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.
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.