“God’s shield is not made of bronze or iron, of lazers or vibranium. God’s shield is made of flesh and blood – of feathers, and softness – of the kind of protection that comes only from love….. That love, ultimately, is the best and the only shield we have against the forces of sin and hate in this world.”
Sermon Preached: Sunday, March 13, 2022 at Trinity on the Green
“The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.’ May I speak in the name of God, who is to us Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In our reading from the Book of Genesis this morning, God reminds Abram, someday soon to be renamed Abraham, the patriarch of the Jewish people, that God is his shield. This is a powerful image, and one that we find throughout scripture, particularly in the Psalms. Consider just a few examples: “You, O Lord, are a shield about me, my glory, and the One who lifts my head“ (Psalm 3, Verse 3). “The Lord is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him and He helps me” (Psalm 28, Verse 7). And finally, “Our soul waits for the Lord; He is our help and our shield” (Psalm 33, Verse 20). These are just a few verses that convey this powerful image: God is our shield.
This week I’ve been doing a little bit of light research on shields, since it’s something I don’t think a lot about in my everyday life. I learned that shields are a very old form of technology, originally developed to protect hunters as they searched for food. Over time shields were used as protection not primarily against animals, but against other people. Shields were decorated with a pattern or insignia to identify a person as a part of a particular army or clan– in western civilization, this practice eventually evolved into an elaborate system of heraldic devices, such as we might associate with the middle ages. Shields come in many different shapes and sizes, depending on their use: they can be round, oval, square, rectangular, triangular, scalloped. Shields have been used by people in power – like the Roman legionaries who carried tall, imposing shields called scuta, that could form a perfect line of defense so impenetrable that it was compared to the shell of the tortoise. Surely these shields would have been familiar to Jesus, in the first century. But shields were also used by those who were poor and oppressed, sometimes made simply out of wood or animal hide.
Beyond this survey of shields throughout history, my understanding of shields is also influenced by popular culture. I think of those Lord of the Rings movies, in which characters use shields that are somewhat similar to the medieval period of western history. But then I think, also, of the famous shield wielded by Captain America in the Marvel comic books, and later in movies and TV shows. Captain America, with his iconic shield of stars and stripes, first appeared in a comic book in 1941 – at a time when America was grappling with its role in global conflict during World War II. We find ourselves engaged in similar wonderings today, as the world is witness to Russia’s aggression against the people of Ukraine. Finally, when I think of shields in popular culture I think about the Star Wars movies I watched growing up – both the original trilogy, and the prequel trilogy that came out in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. In that series, and perhaps other science fiction stories you can think of, a shield is a kind of glowing bubble that can perfectly encapsulate the place you are trying to protect. That shield can only take so many hits – and yet there’s still this illusion of perfect protection, at least for a time.
As I consider all of these shields throughout history and the stories we tell, I admit that I don’t know exactly what shield was in Abram’s mind when God spoke these encouraging words, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” And indeed the specific shield-reference would have changed over time, and at different places in the Bible. Whatever the specific object in mind may be, we can think of two important attributes of shields: first, their ability to protect; and second, the way in which they represent the bearer.
This brings me to our Gospel passage for today, which gives us a window into a brief interaction between Jesus and one of the Pharisees, the branch of Judaism that emphasized adherence to the law and temple worship. This interaction comes in the midst of Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing – a ministry that in many ways upset the status quo of Jewish religious practice, challenging the notion of sabbath and pushing people of faith to think about God’s vision for a kingdom that extends beyond the temple, and out into the world. Jesus gets into a number of arguments with the Pharisees throughout his ministry – yet in this passage, this particular Pharisee takes a different approach. He tries to lessen Jesus’ influence by warning him of a greater danger, the threat of imperial Rome, as represented by the regional Roman leader, Herod. “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you,” the Pharisee says. Instead of backing down, Jesus proclaims (in somewhat enigmatic terms) that he will continue walking on this path that he has chosen – a journey that will ultimately lead to Jesus’ trial and crucifixion in Jerusalem, and his resurrection on the third day.
After finishing this rebuttal to the Pharisee, Jesus continues with a lament. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he says, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.” In the broader context of our readings today, particularly our reading from Genesis, I am struck by how Jesus offers a very different image of shield. The image that Jesus chooses is not that of a strong tower or a fortress, but that of a mother hen, gathering her brood beneath the shield of her wings.
Now if we were to choose a shield, this is not (perhaps) the shield that we would choose! We might choose that Roman shield, the scuta with it’s tortoise-like protection. Or better yet, let’s jump forward to that Star Wars force-field shield, perfectly capable of deflecting all kinds of attacks. And yet that is not the kind of shield that Jesus offers to God’s children. God’s shield is not made of bronze or iron, of lazers or vibranium. God’s shield is made of flesh and blood – of feathers, and softness – of the kind of protection that comes only from love.
Significantly, the shielding wings that Jesus offers do not guarantee perfect protection from the world we live in. If Herod is the fox and Jesus is the hen, then we can imagine where this story might be heading! And indeed, we know how the story continues. We know about Jesus’ passion and death, which we anticipate throughout this season of Lent. And we know, from a historic perspective, that the Temple in Jerusalem will be destroyed in the year 70 CE, adding lament upon lament for the people of Jerusalem.
We also know, as people living in the world, that being followers of Jesus Christ does not shield us from changes and chances of this life. We can be followers of Jesus and still grow sick, lose a job, or lose a loved one. We can be followers of Jesus and still experience hate, prejudice, and the soul-crushing effects of racism. We can be followers of Jesus and still – there is war in the world.
But as followers of Jesus, we affirm that ultimately: love wins. We affirm, in the words of Song of Songs, that “love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the grave” (8:6-7). We affirm that Jesus died but rose again on the third day. We affirm that you can’t fight war with war, or violence with violence, or empire with empire – instead we have to be transformed, by the renewing of our minds, to become more like Jesus. To become more like the only person, God incarnate, who showed us a perfect kind of love. That love, ultimately, is the best and the only shield we have against the forces of sin and hate in this world.
I am glad that the God we worship is not a God of metal or wood – or any other material that has been used to make shields over the centuries. Instead, the God we worship is a God of flesh and blood. A God who became human, to live and die as one of us. A God who, in that human state, found more to identify with in the love and protection of a mother hen, than any sort of power or principality in this world.
Over this past week, I have spoken with a number of people about their reactions to the conflict in Ukraine. I have heard responses of shock, frustration, powerlessness, and most especially – fear. There are many reasons to fear, in this world that is not impervious to suffering and war. And yet fear on its own is a dead end. Fear is that calcified material that leads us to build up shields that separate us from one another, rather than protecting our hearts and our souls as people gathered together under the shelter of God’s wings.
Rather than carrying the shield of fear, I invite us (in the weeks to come) to carry the shield of love. Let love be your protection, the standard that represents what you are living for. Let love be your response to the conflict in Ukraine. Let it be your response to any number of things that you face in your everyday life – a conflict with a friend or family member; a seed of self-doubt in your mind; or the uncertainty of moving into this new phase of the pandemic – full as it is with relief, but some trepidation too.
Let love be your shield. Let love be your standard. And know that love does not protect us from getting hurt. But ultimately God’s love, the love of a mother hen gathering up her children, is the only thing that can save us.
I’d like to conclude with a blessing for protection, an excerpt from the 5th century prayer known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate – it is an appropriate prayer as we think of shields, and an appropriate prayer, as we think of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade that will pass by our doors later this afternoon. Let us pray.
I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of creation….
I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection….
I arise today through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun, radiance of moon, splendor of fire….
Christ to shield me today.
Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me….
Christ in the heart of every person who thinks of me.