Sermon: PENTECOST 5, July 14th, 2019
In the Name…
It’s always interesting cleaning up after services. You’d be surprised the things you find. Sometimes, pocket change has rolled out behind the pew cushions. Not a fortune, mind you, but enough to confuse the tellers who have to add, say, a few cents to what was a tidy whole dollar deposit. Sometimes, interesting artwork is left behind, gracing bulletins, visitor cards, or other loose paper surfaces.
In one congregation, I recall a piece of paper was found which contained these words. “If we weren’t in church, I’d kill you.”
Now, we don’t know the context behind this statement. What exactly was going on in that pew? But, that such a note could be written during a time of worship makes you wonder how the conversation continued outside in the car park.
Well, much of the context behind the words just read from the Letter to the Colossians is likewise missing for us. Certainly, St. Paul gives us clues that all was not well with those folks. It seems that certain religious practices helped them feel spiritual and holy, but, these didn’t seem to carry over into their everyday life or affect how they behaved to each other.
Oh, dear! Could that sound familiar? After all, we gather on Sundays to feel spiritual and holy. And, it can bother, or amuse, us to hear that someone was writing less than charitable words during this special time. But, have there not also been occasions, for all of us, when we have gone through the worship motions without letting the worship spirit sink in?
That was the case, we think, with those people in Colossae. Of course, we need to remember that in the Ancient World, pagan religion was all about ceremonies - not morals, ethics or, even, spirituality. It would be easy for Gentile converts to slip into considering their Sunday experience as just another religious routine.
So, Paul writes to them to get them to refocus and back on track. He writes to remind them that there is more to being a Christian than just ceremonies and words. He writes to remind them just who they are and what that should mean for them. And, we can benefit from that reminder, as well.
Back in the 1970’s, one of the most popular books was Alex Haley’s “Roots.” Millions read it. Millions more watched the TV mini-series. And, it was recently remade. At its core is the whole question of identity. Who am I? In Haley’s case, it was a question he addressed by telling the story of his ancestors, his family.
And, that is the very point Paul makes today. He opens his letter by identifying himself. He says that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus and he then goes on to identify his readers as faithful brothers and sisters in Christ. This is how Paul thought of the church and how he wanted the Colossians to think of each other – as a family.
Now, I’m sure we’ve all heard this image before. Church is a family. But, this was a completely new concept in the Ancient World and it took some getting used to. I mean, just think about the language implications of that image. Even we, for example, often say, “I’m going to church” just as we say, “I’m going to the movies” or some other event. But, do we say, “I’m going to family” the same way? No. I don’t think so. We may go to visit family, but “family” itself is not an event. “Family” is something of which we are a part.
Now, families have events – just as churches have Sunday worship. But, belonging in a family comes from the fact that someone is a son or a daughter or a brother or a sister or whatever, and, I think this is one major thing we need to reset in our understanding of church. When people are new to our church, well, any church, they often want to know what they have to “do” to belong, and we tend to suggest how they can “get involved.”
Well, we certainly do have things that need attention and various ministries in which we can participate, but, maybe we need to start – new and old alike – by understanding that one of the best things that any of us can do, is just “be.” Be comfortable recognizing that being part of the church is based on the simple fact that we share a relationship with Jesus and each other.
Later on, we can take a look at how we can contribute to the mission of Jesus in and through our particular congregation, but, we shouldn’t start there. Because, in a healthy family, members freely and willingly give of themselves to the others in the family because they want to – not because they feel they have to.
In an unhealthy family, members only take and don’t give, or give only under duress. The same is true with church.
I’ll share a story here. I once had someone join my church who had been very active for years in another place. This person had left them over some really obscure quarrel with something some bishop in some distant part of the world had done or said and I couldn’t figure out how this could cause someone to suddenly decamp after so many years. But, much later, all was revealed.
It turned out that this person had been running a particular ministry for a while and just wanted to retire from it, but, felt so much pressure, that the only way to step back was to walk out. The issue with the overseas prelate was contrived so this person could do that without offending anyone local. Not a healthy situation.
On the other hand, a healthy church is like a healthy family, where the members are fed, nurtured and encouraged to grow so that they can, in turn, feed, nurture and encourage others. Where service follows from love, not requirement. In today’s Gospel, the Samaritan did what he did because he felt compassion, not because anyone expected it of him. On the other hand, the people who might have been expected to feel compassion ignored the situation.
There's a poem by Robert Frost in which a man and a woman are on the porch of their farmhouse talking about an old hired hand who had returned that day and gone to sleep in the barn. The couple are talking about whether or not the old man had a home he could have gone to, and then they start talking about what it means to have a home. The man says: "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." The woman says, "I should have called it something you somehow haven't to deserve."
A good definition. Home is the place where you receive a love and acceptance you don't have to earn. That might define family, as well.
The Colossians needed to learn something new. We just need to be reminded of something old. Church as family is about relationships. Not so much what we do, but, who we are. So, let’s consider who we are and who we think everybody else is.
In the Name…