Sunday, May 29, 2011

My sermon from this morning: Colossians 3:18

It’s a pleasure to be here with you this morning for this difficult and probably to some, deeply offensive passage of scripture. If you would all like to turn to Colossians 3 verse 18 you will see why all the men in leadership in this church turned into cowardly custards and refused to preach.

 To stand in the middle of a deep strong rushing river of cultural consensus and heartfelt belief and try to either face the opposite direction, or even just stand still, or even just ask a few questions is extremely uncomfortable and so I hope you will award me several truck loads of grace, your open ears and do your very very very best not to take offense because it is not my intention or desire to cause any. Let me also say that this topic is so fraught, so big, and so difficult for this day and age that this morning we will really only be dipping our toes in the water.

So, let’s start by just reading the verse and noticing some interesting things about the Greek and the translation that we have here.

Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

First, Paul says, Wives. He’s not talking to any of you single ladies right now. He’s talking to women who are married. If you’re about to get married I encourage you to pay attention. If you are single and carrying on happily in that state you can listen and analyze all your married friends. Just kidding.

In other words, what Paul is saying is not directed to every woman in regards to every man. All women every where are not being told to be submissive to all men everywhere. We’re talking about a particular relationship—marriage, one person submitting to one other person—her own husband. Even if you are dating someone, ladies, you do not have to and ought not, I would say, submit to the guy until he puts a ring on it, just to quote Byonce.

So, wives, submit to your husbands. The greek here actually is better rendered, ‘be subject to’, which to my delicate ears sounds even worse. We’re probably most familiar with the word ‘subject’ as in being subjects of a King or Queen. The word is not ‘subjugation’ but of willingly being part of a country or kingdom with a head leader. It’s a little more passive than the word submit.

Now notice who Paul is talking to in this verse. Wives, you submit, he says, not, as he does in Ephesians, ‘wives ought to submit to their husbands’, it’s a direct appeal. I say appeal because this kind of direct address is an usual occurrence for literature of this time and place in history. Were he following cultural conventions he might rather have said, husbands make your wives submit to you as to the Lord, because why would they even be there to hear the letter? They wouldn’t. And yet, here, in the church, they are there, they are hearing the letter, and Paul is talking to them directly, appealing to them as full, equal members of the Colossian church, able to exercise their own will and volition towards a particular way of life.

Which really lets us get at the guts of this verse if you think about it. Paul is talking to women whose lives would have looked much much more like the average Muslim in the middle east woman’s life now, than like yours and mine. The Colossian woman would have probably worn a head covering, if she was from a decent family she wouldn’t have gone out to the market alone without a man with her, or might not have gone at all. She wouldn’t have ever ever spoken in a disrespectful or critical manner of her husband. As a married woman she wouldn’t have had tons of freedom to organize her own life or fulfill herself in the way that we value and expect. And yet here, Paul is 1. talking directly to the married women in the church and 2. telling them to be subject.

Which says to me that we are talking about something far more interesting and difficult than mere outward behavior. For Paul to require this of women who in every outward form would have met the requirement of ‘submission’ or ‘subjection’ says to me he’s talking about their hearts and minds, not only their actions.

So, wives submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

The 'is fitting' is used in other contexts in the New Testament in conjunction with 'rest' or 'comfort'. We might render it, 'as is comfortable or restful' in the Lord. By that I don't mean, so long as it makes you feel comfortable, but rather in doing the will of God, you will be in a place of rest. But the word 'fitting' also means 'right', if something is fitting, it is right and appropriate, and in this case holy and good. Why is it fitting? Because it is 'in the Lord'.

We might recall that in Ephesians, Paul likens Christian marriage to be a picture of the mystery of Christ and the church. The husband is supposed to be like Jesus and the wife is supposed to be like the church. In modeling himself on Jesus the husband is to look to the love of Jesus for the church, such a great love that he went unto death, even death on the cross, to save, protect and redeem his bride. The church is protected, guided, sustained, given life by Jesus and does his will, carries out his purpose and desire in the world. No marriage, of course, is a very good picture of this mysterious and holy relationship. Some give a vaguely better outline than others. When a Christian woman submits to her husband she is at the same time submitting to Jesus, she is 'in the Lord', and she is submitting to the picture of Jesus, her husband, whether he is a terrible picture or a fairly good one.

Now, before the hair on your necks stands up and the appalling things I've just said, remember with me the relationship between Jesus, who is the second person of the Trinity, that is, God the Son, and his Father, that is, God the Father. There is another member of the Trinity, the Godhead, and that's God the Holy Spirit. God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all God. As God they are ontologically the same, that is, they are of one substance, one being, one nature. And in this equality of substance, being and nature, the three members of the Godhead, the three Persons, to use a technical word, love one another perfectly and completely. The Son, in perfect love and obedience submits his will to the will of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds, or goes out from both of them.

In other words, both the man and the woman, in marriage, are looking to Jesus for the perfect model of how to be.

Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count Equality with God a thing to be grasped but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:5 Jesus did not want to die. He wasn’t running happily to horrific death. He asked his Father if it could possibly be within his will to not die and his Father said no. And Jesus, in perfect obedience and submission, went up to death, even death on a cross.

Now, we know, that in his life and work on earth, Jesus was an incredibly strong, perfectly fulfilled, perfectly full person. There was nothing lacking in him. His obedience and submission to the Father was something full and holy and beautiful. It brought about the salvation of all of us who believe and trust in him. Obedience and submission to God is not an evil emptying desperate thing. Obedience to God the Father is the source of our life. When you give yourself to Jesus, he gives you everything that he has, himself. And part of that is the ability to trust him and do his will. When you submit yourself to another person, you do this in the power of Jesus and for love of Him.

You might now see why I think this is not just a set of actions but an attitude of the heart and mind. I’m not going to stand here and say, wives, submit to your husbands—do all the housework, cook all the dinners, do all the laundry, uncomplainingly put out your husbands slippers for him when he arrives home in the evening, look deeply into his eyes and say, ‘what now Oh Lord and Master’. For heaven’s sake, that is not the way we function as human beings, certainly not in this culture. But I do, ever so gently, suggest that the way we think of, talk about, talk to, consider, pray for, love, care for, and submit to our husbands should not come from this culture either. So far from submitting to a husband in love, as is fitting in the Lord, we have gone entirely the other direction. A husband is often not even considered an equal, a full human person deserving of respect and consideration. Stupid idiot men, if we didn’t marry them they would be nothing.

One of my all time favorite tv shows, which Matt hates, is Everybody Loves Raymond. Yeah, she stayed home with the kids and he brought home the bacon, but he was an idiot—so funny. So many things he did were wrong. She was always persecuted and over worked and he was always having to worry about what stupid thing he was about to do that was going to get him in trouble with her. Stupid men, can’t do anything right.

That’s not true, or helpful. Paul says so, up above, there is no slave, free, male, female, Jew or Greek. We are equal. Neither men nor women are ontologically superior to each other. When you set out honor, respect and, horror of horrors, obey another person, its not because they are better than you, it is because, in a mysterious, holy and lovely way, when you do the will of God the Father, it gives life. I am speaking, said Paul in Ephesians, about the mystery of Christ and the Church.

So what might this look like, practically?

Well, first of all, it does not include or allow for any any any kind of abuse whatsoever. If you are being misused and hurt by another person please please get some help and get out. If you are misusing this text to control and hurt another person, stop it.

For the rest of us, it means standing in a rushing current of a culture that tells us that we are all that and that our husbands should listen to us and be guided by us and attend to us and that we're persecuted and put upon.

That's just not true. The men here at Good Shepherd are honorable, interesting, knowledgeable, dedicated, strong, deserving of respect and capable of leadership--both here in the church but more importantly, in their homes. But even if they weren't, even if they were awful, it would still be possible to submit to them, as is fitting in the Lord, because it is always always always better to things God's way than our own.

I am so so loath to give even any advice or say anything more at all. This kind of leadership and submission, shocking as it may sound, has come very easily to me and Matt. Matt has a very strong personality. That's why I married him. He enjoys a good fight. He likes to be challenged and argued with, and, on occassion, yelled at when he is being foolish or insecure or something. He does most of the cooking and all of the laundry and changes diapers and moes the lawn and watches the kids All the Time so that I can pray and take a shower by myself or go on a walk. And he is also clear headed about where he thinks we should go as a family, spiritually. He leads us to worship and obey God. On occassion, he exercises headship over me by drawing lines when I've signed up to do much, by encouraging me in my work here at Good Shepherd, by causing our children to respect and honor me when they might rather run roughshod over my plans for the day.

But the way we live this out is one way among many. But we are not the model, Jesus is. Look to him to give you rest, to show you the way, to give you the strength to do his will.

We will both stay up here after the service if you want to get a cup of coffee and come back up and talk about this some more--argue, ask for clarification, just talk--but for now, let's pray.

Holy and Gracious God, you have so loved us, so poured yourself out in humility for us, that we might know you and serve you. Help us be a good and true reflection of your Son Jesus. In his holy name we pray, Amen.


Jessica said...


Anne Kennedy said...

Thanks Jessica!

Ann McCarthy said...

Very nicely said. I get pretty annoyed at the tv shows that show men as idiots. It begins with the kid's shows where parents are idiots and moves on from there.

Dr. Alice said...

I think this is a brilliant assessment of the text, Anne. (As a single woman, I can sit back and analyze from the sidelines.)

I am strongly reminded of the time years ago when I was scheduled to be the lector, this was the text, and the (female) priest stopped me at the last minute and substituted another reading. To be fair, she said that she would have had me read it if she had chosen to preach on the text - I think she chose the Gospel to preach on that week - but it felt like censorship.

Kevin Seaver in Tokyo said...

Hi Anne,

Brilliant. Am I allowed to opine?

My favorite phrase from Morning Prayer is "kanzen na jiyu wa shu ni tsukaeru koto ni arimasu" -- which surely means nothing to you, but I believe in your BCP is "to serve you is perfect freedom."

There is something about our submission, as full, free creatures of great dignity, which carries power and is a well-spring of blessing. So, Peter kneeling to Aslan is a good, beautiful thing and in no way belittling.

I'm afraid there is a huge current in the States of "I'm persecuted and deserve so much more than this"--not just a woman thing. It is deeply disturbing.

I think Jesus (incl. thru Paul) has given us a way of being married that, when we get it even a little bit right, has the power to transform and bless whole communities.

Without anyone feeling put out or shackled, either.

AmmaKate said...

Magnificent. If this was Olympic Sermonizing, I'd be raising the 10.0 card. Thank and Bless you on two areas of difficulty:
Certainly, this Text; and speaking this Wisdom as a married, female Priest.

Anonymous said...

Anne - wonderful sermon. Thank you for this Wisdom delivered with grace.


Anonymous said...

Sending to my daughters! Excellent.