August 11, 2019
1 Peter 2:1-3, 9-10
Rid yourselves, therefore, of all malice, and all guile, insincerity, envy, and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
Once you were not a people,
but now you are God’s people;
once you had not received mercy,
but now you have received mercy.
Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand. Think about the things above and not how things are on earth. For you died to this life, and your real life now is with Christ in God. And when Christ – who is your life! – when Christ is revealed, then you will share in all his glory.
So put to death the parts of your life that belong to the earth, like sexual promiscuity, moral corruption, lust, evil desires, and greed (which is, after all, idolatry). It’s because of these things the anger of God is coming. You used to live this way, when you were alive to these things. But now is the time to get rid of things like anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and abusive language. Don’t lie to each other.
Take off the old self with its practices and put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of the one who created it. In the Creator’s image there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, insider and outsider, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free - but Christ is all things and in all people.
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Be tolerant with each other, and if anyone has a complaint against someone else, forgive each other. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. Let the peace that comes from Christ control your hearts—since as members of one body you were called to live in peace. And always be thankful.
* * * * *
I don’t think many of you knew Helen Park. Helen was Meredith Needham’s mother, who died recently at the age of 100. You know Meredith, of course – she’s the gifted pianist who accompanies the Angel Choir. Meredith’s mom Helen had a wonderful life; until her recent hospitalization, she lived independently in an apartment attached to Meredith’s house.
Helen’s obituary was in the Granville Sentinel this week, and I learned things about her I hadn’t known before. I knew that she “had an independent spirit, was a voracious reader, and sharpened her mind by doing New York Times crossword puzzles.” But I didn’t know she “enjoyed dancing to the big bands, traveling, and spending time boating on the Chesapeake Bay and sailing on the waters of the Caribbean.”
But what really struck me was how much her life echoed Paul’s words to the Colossians. “Her legacy,” her obituary read, “Her legacy was one of kindness, humor, insatiable curiosity, generosity, humility, and concern for others and our planet.”[i]
Doesn’t that sound like what Paul was saying to the Colossians? Practice “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,” he says. Those are the marks of God’s holy people.
I had a similar reaction when I read an op-ed piece recently about the departure of Dan Coats as National Intelligence Director. I really didn’t know much about him, either, but the echo of Paul’s words was there, too. “In public and private,” the article said, “he was unfailingly decent, kind, and humble…
He seems to have some genetic mutation that makes him immune to arrogance and self-importance, and much of it comes from a deep religious faith that habituates the heart in a certain matter – the character that comes from a long obedience in the same direction.[ii]
It sounds so much like Paul: “Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony,” he tells them. “Let the peace that comes from Christ control your hearts,” he tells us. Those are good words for us to hear. Important words. Maybe now more than ever.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul lays out this extraordinary claim – that it is possible to live such a life. And it has nothing to do with genetic mutations, or anything you were born with. It doesn’t matter where you’re from or even what your religious background was or even if you’re a barbarian – a barbarian! You are made in the Creator’s image. You are made in the Creator’s image. Because Christ is in all and is all.
You don’t need a bunch of religious rules to follow to live this way, Paul says. Let the peace of Christ control your hearts. Live as if Christ lives in you. Because he does. And you, my friend, live in him. In his Light. In his heart. In his power.
It’s quite a promise Paul’s making. It’s quite a claim, isn’t it?
But man, it seems easier said than done. How do we shed the parts that “belong to the earth,” as Paul puts it? The selfishness and greed, anger and rage, slander and abuse Paul calls out? How do we get rid of the maliciousness – the sheer ugliness - of this world?
God knows, there’s a lot in this world that is ugly. Really, really ugly. You don’t need me to tell you that. We’ve had so much ugly lately it’s hard to know even where to start. Sometimes it just makes you want to weep.
Surely there’s something we can do to weed all that out. Surely there’s some way to protect ourselves from being infected, too. Isn’t there some way to inoculate ourselves – keep ourselves pure from the vileness in this world?
It sounds like something we should try to do, right? It sounds like it would serve humanity well, if we could just figure that out. It sounds good on paper, at least.
But executing it is something else again. “Putting to death the parts that belong to the earth” has had a sinister side in the history of this world. “Putting to death” has been more than a metaphor. The attempt at purity has bred its own ugliness.
I’ve been reading a book that a friend of mine gave me. It’s called, simply, The Gene, and it’s the history of the science of genetics. The author is a physician named Siddhartha Mukherjee, and there’s lots of golden geeky science stuff that appeals to me. But some of it is really, really disturbing.
Like the Eugenics movement of the 18- and 1900s.
The premise was simple. As scientists learned the genetic process of heredity, the question naturally arose, whether humans could and ought to be bred for superior traits. Farmers had been doing that with plants and animals for centuries; why not humans?
The alternative, they feared, was that inferior humans would dominate the world from sheer numbers. In Britain, for instance, the fear was that “the political empowerment of the working class… would just provoke their genetic empowerment: they would produce bushels of children, dominate the gene pool, and drag the nation toward profound mediocrity.” In other words, “The brooding masses… were also the breeding masses.”[iii]
There was a similar fear in America – only here it was tied to immigration. As Mukherjee writes,
Between 1890 and 1924, nearly 10 million immigrants – Jewish, Italian, Irish, and polish workers – streamed into New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, packing the streets and tenements and inundating the markets with foreign tongues, rituals, and foods (by 1927, new immigrants comprised more than 40 percent of the population of New York and Chicago.)[iv]
These were people, I assume, like my grandparents, who came from Armenia in the early 1900s. My father grew up in Chicago in a multi-national, multi-ethnic neighborhood that sounds much like that. He didn’t speak English until he went to Kindergarten. They went to an Armenian Church that held services in their native tongue. Grandma cooked exotic dishes, which for her was simply normal food. They were among the foreigners.
As Mukherjee describes,
In America… the great unwashed masses were increasingly foreign – and their genes, like their accents, were identifiably alien… The right people were being overrun by the wrong people. To protect the nation against ‘the menace of race deterioration,’ radical social surgery would need to be deployed.”[v]
And so it was. Forced confinement and sterilization became legal. Indiana, for instance, passed a law “to sterilize ‘confirmed criminals, idiots, imbeciles and rapists’” – categories that were broadly and loosely applied. Other states followed with even more draconian legal measures to sterilize and confine men and women judged to be genetically inferior.[vi] Which, of course, was in the eye of the beholder.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, in a macabre sort of way, that the desire for purity and goodness can lead to something like this? That a fear of losing a way of life – a good way of life, to be sure, a desirable way of life, a way that seems beautiful and pure – that very desire can turn into something like that? Out of sheer fear that “the right people were being overrun by the wrong people.”
Paul is so clear with the Colossians: in the Creator’s image there is neither Greek nor Jew, insider and outsider, native or barbarian. Christ is in all. Christ is all. Putting to death the ways of the world will never be accomplished by social surgery. Not in God’s kingdom, at least.
No, Paul says. It works when you “clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience,” – and are tolerant with each other. That’s the way of Christ.
I found an answer this week in one of Richard Rohr e-mail reflections, where he quotes Dr. Beatrice Bruteau. This is what she writes:
A “better” world is one in which we recognize that all people possess an incomparable value that we are morally obliged to respect . . . Honoring the humanity of your fellow beings means that if they are hungry, ill, or oppressed, you must exert yourself to help them. . . . But this . . . runs up against our inherited instincts of self-protection, greediness, and desire to dominate others. . . . If we could rearrange energy from within—if we more often nurtured our companions and promoted their well-being, we would suffer much less. Rearranging energy from within is what mysticism does.
How does mysticism do this? Consider that domination, greed, cruelty, violence, and all our other ills arise from a sense of insufficient and insecure being. I need more power, more possessions, more respect and admiration. But it’s never enough; the fear always remains. It comes from every side: from other people; from economic circumstances; from ideas, customs, and belief systems; from the natural environment; from our own bodies and minds. All these others intimidate us, threaten us, make us anxious. We can’t control them. They are, to varying degrees, aliens. Our experience is: where I am “I,” they are “not-I.”
Mutual respect is the only possible foundation for a free, just, equal, and responsible society, and mystical experience is the ultimate ground for that respect. With freedom from the need to promote oneself—or one’s nation, tradition, or religion—by devaluing others comes a great release of energy. What had been invested in protection is now available for caring for and rejoicing in others.[vii]
I think that’s exactly the point Paul is making.
Being grounded in Christ is the ultimate ground for respect. Centering ourselves in God’s presence frees us. It is a way of habituating the heart. It is a practice. It is the practice of clothing ourselves with Christ, putting on Christ, living in Christ, Christ living in us. It’s not something we manufacture, create, or control. It is a gift.
And what a powerful gift it is…
To see the world differently… to move from self-protection to rejoicing in others…
One last illustration – a story. A happy story to end on. It’s a children’s story, one I found years ago at a Christian book store in Des Moines; it’s one we used to read to our sons Ben and Luke.
“Just Like Us” was written by Hiawyn Oram and illustrated by Daniel Baird, and it was first published in the UK 1987 during the height of “The Troubles” in Ireland, the deadly conflict between Catholics and Protestants.[viii]
“Billy,” it begins, “Billy lived on this side of the wall.”
“Why can’t I go and play on the other side? he asked.
“Because very wicked people live there,” said his mother, putting Billy’s brother and sister into the laundry basket so she could have some peace and quiet. “And if you don’t believe me ask your father.”
Billy went to see his father in his laboratory.
“Why can’t I play on the other side of the wall?”
“Because very wicked people live there,” said his father, who was busy releasing a cloud of poison chemicals into the atmosphere. “And if you don’t believe me ask your aunt.”
Billy went to see his aunt at her breakfast of rabbits hearts and sparrows’ livers. She tells him that the terribly wicked people will “have your ears for supper and your toes for lunch.”
And so it goes…
So Billy goes out to play on this side of the wall… but then he finds a hole just big enough to crawl through to the other side… So he does.
Where he meets another young boy. Also named Billy, just like him. Who also has two brothers and two sisters and a dog, just like him. Who also wants buy some candy, but can’t, because his parents forgot to give him his allowance this week, just like him. Who’s also no good at math, and afraid of the dark, just like him. Who also wants to marry Miss Pritty, his teacher. Just like him.
At the end of their day of play, Billy walked with Billy back to the hole in the wall.
“Where are all the terribly wicked people?” asked Billy.
“On the other side of the wall,” said Billy.
“Just like ours,” said Billy.
Paul holds out so much hope… that it is possible to live such a life. And it has nothing to do with genetic mutations, or anything you were born with, or what side of a wall you live on. You are made in the Creator’s image. You are made in the Creator’s image. Because Christ is in all and is all.
Charge to the Congregation - Colossians 3:16-17
Let the message of Christ in all its richness fill your lives.
Teach and counsel each other with all wisdom,
and with gratitude in your hearts
sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
Whatever you do or say,
do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus,
giving thanks to God the Father through him.
[i] Obituaries, The Granville Sentinel, August 8, 2019, 4A.
[ii] Michael Gerson, “Coats will be missed for his objectivity and decency,” The Columbus Dispatch, August 2, 2019.
[iii] Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Gene: An Intimate History (New York: Scribner, 2016), 75.
[iv] Mukherjee, 83.
[vi] Mukherjee, 84.
[vii] Beatrice Bruteau in her preface to Wayne Teasdale,The Mystic Heart: Discovering a Universal Spirituality in the World’s Religions (New World Library: 1999, 2001), xvii-xix.
[viii] Hiawyn Oram and Daniel Baird, Just Like Us (Wilton, CT: Morehouse-Barlow, 1987).