Sermon August 26 Ephesians 6: Whole Armour of God Rev Betsy Hogan
Did you happen to see the moon this past Friday evening? If you didn’t, or maybe you weren’t here in Halifax at the time, the moon on Friday evening was quite beautiful and quite extraordinary. Not at all what might ordinarily be expected in mid to late August in Nova Scotia – deep orange, almost red, more vivid even than a harvest moon.
To be honest, though, I might actually have looked at it and thought that maybe it WAS just a harvest moon, though admittedly early and weirdly high in the sky and much more red than usual –
Had it not been for the fact that earlier in the day it had been in the news that we’d be seeing – here, 5000 kilometres away – some of the effect of the smoke from the fires in the British Columbia interior. Which I gather there was one great plume that stretched across the entire expanse of the country – and that’s why we got that amazing moon, and a couple of rather hazy days around it.
What it made me think about, though, is what it would be like to look up and see that kind of moon… and have no idea why. In a time before there was ‘the news’ to tell us it’s because of a forest fire happening 5000 kilometres away.
Because fifty kilometres away? Of course we’d know that, by word of mouth. If we’re the Mi’kmaq community that lived here, looking up at the sky. We’d know what it looks like when there’s a forest fire burning somewhere close-ish. In fact, we’re probably sending people to help.
And maybe even five hundred kilometres away – we wouldn’t know right away, of course, and not in time to help, perhaps -- but again, by word of mouth, hunter to hunter, fisher to fisher, the news would eventually reach us. And the red moon and hazy sky… not really that surprising.
But five thousand kilometres away? There’s not going to be an explanation that reaches us that tells us why. Our word of mouth simply isn’t going to stretch that far. In fact, when the red moon and hazy sky makes us ask one another “is there a fire somewhere?”, the only answer that we’ll hear is “there really doesn’t seem to be”.
It’s when we pause in moments like this to consider the epic weirdness of a red moon arising -- from a forest fire we’ll never see, or a volcano we can’t even imagine – that I think we catch a glimpse, however brief, of what such phenomena were like for people in the ancient world.
Because they certainly weren’t unintelligent, or even given to what amounts to scientific record-keeping. The fact that we have a harvest moon every year in what we now call October, for example, would surely have been noticed and recorded and considered quite unsurprising every time it rolled around. Ancient peoples were no less observant than we are, and in terms of natural phenomena they were probably much MORE observant that we are.
But that’s exactly why, when something happens that’s completely out of the ordinary – like a red moon in August despite no discernable evidence of a forest fire ANYWHERE that ANYBODY knows of --
It would really be kind of terrifying. Because entirely inexplicable. No one knows why or how it happened, and even worse – no one knows whether it’s permanent. Maybe now the moon is red.
And while some might think that a permanently red moon is rather pretty and not such a big deal, others – who depend on the light of a full moon, for example, for hunting – might instead begin to wonder if it’s meant as some kind of punishment. Or maybe an omen. A harbinger of doom.
What’s inexplicable can tip so easily into clearly supernatural, and possibly malignant, and definitely terrifying. It hardly takes any time at all.
It’s not a space we live in now, informed as we are in detail of the WHY of the natural phenomena we experience. With SOME natural phenomena we’re no different from the ancients – just with more ‘scientific’ explanations than they would have had. They would surely have understood by observation, for example, that the sudden onslaught of red algae has to do with a particularly hot muggy summer.
But when it comes to the vagaries of the skies, the celestial bodies, the effects for example of atmospheric smoke from volcanoes or massive fires half a world away – that these would have been essentially inexplicable is inescapable.
And inexplicable becomes supernatural. And because humans tend to want to prepare for the worst rather than hoping for the best, possibly malignant. Which is definitely terrifying.
And it’s exactly this space of living with the loomingly inexplicable, that shapes an ancient world view that’s constantly aware of, and constantly girding itself for, an onslaught by whatever maybe-possibly-probably malevolent supernatural powers of evilness out there are presumed to occasionally make such things happen. Randomly.
A sudden red moon? That’s nothing on a solar eclipse. Can you imagine watching the sun get slowly covered over, not knowing if it’ll ever be UNcovered??
It’s this space of constant awareness and constant fearful readiness in relation to inexplicable random natural phenomena… that makes it entirely understandable that the worldview of the ancients included a conviction that out there -- somewhere -- are forces of malevolence. Bearing down on the world.
Which brings us, at long last, to the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that Bob read for us earlier. It’s the conclusion of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. His closing paragraph, his final encouraging exhortation to a church community he knows he’s unlikely to see again. Because he’s writing from Rome, where he’s been imprisoned by Roman authorities, and unlike the LAST time he was in prison in Rome, it doesn’t look like this time he’ll be miraculously escaping.
So these are almost like his deathbed pronouncements, his last words, that he anticipates will only reach the Ephesians after he’s gone.
He’s spent much of the letter reminding them -- with no small amount of emphasis -- to treat each other like human beings, even when they’re annoyed with each other…
He’s tried to give them guidance for living together in their various relationships with an appreciation for each other as beloved children of God, worthy of care and regard and simple decency…
And now, he’s reached the end of the letter and his final wrap-up. Which as we heard from Bob earlier is this amazing image of the Whole Armour of God. This kind of radical Christian overturning of traditional military imagery with instead the wholly non-violent and wholly willfully-vulnerable anti-armour of faith, and peace, and truth, and God’s spirit, and God’s word.
It really is Paul urging the Ephesians to clothe themselves in the radical non-violent unconditional love of God, as lived and taught and was seen and walked around in the person of Jesus, and how he behaved.
It’s this armour that’s the opposite of armour, because that’s where its power is. In its fierce and willful steadfast determination to be good and kind and gentle and gracious. No matter what. No matter against who. In all the circumstances.
But what’s striking here is that instead of urging the Ephesians to put on the whole armour of God to resist, as it were, against the what and the who and all the circumstances – Paul begins these last words by instead pointing them past all those particulars to the kind of “cosmic power” supernatural forces of malevolent evilness that he describes as just being sort of “out there”.
Lurking and waiting to pounce. Not literally or specifically manifest in worldly authorities or earthly despots, but just “out there”. Doing things like randomly turning the moon red, inexplicably. And who knows why, but there it is, so beware.
It’s a shift for Paul, who ordinarily has no trouble at all identifying actual patently human sources of wrong behaviour and oppression, against whom as Christians, we’re called to choose to align ourselves, trusting instead in God’s overwhelming power of love.
It’s Paul maybe going a bit deeper, thinking a bit more cosmically as he knows his death is approaching. Or finding himself, perhaps, wondering whether if Goodness is a thing – which it patently IS, because goodness is Godness – then maybe there’s also its opposite thing. Not-goodness, wrongness, evilness. A kind of nemesis force out there that when it’s NOT randomly turning the moon red, or things suchlike, is making people behave badly.
That’s the “enemy” Paul focuses on here. Which for some of us that image and that kind of language may feel entirely comfortable and entirely useful. I don’t mind admitting quite frankly that it’s not imagery and language that I personally resonate with. I personally tend to be quite a bit less ‘cosmic’ and definitely less wedded to the strict binary of good versus evil, as two competing powers.
But that’s what Paul gives us here. This idea of a kind of lurking malevolence, against which our resistance is critical. And while it does nothing at all in relation to our understanding, two thousand years later, of why the moon might be red, it’s actually not an un-useful way to think about the kind of resistance to which I think we’re called as Christians right now. In the world.
Because there IS, I think, right now a really hard-to-pin-down disembodied malevolent force that seems to be seeping into every aspect of our social contract with one another in this place. And it’s fear. But a really specific kind of fear. Because it’s not the usual fear that’s beset humankind since there WAS humankind, of simply not having enough.
It’s fear instead, at least in places like this, of there not BEING enough. Objectively speaking, to go around. Which has translated into this kind of siege mentality in which we’re increasingly on guard. Because surely at the very first opportunity, if we’re not constantly on alert, what should be yours, mine, ours, will be perfidiously taken from us by others. Who want what we have. And there can’t possibly be enough, we’re increasingly convinced. Not for everyone.
It’s an extraordinarily insidious fear. And quite apart from the myriad ways in which it’s seeped into virtually every aspect of how we approach our social policy, quite literally on the ground -- when we get frozen in fear at the notion of a livable minimum wage or properly addressing shortfalls in health care or education –
Its real insidiousness is that it’s begun to actually change us. This creeping fear that there can’t possibly BE enough has really begun to alter what was a Canadian culture that was by no means perfect – but was, at least broadly speaking, fundamentally characterized by understanding ourselves as responsible to and for each other’s well-being in this place. And understanding that the cost of that responsibility was worthwhile, for the good of everyone.
To put it colloquially, in a climate as cold as Canada’s the first settlers learned really early what the first nations already knew: that the only way everyone’s going to survive is if we take care of each other.
But that creeping insidious fear that there can’t possibly BE enough – that our attitude needs to be guarded, needs to be self-protective, needs to be alert to every perfidious incursion – it’s begun to take hold like a real malevolent force over us in this place. It’s the ultimate irony that in the midst of all kinds of rhetoric about the other coming here and somehow dismantling Canadian culture – it’s actually the malevolent force of our own fear that’s actively sweeping away one of our hallmarks. The best of us.. And I don’t use that phrase lightly because unlike the Apostle Paul, that’s not imagery and language that I usually find especially useful.
But listening to the passage from Ephesians we just heard, it’s compelling. Because this creeping fear that’s changed us IS something that demands the particular kind of resistance – on a personal level and collectively – that Paul’s image of the whole armour of God is exactly trying to get at. Because what’s needed isn’t the momentary resistance of focused aggression that actual armour gets used for – it’s an all-the-time living resistance.
It’s clothing ourselves on purpose with the values Jesus taught and embodied – the generosity, the care for the more vulnerable, the hospitality, the grace, and above all the trust – in order to live resistance on purpose, afresh every day God being our helper, against that malevolent fear that there can’t possibly be enough, that’s bearing down on us. And changing us. And not for the better.
It used to be in ancient times that something like a red moon, inexplicable, random, was considered an omen. A harbinger of doom. A call to serious self-assessment.
It’s not that any more of course. We know better than that now. But I’m not sure Paul would see that as a benefit. The odd red moon shocking us out of the complacency of just allowing the malevolent forces to keep on with their creeping, slowly and insidiously – it might not be such a bad thing.
To remind us that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of courage. Thanks be to God, with whom we’re not alone in our resistance. Amen.