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Sermon: Signs, Symbols and the Shield

2nd Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, Alexandria, VA on August 26, 2012.
12th Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16); Year B (RCL): 1 Kings 8: (1,6,10-22), 22-30,41-43; Ps. 84; Eph 6:10-20; John 6:56-69 

Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.

Have you ever stopped to really look at and carefully consider the signs we put outside our church, at street corners, and on streets all around Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill, or any other Episcopal Church for that matter? You know the signs I’m talking about. They invite people to come check us out and join us for Christian worship and fellowship. “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” Everyone knows the sign, right? Besides the slogan, the specific name of the parish, and maybe the service schedule, the other thing on most of our church signs is a shield, the symbol of the Episcopal Church: The Episcopal Church Shield.

It’s a warm welcome … with a shield that is front and center.

Hmmm… shields are militaristic things designed to protect you from something bad, right? Of course, we know from public servants such as the police and firefighters that their badges, which are shaped as shields, identify who they are and what they do.

The shield and flag of the Episcopal Church were adopted by General Convention in 1940, and its design says much about our history as a faith tradition, a denomination, and a Church. So, by a show of hands, how many of you know the history behind the symbols on this sign which is a shield?

The Red Cross on the white background is an ancient Christian symbol, with White representing the purity of Jesus, and Red symbolizing His sacrifice on the cross and the blood of Christian martyrs. The Red Cross is also recognized as the cross of St. George, the patron saint of England, and recalls the Episcopal Church’s descent from the Church of England. The blue in the upper left hand quadrant is traditionally the color associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary, and symbolizes Jesus’ human nature, received from his mother. In that blue field, there are nine miniature crosses. Those crosslets form the shape of the cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland, commemorating the Scottish Episcopal Churches whose bishops helped birth our church by ordaining Samuel Seabury as the first American bishop in 1784. Lastly, the nine crosses represent the nine dioceses (CT, MD, MA, PA, NJ, NY, SC, VA, and DE) that met in Philadelphia in 1789 to ratify the initial constitution of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

You may have thought the colors: red, white, and blue, related to this being an American church, and thus associated them with our national flag. That kinda works. For many founders of this nation, including George Washington, were Episcopalians! But that really is more coincidental than intentional.

So you see. There is A LOT about signs, symbols, and the Episcopal Church all captured within this shield. The reason I focus on this shield is because in our epistle today, Saint Paul exhorts the church in Ephesus to “put on the whole armor of God.”

Armor?  Yes, Armor! From the earliest days of battle, armor was first and foremost a shield.

We are to put on the whole armor of God so we can stand against the wiles of the devil! For the devil, or Satan, is known to be scheming and crafting when warring against humankind. It was the evil one who deceived Eve in the Garden, used lust to conquer David, and led Peter to deny his Lord in the courtyard.

Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, though it makes us all pause when we watch strife stretch across Syria, or see ongoing war in Afghanistan, and continued persecutions of Christians in other parts of the world. But struggles we constantly face come from spiritual forces invading the world, assaulting our inner selves and outer lives, and our interpersonal relationships with one another. We struggle against “the rulers, … the authorities, … the cosmic powers of this present darkness, .. [and] the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

Back in the time of St. Paul, there were demons of the day and terrors in the night, which exist today in the here and now. I recall Frank Wade+ saying in my Pastoral Offices class at VTS, “You can take the Devil too seriously, and you cannot take Satan seriously enough.” (Class notes, 4/1/11) Clearly, friends, sin is all about us, lurking and waiting to tear down anything and destroy everything.

Paul used imagery of the artifacts of warfare, the pieces of armor soldiers would bear, to highlight the spiritual gifts needed to war against Satan. There is the belt of Truth, the breastplate of Righteousness, sandals for the Gospel of Peace, the shield of Faith, the helmet of Salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Paul wrote this epistle from a prison cell, while in chains, surrounded by armed guards. The symbols of the oppressive Roman Empire are being contrasted with the signs of Godly living.

Strength and power and protection like a shield are all necessary in the battle for our souls and the souls of others. What is most necessary is the conversion of our very selves, by which we are resurrected from the deadness of sin into a new and everlasting life in Jesus Christ.

Christians are called to dress ourselves in compassion and love. That suggests that our lives are about what we put on. For what is a Christian life that carries and wears these things: Truth, Righteousness, Peace, Faith, the Salvation of Christ, and the Word of God? How do we integrate these things into our being? What does it look like? While there are few armament stockades around today which would have enough breastplates, shields, helmets and swords for all us to suit up in God’s Army, I suggest to you that our armor comes through our Baptism. “For Baptism is about how you live your life.” (Frank Wade+, class notes 4/1/11)

Beginning with three renunciations of evil, followed by three affirmations of Christ Jesus, we turn to accept him as our Lord and Savior, and put our whole trust in His grace and love, thereby defining who we are and whose we are. We understand that the abundant generosity and never-failing grace of God is necessary if we are to bear up under the relentless forces of evil, sin and death. Thankfully, Salvation is based on what God thinks of us. We are, as God’s beloved creation, dependent upon God’s grace and there is nothing we can do to make that grace happen, except receive it. Freely given, freely received. That is God’s Grace.

In our Baptismal Covenant, we affirm the Trinitarian belief that we are connecting ourselves to ALL that we know of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. There is the Creator, continually creating: in us, around us, and through us. Jesus is the Son who is the very stamp of God – “when you have seen me, you have seen the Father who sent me.” Finally, the Holy Spirit, who is our current experience of God, comforts and strengthens, and guards and protects us. It means something to put on the whole armor of God, and we suit up in the promise of our baptism in Christ Jesus. We should never compromise the integrity of what we believe.

The Five Questions in the Covenant speak to our community of faith that we share through sacraments and Christian fellowship. We are empowered to be evangelists who go out into the world to proclaim the Gospel as responsible and effective storytellers. We are not responsible for how others receive the story, but we must first share the story for it to be received. And there’s also Prayer. As Christians, we are called to a life of prayer, to be grounded in scripture and armed through prayer. I appreciate the weekday opportunity and discipline to join with Mary+, Jennifer and Jane for Morning Prayer.

To seek and serve Christ in all persons is a new standard of living. For we know that “when you did this to the least of these, you did it unto me.” We should make our daily actions our living, unceasing prayer. To respect the dignity of every human being relates directly to Justice and Peace. We should dare to be different. Sometimes a person’s dignity is hard to spot, but it is there. I am happy and proud that for so long now, Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill has been a home for Dignity on Saturday nights, so our Roman Catholic LGBT friends who cannot worship in their own churches can gather in ours, as well as our Muslin brothers and sisters. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our Love.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, we have suited up in the greatest armor that allows our best agility and skill to be testaments to this sinful and broken world. Through our baptism, as Disciples of Jesus Christ, we are what we wear. With church shields on our backs, not to protect us or separate us from others, but to keep our hands free and our arms outstretched, may our hands carry Christ’s Love into the World.  AMEN.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Aug. 31st, 2012 03:25 pm (UTC)
I just finished reading your and the Shield" sermon. I wish I had been there to hear you deliver it. Once again I am impressed in your setting the background for bringing the meaning of "putting on the whole armor of God." Plus I suspect that many in your congregation were not aware of when the shield and flag of the church was adopted and the meaning of the individual design of both of them.

Your moving from "armor" to dressing ourselves in compassion and love was great and then moving towards our Baptismal Covenant outlining how we should attempt to live our daily life in dealing with one another.

I also suspect your sermon may bring some individuals who might want to explore that more in the future. Great job again.
Love, Dad
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )