Livin' La Vida Loca

Colossians 2:6-15
© Stacey Steck

For those of you fortunate enough to have missed Latino pop music superstar Ricky Martin’s humongous turn of the century hit song, “Livin’ La Vida Loca,” allow me to bring you up to speed. The song describes the gravitational pull of the singer’s love interest, mostly in lyrics a tad too risqué for your average worship service. It is safe to say however, that she is a woman who can entice him to do things he would not ordinarily do, including, and I quote, “make you live her crazy life,” thus giving meaning to the song’s Spanglish title, vida meaning life and loca meaning crazy or wild. La Vida Loca: the wild and crazy life. Now, I didn’t bring the band, but if you’ll help me out, I could be convinced to sing you the lyrics of the refrain. Are you ready? Here we go: “Upside inside out, Livin’ la Vida loca. She’ll push and pull you down. Livin’ la Vida loca. Her lips are devil red and her skin’s the color mocha. She will wear you out. Livin’ la Vida loca.” Incidentally, members of the clergy are looking forward to the parody version of the song which describes their life in the church and is tentatively entitled, “Livin’ la Vida Broke-a.”

There are some passages of Scripture which, upon first reading or hearing, seem more like a painfully impacted wisdom tooth than a wild and crazy party. They are so dense with words and concepts and images that they quickly become confusing and run the risk of becoming meaningless. Today’s reading from Colossians is one such passage. It starts off simply enough with a nice exhortation to continue to lives our lives in Jesus, grounded in him and built up on his foundation. But then we are brought into a whirlwind full of tricky terms and ancient images: philosophy, and we’re not talking about trees falling in uninhabited woods; human tradition, and not we’re not talking about roasting turkey at Thanksgiving; Elemental spirits of the universe? Are those the ones on the bottom of the periodic table of the elements I never learned in Chemistry class? And then we move on to loaded theological phrases like “fullness of deity,” and “circumcised with a spiritual circumcision,” both of which sound more painful than liberating. Then Paul brings in the baptism language and the dying and rising in Christ and being made alive even though we were “dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of the flesh.” And then Paul throws in some legal and accounting and political images for good measure. All this may have made perfect sense to the church at Colossae when they heard it for the first time but we are a long way from fully understanding everything that is going on here. There are roughly 1.3 sermons for each of those things I just mentioned and so a complete explanation of all the parts must wait for another day. However, a summary would look something like this:

This part of the letter to the Colossians, addresses a different kind of gravitational pull than the one experienced by our lover boy Ricky Martin, this one the pull of ideas about religion that do not match the revelation of Jesus Christ that Paul has received. It seems that there were those who were teaching that something more than Christ was necessary, that Christ was but one part of a system of knowledge required to transcend the physical world, that Christ neatly fit into the rest of a system of belief that carried the day in that part of the world. The specifics are lost to us but we may surmise that pseudo-philosophies and empty deceit and human traditions and elemental spirits of the universe are threatening to sidetrack the church at Colossae from continuing to live their lives in Christ, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith. Paul is preaching the radical sufficiency of Christ alone, Christ above all, Christ the head of every ruler or authority, Christ the firstborn of creation (and your heart!), Christ the foundational wisdom of the world. No other wisdom can compare, no other wisdom is required, no other wisdom is worth following, for they all pale in comparison. Watch out, Paul warns, lest these competing interests take you captive, literally, lest they kidnap you from the truth, by trying to convince you that anyone other than Christ has anything to offer.

And Paul puts his advice into Easter language, the language of the church, the language of circumcision and baptism and resurrection. He reminds them that “God made you alive together with him,” as a result of the forgiveness brought through Christ. Paul offers these reminders and these warnings as the way to help them “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

What Paul was asking was no easy task. His was a new faith, a foreign faith, a minor faith, a religious system fundamentally at odds with the whole way religious systems were understood. You just didn’t have exclusive religions in the Roman Empire. So the pressure on these new converts must have been tremendous: “Whaddya mean you can’t come over to Aphrodite’s temple after church? Everybody else does it!” “Whaddya mean ‘Sagittarius with Scorpio rising’ just doesn’t work for you anymore? This is the Roman Empire buddy, lighten up!” This, my friends, was the path to martyrdom, to lions in the coliseum, to upside down crucifixions.

I always have misgivings about equating situations in the first century Roman Empire with contemporary situations, and it is difficult to do considering how little we actually know about what Paul was arguing against, but I do think it is safe to say that present day Christians face a host of challenges that make it tough to hold fast the faith. We may have separated the philosophy department from the religious studies department, we may have collected our tradition in a book called the Bible, and we may have relegated horoscopes to the same page of the newspaper as the comics, but we remain people of faith confronted by ideas held by others, and challenged to remain rooted in Jesus Christ. We face temptations of money and time and power, idols all. We face messages of hate and systems of injustice. We are wearied by the weight of the world and we look for a way to escape the daily grind. Which brings us back to Ricky Martin and Livin’ la vida loca, his crazy life, his wild life.

If we did a word association exercise using the phrase “the wild life,” most of us would not be thinking squirrels and acorns. I suspect that most of us would probably equate “the wild life” with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon. I also suspect that in some of our more honest moments, we have all longed for a little more of these qualities. But quite frankly, we generally shun them because these are words that often have sensual connotations. Indeed, that is the sense in which this famous song understands the wild and crazy life: with devil red lips and mocha colored skin, the temptress is leading him on a sensual adventure through the streets of New York City. Hardly the kind of life the apostle Paul would recommend to us.

But what would happen if we played the word association game with the phrase “the Christian life?” Would we still make an association with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, with activities in which someone besides ourselves is involved? Somehow I think these are not the first words which pop into our minds. We are more likely to bring forth a different, milder set of words like self-control, kindness, humility, and compassion, great words all of them, but lacking some of the verve of the set we are willing to give to Ricky Martin. Well, shame on us if we are willing to let Madison Avenue and Hollywood have all the best words in the English language. Shame on us if we are not willing to claim for ourselves a vocabulary that rightfully belongs to us! Shame on us if we limit ourselves in our thinking of what the life of faith is all about!

In vivid images that unfortunately have lost a little in the translation, Paul gives the church a glimpse of la vida loca, a life radically transformed by its encounter with Christ. It is a life no longer held hostage by what is neither eternal nor loving; a life no longer fearing death, but made alive in baptism; a life liberated from sin. Listen again to these crucial words of the apostle: “When you were dead in trespasses, God made you alive together with him.” God made you alive together with Jesus Christ. That, my friends, is a life to be associated with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, and with activities in which we certainly want to be involved!

What I want you to know is that Livin’ La Vida Loca is daring to accept that Christ alone is worthy to be followed. Livin’ la vida loca is living like we really believe this stuff and that we are transformed, that we are unafraid to express our faith in public, that we are not afraid to be seen worshipping God instead of ourselves, or being in a group that cares for people different than ourselves, or offering ultimate allegiance not to the television, not to the family, not to the nation or the flag, but to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. You and I both know that this is harder than it looks. We get it from all sides. La vida loca is not always an easy life, but it is a rewarding life and the one to which God has called us.

Many of you know that I worked in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program for women. It was a residential program for pregnant women and I had the unhappy task of being the food service coordinator in a place where eating was about the only thing you had to look forward to at the end of a long day of emotionally grueling treatment. To my chagrin, I learned that quiche is not among the favored comfort foods of pregnant crack addicts in recovery. At any rate, it so happened that the kitchen was right next to the group room where daily therapy groups took place. These were often heated affairs with a whole lot of yellin’ and cussin’ and cryin,’ but also a whole lot of healing and transformation. One day the pest control technician was making his rounds in the kitchen and heard some of the more volatile goings-on in the other room and asked me about it. Apparently he missed the point of my explanation about the liberating value of group therapy because he launched into a diatribe against overly emotional women and began to relate a very unfortunate, but to him very amusing, story. He told me about a time that a friend and his wife were having and argument in his presence during which the wife had become quite upset. She was crying and screaming and finally the husband had enough and he beat her so badly that she could only lay on the floor asking our bug man for help. Then he told me, in a voice both nonchalant and vaguely proud, that he walked over to her, looked down upon her whimpering, and then kicked her himself just for being so pathetic. “Isn’t that funny,” he said to me, looking I suppose, for a moment of male bonding. And so I put down the chef’s knife I was holding, and I said, “Actually, I don’t find violence against women amusing at all and I think you are a sick individual who really needs to get some help.” And then I escorted him out of my kitchen and to the front door, and I didn’t worry at all if it hit him as it swung shut behind him. It took only one phone call to his employer to earn us a very cheerful and genuinely kind man to keep us free from pests thereafter.

I can assure you that this encounter would have turned out quite differently had my faith not played a role. For one, I might not have put down that chef’s knife. But more importantly, I doubt I would have had the courage to say what I did, and honestly, I might even have found it as “funny” as he did. I report this story not so that you will pat me on the back for standing up against injustice, but to demonstrate that living the Christian life is Livin’ la vida loca, filled with passion and adventure, with a release from inhibition, with daring and abandon, and with activities in which we would never imagine being involved had we not been buried with Christ in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God.

Obviously, I have related to you a rather dramatic story, and I suspect that some of you have had something similar take place in your lives. But if you haven’t, don’t think for a minute your life isn’t loca enough, because loca isn’t just about finding passion and adventure, release from inhibition, daring and abandon, and doing things we never thought ourselves capable of, but also about finding authentic life in the more mundane everyday situations as we try to exercise self-control, kindness, humility, and compassion. And so if la vida loca doesn’t describe good parenting, I don’t know what does. If it doesn’t describe a good employee, I’ve never read a better job description. If it doesn’t describe a good friend, nothing will. It might describe teenagers a little too well, but I guess that goes with the territory. In all these cases, it is the grace of God in Jesus Christ which makes it possible for us to be and do all these things. Neither philosophy, nor empty deceit, human tradition or elemental spirits of the universe can give us that grace — only Christ, for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily and you and I have come to fullness, to a vida loca, in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority, every idea, every moment of time. Friends, “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving and livin’ la vida loca!” May God grant us the strength and courage to do that and more, in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen.