PENTECOST 14 | Eph 6:10-20
As many of you know this summer Lisa and I went to Eastern Europe for our vacation. We were looking forward to seeing Prague, Vienna, and Budapest, and those cities did not disappoint. The wildcard of our trip was Sarajevo. We were only going there because Lisa had a conference there near the end of our trip. We knew very little about it, and quite frankly, we were not hoping very much.
But it was, in fact, Sarajevo that captured our hearts. We knew there had been a war there in the 1990s, but we knew little of the details. As we drove into the city, we were sobered by the site of bullet holes marring the walls of almost every building we passed. When we got out and started walking through the streets, we would occasionally come across a place where a shell had landed. The debris from the explosion had been filled in, but then painted red.
What we discovered, as we explored, was not a war-torn shell of a city, but a vibrant, thriving, startlingly diverse community. We learned that Bosnia was home to three different ethnic and religious groups: Bosnian Muslims, Croatian Catholics, and Serbian Orthodox Christians. In Sarajevo, these three ethnic groups had lived together for hundreds of years, not in isolation, but side-by-side, as friends and coworkers, and often as married partners—as intermarriage had always been quite common.
What interrupted the peace of this community was the fall of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. As the different ethnically-controlled parts of Yugoslavia dissolved into own countries, the Serbs decided to take Bosnia as its own possession, in part to avenge centuries-old animosities going all the way back to the Ottoman invasions, hoping to wipe out the Muslim Bosnians and create a larger Serbian state.
To that end, the Serbian army surrounded Sarajevo, blocking all access so that no one could get in or out. So the people of Sarajevo dug a tunnel to the outside world. Once they had secured a passageway, you would think that they would try to escape, to flee to safety. But they did not do that. Instead they brought in food and supplies, and they stood their ground.
So how did they resist? They did it through art. They founded community theater companies and put on plays. When the bombs were dropping, they held concerts—everything from classical music to punk rock. They organized a film festival—pretty much everyone in town came.
They did not fight back with weapons, but with art—with words, with music, with drama, even with comedy. In the face of aggressive, even demonic dehumanization, they refused to surrender their spirit.
I was reminded of the Bosnians when I read today’s passage from the anonymous epistle to the Ephesians. At first blush, its military imagery is repellent—but a closer look reveals it to be just the opposite of what we initially assume about it.
First is the author’s assertion that our real enemy isn’t flesh and blood, but malevolent spiritual forces in high places. This sets the struggle in a cosmic framework, indicating that what’s at stake is more than the immediate situation before us. Our struggles are part of a larger conflict, one that oppresses not just you and me, but the whole human race—indeed, the whole planet.
Whether you believe in actual demonic entities or not, the fact is that we struggle not against individual human beings, but agins tinstitutional, cultural, and systemic forces of oppression—expressing open hostility agains the poor, against those of other skin colors than our own, against those of other religions, against the health and survival of the earth itself. What used to be veiled aggression has dropped its disguise and become naked and brazen. There are forces at work—call them political, call them cultural, call them demonic, call them what you like—that seek to destroy everything that is good and right and holy. This is a fact. We are at war.
So what do we do about it? We fight. How do we fight?
Antifa says we must “meet force with force.” That’s one answer, and at first glance, the author of Ephesians seems to support that. But let's look closer.
He is certainly saying, “prepare for battle,” but note that everything he tells us to guard ourselves with his defensive—a belt and breastplate of truth and righteousness to protect us from attack. A shield and helmet made of faith and salvation to guard us and keep us safe.
But to what end? Here we come to the only offensive weapon in the list—a sword. A sword that represents what? The word of God. It is speech, it is creative expression, it is the word that must be spoken, even at great risk to the speaker.
We call Jesus the Word of God because he is the very embodiment of these things. He’s the one who spoke truth at great personal risk, he is the one who did not give in to the powers of oppression, nor did he adopt their methods of aggression.
Instead, he met hostility with love. The author of Ephesians says we should shoe our feet with whatever it is that will make us ready to go forth and proclaim the gospel of peace.
The gospel calls us to war against real and vicious enemies—both seen and unseen—but it calls us to a completely different kind of warfare. Not one in which we meet force with force, weapons with weapons, rage with rage, but an entirely new kind of fighting: One in which we do not surrender our own humanity nor do we deny the humanity of those who fight against us.
We do not meet violence with violence, but with love.
But perhaps most importantly, we do not meet it with silence, either, but with the voice of truth. Evil must be called out, both in our speech, but also in our art—through song and dance and poetry and theater; because it is our art that best expresses what it truly means to be human.
Tyranny cannot abide art, it only tolerates propaganda. Propaganda is simple, and because of this it lies. But art tells the truth—not the simple truth but the whole truth, and all its messy complexity. This is something that causes the Powers to tremble, because the simple propaganda of “us versus them,” so-called “good versus evil,” does not hold up in the light of truth and art, because no truth is simple, no community is uncomplicated, no cause or person is pure.
And this is what great art shows us: the darkness and light living side-by-side within all of us, asking uncomfortable questions and keeping our more dangerous idealism in check. But most of all it reminds us of our common humanity—because love and loyalty and temptation are the same for all of us, no matter what our skin color or our religion or our politics.
This is our weapon: We speak the truth in love, through word and art. As we face the dark Powers in high places today, let’s not be seduced by the beauty of their weapons or the seeming efficacy of their methods. Playing dirty is not an option for us—for if we surrender our humanity (or theirs), the Powers win.
Instead, let us ask God to strengthen us. When the writer of Ephesians says, “be strong in the Holy One” he is actually using a passive verb. It would be better translated, “let yourself be made strong by God.”
So let’s allow God to make us strong; let us put on the armor of the Spirit, trusting not in our own power keep us safe, but in the power of the Spirit of God to guard and preserve our humanity, to help us ward off the temptations to return evil for evil, and to fight dirty. And let us advance with only the weapons of our art and our words, not falling for lies and obfuscations and gaslighting, but continually saying what is true for us, and in us, and among us—not only for ourselves, but for those who are weak, and for those who have no voice. Let us, too, ask for a message of boldness to make known the mystery of good news for all people.
Let us put on the whole armor of God, and let us fight, not with the weapons of the enemy, but with the sword of the creative expression of God. Let us pray…
God, every day when we turn on the news we hear of new outrages. Sometimes it seems like the demonic powers acting behind the curtain of our current events are winning, and it is tempting to fight fire with fire as we see innocent people suffering and the earth being despoiled. But help us to resist this temptation. Help us to put on the armor that you offer us, placing ourselves under your protection, and drawing on your invincible power. And give us the courage to raise our voices and speak the truth, and sing the truth, and dance the truth, and paint the truth. And let us trust that your Kingdom will come, that one day all that is broken will be made whole and the evil we see all around us will be dissipated like the wisps of a bad dream in the morning. For we ask this in the name of the one who showed us how to love our enemies, how to speak up, how to get up again when knocked down, even Jesus, our love and our life. Amen.