October 14, 2018: Vision for Peace Danced in their Heads: Armour of God by Rev. Beth Hayward (Ephesians 6: 10-20)

War begins in incoherence and chaos, and they end in incoherence and chaos.

Prayers are one of the necessary expressions of our response to these dirty, ugly truths,

our hope to redeem them.[1]

On a dark November night of 1915, on the battlefields in Ypres Belgium the dream of this building was born. That night Rev. Col. George Fallis buried six soldiers, their broken bodies wrapped in blankets. A soldier turned to him and said: “Padre, after the war is over some chaplain should build a memorial in Canada in memory of fellows like these who have given their all.”[2] From that day, for the duration of the war, with every burial Rev. Fallis’ conviction grew deeper. On a similar night three years later, this time on the battlefields of France and with fifty-four bodies placed in a long trench grave, a nurse turned to him and said “Padre, when the war is over, you ought to build a memorial chapel, …for Canada.”

Rev. Fallis, along with the congregation of 6th Ave Methodist Church, did just that and for the ninety years since, the faithful and the doubters, the dreamers and the seekers have gathered in this place week in and week out to be fed and sent forth, to baptize their babies and bury their dead.

In his memoir Rev. Fallis said that, “it became perfectly clear that this chapel must speak a great message of peace rather than of war.” People cautioned, even ninety years ago, that to construct this place in memory of soldiers would tend to idealize war, to which Fallis argued vehemently. He said that: “one will search in vain to find any symbol idealizing war, [in this building]. On the contrary the whole chapel preaches a great sermon on beating ‘swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.”[3]

Turn your gaze toward the windows surrounding us, take a good look at the stunning beauty, the subtle variance in colour from panel to panel, the way the light coming through making the windows come to life. If you look closely you’ll notice too that nearly every window contains an image of soldiers, either soldiers from the sacred text of the bible or soldiers from the history of colonial Canada.

I don’t think for a minute that Fallis’ vision was to idealize war in the honouring of fallen soldiers. But it’s complicated.  Over the coming weeks we’ll look closely at his assertion that we will search in vain to find a symbol in this place idealizing war. We’ll respectfully inquire as to the truth of that claim as we delve into the history of this place, its legacy, questions of how its architecture continues to shape those who gather here. We’ll ask difficult questions about peace and war, about the stories we tell, we’ll lay it all bear. A milestone like an anniversary is a most appropriate time to take stock, to honour our past, examine or present and to consider with great thoughtfulness and wisdom how we will lean into the future with grace and conviction. The task before us is not primarily a history lesson but a question of living faith. How does this place shape our faith, does our unique history inform the way we gather here and what we bring from here into our lives? Does it matter that we are surrounded by images of war and peace?

We are surrounded by a story of peace, but a peace made possible by war. The myth of war is a powerful one. I use the word myth here not as fairy tale or falsehood but thinking of it as something that conceals a deeper truth. According to journalist Chris Hedges the myth of war in modern times conceals, or removes us from the sensory realities of war. The myth of war is about how violence secures peace, how the soldier is the agent of ultimate sacrifice, how sometimes good must resort to killing for evil to be put to rest once and for all.  The myth of war is George W. Bush insisting with unwavering confidence “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”

The sensory reality of war, that’s about what’s happening on the ground, the lives torn apart, the mass migration, the stories like the one a friend shared with me about his experience, as a teen, living through the Rwanda genocide, driving down his upper middle class street and the car couldn’t avoid bumping over body parts. The sensory reality of war is about civilians killed and soldiers returning home with broken bodies and spirits. The myth of war protects us from the sensory reality of war and this is difficult to capture in stained glass, no matter how hard one tries. Stain glass windows are not so much living stories as stories beautifully preserved in time.

The soldier is the hero of the myth of war and a fitting place for us to begin today, given Fallis’ intent to honour the soldier in this place. We can look all over scripture and see soldiers lifted up as an ideal. I’ve chosen Ephesians today and this idea of putting on the whole armor of God because it takes the image of the soldier and implores us to be like him. You should be like a soldier.

In the First Century, when the Christian Church was just being born the myth of war was alive and well. Images of war abounded in the Roman Empire, from coins to statues to memorials; people were surrounded with pictures of the mighty emperor and his loyal soldiers. The Roman Empire’s promise to the people, the reason folks paid their taxes and submitted to, often brutal, force was because the empire promised peace. It was a peace understood not in some UN round table sort of way but a peace where the mightiest kept all the bad guys in order, so the rest of us could live without threat of death.

They understood the importance of armour. It was a perfect metaphor for them. It’s just that the idea of putting on the armour of God was meant to be rather subversive. “Jesus turned the war story on its head. Instead of being born to nobility, he was born in a manger, to an oppressed people in occupied territory. Instead of charging into Jerusalem on a warhorse, he arrived on a lumbering donkey. Instead of rallying troops for battle, he washed his disciples’ feet.”[4]

I don’t know about you but when I read about putting on the whole armour of God I’m thinking to myself – seriously? You may as well sing that old hymn Onward Christian Soldiers, marching as to war. Christians are meek and mild, don’t rock the boat kind of people, turn the other cheek and all that. And so it takes a bit of deep breathing for me to even read words like this without reacting and completely dismissing it as at best misguided military propaganda and at worst permission for Christians to behave badly.

I don’t like the metaphor but practically speaking, I’m good at armour, we all are. We’re so good at it we don’t even notice the weight of it. It accumulates bit by bit in small ways until if we’re lucky one day we wake up and know there is a choice to be made, we either sink to the floor from the weight of it or we begin the difficult work of un-layering.

Not many of us will ever be asked to serve in war but every one us knows what it is to walk around with the armour we’ve collected to protect ourselves from being wounded by the thousand little things that can wear us down in a day. It’s so easy to put on the armour of I’m right and you’re wrong while telling ourselves it’s really the armour of righteousness. Too easy to put on the armour of I am the holder of the true Truth rather than the armour that does the difficult work of uncovering the truth for this moment. It’s easy to put on the armour of you will not get close enough to me to harm me.

When the armour gets thick enough then it becomes easy to turn into the warrior who hurls insults, or hides from the difficult encounters or the soldier who gets smug, sarcastic, defensive or dismissive. And it doesn’t matter what side you find yourself on any spectrum, all of us turn into soldiers when we think we’re protected by the armour of our ideologies or the armour of our egos.

Maybe the myth of the soldier can work if it becomes a more true story, one that speaks to the unusually high suicide rates of those who have served in war, the brokenness of body and spirit that so often accompanies soldiers home. Maybe if soldiers of God are the wounded and the broken then it can work. Maybe if the armour we put on for God makes us humble, leaves room for our vulnerabilities, then maybe it can work?

I’m not convinced that the armour metaphor is all that helpful, though maybe it is for you. Maybe it offers a sense of resiliency that’s required in a time when open hearted, open minded Christian values are counter-cultural. Maybe you need a bit of a hard shell to help keep you standing in a world that seems to be falling apart.

Even so, we need to think long and hard about whether the weight of the armour is actually worth it. I wonder if we might be better served by putting on the sheer shawl of God, or the handmade lightweight sweater. I wonder if armour is only helpful if it’s an armour of vulnerability? Vulnerability is not winning or losing it’s about having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.[5] And that sort of thing can scare us enough to go looking for some armour on Amazon as fast as our fingers can click.

Maybe if we could all just drop the armour for a while, we’d discover a whole new metaphor to ground our faith. Maybe it’s about taking off the armour, not knowing the outcome and trying out a radical vulnerability for a while? Of course if we want people to fully show up, to bring their whole selves including their unarmoured hearts, we need to be “vigilant about creating a culture in which people feel safe, seen, heard and respected.”[6]

I’m not sure if the whole armour of God is helpful to us unless and until we get our heads around the truth that God’s armour is like being naked, like fully exposed, like nothing to hide behind, like full on vulnerability. Fallis’ desire to honour the soldiers was born from relationship, from his boots on the ground experience of knowing those who died and those who were left to pick up the pieces. Maybe if we can show up in relationship, even with the people we are thrown together with, not of our own choosing,

Maybe we can live into becoming a community worthy of calling ourselves followers of Christ, we can bit by bit recommit to becoming a place where we can dare to turn what we know for sure on its head and replace the armour with something a little more sheer. And maybe like Rev. Fallis we can become a people who dream impossible dreams, who hear the voices of it can’t be done and do it anyway. Maybe.  Amen

[1] Elisabeth Sifton, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of peace and War, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2003. 291

[2] George O. Fallis, A Padre’s Pilgrimge, Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1953. viii

[3] ibid ix

[4] Inspired, Rachel Held Evens, Nelson Books, Nashville, 2018. 78

[5] Brene Brown, Dare to Lead, Random House, New York, 2018. 20

[6] ibid. 12