Putting on the Love of Christ

Colossians 3:12-17

All the snow we had this past week reminds me of a story about our first big snowfall seven years ago. Manny was a toddler and Becky had bought him an orange snowsuit to keep him warm as we ventured out, in this, his first winter. Winter actually came late that year, so when it finally snowed, we were anxious to put him in his new outfit and play outside. So, with all the care and tenderness of new parents we “stuffed” him into it. And I do mean “stuffed!” Stuffed to the point that he couldn’t move his arms or legs.orange snowsuit starfish

But the really funny part of this story comes when we put him down outside. You see when we set him down, he fell over backward into a snowbank and was unable to move. He looked like an unhappy orange starfish. Needless to say, we weren’t outside very long.

Paul, in today’s text, also talks about putting on clothes. He lists five qualities or characteristics that are Christ-like: He says, “put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.”  But as we think about putting on these virtues, I wonder if we might feel a little bit like an over-stuffed toddler. I sometimes wonder if he’s inviting us to put on a tee shirt or a snow suit, or a straight-jacket? What do I mean? Well, I think we’re tempted to read these ancient texts and try to “stuff” ourselves into a preconceived message. We might even feel the weight of what it means to let the “word of Christ live in us richly;” a weight that can lead good church folks to live in judgement of others.

And this is a dangerous thing. It’s dangerous because judgementalism can permeate and divide a congregation and lead a church to adopt a position that there’s only one way to live, or to worship, or to interact with the Divine. And ironically, this type of thinking leads people, good well-intentioned people, away from compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience rather than toward it.

Now, this is a challenge for all of us. Sometimes I think we’re tempted to point the finger at others or other churches, but in reality, it’s a challenge for all of us. It’s a challenge because in our humanness we want to be right and we want others to see that we are right, right? But the problem with this way of thinking is that it doesn’t allow for the full richness of Biblical thought to develop and shine forth. In a word, it’s limiting and if we consider only a limited interpretation of the Bible, we may find ourselves “stuffed” into the snowsuit of literalism and we, like the toddler Manny, may find that we’re stuck, like an orange starfish.

But why is this important? Why is a limited perspective of Scripture problematic? What’s wrong, you might ask, with expecting others to believe or behave in ways that conform to what many consider, “the right way.” Well, consider the first line of today’s passage. Paul says, “Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. …And over all these things [over all these things] put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity.”

My friends, when we sit in judgement of others or exclude anyone because of their lifestyle, or religious understanding, or nationality or race, or orientation or gender identity, or for whatever reason; when we exclude anyone, we run the risk of letting our sensitivities overshadow love; the love that Paul says is over all things.

Now, on the other hand, does that mean everything goes? Well, to quote Paul again, “By no means.” In the verses just previous to this one, and all throughout his writings, Paul emphasizes the immoralities and the negative actions we need to “shed” before we can “put-on” love. And that makes perfect sense to me. If I want to be more compassionate in how I think or speak about, …say refugees, for example, perhaps I need to “shed” some of my preconceived ideas about people from south of the border. Maybe I need to turn off or tune out all the harsh and frankly dishonest voices about these refugees and open myself to their humanity and “put-on” the compassion of Christ by putting myself in their shoes and in the shoes of Jesus.

Remember, Jesus was a refugee himself. As a young child he and his parents fled in the dark of the night to Egypt with nothing but the clothes on their backs. So, Jesus had first-hand knowledge of the plight of those who are fleeing from the violence and death of their homeland in Central America. Jesus could identify with the uncertainty and fear that comes as one embarks on a long and dangerous journey, with few provisions, in an attempt to start over again in a strange and foreign land. And Jesus understood, through the experience of his immigrant parents, the courage that it takes for these refuge parents to create a new life for their families and their children here in our nation. Perhaps that’s why we see Jesus welcome the foreigner, love the marginalized and the outcast, and affirm those from other religions over and over again in the gospels.

My friends, Paul’s focus, Christ’s focus, and therefore our focus, should be on creating and maintaining right and loving relationships with the entire human family. Perhaps that’s why our faith calls us to love beyond our borders and to seek solutions to immigration based on these Pauline virtues rather than on fear of the other. Perhaps, if we can overcome fear with love, no more children will have to die on the border.

And this all makes perfect sense as we look at Paul’s writing with a broad understanding.  You see, the negatives or the lists of things we should “shed” are not the focus here – that’s a focus that leads to judgementalism – but rather these lists of “don’ts” are intended to lead us to enact his list of “do’s”; these virtues that he has so carefully laid out for the Church in Colossi.

And this is important. It’s important because in calling for a new way of living, Paul does not emphasize a new set of rules or even a new philosophy of life, but rather Paul understands that we need to change our actions, how we relate to others, in order to effectively change on the inside. This is the transformation that the incarnation of Christ represents. This is the Light that has symbolically come into the world at Christmas. And this is the compassion and kindness, and humility, and gentleness, and patience, and love that we are invited to put-on as we boldly step into a new year.

And while 2019 will most likely be a very challenging year, it also has the potential to be a great one. It can be great if we choose to put on the love of Christ and then share it by loving our neighbors, all our neighbors, those who are like us and those who are very different from us.

My friends, my prayer for each of us in 2019, is that when we find ourselves unable to move, like an orange starfish, that we will “shed” the all the things that keep us from sharing the Love that God intends for all people and that we will instead, “put-on” all the things that lead us in the way of Christ, the way of grace, the way …of love.

My friends, have a happy and blessed New Year.

Amen & Amen.

 

A Walk Through The Garden of Good and Evil

A Devotion for January 2019

“With many other words Peter warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”    – Acts 2:40

In Season three of the Coen Brothers’ series Fargo, the chief villain says that the problem is not that there is evil in the world, rather the problem is the existence of good. “Because,” he says, “otherwise, who would care? United Church of Christ pastor and author Kaji Douša responds to the villain by stating, “That goodness exists is inconvenient to evil which is bent on making no one care. But the existence of good in the world makes us care. And caring is what will save us ‘from this corrupt generation.’”

Welcome to 2019. Ours is a “generation” of single news cycle attention spans, unashamed public bigotry, and a dysfunctional government, bogged down by corruption and scandal; all played out in real time for all to watch. Sometimes it’s almost too much to bear. And if that’s all we see, if that’s all we’re watching, it could easily seem like good has been vanquished from the world. And if that’s true, if good is absent, then we’re in chorus with the villain in saying, “who cares?”

But, here’s the thing. We do care, don’t we? And as long as we care and because we act upon that caring by giving hope to the hopeless, by giving voice to the voiceless, and by loving those whom society considers unlovable; because we care, good is alive and well. We, as people of faith, are called by God to continue to watch and wait, to continue to strive for equality, to continue to bend toward justice; social justice, environmental justice, and economic justice. Perhaps, in 2019, God is challenging our generation to continue to be the church in all these ways and more.

My friends, every journey begins with a single step. Perhaps our first step, or our next step, could be one that sets us on a pathway that will lead us to a time and place where evil is overcome by good, where hate yields to love, and where caring for one’s neighbor become the norm rather than the exception. Perhaps, with God’s help, we will find our way in 2019 and beyond.

I wish you grace and peace in the coming year.

Shalom, Pastor Phil

There’s Always Room for One More

Luke 1:39-55, Third Sunday of Advent

A six-year-old boy named Franklin captured the hearts of an entire church community because he listened to his mother. The story goes like this. Franklin, Franky to his mother and friends, had moved to a new town and began to attend the local UCC congregation. And as a member of the Sunday School Franky was invited to participate in the annual Christmas Program. He was given the part of the Innkeeper. Now, previous to moving to this town and joining this church, Franky had not been a part of any congregation, so the story of the nativity was new to him. Well, the big day arrived, and Franky and the other children were all dressed in their costumes and seated on the floor behind the pulpit awaiting their turn. But when Franky got up to say his one and only line, he paused. “there’s no room in the inn” came an adult voice from off-stage. But still, Franky was silent.  “there’s no room in the inn” this time a little louder. But still nothing from Franky. Now, becoming frantic and growing with frustration, the voice sounded out again, this time very loudly “THERE’S-NO-ROOM-IN-THE-INN” Seconds, which seemed like minutes, passed and still nothing.  But just as the director had decide to move on, Franky spoke. A broad smile had suddenly adorned Franky’s face and in his loudest six-year-old voice he proudly said, “Come on in, there’s always room for one more!” Of course, a roar of laughter came from the congregation and things really went off the rails when Mary and Joseph actually went into the inn, along with the innkeeper and the sheep and the angels and the wise men. Apparently, Christ was born in a warm bed that year. After the program was over however, the director asked Franky why he changed his line. “Because,” was the answer, “Because my mother taught me to share.”

I wonder if Jesus listened to his mother? I wonder if she taught him to share. I ask these questions because there’s a striking similarity between Mary’s song and Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth. In Luke 4:18-19, Jesus begins his ministry with these words:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Now, it seems to me, like Jesus’ understanding of the purpose for his entire ministry is a restatement his mother’s understanding of God’s work in her life. The very essence of his ministry seems to come from Mary. I mean, think about it. Jesus isn’t just making stuff up. He’s giving voice to how he grew up. He’s articulating what he’d been taught; what he’d known this from the beginning. It’s what his mother preached and what she taught him to be. It’s how his mother interpreted Scripture and taught Jesus to interpret Scripture.[I] And this is important. It’s important because this theme of Good News for the poor, of release, recovery, and liberation to those on the outside looking in, serves as a hallmark of this Gospel. Above all else, Luke is concerned about social justice.

But while Mary’s song is a song of justice and liberation, there’s just no way to avoid the fact that there’s a barb in this good news for us here in this room today. And the barb is this. Most of us fall into the category of the “full” and the “rich” who will be sent away hungry and empty-handed, don’t we?[ii]  We’re comfortable, well fed, we have a warm bed in the inn. But Luke presents Mary’s song as a joyful one for those who are lowly, humble and humiliated, the least and the last.  And yet, even here there’s good news; the future Mary looked forward to is a vision of the restoration of the whole human family.  She saw in the birth of her son the establishment of the justice that makes it possible for all people to thrive, to reach their God-given potential, to experience the joy and the vibrancy that God intends for us all.

But take heart. Don’t be discouraged and give away all your stuff just yet. Because what this text means for those of us who are “full” and “rich” is this… the only way for us to sing Mary’s song with the same kind of joy, the joy of the “lowly” being lifted up, is if we actually engage in God’s work of restoration.[iii]  The only way for us to sing Mary’s song with joy and hope is for us to work at lifting up the lowly, filling the hungry, and restoring those who are disenfranchised.[iv] That’s what Jesus came to do; to begin God’s work of making all things new, of setting right the wrongs and lifting the burdens we carry.

That’s why we celebrate Advent and Christmas.  It’s a time for us to focus our attention on God’s work in this broken world. It’s time for us to listen to our mothers and share the blessing we have been given. It’s a time for us to celebrate the work of restoration and healing and salvation that God is carrying out, right now, in the human family; the whole human family.  And it’s a time for us to live-into our faith by joining that work.[v]

My friends, it’s this joyful faith, this Advent faith, that gives us the energy to sustain our love as we join in God’s work of transforming all of creation by making a difference in our corner of the world.[vi]  And it’s a faith, that calls us to open our hearts, and our minds, and perhaps even our homes, and say, to those who have little, “Come on in, there’s always room for one more.”

May it be so.

Amen & Amen.

———————————————————————————–

[i] Karoline Lewis A Merciful Advent (www.workingpreacher.org) 2015

[ii] Cf. Foster, “Mary’s Hymn,” 458: “even though Mary has been often ‘regarded as the comforter of the disturbed, she [or at least her song] is far more accurately the disturber of the comfortable’” (quoting Doris Donnelly).

[iii] Cf. Stephen Shoemaker, God Stories, 217-18: “There are only two ways you can enter the kingdom and experience its joy. One is to be among the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted; those to whom God comes as healing, comfort, justice, and freedom. The other way is to be among God’s people who are going to the poor, oppressed, bruised, blind, and brokenhearted and bringing God’s healing, comfort, justice, and freedom.”

[iv] Cf. Letty M. Russell, “God’s Great Reversal,” The Christian Century (Nov. 20, 1991): 1089.  She says, “God’s great reversal may come too close to home as we hear that Christmas is about lifting up the ‘lowly,’ filling ‘the hungry with good things’ and ‘sending the rich away empty.’ Yet it is by joining in their desire and work for deliverance that we find out the meaning of the good news of great joy.”

[v] Allen Bream (www.thewakingdreamer.org) 2015

[vi] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 338: “Faith can expend itself in the pain of love, …, because it is upheld by the assurance of hope in the resurrection of the dead.

 

Made Ready

Luke 3:1-6, Second Sunday of Advent, Peace.

The world around us is decorated for Christmas. Stores, communities and individual homes are beautifully covered with lights and tinsel and colors of all sort. And many of us have begun to prepare our homes and the church for the approaching holiday by adding touches of seasonal beauty; candles and greens, and nativity scenes.

But sometimes I fear we spend so much time on these preparations that we might miss the enjoyment or even the deeper meaning behind them. And before we know it, Christmas is over leaving us both tired and relieved. But at the same time, we might also wonder, “What was this all about, anyway?”

Well, all I can say to that is thank God for Advent. Advent is about preparing the way for the Christ Child to come into our homes, our community; indeed, into the whole world to, hopefully, change our hearts and lives.

And this is an important point to remember in this season; Jesus didn’t come for just you and me, but for the whole world. Luke makes that universal reach of the gospel quite clear: the good news isn’t the church’s little secret and it isn’t my private possession or privilege: it’s for all of God’s children. Not just one people or one kind of people, or one nation, or one time in history, but for all of us, every nation, and every age. And it’s not just good news; it’s really big news for all of us, today, just as it was two thousand years ago.

So, bearing this in mind, how do we, as a community of faith, prepare for the Advent of the Christ-child for all the world once again? Well, I would say by immersing ourselves in a different kind of beauty: a quieter, more reflective time, a time of shadows and light, one more candle on the wreath lit each week…the haunting melody of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” running beneath our reflections, and stories of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah, of Mary and Elizabeth, Zechariah, all of whom speak passionately, eloquently, of God’s salvation breaking into the world, delivering “the whole world” making us a whole and holy people.

And yet. There are no beautiful canticles from Mary or Zechariah in today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke, no visit from the angel Gabriel promising the birth of a Savior, not even the child leaping for joy in Elizabeth’s womb.

No, in this second week of Advent we actually hear from Elizabeth’s child, John the Baptist, much later on, now a grown man bursting onto the scene from out of the wilderness, a man on a mission from God. But this time, instead of leaping for joy, John announces the time of God’s reign on earth by proclaiming a preparational message of a different sort: one that says we all had better get ready for what’s coming.[i]

In today’s text, John calledfor people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives.” Change our hearts and lives. The more traditional theological word is repentance. We are called upon by John to repent, which literally means “to turn and move in another direction,” by asking God for forgiveness for our transgressions. But that’s not all. John continues, later in this passage, to challenge us to “bear the fruit” of our changed of hearts and lives.

But what might that look like?

Well, the crowds that were with him wondered about that too. Later in Chapter 3 they ask him, “What should we do?” And John gave them this answer: “Whoever has two shirts must share one of them with someone who has none, and whoever has food must do the same.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized. They asked, “Teacher, what should we do? John replied, “Collect no more than you’re authorized to collect.” Some soldiers were also there, and they asked, “What about us? What should we do?” The Baptist answered, “Don’t cheat or harass anyone, be satisfied with your pay.”

So, what’s really going on here. Well, this passage is finally concerned about Justice. John is saying in essence, if you want to bear the fruit of your baptism you must engage in just practices. Share your stuff, make sure your neighbor has clothing and food. And if you want to bear good fruit as a society, don’t take more than your own share. Don’t extort money or bully someone who’s weaker. So, what John is offering us here goes much deeper than we might have first imagined.

The author of this passage, Luke, is primarily concerned about the poor, the marginalized, those on the outside looking in.  In Bible Study, we call this an insider/outsider theme. And I suspect that this might be the dominate theme, the thread that connects all of Luke’s Gospel. And these early chapters and verses seem to bear out my suspicion as Luke sets the stage for what’s to come.

What do I mean? Well, consider the progression of the text. Everything moves outward like a ripple effect. You know, when you throw a stone in calm pool of water producing ripples that expand in all directions. That’s the image that comes to mind when I think about the progression of this passage. John says, first change your heart, clean up what’s on the inside and then begin to look outward, changing your life, changing the way in which you interact with the world. In other words, drop the first stone in here and from here, the ripple effect of your changed heart will expand outward changing the lives of others.

How do we do that? Well again, John says, if your neighbor is without a shirt, if your neighbor is hungry, take care of them.  But to bear the fruit of change doesn’t stop there.  You must also challenge the systems that caused your neighbor to be hungry and shirtless.  Archbishop Desmond Tutu said it this way, “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.”

Maybe that’s why Luke ties John’s message in the wilderness to historical events. Remember in the beginning of this passage Luke says, “In the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilot was governor” …and so on. He’s making these connections so that we will view the Baptist’s teachings as history, as real-life events and words. And thus, our response to the story should also be “real-life;” a real-life transformation of our hearts and lives, right here, in this world. Luke wants us to do a little bit of good where ever we are; because, as the Archbishop says, “it’s those little bits of good – when put together – that overwhelm the world.”

My friends, as we continue to live into this Season of Beauty and Light, may we too take the time to look for and then do those little bits of good for our neighbor; the neighbor across the road and the one across the globe. And if we do that, if we begin to change our hearts and lives, as the Baptist suggests, perhaps the world will begin to move, if just a little bit, closer to peace.

In this Season of Advent, on this Sunday of Peace, my hope and prayer is that it will be so. Amen & amen.

[i] Katheryn Matthews Sound of a Promise Kept (www.ucc.org/samuel) 2018