Sunday, August 26, 2018

Dressed to Slay: Sermon for Sunday 26 August 2018

Sermon for Sunday 26 August 2018
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
The Rev. Carrie Ballenger Smith
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
St. George, as depicted by artist Rebecca Coffey
This summer, my dear friend Stacy gave me an amazing gift: the icon featured on the front cover of your bulletin this morning. Stacy knows I have a “thing” for St. George the Dragonslayer, patron saint of Palestine (I even have him tattooed on my arm) but she thought he could use a little updating. For this reason, she commissioned an artist to create an image of George—as a woman.
This new George (or Georgette?) is both feminine and strong. She appears to be multi-racial. 
Her hair looks a little like Princess Leia from Star Wars (the artist confirmed that was a tiny bit intentional).
And of course, as a warrior, she’s wearing armor. The dragon looks fierce, and has her surrounded, but George’s look says “whatever”. She dressed and ready to slay some dragons!
“Do you like it?” Stacy asked when I saw it.
“Like it? I may get her tattooed on my other arm!”  I told her.
It’s a little strange, I suppose, that I’m such a fan of a warrior saint, considering I’m essentially a pacifist! And yet there’s something about the image of one man (or woman), bravely slaying a mighty dragon, that gives me courage when I need it. In fact, George (and now Georgette) is who I often picture when I read these words, written to the early church:
From Ephesians chapter 6:
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For 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. Therefore 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. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 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. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”
Tradition holds that these instructions are an excerpt of a letter written by the Apostle Paul while in prison and sent to the church at Ephesus. However, newer scholarship suggests it was written a bit later, by a disciple of Paul, and was actually sent to many different churches. In fact, some believe that the beginning of the letter, which starts “To the church at Ephesus” was originally left with a blank space, so it could be filled in with the name of any city! In other words, these wardrobe instructions were for all Christians. Paul (or his disciple) tells the early church:
“The Way of Jesus is not easy. Some will oppose us. Some will even persecute us. It will feel like a battle! But if we are wearing the whole armor of God, we can stand firm and proclaim the Gospel of peace.
It’s a great message, right? And pretty clear. What could go wrong?”
St John (Crusader) Chapel
Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem
Photo by Carrie Ballenger Smith
26 August 2018
Except that, unfortunately, Christians have a long history of getting this so, so wrong. If we really did clothe ourselves in truth and peace, faith and righteousness, we should be amazing peacemakers and peacekeepers, and the world truly would know us by our love. (John 13:35) And yet, right now we are sitting in St. John Crusader Chapel. We usually leave the “crusader” part off our name these days, and for good reason. Memories are long here in Jerusalem, and more than once I’ve had conversations with Muslim shopkeepers in which the crusades are mentioned as if they happened last year. We might like to forget, but once the world knew Christians mostly by our swords.
And it’s not like the church got it wrong just that once. The author of Ephesians says clearly “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh”, but again and again, we’ve chosen to define ourselves in opposition to other humans. We’ve been against the Jews, against the Turks, and against heretics of every kind. We’ve been in battle against witches, feminists, pagans, and liberals. Sometimes we even battle each other! Catholics persecuted Protestants, Lutherans persecuted Anabaptists, Evangelicals still warn against the dreaded “liturgical” churches, and Christians behave so badly in Jerusalem that a Muslim family must hold the key to the Church of the Resurrection.
It’s like we don’t know who we are if we don’t know who we’re against.
Of course, this is a human problem, not exclusively a Christian one. I just returned from two months in the United States, where these days it seems everyone is ready for a fight. People have put on the armor of self-righteousness, and picked up the weapons of cynicism, isolation, division, and judgment. Battle lines have been drawn right through neighborhoods sometimes, where long-time neighbors and friends have become enemies over politics, and especially over opinions about the current president—all of it encouraged and instigated by social media, television loudmouths and even, dare I say, the president himself.
It’s all so sad, really, because of course there is a battle that needs to be waged, but it’s not against each other. The United States (and, I would say, the world) is being held hostage by the empire, and by the powers and principalities that have always been working against the Gospel of love.
Again, from Ephesians chapter 6: “For 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.” As followers of Jesus, crucified and risen, we are called to join the fight, and to stand firm: but never to stand in opposition to other people!
We stand firm against greed, hatred, prejudice, and division.
We stand firm against violence, apathy, and lies.
We stand firm against occupation, apartheid, and anti-Semitism.
We stand firm against these and every other spiritual force which threatens to kidnap our fellow humans away from the love of God!
So yes, there is a battle to be fought. And we should be dressed appropriately. But notice that the whole armor of God as described in Ephesians is meant primarily for defense. Breastplates, belts, shoes, shields, and helmets are not weapons! We clothe ourselves in truth, faith, salvation, peace, and righteousness so that we can stand strong, not so that we can take others down.
In fact, the only part of the “whole armor of God” that may be used for offense is the “sword of the Spirit”, which is the word of God. To be clear, this is not a license to use the Bible as a weapon—too many have already been hurt by such behavior. No, in this case the “word of God” refers to the Gospel itself. The only weapon we need in the fight for the world—and for our own souls—is the Good News that in Christ Jesus the Creator has already defeated the ultimate enemy, which is sin and death.
Friends, this proclamation is how we will slay all the dragons!
Indeed, this is how the occupation will end. This is how fascism will be stopped in its tracks. This is how racism, greed, war, and sexual violence will be defeated:
Not through bloodshed but through the blood of the lamb,
Not through violence but through vulnerability and truth,
Not through the defeat of the Other, but when we seek the flourishing and well-being of every single human,
Not by winning every argument, but by boldly proclaiming the Gospel of peace.  
This is not the way the world fights. Love is not usually the weapon of choice. But dressed in this whole armor of God, we can withstand the evils from within us and from without, for the sake of God and our neighbor.
At the beginning of this month, I was in Minnesota to preach at a church with 10,000 members. I was to preach five times over three days, and I admit I was pretty nervous about it. That number was hard to ignore—10,000! That’s about a thousand times more people than we can even fit in this chapel!

In light of this fact, I stressed a bit not only about what to say, but about what to wear.  A little funny, I suppose, since I essentially wear the same thing all the time. But I wondered what to wear with the clergy collar: Pants? Skirt? Suit? And what about shoes? I had brought my “nice” shoes – the ones that I save for special occasions. They even have a little heel, which makes me a few inches taller. I thought: 10,000 people probably deserve a heel.

I put on these fancy shoes and was just about to leave the hotel when I realized: This feels…wrong. I went back to the room and slipped on my trusty Birkenstock sandals. 10,000 people would just have to see my toes.

After the 3rd service (or was it the 4th?) I was excited to see that two of our former Young Adults in Global Mission were there. Samantha and Tyler served here in Jerusalem and the West Bank, and it was a joy to see them again. After some big hugs, Tyler pointed to my feet and said: “I love that you’re wearing your sandals! Pastor Carrie, keeping it real, Jerusalem style.”

Of course, that made me smile! Tyler gets it! As Paul wrote to the early church, Christians are to wear on their feet whatever makes them ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace. For me, they were my sandals—the shoes I wear every day. The shoes I wear to walk these streets. The shoes that make me feel like myself. And walking in truth is what makes us ready to proclaim the Gospel in word and in deed.

So what does your armor look like, saints?
What shoes will you wear this year?

Remember that you don’t have to wear the armor others have provided.
You don’t have to put on the cynicism and judgment of the world, or walk in the shoes of the oppressor, for in your baptism, you have already put on Christ. You are clothed in righteousness, and armed with the truth that you are a Child of God, marked with the cross of Christ and sealed by the Holy Spirit, forever.

Therefore, be brave. Be bold. Be not afraid! This love will slay every dragon.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.