I need to talk today about just one thing: setbacks.
While he was imprisoned in Rome, word of some major setbacks in the Colossian Church reached St. Paul.
Those who once so eagerly received the gospel of grace, were turning from it. Just like you and me, the Colossians had “hearts prone to wander,” as the hymn puts it, and St. Paul warns them not to be “captive to philosophy and empty deceit.”
By “philosophy” he means bad philosophies—competing, pagan worldviews devoid of Grace. And by “empty deceit” he doesn’t mean they were being misled in a few mere matters—like using the wrong fork. They were being seriously and totally duped, with catastrophic consequence.
By contrast, simple deceit—a little white lie—is about chewing gum taking seven years to digest. Empty deceit is more punitive; it can be ruinous in the end.
Empty deceit makes you do things like give all your money to Madoff to manage, because he promised—and you believed— he would get the best returns. In the end, you came up empty. Now, that’s obviously a secular example, but I think it makes sense.
In the context of the Christian life – on the theological plane, if you will – St. Paul is talking about empty deceit, because it can destroy the soul. And that’s because it makes promises in the name of God that, actually, He never promised.
And this still happens today.
When is the last time you heard a seedy televangelist promising endless riches to those who sent in seed money as an act of so-called faith? What about the empty deceit that teaches if I carefully manage my relationship with God—if I do the right things all the time, and I pray with enough faith— I can Experience complete and total emotional, relational, physical, and financial prosperity? Have you heard about so-called Christian karma—when I’m good, God is good to me, and when I’m bad, well, too bad, because God is waiting in the parking lot.
And all of this is empty deceit, and it’s really deadly because when the day of setback arrives—when the diagnosis you didn’t expect is delivered, when he leaves you for a younger woman—the soul that was deceived is devastated, is utterly empty, and turns away from grace.
I really have only two things to say in this little homily, and they both have to do with setbacks in the broad context of the Christian life of grace.
The first thing I want to say is this: despite what you’ve heard, but instinctively know to be true from experience, a certain number of setbacks are totally inevitable—utterly unavoidable.
And No one—not you, not me, not even Captain James T. Kirk— is immune to some serious setbacks. You laugh all you want, but William Shatner is on XM radio right this second trying to sell CPAP cleaner! I’m not kidding. I heard it three times this week. Hello! Trust me, when you go from commanding the Enterprise at warp speed to selling CPAP cleaner, that’s a major career setback!
Any Merle Haggard aficionados here? Do you remember his song “Misery and Gin?” It’s all about reeling from a relational setback. Predictably, the setting is a dimly lit, smoke-filled honky-tonk bar:
“I light a lonely woman’s cigarette,
We both start talkin’ ’bout what we want to forget.
Her life story and mine are the same.
We both lost someone and only have ourselves to blame.”
Folks, that’s called a setback. Insert your present setback and you know what I’m saying is true. Setbacks happen.
The second thing I want to say is more profound—more efficacious, I hope. And it is this: setbacks do not define the Christian. Grace defines the Christian.
And that’s a big problem. and it’s a problem because very few of us act like we believe this to be true although deep down we really want it to be true. (Spoiler alert; it is true, by the way.)
Yet, over and over again, on a weekly basis, I encounter people—in history, and who are alive today—who act as if setbacks are definitive—ultimate strike-outs in the ever competitive game of life. I even see someone like I’m describing from time to time in the mirror when I’m shaving.
Do you know the name Ferdinand De Lesseps? He was the 19th century hero of France. He was the brainchild of the Suez Canal, which was considered the greatest achievement of maritime history at the time, and he was so popular that he presented the Statue of Liberty on behalf of France. He had rock-star status on the world stage way before folks like Beyoncé and Katy Perry came along. But how is Lesseps remembered? Google him when you get home.
After the Statue of Liberty, and the Suez Canal, he tried to build the Panama Canal, and it was a total disaster—everything that could possibly go wrong went wrong. He was so devastated by his setbacks in Panama, that he went home to Paris, locked himself in his study and literally stared out the window for three years until he died. I’m not kidding. De Lesseps is a tragic case of someone who was a victim of empty deceit— the world’s lie that if we don’t succeed at everything then we fail at all things.
And it’s not just actual setbacks that undo us; the fear of a setback is just as bad and drives us to all sorts crazy behavior.
My wife, Malacy, was recently on a flight to New York, and sitting next to her was a famous actor.
Since you’re curious, I’ll tell you he was a James Bond villain, a recurring character in Indiana Jones, he was the voice of Cassim in Aladdin and he played Gimli In Lord of the Rings. I won’t out him in a public forum like this, but his initials are John Rhys-Davies.
And Guess what he did on that flight? He leaned over and asked Malacy if he could pose in a selfie with her on the plane. Folks, this is way more than just a creepy old man hitting on my wife. My wife is stunning, and I love selfies with her, but I thought the fans were the ones who asked for the selfie, not the movie stars!
But there he was: a 75-year-old actor sitting at 35,000 feet asking for a selfie with my wife all because he’s afraid that if he’s not
constantly seen posing for selfies he may be facing a setback to his stardom status.
And I hate to break the news, but the setback has set in, brother. he was returning to the UK after judging a high school comic book contest in Jackson Mississippi. That’s Not exactly what I would call a James Bond villain kind of lifestyle.
I want to say it again: Setbacks don’t define us. Grace defines the Christian.
What is Grace?
Grace is love—pure energy— that rushes over to you and to me at the most excruciating moment of our setback—the very second we want to cry out in embarrassment and despair—and it raises the flag of God’s victory over all things! Grace is God’s warm heart of consolation, irrespective of our brokenness or our blessedness, and it delivers his relentless love and mercy. Why Grace even raises the dead!
Setbacks? What setbacks?
In the grand, eternal scheme of grace, Setbacks really don’t stand a chance.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Charleston D. Wilson
Church of the Redeemer
7 Pentecost 2019
28 July 2019