Pentecost 8 C: One Binary that Matters

The Lessons for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost are

Old Testament & Psalm, Option I

Old Testament      Hosea 11:1–11

Psalm                    Psalm 107:1–9, 43

or

Old Testament & Psalm, Option II

Old Testament      Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12–14, 2:18–23

Psalm                    Psalm 49:1–12

New Testament     Colossians 3:1–11

Gospel                   Luke 12:13–21

So much of the Bible is what today we call “binary:” Life or death, sin or righteousness, faith or unbelief, flesh or spirit, light or darkness.

And today’s New Testament readings are prime examples. They are both about “Either-Or.”  Colossians sees life through the lens of baptism, which in the ancient church happened for adults who were converting from polytheism at the all night Easter Vigil. After weeks of  teaching of the faith they stripped off their old clothing and were given new garments, and were told, “You have now died with Christ—died to your old self and your old way of life, and are raised to new life.”  And Colossians says it loud and clear. Yes, you have died to your old way of  thinking and your old way of life, and you have been raised with Christ to something new. So, don’t go back! Strive for what is above and not what is below. The baptism life is “Either-Or.”

And then we hear Jesus, in Luke 12, tell the story of a rich farmer who wants to get richer still; and so he talks himself into thinking, “When you have ample goods then you can relax, eat, drink, and be merry.” But he’s a fool, Jesus says, because he is fantasizing about the future when today his life—or his soul—is being demanded of him and he will be judged. You can strive to be rich in stuff—or rich toward God. “Either-Or.

Just today my wife and I were joined by five good folk for some coffee and sweets on our deck, enjoying the breezes and the sheep and the dogs. We started talking about something that reminded me about this week’s texts, I mentioned this sermon, and Irene said rather emphatically,  “‘Either-Or’ is passé.”  And she brought up the most famous non-binary thing there is today, saying, “We are learning that it’s not acceptable to talk about only males and females, because gender isn’t binary.”

I then asked, “But does that mean that there are no binaries at all? Are there no absolutes? Can we talk about the difference between telling the truth and lying?” And Irene had a good rejoinder that I can’t properly remember, something about times when there are no blacks and whites of truth, but only 50 shades of gray; and when it may be a the moral thing to tell a lie.

I came away from that lively conversation with two takeaways: If there are absolutely no binaries, no Either-Ors, then the Bible and the Christian faith can and should be thrown out the window. If binary is passé, surely our two texts for today are passé. The second takeaway is that knowing what the great Either-Or is in life is not easy.

For starters here I don’t think binary has just now become unpopular. I think it’s the human condition for us to want to have our cake and eat it too. We are expert at excuses. We hate lines in the sand. There are so many things that look good, taste good, and feel good, and we know we will pay a steep price later for our indulgence, but we find reasons to pay that price. Paul in Romans 7 spells it out: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  These days it’s easiest to excuse this inner conflict by saying there is no such thing as a good and evil binary.

I hate taking the time to floss my teeth. And I remember distinctly that day when my dentist, for the umpteenth time reminded me to floss my teeth, and I needed to rationalize, so I asked, “Which of my teeth do I really need to floss?” And he answered, “Just the ones you want to keep.”

And when I was having heartburn my doctor said don’t eat or drink alcohol after eight PM, and I complained that it seemed no matter the problem, doctors always say give up the good stuff—give up coffee, alcohol, sugar, and everything that you enjoy; my doc simply said, “It’s all about choices.”

But we don’t want to choose. We don’t want binaries. We don’t want “Either-Or.”

Now, there are many ways we have drawn the wrong lines between the “Either-Or.” Just with diet alone we’ve messed people up with the wrong “Either-Ors.”  We used to think fat was the big culprit, but now we know some fat is essential and the real problem is too many carbohydrates.

Butter was the culprit, but now we say its trans-fats and butter and eggs in moderation are good for you. Some dark chocolate, some nuts, also good.

In the history of the church there have been many times when people thought Jesus and Paul were saying the body is bad and it’s only the spirit we should tend to. Things that feed the body, like too much sex or food or good company—those you should flee and strive to live in the desert or in a cave or in a monastery. Martin Luther fought hard against such a choice saying it terrorized consciences.

Colossians sounds at times like body is bad when it says, Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire. But earlier it makes the point that God created all that stuff good, and Jesus saved us through his body and blood.   

We used to restrict marriage to men and women, but the world is full of people who live happier, more loving lives, because they have been allowed to choose to marry the one they are truly sexually attracted to.

We have learned that the Greeks weren’t all wrong when they said, “All things in moderation—find the Golden Mean.”

But is the Bible telling us anything helpful when it talks “Either—Or?” Are there real forks in life’s road? Are there times when it’s good to stop driving along the yellow line and pick a lane?

Our lessons give us two strong hints: in the form of a parenthetical phrase, and in the form of an invitation list.

The parenthesis is in the list of vices. Paul writes: “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed (which is idolatry).Again, we must remember “put to death the earthly” he doesn’t mean body and sex are bad in themselves. God made them. Jesus saves us through his own body and blood.

But Colossians ends this part of his list with greed, which is idolatry because the great Either-Or of a Christian is all about what rules your life. Martin Luther, said that the key to the Ten Commandments is deciding who you fear, love and trust. You must decide, will you fear, love and trust the God who has the power, and who uses that power to give of himself to love you? Or will you let the powers of selfishness run your life?

Greed is idolatry because it serves the god of selfishness. “I never have to deny myself. I need to build my barns bigger because too much is never enough. What I fear, love and trust may be money, or fame, or sex, or drugs, and indeed they will often shift from one to another because they are all false gods—they are all self-serving gods.”

So, the one binary we must respect, according to our faith, is “You must choose whom you fear, love and trust above all things. You must choose what will run your life!”

And then there is the end of our reading where Colossians adds, “You have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”

I call this an invitation list because when you clothe yourselves…when you put on a new self…when you are renewed, it’s an occasion for a great party. And who do you invite to this party? You could get all binary and say just straight people who are either male or female, just people who act like me and look like me and vote like me—not those other people. Surely not the barbarians, Scythians, and slaves—they are all the bottom of the heap and to be kept off the invitation list at all costs. Or you could take seriously God’s bottom line, serious, life and death binary. The false and destructive binaries in life are those that tear God’s community apart. Colossians says this kind of greedy, binary living produces anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, and lies.

But the binary that matters says you can put on Christ. Christ made those people. Christ died to redeem those people, and Christ uses those people to complete you.

Who or what runs your life? Whom do you serve? Whom do you fear, love, and trust? There are many grey areas of life. There are many ways in which the best thing is not to think black or white, either-or, but both-and.   But Jesus and Colossians warn us too that there is one binary that we should never let become passé.

A preacher once grabbed my attention when he said, “Most of the time most of us ruin our lives because we don’t love enough to really enjoy God’s love, and we don’t sin enough to really enjoy sin.” I’m convinced that Jesus and Colossians call us to fully embrace this Great Binary—to reject the god’s of selfishness and look around at all those different kinds of people and love one another because Christ is all in all!

For the most part, it is a difficult thing to distinguish where binary thinking hurts and where it helps. But I believe Christ made it possible for us to join him in a great death and resurrection. We can put on the Lord Jesus and see not two kinds of people (us and them) but as an all in all. We can choose to fear, love, and trust the God who gathers.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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1 Response to Pentecost 8 C: One Binary that Matters

  1. Caroline Leean says:

    “You have now died with Christ—died to your old self and your old way of life, and are raised to new life.” And Colossians says it loud and clear. Yes, you have died to your old way of thinking and your old way of life, and you have been raised with Christ to something new. So, don’t go back! Strive for what is above and not what is below. The baptism life is “Either-Or.”

    Thank you for sharing. It is Black or White. We must choose. It’s a daily choice I am making, even though so many just do not see or want to see the Truth. This makes me so sad, and tired… God be with us all… may we hear His Voice, and feel His Presence today, August 1, 2022.

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