Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
“Seek the things that are above, where Christ is.” (Colossians 3)
An old survival trick if you are lost in the woods, is to seek higher ground so that you can see where you are. Because unless you get your bearings, you’re likely to just walk in circles, or worse yet, to set a course in the entirely wrong direction.
You might say that “seeking higher ground” is the theme of today’s epistle lesson from Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Like most churches, the Christian community of Colossae had its problems. In writing to them, Paul seems concerned in particular that certain leaders are trying to lower their sights from God in Christ, to worship more elemental spirits.
So he starts his letter out by reminding his readers that Christ is before all, and in all, the one through whom God has created all things. He alone is worthy of the Colossians’ loyalty and honor—there is no one and nothing else. So, says Paul, “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith.” Having made that doctrinal point, Paul then turns his attention to its implications, which is where today’s reading picks up.
Paul is worried that if the Colossian Christians let their attention fall away from the vision of a humanity dignified and made whole in Christ, then they will slip back into the narrow, mean-spiritedness of their former selves—that’s what that long list of “earthly” things is all about that he warns against (things like anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language).
No, in Jesus, we have been given a vision of a humanity in which such attacks on one another have no place, because they are attacks against God’s vision for us—all of us. They are attacks against the dignity of the human being. They are attacks against the image of God imprinted in each of us in creation. They are, in short, blasphemous.
The Christian faith often gets a bad rap for being so negative about people, and that reputation is not wholly unearned. But in what Paul has to say to us today, notice that instead of that negativity, there is a great hope and vision for what human beings are capable of that is, at the very least, at the other end of the spectrum. In Christ, there are no longer divisions between us, because there are no divisions in him. Christ has become our life, and we share in the glory of his mercy and compassion. That is the higher ground from which Paul wants us to get our bearings, so that we know where we’re headed.
We live in a day when we are bombarded on all sides with influences that try to pull us down to our lowest nature, to keep us off the higher ground. Blog posts and tweets and political rallies that stoke on our resentments and prejudices. Conversations and debates where the interlocutors talk past one another, hearing little but talking much. Violent attacks against innocent people motivated by deep anger and hatred. (Ironically, I wrote those words on Wednesday—and that was before El Paso, and that was before Dayton, and that was before … whatever comes next.)
These are days when we long for someone who will lead us to higher ground—like Moses did for the people of Israel in the stories we told at Vacation Bible School this past week. Historically, great leaders have always been those who, like Paul, called the people toward their better nature: think of Jefferson’s “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; or Lincoln’s “with malice toward none;” or FDR’s “we have nothing to fear but fear itself;” or JFK’s “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
Jesus himself, in today’s parable, teaches that we should be “rich toward God,” which means I think to have those qualities of heart and mind that lead us toward higher ground. He speaks those words against a rich man who tried to hoard up treasures for himself, to create a life in which he could “relax, eat, drink and be merry.” But the man had completely missed that the only real riches of this life are those we find in community, in serving one another, in experiencing together the dignity and creativity with which we are all endowed. That is what it means to be rich toward God. That is what it means to seek the higher ground. And as people of faith in times such as these, we are especially called to be the heralds of that vision, never to let go of the hope that has been given us in Jesus for a new humanity.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard many people say that they think they are just going to quit watching or reading the news—it’s gotten too much to bear. Maybe it’s because of the politics in Washington; or the summer heat waves and wildfires that ravage the earth; or the relentless fatal shootings, often motivated by hateful prejudice and supremacist ideologies; or the Brexit fiasco; or all of the above—and more. Such spiritual weariness is a sign that it’s time to seek higher ground, to gain some perspective, to get our bearings again, to rekindle our confidence and hope, to reconnect with God’s vision for humanity.
We are lucky, here in Albuquerque, to have looming over the city a great visual reminder of the spiritual power of higher ground: the blessed Sandias. The Puebloan peoples, of course, consider the mountain sacred, and the mountains often catch our eye (especially at sunset, when the rocks mirror the color of the western sky). I marvel at how different they look, according to one’s location and the season of the year. Sometimes they loom high and majestic like the Alps; while at other times they look shrunken in the desert heat.
So here’s a suggestion for a spiritual journey you might make if you’re feeling weary and numb. In these days when we feel as if we’re sinking toward our lowest and nature, find a way to get to the top of the Sandias—hike up, or drive the back route, or even take the tram. Or even just do it in your mind’s eye. And then when you’re at the crest, find a spot where you can contemplate for a long time the expanse you see laid out before you. And from that vantage point, remind yourself what matters most to you. What is the long view that keeps you going? What things keep your mind on the things above. From that vantage point, let God lift your spirit up on higher ground, to see further, to see more clearly, to see with renewed confidence and hope, the world as God sees it: a place where there is no differentiation between people, where there is a place for everyone, where Christ is all and in all.
So let’s stand now as we are able, and join in singing a prayer that God will lead us now to higher ground. [Hymn: Higher Ground]