There Is a Delightful Book…, Proper 13 (C) – 2001
August 05, 2001
There is a delightful book called Tales From a Magic Monastery, by Theophane the Monk, (Crossroad, New York, 1981), that you might enjoy reading some day. It’s a collection of stories set in a very special monastery “off over there somewhere” — a place where the truth is always acted out. This is what happened to one person who went to the Magic Monastery on retreat.
“Why not?” that was the first thing he (my spiritual director) said. He had never seen me before. I hadn’t said a word. “Why not?” I knew he had me.
I brought up excuses: “My wife…the people I have to work with…not enough time…I guess it’s my temperament…”
There was a sword hanging on the wall. He took it and gave it to me. “Here, with this sword, you can cut through any barriers.” I took it and slipped away without saying a word.
Back in my room in the guesthouse I sat down and kept looking at that sword. I knew that what he said was true.
But the next day I returned his sword. How can I live without my excuses?
There are times when we all need that sword — when our excuses are so natural, so automatic, and so good, that we hardly know what’s happening. Which brings us rather neatly to what Paul’s letter to the Colossians has to say about Christian behavior; and to what we usually do with words like this. What Paul says is pretty straightforward and clear. We are supposed to wrap ourselves “in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” We are to bear with one another; and we are to forgive. Above all, we are to clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. Quite a laundry list of virtues. Anybody feel ready to take the final exam in that course? Yeah, me too. We seem to have a real problem in conforming our lives and our behavior to this vision. We hear “Why not?” and we have a lot to say.
Now, there is nothing in Paul’s list that we are opposed to, nothing that we think is bad or wrong or anything like that. Quite the contrary. These are the very sort of virtues that religious people are supposed to value; and we are, as a rule, most certainly and completely in favor of each and every one of them. We think that they are good things, and that they ought to be taught to children, shouted from the rooftops, and enshrined in our culture. And there is no doubt that we are perfectly willing, even eager, to practice them a whole lot more than we do. The problem is not that we are against any of it.
In fact, the real problem, we seem to say, (at least by our actions if not exactly by our words), the real problem is not with us at all, it is with them. You know “them.” The real problem is with those people out there, both in general and in particular. It is not that we don’t want to act the way Paul describes in Colossians; it’s that they won’t let us. They are at least a little bit worse than we are, and they will take advantage of you if you do too much of this compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience stuff; and they won’t appreciate what you are trying to do, and they won’t act that way themselves; and they will beat you up (in one way or another) if you act that way, and so forth.
After all, it makes no sense to forgive if they don’t change, or apologize, or forgive back, or see that it was really their fault, or at least recognize how good we are in having forgiven them. And so on.
We all admit that it would be a great world if everyone acted the way Paul describes, but the fact is, most people don’t act that way, they most certainly don’t act that way; and we need to be aware of that and careful about that. We need to protect ourselves, and we need to make sure we don’t get nailed. It is because of who they are, and what they are likely to do, that it is really naive and unrealistic to expect us to behave the way Paul (and for that matter, Jesus) ask us to behave. There we are.
So we need a sword; we need something to cut through our excuses, and to leave us open to what God would have us do, and who God would have us be. The best sword I have found for this particular set of excuses is a brief comment that a senior Warden I know made during a Lenten program he led last March. He was talking about the Baptismal Covenant, and what it looks like to be a Christian person, and he said, “these rules are for us. They’re not for anybody else, they’re for us.”
That seems obvious when you hear it; but we need to hear it carefully and deeply and on a couple of levels. All of this stuff about how to live is for us, and about us. Remember, Paul was not a fool; Jesus is not a fool. They know exactly how people really behave. Paul and Jesus know all there is to know about them. No one knows it better. They had a full, realistic, and complete grasp of human nature; and they were deeply mindful of the consequences of the ethic they proposed.
None of these virtues is about them. We are not called to treat others with kindness, compassion, humility, meekness and patience because the others deserve it — because of how they have acted toward us or how they might act towards us. That is not the point. In the same way, we are not called to treat others in these ways because they will treat us better if we do, or because they will become better people if we treat them that way, or because they will feel guilty if we do, or any such reason that has to do with that other person. That is simply not what it is about — our morality is not shaped and defined by people we don’t know or people we don’t like very much.
The Christian vision of life and conduct has a different goal and a different starting point. The key is in Colossians, where Paul says we are to forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven us.
We are called to treat one another with kindness, compassion, humility, meekness and patience just and only because this is the way God treats us. It is that simple, it is that overwhelming, it is that important. We are to treat each other the way God treats us. What guides and shapes our behavior is not to be the worst of how they act, but the highest aspirations of the human spirit, and the fullest image we have what it looks like to be a human being. These rules are for us. Their purpose is not the reforming of others, but the transformation of our own lives. The issues is not what they did or might do, the issue is what God is doing.
Of course this has to be understood sensitively, not literally, and of course advice like this can be used to keep people from appropriately asserting themselves, or from condemning things that are wrong, or even from protecting themselves from emotional or physical abuse — and this is especially true when the other someone is dealing with is emotionally screwed up or involved in some sort of addictive or compulsive behavior. Those dangers are real. Using these words in that way is bad religion; it is exploitive, destructive, and fundamentally mistaken. That is not what this is about.
That is not what we’re talking about today. That’s a matter for a different sermon. Instead, we’re talking and thinking about that virtually universal human tendency to try to wash our hands with somebody else’s mud; and to say that the way he acted, or the way she acted, or the way they acted or act, to say that this removes from us any obligation to live in a way that imitates Christ; or to say that this means that we are now free to act like they act, or at the most to act no differently than we would expect non-Christians to act. That’s what we’re talking about.
It is when we start thinking and acting like this that we need that sword from the monastery, the right word to cut through all of our excuses. And we need to remember, these rules, these virtues, these are given to us, and for us. Not for them, but for us. They promise us, not a way to change others, but new life in Christ. For us.
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