The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 26, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Kyle Oliver, Assisting Priest, St. Michael’s Church
This week I repeatedly re-lived a memory from, I think, my junior year of college.
I was walking down Regent St. in Madison, WI. I was talking to my mother on my brand new cell phone: my first, in fact.
My mother was concerned. It was below zero outside, with nasty wind, and I was on my way to go jump in a lake.
It was January 1st, and our intrepid campus ministry group had signed up to do the Polar Plunge. That’s crazy Wisconsinites and crazier out-of-staters jumping through a hole in the ice on New Year’s Day.
Now before you get too worried on my behalf, know that the morning ended sooner and more warmly than we expected. It was *so* cold that organizers were having trouble keeping the hole in the ice clear of refreezing slush. They had to cancel.
But as I was saying, the memory is from before I knew all this. I had dialed my mom in Milwaukee, nonchalantly I was sure, to engage in that act of understated showboating that we now have a word for: the humble brag.
“Hey, Mom. Ooph, yeah, it’s freezing. Yeah, I bet you’ve got a fire going in the den at 9 am, it’s nasty out. What am I up to? Why is it so windy? Well, I’m on my way to St. Francis House to meet the gang and then go do the Polar Plunge.”
You know, I’m gonna go willingly subject my body to brief but serious trauma. No big deal.
Now, stoicism is a major Midwestern value, so my mom took the news in stride. But worrying is a major Oliver family pastime, so I still had to stand for interrogation.
Above all, I had to assure her that I was wearing enough warm clothing.
And I was: Moisture wicking socks under the heavy wool ones, serious winter boots with thick liners of their own, long underwear, flannel-lined blue jeans, who knows how many layers of thermal shirts and sweaters, a parka with hood, gloves fit for a day of ice fishing, a scarf covering my face and lower neck, and yes, I kid you not, ski goggles.
I’m honestly not sure how I could get the phone to my ear.
Getting dressed on a day like that is preparing to contend with the elements. There’s a ritual to getting bundled up, reallybundled up, a sequence of moves attentive to the body but also evoking a certain mindset.
I want to propose to you that dressing responsibly for a long, cold day out is an apt replacement metaphor for what I think the author of Ephesians is getting at in this famous passage about putting on “the whole armor of God.”
It’s a faithful stand-in because, while the language of Ephesians 6 sounds militaristic, notice that the objective in this passage isn’t victory or conquest.
No, the Christian soldier’s gear is almost entirely defensive: breastplates, shields, etc. The goal, it seems, merely to survive the skirmish.
Even when we hear about a sword, it’s mentioned along with a helmet, and it’s a sword “of the Spirit,” which in my mind tempers thoughts of honed edges and sharp steel. Together this helmet-sword pairing is described as “the word of God,” so the war we’re riding off to will apparently be won by proclamation and faithful action.
Actually, I want to move us away from thoughts of even metaphorical warfare per se. The operative word in this translation is “struggle.” The King James has “wrestle,” which in this case is probably the better choice. Remember Jacob wrestling with God.
If you don’t believe me, look at what all this armor is supposed to help us do:
- “stand firm”
- “keep alert”
And here’s my favorite detail, translated in an urgent, pragmatic voice that returns us to an earlier theme from Ephesians:
“As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.”
The armor of God is much more like warm clothing against the harsh winter than a brimming complement of weapons with which to subdue our foes. In fact, we don’t really even have foes, not exactly:
“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.”
If that sounds a little subtle, a little systemic, a little abstract, well, that just goes to show why the struggle is long and hard, why we need perseverance as if for an interminable day out in the cold, why nothing less than the word of God will keep us focused and effective in our work.