The Color Purple

Mark 12: 34-48

Click here to hear the full service.

Click here to hear the sermon only.


Two weeks after Halloween, 2012


My Dear Wormwood,


Again it is my pleasure to write your annual review, you devil you.  No uncle was ever prouder of a nephew than I am of you, Wormwood. Look at the excellent, successful year you have had making devilry among the good people of planet earth.  As chief representative of the fallen angels in this part of the universe, I have a close relationship with the Prince of Darkness Himself, our Father below.  You may rest assured that news of your various nefarious victories will sink to his hellish level.  You have a dark future ahead of you, Wormwood.  Congratulations.


In particular, your work in the United States of America, over the last decade or more, Wormwood, has been nothing short of masterful.  I take my horns off to you, one devil to another, and salute your negativity.  You have kept them fighting among themselves, morning to night, like children in a marketplace, solely sighting their own interests, assured that the one truth they each hold is the only truth in the box.  Excellent, Wormwood, excellent.  I could not have done better myself, even when I wore a younger devil’s tail.  Keep at it, nephew, keep at it, set them one against the other, a man against his own house, rich against poor, red against blue, radical against fundamentalist, personal ethics against social justice, doing against being.  Oh the thrill we have to observe such mayhem!  Good boy.


With this letter, this annual post Halloween performance review, I enclose your official promotion, commendation, and ribbon as sub-demon of the year, with special commendation for inciting needless division.  I bow my horns to you!


Now, Wormwood, it would not do for me, your affection Uncle, Screwtape, Superintendent of demons in the near Milky Way, to let you go without a little avuncular advice.  Call it a little devilish Dutch uncle advice, to keep you on your way.


Down below they celebrate this weekend, remembering those who protected the great hope of a land of the free, and a home of the brave, a community with liberty and justice for all, a place where those who have much might not have too much, and those who have little might not have too little.  They remember their veterans, their self-sacrificing forebears and relatives.  They reflect on those who road the waves of military service, and they do so with grace and affection.  Ouch!  Wormwood, my little devil.  We cannot have this continue.  It cools the fires of hell to hear such loving rhetoric.  So, here are some bits of wisdom, for your future devilry, sent from your affectionate uncle, Screwtape.


Be most careful, Wormwood, not to let any of these groups you have so carefully set upon each other, with daggers drawn, get the idea that wisdom is justified by all her deeds, that wisdom is justified by all her children, that wisdom comes in more than one color.  Make sure the blue stay blue, and the red stay red. Make sure people from Nebraska never talk to people from Rhode Island. Flee the color purple, Wormwood, with its recognition of dialectical thought, its movement toward full truth, its bow before the sin they all share.  Keep them fighting.  Keep the Presbyterians denouncing pride, and forgetting about sloth and falsehood.  Keep the Methodists denouncing sloth, and forgetting about pride and falsehood.  Keep the Lutherans denouncing falsehood, and forgetting about pride and sloth.  Yes.  Excellent.  Purple is dangerous to us.  If the blue start seeing that the red have a point, here and there—your cause is lost.  If the red start seeing that the blue have a point, here and there—your cause is lost.  Keep them shouting at each other, like children in a marketplace, one group wanting to play weddings and another wanting to play funerals, pipes vs. wails, dances vs. weepings. Their Lord really had your number, there, my nephew.  Take the purple out of their crayon boxes.  You want gated communities, the demise of public schools, lines of suburban\urban separation, racial disease and distrust, class separations, ideological fences, and a verbal war of all against all.  Children in the marketplace, as their Savior, said, yes, Wormwood, well done.


Here is an example.  I hear the good hearts of their leaders saying many and caring things about children and the poor, those left out.  Like that poor woman in the Bible, who gave all she had.  Wormwood, this is peril for us!  Be on the qui vive!  If that country ever got behind that idea, and every one had medical care, education, and respect—oh, it worries me.  Keep them pinned down, keep their leaders pinned down, Wormwood, in tragic conflict, in financial red ink, in culture wars.  And be vigilant!  Sometimes they get the idea! I read in one of their papers about an 11 year old Boy Scout lost in the mountains.  (Did you have something to do with that, Wormwood?  Creative move there,  my boy).  But after all astute creative devilry, 3000 searchers looked for four days until they found him!  The lost was found.  That really frosts me.  Oh, the joy they had in it, too.  It frosts my preserves, Wormwood.  It is like the joy a Christian has at bringing a friend, relative, or neighbor to church to experience love.  There is no greater joy!  It makes my blood freeze.  The rescuer said, “I feel relieved and happy.”  Oh Lordy.  That really takes the cake.  See, if they really start watching over one another in love, like that old Englishman John Wesley said, we would be out of business in your part of the hemisphere.


Another example, Wormwood.  We head devils hate to hear about people moving from poverty to well-being.  All this generosity talk—perish the thought!  All this liberty, equality, fraternity palaver—I thought we rid ourselves of that in the 19th century.  My boy, we want a permanent underclass, so that we can then use it to foment revolution.  But this country and its churches, especially those pesky Methodists, have always championed social mobility, like that in the churches of Paul, way back when.  His urban Christians were status inconsistent, and so are the living churches today.  That Paul was a thorn in my flesh, that Apostle to the Gentiles, but we got him at last.  We need to keep people in their place.  I tell you, nephew, it bothers me when I read about a young woman, Della Mae Justice, who was a 15 year old foster child living in a hut with a dirt floor, until her uncle came and found her and took her into his own home.  He was an attorney in Kentucky.  She said it was like little Orphan Annie going to live with the Rockefellers. Listen to this Wormwood, and see if doesn’t freeze your blood:


“It was not easy.  I was shy and socially inept.  For the first time, I could have had the right clothes, but I didn’t have any idea what the right clothes were.  I didn’t know much about the world, and I was always afraid of making the wrong move.  When we had a school trip for chorus we went to a restaurant.  I ordered a club sandwich, but when it came with those toothpicks on either end, I didn’t know how to eat it, so I just sat there, well, staring at it and starving and saying I didn’t feel well.”


Her uncle educated her at Berea College, a school set up especially for hard working, children of the poor who want a fine education.  Now she is an attorney in his firm.  Wormwood!  Be on the lookout!  This kind of story will find its way into a pulpit if it is not snuffed out.  See who have on our side in the newspapers.


A story like that brings a tear to the eye, a warmth to the heart, a willingness to give, even if you only have a widow’s might.  Such gospel is our undoing.  A story like that is your undoing, Wormwood.  Come on my boy, have you begun with flesh to end with the spirit?  You can do better, I mean worse, I mean, well you know what I mean


What would happen down there if this kind of idea, took hold?  You would have middle-aged parents whose own children have grown up adopting others!  Starting new families!  Taking the poor into their homes!  Giving like that poor widow did! You would have adoption outpacing abortion, so that abortion was not only safe, legal and rare, but rare, rare and rare!  You would have liberty and justice!  There would be understanding and space for gay children! Our lost cause would be lost.


Wormwood!  Perish the thought, Wormwood, perish the thought.


And this matter of war.  Good bit of work, there, Wormwood.  Now, if you can just keep the purple crayon out of the box.  My own fear is that there will emerge a consensus across the land on how to fix this problem.  Here is my thought:  keep the blue critics stuck in their anger over things, they judge, should never have happened—that will keep them from facing clearly new situations with resolve, humility, and imagination; and keep the red supporters stuck in defense of past confusions, misinformation and misjudgment—that will keep them from finding the resolve, humility and imagination needed to change course to attend to new duties.  Especially– keep them from talking with each other to find the purple ground—divide and conquer, Wormwood, divide and conquer.  Otherwise they may find a way to gather the will of the nations to bring peace to their world and time.  That would be our purple defeat, the defeat of all our devilry.  Confusion, and miscommunication, and mistrust—these are your best allies, my shrewd nephew.  They must not be allowed to remember history and its lessons.   When Elie Wiesel said two weeks ago, ‘we face the enemy with memory’—Wormwood, he is talking about. Get at that work on weakening memory! You help them forget the lessons of the past.  The last thing on earth the Prince of Darkness (who writes my performance review, as you know) is just, participatory, and stable world community.  Peace abroad would let America would be free, purple crayon in hand, to draw a picture of a nation where all, meaning all, have a place.


Or look at their stumbling around about their country’s budget.  I have to hand it to you, you young devil you, you have even made them forget that to balance a budget you have to raise more and spend less money!  How did you accomplish that?  But now, I hear rumblings, Wormwood.  I have a sad feeling that they will find a way to work together, to compromise, to see the larger picture, to work for the good of the whole—oh, you know how I despise all this sappy, caring, loving, pragmatic, effective public leadership!  How much more savory, and sour, a fiscal cliff!


Let me be blunt, Wormwood.  When you see red and blue talking to each other, get moving!  When you see a red woman and a blue man determined to think together, learn from each other, and work side by side, and they have lunch at a table adorned in purple, burn the restaurant.  We just cannot have that kind of synthesis going on! Thesis, yes.  Antithesis, yes.  But no Synthesis. Red we can stand, blue we can handle.  It is the color purple that is our downfall.  We cannot afford that kind of creativity, new creation, new thinking.  I read that Cornel West and Billy Graham were going to have lunch to talk theology.  That’s what I mean, Wormwood.  Burn that restaurant.


Let me be blunter, Wormwood.  When you see a church, the last place people actually gather if they gather at all, that is both red and blue, and putting on a robe with a purple hue, weaken that church.  A denomination that stands for children, for the poor, for social mobility, for justice, but also for personal morality, financial responsibility, moral strength, individual piety–for Biblical, dialectical thought, not just the thunderbolts from far left and right–drain that saving swamp, Wormwood.  What you have done to the Methodists in the Northeast, eliminating half their membership in a generation, you need to do across the country.


Let me be the bluntest I have been, Wormwood.  I have one specific request, dear nephew.  Keep your eye on that chapel in Boston, Marsh Chapel.  They look purple to me.  They are growing.  They are building.  They are blue and red together.  They love students.  They are learning to tithe.  They are starting to invite.  Work on them, Wormwood.  Make them fear the unknown. Make them tentative.  Make them forget the student programs.  Make them accentuate gender, race, ethnic, class divisions. Make them disagree wherever they can.  Set them on each other, red on blue, blue on red.  I will check your work at our next annual early November, post-Halloween review.


Remember our theme song from William Blake:  When Satan first the black bow bent, and the moral law from the gospel rent, he turned the law into a sword and spilt the blood of mercy’s Lord.

~The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

Leave a Reply