Sermon: Spiritual Armor-All

A surgeon, an engineer, and a politician were debating which of their professions was the oldest.

“Eve was made from Adam’s rib,” said the surgeon, “and that, of course, was a surgical procedure.”

“Yes,” countered the engineer, “but before that, order was created out of chaos—and that most certainly was an engineering job.”

“Aha!” exclaimed the politician triumphantly. “And just who do you think created the chaos?”

Retired business mogul Jack Welch recently remarked, “If you aren’t confused, then you don’t know what’s going on.”

No doubt these are increasingly confusing times in America; and, indeed, in the world at large. But confusing times do not call for Christians to divorce themselves from the reigning reality, as challenging or discouraging as it may be; nor treat the church as a place to escape from that reality.

During the 2016 primary race, Iowa (where Diane and I were living at the time), entertained a virtual deluge of presidential candidates. Hillary Clinton visited the state at least a dozen times in the course of that political season. Candidate Donald Trump descended upon Iowa fewer times, but reportedly spent a great deal more money in that state than did any of the other candidates.

As it happened – during the waning days of the campaign season – my colleague and friend, the Rev. Pam Saturnia, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Muscatine, Iowa (a rural town of about 23,000), received a phone call one Sunday morning about two hours before the worship service. On the other end of the line was a representative of the U.S. Secret Service inquiring about their services.

He told Pam that Donald Trump, who professes to be Presbyterian, was in the area on a campaign junket, and wished to attend church that morning. And, as good fortune would have it, First Pres in Muscatine was chosen for the honor. The Secret Service would be there in about an hour to do a security check; so would she please keep all this on the QT.

As you can imagine, my friend Pam was a bit stunned to receive that news. Especially, when you consider that Pam is extremely liberal and very outspoken; and she had prepared a sermon for that particular day on the subject of immigration; which, as you may also know, had been a very hot topic in the Trump camp during the campaign.

When I asked Pam later about it, “What in the world did you do?”

She said, “Well, at first I absolutely panicked. I thought to myself, `I’m going to have to completely rewrite this sermon.’ And then I thought about it – and prayed about it – for a few minutes; and then decided, `Ah, what the heck. I’ll chalk it up to Providence.”

She delivered the sermon she had intended to give. And, apparently, everyone survived the experience.

Sometimes the intercourse between religion and politics is unavoidable. And sometimes what’s happening in the world of politics demands that people of good faith – and good conscience – speak out.

Wrote Walter Taylor: “Politics determines the kind of world you will be born in, the kind of education, health care and job you eventually get, how you will spend your old age and even how you die. The church must address itself to, and be involved in, anything that affects life as greatly as this.”[i]

Diane and I were at an Interfaith Prayer Breakfast in Albany last year; and Jim Wallis – Christian writer, social activist, founder of Sojourners magazine, and clergyman of, what he calls, the `evangelical left’ – was the keynote speaker. During his address that morning, Wallis offered his oft spoken refrain, “I believe in the separation of church and state. But I don’t believe in the separation of public life from our values, our basic values, and for many of us, our religious values.”

Suggests Wallis: “We can find common ground only by moving to higher ground.”

Those very sentiments echo what Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

Never have those words had more relevance than today.

“To err is human,” said Herbert Humphrey. “To blame someone else is politics.”

But this sermon is not about that. This is about elevating ourselves to higher ground that we might find common ground.

A parishioner recently asked me what political party I belonged to. “I really want to know,” she said. So I hemmed and hawed for a moment; and then I thought, `Ah, what the heck.’
“I’m Independent,” I said. “I’ve been known to vote for Republicans. And I’ve voted for Democrats.”

I vote for the candidate based on what they stand for—not political posturing. I vote for individuals based on their character—not campaign rhetoric.

I cast my vote – if I may be so bold – according to a higher allegiance than that of a political party. Because, if the church is going to be the conscience of the state; then Jesus Christ must be the conscience of the church.

Millions of Americans admired the late John McCain. Not just for the courage he exhibited under the most adverse conditions imaginable in combat. But also for the courage he showed during his years of service to this country as a Congressman and Senator.

John McCain made his allegiance to the country and to the Constitution. He adhered to high-minded ideals and principles of character. And that afforded him great respect and authority among those with whom he worked. He was called the Lion of the Senate; because when he roared, other jungle-dwellers listened.

He was called a maverick because he was an independent thinker. He didn’t subscribe to tribalism or identity politics. He was quick to reach out across the aisle (as they say) based on the common good; and, throughout his years of service, he took the greatest pride in accomplishing things in a bi-partisan fashion.

They say that, with the death of John McCain also comes the death of decency, civility and reason in the Halls of Congress. But I simply refuse to believe that. Because I believe in the essential goodness of human kind; that God has placed within each and every one of us the great potential to accomplish something good for the sake of `our higher angels,’ as John Meacham puts it. For the sake of those ideals and principles that define us at our very best.

And I also believe that all people, whom God has created, have a primary drive within them to strive toward that essential goodness—be they Republican or Democrat; black or white; gay or straight; Christian, Muslim, or Jew.

You see, the real enemy is not Donald Trump, or Hillary Clinton. Nor can we justly lay blame at the feet of the Republicans or the Democrats—or even the media, for that matter. The true enemy is of a more cosmic and spiritual nature; and far more dangerous – and more deadly, perhaps – than we can imagine.

Wrote the Apostle Paul: “For our struggle is not against the 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 the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.” [Ephesians 6:12 – 13]

Black feminist and Episcopal priest, Kelly Brown Douglass, writes: “If indeed the power of life that God stands for is greater than the power of death, then this must be manifest in the way God triumphs over death-dealing powers.

“The freedom of God that is life requires a liberation from the very weapons utilized by a culture of death. In other words, these weapons cannot become divine weapons. This liberation was foreshadowed by Jesus’ refusal to cooperate with the powers of death at the time of his crucifixion. The culmination of this liberation is Jesus’ resurrection.”[ii]

I must say that, one of my favorite hymns growing up in the Presbyterian Church was the rousing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” And, indeed, it was written by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1865 as a processional hymn for children on Whitsunday. But because of its militaristic overtones, the hymn fell out of favor and is no longer included in most mainline denominations’ hymnbooks.

“Good riddance,” declares Thomas Long. “This hymn, with its “hut-two-three-four” tune and its warring call for Christians to raise the battle flag, has long outlived its usefulness.”

“Recently,” reports Long, “one of my friends threatened to resign her role as church school assistant because the lead teacher insisted on having the children sing, “Christ the royal Master, leads against the foe. Forward into battle, see his banners go!”

“I stand with my friend,” Tom Long says.

“Years ago, when the hymn was first excised from our repertoire, there was controversy over it, but that has mostly disappeared. In a world grown weary of religious strife, a world where the word crusade arouses more anger and embarrassment than resolve few are nostalgic for a hymn that celebrates Christian soldiers marching to war.

“Which,” continues Tom Long, “is why I was surprised recently to find myself suddenly weepy as we sang “Onward Christian Soldiers” in worship.

“It was in a little Methodist church just down the lane from our summer home in rural Maryland. The nearest Presbyterian church is miles away, so my wife and I have become seasonal Methodists. Our parish is the smallest congregation in a tiny three-point charge, and there are about two dozen of us there on a good Sunday This church was once a gathering place for a vibrant farming and fishing community, a place of summer revivals and ice cream socials, a place to chat under the live oak trees and maybe find a spouse. Now the congregation is aging, and each funeral brings yet another aching emptiness to once-filled pews

“But the congregation makes up in love and hospitality for what it lacks in membership and resources. When it comes to worship, the congregation – like a good country cook – pulls together what is in the cupboard. An elderly saint plays the piano if her glaucoma isn’t too bad. On one Sunday someone squeezed out “Blessed Assurance” on an accordion; on another Sunday, a woman braced a harmonica against the handlebar of her motorized wheelchair and lovingly played “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain.” Evensong at St. Thomas Church in New York couldn’t have been more reverent.

“When I realized that “Onward Christian Soldiers” was our opening hymn a few weeks ago, I groaned. But then we sang it, all 20 of us. The irony of the moment caught me off guard. There we were, most of us graying, some infirmed, a hearing aid or two whistling in the background, singing, “Like a mighty army moves the church of God.” If it hadn’t been worship, I might have laughed out loud. Instead, I teared up. There we were, a gaggle of Methodists and their two Presbyterian interlopers singing, “We are not divided, all one body we,” just after both of our communions had held rancorous, divisive denominational meetings.

“There was a gospel truth here. Only in a place like this – a place where “Onward Christian Soldiers” was not a display of militarism but just patently ridiculous – could that hymn speak truth. Faithful worship is deeply ironic.

“Instead of the words, “Enter to Worship, Depart to Serve,” perhaps our bulletins should say, “Warning: Every word of the service to follow is absurd, to be uttered only in faith.”

“I believe in the holy catholic church” Absurd.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow?” Absurd.

“Like a mighty army, moves the church of God.” You must be kidding.

“If the church loses this sense of absurdity and starts believing it really is some kind of army with sufficient strength to swat down our enemies and exert our will, then our worship becomes idolatry and our life demonic. But when we realize that what we say in worship can be true only in the improbable reign of God, we regain our souls and sound the trumpet, this time for an army that marshals no troops but the frail saints, bears no arms but the sword of the Spirit, makes no advance except that of love and has no enemy but that which undermines God’s hope for human flourishing.”

Concludes Tom Long, “Next summer marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. I hope we’ll celebrate by remembering Ken Burn’s retelling of the 50th reunion at Gettysburg in 1913. There aged Confederates reenacted Pickett’s charge, limping across the field toward their old foe. The Union veterans scrambled over the battlements to meet the coming charge, but this time they embraced them with words of tenderness, reconciliation and love. When we hear that story, we glimpse something of what it means for soldiers of the cross to go on the march.”[iii]

[i] Coffin, Randy, “Religion and Politics,” September 30, 1984, The Collected Sermon of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Vol 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

[ii] Douglas, Kelly Brown, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2015.

[iii] Long, Thomas, “The Absurd in Worship,” The Christian Century, August 13, 2012.