Monday, August 24, 2015

A Tale of Knives and Nunchucks

An audio recording of this sermon is available by clicking here.

The letter to the Ephesians commands its hearers to, “put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” In this day and age, this sort of language seems out of place, whether for its militaristic overtones or the medieval worldview that it invokes. The image of Christian soldiers has often made me very uneasy, reminding me of shameful chapters in our history, like the Crusades and the Inquisition, when people have been oppressed and killed in the name of Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Talk of the devil and evil forces, moreover, seems superstitious and outmoded, calling forth visions of damned beings with horns and tails, inhabiting a realm of eternal suffering and unquenchable fire. And yet, I am here to tell you that these images are still compelling and relevant, even to postmodern people who think they have evolved beyond conventional understandings of angels and demons, of heaven and hell.

A brawl breaks out at Starbucks.
On Tuesday, I sat at a table at the Starbucks on Bryn Mawr in Edgewater, waiting for a parishioner to join me to plan adult forums for the rest of the year. As I sat in front of my laptop leisurely sipping my latte, a commotion erupted, and three men ran past me, swearing and knocking over chairs. At one point, one of these chairs became airborne as one man tried to shield himself from the blows of the other two, who were clearly enraged and bent on inflicting verbal abuse and physical violence. The shop’s patrons were alarmed, and so I packed up my stuff, and dashed outside to find a police officer. By the time I came back a few minutes later, a policeman was leading one of the men out of Starbucks in handcuffs. Over the course of the next several minutes, four more squad cars pulled up to offer backup, and the other two men were taken into custody, as well. The anxiety in the room quickly dissipated, and people returned to their drinks, conversations, and mobile devices. But my story doesn’t end there.

After my meeting, I jumped on the Red Line for my usual commute to Grace. When the trained pulled into the Jackson station, we interrupted another altercation already underway. As the platform came into view, I witnessed a woman attempting to defend herself with nunchucks against a man wielding a knife. The doors opened, and an officer in plain clothes whipped out his badge and shouted, “CPD!”  He exited the train and attempted to separate the two combatants and calm them down. Aided by another police officer in plain clothes, he apprehended the man with the knife, who had attempted to seek refuge on the train, all the while spouting obscenities. I thought about how frightened the German couple standing in front of me must’ve been, their school-age daughter in a wheelchair, facing the door where all of this turmoil was occurring. The two officers managed to subdue the aggressor, remove him from the train, and put him in cuffs. The woman, still holding her nunchucks, thanked the police officers, and announced, “he had the devil in him. He had the devil in him, and he showed his true colors.” I’m not making it up; she really said that.

Jesus' temptation in the wilderness.
It was harrowing to watch both of these scenes unfold before me, and to feel powerless to intervene. I was grateful that the police were responsive and professional during these incidents of unexpected violence that endangered so many innocent bystanders. It was fortunate that an officer just happened to be standing in front of the door -- in my train car -- at that precise moment. I don’t know if it was divine grace or dumb luck, and I frankly didn’t care.  But when I become complacent, feeling that the world is safe, moments like this remind me that human beings can still be agents of great suffering and violence, that evil really exists. I am not saying, of course, that the perpetrators of this violence are evil or are somehow not loved by God, but rather, that human beings—and that includes all of us—are susceptible to the lure of all kinds of sins, to selfish motives and evil urges.  We may not all act on these temptations, but they prod and goad us, encouraging us to give in to our baser impulses. This is what the reading from the Ephesians is all about. The devil is all around you, he’s crafty and powerful, so be on your guard and protect yourself, the reading tells us.  You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re immune. After all, Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness being tempted by Satan, who offered our Lord wealth and power, if only he would bow down and worship him. 

I know that in the twenty-first century, sin is a topic that is out of fashion, and out of sync with contemporary sensibilities. Nobody wants to hear about it. As Jesus’s disciples say to him in this morning’s Gospel, while our Lord is teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  Sin seems like a topic for fire-and-brimstone sermons from the seventeenth century. Besides, the Church has done so much to make us feel bad about ourselves, because of our sexual orientation, gender, or gender identity, or for using birth control or getting divorced, and a host of other things, that we’ve consigned sin to the theological dustheap. But I’m bringing back Old Time Religion this morning just for a moment, because I think we’ve overlooked something. There is a reason that we make our confession every Sunday before receiving Jesus’s body and blood at the altar: sin is real. It is not only the sin we commit as individuals against each other for which we ask for forgiveness, but it is also for our participation in institutionalized sins, such as racism, misogyny, ecological devastation, and rampant consumerism. We have a lot of sin to repent for.

Jesus's Baptism in the Jordan.
Ephesians offers us jarring language that chafes against our inclination to think of ourselves as just fine the way we are. I have always subscribed to the concept of original blessing, rather than original sin. When God said on the sixth day that everything that she had created was very good, I take God at her word. We ARE very good, but that doesn’t mean we can do without God, that we are self-sufficiently moral without God’s help. Even as good as we are, “the spiritual forces of evil” are formidable, and so we need to be vigilant and disciplined, because sin could crop up anywhere, at Starbucks or on the Red Line. To “take the shield of faith, to “fasten the belt of truth,” and to “put on the breastplate of righteousness” expresses the human aspiration to overcome the temptation to give in to sin. “As shoes for your feet,” Ephesians counsels, “put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.” In the face of sin and evil, we wrap ourselves in God, who shelters and protects us like armor.

This topic comes up most poignantly whenever I prepare new Christians, or their parents and godparents, for baptism. “Don’t be put off by the old-timey language,” I tell them. “Your child will face all kinds of evil in her life: human cruelty, apathy to the suffering of others, violence, greed, selfishness, and many other things that will divide her from God and her neighbor. In baptism, we are asking for God’s protection and guidance in such moments.” Indeed, the Baptismal Covenant in the Book of Common Prayer asks the person or sponsor, “will you persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord.” The response is, “I will, with God’s help.” The Prayer Book suggests that the avoidance of sin is impossible, and so we just plug away as best we can and rely on God’s help to set us back on to the path of peace. As the disciples asked Jesus, I now ask you, “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?”  

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