I don’t know about you, but by this time in the year I am sick of lists. I’ve made lists of things to clean, presents to buy, groceries I need, beds to make, dietary needs and favorite foods. And that’s just preparing for family to join me for Christmas. ESPN has the top ten sports plays of the year, and the not top ten plays of the year, fashion websites and channels have the top ten best and worst outfits, the news stations give us the top ten stories of the year, barbara walters has done her special on the most fascinating people of 2012, TIME magazine adorned a new person of the year. All retrospectives looking back on what has past, while at the same time preparing us for what is to come. Here is what happened, they say to us, wasn’t it amazing? The unspoken challenge for us is “can you top this?” Could you dunk a basketball or make a diving catch or wear a better dress than any of these people?
We don’t know what the next year will hold, but there will be other catches, other stumbles, and other fascinating people. These lists seem especially to challenge us as we are in the midst of the annual resolution making frenzy. Have you made a resolution? Have you decided that this, THIS is the year you will lose 10 pounds, eat 100% healthy, quit smoking, stop drinking, read more, sleep more, be less stressed out. Or does making resolutions like this stress you out? lead you to eat poorly, engage in less than healthy behaviors and lose sleep?
I told someone I was preaching the Sunday following Christmas and she said, ah, the “Christmas has happened, now what” sermon. Almost like these retrospectives and resolutions, we’ve seen what the past year had to offer, celebrated various events and now we keep going. What does the next year hold? What do the people of God do in the days, weeks and months after celebrating the birth Jesus?
The New Testament lectionary passages today were the Colossians passage you just heard, and the Luke passage that is alluded to on the cover of the bulletin. I moved away from Luke because it felt so rushed. With images Jesus swaddled in the manger still on my mind, jumping to his youth today seemed so fast. And the more I thought about the passages and the more I looked at the Colossians passage, the more I liked it.
In my preaching and worship class at seminary our professor told us that there were certain events that were not on the liturgical calendar, but that we had best pay attention to. Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, all important non-liturgucal events you had better preach on. New Years Eve or New Years Day did not make that list, but it’s so omnipresent in our culture that it’s hard to avoid. There are movies made about it, people have parties, each year we see if we can stay up to watch the ball drop. Whether or not you enjoy the particular ritual, it seems to be here to stay. And in a lot of interesting ways the placement of this particular passage, this ancient letter, fits right in with our modern day celebration.
In this letter, and in our portion of it especially, we are given a list of sorts. Directions on how we are to be with one another. Historians tell us that the town of Colossae was small and unimportant. The community there one that Paul had never visited himself, and yet this letter to that community is here in our canon. Of all the teachings and letters that were circulated, this is one that stuck with us.
Paul had many occasions to address the early Christians. They were making their way in the world and trying to figure out who they were and how to live out that identity. I think that we can tend to take a short view of these folks, we forget how unsettling it can be to be constantly finding your way. We have the bible, various commentaries on the bible, devotional books, daily devotion emails and countless other websites, radio stations and printed books that can help us. If we sit down and look at a situation and need guidance on how to solve the problem, we have a plethora of options that will point us to the “official” Christian, or Presbyterian, response. And yet we still fall short.
These early Christians didn’t have quite that much. They had each other, they had the ancient stories, they had stories about Christ and his disciples, and they had teachers and evangelizers, and over and over they got it wrong. They were new at being a community, even newer at being a Christian community, and as we all know things like community have growing pains.
I worked as a resident assistant for three years when I was in college, and every year we had training before the students showed up. We would sit around and talk about how to make our hallway or floor into a welcoming community for the residents who would arriving. How to deal with homesickness, and to recognize when someone was having a more serious emotional problem, we would talk about programs we could give and things that folks might like to do as an alternative to the party culture that seems to exist in every school. And every year we would look at a poster that gave us ideas on “how to build a community”. The list was a bit long and was geared toward people who were living in a neighborhood, but there were lots of great things on there. Working together, helping each other out, learning from your elders, being inspired by the youth, sharing, giving, creating. It is a plan for a community that is alive and thriving.
It is probably a list that the community in Colossae could have used, but they have their own list. In this letter Paul tells them what they need to do to be a community. Clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love. Bear with one another, forgive one another, be thankful, dwell in the peace of Christ, praise God, and act, always, in the name of the Lord.
I was reading a commentary on Colossians and came across this insight into Paul’s list. William Barclay says “It is most significant to note that every one of the graces listed has to do with personal relationships between man and man. There is no mention of virtues like efficiency or cleverneess, not even of diligence or industry- not that these things are unimportant. But the great basic Christian virtues are those which govern human relationships. Christianity is a community. It has on its divine side the amazing gift of peace with God and on its human side the triumphant solution of the problem of living together.” As this community grew together and learned to live together, this advice attempts to help them. Barclay is spot on when he points out that they have to be in relationship with each other and that is the foundation of their entire community.
There have been countless instances in our nations history when we are clearly going through the growing pains of becoming a community. Becoming an independant country, ending slavery, civil rights, women’s rights, immigration issues- all of these are issues that impact our ability to be a community, and that can impact our ability to be a Christian community.
The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. talked a lot about how we could live together. As he fought for the shackles of oppression to be taken from the African American population, he gave us a vision for a community where all people would be equal and where we would be judged, as he famously said, by the content of our character and not the color of our skin. This vision went far beyond a society where all races could live together. Doctor King spoke often of the beloved community, of a place where we truly would love our neighbors and our enemies. He said that it would be the result of the nonviolent resistance movement. That there would be reconciliation and understanding. He said “Our goal is to create a beloved community and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” I posted this quote on my facebook page when I found it, thinking that it was something good to share. Something to remind us that if we’re unhappy the way things are, that we can make things better and that this is what it might take. Some people, I think, agreed with me giving it the little thumbs up “like”, but one friend from seminary commented on it and said that “we fear change”. This struck me as being quite cynical, but when I thought more about it I realized how right she was.
As we make our resolutions, what we’re really doing is committing to change. We’re evaluating our lives and figuring out where we fall short and we’re saying ‘this is what we’ll change’. It is no secret that the vast majority of people who make new years resolutions fail. They keep it up for a week or two, but then they go back to doing whatever it was they thought they’d fix.
Change is hard. It’s unknown. It’s a risk. There’s a saying that “if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” Change blows that out of the water.
This community at Colossae is trying to change. They are trying to make a beloved community and with that means they are living this attempt at qualitative and quantitative change. I don’t pretend to know all of what Doctor King wanted when he spoke about the beloved community, but I think that we have a chance to create our own beloved communities. As we gather to worship we hear the word of God, we hear how we are to live together and how we are to be a community together. If we were to accomplish what Paul sets out for us in this letter, surely that would be a beloved community.
In our end of the year retrospectives, let us also look at our lives through the lens of this letter. Are we clothing ourselves with compassion, kindness, meekness and patience? Are we treating ourselves and others as if we are the beloved and holy children of God? Are we acting in Love, doing it all in Christ’s name?
If we take a few minutes to look at the news I think we can safely say that this isn’t happening everywhere. Less than two weeks before Christmas the country, perhaps even the world, was rocked by the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. People lose their lives everyday due to arguments, or unsafe living conditions, or lack of clean water or nutrients that would keep them alive. If we look at the global landscape it can be overwhelming. How can we help people who need clean water, affordable housing, or access to basic medical care? I am one person. How can I make a difference?
After college I spent two years serving in the AmeriCorps. I worked in elementary and middle schools, on Habitat for Humanity builds, on trails in national parks, and with community members who were committed to making their neighborhood a better place. While working on Habitat for Humanity houses in Miami, Florida our team came head to head with the enormity of this problem. We were building houses in a really bad part of the city. We were working in Overtown, a neighborhood that at one point was called “Little Broadway” . During the time of segregation it was a haven for African American entertainers. There were musicians and artists, life was thriving and everyone wanted to be there to see what was being created. And then the city put in a highway. The neighborhood was no longer as desireable, people left and the only folks who stayed were those who couldn’t afford to go anywhere else. Drugs, prostitution, and crime were rampant. When we showed up, Habitat was part of a movement to reclaim that neighborhood. Landmarks were being restored and we were building houses and putting caring, passionate, dedicated homeowners in them. It was hard for us. The neighborhood was still very much in transition as we worked. We helped on one house that was right next door to the neighborhood crack house. Almost every morning we would see people roll out of bed, come onto their porch and start smoking marijuana. One morning we had to knock the used hypodermic needles off the port o potty so we could go in to use the bathroom. In the midst of all this pain and suffering, this destruction and chaos, we were trying to bring light. To help change the neighborhood for the better, and hopefully inspire those who lived there to change their lives too. There was a woman who lived in this neighborhood and every day she would go out and sweep the stairs of her building and then start sweeping the street. All she had was a regular broom that you or I have sitting in our kitchen, but she took to the streets and swept. Knowing that she lived in a rough place, but having pride in that place and wanting it, despite its difficulties, to look its best. These habitat families and this long standing community member are trying to make their bit of the beloved community right there in South Florida.
It is this hope that emerges from the chaos of everyday life that I find to be comforting. In the aftermath of natural disasters like Super Storm Sandy, or tragedies like a mass shooting, there is always some amount of hope. There is always some glimpse of Doctor King’s beloved community, or of the type of behavior that Paul tells us we need to be engaging in. After the Newtown tragedy there was a Mister Rogers quote all over the internet, perhaps you saw it, he said “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” These people that his mother told him to look for, who are there helping people in times of need, are people who are truly living as Paul has suggested. They are clothed in love. Treating their brothers and sisters as holy and beloved children of God. They are acting in the name of Jesus, bringing his love and the love of God to all those who have need.
And it doesn’t have to be a drastic situation to find people who need help and those willing to offer it. We can find helpers in every community. A neighbor who helps shovel your sidewalk, the church member who brings you food when a loved one dies, the friend who listens when things are bad and celebrates with you when things are good. These people are all clothed in the love of Christ. We have just celebrated Christmas, indeed we are still in Christmas as we wait for the wise men to travel to the Holy family. We are reminded of our savior, glad that he was given to us, and encouraged to renew our efforts to live as he taught us. The birth of Jesus gives us our identity, and the scriptures give us purpose. If we all lived our lives seeking to love each other, to forgive and be forgiven, to hold the word of Christ in our heart and let it guide our every thought and deed, there is no question that this world would be a better place. It can be hard to feel like you’re making a difference. That creating a christian community here in Pine Grove Mills could affect people all around the globe. But if we live as we are called to live, and love the way we are called to love, then those feelings are contagious. Our lives become a witness to Christ, a testimony to the very good news that God has given us. What Paul is telling the people of Colossee, an insignificant community in a small town, is that this matters. That it matters in the world and to the world that you clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. He is saying that it will be hard, and you might misstep along the way, but that it is worth it and it is what God has called us to. From the largest, most popular community to the smallest and seemingly insignificant one. We are all called to be the people of God in the world. Living and loving and striving to do good in his name.
Pastoral prayer, followed by the Lord’s prayer:
Loving Creator, We thank you for the opportunity to come together to worship you today. In this season of miracles we give thanks for your son Jesus and for the life that he lived and the sacrifice he made. We give thanks for warm houses in a world where so many go cold. For food on the table when so many go hungry. For clean water and indoor plumbing in a world where neither can always be counted on. We recognize that we are blessed beyond measure, and we beg your forgiveness when we do not recognize that. We pray for those we know who are fighting illness. May they feel your loving hand surround them. For those who are grieving, may they know your peace and feel your presence with them. For those struggling with issues and problems that we do not know, we pray that your voice will be heard and your will made known to them. We pray for all those who have a difficult time over the holidays. Whether they are separated from loved ones, are struggling with changing circumstances, or are just unhappy, may they know they are cared for and loved. We pray for those brave men and women who spend so much time away from their families while serving our country. We pray that they know your presence and that they are brought safely home to those who love and miss them. We pray for our country as we deal with the aftermath of mass shootings- give us your peace. We pray for our politicians and our political system- may it stop being a wedge to divide us, and instead be a way to unite us. We pray for this church, may it continue to nurture people on their faith journey. We pray for all those joys and concerns that are on our hearts and minds this morning. You know what they are and what they need. May we feel your peaceful, loving presence this morning as we join our voices with our brothers and sisters across space and time praying the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying, Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.