“Bullet-Proof”

Rom. 13/Thanksgiving

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

For years, I have served as what is called a “clergy liaison” to the New York Police Department.

Three clergy of different faiths are appointed by the commander of each precinct in the city. We serve as a communication link between the police and the neighborhoods they serve. I am attached to the 17th Precinct, which stretches from our own neighborhood of Murray Hill, up the East Side past the UN.

One night last summer, I was offered the chance to ride in a patrol car for a few hours. I went out with two young officers to see, up close, what it was like to be a policeman on call.

That night, I wasn’t actually serving as a police officer, of course—I wore my clerical collar and sat in the back seat of the patrol car where there were no handles on the door!

But I was required by police regulations to wear a bulletproof vest. These vests are heavy and tough-looking; I must admit that I was tempted to imagine myself as the member of some clergy clerical SWAT team!

Now I recalled my evening on patrol some weeks ago, when I first looked at the prayer and lessons assigned for today’s service. In the Collect, we pray that God will “give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light.”

Then in the Lesson from St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans, we hear Paul proclaiming that, “it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…”

Paul’s words are clearly the source for the Collect—one of the most famous prayers in the Anglican tradition. This prayer used to be offered every day during the four-week season of Advent.

We know that Paul isn’t talking about bulletproof vests. Rather, he’s talking about armor for the soul.

But what is the enemy that we need armor against? Well, in the lesson, Paul presents a very long list of sins that can corrupt the soul–from sensual sins that harm the individual’s health and well-being to acts that damage human community. These sins range from what could delicately be called, “excessive partying” to jealousy and quarreling.

Paul’s idea is that when we draw close to Christ, his spirit surrounds us and embraces us like a suit of armor. And like armor, too, Christ’s spirit will protect us against the many temptations that draw us from God: temptations to be envious, or angry, or self-indulgent.

Now some Christians might see this imagery as old-fashioned. Yet however much we might prefer not to talk about unpleasant matters like “evil” and “sin”, the world remains a battleground. Like it or not, we live in a theater of spiritual war, where forces of darkness attempt to conquer the forces of light.

Look at the worldview of contemporary video games—a business that’s now bigger than the film industry. In video games, bad guys and good guys are locked in combat.

Granted, the morality of these games is often questionable. But, at least, their creators aren’t afraid to acknowledge the darkness. Although the games aren’t religious, the difference between good and evil is clear.

In these games, too, characters sometimes wear virtual armor. This armor protects them when other characters shoot at them. Here’s another image with real life applications.

Take an example Paul himself cites, the emotional bullets that come from those with whom we quarrel. Some conflict you have with a friend or a competitor or a relative goes on and on. And you can’t see any way to end it.

If that happens, then when the bullet of criticism comes from the person you’re fighting with, maybe you can ask God to deflect it. The armor of spiritual light can then block the darkness of your anger; you can leave the quarrel to fade away.

Take another of Paul’s examples: wishing you had something someone else has. You wish you had a friend’s good looks. You wanted to close the deal your colleague did. In other words, you’re jealous.

Notice that we sometimes speak of feeling a “pang” of jealousy—these sharp feelings are indeed like bullets penetrating our hearts. Isn’t it strange that a good day you’re having at the office can be ruined by your rival having an even better day?

Now it can be helpful to see the feeling of envy as a projectile that is aimed at your heart. When the bullet of jealousy hits its target, your whole self is damaged. You’ll end up longing to be someone else—some more successful or attractive version of yourself—instead of being grateful for being the person you are.

And while the pang of jealousy comes from external sources—from the persons we’re jealous of, we have to recognize that some of the darkness is really coming from inside ourselves. In these cases, too, we need the armor of light to lighten the darkness in our souls!

The season of Advent is observed in the weeks before Christmas, when the shortest, darkest day of the year occurs. So, too, the four somber themes of Advent—Heaven, Hell, Death, and Judgment—seem particularly appropriate to this time of year.

They’re useful to our inner lives. For these themes force us to confront the darkness of the world—a darkness that is present even though the world was created by God and remains under God’s ultimate control.

Having faced the darkness, then, we are all the more ready to receive the light of Christ—we are ready to exchange the Advent candles for Christmas tree lights, and we’re ready to enjoy the season that follows Christmas—Epiphany, the season of light.

Finally, on this Thanksgiving weekend, we will want to offer thanks for the power of the Spirit in our lives. We give thanks that Christ offers us spiritual armor to put on when we fight the battles of life!

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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