a sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16)
When Jonathan Daniels died instead of Ruby Sales, he was wearing the full armor of God. What does it mean to “stand firm” in the face of evil?
This past Thursday marked the 50th anniversary of the new life of Ruby Sales. Back in 1965, when she was only 17, she had participated in the Civil Rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. By August, she was just getting ready to start college, when she met a few other young men and women who were picketing a small country store that refused to let them shop there. At some point, a white man came out of the store, aimed a 12 gauge shotgun right at Ruby and pulled the trigger. She heard the blast and fell to the ground.
But she was not hit by the gunshot. Instead, she had been pushed to the ground by a 26 year old seminary student from New Hampshire named Jonathan Daniels. He was raised in an upper middle-class household, was valedictorian of his high school class, graduated from Harvard, and was attending the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. That was when he answered Dr. Martin Luther King’s call for white students and clergy to stand firm in the Civil Rights movement. The full force of the shotgun blast hit Jonathan in the chest and he was killed instantly.
In today’s reading from Ephesians, Paul exhorts the members of the church in Ephesus with these words:
Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 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. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
In this day and age, it is very easy for those of us who live comfortable lives in a culture that is predominately Judeo-Christian (in thought if not in practice), to forget what it was like to live as a tiny minority in a predominately pagan society. The Ephesians lived at a time when the Emperor was considered a god and lord; a place where their allegiance to Christ put them at considerable risk of being reported to the authorities by other members of their community or even members of their families.
But Paul reminds this small band of faithful Christians that their struggle is not against any flesh and blood enemies, but against cosmic forces of evil and darkness. A generation ago, these forces might have been political forms of oppression – Naziism and Fascism. Now, it might look more like the various forms of radical fundamentalism that are sweeping across the world. Or maybe it looks like racism or sexism, or addiction – to alcohol or drugs. Or perhaps it takes a different form, such as radical populism, where people become so frustrated with the gridlock of our national institutions and the complexities of living in a pluralistic society that we simply throw up our hands in despair and begin following the first guy who comes along with too simple solutions and tells us that he can make it all better, regardless of how many people we have to throw under the bus in the process.
There are all kinds of cosmic powers in the present darkness, all kinds of spiritual forces of evil. And to those of us who would be true followers of Jesus Christ, Paul says, “put on the full armor of God and stand firm.” Notice that he doesn’t say, “pick up your bows and spears and march out against your neighbors.” The armor Paul describes is purely defensive in nature. For him, standing firm doesn’t mean going on the offensive; he doesn’t mean we should go on attack. Instead, our job is to be prepared for the inevitable challenges of evil whenever they happen our way – evil that erodes our spiritual confidence and faith in our loving God and his son as our only true salvation.
Jesus also tried to prepare his followers for the cultural attacks they would have to endure when he said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them… those who eat this bread will live forever.” He was inviting them to come along on the greatest journey of their lives, a journey that would take them into the very presence of God. But in order to make the journey, they had to give themselves up, wholly and completely, to him. For a great many of those who were with Jesus at that time, people who had been following him since he fed the 5000, this was a bridge too far. They would turn away and seek other paths to God. But the twelve, the remnant, stayed, in spite of the fact that becoming his disciples would ultimately cost them their lives, too.
Which brings us back to Ruby Sales, the one who lived that day, and to Jonathan Daniels, the one who traded his life for hers. She went on to testify against the shooter, in spite of threats her life and the lives of her family members. He was acquitted by an all white male jury at the time, and 30 years later he said that he would shoot them all again. But that trial led to meaningful reform of the jury system in Alabama. Meanwhile, Ruby graduated from college and went on to attend the same seminary Jonathan Daniels did, and she founded SpiritHouse, an inner city ministry in Washington, DC that works for racial, social and economic justice. She still attends St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington and dedicated her ministry to Jonathan Daniels.
As I was thinking about this sermon, I really didn’t know what I wanted you to take away from it. Certainly, we are not all called to sacrifice our lives as Jonathan Daniels did. But at one time or another, all of us will face some form of spiritual evil. Paul reminds us that it is not our weakness but God’s strength that enables us to stand firm when the time comes.
Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
Thanks be to God.