February 9, 2014 Fifth Sunday After Epiphany
Do the Hard Thing
Habakkuk 1:12-2:4, 9-14, Psalm 15, Colossians 3:12-17, St. Matthew 13:24-30
I like words. Words will tell us a lot if we will only stop and listen to them. Take “homogenize.” It comes through Latin from the Greek “homogenes” – homo, as in same; genes, as in genus or kind. To homogenize milk, then, is to blend milk and cream so that the whole is of the same kind.
We at All Saints are a pretty homogeneous lot.
I like stories. Everybody has one, but all stories are not equal. Diversity often makes for interesting stories. I preached for a year-and-a-half at a Korean church in Houston. One man in the congregation was Dutch. And that made perfect sense when you heard his story.
This Dutchman had grown up in Barcelona, where his father was a plant manager. He found his way to New York, where he took a Ph. D. in Spanish literature at Columbia University. In New York, he met a Korean woman who was studying violin at Julliard School of Music. They married, he took a position on the Spanish faculty at Rice University and – voila! – here they were in Houston.
She attended the main service in the Korean language and he came to the English service at which I presided.
For a time we had a pale young American and his equally pale South African bride in the church. They met while he was a Marine on guard duty at the U. S. Embassy in her homeland. Their Korean neighbor invited them to church.
Big cities are melting pots, of course, and the temperature was especially high in our part of Houston. We lived near the Texas Medical Center, which attracts practitioners from around the world. Marjorie and I lived on a short street of row houses, seven on each side. I don’t know the exact count but in those 14 houses there were well over a half-dozen nationalities represented.
Our neighbors on one side were Christians from India, a couple and their grown, single daughter, who is a physician. We enrolled our grandson in a Christian classical school nearby. I served on the board of the school with a Dutch pediatrician who had come to Houston to take her training at Baylor College of Medicine.
Her husband was a 6-foot-2 ethnic Chinese who had grown up in Australia. He held a Ph.D. in something to do with computers. His job with an oil company brought him to town. When we enrolled Caleb in the school, the headmaster was Welsh.
When he moved on, his No. 2, a Lebanese, replaced him. Her husband, a physician, was a department head at the M. D. Anderson Cancer Institute in the medical center and the pastor of a large Arabic-language church.
At Veritas Christian Academy we had kids who were Lebanese, Dutch-hyphen-Chinese-hyphen-Australian-hyphen-American, Egyptian, Russian, African, African-American, Argentine and no doubt some I’ve forgotten. A couple of kids had a Korean dentist dad and a white American mom who had grown up on the mission field. After she was grown and married, terrorists murdered her missionary parents in Iraq.
And then there were the plain vanilla American kids like Caleb.
In this huge pot there were stories tripping over stories, more permutations of race and culture than the entire Rice University sociology faculty could have charted. But when it came to that church I mentioned and the school, everyone had one thing in common – Jesus Christ.
“And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body,” St. Paul instructs, “and be thankful.”
He was at the moment separated from all the bodies to which he had been connected. But as he writes from prison in Rome to the church in Colossae, the apostle is no stranger to cross-cultural ministry.
Time and again, he admonishes congregations to look at their differences through their common lens, their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Where Christ is the common denominator, he tells them, there is no need for division.
Here at All Saints Anglican Church, we surely do look like a homogeneous lot. At the same time, we surely do have our differences. For example, the other night I tried to think of who among us grew up Anglican. Maybe I missed someone but among our members who live year-round in this area I could come up with only one.
The rest of us come from different Christian backgrounds, or no Christian background at all. We have our differences. And St. Paul says to us what he says to the Colossians: Get over it. You have Christ in common; that’s what matters.
The apostle hauls out Old Testament language to address this congregation: “the elect of God, holy and beloved . . .” They are the new society of believers, the new Israel. We know very well that Paul can spin out high-minded theology faster than a blackjack dealer at the casino down the road can fling cards.
He can regale us with doctrine about the brotherhood of believers, that “blessed company of all faithful people.” And indeed we are one with our brothers and sisters in Christ in Korea, the Netherlands, Lebanon, Egypt, Russia and on and on. But that is not Paul’s message here.
He is ministering the gospel in an intensely practical way to the visible, local church. We do not walk around day in and day out in a conscious theological construct but in the always-imperfect, sometimes-prickly here and now of clashing personalities and competing agendas. It takes effort and sacrifice to keep all of our oars in the water and pulling together on the same stroke.
I hear an echo of a talk Bp. Sutton gave. The reason the world pays no attention to us in the church, he said, is that we’re not together, speaking with one voice. Imagine the effect if 2 billion Christians across the globe got on the same page. The gates of hell would not stand against us.
If we are ever to come together on a global scale – and that still is, no matter how remote the prospect seems, the commission our Lord has given us – we must first get our act together at the local level.
You can’t add up 2 billion united believers loving one another with all the sweating and straining that demands if you can’t first add up 12 or 22 of us, 200 or 2,000 of us. The church universal grows from the grass roots.
The apostle is driving home this point among the Colossians. Let’s look at the back story.
As in most of his letters, the apostle is addressing a problem in a local church. And as is often the case, we must reconstruct the problem based on the solution he offers. It’s likely that a man named in this letter and in Philemon, Epaphras, came to faith when he heard Paul preach in Ephesus and then returned to Colossae and planted the church there.
And now, a strange teaching has infiltrated this church, probably introduced by an unnamed individual, that involves heretical practices such as worship of angels (2:18). Paul warns the Colossians not to be cheated through “philosophy and empty deceit.” They must not be taken in by the “tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ” (2:8).
The solution is to see Christ as preeminent, the Reconciler of all things, the One worthy of sacrificial service, superior to philosophy and legalism and carnality . . . to see Christ as “all and in all” (3:11).
For when Christ is in us, we will not be subject to discord and division; all in any church who are in right relationship with our Lord will necessarily be in right relationship with one another. And so, put off “anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth.
“Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him . . .” (3:8-10).
Here is the way to unity for all of diverse backgrounds, for those for whom “Christ is all and in all” (3:11).
Putting off those things, we see in the passage before us today, we are to “put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another . . . even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.”
Paul has taken terms elsewhere associated with acts Christ has done and presented them as the characteristics of the new man. And he’s not quite finished: “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”
I don’t know about you, but the great apostle sounds serious to me.
Serious. But St. Paul is not glib. He does not fill pages with flowery prose to impress us nor does he pass off platitudes as God’s truth. He knows the difficulty of integrating people of different histories into a seamless whole. Never does he pretend it will be easy.
He says to us, do the hard thing. Christ is your model; did He take the easy way out? If you would be like Christ, you would be the servant of all. Jesus did more than any other, then He looked for more to do. If the church was to be one, its Head must be the most humble of all, the Servant not of self but of every other.
Will you do as He did? Will you His servant be His leader in His church? If so, you will be the most humble in His church.
Beloved, we can put away pride, and all of its ugly offspring – fear, anger, defensiveness, irritability, arrogance.
The other night, Marjorie and I watched “Ship of Fools,” a story about passengers aboard a German ocean liner en route from Mexico to Germany as Adolf Hitler is building his Nazi regime. All of the Germans on board dine at the captain’s table, save for two.
The Jew Lowenthal, a jewelry salesman, and the dwarf Glocken are shunned. When another passenger asks Lowenthal if he is not offended by his exclusion, he replies, “What kind of salesman do you think I would be if I could not deal with it? You’ve got to use your noodle.”
If he could forgive for the love of money, can we not forgive for the love of God?
And for the love of one another?
At Colossae, the interloper who introduced false teaching appears to have pronounced the congregation insufficiently spiritual for his liking. They were plain folks with different histories and plain problems.
The fix, he said, was to ramp up their spirituality . . . and not only by worshiping angels. They must adopt a mishmash of Jewish and pagan ritual, keeping dietary laws and celebrating festivals of the new moon.
Oh, no, says Paul, that is the way of apostasy. As your salvation is in Christ alone your spiritual growth is in Christ alone. Before He died for you He lived for you. He bequeathed to you the paradigm of a life of meekness and service among your brethren; in it is the way of spiritual maturity.
And so, if we suspect others of being less spiritual than we, our first impulse should send us to the mirror. There we should frame the question, “Are you so spiritual?”
In my wife’s little hometown nestled in the cornfields of Central Illinois, a fellow came to interview for the job of preacher at her family’s church. When he learned that all the churches in town met twice each year for a joint worship service on the square he said he would have no trouble participating – “as long as we all understand that I’m there to convert them.”
We know the answer he got back from the man in his mirror. If our answer to that question, “Are you so spiritual?” is yes, we are perfectly positioned to demonstrate our pure humility by building up others to our high plane. As we wash their feet they will see Christlikeness modeled and discover in us the essence of Christian virtue.
If that face in the mirror should supply a different answer, as we wash the feet of our brothers and sisters we will learn the humility we need so desperately to grow into the new creature our Lord modeled for us.
One more Marjorie story. A few years ago she went to Almaty, Kazakhstan, with a group of American women to put on a conference for Christian women from various countries in Central Asia, many of them new believers.
The Americans arrived early to get set up. Part of their preparation was washing the feet of one another. They understood that they would not serve others as they must if they had not first committed to serving one another.
Our Lord commands us to love one another to secure that bond of perfection that will hold us together. We must have one another to create that harmony to which our Lord calls us. No soloist ever achieved harmony.
If others sing in a different key, will we withdraw to sing alone or will we seek that key in which all can join? For – make no mistake – we will accept all Christ has accepted . . . and all who will not accept Christ alone will never be content with us. Amen.