The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

Between the reference to greed in the Epistle and its leading role in the Gospel, the preacher’s set up for a barn-burner of a sermon, perfect for Lent. Not perfect for this year, when the combination of the stock market’s year-to-date performance and inflation have too many of us just trying to keep our heads above water.

So, if not greed, what? We might start with the Epistle’s remix of baptismal language to describe our ongoing pilgrimage. “Raised with Christ” (v.1), “stripped off the old self” (v.9), “clothed yourselves with the new self” (v.10): that’s the language of baptism. The remix suggests—no, assumes—that this stripping off and putting on is an ongoing process, a process that the Epistle calls “renewal.”

Read in isolation, the Epistle’s language might suggest a process we direct—self-help on steroids. Our recent Gospel readings tell a different story. Recall what we’ve been hearing. Three weeks ago the lawyer asked “And who is my neighbor?” (Lk. 10:29), certain that the obligation to love applied to only to some people, and Jesus’ Good Samaritan parable blew that out of the water. Two weeks ago Martha wanted to talk about that love (“Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me” [Lk. 10:40]) and Jesus redirected the conversation to the one necessary thing. And today, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me,” and Jesus shifted the focus to greed.

The protagonists in these stories are confident in identifying their situations (What we need is a clear boundary between those who are and aren’t my neighbor. Mary needs to shape up! My brother’s cheating me!). And they’re confident that they know exactly what they need from Jesus, what help they need from Jesus. But Jesus in each case radically redefines the situation.

A modern writer (Anaïs Nin) put the very old observation succinctly: “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” If that’s the case—and our recent Gospel readings point us in that direction—we’re hardly in a position of direct our own renewal. We may be fervent in prayer (“Help me correctly identify my neighbor!” “Tell her to help me!” “Tell my brother to divide it with me!”), but the end result can be pretty much as described in our first reading: “The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols.”

So where does that leave us?

The crucial bit’s in the first reading. Faced with this crazy-making people, we hear the divine soliloquy: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel? … My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Well, what is the Lord going to do? There’s a pretty direct line from these words to the Incarnation: we’re going to make this work; we’re going to do this together. Jesus does not want us to stay stuck.

OK, but how does Paul—or whoever wrote Colossians—think that works? A full answer would hardly fit into one sermon, but here are some things we can notice in today’s reading and in the rest of the letter (since this is the last week the Lectionary has us in Colossians).

There’s a lot in today’s reading about, well, weeding. “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication… [etc.]” A bit later: “But now you must get rid of all such things—anger… [etc.].” Weeding is important. But, recalling our recent Gospel readings, it’s the start, not the end of an answer, also because we can confuse flowers and weeds, and because an exclusive focus on weeding sets us up for pride and intolerance. So let’s keep reading.

“In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!” That’s not just a statement about who’s included in the renewal, but about how the renewal happens: throwing together—in Christ—folk who otherwise wouldn’t be associating together, let alone listening seriously to each other.

Because notice what follows in the next verse: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” There’s that clothing language again, but now with precisely those dispositions that allow folk trapped in their own worlds (“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”) to learn from each other, to be transformed by each other.

Later the author turns to relationships within the household, wives and husbands, children and parents, slaves and masters. This part sometimes gets written off as undigested cultural commonplaces, but it looks like there’s more going on. Perhaps the most important is that each of the parties are addressed as responsible moral agents. They have choices, and their choices matter. In the context of our how-does-renewal-happen question, what’s interesting is that rather than giving any encouragement to “now I’m a Christian and all these earthly things don’t matter, the author pushes the readers—including us—to take these relationships more seriously. There’s a lot in these relationships beyond our control, and God, who’s out for our renewal, will use that. As one of the desert fathers observed, it’s not the challenges we take on but the challenges that show up uninvited that are often most decisive.

And behind it all, Hosea’s God (“How can I give you up, Ephraim?”), who is not content that “We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are” be the epitaph for any of us.

The “new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.” Can’t accuse the author of thinking small. Renewal, transformation: we like these words, despite the fact that both involve change (“How many Episcopalians does it take to change a lightbulb?”). So we’ll give the last word to a former Episcopalian, John Henry Newman: ““To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

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