Br. Reinaldo Martinez-Cubero, n/OHC
Proper 16 B – Sunday, August 23, 2015
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
|Take up the whole armor of God|
There is nothing on earth that could entice me to re-live 2005, the year during which I went through some very difficult experiences, one after the other. But it is one of those experiences that stands out in my memory when I read the lesson from the Letter to the Ephesians.
An employee of the church where I worked, who lived on the premises, had become addicted to methamphetamine hydrochloride, commonly known as crystal meth. I was extremely concerned about the safety of the children of the theatre program that I ran at the church. I had been aware of the comings and goings by the entrance to his apartment. We were handling the situation in no uncertain terms, but also with much care and caution. In spite of tireless efforts, warnings, and some progress through outpatient rehabilitation, the behavior continued, and the situation worsened. After much consideration, and prayer it was decided that the situation as it was, was not helping this individual, and indeed, was putting the children of the church’s programs at risk. An intervention was needed, and we needed to demand that he go for in-patient rehab. Every step was taken with an immense amount of love, concern and care for the dignity of this person. In the intervention group were two psychotherapists, one of whom specialized in addiction. They guided us on how to proceed. Unfortunately, in spite of our efforts, and wishes for a peaceful resolution, the intervention was quite messy. The individual became very violent, striking someone physically, and the police had to be called to take care of the rest of it.
The Bishop Suffragan of the diocese who had been aware of what we were going through praised our efforts, and said that, “with love we had withstood against the work of the devil”. I remember feeling instantly uncomfortable with that statement. Did she mean a supernatural force? At the time, if I was going to think about evil at all, my post-enlightenment, intellectual, liberal theology felt more comfortable thinking of it in the human realm: corrupt corporate empires or political regimes; those who get as much wealth as they can, and as quickly as they can for themselves instead of allowing for equal distribution of resources; and so on. But the older I get, the more I realize that, if I am really going to be honest and honor my Baptismal Covenant, the Scriptural understanding of evil is something I must consider very seriously, and that there is often more to our struggles than meets the eye. If we don’t see our journeys in this world as part of a much bigger story, we are surely being limited about the nature and power of evil and are also overruling a substantial part of Scripture.
According to the New Testament in general, there are cosmic powers at work all the time. The personal agent in whom these forces originate is Satan, who is determined to destroy all of God’s Creation. The gospel according to John speaks of the Prince of This World. In her book “Buying the Field”, Sandra M. Schneiders, I.H.M. explains that “World” in this context means “a construction of reality, which is in opposition to Jesus and his own and which can be incarnated in multifarious ways”. She further writes: “It is difficult for us to understand in the abstract what this ‘world’ is. Because we never see or engage it except as embodied in some person, system, ideology, institution, and so on, we naturally tend to concretize it as a place, a people, … a political party or social system, … something which we can identify and engage as if it were free standing and clearly distinct from the ‘good world’. However this evil world pervades the natural and historical world in which we live, the good Creation of God and the struggling human beings who are torn between good and evil.”
The book of Revelation speaks of the ferocious dragon with tremendous size and awesome power that is behind the beast. This dragon represents active, powerful, satanic power. Often, we cannot describe these cosmic powers exactly, but we get closer to what the author of the Letter to the Ephesians is trying to describe when we can see particular behaviors at work. For example, when a group of people will stop at nothing until they achieve the destruction of someone or some cause, or when groups of people are outcast, or their dignity and basic humanity is taken away. I believe that perhaps it is better to think of evil in terms of behaviors rather than individuals. Anyone who is so tightly connected with something that takes away his or her human freedom is not evil, but is likely being exploited by powers that are bigger than they are.
What do we do when we are faced with these forces or with individuals who have clearly been invaded by these forces? As Christians, we are clearly called to love and to forgive. But to love and to forgive does not mean that we let a perpetrator get away with wrongdoing, because, well, that really is not love. In that very sad and difficult situation at my work years ago, we prayed together, we sought advice, we stood firm, we loved, and we did the best we could. As for those who exploit others, well, the Scriptures do assure us that there will be justice, but that justice is ultimately for God to reveal, and it may not happen in our lifetime. In the meantime, we are to put on that spiritual armor of God. That armor is our Lord Jesus Christ who breaks through time and space to live in the world here and now, and who tells us, in the lesson from the gospel according to John that through his body and blood we abide in Him and He in us. We are to fasten the belt of truth, the truth about the Word of God around our waist. Without that belt, we have no place for the scabbard, and thus no place for the sword, which is the Living Word of God itself. By putting on the breastplate of righteousness we put into practice what we believe in our hearts.
Like the Israelites in the story from the Book of Joshua, who are constantly turning to God, and then turning away, and then turning to God again, putting on the breastplate of righteousness requires that we stop compartmentalizing God to “Christian activities” in church and during spiritual practices, but then stop thinking about God if it is not convenient because we just want to be self-indulgent. When the devil is at work to fill us with doubt, and entice us with instant gratification, the shield of faith recognizes the deceptiveness of these tactics and quickly extinguishes the flaming arrows. The two edges of the devil’s sword are discouragement and doubt, pointing at our failures, our unresolved problems, or to whatever else seems negative in our lives, to make us lose confidence in the love of God. The helmet of salvation gives us confidence and assurance that our present struggles will not last forever and we will be victorious in the end. And finally, we are to pray, “pray in the Spirit at all times”, because as psalm 34 says: “The righteous cry, and the LORD hears them and delivers them from all their troubles.”
Our Holy God in Heaven, fill us with your Holy Spirit, that we may keep your word alive in us through the teachings of Scripture. Keep us alert and ever more sensitive to the spiritual reality of cosmic powers.