11 Pentecost—Proper 13-C
July 31, 2016
As you know I’m a big believer in the importance and of reading the Bible—whether in great chunks or in small bits. God’s Word unleashes the power of the Spirit in a person’s soul—offering what is needed in the moment: Scripture comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, which is why we may be more likely to read it in bad times than in good times, (though I also know from my own experience that when life gets hard we can get so curved in on ourselves that we would rather stew in our despair than turn to God’s Word for healing.) As we read, we must pay attention to the context. We all know the story about the person who in a deep depression one night decides to just open the Bible at random and put his finger on one verse, which is Matthew 27:5 which reads: “Judas went and hanged himself.” Well, that certainly isn’t helpful so he tries again and puts his finger on Luke 10:27, at the end of the parable of the good Samaritan, which reads in part: “Go and do likewise.”
So as we read the Bible we need to pay attention to the context. That especially applies to our readings from Colossians and Luke this morning, because if we don’t know what comes before and after these readings we will be led to a distorted understanding of the good news we have in Jesus Christ.
And unfortunately that is what we often do: we read this passage from Colossians in which Paul gives us a list of things we must remove from our lives: He says, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry)….and that we “must get rid of all such things– anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language….”
And we leave church either congratulating ourselves that we have given up all these things, which means we are full of pride and ego and probably massive denial as to the real state of our soul, or, on the other hand, we leave church depressed and filled with shame and despair because we have not been able to completely eradicate these sinful behaviors from our lives.
In both cases we have missed the good news, because we’ve missed the context.
So what is the context of these passages telling us what behaviors we must drop? Paul writes in Colossians 2:13-15
13 And when you were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God[a] made you[b] alive together with Christ, when he forgave us all our trespasses, 14 erasing the record that stood against us with its legal demands. He set this aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed[c] the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it.”
The good news is not what we need to do for God but what God in Christ has done for us. We must always start there and end there and rest there in the middle: We have died with Christ and we have been raised with Christ, so as Paul says today, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.”
If we ignore who we are in Christ then we work on trying to fix our behavior, then we may end up in a false pride—imaging a moral triumph that isn’t true, or we may end up in despair—which is the better of the two options, because despair can open us to the good news.
In both cases we are paying sole attention to the thoughts of the ego that are juicing around in the brain. One moment we may feel great, because we’re doing well in resisting our besetting sins, but feel terrible the next moment because we remember what happened yesterday when our besetting sins got the better of us. When all we pay attention to are the unmoored thoughts of the fragile ego, then our reality becomes unmoored and fragile.
We become like the rich fool who has this huge harvest dropped in his lap, but all his ego can do is use this gift to protect itself. As one commentator (Meda Stamper on WorkingPreacher.org) notices , the rich fool makes his decision on what to do with the big harvest without any reference to God or neighbor which means he is rich in things but poor towards God.
Which is to say, he hasn’t noticed the context of his life: all he sees is lots of stuff and an ego that will feel better if he keeps it for himself. This poor man doesn’t know he is a beloved child of God.
He doesn’t know that healing and joy have already been poured into his life in the person of Jesus Christ, so that he can gladly step into his big, glorious life in God, and gladly step out of his tiny, strained, anxious ego-driven life.
The issue isn’t whether we live a purpose driven life, the issue is what purpose is driving our life: are we being driven by the fears and anxieties of the small self or are we being driven by the fact that our life is hidden with Christ in God and therefore we have been set free for a life of courage and compassion.
When we start and end with what God in Christ has done for us, then we find rest and relief for our souls and the inspiration and energy to reach out to others.
This is where faith comes in:
When we trust that our life is in Christ, then we trust that everything that is his is ours and everything that is ours is his: we get his faithfulness, his love, his grace, and he gets our distrust, our fear, and our legalistic judgments.
I’ve spent many years wondering what in the world it means to be rich toward God. I’ve tried most of the wrong answers: wrong answers like: to be rich toward God means I’ve got to be super-spiritual and go around with a blank smile on my face, pretending I’m too spiritual to live in the real world.
I’ve also tried the wrong answer that imagines I’ve got to give up everything I enjoy in order to prove I’m really holy.
Karl Barth, who was kicked out of Germany in 1933, reminds us: that, “A powerful ascetic can be a vessel of much greater wickedness than even the most indulgent [person].” He says, “We cannot forget so easily that one may be a non-smoker, an abstainer [of alcohol], and a vegetarian and yet be called Adolf Hitler.” Church Dogmatics, III, 4, 347
To be rich toward God means to accept that I have been given the abundant life of Christ in spite of how I feel at any given moment. Being rich toward God has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with Christ and his love and grace and mercy for me.
John Piper says “to be rich toward God means to make God your richness,” and to maximize all the benefits and pleasure we can get from God.
To be rich toward God means we are set free from the stinginess of the small self and set free to engage the suffering of the world with the abundance of God.
So Judas didn’t need to despair and kill himself, because Christ also died for him.
We don’t have to despair because we can believe in our hearts what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 12:9: The Lord said, “my grace is sufficient for you.”
Or as Anne Lamott says, “Grace bats cleanup.” Plan B