Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
We hear from the apostle Paul this evening in a letter to his friends in Ephesus written from a jail cell in Rome. It is about the power of God and how this power can be expressed in you and me and those folks in Ephesus for the benefit of our neighbors. And when we employ this divine power, the cosmic forces of evil are undermined and diminished. Paul’s metaphor is a suit of armor which he claims each of us are given by God, to uniquely match our gifts, talents, passions and skills.
But before I unpack what all of that means (the armor and evil forces), I want to point out how remarkable this letter is…beginning with the fact that it was written with authority by a man in jail…an “Ambassador in chains” to use Paul’s words. He set a precedent here, carried on by Christians over the generations, including the man we honor this evening Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Now a letter from jail with instruction to a community, in Paul’s day, was unheard of; because in Paul’s day there was a strict way of doing things, built upon the hierarchy of Rome, where the Emperor was on top, as a god, followed by Senators, landowners, professionals, farmers, labors, and slaves, with prisoners at the bottom of the heap. There was very little movement from one rung to the next… at least on the ascent. The descent could be a slippery slope, where a Senator, on choosing the wrong side in battle, could quickly find himself a slave, or a farmer with one bad crop cycle, could quickly find himself a slave. Fear of precipitous fall fueled cultural anxiety, and motivated those on top to hold the status quo by whatever means possible.
Paul ignored this hierarchy. The resurrection of the person Jesus changed everything for Paul. What the resurrection revealed was that God is with us – all of us; equally and fully…and that simple reality meant that the hierarchy of Rome wasn’t true.
So, whether Paul was a prisoner or not, mattered not. God was with him, and the power God provided him allowed him to strike back against the cosmic forces of evil that held this illusionary hierarchy in place. Dr. King did the same thing against the illusionary force of racism from a prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama.
So, let’s return to Paul’s words to see this played out. He writes: “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” (Eph 6:12).
With these words Paul draws a thick line in the sand between people and disembodied power. In the world designed by God all people are God’s children. They have value. They have purpose. Each is endowed with gifts to be expressed throughout their life for the benefit of God’s creation. And all gifts are equal, and all are uniquely valuable in their own way whether you are the Emperor of Rome or an “Ambassador in chains.” This is Paul’s message, and it was radical then, and, while it has earned some currency over time, it still has a radical edge to it now.
Our struggle is against the disembodied powers that bind people to structures that exist to divide them, and to provoke fear that pits neighbor against neighbor. The Roman hierarchy that Paul fought was like that, as was (and is) the racism that Dr. King battled.
These false constructs are what Paul calls spiritual (that is disembodied) forces of evil in the heavenly places…meaning alien ideologies that have sprung from the minds of men and poisoned God’s good creation. They are parasitical, and use fear and scarcity to divide the children of God.
Over time these false constructs create systems that sustain themselves with laws and enforcement and “socially acceptable” punishment…like, in Paul’s day, crucifixion.
Resurrection changed this. Crucifixion was denied its authority, and the influence of the Roman world started to unravel; with a letter, written from jail, with real power, by a guy named Paul. Paul opened the resurrections front, if you will. Dr. King stood upon that ground, defending it, and even moved the markers. Paul and Dr. King now pass this resurrection work to us, to take up wearing the unique armor God has given us.
Let me tell you a story of a guy doing his bit. His name is Daryl Davis. He is 58 years old and a keyboard player who lives in Maryland. Back in 1983 he was playing a gig at a bar in Frederick MD. After the show a guy walked up to him and was effusive about his playing. They struck up a conversation, and somehow, Daryl learned that this man was a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.
Now Daryl, being African American, was taken aback, but he was also curious, so he continued the conversation, knowing he was clothed in the armor God uniquely designed for him. The breastplate of righteousness he wore was his belief that a person couldn’t hate him without knowing him. So, he got acquainted with this guy, a friendship developed, and through it Daryl learned a whole bunch about the KKK. The shield of faith Daryl carried was the assumption that “When you actively listen to someone else, you are passively teaching them something about yourself.”
In time Daryl became acquainted with Roger Kelly, the Imperial Wizard of the KKK in Maryland. He made contact with Kelly and asked to meet. Kelly agreed. Their first meeting was in a diner. Kelly arrived with a show of power appropriate to his Imperial Office. He had body guards “packin’ heat.” Daryl was just there on his own sitting in a booth. They met and talked. Daryl initiated another meeting, and then another after that.
Girded with the belt of truth Daryl offered Kelly the platform to make his case for the KKK, and yet, when Kelly made a false statement, Daryl would politely challenge it every time. In time Kelly reciprocated, and, in this way, a true friendship was forged. What they learned was they wanted the same things for themselves, and their family, and their community. Pretty soon Kelly started meeting Daryl without his bodyguards. Then they met in each other’s homes; they broke bread together; and their friendship, neighbor to neighbor, grew. In this way they undermined the powers and principalities of the disembodied evil of racism that had so distorted, at least in Kelly’s case, the course of his life.
One day Kelly showed up at Daryl’s house with his Imperial Wizard robes and hat, and he gave them to Daryl. On that day Kelly walked away from the KKK. Since then, Daryl has converted, through friendship, twelve other hardcore members of the Ku Klux Klan.
Now, within the African American community Daryl has critics. Some believe his way is too slow; others say engaging the KKK at all gives them to much legitimacy. And Daryl understands their feelings and their sentiments; because he knows that the armor he wears is his own, made uniquely by God for him; and so, he wears it comfortably, as he seeks to undermine the disembodied powers and principalities of institutional racism, one neighbor at a time.
There is no right way to do this. There is not just one way to do this. There is only your way of doing this, based on the armor that God designed for you. The only specific thing that is true for all of us is that we are all empowered by God, and loved by God, and this love is marked, sealed and remembered through the resurrection of Jesus.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who we honor this evening, knew this; and lived this; we see it in the way he wore the armor God designed for him. He made a difference, and serves as a model for us all.