat our relationship with God as something immovable and invulnerable when it is actually quite delicate and enormously precious?
A very close friend of mine, Joshua Keesal, is a Special Forces Green Beret. He called me Friday night from Herat, where he is in charge of a unit of men who have, literally, been fighting for their lives. The Afghan presidential elections have turned the place into a powder keg with terrorist cells, competing political factions, and outright criminals taking full advantage of the chaos. Last week, Josh and his unit went after a crime gang, wiping out half of them. Well, needless to say, the remaining half is out for blood. They have captured several Americans burned them alive and desecrated their bodies. Josh’s base is under bombardment, and even as we talked on the satellite phone, there were firefights happening.
Back in June, I helped Josh pack for this deployment and I had fun tucking into his gear an inflatable kiddie pool and chocolate stashes under camouflage t-shirts and in the toes of his boots. But amidst all the toys, the only thing that Josh was insistent upon bringing, checking and double checking obsessively was his body armor. With layer upon layer of Kevlar fabric melted into hard sections of shell, it is the piece of equipment that most certainly could decide whether he comes home vertical or horizontal. With 50 lbs. of weight, he drags with it, especially in the searing heat of the Afghan desert. Nonetheless, these days, Josh works, sleeps and eats in his body armor. Because he doesn’t know when he will actually need it. Whether conducting house to house searches or crossing the compound for breakfast, any moment could be the one he needs his armor.
Naturally, I thought of Josh when reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. I thought of Josh rolling out of his dusty bunk in a dusty tent in the dust bowl that is Western Afghanistan and saying his prayers, as I know he does. For peace, for protection, for guidance, strength and wisdom. I imagined him putting on the jacket of his body armor, covered as it is with pockets for the Kevlar shields. And I imagined what consolation Paul’s letter must be for him. That his body armor could protect his life, as well as the precious faith that God planted in him. No matter what the day holds.
And then I thought about us, here, at St. James’s. Not only how blessed we are to have faithful people like Josh who seek to bring the light of justice into a world of chaos. No, I thought about much how better we would all be to put on our own armor, with the same intention, each morning. Not the armor of Kevlar and mesh. But the armor of God:
The belt of truth,
the breastplate of righteousness,
the helmet of salvation,
the sword of the spirit.
I am ashamed to think of all the times that I myself have gone out into the world, like a fool, without my armor on, forgetting that I am as precious as I am. Thoughtlessly letting my faith take the hits, the tests, the criticisms so hard. All the times that I suffered and actually blamed God, not realizing that God is actually my strength in the midst of suffering.
I think about all those times, when I have rushed to the aid of St. Jamesers, when they have woken to difficult days, and I have found them without their armor on.
Several weeks ago, a member of the church came to see me. She is a lovely young girl, with a keen mind and so many opportunities to serve ahead of her. As with so many of our youth, since the moment I met her, I knew God had so much goodness in mind for her. We went for a walk on West Avenue and she told me about her summer. She has had a great time with camps and friends and pool time. And as the conversation ran its course, I led her on another lap on West Avenue, knowing there was something more pressing that had brought her to me.
It turned out that while at camp, some of the counselors had talked to her about God. I was horrified as she painted a picture of the God they told her about. They told her that God is disappointed in all of us. That God not only sees all our sins, but refuses to forgive many of them. They taught her that not only is her soul irreversibly tainted by original sin, but she will have to earn her salvation through her behavior. It is the ultimate Catch 22. Not only does she lack the tools to be good, but God won’t love her until she is.
She was told, in no uncertain terms, that she is not good enough for God.
Oh it made me so mad. Because that hateful theology ensures that this precious child will NEVER feel worth of any love. This kind of teaching is not only wrong it destroys faith.
I wasn’t sure of how much this dear child had absorbed of this ridiculous education until I asked her to lead us in prayer. And immediately she bent over and began her prayer to God with such sorrow, asking over and over for forgiveness. When I asked her what she was so sorry for… she said she didn’t know. But she was convinced that even without knowing it, she had failed God.
That poor child of this parish had been out in the world, without protection. And as a result, she got hurt. Her faith about what is in here was damaged. Oh it made me so mad. Because that hateful theology ensures that this precious child will NEVER feel worth of any love.
Yes, indeed, there is much that is evil in the present day. And I fear that until Christ’s coming again, evil will remain. So please, protect yourselves against that evil. Protect your faith. Protect the knowledge that the God that already abides in you, that loves you already, that has already saved you, that has a place for you, at no cost, in his eternal love. When you find yourself entertaining ideas that you are not good enough, pray that God protect your faith. Pray that God shows you what he sees. Because all that he sees is beautiful.
No matter how many laps we took around West Ave. that day, and no matter how well I built up that young girl who came to see me, I can’t protect her from the misguided and often malicious treatment of others. So I want her, I want all of you, to take seriously Paul’s encouragement. Believe that your faith is as valuable as your life, and you must protect it.
And as much as the Army has trained and prepared Joshua to fight the battles he has for today, so too has God prepared each of us to confront the evil that lies in this day. The evils that teach us that we are not good enough, we are not strong enough, we are not intelligent enough or lovable enough to thrive.
The poet William Blake, put this to poetry as he wrote,
“…I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.” (Jerusalem)
Brothers and sisters, we are in battle;
Not to fight for blood, but to fight for peace.
Not to kill but to heal.
Not to break down, but to build up.
Put on your armor and take up your sword, and protect the most precious gift God will ever give you: FAITH.