Our Struggle

Ephesians 6:10-20

“Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.” We may discuss and debate who or what we are speaking of when we speak of the devil, but there is not much to debate when it comes to the wiles.  The cunning ways people are convinced to do evil. The fear-mongering, the lies, the deception, the delusion. We swim in them daily and we are lured by them to be something other than what God created us to be, other than what Christ died for us to be and other than the Holy Spirit longs for us to be.  The wiles of the Devil, the devious stratagems used to manipulate us into doing evil. The wiles lure us, maneuver us, entice us.

Kate Campbell has written a song that would sound so amazing if she where to sing it in this room. It is entitled 10,OOO lures.

Wasn’t no copperhead, wasn’t no cottonmouth
Just a garden snake that brought us all down
It didn’t look deadly, didn’t look venomous
Wrapped around that tree so lovely and sensuous
There’s vices and voodoo always enticing you
From the day that you’re born ’til the day you leave this world
The devil’s got a line for you for sure and 10,000 lures

You may think I’m preaching, even evangelizing
But what he’s throwing out can be so tantalizing
He’s a master of disguise, he’ll reel you in with power
Roaming to and fro seeking whom he may devour

He knows every weakness, knows just when to strike
You know he was an angel once and he knows what you like
For you it might be money, for me it might be fame
Better cover up your ears now when he whispers your name

To lure, entice, maneuver, scheme—the wiles of the Devil. We know they exist, the wiles, because every day we see or hear about their fruit, evil. There is no debate about the existence of evil. We may be disappointed that we are not more civilized that we are having made it to the 21st century, but there is no debate about evil. Neither is there debate about the human capacity to be inhumane to other humans. It is real and we know it.

You may have heard of Fannie Lou Hammer. It all started that day in 1962 when she walked into the Sunflower County Courthouse in Indianola, Mississippi to register to vote. From there Hamer became a nationally recognized leader of the civil rights movement, a tireless servant to the poor people of Mississippi, and a beacon of hope to people struggling for justice all over the world.

Like most Mississippi Delta blacks, she grew up in a sharecropping family. The sharecropping system was the economic strand of the iron net that surrounded southern blacks. Devised to replace slavery as a source of cheap labor, sharecropping was a system under which poor tenant farmers were each assigned a piece of plantation land to work. The tenant was provided with a house and food, seed, fertilizer, and farm equipment on credit from the plantation owner’s company store. At harvest time the landowner supposedly was due half the crop and the sharecropper half, though the sharecropper was required to pay for his supplies out of his earnings.

Somehow the bill at the company store always seemed to exceed what the sharecropper could get for his half of the crop. As a result, sharecroppers were kept in grinding poverty, enslaved by debt. The sharecropping system was not only cheap for the landowners, it provided a means to control the work force. Sharecroppers who rebelled or tried to move to another farm had their personal property confiscated as payment for their debt.

Hamer’s family, through the hard work both of her parents and the whole brood of children, became one of the very few to work their way out of this cycle. Her father was able eventually to rent some land outright, buy his own animals, equipment, and even a car as well as fix up their house.

But the family’s efforts and dreams were destroyed when a white man poisoned the feed and killed their stock, forcing the family back to sharecropping.

Unfortunately, we have not changed all that much since the middle of the last century.

Evil still has a way of getting done. In that regard, our lesson today could not be more on target. Resisting evil is no small thing. If we are going to resist it, we need all the help we can get. “. . .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.”

For that struggle we always need the whole armor of God, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, shoes to proclaim the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit.

I know that what our lesson is trying to convey to us is that our struggle against evil is real and fierce. The outcome, at least to some extent, depends on how we equip ourselves. Nonetheless, I cannot read these words without recalling the many times and places when the followers of the prince of peace took up arms to do battle not with the spiritual forces of evil, but with other human beings. Weaponizing sacred texts and baptizing national security interests in holy writ to justify that which Jesus always refused to do. I wonder if these words to the church at Ephesus served through the years as a ready-made metaphor for Christians who were looking to fight a war. For all the atrocities committed by people who are other than us, we have done as much or worse in some cases. Now, we live in an age that barely bothers with the pretense of putting on the armor of God. Armor itself has become God. The U.S dollar may say “In God We Trust, But Jesus said where your treasure is there your heart will be also. More than any other nation on earth, our treasure is in the pockets of arms dealers and gun manufacturers.  Worshiping at the altar of individualism run amuck, we are rewarded with a moral superiority that allows us, if we so choose, to blame the poor for being poor, women for being raped and people of color for being shot. We have learned to use the very scripture that is intended to tell us the story of God’s great love for all of us in ways that make it an ally of the very evil we are called to resist.

I wish the list in our reading today included some night-vision goggles, some device that would help us see in the darkness that seems so prevalent in our world today. It does, in a way. “Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” Most of the time when we think of prayer, we think of words being spoken toward God. That is natural since that is the way we most commonly experience prayer when we are together. But prayer is not just speaking words to God. It is also listening. It also looking within ourselves. Trying to see what God sees. Trying to see what God needs for us to see. This is important work for us to do because the most crucial place we are needed to confront and resist evil is within ourselves. The whole armor of God that our reading counsels us to put on is crafted specifically to protect us against that contagion of evil within our own souls, and its metals are all forged in prayer.

Carl Jung wrote, “It is of no importance whether evil is here or there, but one can deal only with the evil in oneself, because it is within one’s reach, elsewhere one trespasses.” The very sight of evil kindles evil in the soul. No one can escape this, for we are all so much a part of the human community that every crime touches some corner of our hearts. We are either horrified or fascinated and sometimes we are both.

Naim Ateek, in Unmasking False Religion writes, “”The most radical action we can take is when we speak and testify to the truth. The full armor of God that the writer of Ephesians talks about begins with truth…” The impatience we sometimes have with prayer, meditation, and inner healing may be our fear of the truth we might find when we look within ourselves.

If we are to stand firm, the first place we have to do stand is inside our own skin. Recognizing the times and the ways we have been a source of hurt and of healing. Seeing within ourselves our own brokenness and those we have broken. Seeing the good we have done and the good we could have done. Seeing the bad we have done and the bad that has been done to us. Seeing it all, the thoughts, the actions, the intentions, the motivations, the bitterness harbored and the hope that smolders still. Seeing the good and the bad. Seeing ourselves as God see us, because God sees every part of us and God still continues to reach for us and long for us. As shocked as we might be at what resides in our memory banks and ashamed as we might at some of the things we have done, God is not. God keeps coming, God keeps loving us.  God loves us and accepts us. So too, when we are able to stop trying obliterate those parts of ourselves that embarrass us or shame us or depress us or frighten us and turn to them to instead accept them, breathe with them, turn toward them, open-handed, and give them love, acceptance, then we are able to catch a glimpse of the possibility of gracious transformation.

This is the mystery of the gospel. The gospel of peace for us all. amen