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♦ Sermon Given by Roger Ferlo July 24, 2016 ♦
St. Paul and the Redeemer, Chicago
The 10th Sunday After Pentecost


Whoever it was that wrote the letter long ascribed to Paul, something had gone terribly wrong.

It’s hard to tell from this distance, but fledgling Christians in that cosmopolitan city in the middle of present-day Turkey seemed to be captive to some kind of hyper-ascetic cult. Enamored of false philosophy, victims of empty deceit, traduced by the elemental spirits of the universe, dwelling on visions, obsessed with dietary rules, festival calendars, new moons, false Sabbaths, puffed up with what the writer calls human ways of thinking. Frankly, as a political candidate might put it, there was something going on.

We will never know exactly what it was. Within a few years of receiving this letter, the city of Colossae was destroyed by an earthquake, its Christian community completely dispersed.

Knowing what we know about Christian history, there are perhaps two ways of looking at this incident.

One is apocalyptic, and self-righteously retributive. The city got what it deserved. Like the inhabitants of Sodom, these wayward Christians, puffed up with human ways of thinking, got exactly what was coming to them. This earthquake was no accident. What happened to that city was a sign from God, and a warning to the rest of us to get ourselves in line.

The other perspective is just the opposite. Earthquakes are earthquakes—they just happen. Disasters are not a sign. They are just a fact. What matters is compassion for the victims, not self-righteous and defensive judgment.

You would think that in times of trial, compassion for those who suffer—whether in natural disasters or in civil wars or in mass shooting sprees in nightclubs and shopping malls—would be the only possible religious response. But in fact, retributive scapegoating is the long-standing Christian default. The enduring sin of Christian anti-Semitism is of course the most egregious example. That kind of hatefully defensive response is deeply embedded in the religious psyche, especially during times of distress. It’s the shadow side of the belief in God’s providence. If God can provide for those who are righteous, God can also punish those who aren’t. That zero-sum reasoning is what makes religion so dangerous, and so often toxic.

In this country as elsewhere, there is a certain kind of politics that is equally embedded in such righteous scapegoating, all too ready to invoke God as its witness. The events of the past few weeks have stoked many fears—fears for our personal safety, fears for the safety of our elected leaders and our candidates for office, fears for our police, fears of our police, fears for children playing on their family’s porches, fears for innocent bystanders, fears for our country’s unity, for our democracy’s very future. It is precisely in these times of fear that the stench of apocalyptic rhetoric fills the air, much of it emanating from sources that claim to be Christian. In my view, for what it’s worth, the mindlessly apocalyptic rhetoric that came out of Cleveland this week—rhetoric that will continue to bedevil our public discourse—constitutes a barely secularized version of that debased Christian default.

No matter where we place ourselves on the political spectrum, as Christians, as religious people, we are entering a time that will try men’s souls—and women’s too.

So I strongly recommend that we all take to heart a central episode in the art of the deal. Not the ghostwritten version that appeared 30 years ago, published in the name of the person who assured us recently that his favorite Bible passage is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

No, the art of the deal I have in mind is the book of Genesis, and the chapter I have in mind is the one we heard proclaimed today. I suspect that the biblical writer enjoyed the holy comedy of Abraham’s negotiating tactic, his compassionate, obstinate, hard-nosed persistence in the face of massive divine power. Here’s the deal, Lord. If I can find 50 righteous people, spare the city. If not 50, then 45. If not 45, then 40. If not 40, then 30. How about 20? How about 10?

I would like to think that Jesus himself appreciated both the humor and the power of this ancient story—this saga of divine judgment capitulating to human compassion. “Lord, Lord,” we ask, in harrowing times like these, with gunfire in the streets and hellfire from political pulpits, “how are we to pray?”

As usual, Jesus tells a story. A guest has arrived at your door, and you are massively unprepared. You go to your best friend’s house next door, and ask for three loaves of bread (the first-century equivalent of a cup of sugar). Probably not to your surprise, your buddy is annoyed. He’s had enough of this politically correct hospitality. It’s midnight, for Christ’s sake. Fend for yourself. But it’s not about you, you say, it’s for your guest. Your reputation is at stake. Where you come from, hospitality to your uninvited guest, hospitality even to the stranger—well, that’s everything. Hospitality is what defines you. So you don’t give up. You don’t let your buddy get away with locking his doors. You don’t let him hide in bed. You break down his isolation. You pound the door, pound it, pound it hard, hard enough that to get any peace at all he has no choice but to give you what you need. Ask, search, knock—don’t give way, don’t give up. Hospitality is at stake. Compassion is at stake. Your very humanity is at stake. This isn’t about political correctness. It’s about common decency. It’s about who we are.

So in these coming weeks, while the stench of apocalyptic bonfires continues to permeate the air, what does it mean for us to live our lives as who we are, to live our lives “according to Christ”, as Paul put it to the Colossians?

Well, let’s try to take our cue from the art of the deal, Abrahamic version. All this is not about us. It’s not about self-aggrandizement. It’s not about winning. It’s not about mocking the loser. In the face of mockery and exclusion, it’s about remaining steadfast in compassion; it’s about our life-long struggle to conform ourselves to Christ’s image, in solidarity with the weakest and most despised among us.

Jesus assured his friends that if you ask, it will be given to you, if you search, you will find, if you knock, the door will be opened to you. The least we can do in the coming days is to offer to others what Jesus offers to us, unlocking our doors to those who ask, search, and knock. If we ask God to forgive us as we would be forgiven, then it follows that we should welcome the stranger as we would want to be welcomed. We need to offer fish (not snakes), eggs (not scorpions), at a time when snakes and scorpions are everywhere in abundance.

In these troubled times, the question the disciples put to Jesus, “Master, how should we pray?” might be asked another way. “Master, how should we act?”

To act as Christ would act is itself a form of prayer. In the words of the Prayer Book collect, may we have the courage to “make no peace with oppression,” in whatever form oppression takes, for oppression is a many-headed beast.

We pray too that we may be saved from the time of trial. A time of trial in these latter days seems all too real, all too imminent. As one commentator put it two days ago, in the coming months the republic may be facing its gravest peril since the Civil War. See how easy it is to wax apocalyptic?

So, especially in such perilous times like these, may we have the courage to forgive as we would be forgiven, to receive others as we would be received. As Paul wrote to the Colossians:

As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord,
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.