Sunday, January 16, 2000

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
on Sunday, January 16, 2000
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Colossians 2:6-15

I don't know if any of you share my peculiar paranoia, but there is one thing in life that I really do not like doing and that is flying at night. Indeed, I try through the graces and my travel agent to make sure wherever I go that I fly during the day. The reason being, I think, that when I look out of the plane window and see nothing but sheer darkness, I have absolutely no sense of where I am. And yet I seem to feel every tilt of the plane, every elevation, hear every noise, every rattle, every movement and I realize I have absolutely no control over the situation at all. And so, desiring not to fly at night, I usually book a daytime flight.

However, last Sunday I was not afforded that opportunity for the only flight that I could take home after having gone to visit my mother in Nova Scotia, was to take an evening flight. And so naturally I asked to be as far away from the windows as possible and my travel agent said, "By all means," and so she got me a seat in the very middle of the three seats that are across the middle of a Boeing 767.

There is only one problem with that centre seat, there are two people on either side of you and on this particular evening it exacerbated all my fears and paranoias, for the two gentlemen sitting next to me were fascinating individuals, the one on my left was an owner of a construction company in Halifax and the one on my right was a fisherman from the south shore of Nova Scotia. And while they appeared initially to have very little in common with one another, except they were both from Nova Scotia, it became evident within half an hour that they both had a great deal in common, namely that every time a bottle of wine was brought around, they each drank one. After the flight attendant - I think that's what you call them now - had been coming around three or four times and each of them had consumed three or four bottles of wine, they entered into a rather heated, animated and interesting discussion with one another, all the time having yours truly sitting right in the middle. It was as if I didn't exist. And so, trying to block out the conversation, I ordered the head phones and tried to watch the CBC News, but to no avail, as the two drank more, the louder they became and the more the CBC just drifted into the background.

So there I was, with absolutely no choice but having to overhear everything that they said. And they got quite animated and the more inebriated they became, even more loud until they started to discuss something that they had been doing on a regular basis. One of them said, "I have found a wonderful way to avoid the paying of taxes," and he said, "I now buy all my supplies for my fishing boat with cash, I haven't bought anything in the normal way for the last two years. It's saving me a bundle," he said. The other man was so excited to hear this news and to find a similar brother in crime that he said, "Well, actually I do the same, I pay all my part-time workers by giving them money under the table. They love it. I love it. I get to employ more people. It's a wonderful thing, isn't it," and they were laughing and jolly and splendid and the louder they got and the more animated they became, the more annoyed I was becoming. Until finally they must have seen the look of displeasure on my face and one of them turned to me and said, "Oh, I'm sorry, buddy," - as if I was - "I am sorry, buddy," he said, "I hope we haven't been disturbing you." And I said, "Well, actually, actually..." and he said, "Oh, don't worry, don't worry, don't worry." I said, "Well, actually I'm trying to do some reading for my work."

Now please, ladies and gentlemen, forgive me for what I am about to say. And they said, "Oh, well, what work do you do?" I said, "I'm an investigative accountant with Revenue Canada." The silence was deafening. Peace. Peace at last. You can see why in the confessional prayer this morning, my eyes were particularly tight and my grip particularly strong.

But what really surprised me after this was, and everyone was now quiet around me and very much so, one of them pulled out a book and just quietly began to read it and I couldn't be surprised more or overwhelmed by the irony of the book, because it was entitled, "The Magic of Thinking Big: Secrets on How to Live a Successful Life" by David P. Schwartz, Ph.d. And I thought to myself, this sums up so much of the modern world, does it not? Here was an individual who clearly was seeking in their lives for something meaningful. Clearly he was reading this book in order that he might acquire the tools for success. And yet in his life he was doing the very things that would bring him down and would destroy him. And that is one of the problems, I think, with what I call the problem of the incomplete life. In other words, there are men and women who desire and seek to be good and virtuous, who want to be powerful and successful and rise to the top, but they do it in an incomplete way. They do it without any reference to virtue, or to ethics or to morality. They simply want to get ahead for the sake of getting ahead.

Now lest you misunderstand me, I am in no position to stand over in righteous judgment either of those two men. Nor did I feel any more virtuous and after my comment, if anything, less virtuous. But one thing I do know is what the Apostle Paul knew and that was that the complete life, the fulfilled life is not attained simply by virtue or morality or by success, but that it is something which is given through the grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ. For the Apostle Paul facing people in the city of Colossae, who were trying to move ahead and be successful in their life, Paul simply said to the Christian community, you need look no further if you want a balanced, fulfilled and complete life. He said, "For in Christ dwells the fullness of the deity in bodily form and through him your life is fulfilled, your life is complete."

My friends, I think we have something profound then to say to the generation in which we live on the basis of what Paul said to the Colossians, and I want to look this morning at the complete life and I want to do so in three ways, first of all by looking at what I call The problem of the incomplete life, Biblically speaking, and from the Christian point of view, the incomplete life comes about when people do not integrate faith into their lives. In other words, they think that the highest goals, the highest pursuits are not those which are integrated with faith, but somehow faith is simply an add-on to life. It doesn't really inform who you are, it is just a nice added extra that you might want if you are a person who seeks such things. Paul found this in the church in Colossians and he warned people who spoke in such terms. He says, "Do not let anyone deceive you with empty philosophies or the teachings of human beings that lead you astray," he said. For the Apostle Paul was concerned that people were trying to add to the life of Christ other things and make faith somewhat of an optional extra.

Well, I would like to suggest to you that particularly since the enlightenment, since the writings of the like of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others, this has been a prevailing attitude in the western world and I believe grips the society in which we live. In other words, faith is a nice thing. Faith is one choice among many choices. Faith is perhaps even a good or a high or a lofty pursuit, but that it does not directly impinge on life as we know it. Look, for example, at the language that people use today and they used in biblical times to define the good life, to define what a true human being should be. One of those words is the word "power". Philosophy has always predicated itself on power being the way to create and to recreate and to make your own life. In other words, if you have power, you will then have the successful and the complete life.

Another word is the word "skills". You need to acquire skills in order that you might be able to manage your life, that you might be able to control it and to manipulate it, that you develop the skills that give your life fulfilment and completion.

Another word that is often used as well as the word "skill" is "acquiring knowledge", that you have a special knowledge that enables you again to be able to control your own life and that success in whatever form it might be in is the highest good and the greatest thing, so when you have succeeded, your life is fulfilled, your life is complete. And if you're given the power, the skills and the knowledge to acquire these things, you will then have reached the fulfilled and the complete life.

My friends, that is driving the world in which we live. If you go and look, as I did just yesterday, in Chapters bookstore and see all the self-help books that are on the wall, all of them seem to use these words, acquire skills, acquire tools, have knowledge, have power over your life in order that you might have the complete and the fulfilled life and then you will have success and will have arrived.

Faith has little role in such things. It's on the periphery. But even more so, that very view of human life dictates the things that we then deem as being important in society and in life. For example, look at our obsession with the body. We have in this day and age, a two-dimensional view of the human person and one of them is that the body is the most important thing and how we train our bodies and how beautiful our bodies look will give us the power, the skills and the knowledge that we need to be able to be successful. Look for example (it is always so nauseating after the excesses of Christmas and New Year), how we are bombarded every day by ads from gymnasiums and health experts and diet pills and all these beautiful hard- bodied people with rippling abs and they say within thirty days you can lose 30 lbs. and look like me! I feel like saying, "Man, in thirty years, I couldn't look like you." But sure enough, we have this obsession with looking beautiful and lifting and tucking and whatever one does with one's body in order that one might have the power and the influence and the beauty and the grandeur to succeed and to move ahead.

We have the same attitude, I think, in our educational system, which is also, I believe, unfortunately at times two-dimensional, where again physical prowess, physical strength and ability is the greater good, that the idols and the gods of our society are those who demonstrate a particular physical prowess. But it goes beyond that. It goes beyond that into what is virtuous with our bodies and what is virtuous with our bodies today in the society in which we live is an epicurean one, it is the greatest pleasure that you can get out of your bodies, that while you have them, the ability to acquire pleasure is the greatest good, that the more pleasure you have with the body, the highest good that you have succeeded to.

And if you need peace and if you're worried about the things that you are doing, don't worry about them, for there is a word in Greek which is artixia which means an untroubledness that the epicureans use. In other words, don't worry about all the things that you're doing with your body, just simply go with the flow and enjoy them. I couldn't help but think how prophetic it was when I woke up yesterday morning and read the Toronto Star and there hitting me over the head as if someone was saying, this you have got to preach on Sunday morning, Andrew, was this headline. It's a very disturbing article by the way. It's entitled "Why High Achievers..." - notice the language - "Why High Achievers Sometimes Risk All for Sex." And it goes on and it talks about those who have provided clinical guidance to some of the most powerful people in our society and one of them concludes by saying, "I have been talking to high-powered financially successful men who have ruined their lives," ruined their lives. And it goes on to say they've ruined those lives in the pursuit of sexual pleasure at the expense of their soul or expense of their partners, expense of their spouses and often at the expense of their very businesses, but they have been told that the highest good is the enjoyment and the pleasure and even the abuse of women, as is the case in this article, it's okay. Well, it's not okay. It's not okay. It's a very one-dimensional view of the good.

Now the Apostle Paul is right in what he says to the Colossians, it is not that bodily pleasure and physical wellbeing and such things are not vital and important to life, but they are not the be-all and the end-all. It's the same with the human mind. We have made an obsession with knowledge and knowledge at the expense of everything else. Now I completely support education. In fact, I am concerned at times that those who are the poorest in our society don't have access to good education for it is the only way that poor people can often rise above their situation in life. Education is a great equalizer. But I also understand that the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge's sake is a dead end. Never was this more clearly seen to me than when I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a while and I would go and eat at the Au Bon Pain which is on Harvard Square and drink my coffee and eat my bun. (One of our members said to me, "Do you realize, Andrew, that you've been here one and a half years and in every sermon you've mentioned food." So I intend not to disappoint and I'm mentioning it again. That's probably why I won't have good abs in 30 days, but that's another story.) But I would sit there and some of the greatest minds from Harvard and MIT would gather there and I would get to know them and sit and have coffee and there's a chess table engraved in some of the stone tables that are there in the square, and some of the scholars would actually gather and play chess and absolutely bewilder me with their brilliance and I never aspired to play with them. And these were some of the most brilliant minds, I mean some of the greatest minds in North America and in the world, and yet I would watch them go in the evening, after they have played their chess, to a local pub and get bombed out of their minds with alcohol and then get into their cars and drive back to their residences. And I thought, you can have all the intellectual prowess and all the knowledge in the world, but if you don't have the wisdom to use it wisely, then what is it worth?

So it is with the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of the mind. As great as it is, as important as it is, it can't be the be-all and the end-all. There must be something more for the complete life. That is why Darwin in his autobiography wrote that after he had studied so much of science in the world, by the end of his life he said, "I have now lost an appreciation for Shakespeare. I have become so one-dimensional that I have lost sight of some of the beautiful and the wonderful things that are around me." That is the problem of an incomplete life.

But there is also the danger of what I call The incomplete faith, and the incomplete faith is the belief that faith in and of itself is the end. And there is a danger today that we have what I call faith in faith. Not faith in God, but faith in faith. And that faith has become a very positive word. You see it throughout all the self-help books. Alongside it there is a mysticism, sometimes a superstition, sometimes a philosophical concept or two, but the faith is good.

The Apostle Paul was not into people having faith in some sort of a generic sense, he was concerned that people were adding to what God had done in Jesus Christ, the Gospel, and were adding a whole myriad of other things in order to somehow make faith more complete. He was concerned, and we do not know much about the problem that existed in Colossae in the time of Paul or what the philosophy was, but it was very evident that part of it was that people wanted to worship philosophy and philosophers. In other words, they found the simple message of the Gospel of the Galilean and his death and resurrection incomplete and they wanted to add something to it. There were those who wanted to add astrology to it by looking to what Paul called the stochia or the basic elements of the universe and somehow get in touch with those and add it to the faith. There were those who wanted to add circumcision to the faith in order that we might have a bodily badge or a sign that we are pure and right with God. There were others who wanted to add rules and regulations as to what you should eat and with whom you should communicate and where you should worship and there were those who wanted to add angels to the faith, some intermediaries between God and ourselves and the Apostle Paul said no to this. No.

There were always those who wanted to do it. In the book of Acts there was Simon the magician who wanted to add a particular philosophical approach to Christianity and he felt that he couldn't have an experience of the Holy Spirit unless he had some magical powers and he was actually willing to ask the Apostles for and to give them money in order that he might have this special power from God. In all circumstances the Christian faith says no and I'll tell you why, I'll tell you why. Because Paul sees that all these things take away the freedom that God gives us by the grace of Jesus Christ. All of these constrain and keep people captive. In other words, if you have to have a special knowledge, if you have to behave in a certain way, if you have a particular celebration, all these things rob the cross of its power and just simply lead to a faith that has no content and a life that can never be fulfilled. Paul did not want the Colossians to become captive to those things, for he knew ultimately it would enslave them and it would rob the cross of its power, which brings me then to the complete life and the complete faith.

And for Paul the complete life and the complete faith were found in Jesus Christ. He uses a wonderful Greek word, which is the word (pluroma) and he says in Christ there is the fullness of the grace of God. In Christ there is the forgiveness for sins. So it's not just success and moving ahead, but that even when you fail, even when in your humanity you're not able to achieve that, God in Christ can still forgive you. That through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, where you do not have the moral power to withstand the temptations of the world, this is a gift from Christ to you, that you might be given, in fact, the right desires within your heart. For Paul, faith is not a matter of speculation or trying to reach God through a series of ladders or intermediaries, it is something that is just graciously received and for Paul therein lies the complete life. Therein lies the peace. Therein lies the hope. Therein lies the lack of self-centredness and the love for others. Why would you want anything more? Why indeed?

This past week there was a moment in my life where this became so evident and so true. On Wednesday afternoon, there was a point in my life for one dark moment where I really felt that I was losing the two most valuable people in my life. My mother was in intensive care and my wife was in a bed in an emergency room, and I wondered whether or not each of them would come out of this alive. And I realized that I, as I sat in a hospital ward seeing all these beds lining up to go into Emergency, I still felt so incredibly alone, and yet the one thing that I had when I was there was my faith. Not a generic faith, but a faith in God's province and a faith in Christ's presence, a faith in the Holy Spirit and I thought to myself, where would all the physical prowess of the world ever be able to get me in a moment like this? If I knew all things and had all wisdom, what would I possess in a moment like this? If I were so successful and so powerful and had all skill and technique and knowledge, what good would it do me in a moment like this? I understood why Paul did not want people to be captive to the things that do not make life complete but open yourself to the one who does.

Not only is Paul concerned that we are free from fears, the fear of the unknown that captivates you through these other things, but also the fear of false hopes. This is one of the things that disturbs me the most. I think we sometimes sell a false bill of goods to young people. I think we sometimes tell them, if you think big and you think positive, you'll have it all. It just isn't so. Thinking big can have its problems also.

There's a story of a Texas rancher who went to Israel and when he went to Israel he met one of the farmers who was there and he looked at the puny piece of land that the Israeli had, for many of you know how precious land is in Israel and he says to the farmer from Israel, "Is this all you own, is this all you have and possess?" and the Israeli farmer said, "Yep, this is it, this is my farm, this is my land," and the farmer from Texas said, "Well," he says, "my farm is such that when I get up at 5:00 o'clock in the morning in my big car, I can drive all day and still never get to the other side of my farm." The Israeli farmer looked at him and he says, "It's funny you should say that. I had a car like that once." Brings you back to reality, doesn't it? I think God in Christ brings us back to reality. We sell a false bill of goods if we think that two-dimensional life is complete. Life is only complete with God in Christ, with faith and with the strength that He can give along the way. In Him there is the fullness of life. Amen.