Preacher: The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.
To listen to the sermon click here.
Last Tuesday Kristin and I celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. We were married at St. Paul’s Cleveland Heights by Bill Fuller. It was a smallish wedding that Kristin and I planned and managed all by ourselves. It was 1994. We didn’t have cell phones. We designed and laser printed the invitations, using the good printed at work, after hours. None of that dot-matrix stuff for our wedding invitation. The printing on the card stock was a little catawampus because I had to feed them into the machine by hand, but people got the gist of it. We even catered the reception ourselves…availing our guests to the choice of either white bread or brown bread for their self-made sandwiches.
The only thing I’d do differently if I could do it all over again is not wear a white tuxedo jacket…the people at the reception hall kept mistaking me for a waiter because I was running around restocking the buffet. Kristin looked great, however. No mistake as to who the bride was.
That wedding day was pretty important, because, for us, it is because of that day that we are still married. I know, sounds odd, but what I mean is we are married today because we were married that day. Being married is a relationship that, at times, is only held together by the commitment of the wedding day itself. And for us, that has been enough.
But what has held together has then grown together, over time, as we have (or at least as I have) become a better version of myself because of Kristin’s continual presence in my life these past 25 years. All of this comes to mind, we’ll because of the anniversary itself, but also, because of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and particularly this section we hear today.
The line that jumped out for me has two parts: The 1st reads: “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human traditions…” And the 2nd part continues after the comma: “according to the elemental spirits of the universe.”
Those two ideas, empty human tradition and the elemental universe, are the things I had to contend with and grow beyond because of my marriage to Kristin. And the only way that was going to happen for me was through Jesus, and accepting him, as Paul says: “in fullness and as the head of every ruler and authority.”
So, let’s unpack these two ideas; the elemental universe and deceitful human traditions, and I’ll show you how Jesus has righted sized them in my life.
We’ll start with the elemental universe. Now a lot of you (if not all of you) are like me; we grew up schooled in the reality of the elemental universe. If you drop a ball, it falls. If there is food under your bed, you’ll get cockroaches, and if there is no food there will be no cockroaches. These are the ways of the elemental universe. They are rule based. They are logical. The same cause always produces the same effect. And so, if you know the elemental universe you will have right answers, and if someone else has different answers you can prove them wrong through your superior mastery of the elemental universe, to use Paul’s colloquialism.
But being married has taught me, slowly, that while there are elemental, material, structures of the universe, they are not the strongest, nor the most true of all powers. The deeper truth that I have come to experience these past 25 years is that the right answers are almost never about getting the information right. It turns out right answers are: a) not always right; or b) not always the only right answer; or most importantly, c) not the point of what you’re really talking about any way.
Mostly, you can be sure, if you are resorting to the elemental universe to make your point, you are missing the point. So, full confession, I would say that part of the reason I started to study things spiritual is a sense that what I had been taught of the rightness of the elemental universe was causing me to underperform significantly in my marital communications. Winning arguments is not a winning strategy. Someone once said to me regarding their marriage: “At some point I had to trade in being right for being kind…”
Jesus was a huge help in making this shift. When I started to take him seriously as the image of the invisible God; the firstborn of all creation; with all things pleased to dwell in him; as “the head of every rule and authority.” I could hold more loosely the rightness of the rules of the elemental universe. Yes, the core structures of this visible, material, creation are real and foundational, but what I learned through Jesus is that they are also incomplete. There are things beyond sight. There are things more important than being right: like relationships…after all, as we say around here all the time: “In the Kingdom of God, relationship is primary.” This is the deeper truth that my marriage drove me to seek, and that Jesus revealed to me: “In the Kingdom of God, relationship is primary.”
The second gift of these past 25 years was insight to my privileged position within the empty deceit of human tradition. That has been a tough one, and one I continue to struggle with, because mostly I want to attribute the good stuff that happens to me to my character and to my coolness. It turns out that isn’t always the reason the good stuff accrues to a guy like me.
Our little red 1989 Subaru Outback helped me learn this lesson when we lived in Beverly Hills. I consider myself to be a good driver, maybe even, like in the top 2% of all drivers, with the wisdom and instincts to make judgment calls on the fly as to which of the traffic laws best apply to me in the moment. There were a few occasions in Beverly Hills, as I was sports driving the red Subaru Outback, that public law enforcement seemed uncertain about some of the decisions I was making and so, they pulled me over for a consultation…a couple of times, two, three, four, hard to say, but in every situation (and only once was I wearing my collar) they found it best to just move me on with my assurance that I would make better decisions in the future. I always thanked them.I’m a good guy after all.
And yet (and some of you know what I’m going to say here), my wife, who actually does drive by the rules of the road, was pulled over three times in Beverly Hills and given tickets each time…and the tickets were given under disputable circumstances to say the least. The empty deceit of human tradition lives on.
And so, as I came to see, in circumstance after circumstance, how I have been and continue to be privileged by human traditions; the question that I was forced to confront is: “If I am not at the core who I feel like I am, because of how random people treat me, but rather a privileged reflection of deceitful human tradition, then who am I? What is my identity? And what does that mean for me in relationship to a neighbor who was randomly born disadvantaged by deceitful human traditions?
What Jesus taught, and is core to Christianity, is what we say around Epiphany all of the time: “Everyone is equally beloved by God…Gentiles & Jews, slaves & free, men & women, rich & poor” – all fully and equally beloved by God. Anything less is a deceitful human tradition.
My marriage opened my heart to this reality of deceitful human tradition, as my marriage opened my mind to the limitations of the elemental universe, and it was Jesus in both cases who brought me into the deeper truth.
Now marriage is not the only thing that will unlock the divine conversation that God is calling you into. But whatever way you are called to know the deeper truth it does require vulnerability and honesty. And some people can get there through silence or study or worship or personal revelation, and others need honest friends. For me it has been my marriage. And the issues I have spoken of today, idolatry to the elemental universe and allegiance to deceitful human traditions, were my issues, and it has taken 25 years of marriage to identify and process them if only a little bit.
But whatever keeps you from knowing the deeper truth of the Kingdom of God, whether it is the log jam of logic, or the illusion of greatness; whatever is getting in your way can be pushed out of the way, as we see with the man in the Gospel story today…if you ask God, it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be open to you…”
There is a deeper reality, a more rewarding, abiding, cosmic truth, and it reveals itself through the person of Jesus. Now a lot of people are uncomfortable with that…Jesus as the answer, or the truth, or the way. And I get that. There are a lot of bozos out there that make Jesus look not only goofy, but weird and out of touch, and simple and thin. Sometimes people even try to use Jesus to reinforce their arguments about the elemental universe, or to prop up deceitful human traditions.
But I say to you, don’t let them, whoever they are, define Jesus for you, and don’t let them have the last word. Step into the stories of Jesus yourself. Study. Think. Pray. At least personally own your own knowledge of Jesus rather than being trapped by someone else’s opinion of him. You will be surprised, and indeed, delighted by the clarity of truth revealed in your life. I have been surprised, and it has changed my life, and, I might add, blessed my marriage, these past 25 years.