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What Not to Wear: A Sermon Preached by William E. Green at Foundry United Methodist Church August 26th, 2018

August 27th, 2018

“What Not to Wear”
Preached by William E. Green at Foundry United Methodist Church (Washington, D.C.)

August 26th, 2018

Y’all! Isn’t it good to be the church this morning?! After a week of—well, the sadly routine—what a gift we have been given in this space, to come and gather and remember and celebrate and reclaim and proclaim the Gospel, the Good News, of God’s all-saving love and ever-present grace. You know, it’s good to be the church this morning, as we gather around two baptismal candidates and conclude our Art of Music Ministry series where we’ve been so blessed by our outstanding Music Department under the leadership of Stanley Thurston and, today, Paul Heins?

           Now, if you’ve come today for fashion forward advice for the modern Christian, as some have implied my sermon title might suggest, let me apologize now. I will never be known for my fabulous heels, like Pastor Ginger or our faithful sign-language interpreter Michael. The closest I got to well-dressed was when my mother and grandmother tricked me into a plaid sportcoat and wingtips for my fifth Easter—something for which, when I want to give my grandmother a hard time, made coming out 15 years later unavoidable.

           Instead, today, I want to spend my time with you today asking this question: if we are to be about the work of Kin-dom of God and to proclaim the Gospel of Christ in sustained, transformational ways—think, “Love God, Love Each Other, Change the World,”—what must we first let go of, shed, or empty out of our spiritual wardrobe? In other words, what’s NOT to wear?
Let us pray:

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of Hosts! For indeed we are a people who wander in a weary land. We are overcome by anxiety. We are beset by stress. We are broken apart by the ever-present raging of the powers and principalities of this world. Yet here you remind us that you have not left us. Here your word is proclaimed and your Spirit made known. Here we find embodied among these with whom we gather the hope of the beloved community--from which all strength, love, and hope flows.

 

Send your spirit then, O God, to renew the face of the earth and hearts of your people. Through the proclamation of your Word this day might we open ourselves once more the wonders of your love, be transformed in its hearing for your work in the world, and be emboldened in our witness to make known the mysteries of your Gospel.

 And now, O God, I am your servant. Whether through me or in spite of me, may your Word come alive in this place. Speak, O Lord, for your servants are listening. Amen.

 

  1. Introduction

 

           The Letter to the Ephesians, as we learned last week, is not a traditional epistle written to address a specific concern, problem, or challenge within a particular Christian context—think the Philippian, Roman, or Corinthian epistles. Rather, its more likely intention is establishing among the churches of Asia Minor a shared theological identity. An orthodoxy from which they could draw strength, understand their purpose, and collaborate in ways which furthered the Gospel.

           This purpose is evidenced though out the letter, who’s first chapters focus on the unity of the body of Christ and assert the universally salvific—meaning salvation for all people—nature of Christ’s action in the world, as well as the work of Christ to unite people for the common cause of the Gospel. There are astonishing assertions here, especially in an era of increased tribalism and deep economic and political division—not that we D.C. folk know anything about that, right— that the whole world, not just the Roman empire, Gentiles, or Jews, have been saved by Christ and for relationship with one another, created anew with a common purpose, and chosen by God to serve in union with Christ in the proclamation of the Gospel.  But then we hit our reading from today.

           This passage we’ve read enjoys what prolific preacher-teacher Fred Craddock calls the power of the familiar. The armor of God. A elementary Sunday School teacher’s best friend to corral kids with an easy craft and quick connection to the Superhero du jour. Sadly, if you grew up in small-town Vacation Bible Schools like I did, that familiarity might require a trigger warning. Any skepticism you feel is not unfounded, not in a world where multi-million dollar military parades—almost, amen— the violent colonization of communities through gentrification—dressed in battle gear and carrying automatic weapons—which criminalizes color and values ones views of the city over the lives of ones neighbors, and the militarization of our borders which has resulted in the dismantling of the families—the opposite, I’d say, of protecting family values—and the deaths of millions necessarily demands our interrogation of a text which calls upon us to wear armor of any kind.

  1. Armed to What End?

           So before we can continue, we have to ask to what end we supposed to arm ourselves. Because to focus only on the author’s admonition to wear the “whole armor of God”[1] is to miss the point the author is trying to make. That is, that the simple assertion of the Gospel and it’s expected outcomes in the lives of the believer is not in and of itself the accomplishment of that Gospel. In other words, it’s not just enough to talk about it—it being the Gospel of Jesus Christ or its implications for the work of justice and sacred community—or for us as individuals to conform to it. Because, by virtue of its proclamation and manifestation in us, it will necessarily invite the opposition of the forces and realities which it threatens. Before we even get to the armor itself, Scripture says,

“…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…”[2]

 

Thus all those amazing claims about God’s work in us in the world do not mean we’ve got it made. Indeed, the transformation of the world and the lives of the church through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is the very nature of sacred resistance—that is, as defined in Pastor Ginger’s book Sacred Resistance:

 

“…any word, deed, or stance, that actively counters the forces of hatred, cruelty, selfishness, greed, dehumanization, desolation, and disintegration in God’s beloved world.”[3] 

 and invites rebuke and retribution from that which we are resisting, in this case not individuals, but rather the systems, cycles, and injustices which pervade our lives and the world.

           And let’s be clear, this is not about getting shouted at during a protest. It IS about the systematic ways that evil functions in our society—both consciously through the powers of empire and economy—and subconsciously through our own privilege to tear down and tear apart any perceived threat to its reign. These are the cosmic powers of institutional racism that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sacrificed his life to challenge and on whose altar we are still sacrificing black and brown bodies every day. The spiritual forces of that evil called homophobia that faithful folk must still fight daily in our own United Methodist Churches. Forces which have locked our denomination in a 40 year battle questioning the call of Christ on the lives of faithful queer folxs to faithful participate in the church—an question, by the way, answered by Jesus’s matchless grace and love long before we even thought to ask it. This is the tyranny of the rulers of this age who foster war between us—battles of identity politics and partisan saber rattling—dividing us from one another because they know when we’re divided from one another we lack the strength to stand up against them.

           To this end, then, faithful discipleship—in addition to God’s faithfulness and work in our lives and our faithful response through transformed living—is for the author of the Ephesians means being prepared for and ready to participate in what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called “the slow work of God.”[4] The work of showing up and sustaining our witness against the ranting and raving of empirical powers and tyrannical tweets which would erase our witness and con us into believing that truth is not always truth.

The command to take up the whole armor of God is reminder that discipleship means being in it for the long-haul, and that God gives us what we need to sustain us in our witness and strengthen us in our resolve. More importantly, it’s a call to shed ourselves of any lingering savior complexes which plague us so that we might be free for joy even in the face of adversity. Those things against which we fight—spiritual forces and cosmic powers—have already been conquered through the loving action of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. As we read earlier in Ephesians:

“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us…

made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—so that in the ages to come God might show the immeasurable riches of God’s grace.”[5]

This is an important reminder, perhaps the most important for us that we have not be saved for ourselves OR called to action only in a particular moment—be it one of political turmoil or denominational dis-ease—but are rather together caught up in the ways that God is daily saving us and the world. 

III. We Are What We Wear…

           So, about this armor, huh? So let’s pause here for a second and turn to the field of social psychology. A little lighter fare for a hot minute. While I was researching my sermon and trying NOT to use it as an excuse to watch Queer Eye—a new Netflix re-make of the similarly named Queer Eye for the Straight Guy—I ran across a theory developed by two Northwestern professors called “en-clothed cognition.” They argue that the clothes we wear distinctly impact not just OTHER’S perceptions of us, but our own psychology and sense of self.

           And that doesn’t seem too crazy, does it? Think about it for a moment. Those ‘magical’ lucky jeans that give us the extra boldness we’re lacking. A particular tie or set of heels we wear because we feel just that much more confident when we see ourselves in the mirror. That comfortable, well-worn hoodie who’s warm embrace calms our most anxious moments. Science actually suggests that these things we wear make a difference and that our awareness of that opens up a whole new way for us to to be our best and most true selves. In a manner, then, it’s true that we are not only what we imbibe but what we wear.

           I can’t help but wonder if the author of Ephesians knew a thing or two en-clothed cognition. The appeal to military garb common among the Roman Legions makes a lot of sense. Generally speaking, the reader would have associated someone wearing armor with a well-organized, unified and prepared body of people prepared to confront any onslaught—like the author says Christians must be. In a sense, they were forerunners of peace, associated with the spread and defense of the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, that was associated with the growth of the empire (neveryoumind such peace was mostly reserved for Roman citizens in good standing). Proclaimers of a different kind of peace, let’s say.

           It’s actually a quite beautiful metaphor. It simultaneously draws on images that embody the author’s call for early Christians to maintain unity amid diversity, admonitions to stand firm in their conviction and belief, and responsibility for proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ—-while also subtly co-opting weapons of war that were used to subjugate anyone who dared anger empire and to defend a false—i.e. Caesar’s—peace.

            However, it’s quickly clear that the armor of God ain’t the armor of Caesar.  It’s parts are for the protection of the body as they together—the repeated directives, though using the word “you” would be better read “y’all”—proclaim of Gospel of REAL peace through which God desire to heal and unify a broken world. A gospel in which all have a place and because of which transformation of heart and life is possible.

           What’s important here, of course, is not that we imagine putting on breastplates and helmets before venturing into the world—no matter what VBS might have told you—but rather that if we are to be sustained and faithful in our witness we must have in our spiritual wardrobe the kinds of “armor”—practices, communities, commitments, and values—which keep us rooted in our identity as those whom God calls beloved, sustained in our knowledge that God’s got our back and that it’s in God’s strength we live, and move, and have our being, and grounded in what matters so that we can lay down and let go of what does not.

Putting on the “whole armor of God” has never then been so much about going to war, there’s no “onward Christian soldiers” here. But so that we might, as the author says “be strong in the Lord and the strength of God’s power…,”[6] so that we might “stand” and “withstand” the inevitably weariness and jadedness and unbelief that comes from doing the work day in and day out and feeling like nothing’s going to change. So that we can continue to show up, engaging in that ministry of presence that T.C. so often talks about and faithfully lives, a reminder that our work in the world, our witness to God’s goodness and light is often less about what our protest signs say or which rally we attend or what legislation we write or pass and much more, much more about the ways our personal relationships and faithfulness under fire point to the inevitable triumph of Gods grace, mercy, and light.

           A more modern “armor,” then, might include the raised fist of resistance and the open hand of peace modeled in our new “Sacred Resistance banner—a sign of solidarity and a commitment to the radical hospitality through which all people find their place at God’s table. Perhaps the silenced cellphone of real presence, a commitment made to not simply show up but to be fully present to those we encounter. Possibly holy habit of weekly sabbath—something with which I still daily struggle—in which we take in the beauty of the world and give thanks to God, as we began our time today doing, for the wonders of God’s love and grace even in the midst of a messy world.

           Whether the armor you need for the living of these days involves some old school Roman armaments or a comfortable pair shoes and an on-point printed tee (FILL IN HERE)

  1. What’s in YOUR Wardrobe?

           But of course, putting something on requires, at the least, choosing not to wear something else, if not taking something off. Several weeks ago Jack and I traveled with two of our friends to Vancouver, British Columbia. During a stretch of switchbacks on a 12 mile hike, I was surprised that while we’d donned hiking shorts and opted for a small bag with bottles of water, we passed scores of folks carrying what looked like mini-fridges complete with bluetooth speakers and all other manner of electronic accoutrement worn precariously via backpacks and straps to their person, even someone pushing a kayak on a wheelbarrow. What became abundantly clear is that there were plenty of people who were unable to see the beauty unfolding them—or to be present to their experience with others—because they hadn’t first to ask what NOT to wear.

           So then, I return to the question I asked at the beginning of my time with you. What have we been wearing on this  journey of discipleship, need to change out of so we can change into the armor of God, that is the practices, values, relationships, and commitments which ground us in God’s love and help us to stand firm as we proclaim the Gospel?

           Where have we wrapped ourselves in self-righteousness, not only protecting ourselves from the people and things that cause us pain, but keeping out the experiences, stories, and relations with those that—though we might not agree with—are nonetheless as much a part of God’s beloved family as you or I? Where have donned our anger and frustration like a Sunday church hat, proudly proclaiming to all who will hear it the point of our discontent without care for who it will hurt or how it will affect the communities we call our own? Where have we shod our feet with the clunky-soled weight of our fear, allowing ourselves to grow comfortable in our complacency rather than daring to dream bigger dreams? When have we allowed our relationships, worn threadbare by old wounds and long-held grudges, to wither and fade rather than confront our complicity in their brokenness and work toward healing?

           Perhaps, perhaps, the invitation to take upon ourselves the whole armor of God is also the invitation to take off, put down, free ourselves from the attitudes, places, and relationships that have bound our confidence, drained our energy, and kept us from living fully in to the life God has created us for.

  1. Conclusion

           Helmet of righteousness or silenced cellphone of real presence, we conclude any encounter with this text certain of two things.

           First, how we prepare ourselves for this journey we’ve been called to matters. For the living of these days and in the face of all that lies ahead of us—called General Conferences and mid-term elections and the weight of another year with it’s uncertainties and unknowns—we cannot expect the proclaim “with boldness the mystery of Gospel” without the proper wardrobe. So, then, knowing the journey isn’t over take the time to get some shopping done now. Pick out a pair of spiritual practices or two that keep you grounded every day. Try a bible study or small group on for size and build the kind of intentional community through which we find strength and accountability for our faith journeys. Slip into a new volunteer opportunity and see how it feels—whether it’s youth week or Great Day of Service or our growing opportunities for pastoral care and visitation.

           And most importantly of all, this work we’re called to, and for which we’ve been thus equipped, is one we do not labor in alone. Remember, we do this thing in community. No resistance undertaken on our own is sustainable, and we need one another for the living of these days. And God is faithful. God is faithful, friends!

………………… (AD LIB)

 

[1] Ephesians 6:11; 6:13

[2] Ephesians 6:12

[3] Ginger Gaines-Cirelli, Sacred Resistance, pg. 1

[4] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Patient Trust

[5]Ephesians 2:4, 8

[6] Ephesians 6:10