Sermon July 17, 2022 by Rev. James Rausch

“Why it’s not Un-Christian for Ken to Lead Us All in Savoring a Very Tasty Watermelon”
 (or “A Refutation of Early Christian Asceticism”) 

Rev. James Rausch

I think the word “preamble” is woefully neglected in our common conversation.  I can think of only one instance in which we all speak or hear the word preamble.  Do you know what that is?  Of course, we refer to the preamble to the Constitution.  “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…” 

The word preamble means “what goes before,” or “introduction,” specifically to a significant statement or declaration. To amble is to walk.  From it we get the word ambulatory. So, a preamble “walks before” the main statement. 

Since the length of my sermons is still a point of contention within the marital relationship that Chris and I find ourselves entangled, after nearly 30 years of preaching, I am still trying to find a solution.  My wife’s commmandm… er’ suggestion, is to limit my sermons to 3 pages.  Now some of you are piling on.  I received a text from a church member, I won’t say her name, but her initials are Patti Powels, with a photo of a book she found in Tombstone on their recent visit.  She offered to buy it for me.  It’s called “Two-Page Sermons from Tombstone.”  

God, Your Honor, permission to treat the congregation as hostile, please?

So, I’m thinking about instituting a preamble to my sermon.   The clock doesn’t start until the preamble is over.   To me, to amble is to wander.  So, my preamble allows me to wander around a bit before we get to the main “wandering-around,” otherwise known as the sermon. 

So today, with copyright apologies, I provide to those of you present, a copy of a favorite Gary Larson “Far Side” cartoon.  It’s not something we can repost on the internet, so I’ll have to describe it for our Zoom participants.  It captures so well what people who work in positions that require ongoing creativity experience:  Writer’s block.   The first panel show several ducks standing together engaged in a conversation of quacking.  In the second panel, one duck hollers, “Chicken!”  The next panel shows all the ducks bowing their head low to the ground while a hapless chicken hurtles through the air above them like a projectile.  After the chicken-danger has passed, the ducks return to their upright positions and continue their quacking conversation in panel 4.  

The comic genius lies not in the suggestion that ducks holler “Chicken” instead of “Duck” when they need to duck; instead, it comes in the caption below.  “And so,” the interviewer said to the cartoonist, “Do you ever have trouble coming up with ideas?”  “Well, sometimes,” the cartoonist replied.  

Having started out my professional life as an ad copywriter and producer for the CBS television station in Rockford, Illinois, I can affirm that creativity on demand is at times quite challenging.  Some days good ideas just seemed to flow one after another.  Other days, I couldn’t come up with anything, no matter how hard I banged my head on my desk. 

Over the years I wrote and produced countless car commercials for scores of dealers in that area, two of which I would have actually considered buying a car from.  We would have used cars brought into our studio all shined up, and our lighting techs would make them gleam on camera.  When the taping was done, it was amazing how many of them would barely start.  The advertising life got to me after 8 years.  I figured that if God gave me creative abilities, I shouldn’t waste them on selling products, useful or otherwise.   So, I came to work to promote a much better cause in the church. 

What remains the same, however, is the ebb and flow of creativity.  Like a baseball pitcher who may struggle for a time trying to regain the feel for his curveball, preachers too can have stretches of ordinariness.  

So, to close the preamble to the sermon, I will say that today’s passage from Colossians is among the many important passages of Scripture you’ve probably never heard a sermon on.   I use a website each week called “Textweek” for sermon research.  It contains hundreds of links to articles, blogs, and even sermons related to all the hundreds of texts for the 3-year lectionary cycle.  Occasionally I will find a text for which there are no sermons posted.  Today’s was one of them.  So why did I feel compelled to select this one for today?  I can’t say with certainty.  Maybe I just saw in it the opportunity to give a wandering preamble before getting to the sermon.  If it sounds like I’m making excuses in advance, you’re probably right to trust your intuitions.  

The preamble is over now, Chris, wherever you are!  You may now start the clock. 

I was going to call this sermon, “A Refutation of Early Christian Asceticism,” but I was afraid you’d get up and walk out.  So, I went with something a little more friendly to the ears and to the mind.  I admire Ken’s joy in the good and simple pleasures of life like a flavor-loaded bunch of sweet corn or a super-red watermelon, or a brief exchange of friendly and upbuilding words with the people he encounters.  The way he shares these things with all of us strikes me as beautifully human and marvelously Christian.  So, who in the world would ever accuse such behavior as being unchristian?   

Well, did you know that a big argument developed in the early church over whether Jesus was really human, or was he God?   Many people then could not conceive of a god that could assume flesh and be that that closely involved with the created order.  You see, as ancient tribes worldwide seemed to have a natural inclination to worship, they all developed ideas of gods who were over and above humans and earthly affairs – transcendent.  Gods were separate from humans – completely other or different – removed from the limitations of human existence.  From this came the idea of holiness, which literally means set apart.  Gods were deemed to be so holy, so set apart from worldly existence, that it was assumed that earth and matter and creation were beneath the gods, to the point that they could not and would not approach them physically.

Over the years, people have retained and expanded the idea of holiness as not only being set apart, but also purely good.  Unfortunately, many people in history have contrasted creation with that perception and have developed a belief that creation is unholy and therefore tainted with impurity.  It is important to remember that when God created the heavens and the earth, the plants and animals, and the people, God said it was all very good.  We too easily fall into thinking ill of creation and humanity in general.  Even today, some people compare humans to a malicious virus that has infected Mother Nature’s pristine world.  Humanity is fallen and sinful, for sure, but our essence is not evil.  God’s love for us attests to our worth and redeemability. But back to the point of the belief that God is transcendent only and cannot mingle with the created order.  

Islamic people, whom we love and respect, and whom we welcome as neighbors and friends, don’t understand our concept that God, the Divine Word, became human flesh and bone, and dwelt among us.  Their understanding of God is high holiness that simply cannot mingle so intimately with the created order.  Thus, they revere Jesus as a prophet, but do not accept our affirmation of his divinity.  

In Paul’s time, there were groups known as Docetists and Gnostics.  Docetists taught that Jesus only seemed human when he is said to have walked the earth.  He was fully God, in their understanding, but his appearance as human was only an elaborate divine illusion – so real looking that it fooled everyone.  They went to great lengths to affirm Jesus as God and all the Bible stories as true, however they could not bring themselves to believe that our holy God could fully intermingle with flesh and blood.  

Many of the Gnostics believed that all things spiritual were good, and all things earthly were bad.  They taught that our spirits were trapped inside these lowly bodies, and the ultimate goal was for the spirit to shed the body and join God in the pure realm of the spirits.  So, they tried to live lives that focused on the spiritual and shunned earthly sensations.  They and the Docetists were trying to draw the church members that Paul had taught into their way distorted ways of believing.  

So, this letter came as a strong argument to affirm what Paul knew to be true.  “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation.  For in him all things were created…” (hear the repetition of the words born, created and creation.) “…things in heaven and on earth (hear “spiritual and matter”), visible and invisible (hear “matter and spiritual”), whether thrones (earthly) or powers (spiritual) or rulers (earthly) or authorities (spiritual); all things have been created (there’s that word again) through him and for him.” He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead (this affirms that he experienced death as humans do), so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (an affirmation that he was fully God), and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Shed blood, an indication that he was fully human, and not just an illusion.)

Some of the Gnostics, in their attempt to shed as much earthly attachment as possible in order to be more “spiritual,” practiced asceticism.  This was a regimen of depriving oneself of things that gratified the earthly senses.  Devouring a good watermelon, like I enjoy doing, complete with all the slurping noises and a need for extra napkins, would be something that the Gnostic Ascetics would have found to be too worldly and vulgar.  Okay, maybe I could curtail the slurping noises, but to pass up the miracle of watermelon just because it grows out of the dirt is to give up a gift God gave us to enjoy and share with others.  

One group of Gnostics decided that cucumbers were the most spiritual of all the vegetables.  How they came up with that, I have no idea.  Now, I have nothing against cucumbers.  Add them to a salad or a sub sandwich and I’m all in. But to pick one up and just munch away?   Give me watermelon any day instead.  But the Gnostics tried to live on cucumbers.  It was a way of depriving themselves of taste sensations.  They called this discipline, but it went to an extreme.  And they taught that the only way to achieve or earn one’s way into the spiritual ream, heaven, was to deprive the body here on earth.  Celibacy was an absolute must in their understanding.  But if that’s spiritual perfection in their minds, didn’t they realize that their plan, if followed by all, would lead to the extinction of humans? Well, Paul fiercely opposed any notion of relying on one’s actions of discipline, deprivation, or works of any kind to bring about salvation.  That is a gift secured for us by Jesus the Christ – a gift that cannot be earned, only received.

Now, there are forms of discipline that are useful and spiritually upbuilding.  Fasting is a practice that can be good for body and soul, focusing one’s sense of dependence on God above all things.  Doing without something during lent is another example.  The earliest Christian monastics lived as hermits in the desert, subsisting on the minimal resources around them. They were not attempting to earn their way into spiritual union with God, but rather they were wanting to spend more of their time and energy focusing on God.  Some are called to that kind of practice in various forms even today. 

Buddhism teaches the virtues of living lightly and de-emphasizing earthly attachments.   I think Jesus would have found a lot to like in Buddhist practices.  I daresay I’ve met some Buddhists whose lives appear to practice Christian principles more genuinely and consistently than myself and some other Christians.  We can learn a lot from these neighbors.  

But what we have that is our gift to share is what Paul taught and defended.  In Jesus, Divinity and Humanity came together in a mind-blowing way.  God affirmed the goodness of creation by embracing it while also confronting the reality of fallen creation.  Brokenness and sinfulness separated humanity from God, and there was only one way to heal that breach.  God, who was the only one capable of paying the debt, or healing the wound of human sin, could not justly do so, because God was not at fault.  Humanity needed to pay the debt, heal the wound, but was incapable of doing so.  

Therefore, only a human could give what humanity needed to give, but only God had the wherewithal to provide it.  Thus, the miracle of God’s plan of Salvation.  The eternal Word of God, the Divine Second Person of the Trinity, became flesh – fully human, so the debt could rightly be paid, and fully God with the power to heal the breach and make things right.  

21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[a] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

“And so,” the interviewer asked the preacher, “do you ever have trouble coming ups with sermons?”

“Well, sometimes,” the preacher replied.