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Have you ever picked up someone else’s glasses by mistake and put them on…or tried on prescription glasses when you don’t need them? It’s disorienting, the world fuzzy and blurry before you. Even someone who is also nearsighted or has a stigmatism is not quite the same…few of us have the exact same prescription and even if we do the glasses don’t fit…the nose piece is in the wrong place, the arms of the glasses don’t fit our face.
This letter to the church in Colossia, is a later letter of Paul’s. In fact, most scholars don’t even believe that Paul wrote it. It was written by followers of Paul in his name, a very common practice in the ancient world. I don’t often preach from Paul because his letters, and even the ones written in his name, are complex, pastoral and situational…like an reply email from your pastor about a specific question rather than a universal treatise. Yet they have so often been held up as universal, as if Paul’s answer to the church in Colossia would be his answer to all churches, everywhere.
None of us see the world in the same way. We all have different lenses. And the task of the reparation of the world does not involve getting us all the same prescription, it involves us recognizing, understanding, accepting that we have different interpretive lenses through which we see the world, and that this is not something we change but something we accept. This writer we’ll call “pseudo-Paul” suggests something that Paul also writes about frequently in other letters…what it means to be “in Christ.” Paul imagines that the meaning of Jesus Christ is that there has been a shift – that God has set us free and reconciled us through Christ into a new life. Therefore, Paul often says, we must let go of our old life…let it die , he says…so that we might be resurrected into new life. This is not just a cosmic event for Paul. No, it means the transformation of ourselves and also the world, so that the old barriers no longer exist. In Christ, Paul writes, there is no male or female, no slave or free, no Jew or Greek. It is a famous phrase but one that has been heavily domesticated, for it probably should be infamous.
Paul’s language of “in this world, not of it” may be due for a revival. To the church in Rome Paul writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–God’s good, pleasing and perfect will.”
You can hear this echoed in the passage from this letter to the Colossians:
So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above,
where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.
In other words, we are, as Christians, to see things from Christ’s perspective, to put on his glasses and let our vision adjust. In seminary, we called this a hermeneutical lens, a fancy term for how we view things. Sheri Curry taught me another version of this, the “reality tunnel.” Both of these things mean that how we see the world is shaped by the glasses through which we look, by our own reality which is reality for us to a great extent.
The call of Christ is to transform those lenses, to let that reality be shaped, so that we might see as fully as Christ sees. It’s a lovely sentiment. Paul’s vision, at least that part of it, is really beautiful to me. It also seems a long way off. After all, you know how it feels when you just change those glasses out – disorienting, nausea-inducing, it’s not a comfortable thing.
Next Sunday our community organizing group is bringing renown scholar and activist Tex Sample to Boston Avenue United Methodist Church to talk about his new book, A Christian Justice for the Common Good. In this book, Sample, through his unique storytelling style, envisions a Christianity founded on the same kind of transformation that Paul speaks of in his letters…a transformation to the lens of Christ, the vision not of this world, but of the new world in Christ. And he also knows that this is NOT where we are, as human beings or as Christians.
He tells the story of being a catcher growing up, both baseball and softball, and how the most challenging thing for a catcher was those rare moments when the runner is barreling in from third base and the throw is just in time and the catcher has to absorb the hit from the runner and still hold on to the ball to get him out. They would train for this by standing on home and having someone throw an easy, underhanded throw, which is harder to catch, and then at the precise moment the ball hits the glove someone else would take a pillow that had been stuffed all in a ball at the end of a pillowcase and try to level the catcher with it. It was training.
He then talks about the training that was done by non-violent protestors during the civil rights movement, a movement he was a part of. How they used to be put in “the gauntlet” where they would have insults and epithets screamed at them, people shoving them and throwing water or soda on them so that the protestors would not be introduced to such adversity when it was for real. Where, Sample asks, do we train ourselves for the kin-dom? How do we set our sights? When do we engage in the formative work that would transform not only us as individuals, but also our church and then, by extension, the world?
We have a habit in the “peace and justice” wing of the church, by which I mean we largely white protestant liberals…we have a habit of thinking that studying an issue, forming the “correct” opinion means transformation. I know that I have thought that, for instance, cancelling our services on Sunday and worshipping at First Baptist North would in itself be a transformative experience. And maybe it would. But there is, I think, deeper work to be done.
The last part of this letter imagines that we are now dressed in a new wardrobe. We are dressed in Christ and all of the old fashions are obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, insider and outsider, uncivilized and uncouth, slave and free, they mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ, everyone is included in Christ. This, too, is a beautiful sentiment…and a part of the “newness” that comes after some transformation. However, to me, this is like saying “All lives matter” when it is so obvious that all lives don’t matter, and that some particular lives really don’t matter. While we perhaps do look to a world where the boundaries are broken down, we have to be careful that we don’t simply, especially in our context, invite all those on the outside to be inside by being like us….that our vision of the kin-dom isn’t just a big melting pot of sameness. No, when Paul says all the labels have washed away, we need to realize that this includes our labels, too. The only way that this vision of a transformed world happens is if we transform ourselves first, so that it’s not just the dominant culture “winning” under the guise of inclusion. If inclusion is meaningful, it has to seek to include everyone in something new, rather than just picking one particular label and making it available to everyone.
To have to have new vision, we need to retrain all of our senses – new hearing, a new sense of smell, of taste, of touch. And we have to re-educate, retrain ourselves for this…it doesn’t just happen. There is a reason that community organizing the way we are seeking to establish it in Tulsa is both broad-based and faith-based. We need one another – across those labels. AND – we need the discipline of our faith traditions to move us to the kind of personal transformation, the retraining that is needed to move towards this new world, what we, in our tradition, call the kin-dom. That means learning how to listen. NOT a cultural value, if you haven’t noticed. It means learning how to touch, by which, Sample teaches us, we mean not only the necessity of human touch in healing, but also the kind of nuanced skill it takes to handle complex situations and to reach for compromise. Also, NOT a skill we see very often. It means learning how to see from someone else’s perspective and to have a taste, a hunger, for the kind of justice that is a radical alternative to the justice of the world. Let’s be clear, Christian justice, and the justices of many other faiths, is not people getting what they deserve. It is mercy, compassion, grace and love. Yes, maybe we start with people getting what they deserve, but that is not the goal. The goal has been handed to us, as Sample writes, “…by a God who sets us free from the cosmic powers of the world, who takes the form of a slave in mercy, who reconciles the world to Self in Christ and manifests a justice in Jesus that is radically alternative to the justices of the world.” (pg. 21)
There’s some good advice in this letter to the Colossians about practicing this transformation…don’t lie, hold your temper, don’t be a jerk…don’t lust, don’t make sex something cheap, don’t just do whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it. That’s a life shaped by things and feelings instead of by God. That was the Colossians’ list, but there are more things for a letter to the church in the US. And perhaps even more specifically, a letter to the Tulsans. We have a long history with a racial divide in our city. A long history that has only recently been somewhat uncovered. And if we want to do something about the racism that is observable and festering in our nation, then we should do something about the racism that is still alive and well in Tulsa. And if we want to do something about the racism that is alive and well in Tulsa then we, my fellow Christians with the label “white”, we need to do something about retraining our senses…re-imagining our lenses…we need to try on some new glasses.
This fall brings us a chance to do that with a national effort from the UCC on confronting white privilege in not only our churches, but more importantly our hearts. It is something we all need to do, all of us who our society sees as white. Will you join me, starting this next Sunday as we hear from Tex Sample, learning from his years of social justice work, seeing how community organizing could make a difference in our city, and, perhaps most importantly, beginning to shape our own lenses, to retrain our own senses and continuing the faithful task of transforming our own hearts? This is not just a suggestion. This is our walk of faith…the way we go and pray for and wage a little peace.