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Last week when I decided that it was time for me to start thinking about what I was going to preach about on this first Sunday back in the pulpit post sabbatical I took a look at the lectionary to see what the assigned scripture readings were for today, the readings that priests and pastors and lay people all over the world will be praying over and reflecting on in worship this week.
I have to say that after doing that I was left feeling pretty uninspired, especially by the reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we have just heard. Who wants to be talking about wearing helmets and breastplates and carrying swords and shields in the heat we’ve been having this summer? All that military language and stuff about spiritual warfare and the power of evil that comes from such an old, dualistic way of looking at the world drained the life right out of me.
But then I sat with what for me was a challenging reading a little bit longer and I did some research and I came to realize that this is a text about defending and protecting those things in our lives that are worth fighting for, that are worth the struggle.
Of all the military gear that’s described in this passage only the sword is a potentially offensive piece of equipment. Even then, it’s the sword of the Spirit so how much damage are we really going to inflict on one another brandishing that kind of weapon? All the other pieces of equipment, the helmet, the breastplate, the shield, the belt, the shoes are meant to protect and defend.
So I found myself wondering, what is it that I am trying to protect or defend these days? What’s worth the struggle in my own life?
Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about things potentially opening up more this fall and how that is going to impact my life. Of all the questions for reflection I’ve heard for those of us who want to be thoughtful about life in a post pandemic world: what’s been life giving for us during the pandemic? what lessons have we learned? what do we want to carry forward, the most interesting question I’ve been asked is this: “what got cancelled during Covid that you secretly celebrated?”
I love this question because I think it has the potential to get at values we hold dear that we may not have realized were as dear to us as they are. It’s possible that we value a less hectic pace in our day to day life than we realized. It’s possible we value more quiet time than we realized. It’s possible that we didn’t value getting together with our families for Christmas dinner as much as we thought we did.
Unfortunately for me, one of the things I’ve discovered that I value is not working on weekends. Unfortunate because I actually get paid to work on weekends. So I had to ponder that dilemna for a while until I realized that what I really value about not working on weekends is having more time with my family. One of the things I want to protect when we return to in person worship on Sunday mornings. is time with my family. I know that’s going to be a struggle for me at times, an inner battle as much as an outer battle and I’m going to need to stand firm in my conviction if I am to guard that value – but I know that struggle will be worth it.
Something else most of us are guarding these days is our health and the health of our community and loved ones. This spring I had an experience in which I found out through casual conversation that someone we had welcomed into our home had not yet been vaccinated nor were they planning to ever get vaccinated. Although I reacted pretty calmly in the moment shortly after the person left the house I went ballistic. I was so caught off guard at the strength of my reaction I had to get in touch with what that was about for me. I felt really protective of all of you who have given up so much to keep each other safe, so much so that I found myself going on the attack about it. I know I’m not alone in those strong feelings. In the last few weeks I’ve had people tell me about relationships with hairdressers and housecleaners, facebook friends and members of their families they have ended because of differing views on the need for vaccinations. If you are paying attention to the federal election campaign you will know how quickly the issue of whether or not employees are required to be vaccinated has become a political wedge issue.
When it comes to protecting what we value most we can very easily make the shift from defensive to offensive behaviour. We can very easily go from putting on the footgear of zeal to share Good News of peace and the sword of the spirit of Christ to launching verbal grenades at one another and literally cutting people out of our lives.
In Ojibway author Richard Wagamese’s last book, the one containing his final writings before his death, he talks about the way our world so often draws out our differences creating separation between us. He refers to ancient prophecies that speak of a time when the human family would move farther apart and how this separation, this break in energy, would cause great stress upon the Earth. This time, the ancient prophecies said, would be marked by flood, drought, titanic storms, famine, earthquakes, the departure of animals, strange diseases and turmoil among peoples. But the Ojibway ancestors also predicted that there would be a time when humanity would return to teachings that draw us together instead of pushing us apart. Richard Wagamese says that because of this we need to deliberately work at harmony.
The belt of truth around our waist is that we can’t be in harmony with one another when we are wearing the boots of division and lobbing fiery darts of fierce judgement at one another.
The hardest thing from today’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians may just be the call to stand firm in our convictions, to guard our values around health and healing, peace, truth, justice and harmony while at the same time shielding ourselves from our own propensity to lash out at one another in hurtful or divisive ways when our values are being challenged.
Perhaps that’s why Paul ends this passage with the imperative to pray always, to stay connected to Christ, to draw our strength from the power of love, so that we might withstand our human inclination to get caught up in powers that destroy, divide and demonize what Paul refers to as the tactics of the Devil.
The reality is that there is evil in the world. People do unspeakable things to one another and to creation, we need look no further than the ovens of Auschwitz, or the intergenerational trauma resulting from residential schools, our burning forests or the images that are still fresh in our minds of Afghani citizens clinging to the outside of an airplane, risking and in some cases losing their lives because the alternative, living under the rule of the Taliban was experienced as too much evil for them to face.
There is evil in the world but we need to be cautious about thinking we can easily determine what is good and bad, right and wrong. It’s important to understand that part of what the apostle Paul is addressing in today’s passage is systemic evil, the way that we as human beings can create and get caught up in and live out of systems that are harmful often without even realizing it. It’s important we learn to recognize and stand firm against this kind of systemic evil because once we get caught up in personifying and demonizing one another, there is little hope of redemption and little hope of harmony.
Yesterday I heard an interview with retired Colonel Jamie Hammond who served in Afghanistan for many years. Despite the horrific images coming out of the country this week, his message was a surprisingly hopeful one. Unlike me and many others who were ready to demonize the Taliban and declare the entire situation in the country a lost cause, he pointed out that Canadian soldiers and their Afghani counterparts have stood firm in their convictions for almost twenty years that literacy and women’s education and health care and the dignity of each and every life should be available to everyone in the country. He said that because of those convictions, those values they have protected and defended, an entire generation has glimpsed a vision of peace and possibility for themselves and their country and we need to believe in their capacity to stand firm in those convictions. I might add that we need to pray ceasingly for their capacity to do that.
What was cancelled due to Covid that you secretly celebrated? How does that help you know what you truly value? How might you protect that going forward? What is it that you need to pray for always?
My own hope is that one thing that has been permanently cancelled in our world is any notion that we are not inextricably connected to one another because we are. I pray that we may be given the grace and the strength to defend and protect our planet and one another in peaceful and harmonious ways. I pray that the struggle to do so will be more than worth it.