Preached at St. Raphael's Episcopal Church, Crossville, Tennessee, August 22, 2021.
You know, there is always a story. That used to be the bane of people I used to work with because it didn't matter what the topic was, there was always a story. The story this morning is actually not a teaching story. It's an experience out of my own life. Early in my ministry, I got asked to do a wedding and this was a great pleasure for me because the groom was a very good friend of mine from college, very close friend. And he was a little out of his element. He had grown up in the country in Tennessee, although he by this time had gone on and graduated from college and completed his law degree and was doing quite well. But there was that part of him that was still an East Tennessee country boy, and his wife was from a different culture: the reception took place at the James River Country Club in Newport News, Virginia.
It went very well: as interesting wedding, lots of fun stories, and a black tie reception. But, of course, I was working, so I was in clericals, not in black tie. And about, oh, 45 minutes into the reception, I realized there was somebody who was always at my elbow. It was my friend's cousin. My friend's cousin was interesting in and of himself. He had grown up in the country in west Tennessee, and decided he wanted to see the world. So he joined the Merchant Marine. And after serving a number of years in the Merchant Marine, he left the Merchant Marine, joined the Army, became a Ranger and served with honor in the Rangers. And he was at the wedding, not in black tie, but in full dress uniform. Now those of you that have served, understand that when I say full dress uniform, this was quite something. I looked at him and I said, “What's going on?” He said, “Well, you know, I see all these people around me and I'm just staying close to the guy who's in uniform.”
When we talk about being in uniform in American culture and in American history, there's a certain expectation attached. Usually we talk about it as military service; but the fact is, is that we have a lot of different uniforms in our lives. And many of us have been in a uniform, if not in the armed services. Nurses still have uniforms. I mean, scrubs look a little bit different, but I can tell you that hospitals do things like have different colored scrubs on registered nurses versus licensed practical nurses versus nurse aides: a sense of a uniform. I served in a uniform for a number of years, not in the military, but because I was in marching band. And I remember my college uniform for the University of Tennessee Pride of the Southland Band. Even more I remember my high school uniform because being a high school uniform - this was at Bearden in Knoxville - they had opted for a dual use uniform. It was basically a tux suit with a red vinyl overlay over it. And trust me, in late August and early September, there are a few things hotter than a red vinyl overlay laid over a wool suit.
So. I had my time in that uniform. Or, you see me when I'm working Sunday mornings in clericals and that uniform. Many of us have some sense of what it is to be in a uniform, even if it's just a bowling shirt, because we want those things that being in uniform gives us. They identify us with a particular group. They give us a sense of solidarity with the other folks who are in uniform. Generally, they imply a certain skill or a certain training, even if it's just those highly visible t-shirts that the moms wear when they're the chaperones for the field trip. It’s for the people to be able to see them and come to them and ask them about things they are supposed to know about and be authorized and prepared to do - a lot of different kinds of uniforms. I miss actually when nurses wore caps, because most of you probably know each different educational institution for nurses had a distinctive cap. And back in the days when nurses wore caps, you could learn where a person got their education. A lot of things you got out of the uniform.
The author of Ephesians talks today about a uniform. I know it's armor, but if you think about it, it's a uniform. Those who wore armor didn't just wear armor when they were going into battle. They wore armor pretty much anytime they were on duty. And especially in Rome when so much of the work was civil unrest. You never knew when something was going to come up. They were in uniform and it was a uniform that would have been very familiar to Jesus's listeners. In fact, if you know much about armor or know much about the history of military service, you will remember that different groups at different times had different kinds of armor, different shapes of the breast plate, different shapes of the sword. You could identify who they fought for by what they wore, which in the middle of a crunch was really important. You wanted the right person at your shoulder, not the wrong person.
So the author of Ephesians, who, as I said last week, has been talking to us how to live in the presence of Christ in the world, talks about putting on armor to withstand the evil that besets us. And the evil that besets us, says the author of Ephesians, is not people. It’s not, as he said, enemies of flesh and blood. It's against rulers. It's against authorities. It's against the cosmic powers of this present darkness. Some years ago there was an author, and I'll blank on his name for a few minutes, but the title of one of his book was The People of the Lie.It it was talking about demonic powers. I was a priest in Memphis at the time, and one of my colleagues did a book review of it for the other Episcopal clergy. And this colleague of mine said, “I’m much too educated and much too sophisticated to believe in demonic powers.” And I looked at a colleague of mine right next to me. He said, “I'm glad I'm not that sophisticated.” Depending on how you want to understand creation to be, you may or may not want to talk about personified expressions pursuing evil, but all of us will remember that there are forces that are a whole lot bigger than us, in the face of which we fear we have no control. And some of them seem to be doing people harm.
One of the commentators I listened to, a professor at Luther Seminary said that there are some people that say this is that idea of systemic problems. That is, the author of Ephesians is not just talking about - in fact, it's particularly not talking about - defending against individual sins, but against the waves of sinfulness that go through society, the waves that no one person is responsible for, but that we have some responsibility to meet. And that's one way to think about what this armor is about. It's about being prepared to meet, however you want to understand it, not just the wickedness of the person next door, (because as I used to say to nurses, I'll hear your confession. And if you're concerned about it, I'll match you sin for sin), but about, again, those things for which we trust in God’s support and work with God because they certainly seem to be beyond us as individuals.
So we are called to be prepared for that. Not just thankfully on our own strength: the Greek of “be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power,” Delmer Chilton says could be better understood as “be strengthened in the power of the Lord:” God working in us to do these things. And therefore God calls us to put on the uniform, to suit up, to put on the belt of truth and to be truthful, to put on the breastplate of righteousness, which means to do rightly. (That’s not an attitude of self righteousness. There's too blessed much of that around already.) To hold the shield of faith, to have on your feet whatever makes you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace - individually and as a community: St. Raphael's Episcopal Church. What is it that prepares us to proclaim the Gospel of peace? And then the sword, which is the Word. But note that again, this is about defending against evil. This is not about going out and beating anybody up. Being prepared, being in uniform, being in company, because all of these “you-s” are plural in the Greek -to take our place against those principalities and powers and authorities that on the one hand seem beyond our control and therefore we need God's strength for them; and on the other hand, we clearly see, they are doing harm.
The author of Ephesians calls us to put on the uniform and to become part of the company. Remember I said, that being in uniform is part of a team; part of being in a group; part of being identifiable in the group; and also part of being identifiable outside the group. The hardest part about putting on any uniform, not withstanding my experience in marching band, is not getting the suspenders. Those of you who served in the armed forces will appreciate, and those of you who've ever been in marching band will appreciate the hardest part about being in uniform is the drill. It's the getting out and doing what you're supposed to do again and again and again and again, when you don't need it, so that you'll be prepared when you do need it.
And that's a tough commitment. That's what we think people found tough about Jesus. He kept saying these odd things, and if you paid attention in the Gospel of John, with me preaching about it or somebody else, Jesus has a tendency in the Gospel of John to say some pretty interesting things. And scholars are not sure what it was that caused these people in this lesson to turn away; whether they were just at a gut level offended at Jesus's words, because remember I said in the Greek, Jesus is saying, “He who munches on my meat” when he says, “eat my flesh,” a very physical and tangible understanding of the Incarnation and also a very physical and tangible appreciation of what it means to be in Christ; or whether it got to them when he said, “Well, then what would it mean if you were to see the Son of Man returning to heaven?” That is, “Listen, I've been telling you all along: I'm God.” So I'm not sure which of those things or both of those things got those folks to say, “Who can keep this teaching,” because they weren't sure they were prepared to live with either of those things.
“That’s the drill,” Jesus said to the disciples. Now, you know there is a distinction here. We can think of the apostles as people that Jesus called versus the hangers on. In John Jesus doesn't have a good opinion of the hangers on. He says, “You know, you're just here because I keep feeding people. You're just here because the miracles are exciting.” And when he says to the Twelve, “What about you,” they say something different. Peter says “There's no place else to go where we know there are the words of eternal life. We're willing to embrace you. We're willing to embrace that life.” They're willing. They commit to do the drill.
So Ephesians calls us to this uniform that prepares us to be defended in the world against evil and, we hope, to help others in the world defend against evil, and not just our own individual sins, but against those things that are bigger than us, that we see doing harm. And Ephesians tells us that to do that, you take on a uniform, you take on a community, you take on a lifestyle, you take on the drill. We are those among those who say we're prepared to embrace that lifestyle and embrace that drill, to say with the Twelve that we know where are the words of eternal life. Very good. So, let's suit up!