A few years ago I was interning as a trainer at the College for Congregational Development just north of us in the Diocese of Olympia. I love the College. I love its curriculum, love the ways that it gives you tools to think about and to celebrate a community such as Grace Memorial, love that it’s a week during which you get to hang out with people from all over who are fired up about Jesus and about the Episcopal Church.
I was interning that year because I love this material enough that I wanted to learn how to teach it.
And that year, friends, we had a hard week. Without going in details or breaking confidences, there was a lot of stuckness and pain in the small group that I was facilitating.
Now, remember, this was my first experience as a trainer. And your first experience of anything tends to become your point of reference. It’s easy to wonder if/assume that every experience is like that first experience – maybe especially if that experience is less than awesome. If your first boyfriend is crummy you may conclude boyfriends are crummy. If your first job is stinks you may think jobs are exhausting, draining, and the pay is awful. If you begin with disappointing cheesecake you may never guess at the knee-shaking praise-be-to-God glory that is good cheesecake.
At the College that year, I got near the end of the week and said:
Is it always like this?
But then a member of our small group took me aside and said,
Boy, you had a hard first time. I saw that. I saw how you worked through the hard time, how you worked with us.
I want to give you something.
And he gave me a coin.
Some of you may have worn a set of trousers at some point – some of you may be wearing a set of trousers right now. And maybe those trousers had or have a pocket within a pocket. Often on right front side there is a big pocket, suitable for a wallet or keys or a phone. And inside of that there is a mini-pocket the purpose of which was always a mystery to me. The purpose of that pocket –
do you know?
The purpose is to hold a coin. If you are part of AA or another 12-Step tradition, this is the coin that says how long you have been sober. If you are part of a club, this coin says that you are a member. And if you are carrying the coin that the guy gave me at the College… well, can we pull up a picture of it?
This coin says that you are called to put on the armour of God.
In other words, in contains the words from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus that we hear today.
Three things about this coin. First, full disclosure: if I saw this coin in a store, it would probably never, ever occur to me to buy it. If I was in an uncharitable mood, I might even call its design hokey. The colours, the shininess, the dude who might be a crusader with everything being a crusader entails: it’s all just a little much.
Second, I’ve come to love this coin. Receiving it on that day was a big deal for me. It was an act of kindness in a super trying moment. If you like, the coin was an outward and visible sign of someone noticing the hurt that I was carrying. And maybe because of that, the coin sits on a bookshelf in our bedroom to this day.
Third, maybe because I have come to love it, this coin has invited me to think about Paul in a new way, to think about his letter to the church in Ephesus in a new way.
So. Jesus tends to teach us about the Kingdom by telling stories, by sharing parables. The Gospel of Matthew actually goes so far as to say Without a parable he told them nothing. Whereas Paul tends to teach us about the Kingdom by making arguments. Maybe you have met someone – maybe you have been someone – who says I can’t stand Paul. I think that one of the things that people mean when they say that – one of the big things – is that arguments are harder to follow than stories.
What I’d like to suggest is that, despite Paul preferring arguments to stories, what we hear today is a Pauline parable. You actually wouldn’t have to change it much to make it something that you could imagine Jesus saying. Let’s try. It could go a bit like this:
The Kingdom of heaven is like a soldier putting on armour.
First the soldier puts on a belt. And then a breastplate. And then shoes. On their one arm they place a shield and in the other they hold a sword. And on their head they wear a helmet.
Now, that soldier’s belt is like truth, their breastplate like righteousness, their shoes like readiness. Their shield is like faith, their sword like the Spirit. And the helmet? It is like salvation.
And what do the people think as they listen to the parable? What do you think? This letter is probably read out loud in the church in Ephesus. There are even people who think that Paul’s letters might have been performed, acted out like a play. Maybe imagine an actor putting on costume weaponry. Or maybe it’s a shadow play beside the fire, the shadow soldier holding their blade high. What do the people think?
Well, these people are living under Roman Occupation, living with brutal, violent oppression. So maybe they think that the Kingdom looks like coming to kill the Romans and liberate them. That’s probably what I would think if I heard this parable. If you told me that someone was strapping on the rocket launcher of righteousness and the flak jacket of truth, I’d figure that they were about to blow stuff up.
But then Paul does something straight out of the Jesus playbook. He takes the parable and he turns the steering wheel hard. Reversal. Screaming tires and g-forces pushing you into your chair reversal. Suddenly we are facing a whole new direction.
What does putting on all of this gear do?
It makes you ready to proclaim the Gospel of peace.
Our ancestors, just like us, lived in a culture in which they heard the regularly heard message:
The Kingdom is coming… if you just get the violence right.
If you just get the violence right, that violence will become redemptive. It will lead you into salvation.
And Paul and Jesus say no. The only thing that can invite salvation nearer is the Gospel of Peace. The prophets all say the same thing by the way. Do you know Dr. King’s famous words?
Hate cannot drive out hate.
Only love can do that.
We are called to put on an armour and take up a sword that let us wage peace. And waging peace might be harder than waging war. Because to wage peace in 1960s America meant that people sat at lunch counters and did not raise their voices or strike back when someone spat in their faces. Waging peace in 1940s India meant exposing violence by refusing to reciprocate it. What does waging Peace look like right now?
In a place like Portland, it might begin with a first step as impossible as allowing that someone wearing a red hat that says Make America Great Again hat is a beloved child of God, that someone refusing to get vaccinated is a beloved child of God, that the My Pillow Guy is a beloved child of God.
And if that sounds hard – and holy smokes, it’s hard for me: I fail at this stuff spectacularly and early and often – here’s the good news.
You don’t have to do any of it by yourself.
All of the gear required for waging the Gospel of Peace is made in community. Very few people have the chops to make a sword and also make shoes also make a belt. Most of us don’t know how to make any of that stuff. The shoes come from a cobbler, the sword from a blacksmith, the belt from a tanner, the helmet from Doug’s Helmet Emporium. Someone helps you fit it. Someone trains you to use the sword. If the armour is heavy enough, someone even helps you to put it on.
The Gospel of Peace is not and never was a solo enterprise. It is not and never was something that you have to do alone.
I imagine the soldier on that goofy coin that I love, marching into a battle unlike any other, a battle of reversal in which the soldier will abandon violence and build the kingdom of peace. And then I imagine the camera zooming out and revealing that the soldier does not march alone. There are hundreds (thousands, millions?) of us, all marching together.