Sermon for Sunday, November 19, 2017 || Proper 28A || 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Before my kids were born, I played a lot of video games. My favorite kind of games were set in medieval fantasy realms where you fight monsters and dragons, all the while collecting treasure and renown. And new armor. In the last game I played seriously, I finished it wearing armor made of dragon scales. That was pretty cool. The armor in these games often have pretty cool names, too: The Gauntlets of Might, The Helmet of Insight, The Boots of Running and Jumping. You get the the idea.
I’ve always wondered if the designers of these games originally took a page out of the Apostle Paul’s book, because as near as I can tell, he invented this naming convention. He says in today’s lesson from his First Letter to the Thessalonians, “Put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” And yet, while the Breastplate of Faith and Love has an awesome name, it’s not even made of metal, let alone dragon scales. It’s made of faith and love. How could it possibly turn aside the weapons of its bearer’s enemies? Perhaps this is armor of a fundamentally different type.
The purpose of real armor is to create a barrier between the wearer and the rest of the world. While we may not don chainmail or dragon scales like characters in video games, we do create such barriers around us all the time. The selves we present to the world are rarely our true selves, for we’ve all learned through hard experience the vulnerability of exposing the truth that animates us.
And so a high school boy might act tough to cover up the fact that he’s afraid all the time; afraid he won’t measure up to some standard that he doesn’t even really want to measure up to. Or a middle school girl will go to a party with older acquaintances, and she won’t have the support to help her stand up for herself when she’s pressured to do something she’s not comfortable doing. Here’s a less dire example: when I was in middle school, I loved wearing Converse All-Star sneakers, but I was teased mercilessly because my feet grew way before my body did, a fact accentuated by the white rubber-toed shoes. So I stopped wearing them. In each of these cases and so many others, we don armor that masks our true selves. And we wear it for so long that sometimes we forget it’s clinging to us, weighing us down.
Paul invites us to relinquish such armor and instead to put on the Breastplate of Faith and Love. Faith invites us to trust that our true selves are the ones beloved by God, the ones God yearns for us to embrace. Faith also pushes us toward the openness of new possibility instead of the closed nature of the clinging armor. Love invites us into the mutuality that rests at the heart of all good relationships. Love also pushes us to be vulnerable, to let another person see who we truly are. Thus, Paul’s idea of armor is not a barrier at all, but a bridge connecting us to each other and all people to God.
Of course, you might say “that’s all well and good,” but what about the kid dealing with more than being teased over his shoes? What about the toxic dump that is the comments section of every YouTube video in existence? What about the trolls who desire nothing more than victims who have done the hard work of allowing themselves to be vulnerable? What about all the reasons to cast aside the Breastplate of Faith and Love and to don the old armor again?
Well, that is the reality we live in. And that’s why we need to keep reading Paul’s words. He finishes today’s lesson saying, “Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” There’s a reason why at baptisms and confirmations and weddings, the entire assembly promises to do all in our power to support and uphold the subjects of those sacraments. It is too hard to be married to another person without a host of friends and family upholding you in your marriage. It is too hard to live the life of Christ alone without support or companionship. And so we make and live out that promise to fulfill Paul’s words: “Encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
Such encouragement, such building up makes living as our true selves so much more possible. Two incredible examples come to mind. A few years ago, in response to the tragic rash of suicides by LGBT teenagers, famous people reached out through the internet and shared their own stories of making it through high school with their own true selves hidden away. “It gets better,” was their common refrain. “Hold on. You can make it. There are people out there who will love you for who you are.”
In just the last month, millions of women have stood in solidarity with one another to shine a light on the horribly common reality of sexual harassment and assault, all with the simple words, “Me Too.” This is courage born of encouragement. Community organizer Tarana Burke, who created “Me Too” ten years before it became a viral hashtag, said this, “We call [this idea] ‘empowerment through empathy,’ to not only show the world how widespread and pervasive sexual violence is, but also to let other survivors know they are not alone.” Burke continues, “It’s beyond a hashtag. It’s the start of a larger conversation and a movement for radical community healing.”*
She concludes with two more words: “Join us.” Or as Paul would say, “Encourage one another and build each other up, as indeed you are doing.” Radical community healing can happen when people exchange the old armor for the new and practice ‘empowerment through empathy.’ What a blessed concept.
There are so many different reasons to wear the old armor, but only one reason to exchange it for the Breastplate of Faith and Love. And that reason is that God loves us for who we truly are, and faith and love, encouragement and building up, these things allow us to shine with our own God-given truth.
We live in a world bent on discouragement and tearing down. We live in a world that persuades us to don the old armor, to hide who we truly are, and to force others to do the same. So today when you come to this communion table, and Thursday when you sit down for your holiday meal, give thanks to the God who loves our true selves into being. And promise with God’s help to wear that Breastplate of Faith and Love, visibly shining from the core of your being. And then encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.
* Read the full article from the Washington Post here.