11 August 2019, 12:02
© Stacey Steck
Not so many years ago, in churches like ours all over the country, the minister might well have been run out of town, severely chastised, or at least been the object of scorn, for using poor grammar from the pulpit. Especially in tall steeple churches, the eloquence of the minister’s prose was every bit as important a mark of a good preacher as was his effectiveness in communicating the Gospel. Woe betide the pastor who used the wrong conjugation of a common verb. Indeed, today’s sermon title, if it were casually constructed in today’s vernacular as “what are you waiting for?” could have landed the careless cleric in hot water.
But it is not for fear of my position that I have seen fit to avoid the grammatical error in such a statement, namely, never ending a sentence with a preposition. No, my reason for being a little more particular about my use of the English language is because I care a great deal for it. While some might find it more trouble than it is worth to pay attention to such particulars, I think it is worth the effort to commit to memory, and then to use, the rules of grammar. Call me elitist, call me pompous, but call me without ending your sentence with a preposition.
For me, language is a gift from God enabling us to express our thoughts, stir our imagination, share ideas, engage one another in story and song. It is an extraordinarily valuable and important gift, one which deserves to be treated reverentially, not casually. Artful language is not the measure of our love or our faithfulness, but it may be representative of our respect for the gifts of love and faithfulness we have been given by God. To be sure, language is not the end result of communication but rather the means, yet since the end depends so much on these means, those means become quite important. Unquestionably, the message is more important than the medium. However, it may be overstating the case only slightly to say that “What are you waiting for?” is the precipice of a slippery slope toward communication by grunt and rude gesture. As an aside, it is my belief that the church may be one of the few remaining places where children can have their vocabulary expanded and their attention span lengthened, two very valuable gifts we have to offer the world.
The attention to detail, the diligence, yea, even the urgency suggested in using proper grammar is, I believe, of the same order revealed to us in today’s passage from Luke, in which the disciples are reminded that they are to be ever watchful, both so that they will receive a reward and so they may avoid judgment. Those servants attentively awaiting the return of their master from his wedding banquet are rewarded when he finds them Johnny on the spot. In a great turn of events, they become the ones served as their master girds his loins while they are seated in places of honor. Conversely, the lazy, inattentive owner of the house will find himself quickly relieved of his possessions by a watchful and clever thief. There are dire consequences, Jesus warns, for failing to tend to one’s responsibilities, but the rewards for doing so, though unexpected, are great.
Jesus’ words on watchfulness are offered in the midst of a long set of teachings on reliance on God and the right use of one’s time, attention, and resources. “Everyone who acknowledges me before others, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God.” “So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” “Do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying…Instead, strive for God’s kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” “For where your treasure is, there will be your heart also.” And today’s: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” All of these teachings are pointing the crowds and the disciples to God’s grace, compassion, love, and judgment. All of them have something to say about how we are to respond to the grace we have experienced in Jesus Christ. Will we treat casually God’s gift of Jesus Christ, or will we be ever ready, willing, and vigilant about caring for that gift, so that it might then be shared with others?
As I said, Jesus offers this lesson from two perspectives, one that watchfulness and diligence leads to blessing and the other that the lack of attentiveness leads to judgment and bad consequences. You don’t have too drive far each morning to see inattention in action, with drivers holding their phones up so their faces, texting while driving. Have you seen that bumper sticker? “Honk if you love Jesus. Text if you want to meet him?” I don’t do that very much, but I have been known to be inattentive while driving. I was reminded of my years commuting back and forth between Atlanta and Gainesville, Georgia, a trip of some 65 miles, to visit a young lady I was dating. My own car out of commission one weekend, I begged my roommate’s car and made the trip, coming home quite late. I was tired as you might imagine and felt very much like sleeping. Being young and stupid, I convinced myself that if I just rested my eyes for a few moments, I’d wake up refreshed. Well, it worked a few times until I woke up with my head banging against the window, sparks flying everywhere. I had hit a guardrail on the exit ramp not a mile from my apartment. As grace would have it, I hit that guardrail just past the point at which hitting its end would have made for a nasty head-on collision, and I lived to tell about it. It was the most expensive nap I ever took, at least on a per-second basis, as my friend’s Camaro needed a lot of work at the body shop to return to its former glory. Needless to say I learned a lesson about diligence and watchfulness, and the slippery slope of inattentiveness. The distance between closing your eyes for a moment and for all eternity is about six inches, six godly inches.
A casual approach to our own physical health and well being such as led to my own brush with death or disability is but one aspect of what Jesus is trying to impress upon his followers. The slippery slope of closing our eyes even briefly when they are supposed to remain open has a spiritual dimension as well. Not long before we find Jesus telling these parables in Luke, he has taken Peter, James, and John up the mountain with him where they experienced a truly amazing thing. According to Luke, “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men – Moses and Elijah – who stood with him.” Because they had been able to stay awake, to resist the temptation to fudge on their spiritual grammar, so to speak, these three were party to the transfiguration of Jesus Christ, when the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white, one of the most amazing events recorded in all of Scripture. Their watchfulness is specifically recorded and specially rewarded with a blessing all of us should covet.
The blessing of knowing God in Jesus Christ is easily missed by those who are not dressed for action with their lamps lit, who are not mindful of the divine presence, who do not wait attentively with breath baited for the visitation of the Lord. An image I like to use is that of spiritual antennae. If we do not have our spiritual antennae tuned into God, God’s word will only be so much static and the blessing contained therein goes unheard. If we do not have our spiritual antennae tuned into God, we will not see the divine in the everyday, the spiritual in the mundane, the hope amidst the chaos. All the blessing of God’s generosity and compassion and justice will pass us by if we are not actively waiting for it, the way those watchful servants waited for their master to arrive.
But actively waiting is not the same as looking expectantly into the water waiting for the next fish to jump into your boat. If you want to catch a fish you have to row out from shore, bait your hook, drop it in the water, check every now and then to see it the bait is still there, and reel it in when you feel something tugging on the end of your line. You could wait your whole life for that one magical fish to hop into the boat but you would have missed the feel of slimy worms on your fingers, the challenge of reeling in the big one, the companionship of friends and family in the boat, not to mention the tasty fish in your frying pan, all the things people appreciate the most about fishing. That is actively waiting.
What I want you to consider is that where your spiritual life is concerned, it is just as important to be diligent and attentive in that as it is with grammar, or driving, or fishing. When you start cutting corners in your spiritual life, like in any of those other activities, you not only miss out on the blessings which come from it, but you also run the risk of the dire consequences of flirting too closely with sin and idolatry. The difference between your spiritual life and the other activities in your life is that while the things you enjoy may seem like abundant life, they won’t be there when you need them, when you have no other place to turn. They have no capacity to satisfy the hunger that only God can satisfy, even though most of the world tries to fill itself up on empty spiritual calories. Personally, I can delight in a well-worded, grammatically correct sentence, and God may even use it to show me something about grace, but it’s not grace itself, and in and of itself, it doesn’t have the power of life behind it.
“Do not be afraid, little flock,” says Jesus in the beginning of our lesson today, “for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” The gift of the kingdom does not come without a price, for its giving compels us to be different and that takes effort, that costs us, perhaps in money but in so many other ways too, not least of which are our commitment and compassion. I have no doubt that when Jesus made this last statement about where your treasure is, there your heart will be also, he was referring to money, but I also have no doubt that your treasure is your heart – your heart, your mind, your will, your diligence, your watchfulness, and your attentiveness. Where and how you place these things says everything about how much you value the priceless treasure of God’s presence in your life and all the blessing that presence brings. Well, what are you waiting for? Amen.
28 July 2019, 11:44
© Stacey Steck
For those of you fortunate enough to have missed Latino pop music superstar Ricky Martin’s humongous turn of the century hit song, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” allow me to bring you up to speed. The song describes the gravitational pull of the singer’s love interest, mostly in lyrics a tad too risqué for your average worship service. It is safe to say however, that she is a woman who can entice him to do things he would not ordinarily do, including, and I quote, “make you live her crazy life,” thus giving meaning to the song’s Spanglish title, vida meaning life and loca meaning crazy or wild. La Vida Loca: the wild and crazy life. Now, I didn’t bring the band, but if you’ll help me out, I could be convinced to sing you the lyrics of the refrain. Are you ready? Here we go: “Upside inside out, Livin’ la Vida loca. She’ll push and pull you down. Livin’ la Vida loca. Her lips are devil red and her skin’s the color mocha. She will wear you out. Livin’ la Vida loca.” Incidentally, members of the clergy are looking forward to the parody version of the song which describes their life in the church and is tentatively entitled, “Livin’ la Vida Broke-a.”
There are some passages of Scripture which, upon first reading or hearing, seem more like a painfully impacted wisdom tooth than a wild and crazy party. They are so dense with words and concepts and images that they quickly become confusing and run the risk of becoming meaningless. Today’s reading from Colossians is one such passage. It starts off simply enough with a nice exhortation to continue to lives our lives in Jesus, grounded in him and built up on his foundation. But then we are brought into a whirlwind full of tricky terms and ancient images: philosophy, and we’re not talking about trees falling in uninhabited woods; human tradition, and not we’re not talking about roasting turkey at Thanksgiving; Elemental spirits of the universe? Are those the ones on the bottom of the periodic table of the elements I never learned in Chemistry class? And then we move on to loaded theological phrases like “fullness of deity,” and “circumcised with a spiritual circumcision,” both of which sound more painful than liberating. Then Paul brings in the baptism language and the dying and rising in Christ and being made alive even though we were “dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of the flesh.” And then Paul throws in some legal and accounting and political images for good measure. All this may have made perfect sense to the church at Colossae when they heard it for the first time but we are a long way from fully understanding everything that is going on here. There are roughly 1.3 sermons for each of those things I just mentioned and so a complete explanation of all the parts must wait for another day. However, a summary would look something like this:
This part of the letter to the Colossians, addresses a different kind of gravitational pull than the one experienced by our lover boy Ricky Martin, this one the pull of ideas about religion that do not match the revelation of Jesus Christ that Paul has received. It seems that there were those who were teaching that something more than Christ was necessary, that Christ was but one part of a system of knowledge required to transcend the physical world, that Christ neatly fit into the rest of a system of belief that carried the day in that part of the world. The specifics are lost to us but we may surmise that pseudo-philosophies and empty deceit and human traditions and elemental spirits of the universe are threatening to sidetrack the church at Colossae from continuing to live their lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith. Paul is preaching the radical sufficiency of Christ alone, Christ above all, Christ the head of every ruler or authority, Christ the firstborn of creation (and your heart!), Christ the foundational wisdom of the world. No other wisdom can compare, no other wisdom is required, no other wisdom is worth following, for they all pale in comparison. Watch out, Paul warns, lest these competing interests take you captive, literally, lest they kidnap you from the truth, by trying to convince you that anyone other than Christ has anything to offer.
And Paul puts his advice into Easter language, the language of the church, the language of circumcision and baptism and resurrection. He reminds them that “God made you alive together with him,” as a result of the forgiveness brought through Christ. Paul offers these reminders and these warnings as the way to help them “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”
What Paul was asking was no easy task. His was a new faith, a foreign faith, a minor faith, a religious system fundamentally at odds with the whole way religious systems were understood. You just didn’t have exclusive religions in the Roman Empire. So the pressure on these new converts must have been tremendous: “Whaddya mean you can’t come over to Aphrodite’s temple after church? Everybody else does it!” “Whaddya mean ‘Sagittarius with Scorpio rising’ just doesn’t work for you anymore? This is the Roman Empire buddy, lighten up!” This, my friends, was the path to martyrdom, to lions in the coliseum, to upside down crucifixions.
I always have misgivings about equating situations in the first century Roman Empire with contemporary situations, and it is difficult to do considering how little we actually know about what Paul was arguing against, but I do think it is safe to say that present day Christians face a host of challenges that make it tough to hold fast the faith. We may have separated the philosophy department from the religious studies department, we may have collected our tradition in a book called the Bible, and we may have relegated horoscopes to the same page of the newspaper as the comics, but we remain people of faith confronted by ideas held by others, and challenged to remain rooted in Jesus Christ. We face temptations of money and time and power, idols all. We face messages of hate and systems of injustice. We are wearied by the weight of the world and we look for a way to escape the daily grind. Which brings us back to Ricky Martin and Livin’ la vida loca, his crazy life, his wild life.
If we did a word association exercise using the phrase “the wild life,” most of us would not be thinking squirrels and acorns. I suspect that most of us would probably equate “the wild life” with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon. I also suspect that in some of our more honest moments, we have all longed for a little more of these qualities. But quite frankly, we generally shun them because these are words that often have sensual connotations. Indeed, that is the sense in which this famous song understands the wild and crazy life: with devil red lips and mocha colored skin, the temptress is leading him on a sensual adventure through the streets of New York City. Hardly the kind of life the apostle Paul would recommend to us.
But what would happen if we played the word association game with the phrase “the Christian life?” Would we still make an association with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, with activities in which someone besides ourselves is involved? Somehow I think these are not the first words which pop into our minds. We are more likely to bring forth a different, milder set of words like self-control, kindness, humility, and compassion, great words all of them, but lacking some of the verve of the set we are willing to give to Ricky Martin. Well, shame on us if we are willing to let Madison Avenue and Hollywood have all the best words in the English language. Shame on us if we are not willing to claim for ourselves a vocabulary that rightfully belongs to us! Shame on us if we limit ourselves in our thinking of what the life of faith is all about!
In vivid images that unfortunately have lost a little in the translation, Paul gives the church a glimpse of la vida loca, a life radically transformed by its encounter with Christ. It is a life no longer held hostage by what is neither eternal nor loving; a life no longer fearing death, but made alive in baptism; a life liberated from sin. Listen again to these crucial words of the apostle: “When you were dead in trespasses, God made you alive together with him.” God made you alive together with Jesus Christ. That, my friends, is a life to be associated with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, and with activities in which we certainly want to be involved!
What I want you to know is that Livin’ La Vida Loca is daring to accept that Christ alone is worthy to be followed. Livin’ la vida loca is living like we really believe this stuff and that we are transformed, that we are unafraid to express our faith in public, that we are not afraid to be seen worshipping God instead of ourselves, or being in a group that cares for people different than ourselves, or offering ultimate allegiance not to the television, not to the family, not to the nation or the flag, but to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. You and I both know that this is harder than it looks. We get it from all sides. La vida loca is not always an easy life, but it is a rewarding life and the one to which God has called us.
Many of you know that I worked in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for women. It was a residential program for pregnant women and I had the unhappy task of being the food service coordinator in a place where eating was about the only thing you had to look forward to at the end of a long day of emotionally grueling treatment. To my chagrin, I learned that quiche is not among the favored comfort foods of pregnant crack addicts in recovery. At any rate, it so happened that the kitchen was right next to the group room where daily therapy groups took place. These were often heated affairs with a whole lot of yellin’ and cussin’ and cryin,’ but also a whole lot of healing and transformation. One day the pest control technician was making his rounds in the kitchen and heard some of the more volatile goings-on in the other room and asked me about it. Apparently he missed the point of my explanation about the liberating value of group therapy because he launched into a diatribe against overly emotional women and began to relate a very unfortunate, but to him very amusing, story. He told me about a time that a friend and his wife were having and argument in his presence during which the wife had become quite upset. She was crying and screaming and finally the husband had enough and he beat her so badly that she could only lay on the floor asking our bug man for help. Then he told me, in a voice both nonchalant and vaguely proud, that he walked over to her, looked down upon her whimpering, and then kicked her himself just for being so pathetic. “Isn’t that funny,” he said to me, looking I suppose, for a moment of male bonding. And so I put down the chef’s knife I was holding, and I said, “Actually, I don’t find violence against women amusing at all and I think you are a sick individual who really needs to get some help.” And then I escorted him out of my kitchen and to the front door, and I didn’t worry at all if it hit him as it swung shut behind him. It took only one phone call to his employer to earn us a very cheerful and genuinely kind man to keep us free from pests thereafter.
I can assure you that this encounter would have turned out quite differently had my faith not played a role. For one, I might not have put down that chef’s knife. But more importantly, I doubt I would have had the courage to say what I did, and honestly, I might even have found it as “funny” as he did. I report this story not so that you will pat me on the back for standing up against injustice, but to demonstrate that living the Christian life is Livin’ la vida loca, filled with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, and with activities in which we would never imagine being involved had we not been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God.
Obviously, I have related to you a rather dramatic story, and I suspect that some of you have had something similar take place in your lives. But if you haven’t, don’t think for a minute your life isn’t loca enough, because loca isn’t just about finding passion and adventure, release from inhibition, daring and abandon, and doing things we never thought ourselves capable of, but also about finding authentic life in the more mundane everyday situations as we try to exercise self-control, kindness, humility, and compassion. And so if la vida loca doesn’t describe good parenting, I don’t know what does. If it doesn’t describe a good employee, I’ve never read a better job description. If it doesn’t describe a good friend, nothing will. It might describe teenagers a little too well, but I guess that goes with the territory. In all these cases, it is the grace of God in Jesus Christ which makes it possible for us to be and do all these things. Neither philosophy, nor empty deceit, human tradition or elemental spirits of the universe can give us that grace — only Christ, for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily and you and I have come to fullness, to a vida loca, in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority, every idea, every moment of time. Friends, “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving and livin’ la vida loca!” May God grant us the strength and courage to do that and more, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.