By Joanna Lawrence Shenk
This is the second sermon in our Lenten series, “Fully Alive: Living as Warrior, Monk and Mystic.” It is followed by a reflection by Kenda Host, a member of our congregation, on identifying with the warrior archetype.
Draw your strength from the Spirit of Life within and all around you. Put on the beautiful garments of Life, so that you may be able to stand boldly against the lies of this present age. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the systems of oppression that hold the earth in bondage. Therefore take up the whole armor of Life, so that you may be able to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of right relationship. As shoes for your feet, put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of despair and destruction. Take the helmet of salvation, and the wand of the Spirit, which is the bestower of Life. Pray in communion with the Spirit at all times and keep alert.
For those for whom this passage about the armor of God is familiar, you will have noticed a few differences in the version that Angie just read. It comes from the Joanna Revised Standard Version of the text.
When I was considering what passage on which to focus this warrior sermon, I read through Ephesians 6:10-20 and thought, umm no. All I was seeing were these armor clad soldiers with swords and a binary around good and evil. Given the reality in which we live, the imagery felt like a reinforcement of Christian dominance – like it’s Christians versus an evil world.
In the time when these words were written, the reality was very different for the persecuted followers of Jesus in the Roman Empire. They were a small group of Jews and Gentiles in the midst of a powerful and wealthy Roman city, with its own thriving religious culture. The writer of this letter was encouraging them to hold fast to the good news of Jesus in the face of an empire that was trying to crush their movement.
When we come to the text in this time and place it’s hard not to think of the crusaders and colonizers who literally put on armor and took up swords and other weapons in the name of Christ and imperial conquest. With this history and ongoing reality, I decided to do my own interpretation of the text in hopes that it would illuminate our warrior path in transformative and empowering ways.
We draw our strength from the Spirit of Life, recognizing that we are Spirit-filled beings in a world that is alive with spirit. Rather than armor I imagine us putting on beautiful garments – like the clothes that we feel the most powerful in – like we’re getting ready for a photo shoot or something.
Standing in our power, knowing we are connected to the source of life, we can see through the lies of this present age. They hit us both on individual and systemic levels. Some of the lies we can easily see through. We know that wars can never bring peace and that guns do not make us safe. We know that being poor in this country is not due to personal irresponsibility and moral failings. We know that capitalism is wreaking havoc on the world and greening capitalism won’t save us.
We know that our fight isn’t against specific humans while also recognizing that wealth accumulation and power hoarding hold many people in bondage and in service to death-dealing systems. How else do we make sense of the lack of political will in this country to ban assault weapons? How else do we make sense of banks continuing to fund oil pipelines that destroy sacred sites and consistently contaminate the water on which life depends? How else do we make sense of toxic train wrecks that poison towns and ecosystems while rail companies rake in record profits?
These are manifestations of the systems of oppression that hold the earth in bondage. In the face of this, we are called to be warriors taking up the whole armor of Life. The warriors we are seeking to become are fierce protectors of all that is sacred and holy. These warriors are in love with the world – the land, the people, the creatures – and recognize their interconnectedness to all life. The warriors who have become fully alive are part of a warrior community, stretching back to the ancestors while also nurturing the young who are coming up.
Rather than wielding a sword which can only cut and maim, these warriors nurture life wherever they go. I imagine them carrying a wand rather than a sword. And if this makes you think of magic, I don’t think that’s such a stretch. Is there not a feeling of magic when you see roses in full bloom or a baby take their first steps or when you walk through a redwood forest? These warriors are champions of life, celebrating its beauty and abundance.
Quite serendipitously on Monday of this past week someone (with no connection to this congregation) suggested I watch the documentary Warrior Women, which tells the story of Madonna Thunder Hawk and her daughter Marcy Gilbert, members of the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe.
From the time Madonna was a girl, she was a warrior, fighting for her community and for life. At boarding school she barricaded herself in the room of a friend who was sick until the administration provided medical care.
As a young woman she and her friends were acutely aware of the impunity with which white men could violate Indigenous women. At that time white men couldn’t be prosecuted for crimes committed on Native reservations. Following an instance where a friend of Madonna’s experienced this violation, she and other Native women came up with a plan. They agreed that one of them would go to the bar where the white man who was the ring leader spent time. It was this woman’s job to lure the man out into the parking lot. Then Madonna and her friends thoroughly beat him up and threatened worse if any other Indigenous women were violated. That strategy was a success, suffice it to say.
Here in the Bay Area, Madonna participated in the occupation of Alcatraz, which began in 1969. Soon after, in 1971 she was part of two occupations of Mount Rushmore, protesting continued violations of the Treaty of Fort Laramie. Two years later she was at the Occupation of Wounded Knee, for which the 50th anniversary was just celebrated, and she directed the legal defense following that occupation. In 1974 she founded The We Will Remember Survival School, an alternative education offered to Indigenous children and youth who were pushed out of the public education system. The school focused on three things: honoring earth, Indigenous rights, and spirituality.
Also in that year she co-founded Women of All Red Nations (WARN). In contrast to the male-dominated activism of the American Indian Movement and other Red Power movements, WARN organized around women’s issues like sterilization abuse, political prisoners, children and family rights, and threats to Indigenous land bases. In 1977 she and her daughter Marcy were at the first gathering of Indigenous people at the United Nations. In 1980 she helped to facilitate the Black Hills International Survival Gathering, held in South Dakota. The gathering hosted 10,000 people interested in Indigenous-led sustainability practices. In 2004 she helped to form the Lakota People’s Law Project with the goal of encouraging more vigilant federal enforcement and reform of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA). Ten years later, in 2014, she was at Standing Rock (then in her late 70s) helping to coordinate the massive camp.
Talk about a warrior who is a champion of life! In all of these instances Madonna was working alongside others, in a community of warriors, and empowering young people to know their history and their rights so they could all protect what was sacred. She had the clarity to see through the lies and the laws that were death-dealing.
In this season of Lent, how are you being invited to live more deeply into your warrior self? How are we being called collectively as a warrior community? What practices and disciplines will bring us into right relationship with our bodies, with each other and with the ecosystems in which we live? What do we need to learn and what do we need to un-learn to be a force for life?
During the offertory, I invite you to look over the list of practices that are included in the bulletin today. What is calling to you? Whether you have ever thought of yourself as a warrior or not, how might you claim this identity as a part of who you are? What are the warrior opportunities that may come your way, and our way, as we open ourselves?
As an example, I share this story in closing. This past week I was invited as a faith leader to write a letter in support of Muslim and Arab students in SFUSD who have been organizing to have the Eid holidays added to the district calendar. This wasn’t just a personal letter of support, rather it is a letter for other faith leaders to join me in signing, to illustrate interfaith support for the students.
Although the school board has already approved including the Eid holidays in the district calendar, they have since stalled on their commitment to add the holidays this coming school year. This is due to the threat of being sued by a group who claims they are promoting Islam by adding the Eid holidays and therefore violating the Constitution. This is not the case since the holidays are not only religious, they are cultural, celebrated by religious and non-religious people alike.
It is also a funny argument to make given that Christian holidays are clearly privileged and our dating system is based on Jesus’ birth. For Jewish people the year is 5783 and for Muslim people it is 1444. As a side note, over the past couple years I’ve been helping to coordinate the Beyond Christian Dominance network, which seeks to educate around the reality of Christian hegemony in our world. As a Christian I believe that Christian supremacy or dominance is antithetical to the way of Jesus. It felt so clear to me why I wanted to write the letter in support of the Muslim and Arab students. They were coming up against the reality of Christian dominance and I wanted to speak to that as a faith leader.
In the letter, among other things, I named how important it is now to honor the organizing efforts of these students, given the upsurge in Islamophobia along with the rise of white supremacy which is so often tied to Christianity.
In less than a week over 30 faith leaders have signed the letter and tomorrow I’m sending it to the school board members and superintendent. This coming Tuesday I will speak at a press conference before the school board meeting where board members will decide whether or not they move forward with the holidays. This opportunity has been a meaningful coming together of my faith-based justice work in the city over the last number of years and the educational work I’ve been doing with the Beyond Christian Dominance network.
In terms of our Lenten series, I guess you could say this letter has been my warrior practice for the last week. As you consider your own warrior practice, reflect on how it can interweave with commitments that already exist in your life. Consider what practice will aid you in coming more fully alive and more fully connected to abundant life around you.
Let us put on the beautiful garments of life so that we can stand boldly, knowing ourselves connected to the Spirit that enlivens the world. Let us be courageous knowing that we are not alone, but rather part of a warrior community – connected to other warrior communities – fighting to protect what is sacred and trusting the Spirit’s guidance in all things. May it be so. Amen.
Reflection from Kenda Horst
I never thought of myself as a warrior until I was asked to speak on being one. Then I started to think about the ways in which this does show up in my life. Examples include social justice work; when I am in new and unexpected situations; and when I started running.
I step into Warrior mode in my social justice work in these ways:
—PFLAG San Francisco. PFLAG is the support network for the LGBTQIA community and families. I served on the board for 20 years.
—As a professional nanny I have started to build nanny community by organizing an annual International Nanny Training Day in San Francisco. Last year and this year, I am proud that we will have full Spanish-language interpretation as well as a speaker presenting in Spanish. These trainings help to educate nannies on best practices, including how to advocate for themselves in their work life—starting with being paid on the books. This is a very important justice issue.
When I am in an unexpected or new situation:
– When I was in Illinois with my parents in January 2021—during a 10-day ice storm with no electricity!!!—I learned how to run the gas generator to keep us warm. I do what needs to be done or what can be done in situations that come up, and hope to find a sustainable way moving forward.
Taking on new healthier habits a few years ago.
— I did two major things that I thought I would never do. I started to run and I gave myself swimming lessons. This past year, I completed a Sprint Triathlon!!! 10 years ago, I never would have thought I could do that.
These are the places that I see my warrior self leading in my life:
- Fighting to make the world a better place in social justice work;
- Thinking on my feet, and doing what needs to be done in the moment;
- And keeping at a long-term health goal, even if it slows down or changes along the way.