The Color Purple

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1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14

Ephesians 5:15-20

John 6:51-58

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(The form of today’s sermon is borrowed from the work of CS Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, although today’s preacher does not share Lewis’s fuller theology, nor does he believe in a literal devil or devils.) 

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, given 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.

         In particular, your work in the United States of America, Wormwood, has been nothing short of masterful. I take my horns off to you, one devil to another, and salute your destructivity.  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, the only crayon 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, a house divided, rich against poor, red against blue, radical against fundamentalist, communist against tea partier, personal ethics against social justice, doing against being.  Oh the thrill we have to observe such needless hurt!  Good boy.  With this letter I enclose your official promotion, commendation, and ribbon as demon of the year, with special commendation for inciting divisive discord, in particular in the ‘lower forty eight’.  Wormwood—you devil you!

         Now, Wormwood, it would not do for me, your affectionate 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 are considering this year, this fall in major proportion, 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.  Ouch!  It cools the fires of hell to hear such loving rhetoric.  Here are some bits of wisdom, Wormwood my dear nephew, 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 Solomon’s idea that wisdom comes from the humility of service, that wisdom is justified by 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.  Flee the color purple, Wormwood, with its recognition of dialectical thought, its movement toward full truth, its bow before the sin all share, its willingness to learn the painful lesson of humility within a time of humiliation.  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, Wormwood.  If the blue start seeing that the red have a point, here and there, or at least that real change is real hard and takes real work in real time including actually showing up at the polls on voting day—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.  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.  Tweet by tweet by tweet.  Children in the marketplace, as their Savior, said, yes, Wormwood, well done.

         And keep them discouraged in defeat.  When they lose make sure they lose hope too.  I am worried about far sighted, eloquent, hopeful leaders, like that Mario Cuomo a generation ago.  Remember when he got defeated?   But on the night of his defeat, remember what he said: “I come from a religion where the whole symbol of the religion ended in condemnation and crucifixion. But that wasn’t the measure of the experience…That’s just the way it ended…This is a metaphor for everybody’s life, that it is in the living…that you make your mark.  Sometimes you win.  Sometimes you lose”.   The meaning of life is in the living of life (E Fromm).

         Here is an example.  I hear the good heart, the Solomonic heart and mind, of some of their leaders saying something about children, about the need for education and health care for all children and young adults, across the land, through age 21.    Wormwood, this is peril for us!  Be on the qui vive!  If that country ever got behind that idea, and every child had medical care, education, respect—oh, it worries me.  Why, the natural aristocracy as Ortega called it, would come to the surface.  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!  You remember, many years ago, how that 11 year old Boy Scout, Brennan Hawkins, was lost for a month in the Utah mountains, and 3000 searchers looked for four days until they found him!  The lost was found.  Oh, the joy they had in it, too.  It is like the joy a Christian has at bringing a friend, relative, neighbor to church to experience love and faith.  There is no greater joy!  It makes my devil’s blood freeze.  The rescuer said, “I feel relieved and happy.”  Oh Lordy.  See, if they really meant it, if they really chose to live with hope against hope, hoping for what they do not see, and waiting for it with patience, we would be out of business in your part of the hemisphere.  And business has been so good, of late!

         Another example, Wormwood. We head devils hate to hear about people moving from poverty to well-being.  We want a permanent underclass, so that we can then use it to foment division.  We want a few of the people to have almost all the money.  Excellent.  But this country and its churches, especially the 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.  They are vibrant, they are diverse.  Take that Chapel down in Boston there, not far from you, Wormwood, you devil you.  Marsh Chapel. They are of many colors and hues and shapes and backgrounds.  They resemble the globe on a Sunday.  They know—AND THEY LIVE—the universal gospel of the living bread, come down from heaven, with whom to be in communion is eternal life.  Oooh, that bothers me Wormwood, to hear such preaching, that ongoing incessant acclamation of a word of faith in pastoral voice toward a common hope. It is irritating! It really frosts my preserves. See what you can do to keep people from listening on the radio, or, worse, horror of horrors, showing up in worship.  Those Marsh Chapel people are like that Paul of Tarsus, a thorn in MY flesh, that Apostle to the Gentiles, but we got him at last, remember? 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, listen to what she said, 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 somebody’s pulpit, into to some sermon some Sunday,  if it is not snuffed out.  See who have on our side in the newspapers, and work on it.  

Or, look at this matter of the ‘Queen of Soul’. When one young woman grows up in the church, her dad a preacher, and then she starts singing, and she has a voice from, you know, up there–heaven…pretty soon all those divisions we worked so hard to set up start melting: gospel against rock, jazz against R and B, spirituality against sensuality, and pretty soon have the ‘Queen of Soul’ whose music is universally loved.  I mean it Wormwood, purple can be a sound as well as a color as well as a voice as well as a word.  Keep them all divided up if you can, and get that purple crayon out of their  national, their existential crayon box.  Purple means good hope for a good future.  Get rid of it nephew, Wormwood, you devil you.

Confusion, miscommunication, mistrust—these are your best allies, my shrewd nephew.  And there, I must compliment you:  you have done so much to them through technology and they have hardly caught up 10%;  they have hardly any idea!  But be careful.  Over time they could catch on. They must not be allowed to remember the lessons of the past.  Like that Solomon and his wise, measured understanding. Or that author of Ephesians talking about personal, communal balance and discipline, that ‘keep calm carry on’ malarky. Or, especially, that Fourth Gospel, ever announcing the hope of the presence of the divine.  The last thing on earth our Fearless Leader, the Prince of Darkness, wants is a hope of planetary peace.  Then people would be free, purple crayon in hand, to draw a picture of a nation and a world that can work, measured by the condition of the least, the last, and the lost.

Let me be blunt, Wormwood. 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, close that 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. We can’t have Bob Gates defending John Brennan, on the basis of what is true, right, hopeful and just.  That Gates, that Texas Methodist, always out there doing good for others, now in business, here at a college, there in the defense department–with the red and then the blue, then fixing the Boy Scouts mistake about gays, then, here he is again, supporting John Brennan over against emerging authoritarianism.  Purple, Gates is purple to the core. Beware that kind of person, Wormwood.  That is purple and that is our peril, Wormwood, you devil you.

 Let me be blunter, Wormwood. When you see a church, one of the last places 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, for Biblical, dialectical thought, not just the thunderbolts from far left and right–drain that swamp.  What you have done to the Methodists in the Northeast, eliminating half their membership in a generation, you need to do across the country. Get them so worked up with each other that they just can’t work together.  Have them so entirely invested in resistance that they have no energy, or imagination, or voice, for restoration.  Restoration, that is the purple hope, the purple trouble, the purple hue. Make them angry, not hopeful.  Keep them angry, not hopeful.

I have one specific request, dear nephew.  Keep your eye on that chapel in Boston.  You know, the one on Commonwealth Avenue.  They are growing.  They are building.  They are liberal and yet they are blue and red together.  They love children.  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 their outreach to students, their welcome to faculty, their mission work and children’s programs.  Make them accentuate divisions, all divisions, gender, race, ethnicity, orientation, class –sweet divisions, sweet divisions. Make them disagree wherever they can.  I will check your work at our Halloween review.  Halloween—what a fitting, a good time for us to be together, Wormwood.

I send you best wishes for all that is predatory and mendacious, nephew.  Remember my theme song, your Uncle Screwtape’s favorite, stolen from Blake, our shared theme song:  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.

And put your horns, pitch fork and tail into it, Wormwood, you devil you. Hold back that Solmonic wisdom: I am only a little child, and I do not know how to come out or go in.  Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to discern between good and evil.  Hold back that teaching from Ephesians: Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil…sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves.  Hold back that Gospel promise in John:  I am the living bread that came down from heaven.  Whoever eats of this bread will live foreverWhoever eats of this bread will live foreverWhoever eats of this bread will live forever

– The Reverend Doctor, Robert Allan Hill, Dean.

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