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August 23, 2015

I watched Game of Thrones this summer – five seasons, fifty episodes, in about a hundred days. It was a guilty pleasure. I do not recommend the show and cannot wait for season six. I do not like that it trades on the crowd-pleasing shock of broken sexual taboos, of which we are now getting to the bottom of the barrel, [1] and I love its knight in shining armor bravery, wily women, cunning villains, cowards who discover courage and sinners who may yet find redemption. Will good Queen Daenerys control her dragons, unite the seven kingdoms, and save the human race from the White Walkers and their minions of the living dead? I’m staying tuned.

Blame my Episcopalian parents. My Presbyterian Uncle John would not allow his children to read comic books because their minds were made for better things. Polly and Chris Keller were not that strict, so while my cousin Claiborne’s nose was in To Kill a Mockingbird I was reading Aquaman. Ever since I have been the kind of Christian who enjoys modern entertainment—from Aliens to ZZ Top. A puritan I’m not.

What my parents gave me was a conscience, and by college I was sometimes saying “no.” They didn’t come easy but those were some of the best decisions that I ever made. Indiscriminate consumption makes us culture’s minions. We were made for more.

In Ephesians, Paul speaks of faithful life as though it were a battle:

For our struggle is not against the enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of the present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Commenting on this passage, Markus Barth spells out the kind of rulers, authorities and power Paul would have had in mind. They include (I quote):

“The superior powers of nature epitomized by life and death; the ups and downs of historic processes; the nature and impact of favored prototypes or the catastrophic burdens of the past; the hope or threat offered to the present by the future; the might of capitalists, rulers, judges; the benefit and onus of laws of tradition and custom; the distinction and similarity of political and religious practices.” [2] End quote.

Let me flesh that out. The “powers of nature” encompass everything from sunny days to hurricanes. “Hope or threat?” is the question about our proposed arrangement with Iran. “Favored prototypes” may include the Magna Carta, Copernicus and Brown versus Board of Education. For “catastrophic burdens of the past” the legacy of slavery is foremost for the United States, but I also think of the Russian revolution, Hitler’s holocaust, and Vietnam. Such events still shape our thinking. As for “laws of tradition and custom,” as school begins college Greek life comes to mind with its old rituals for rush and hazing. In college that was something I said “no” to.

Of the items on Marcus Barth’s list, the last one calls for special comment: “the distinction and similarity of political and religious practices.” On this list it seems out of place, but I was reminded of it watching Game of Thrones. The show has fun with religious similarity, offering high church liturgies full of solemn mumbo jumbo. Without exception, the priests are a bad lot: if not weak and naughty, then brutally fanatic. If you see the red headed priestess coming hide the children. They all preach faith that is blind to reason and indifferent to compassion. This the religion of Richard Dawkins speeches. I will go out of a limb and guess that he and the show’s writers are mutual admirers.

However that may be, the Game of Thrones’ pejorative depiction of religious practice makes a problem for those of us who are actually religious. Television is a cosmic power, shaping popular perception. Once a week the viewing public sits on the sofa and absorbs the idea that religion is repulsive, making it that much easier to ignore the sound of Church bells Sunday mornings.

Here’s the upshot:

When St. Paul writes of “cosmic powers of the present darkness,” he is calling our attention to the fact that our lives are shaped by forces far beyond our own control. While some of these are beneficial, many of them are not. I hope we take his point. We are in a struggle—or, if you will, and you must understand that I’m speaking metaphorically—a war.

In Game of Thrones, the armory is part of the attraction. The wealthy Lannisters wear polished bronze. The noble Starks are suited in plain metal but wield lethal swords made from rare Valerian steel. Special swords are given names.

In St. Paul’s world the Roman armies marched the streets, so their armor was naturally a part of his metaphorical vocabulary. For Paul and his audience, helmets, swords and breastplates were handy images for thinking about matters of the spirit. Our solders don’t wear metal armor anymore, or carry swords, and they seldom march the streets. But we still have the picture thanks to costume shows like Game of Thrones, so the metaphors still work. Listen:

Take up the whole armor of God [he says], so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. . . Take the shield of faith … the helmet of salvation, and the the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

About that “belt of truth,” my Oxford Bible Commentary offers this helpful explanation: “In a day when clothing was much looser, it was necessary for the flowing cloak to be fastened firmly by a belt, otherwise movement would be hindered and action impeded. To be caught out in deceit or falsification was like tripping over one’s clothing.”

This is excellent advice! I’ve often warned my children against the white lie. First we use one of those to spare somebody’s feelings, and then we try a darker one to guard our reputation. Before you know it we find ourselves in real trouble.

This week was the anniversary of Bill Clinton’s fateful television moment when he bit his lip, looked us in the eye, and wagged his finger: “I want you to listen to me: I never had sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.” I took him at his word. The next Sunday I stood in the pulpit at St. Margaret’s and said that he was the President of the United States and he was asking us to trust him and I believe we should.  I suppose that seems naïve. In my life I’ve tried to be careful with the truth and I could not imagine that a President of the United States could be so disrespectful of it. We all make mistakes. That was a bad one and he suffered for it.

As for my naïveté, regarding the truth there are worse failings. Beware the man who laughs and tells you everybody lies.  

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates calls it “clever paranoia.” Who are the clever paranoids? They are the ones, he says, who can’t themselves be trusted. “They look at the standards of behavior contained within themselves” and assume the worst of everyone. [3] When you tell me everybody lies I’ve got your number.

I’ll say one more thing on this topic. According to the clever, those who stray, lie. If so, it would follow that those who don’t lie, don’t stray. A strong commitment to the truth will strengthen our commitment to our wives and husbands. So let’s not forget our belts when we get up and dress for school or work tomorrow morning.  

We will also need our swords. In Game of Thrones, Arya Stark wears a sharp little blade made just for her named Needle. She is handy with it. Honorable Brianne of Tarth calls her big sword Oath Keeper. Paul turns the metaphor around. The Word and Spirit are our sword. Faith, hope, and love are what we fight with, in the present darkness, in our struggles with cosmic powers and unwholesome spirits.

What are fighting for? In Game of Thrones, the goal is to conquer and unite the seven kingdoms. What is our goal here at Trinity Cathedral?

I often hear the church is “called to build the Kingdom.” I am sure I must have said that more than once myself. I would like now to retract the statement. We cannot build the Kingdom of God and we do not have to. We cannot, because the Kingdom of God is more than the just and peaceful social order some imagine—and even that is only relatively attainable. As Immanuel Kant once said: “From the crooked timbers of humanity, nothing straight has yet been built.” That includes the church—and yet we’re “called to build the kingdom”? Fat chance. [4]

Thank God we don’t have to. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer tried to tell us, the Kingdom of God is not an ideal we must strive to achieve, but a reality in which we may participate. It is like the universe. We aren’t “called to build the universe.” Like it or not, we find that we inhabit it. It is the physical reality in which we live and move and have our being—until our bodies go kaput. The Kingdom of God encompasses this physical reality, a fact of which the universe is no more than partially aware and to which it is to some extent resistant. In the gospel, Jesus and Pilate both inhabit this Kingdom. Jesus knows this. Pilate does not; but even in his ignorance and opposition we find that Pilate, too, has been made to serve the purposes of God. In the end, we will have all done that in one way or another. It is when we do this knowingly, faithfully and freely, that we are answering the call. “Thy will be done on earth,” we say, “as it is in heaven.” It is to say: Let his universe disclose the glory of its maker. Let us see the kingdom. Rarely, that prayer is answered with a miracle; often, by an assignment. The good Lord says “You want to see my kingdom? Grab your sword.”

I have presided at one funeral and attended two others in the past eight days: for Rodney Getchell here; for Bert Parke at Christ Church; and at St. Margaret’s for Chad Cumming who was killed in a motorcycle accident. As I sat through those services I was again reminded that there is no fellowship on earth that can speak to such occasions with the hope and strength that we do.

Crowns and Thrones may perish.
Kingdoms rise and wane
But the church of Jesus
Constant will remain.

In my life I have seen eleven presidents, each with flaws and virtues; four wars; the collapse of the Soviet empire; and the rise of a savage enemy in the Middle East. At least once, we were on the brink of thermonuclear world annihilation. Now we face challenges at home; the world news is full of daily trouble, and here comes Donald Trump.

The world with [clowns and] devils filled threatens to undo us.

But it won’t.

[1] “The heart wants what it wants,” Sir Jaime explains to his understanding daughter. When Woody Allen abandoned Mia Farrow for her daughter, that’s what he said word for word.

[2] Marcus Barth, Ephesians, Anchor Bible, 174.

[3] Plato, The Republic, Robin Waterfield, trs., New York: Oxford UP, 1993, p.110.

[4] Humans did build the United States, which as earthly Kingdoms go is pretty doggone good—but even its designers knew full well that by protecting freedom they were leaving wide scope for the devil.