The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks; The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 16—Year B; Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18; Psalm 34:15-22; Ephesians 6:10-20; John 6:56-69 — Video.
When I looked at the scriptures for today and saw that this passage from Ephesians was assigned, I thought, “Oh, it doesn’t get any better than this! We get to talk about armor!” But we’ve got to back into this image because armor can mean a whole lot of things—some of it good, and some of it not so good.
This whole idea of armor is pretty big in the Brené Brown work I’ve been doing the last year. I know I’ve touched on this before, but it is always good to run through it again.
She describes armor as those behaviors and ways of being in the world that we put on to protect us from vulnerability. Our armor consists of those front-end strategies that we use to avoid feeling vulnerable. We put on armor in the hopes that we can protect ourselves from the icky feelings that come when we are sinking in uncertainty, or feel at risk in some way, or are feeling exposed.
Brown talks about three types of armor that are pretty universal—foreboding joy, perfectionism, and numbing.
Foreboding joy is where we don’t really allow ourselves to feel joy because we know it can be gone in a heartbeat. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt or caught off guard, so we project out into the future and catastrophize all that could go wrong, or we just choose not to expect too much, ergo, we avoid feeling disappointment.
Perfectionism isn’t the same as striving for excellence (which is a good thing). Perfectionism is driven by the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect and get it all right, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame. Perfectionism, at its heart, is about trying to earn approval, and it actually hampers achievement because our fear of failing, or making mistakes, our fear of not meeting people’s expectations, our fear of being criticized actually keep us playing small. When we are in this place, we’re not willing to really put ourselves out there—it’s just too risky.
We numb to keep from really feeling that exposed feeling that makes our skin crawl when we are in uncertainty and risk. We do it with food and drink and drugs and spending. We do it with our electronic devices and Instagram and facebook and binge-watching series on Netflix or PBS Masterpiece Theater. We can numb with just about anything, and I am sure that you have your own unique ways to numb, as do I.
So, these are the three big shields. Then Brown talks about a few smaller ones. There’s the Viking or Victim shield where you are always exerting control for fear of being victimized or you think of yourself as the one who is always being taken advantage of. There’s Letting It All Hang Out where you share way too much too fast and try to hotwire a connection—this is the I-just-met-you-and-we-are-going-to-be-BFF’s, or you sort of smash through people’s social boundaries with intimate information in an effort to grab attention—think of the oversharing that can happen on social media. There’s Serpentining, one of my personal favorites, where you spend immense amounts of energy doing everything but the hard, vulnerable thing you are avoiding doing—this is when I straighten up my clutter and clean. And then there are the shields of cynicism, criticism, cool, and cruelty—these are plentiful in our culture.
That’s a ton of armor that we have to choose from. What are some other pieces of armor that we could add to our collection? Think about the things that you do because you want to be perceived in a certain way, or the things that you do because you don’t want to be perceived in a certain way—these are your go too armor. So, what are some others? (pause) Others—competence, overcompensating.
So, here’s the thing. We all use this stuff—DAILY. I have described this to 7th graders, 4th-6th graders, other clergy. Universally, people get this. We all resonate with all the ways we armor up to defend and protect our very, very vulnerable heart.
So, last spring, I was presenting this to our 7th graders as they were preparing for their Rite of Passage—and middle schoolers totally get this—this is their world. And one of our very wise 7th graders looked up at me and said, “Well, if the armor keeps you from feeling vulnerable, why wouldn’t you want that?” I was stumped, and this voice in my head said, “Yeah Cyndi, she’s got a really good point, why wouldn’t you want to do that???” So, I took that question back to my Daring Way small group, and we went deeper. First, it’s an illusion that this armor can actually keep you from feeling vulnerable—life is full of risk, uncertainty, and feeling exposed—we can’t avoid vulnerability—it’s built into the warp and weft of life. Second, and perhaps more importantly, while we associate feeling vulnerable with feeling bad, vulnerability is also the birthplace of all the emotions and experiences that we want more of—love, joy, faith, trust, creativity, innovation, and belonging. My small group leader then went on to say this, “It’s not that you don’t take anything with you into the arena. We can’t ask people to show up in their lives and be brave and send them in with nothing. You do get to take something in for protection—you get to take in your core values. Your core values are your Coat of Arms.” That image really grabbed me. The Coat of Arms was prominent in the Middle Ages and it was a way to mark your identity, and it did serve as a form of protection.
So, what is our Coat of Arms as Christian people? Well, first, it’s our core, unshakeable identity first proclaimed to Jesus at his baptism and given to us at ours—we are beloved sons and daughters of God, and in us, God is well-pleased. This is our Coat of Arms. And then, thank you St. Paul for helping us identify all of the other really cool pieces of armor that go with that core Coat of Arms.
According to Paul, we get to put on the whole armor of God—that’s, like, the whole complete set, so that we can stand against the wiles of the devil, so that we can stand against all that cunning, deceitful stuff out there driven by diabolos—all those forces that want to throw things apart. Paul reminds us that our struggle is not about wrestling with our flesh and blood—it’s not about labeling our humanity bad—our struggle is much more complicated than that, much larger, much more cosmic, much harder to sort out. Our struggle is against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
That’s a potent mouthful. The rulers—in the greek, this is the first person or thing in a series, it’s the leader, but it also has this sense of being the beginning, the orgin. So, we are wrestling with that force that has been throwing things apart since the very beginning.
Authorities—exousia—POWER. And remember, Jesus taught as one with authority, and the root of his authority is this same exousia. Power is not inherently bad, but it can be welded in devastating, crushing ways. As Christian people, we can’t opt out of power, but we have to take our cues from Jesus as to how we use it.
Cosmic powers—one look around our world is enough to convince me that these unseen, but oh so real, powers exist at levels beyond my understanding.
And spiritual forces—again, greek is pneumatikos—which is also the root for Spirit, as in Holy Spirit. Spiritual forces can be immeasurably good, but spiritual forces can be incredibly destructive. In a nutshell, we, as people of the Jesus way, are playing with fire—the power given to us can be incredibly good, and that power can be turned to incredibly evil ends.
We are wrestling with POWER—our own and the powers that are battering our world.
Therefore, Paul says, take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. A big part of what we are called to do is stand there, stand in the midst of these battles, stand in the midst of pain and suffering, stand. I love that phrase, “Don’t just do something, stand there!” It’s more powerful than you might imagine. But we don’t stand there naked. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist—not our little truth of personal preference, but the great big truth of God’s love and desire that all may thrive, the kind of truth that Jesus proclaims again and again—and put on the breastplate of righteousness—the breastplate of right relationship, this is what goes across your heart. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace—we walk in whatever practices we can find that will enable us to be peacemakers, reconcilers, proclaimers of the good news of this peace that passes all understanding.
With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. What a wonderful image! Take this shield of complete trust in God’s love made flesh in Jesus—hold that love out before you and whatever arrows are coming your way, let them get absorbed by that shield of love, and let that love absolutely melt those arrows away so that, ultimately, they can’t hurt you. Take the helmet of salvation—take the helmet of wholeness—let that infuse your mind, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God—the word of God that can pierce our hearts and the hearts of those with whom we are contending—but not a sword to obliterate, the sword of the Spirit is always a sword that is cutting a new path, slicing through barriers to set loose creativity and newness and life.
Paul then counsels us to pray in the Spirit always, at all times, in every prayer, in every supplication. The Spirit is already praying within us, always, in sighs too deep for words the prayers and longings and desires of our hearts, prayers that we don’t even have words for. We never pray alone—the Spirit is always praying with us. And then Paul tells us to keep alert and persevere. And he asks our prayers, that he can proclaim the mystery of the gospel with boldness, and Paul understands that he is compelled to proclaim this mysterious, beautiful gospel—he is an ambassador of it, he is bound to it. And the root for ambassador is presbeuo—it’s the word for elder. We are called to be wise elders of this good news, and to proclaim and mentor people in the way of Jesus.
We can put on a whole lot of armor that will weigh us down and guard our heart and absolutely rob us of joy and creativity and love and belonging, OR we can put on our Coat of Arms and the whole armor of God and stand firm while our hearts soar.
But I will tell you this, which armor we don is a daily choice. There are a lot of forces pulling us to toward the armor that defends our heart like a fortress, and precious little support for standing in this world as people of love and hope and peace. That’s why we come here, that’s why we have each other, that’s why we eat the bread and drink the wine, that’s why we pray.
Lay down your old armor.
Take up on the whole armor of God.
Your heart and soul are longing to put on armor that isn’t near so heavy to wear.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
August 23, 2015