Second in series: Escape the Rat Race (the Letter to the Colossians)

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MAYBE LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL

There’s a fantastic Italian movie from the late 90s that you might know
It was called, in English, “Life is Beautiful”
It is the story of a Jewish librarian and his son, who become victims of the Holocaust, and how this father heart-warmingly and even hilariously protects his son from the dangers of their Concentration Camp
In the worst human circumstances imaginable, the question is posed, can life be beautiful?
If you haven’t seen it, I couldn’t recommend it more… it lives up to its name because it is maybe the most beautiful, moving celebration of life I’ve ever seen
Roberto Benigni is the man who wrote, directed, and starred in the film
And he became legendary for his response to winning the Oscar for foreign language film
I have the clip from that Academy Awards here… and I want to watch it

(WATCH CLIP)

There is something about Roberto that is impossible not to like, impossible not to learn from
“Thank you to my parents for the most amazing gift of... poverty”…
He is silly but he is also sincere… he is saying something really deep
Later, he wins best actor as well and starts with “this is a terrible mistake, because I use up all my english"
He’s charming and self-deprecating, in the best way
And did you catch how he flatters the 65-year-old Sophia Loren?
“I don’t want the Oscar, I want you! I want to be rocked by the waves of your beauty”
Hilarious
Most of all, I am drawn to his joy and gratitude… and all the more when I have in mind the story of “Life is Beautiful”...
This is a man who delved into the depths of human suffering - Nazi Concentration Camps during WWII - in order to tell a story
And the result of that is not a cynical person telling a cynical story
But a man bursting with joy telling a story called “Life is Beautiful”

I love this guy
And I almost love the late 90s Hollywood faces that the camera cuts to, showing their simultaneous discomfort with and admiration of Roberto
Even though he ends up winning some of the biggest awards of that night, it’s clear he doesn’t fit the Hollywood star mold
His experience of the Oscars is more like the humble sound engineer who has worked on movies all their life, is no where close to being rich (because it’s not like they’re on camera), and winning recognition for “best sound editing” at the Oscars is like the highlight of their life

Well I bring up Roberto and his movie Life is Beautiful and his response to winning at the Oscars because I see in him as a picture of part of an antidote to what we began talking about last week:

The rat race experience of life…
Or other images that grab the same feeling:
the hamster wheel experience of life
the conveyer belt experience of life
lemmings
It can be hard to resist, hard to escape
Our work lives are demand after demand, deadline after deadline, long day after long day… but we’ve got to work to pay those bills
In the age of Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/SnapChat, our social lives so easily fall into comparison games, measuring ourselves and our lives against others and their lives (or what we perceive of their lives… which always seems more put together than ours)
We each encounter millions of marketing messages a week about what we should buy because we deserve it or need it in order to stay happy or desirable or relevant
But I am undeservedly privileged; I don’t even experience the cruelest way the rat race chews up and spits out my non-white, non-male friends
The closed doors of opportunity due to the color of one’s skin,
The patriarchal nonsense of lesser compensation and lesser respect for women
All of this is the rat race experience of life
Pressure and anxiety to keep up and don’t lose your spot in line
Or else… you get trampled
BUT if you’re not getting trampled, and you’re playing the rat race’s game… you’re still just in a sad existence of keeping-your-head-down, plowing forward, unable to look up or left or right
No stopping to smell the roses or be thankful,
No stopping to gain some perspective about how you’re just going in circles

Today, as we continue through the next portion of the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians (the book of the Bible that is our focus for this series, Escaping the Rat Race)...
We will end with what I think is a Roberto Benigni-like suggestion
And as we take the journey through chapter 2 of this letter to get there, I think it’ll make sense why that is part of an antidote to the rat race experience of life

(PAUSE)

As Kyle started unpacking for us last week, the reason the letter to the Colossians can be helpful to us even though it was written over 1900 years ago is that...
The people of 1st Century Colossae (modern day Turkey), whom St. Paul was writing, experienced their own version of a rat race
It was different from our money and success and appearances and privilege oriented rat race today
In a way that might feel a little mystifying to many of us today, the rat race then was oriented around religion and religious practice
Although if you grew up in a highly religious or churchgoing environment, the idea of a religious rat race may NOT feel so unfamiliar to you
We’ve got to remember that in the first century, this is still the era in history where everyone is highly religious, even highly superstitious in some cases…
The questions are not “Do you believe in God?” or “Do you practice any spirituality?"
The questions are “Which gods?" and “Which practices?"
The piece of that religious rat race that Paul is addressing in what we’ll read this morning has to do with Ancient Judaism
Jesus was culturally Jewish, and his earliest followers were mostly Jewish
Historians don’t know who exactly began this particular community in Colossae, but it was almost certainly someone or a group of people who were Jewish
However, the majority of the population of Colossae was not Jewish; they were Greek
They had different religious background, different religious practices, different assumptions about life, made different references when they talked, probably laughed at different jokes
Those differences became the flashpoint for conflict, which St. Paul took very seriously
Paul is among the most passionate thinkers and writers in the history of the world when it comes to building bridges between cultures
Sometimes, in Paul’s writing, you get the sense that, to him, maybe the biggest, most important thing of all Jesus offered was a way to reconcile the hostility between Jews and non-Jew Gentiles — THE ethnic-cultural divide of his world
In our own church, we’ve frequently over the last few years taken extensive looks at Paul’s writings about the bridge-building power of Jesus, because that is such a core feature of the type of community we want to be
So the majority of Paul’s writings (that make up much of the Bible’s New Testament) are encouraging Jews and Gentiles to honor and respect each other’s religious differences, and to not let that get in the way of all of them living in ways more like Jesus of Nazareth
Paul would say: these religious differences are secondary; why are we squabbling over this?
The important thing is modeling ourselves after the love and humility of Jesus
And learning to pray to him and learning to hear his Holy Spirit speaking to us
But, evidently (as we’ll see from Paul’s words) there arose, among a sect of the Jewish population, a backlash to Paul’s message about Jesus
The Backlash was:
No! These religious differences are NOT secondary.
In order to truly follow Jesus, you MUST follow Jewish religious tradition like he did
And this backlash message
Spiked with some social pressure to fit in with the “in crowd”...
Tinged with a dose of fear and anxiety over whether you’re “right with God”...
And you’ve got quite a “rat race” cocktail
That’s a mixed metaphor... don’t think too much about it… sorry...
For the common Greek person in this 1st century Colossian community
It would have been incredibly hard to resist or escape a message of such pressure and anxiety
Think about it… this is the first century... there is no widespread literacy, there is no Internet information highway, there likely isn't even a publicly-accessible library
“Fall in line on this Jewish religious tradition stuff”
This was a big part of the rat race of their day, analogous to the success and appearances rat race we experience today
And that’s where we’ll pick up Paul’s words… (for the sake of time, I’m jumping just a few verses ahead in the letter from where Kyle left us off last week)

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.

9 For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.

Paul seems to resonate with the challenge for the common Greek person in Colossae to refute smart-sounding philosophical or spiritual messages coming at them
About how they need to follow Jewish religious tradition in order to “fit in” or to be “right with God”

Continuing the message of his earlier passages (that Kyle took us through last week) he says to them:
Don't be intimidated by arguments you can't refute or power plays from uber-religious-looking people (he’s referring to that Jewish backlash I mentioned)
This is exactly why God came to humanity in a person - in Jesus (whose title was Christ - it meant God’s chosen person)
To reveal what God is really about in a way that isn't intellectual, and in a way that doesn't require secret knowledge or a secret password
He writes: “All the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, in Christ”
If God is revealed in a person, then no special skill is required, because a person is not something you “figure out” or “master”; a person is something you build relationship with.
And anyone can build a relationship
He’s saying: anyone can connect with this God.
A powerful, attractive message about spirituality, for sure... and Paul delivers this message to help the Colossians navigate their religious rat race
If someone is placing religious demands on you, stack that up against what you know of the model of Jesus, and what Jesus speaks to you personally when you pray
Does it match?
If not, then don’t give it the time of day
The bulk of Chapter 2 of Paul’s letter (which you can read in full in your program) refers then to specific religious demands, like circumcision and baptism and dietary laws
Which in that day were being placed on non-Jewish people,
And which Paul saw as not matching with what he knew of Jesus
In verse 16 for example he says: “Do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day”

Thinking about our own modern rat race today, I feel helped by how accessible this idea is...
Stack the demands placed on us up against:
What I know of the model of Jesus
And what I personally hear from Jesus when I pray
To see if they match… and if they don't,
Then I should feel encouraged to NOT let those demands control my life
And if I’m the target of judgement for doing so, God has my back!
When my wife Keziah was pregnant for the first time with our now three year old son
We were piledrived with messages about what our baby will need, what our baby deserves
These things, this sort of environment, this amount of that, and that amount of this
The implication being: if we weren’t providing those things we would be bad parents
We felt so much pressure to work harder, make more money, fix up our home better, and change our social lives to do all this
And then I remember distinctly a time sitting on our front porch together, Keziah and me, and we were talking and praying together,
And in my mind’s eye I suddenly saw all those demands stacked up against a picture of Jesus, calm and happy
And the pressure just lifted off me…
And both Keziah and I in that moment felt a different message ringing in our ear that was so much more peaceful and felt so much more true
All our baby really needs and deserves is an environment of love… that’s it...
So what if we don’t have a room devoted to being his nursery, etc.
So what if we don’t make as much money as we’re supposed to before having a kid
Most of all, I was reminded: Hey! We’re having a baby! This is amazing!
We were able to feel joy

Jumping ahead to the end of this section of Colossians (the first few verses of Chapter 3),
Paul makes what has become a bit of a famous encouragement:

1b Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 2 Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

“Things above” - Things of Heaven - or the Kingdom of God, as Jesus called it
When Jesus and Paul talked about Heaven, the things above, it was more than the popular culture concept of heaven (a place people go when they die)
It was a reference not just to something in the future, but to the greatest possibilities and prospects for the present…
Jesus taught his disciples to pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”... that’s not future-tense, that’s present-tense.
Heaven was a way to refer to “all that people long for in life”
Joy, Beauty, Meaning, Connection, Peace
Humans have always imagined that we find heaven by looking up to things above, rather than looking down
I love that… physically looking up even suggests a more joyful experience, as opposed to the head-down, follow the beaten path experience of the rat race
According to Paul, this was the project of Jesus and of a Jesus-centered community (like the one in Colossae, like BLV)
Bringing lives closer to the kind that “all that people long for”
The “things above” that impact us so much we can’t help but see: Life is beautiful

Kyle gave us the background last week that Paul is writing this from prison,
I think Paul is a forerunner for Roberto Benigni
And for Benigni’s story of the Jewish Father, caught in the evils of a concentration camp, who is able to show his son how to call to mind that life is beautiful
Paul, jailed and without personal freedom, shows the Colossians, despite their ever-pressuring religious rat race, how to call to mind that life is beautiful.
And he shows us today: despite our ever-pressuring achievement rat race, how to call to mind that life is beautiful

“Set your heart and mind on things above”
What I think happens here is our view of life and the world changes to be more aligned with God’s view
Because I don’t think God looks down on human existence and just sees a rat race?
What if, for all of our flaws, God sees life and our societies and even us as beautiful?
What if he dances around like Roberto Benigni at the Oscars sometimes when he looks at us?

I feel like this describes my experience so well…
Keziah and I wanted to have a baby, that was a deeply exciting and joyful thing for us, but for good stretches throughout her first pregnancy, we couldn’t access that excitement and joy
Because it was behind the social and monetary pressures of the rat race.
But for that moment on the porch, it felt as though God shifted our hearts and minds toward “things above”
And in that space we were accessing all the excitement, all the joy, all the feels

(PAUSE)

So where in your life do you think there might be excitement and joy that you can’t access because it is behind the pressure of our modern rat race?
In what ways do a pressure to achieve, or to fit in, or to keep up, or to not lose your spot in line steal from your ability to see life is beautiful?
For me, in that season of Keziah’s first pregnancy, it was one thing, but each season since has brought me to new situations like this
Escaping the rat race is an ongoing process… If I’m an American, I’m going to be at this for the rest of my life in one way or another
So what is it for you right now, in this current season of your life, or this week even?

The promise that Paul believed God is making to us is:
I, God, want to personally come to you in that place, and gift you with my ability to see that life is beautiful
To the point that you could be in prison or a Nazi Concentration Camp and still see it

So this is my practical takeaway for our prayer lives this week
In prayer, set your heart and mind on “things above”, on things that feel like heaven to you…
Take some time to consider with God whatever small amount of joy, meaning, connection you can come up with
A laugh from your day
A conversation with a friend
Something your son or daughter or niece or nephew did
Something that inspired you
Another 7+ innings quality start from Jake Arrieta
And then wait for God to back up his promise…
To take that investment and give you the return of his own personal view on life

I think the ability for us to see as God sees that life is beautiful is not a small matter to God
It’s not a secondary throw-in, after the important stuff is taken care of
That sort of idea I think is part and parcel to our modern American Rat Race…
That the important stuff is all the material and utilitarian matters of life
That something intangible like your ability to see beauty is so subjective anyway, so what does it really matter?
I don’t buy that.
I think this is of the utmost importance
I don’t think any one of us, or anyone anywhere, is getting very far without glimpses of heaven, glimpses of beauty, along our way

Stand with me, if you would, let me pray for us...

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Brown Line Vineyard
Northside Chicago. Lincoln Square-Ravenswood.
Open-minded. Thoughtful. Practical. Experiential. Diverse. Multicultural. Humble. Fun.

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