Sunday, August 23, 2009

Sermon - 23 August 2009

PROPER 16 / 12 PENTECOST — 23 August 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:00 a.m.

1Kgs 8:1,6,10-11,22-30,41,43 Ps 84 Eph 6:10-20 John 6:56-69

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.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” an old French proverb runs. History is a fascinating tension of change and identity, of continuity and discontinuity. I myself think that people are pretty much the same as we have always been — human nature as such isn’t a lot different now from what it was a hundred years ago, or a thousand years ago, or two thousand years ago. But the world has changed, in important ways. It really has. And the world has changed in two senses. First, the actual conditions of the world have changed. The world itself is a different place from what it was just a few generations ago. This is largely the result of the building of the infrastructures of human society. Much that was formerly wilderness is now under cultivation. (Some real problems arise from this, but I’m certainly not suggesting that in itself this is a Bad Thing!) Communications with virtually any place in the world are instantaneous, and very difficult to impede. Still new to many of us is the notion that from your own telephone — in your own home or in your pocket! — you can call directly to almost any other telephone in the world. And travel to anywhere in the world isn’t that much more difficult (only somewhat more expensive!). (I’m still not quite used to all the ordinary folks I run into who want to tell me about their trip to China or Russia or West Africa. It used to be a big deal just to go to Chicago!)

And as a direct result of all this (what we might call the “infrastructural change” of the world), the second sense in which the world has changed is that we perceive the world in a different way. Our technology has brought the world largely (not completely! but largely) under our control, and we assume that things will continue in this direction. The world is the venue of human action, the object of human manipulation, configured by human infrastructures.

In the world when the New Testament was being written, and in fact in the world in any pre-modern period, people had a much clearer sense of their world, their universe, as a personal living environment — not a dead impersonal thing to be used, and manipulated, and exploited. Even the stars of the heavens were seen as gods, or powers, or angels. Nature around us was often (not always, but often) seen as the habitat of spirits, and of demons. The world was enchanted.

The “modern” view of the world, which began to be operative somewhere along about the sixteenth century — in part because of the foundational scientific work of people like Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and others who demonstrated that we are not at the center of the universe, that nature obeys discoverable rational laws and not just the whims of the gods, or even God, and (more arguably) that human consciousness is the measure of reality — this “modern” view dis-enchanted, de-divinized, de-spiritualized, de-demonized, de-personalized the world. Now, that’s not all bad! Sometimes we get very romantic about (for instance) Native American, or African, or Aboriginal Australian perspectives on our relation to the natural world, and indeed there is much wisdom among these peoples. But the enchanted, personalized, divinized world of pre-modern societies can also be a place of fear and terror, where human beings are at the mercy of famine and flood, ravaged by disease, tossed to and fro by the whims of gods and demons over whom they have no control and whom they can only desperately try to placate by magic or sacrifice. (Well, we’re still at the mercy of famine and flood, but at least we now understand that in large part it’s our own fault.) For our forebears, the world was different than it is for us, and not always for the better. The “modern,” scientific, technological view of the world brings with it (or should bring with it; it certainly demands) a maturity, a sense of responsibility, which is appropriate and necessary to our full stature as human beings created in God’s image. Superstition is not a fitting stance or behavior pattern for the children of God redeemed by the blood of God’s Christ! But clearly also there is a very real danger of overemphasizing and overestimating our own competence and our own degree of control over the world, and we very easily assume that the evils of the world just need a little more applied technology, a bit of sociological adjustment, one more Federal program, and everything will be made well again.

St. Paul is telling us this morning — for our purposes I’m assuming Paul wrote the Letter to the Ephesians; there’s a fair amount of serious and legitimate dispute about that, but for the moment let’s just go with it — St. Paul is telling us that the enemies of the Kingdom of God are not just private evils and personal sins; something much more is at stake. (And thus Christian faith is not, cannot be, must not be concerned just with personal morality and private spirituality.) (Bishop Katharine said this a few weeks ago and a bunch of people beat up on her about it. But of course she was right. She reads Paul.) Paul talks about “the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” — within his own world framework what he’s talking about are demonic spirits, and that’s probably not the way we’d put it; nor should it be the way for us to put it, I don’t think. But the truth is that there are powers of evil which are bigger than private hearts; the evil of the world is greater than the sum of its parts. Technologies, ideologies, “isms,” political and economic structures, vested interests, communications media, public opinion polls, the infamous “They” (as in, “They say that...”) — all of these can be “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.”

Against all this we as Christians are called to stand.

And as the evil against which we must stand and struggle is larger than our own personal petty sinfulnesses, even, apparently, larger than all our own personal petty sinfulnesses put together, so we cannot rely simply upon our own strength, our own wisdom, our own virtue. They aren’t enough. They are too easily corrupted. No, St Paul calls us to rely on “the whole armor of God.”

But let us note carefully what that armor is (listen to St Paul again): “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.” Here are God’s weapons: truth, righteousness, the good news of peace, faith, salvation, the Word of God. Not our own swords, but only the “Sword of the Spirit.” We cannot use evil’s own weapons against it. In this realm of what ultimately matters, we cannot fight fire with fire. We don’t need any more Crusades, no more wars of religion, no more inquisitions, no more persecutions. God’s Kingdom is served not by power and force and craft, but by humility and patience and love. And always, in all things, by constancy in prayer, through which the powers of evil within ourselves are vanquished by God’s grace, and we, ever more closely conformed to the Reign of God, are strengthened as faithful soldiers of the Cross of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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