Third in series: Escape the Rat Race (the Letter to the Colossians)
Unfortunately, the audio from this talk was lost due to technical difficulties. Sorry for the inconvenience!
I would love to start off by showing a clip from the beginning of Les Mis
Which takes place in pre-revolution France, where separation between the rich and the vast majority of the population the poor, and the song we will hear in a moment gives us insight into the tedious and oppressive nature of daily life for lower class french.
- At the end of the Day
I love Les Mis,
and not just because it is full of beautiful music.
I mean, yes I love the Music, but the reason I really love it is because of the story it tells.
It’s the story of a people who are stuck in systems and structures that oppress and marginalize them,
politically, socio-economically, yes,
but also the structures of belief that keep them down psychologically and spiritually.
I think that scene quite powerfully gives us insight into the oppressive nature of their lives.
There are some pointed lyrics
“At the end of the day you're another day older
And that's all you can say for the life of the poor
It's a struggle, it's a war”
And in the midst of that world, Les Mis tells the story of people pushing back, finding hope, finding redemption
It really is a beautiful story.
But, every time I watch it, whether it is the most recent version or the liam Neeson one, which although there is no singing, I still highly recommend, is some ways I found the story even easier to follow without the singing.
I think the scene where Fantine dies in that version is particularly heartbreaking and beautiful.
And yes, I know spoiler alert, but really can it be a spoiler when it was written in 1862.
But each time I watch it, I inevitably find myself thinking at some point. How on earth does something like that happen? How does that level of injustice come about?
And sadly as I begin to think about it, it becomes quite clear that pre-revolution france isn’t especially unique.
You don’t have to try very hard to think of other examples throughout human history of clearly oppressive societal structures.
Jim Crowe America, Apartheid South Africa, the marginalization of women in pretty much every country ever. so on and so forth.
And as we see in Les Mis, challenging these systems of oppression are not so simple.
Because there is a lot of momentum behind the status quo.
There will always be people, usually people in power, who benefit from keeping things the same.
And I don’t know about you, but I am a path of least resistance kind of guy.
I will usually go with whatever feels easiest in the moment, even if it isn’t what is best in the long term.
This is a concept that Psychology has been helping us understand more and more over the last few decades.
That humans are generally resistant to change even if that change is good for them.
I think this is why oppressive systems and structures continue to exist,
it’s easier, especially for someone like me, who as a white male, generally benefits from whatever inequity is out there.
And sadly, as once again Les Mis wonderfully illustrates, those who are most adversely affected usually have the least power and influence to do anything about it.
In our current series of talks here at BLV we have been talking about the rat race experience of life
And I think Les Mis is a window into an important aspect of the rat race that we haven’t touched on yet…
How it affects the poor and marginalized and outsiders in society
Life is tedious
The feeling that at the end of the day, nothing will ever change
We are hamsters on a wheel… running and running and running, but getting nowhere
The first couple weeks we’ve really talked about how the rat race affects individuals, personally, keeping us from full life.
How to navigate life when it feels like just demand-after-demand, deadline-after-deadline, long-day-after-long-day
How to navigate the pressure and anxiety to keep up and don’t lose your spot in line… or else… you get trampled
But beyond that, Today I want to create some space for us to consider
In what ways getting stuck in a rat race experience of life maintains the status quo in our community and society.
Our guide during this series has been St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians from the Bible…
Their correspondence reveals yet another historical example of a rat race, like our own Modern American Rat Race, and like the Rat Race of Pre-Revolution France
Throughout the letter, it seems that, according to Paul, the purpose of a community centered on Jesus (like theirs, or like ours today I suppose) is to help the society and culture around them flourish,
So that the lives of people could flourish
Full of connection, meaning, joy, hope
And so Paul takes aim at what he sees as a major threat to that purpose:
The pressures that made up the rat race of the 1st Century Greco-Roman world
Often in the letter, he refers to these pressures as “powers, authorities, forces”, as if they’re wielding their influence over the lives of people in this society…
That feels like a pretty accurate description
This rat race was driven by the need for people to make sure they were in the dominate position on the totem pole.
You see, the Greek world was Highly patriarchal, obsessed with displays of male dominance (for fear of being seen as weak, submissive)
Being seen as strong, dominate, where you stood on the social hierarchy was super important.
The results of this were
Huge cultural divides and prejudice
People’s concern with being dominant was not just reserved for their own personal status but the status of their people group.
The ancient Greco-Roman world was one that divided itself up by cultural background.
Your ethnicity determined who you would marry, who you would do trade with. And in large parts what kinds of civil rights you held.
This lead to a tribalistic and often hostile environment.
One where people would draw into the safe bubbles of their ethnic communities, with a strong inward focus to protect and elevate “Those like me”
There were also class divides, and inequity
In the Greco Roman culture there was very limited social mobility, and those on the bottom of the social hierarchy were often treated as lesser beings. There was even popular religious thought and philosophy supporting this belief.
Slavery was a common practice in this world
It was a different kind of slavery than what we saw in our own country’s history.
People were not usually born into slavery. Rather it was most commonly a result of poverty, an outworking of the huge socio-economic divide.
For, people would enter into slavery as the only means to survive or pay off debt.
And lastly, being a patriarchal society obsessed with dominance and power. It would often lead to Sexual exploitation
Women were treated as property
Slaves were forced into sexual relationships with their masters
Those in power would often use sex as way to show their dominance over those underneath them.
And adultery was a way to show one’s virility and strength, there was even some belief in the culture that sexual indulgence was a way to grow one’s internal power.
And I say adultery because as a women unless you were a slave or a servant, you were married off by the time you were 14.
And because of the lack of power and rights women had, it was more than just cheating on one's wife, it would not infrequently lead to women being left alone to care for children without any real means to do so.
In short, like the lesson from Les Mis,the rat race which told the Colossians that they needed to maintain their position, fight for their place in the world. Was a significant factor in perpetuating the status quo that was unjust to people not in power.
And while the details of OUR rat race today are different And while the details of how today’s status quo marginalizes people is different
I think we will find that Paul’s words in Colossians feel incredibly relevant.
As you will notice in a second when we take a look at today’s passage, Paul starts off using some very heavy and harsh language,
Iike “the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience.”
I encourage you to keep in mind what he’s addressing;
the injustices I just described: sexual exploitation, marginalization of people groups, aggressive hostility between ethnic groups.
If you have those in your mind, the harshness of the language will feel less extreme, and feel more like the appropriate response to what’s being addressed.
So, let’s read what Paul has to say.
5 Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. 6 For it is because of these things that the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience, 7 and in them you also once walked, when you were living in them.
8 But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth. 9 Do not lie to one another, since you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, 10 and have put on the new self who is being renewed to a true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him— 11 a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all, and in all.
I think this passage is particularly important because it highlights that oppression and injustice is no small thing to Jesus.
That he desires renewal in their community as much as he desires renewal in their lives
Paul is challenging the injustice of the culture divides, Greek and Jew, Circumcised and uncircumcised
He is challenging the social injustice of those without opportunity;
barbarian, Scythian, These are ways the greeks referred to foreigners who they saw as less intelligent, less civilized, really just lesser.
He is challenging the injustice of the class gaps, Slave or Free.
Paul is setting a foundation of what a community lead by Jesus looks like,
Using something maybe more familiar to our American ears, He is saying something like
We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights;
Let’s continue reading
12 So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience;13 bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. 14 Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body; and be thankful. 16 Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you, with all wisdom teaching and admonishing one another with psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,singing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 Whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father.
We see Paul inviting the Colossians to consider the depth of the renewal that they have been offered in Jesus, the renewal they can experience personally, and the renewal that they could experience as a community
You may hear us say each week in our welcome that Jesus leads us into a life where
The deepest possible life and the most bridge building life is one and the same.
What Paul touches on here is exactly what we are talking about
That we do not move around this world autonomously.
we do not exist within our own little bubbles.
No, by being in community with each-other, by sharing the city with each-other, we affect each-other.
That the pursuit of a deeper and fuller life ourselves, will necessarily affect the communities we live in. As we become more loving and open people, our communities will become more accepting and caring places.
This is the threat of the rat race to the Colossians
It maintains the status quo in their personal lives.
Leading them into a place of insecurity, pressure, burden
And then it also maintains the status quo on their community leading to division, inequality, and injustice
The stakes of escaping the rat race is not just breaking free of a life that feels mundane,
it is breaking out of the status quo systems of marginalization and oppression that the rat race just perpetuates.
These are the kinds of things that, personally, get me excited.
I find myself thinking, YEAH, I want to live in this kind of world, I want to live in this kind of community.
But then I begin to feel overwhelmed,
that sounds great and all, but it feels like our culture is as divided as ever, if feels like there is so much hostility out there.
And I feel like it is all too much, really what can I do about it?
The was a movie that came out last year called “Tomorrowland” with George Clooney.
Just to be clear, please do not take my this as an endorsement of the movie, because it’s not. The move was pretty terrible.
BUT There is a line from the movie that I really liked and it seems appropriate to pass on here
So, there is one character who is feeling particularly hopeless and overwhelmed. And his daughter then says this riddle to him.
There are two wolves and they are always fighting. One is darkness and despair, the other is light and hope. Which wolf wins?
Then the father says back. Whichever one you feed
And the kitchiness of that line is good insight into what kind of movie “Tomorrowland” is. Like I said, not terribly worth seeing.
But, that line did stick in my head. Kitchy though it was,
I was attracted to the idea that life doesn’t just come down to: Are you a cynical person or an optimistic person?
That it comes down to a deeper insight: what we feed grows
And think this is what Paul is trying to communicate when he says to put aside Anger, malice, greed, slander, exploitation
Because when we feed the hate, anger, and insecurity inside us, we also feed it in the world.
Our only option is to be more resolute in our position, more defensive, more separated, more radicalized.
I think this is, in part, how we get the evil we see the world, the evil we saw in Orlando this last week
A man who fed insecurity, hate, separation.
It’s what we saw in Paris, San Bernadino,
The evil we saw in the Balkans in the 90s, in Germany in WW2, in the Spain during the inquisition, the crusades of the 11th, 12th, and 13th century. And so on as far back as human history goes.
But, as he says later in the passage When we we put on, or when we feed compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness inside us, we also feed it in the world.
We become more grace-filled, bridge building, loving. This is what actually transforms communities,
This is how we get people like Martin Luther King, Gahndi, St. Fancis of Assisi.
This is what I saw in the people who waited in line for 3 hours to give Blood in Orlando this week.
This feeding compassion, kindness, humility
Much of life does feel out of our control, especially when we think of these systemic issues, but we are not without power, we are not without choice. We can chose what feed ourselves, and feed society.
Paul is encouraging the Colossians to leave behind their old selves,
the self that is motivated to keep their own place in line, that is motivated by maintaining their position, the self that finds its value in being over against the bad guys.
And put on their new self, a self that sees itself as valuable simply by being sons and daughters of God. One that isn’t concerned with fighting for position, or wealth, or power.
And what happens when they, or we as a community embrace this,
we become a community of healing, renewal, one that tears down dividing walls of hostility, gives voice to the marginalized, and restoration for the oppressed.
I think of someone like William Wilberforce
Wilberforce was raised in a wealthy family in the late 18th century England. Eventually rising in his career as a politician to take a seat in English Parliament. It was 5 years into his time in parliament that he had his first experience of faith. And it was his experience of faith that shifted his view of the, at that point century old, slave trade. He began to see all humans as created in God’s image, and became resolutely convinced that it was his duty and responsibility to fight for the rights of, as he said, “All of God’s created.”
A particular favorite quote of mine is when said, “Is it not the great end of religion, to curb the violence, to smooth the asperities of man; to make us compassionate and kind, and forgiving one to another; to make us good husbands, good fathers, good friends; and to render us active and useful in the discharge of the relative social and civil duties? ”
He took this charge, and spent the rest of his life fighting to end the British slave trade. After facing setback after setback, legislation credited to him banning the practice was eventually passed 3 days before his death.
This was a man who feed his faith, feed his life with a steady diet of kindness, humility, gentleness, forgiveness. And the result was a renewed life and a renewed world.
So here is my takeaway for you today
Feed Compassion, kindness, humility, or forgiveness this week
In a moment, I am going to be quiet and leave some space. And I encourage you to bring one of these to your mind, whichever one seems to maybe be sticking out to you. And I encourage you to do something this week that feeds it.
If it’s compassion, maybe feed it by maybe giving something away to someone in need
If it’s kindness, maybe think of one friend to cook a meal for and drop it off for them
If it’s humility, maybe commit to admit you are wrong at least once this week
If it’s forgiveness, maybe reach-out to someone that you have some unresolved hurt or conflict with, with the goal of saying sorry and extending forgiveness to them.
You see, on a day like today, father's day,
I feel particularly attached to this idea. I care about the kind of man I am becoming, and the kind of world I want to raise my son in
And, I want to be as intentional as I can be in how I feed myself and how I feed the world around me.
If you would stand with me