Updated: Aug 25, 2021
“Not Against Flesh and Blood”
Sermon for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost (16B) - 2021
E. Courtney Jones
St. Andrew’s Amarillo
For a black Blues musician, Daryl Davis owns an inordinate amount of Klan robes. He doesn’t like, buy them off of Etsy or something - no - his robes were all gifts. Specifically, his collection of robes comes from the former Klansmen that he has befriended , who, after getting to know Daryl find themselves unable to continue in the Klan.
It all started when he was 25. Daryl’s band had gotten a gig at a little bar in Maryland. Unbeknownst to the band, the bar was frequented by white supremacists. After the set, one of the men in the room told Daryl that he’d never heard a black man play like Jerry Lee Lewis - to which Daryl replied “Well, where do you think Jerry learned to play like that?” The two men sat down at the bar to have a drink together. The white man said to Daryl, “You know, this is the first time I’ve ever sat down with a black man.” And Daryl was kind of shocked, because this guy was probably in his 40s. He asked “Well, why is that?” The guy was hesitant, but ultimately admitted that he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Daryl thought that the guy was kidding, until the older man produced his official KKK member card. Daryl stayed calm, continued conversing with the guy, and when the evening wound down, the older man asked Daryl to call him anytime the band was going to be in town.
The guy ended up coming to a bunch of Daryl’s shows, and eventually the pair became friends. As a result of their friendship the older man quit the Klan and gave Daryl his robes as a gift.
Since that time, as many as 200 Klan resignations have been attributed to the influence of Daryl Davis.
When asked how Daryl was able to befriend people who hated him without even knowing him he said
“To me, racism is a disease… I’m not fighting with these people, I’m fighting the disease.”
Racism had been a powerful influence in those people’s lives. But God’s power is bigger.
“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.”
If you’re like me, you don’t love passages like this in Ephesians. They make me uncomfortable. I grew up in the Texas Panhandle. I don’t like the idea of powers and principalities. Let’s be honest: we don’t really like the idea of rulers or authorities.
I would much rather map the suffering that I see in the world back to people’s poor personal choices, rather than acknowledge spiritual or systemic causes. The idea of systemic anything or spiritual power of any type - that - makes me want to leave the light on at night.
I don’t like the idea of anything that I have no control over.
I want to be able to follow a formula and do everything right and have nothing bad happen to me. Failing that, being a good Texan girl, I’d at least like my problems to be shootable. You know?
But the truth is, call it the devil, call it evil, call it comic forces, call it systemic injustice - whatever you call it - there are problems out there that seem so pervasive, that have so much power or influence in our world that sometimes we feel powerless in the face of them.
Or what we’re currently all frustrated with: A viral pandemic that’s led to secondary pandemics of isolation, disinformation, and polarization.
In the last month, not a week has gone by without someone asking me a question related to feelings of powerlessness caused by the pandemic. That’s not how they put it, they usually put it something like this:
How can I love these people that are trying to control me? Let me make my own decisions - I’m not a child!
How do I not hate these people that won’t do what they need to do? These fools are gonna have us at level red for another holiday season!
I think the writer of Ephesians would like a word . . .
I know that some of my fellow nerds are going to tell me that Ephesians is a disputed letter and it may not actually be written by Paul, but I really don’t want to have to say “the author of Ephesians” over and over when I could just say “Paul,” so, fellow Bible nerds, this is your shoutout and disclaimer.
In Ephesians, Paul (or someone Paul-esque) is writing to a fledgling Christian community that is under the rule of the one of the fiercest domination systems that has ever been known to man - the Roman empire. Christianity is illegal, and it’s not uncommon for the Christians in Ephesus to be dragged to the temple of Artemis and forced to deny Christ and make a sacrifice to Artemis.
...Oh yes, and the enforcers of the law happen to be the most powerful army in the known world at that time.
So, the Christian community at Ephesus does what, as it turns out, a lot of folks do in the face of their own apparent powerlessness - they bicker with each other.
A major pastoral theme in the epistles is trying to resolve issues of the Gentile Christians and the Jewish Christians in these communities consistently bickering with each other.
And, living in the time that we’re living in, you can almost hear the community at Ephesus ask Paul: You’ve told us about the way of Jesus and his life marked with love, but . . . how can we live like that when THESE people are going to get us killed?
So Paul says “well, first of all. You aren’t each other's enemies. Your enemies are not flesh and blood, but rulers and powers and spiritual forces of evil.”
And Paul continues, so here’s what you’re going to do: you’re going to put on armor.
And I can just imagine the folks in Ephesus leaning forward in their seats - Okay, man, now you’re talking. Let’s do some violence!
But Paul flips the script. The armor points back to a Jesus-shaped life.
Your belt is going to be truth, he says. The knowledge that God loves you, that God loves your enemies. That’s the belt you put around your waist. That’s what’s going to hold everything else together.
And your breastplate - the part that protects your heart - is going to be righteousness - right relationship with God and people.
And for your feet? Man. You just put on whatever is going to make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
And guess what you’re going to have a shield?
It’s the shield of faith. And if yall will clump up together with those shields, you’ll be able to protect each other from whatever these evil powers throw at you.
And your helmet will be salvation - you’ll protect your mind by remembering that this battle is ultimately, in the fullness of time, already won.
God’s power is bigger than your bickering. It’s bigger than the violence you’re facing. It’s bigger than these Roman forces.
God’s power is bigger than all the other powers.
And if I’m the folks at Ephesus, I’m thinking, “That’s all fine and good, but how is knowing the truth and working for justice remembering our ultimate salvation and shielding each other with faith going to . . . you know . . . change hearts and minds of the OTHER people?”
The only weapon Paul adds to this armor get up is - the text indicates - a short sword. And that sword, he says, is the Holy Spirit.
How is this whole program supposed to work on our timeline if the weapon is the most unpredictable member of the Trinity?
WELL . . .
How many of you have changed your mind on an issue after hearing someone’s angry, loud rant at the Thanksgiving table? Or, how many of you have been converted to a new way of thinking by a nasty, but clever political meme?
I’d venture it’s nobody. No one. Because that kind of stuff is not what changes our hearts.
But I bet you can think of a time that the Holy Spirit has snuck up and gotten you good.
You’re about to do something you know is wrong and you get that little twinge? Eh?
Or you’re in a conversation with a friend that you know and trust and they softly ask a question and suddenly you’re able to see a situation from a whole different perspective?
Does that sound too subtle? Too Pollyanna?
Name for me your top five favorite Roman legionnaires.
Uhhhh . . .
Name for me your top five favorite saints.
It’s not a fight against other people. And, sorry, but you don’t overthrow powers and principalities with the toughest army or the best research or by being the loudest person at the table.
That’s not how God’s power works.
Here’s how it works. The Holy Spirit. Walking right up to you, eyeball to eyeball, sticking that little sword under whatever false armor you’ve tried to build up, and just slicing through whatever demons have your heart tied in a knot. And then the next person. And then the next. And then the next.
That’s how God’s power works.
If it didn’t work, black blues musician Daryl Davis wouldn’t have a closet full of retired Klan robes.
How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes
How Can You Hate Me When You Don’t Even Know Me?
The Powers that Be. Walter Wink. - Chapter 1 really helped me wrap my head around how the ancient world viewed the idea of spiritual powers.
Naming the Powers. Walter Wink. - I read the chapters in this book about each of the Greek words for powers, principalities, etc used in Ephesians and found it fascinating.
Passionate for Justice: Ida B Wells, A Prophet for Our Time. Catherine Meeks and Nib Stroupe. Chapter 4’s discourse on the ruler of the power of the air was helpful to my understanding of other passages in Ephesians.
Commentary Ephesians 6:10-20. New Interpreters Bible.
Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20. Connections Year B Volume 3.
Commentary on Ephesians 6:10-20. Feasting on the Word. Year B Volume 3.
1 - I don’t share this story to say “hey, everyone should try befriending the people that hate them.” What Daryl Davis has done is brave and commendable, but the onus shouldn’t be on members of minorities to try to convert the people who seek to do them harm.
2 - Incidentally, I’d like to go on record saying that I actually don’t think that 1st century thinking about the spiritual world was particularly primitive, but this really isn’t the format for that discussion, and I’d be happy to talk over drinks.
3 - I read more for this sermon than any single sermon I’ve ever written, and I’m very sure that I’m not in any way doing justice to these citations. If you’d like to know more or you’re a publisher who’d like to use this, I’ll happy clean these up. :-)