Hats At The Dinner Table

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This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Teer Hardy about the readings for the 1st Sunday After Christmas (1 Samuel 2.18-20, 22-26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3.12-17, Luke 2.41-52). Teer is the associate pastor of Mt. Olivet UMC in Arlington, VA, and is part of the Crackers & Grape Juice Team. Our conversation covers a range of topics including life after Christmas, conscripted youth groups, dressing for the job your parents want you to have, praise vs. gratitude, shout outs to DBB, the people who give church a bad name, SNL, education models, and the imagination of children. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Hats At The Dinner Table

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Not My President

 

Colossians 1.11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.

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A year ago today I stood in this pulpit and preached about how God’s kingdom is not of this world. I used Pilate’s interrogation of Jesus (“Are you the King of the Jews?” “You say that I am…”) to juxtapose the world’s expectations against God’s expectations. The sermon ended with a staccato’d refrain that emphasized the kingship of Jesus and our allegiance to his kingdom.

I said:

The world tells us to gain all we can.

            Jesus tells us to give all we can.

            The world tells us to seek vengeance.

            Jesus tells us to seek forgiveness.

            The world tells us to destroy our enemies.

            Jesus tells us to love our enemies.

            The world tells us we are the center of the universe.

            Jesus tells us that God is the center of all things.

            The world tells us to ignore the weak.

            Jesus tells us that the meek shall inherit the earth.

            The world tells us that death is the end.

            Jesus tells us that death is the beginning.

I didn’t think it at the time, but it was a pretty political sermon. After all, making the claim that Christ is our King is a political statement. But what I didn’t anticipate was how the words from that sermon would play out over the next 365 days.

We’re told not to mix politics with religion. Political opinions and religious beliefs are supposed to be kept in the private sphere, they are things we can think about on our own time but the world has no right to interfere with either.

Except the world interferes with both all the time. We hear about things like the Christian Coalition, and the need for Christians to take back the Supreme Court, and I even get emails asking about what the church is going to do regarding local school board decisions.

We hear that the church is not supposed to be political. We shouldn’t endorse particular candidates or platforms. We shouldn’t tell people how to vote, or even to vote at all. The church can’t be political in the sense that it can’t be Republican or Democrat, but the church itself is a politic. To be part of the church, to be part of the body of Christ, implies that our worldview is changed and therefore everything else changes as well.

Like many Sundays throughout the liturgical year, this one has a special focus and significance. However, Christ the King Sunday is a more recent addition to the Christian calendar. Whereas Christians have celebrated the likes of Maundy Thursday and Pentecost for a long time, Christ the King was only established as official day in the church in 1925. It took the church 1900 years to need this day the same way that we need it now.

In 1925, Mussolini had been head of Italy for 3 years, a loud insurrectionist in Germany named Hitler had been out of jail for a year and his Nazi party was rapidly growing in power, and the entire world was suffering under the weight of a Great Depression.

Yet, despite the rise of autocratic dictators, despite the lack of economic opportunities, despite the strange and uncomfortable silence between two World Wars, Christ the King asserted, and still does, that Jesus Christ is Lord and he shall reign forever and ever.

Throughout the last Christian year from Christ the King to Christ the King, we’ve read from Genesis to Revelation, we’ve encountered the living God in the stories from Creation to Redemption, we’ve been transformed by the Word of the God becoming incarnate in the way we live our lives…. And all of this, all of the Sundays, all of the sermons, all of the scriptures, have pointed to one thing: Jesus Christ is Lord.

That’s the thing about Christians, for us everything starts and ends with Jesus. In his letters Paul addresses this strange and beautiful quality of Jesus over and over again. And rather than trying to accommodate Jesus to the ways of the world, Paul calls for all Christians to put Christ first. Yet, Christ is the King of a Kingdom that is so different, and so far from what we’re comfortable with, that putting Jesus first is difficult.

In Jesus’ kingdom the rules and the ruler are different. All assumptions about what is important, and who we are to be, and what we are to care about, have been changed.

It’s like being deported to a strange new land where everyone else is speaking a strange language. It takes time to learn the lingo, and adapt to the habits of the people around us. It’s not a simple matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking, nor is it just giving an hour of our week to worship in a church. We don’t fit Jesus into our lives; Jesus fits us into his.

We are the ones transferred, moved, and deported from one kingdom to another. We move from the kingdom of consumption to the kingdom of communion; from the kingdom of popularity to the kingdom of poverty; from the kingdom of destruction to the kingdom of deliverance; from the kingdom of competition to the kingdom of cooperation.

Everything about what we think we know and understand changes in the kingdom of God, because Christ is King.

USA ELECTION AFTERMATH

The last two weeks have been particularly tumultuous in our country: Economically disenfranchised people are fearful about the potential of losing their health care coverage, while some devastated Democrats are calling for the murder of Donald Trump. Muslims are being threatened with a registration much like the Jews were forced to register in Germany prior to World War II, while Trump voters are being physically assaulted across the national landscape. Immigrants are cowering in fear over whether or not they’re going to be deported, while countless protestors are flooding the streets of cities and the pages of social media with the declaration: Not My President.

Some are berating and demeaning the crowds for their rejection of Donald Trump as their president as if this is the first time people have rejected the president-elect in the United States. It was only sixteen years ago that tee-shirts and bumper stickers were mass produced with pictures of George W. Bush accompanied by the words: Not My President. It was only 8 years ago that Confederate flags were waved during protests after Barack Obama won the election and people were chanting: Not My President.

Thank God Jesus is not our president.

For if Jesus were our president we would have had to pick him to lead us, and we never would have picked him to lead us. We would never willingly elect someone who told us that the first will be last and the last will be first. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to sell all of our possessions and give the proceeds to the poor. We would never willingly elect someone who told us to open up all the borders and let all the refugees in. We would never willingly elect someone who spent so much time with the riff-raff of society.

If Jesus were our president he would be a product of the world rather than a product of God’s incarnation. He would have to make promises to the rich in order to maintain economic stability. He would have to compromise with other world leaders who treat their citizens like dirt. He would have to second-guess the stories he told out of fear that he would not be re-elected in the future.

If Jesus were our president he would have to make us promises that he could never keep, instead of being the glue that keeps all of us together. He would have to take sides in political debates and ostracize entire communities. He would have to brag about the stability of the union rather than name the brokenness that is keeping us from becoming who God is actually calling us to be. He would have to order the extermination of particular individuals and communities in order to keep our country safe.

Thank God Jesus is not our president. Jesus is our King. And instead of electing him, he elected us.

The kingdom Jesus rules is not of this world and it forces us to confront how broken our world really is. Jesus, as our king, subverts the powers and principalities and shows us a new way.

In this broken and flawed world, we see and know God because we see and know Jesus. Jesus is the image of the invisible, the very beginning of everything in creation. Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

When we encounter things that appear diametrically opposed, things like Republicans and Democrats, Christ is the glue that holds it all together. Through the blood of his death, the blood that was poured out for the world, we encounter the “other” as brother and the “stranger” as “sister.” All the worldly things that seek to divide us are broken down by the glory of the cross that seeks to bring peace and reconciliation rather than division and destruction.

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It is not an easy thing to be a Christian, to worship Christ as King. We need the strength of God to endure everything with patience while giving thanks to the Father, because we cannot do discipleship on our own. But when Christ becomes first in our lives, when every Sunday is like Christ the King Sunday, when we realize that we a part of a strange new kingdom, everything else starts to change.

Our King does not build walls to keep people out, nor does our king require the registration of different communities under the auspices of “safety.” Our King invites all to the table to discover the power and love of his grace.

Our King does not call for his followers to take up the sword to wipe out political opposition. Our King forgave the people who delivered him to the cross.

Our King does not pander to us with empty promises in order to procure our allegiance. Our King meets us where we are with a simple invitation saying, “follow me.”

Nearly 100 years ago, Christians all across the world needed the first Christ the King Sunday. They needed a Sunday set apart to reflect on how the Lordship of Christ outshines even the most powerful of dictators and the most devastating of depressions.

Today, we need it just as much. We need Christ the King Sunday because it helps to remind us that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. It forces us to confront the strange reality of our King being nailed to a cross for the people of his kingdom. It reminds us that peace comes through his sacrifice, a sacrifice that we remember at this table.

Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, but be transformed by the bread and the cup at the Lord’s Table. Instead of consuming the politics and priorities of the world, be consumed by the grace of God made manifest is Jesus Christ. Reject the powers and principalities that seek to undo God’s creation, and kneel before the true King: Jesus Christ. Amen.

On Homosexuality

Leviticus 20.13

If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.

Colossians 3.12-15

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.

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Preachers can fall into the rut of preaching on whatever keeps the congregation pleased; keep them happy and they’ll keep coming back, or something like that. This sermon series has been different. Instead of falling back to the familiar narratives that keep us smiling on our way out of the sanctuary, we have confronted some of the greatest controversies facing the church. There is a better than good chance that I have said something from this pulpit during the series that you don’t agree with, and I am thankful for the vulnerability and honesty that has been present in our conversations following worship. We can only grow as Christians in community, and that requires some honesty and humility and dialogue. Today we conclude the series with the topic of Homosexuality.

 

When someone rings the doorbell at St. John’s, you can hear it throughout the entire building. More often than not our wonderful church secretary will answer the door with a smile on her face and direct the person to their particular destination. We regularly have people down on their luck knock on our door looking for a little bit of financial help, sometimes we have people in the midst of a crisis who want to speak with a pastor, and every once in a while we have someone who is just interested in learning more about the church.

A couple months ago I was sitting in my office working diligently when the doorbell rang. I listened for the echoes down the hallway to discern what kind of interaction I was about to have when the secretary called my office and said, “Someone needs to talk to you.”

The visitor was an older woman, recently to Staunton, dressed to the nines with a gold cross hanging across her neck. When she offered her hand in order to introduce herself she had a subtle grandmotherly smell about her that immediately elicited visions of old books with tattered dust covers, prescription pill dispensers, and Vicks VapoRub.

She said, “I’m a United Methodist.”

            I said, “How wonderful, so am I.”

            She said, “I’m new to town, and I was just driving by and saw the sign out front and I thought I’d like to know more about the church.”

For the next thirty minutes we sat in the front pews of the sanctuary and I gave her the elongated elevator speech about St. John’s UMC. I pointed to the particularly pertinent aspects of our Christian architecture here in the sanctuary. I shared with her about the hilarity and joy of our Preschool that meets in the basement. I offered her reflective stories about the intellect of our Circle group of youth who are regularly more faithful than their pastor. I talked about our lectionary bible study that meets on Thursdays and how they contribute more to the sermon on Sunday mornings than they get credit for. And then I started to tell her about how we worship, how we let the Lord speak to us through scripture, hymns, prayers, and even sometimes the sermon.

When she asked about our attendance and giving, I proudly proclaimed our Sunday average and told her that we are about to pay our apportionments in full for the third year in a row. When she asked about the kind of people who participate in the life of the church, I told her the truth: that on Sunday mornings this placed is filled with the most beautiful and brilliant people Staunton has to offer.

For thirty minutes we discussed the ins and outs of the church, and for thirty minutes I watched her fall in love with the descriptions I shared. With every anecdote and short story I could see her seeing herself becoming a vital part of our worshipping community. Honestly, it was one of the best conversations I’ve had in a while and when it ended she said that she was eager and excited to join us in worship on Sunday morning.

We shook hands and said goodbye, but right before she made it to the door she turned around and said, “Just one more question… What do you think we should do about the gays?”

            Without hesitation I said, “I think we should love them.”

            “Well then,” she said with a sigh, “I won’t be coming back.”

Human sexuality, and in particular homosexuality, is one of the most polarizing issues in the United Methodist Church today. Like all of the controversies we have confronted over the last month and a half, it requires a tremendous amount of vulnerability and patience whenever it is discussed.

The controversy regarding homosexuality and the church is made manifest in a number of ways. For many, like the woman I met in the sanctuary, it is the defining question that determines whether someone joins a church or not. That specific conversation is not the only time I have been asked about the church’s stance on homosexuality in the middle of a conversation about joining or participating in the life of the church. In fact, during my second week at St. John’s, I received a phone call from the Newsleader inquiring whether or not I, as the pastor, offer sessions to counsel individuals out of their gayness. Which is to say, our local newspaper wanted to know if I could turn a homosexual into a heterosexual.

            But beyond church participation and local media questions, the controversy is one at the heart of what it means to wrestle with being a Christian today.

The United Methodist Church has a governing document called The Book of Discipline that is edited and republished every four years. In it we receive our organizational structure, the means by which individuals can become ordained clergy, and a host of other relevant church matters. In that book you can find the following statement regarding homosexuality: “The United Methodist Church does not condone the practice of homosexuality and considers the practice incompatible with Christian teaching.”

The language in the Book of Discipline about the incompatibility of homosexuality has led the church to also assert that any bishop, clergy member, or local pastor may be tried (as in a church trial) when charged with the following offenses: being a self-avowed practicing homosexual; or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same sex wedding ceremonies.

So, to summarize, according to the United Methodist Church to be gay is to be incompatible with Christian teaching; you cannot be a clergy person if you are in a gay relationship, and clergy can be punished for marrying a gay couple.

When it comes to the bible, the witness of scripture is explicit regarding homosexuality. In Leviticus, God proclaims that anyone engaged in homosexual behavior is an abomination and should be put to death. In Paul’s letters, the sin of homosexuality is listed along the likes of envy, murder, deceit, gossip, slander, and faithlessness.

It is no wonder, therefore, that the United Methodist Church has taken the stance it has, and that many a preacher proclaim the incapability of homosexuality from the pulpits in the churches they serve.

At this point, I could point out that the few texts that do speak about homosexuality in scripture have been overly emphasized again and again whereas other biblically prohibited behaviors are tolerated. For instance, some of us like to eat shellfish, some of us have tattoos on our bodies, and some us have let our hair become unkempt (all worth punishment in scripture).

Or I could talk about how our country guarantees the rights of its citizens to not be discriminated against because of their sexuality, and how it has affirmed the constitutional right of its gay citizens to be married.

Or I could mention how many scientists and geneticists believe that one’s sexual identity is not a choice and is instead fundamentally wired into who they are through a particular gene.

Or I could bring up the fact that God, rather than condemning the marginalized and calling them incompatible, commands us to go to those on the fringes of society to be present with and for them.

Or I could make mention of the fact that Jesus [remember him?] says absolutely nothing about homosexuality in any of the four gospels.

But I won’t talk about that.

            Instead, I want to talk about repentance. Not the repentance the church thinks someone from the LGBTQ community should confess because of their identity. But the repentance the church desperately needs for singling out a particular community and denigrating them for decades.

175 years ago, many pastors across the United States preached sermons from their pulpits about how the bible reveals a divine sanction of slavery. There are plenty of verses in the Old and New Testaments that seem to affirm the subjugation of one people by another. We, as a church, were wrong.

60 years ago, many churches across the United States believed that scripture makes it clear that white churches should remain white. There are scriptures in the Old and New Testaments that can be interpreted to proclaim that society needs to be segregated and that birds of a different feather are not supposed to flock together. We, as a church, were wrong.

50 years ago, and still today, many Christians throughout the country believe that a literal reading of the bible makes plain God’s design for women to be submissive toward men. There are verses from the Old and New Testaments that can be understood to advocate for women to not have the same rights as men. We, as a church, were wrong.

And for all the wrongs we have committed, we confess and repent. We look back on the days long gone and shake our heads about how foolish we once were. We dig up old dusty sermons and can’t believe that a pastor would be so filled with hatred to single out a particular group of people and label them as property, or unworthy, or subordinate, or incompatible. We see the scars that are still very present in our society because of what the church once believed and for that we pray for God’s forgiveness.

            And we need to do it again today.

For too long, the church has abused its power to dominate and condemn particular people out of fear and bigotry. Pastors all across this land use pulpits like this one to isolate the LGBTQ community and tell them they are incompatible, they have no worth, and they have no value.

            Can you imagine what it would feel like to bravely take a step in faith to attend a Sunday worship service at a church only to hear that you are incompatible with Christian teaching?

Can you picture the pain and agony that would come if you felt God calling you to ordained ministry and the church said you’re wrong because of who you are?

Can you imagine the anger that would percolate inside you if you found someone you wanted to spend the rest of your life with and the church told you it would not be a part of your wedding?

If we’re honest, our answer is probably “no, we can’t imagine.” We can’t imagine what it would be like because we sit comfortably in our ivory towers of heteronormativity, assuming that the world would be a better place if other people looked like us, thought like us, and acted like us. But the beautiful and wonderful diversity of humanity is part of God’s divinely created order, and it is one that we foolishly try to fix on a regular basis.

Months ago, a woman wandered into this sanctuary to ask about the church, but what she really wanted to know was what we should do about the LGBTQ community. In her question, and response, I experienced the fear and loathing that is fundamentally disconnected from the love and grace and mercy of the living God. And I wish could go back and change my answer. Not because the answer I gave her was wrong, but there’s a better one.

“What do you think we should do about the gays?”

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, we are to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We are supposed to bear with one another and forgive each other just as the Lord has forgiven us. Above all, we are called to clothe ourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

If can’t agree that the least we can do is love them, then we have no business calling ourselves Christians.

What Are You Wearing?

Colossians 3.12-17

As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called to be one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

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Worshipping so close to Christmas Day is a challenge. Christmas Eve: I love it. The way families come out, the perfect color-coordinated outfits, and we get a ton of people who never come to church. But the crowd on the Sunday after Christmas, you all, you make it tough. You are the real deal. You are the ones who love the light of Christmas Eve but recognize that you need the companionship of other Christians to hold you accountable in between Christmas Eve and Easter. You expect to hear uplifting sermons on Christmas Eve, but you also want to hear about the challenges of living a faithful life. You don’t want the watered-down stuff. You want the authentic discipleship.

Francis Asbury, depicted in this stained glass window to my right, also felt the challenge of preaching on this side of Christmas. In his journal entry from Christmas day in 1788, while making his way through the wilds of Virginia, he wrote: “I preached in the open house at Fairfield on Isaiah 9.6. I felt warm in speaking; but there was an offensive smell of rum among the people.”

From up here in the pulpit I certainly can’t smell rum on your breath, but I can smell all the Christmas food filling up all your Tupperware in the fridge, the ripped wrapping paper stuffed in trash bags, and all of the new clothes and gifts you received. Friends, you stink of Christmas.

Worshipping so close to Christmas day is a challenge. While we are still flying high on all the gifts we opened and gave, while we are admiring all the new clothes we get to wear, God still call us together to hear the Word.

One of my good friends and preaching colleagues is a man by the name of Jason Micheli. He served as a mentor for my faith while I was growing up, and even presided over Lindsey’s and my wedding. Years ago he wanted to preach a sermon that involved a number of props up by the altar. The church had three services on Sunday morning so he would have to preach it three times in a row. The sermon had to do with the fact that all people are invited to feast at God’s communion table, so Jason had set up a variety of different looking dining room chairs around the altar. The point being that no matter who you are, what you’ve done, or what you look like, you are invited.

However, during the sermon, Jason wanted to lift up specific chairs and move them around the altar to get the message to really sink in. At the 8:30am service, while wearing his long white robe and carrying a chair up the steps, he stepped on the front part of his robe and nearly fell straight on his face in front of the whole congregation.

For the 9:30 and 11 o’clock services he made the decision to ditch the robe for fear of actually falling and making a fool of himself during the sermon. So during the final two services he said the same words, lifted the same chairs, made the same points, but did so without a robe.

Like all pastors, Jason heard the kind of generic compliments and critiques that are often expressed in the narthex following worship. “Good sermon” or “You gave us a lot to think about” or “Nice weather today.” But none of the comments prepared him for what happened next.

Over the following days and weeks, Jason received a considerable number of anonymous complaints from church members about the fact that he did not wear a robe during worship. He wasn’t trying to make some point, or go contemporary, or purposely upset people. He just didn’t want to fall down and get hurt. But instead of going to him directly to express their opinion, anonymous notes were left under his door, members went to lay-leaders with their frustrations, and some even bypassed the local church and went straight to the bishop to complain. The situation became so intense so fast that Jason actually received a phone call from the bishop about the fact that he was not wearing a robe in church.

Want to know a secret? God’s doesn’t care what we wear to church.

God couldn’t care less about what we have adorned on ourselves when we gather in this place. So long as we are wearing something, God is content. Yet, we put so much emphasis on the clothing and appearance of one another.

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On Christmas Eve, mere days ago, a time when the church is filled to the brim, I received more comments about the Christmas colored pants I was wearing than anything else. Before and after the service that’s what I heard about.

And it’s not isolated to Christmas Eve. Week after week I overhear seemingly innocent comments from some of you, “Can you believe what she wore to church this week?” or “How can she let him out of the house looking like that?” And two years ago, when I was invited to preach at Central UMC during Lent I wore a pair of Carhart Coveralls in the pulpit. To this day I still run into people in Staunton who remember what I wore far more than what I said. And if I’m honest, I judge on outward appearance as well. Whenever I’m driving through our town, or even when I’m up here in the pulpit, I catch myself making judgments about how other people look.

How strange that we judge on outward appearance, while God cares about the content of our character.

Paul wrote to the church in Colossae about how to dress properly. Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint about someone else, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.

This Christian work regarding our behavioral and spiritual clothing is tough. We are called to bear with one another, forgive one another, and be bound to one another. This kind of work and effort is not for the faint of heart. This passage is not advice on how to avoid conflict. This passage is not telling us to put on a happy face and smile. This passage is not Paul’s version of accentuate the positive.

This text is about what to do when the real emotional brawls break out in our lives.

When the earliest Christians were baptized, they were told to strip off their clothes before entering the baptismal waters, and then were given new clothes in their new life. The clothes themselves were nothing special, but the whole act was to signify an entirely new way of being and relating to others.

When they stepped foot out of the water they were making a covenant to be clothed with the virtues of Christ: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. They embarked on the difficult practice of bearing with one another and the ultimate challenge of forgiveness. They started on a path on striving to live like Jesus in the world.

God does not care about what we wear to church, but is instead concerned with the way we dress our souls.

We can wear all the right Christian clothes, we can wear clergy collars or robes, we can adorn ourselves with shirts that came from a mission trip, or we can wear the biggest crosses you’ve ever seen around our necks, but until we are clothed with the behavior and compassion of Jesus, all the clothes remain meaningless.

Col.-3.12

To be well dressed with Christ is to live in harmony with others. Not just letting other people get away with their behavior and smiling absent-mindedly in response. Not just letting frustrations percolate for years. Not just ignoring people who are different than us.

To be well dressed with Christ is to actually forgive others, actually live our lives with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. To be well dressed with Christ is to be clothed with love.

The days after Christmas are always interesting. Worshipping so close to Christmas is obviously a challenge and exemplifies the depth of discipleship. But in our day-to-day lives, the days following Christmas can bring out the worst in us. The joy of presents can be replaced with thoughts of the other things we wanted. The excitement of the family getting together can be replaced with the old arguments and fights. The hope of a baby born in a manger to save the world can be replaced with the scream and tears of our children coming down from a sugar-rush.

Yet, here we are. In the shadow of Christmas trees we gather to remember the light that shines in the darkness. While people rejoice with their new material gifts and possessions we give thanks for the gift of Christ that endures forever. As the marketed desires of the world turn to the next big holiday, we remember that every day is a gift.

We are challenged by the words of Paul today. Paul calls us to act, speak, and behave like Christ. While the world spins and focuses elsewhere, we are pushed to live like the baby born in the manger.

When we wake up every morning, if we do so with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience we will be living according to the ways of the one born in Bethlehem, the one who walked and talked in Galilee, hung on a cross for you and me, and rose three days later magnificently. Amen.

The Image of the Invisible – Sermon on Colossians 1.15-28

Colossians 1.15-28

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. And you who were once estranged and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his fleshly body through death, so as to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him – provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven. I, Paul, became a servant of this gospel. I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. I became its servant according to God’s commission that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone is all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me.

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A few years ago, I was with a group of people from Northern Virginia who regularly traveled into Washington D.C. to help serve food to the homeless with a group called Sunday Suppers. The team would gather together on a Sunday afternoon, prepare countless bag lunches and a large dinner and then travel into the city. The point of the mission was not so much just to provide food for the hungry, but everywhere we stopped we would set up tables so that all of us could sit and eat together.

I had gone on a few of these Sunday evening adventures, and had even gotten to the point where I recognized a few of the “regulars” and knew them by name. On one particularly cold December evening, I was with a group of youth serving food near a metro station when I struck up a conversation with one of the “regulars” named Charles and a church member who was on his first Sunday Suppers trip. Charles stood there in front of us with his hands outstretched waiting for food, his ripped navy sport-coat showed years of ware, and his curly grey and black hair was billowing outside of his knit cap. “I really appreciate this,” he said, “but you Christian types always come out around Christmas and Easter. The people out here, we have more food than we know what to do with, but where are you in July? You might not realize it, but that’s when we need you to come. I’m with these people everyday, and I know what they need.”

I was distracted for the rest of the evening. I kept thinking about how happy and pleased I was with our missional activities, and how quickly those feelings disappeared after I had talked with Charles. It wasn’t until the ride home that the young boy who I had been standing with talked to me. He was looking down at his knees when he finally began to speak: “Sometimes we feel like we’re being Jesus for people, bringing them food, sitting and eating with them. I guess it makes us feel good. But tonight, I felt like Charles was being Jesus for us.”

The gospel is for all people and all minds. Throughout the book of Acts and the epistles Paul is notorious for using the contexts of particular people to help illuminate the glory of Jesus Christ. For the Colossians, he bends to their philosophical speculations to demonstrate the importance of Christ for the world. He searches for a point of contact and then pushes there again and again until the fullness of God in Christ permeates throughout their common understanding. For the Colossians Paul relates Christ to their Natural Theology, presenting God’s unique revelation of himself in Christ in the categories of thought with which they are familiar. He exalts Christ in terms that they would understand. This is how he spread the Good News throughout the Mediterranean.

Throughout the history of the Church we have similarly tried to rediscover who Christ is for particular times and places. Pastors, preachers, and prophets have used many names and adjectives corresponding with peoples’ understandings. Jesus has been referred to as “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful, The Rabbi, The Turning Point of History, The Light of the Gentiles, The King of Kings, The Cosmic Christ, The Son of Man, The True Image, The Crucified One, The Monk Who Rules the World, The Bridegroom of the Soul, The Divine Human, The Universal Man, The Mirror of the Eternal, The Prince of Peace, The Teacher of Common Sense, The Poet of the Spirit, The Liberator, The Man Who Belongs to the World” (Chapter Titles from Jaroslav Pelikan’s Jesus Through the Centuries).

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John Henry Newton, the Anglican priest who wrote Amazing Grace, also tried to convey this searching for appropriate descriptors through one of his hymns:

“Jesus, my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,

My Prophet, Priest, King,

My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,

Accept the praise I bring.”

We, like Paul, have continuously adapted Jesus to terms, ideas, and images acceptable to particular peoples and cultures. This has been an incredibly important element of the Christian message as we have made the Gospel approachable from many different places. And though we should continue to make the bible relevant for those outside the church, we have fallen prey to our own self-righteousness and sin. Like the group that night serving food to the homeless in DC, we often think that Jesus is walking along with us, that we are bringing Jesus to people, when in fact we should be following him because he is already there.

We always try to make Jesus look just like us. Each successive period in Christian history has found its own thoughts in Jesus, which was one of the only ways to make him live, but we have continuously created him in accordance with our own desires, hopes, and character. We don’t realize it, but most of the times we think we find Jesus, its like we are looking into the bottom of a well – all we’re really seeing is a faint reflection of ourselves.

Just look around our church, you can find all sorts of images of Jesus. Jesus with blonde hair and blue eyes, Jesus with slight stubble, and Jesus with a full-blown beard. I’ve seen pictures of Jesus wearing a black leather jacket standing in front of an American flag. I’ve seen images of an African American Jesus working in the fields in Pre-Civil War America. I’ve seen Jesus in jeans and a flannel shirt cutting down trees. I’ve even seen Jesus in a business suit speaking with clients.

All of these portrayals are important. They get at the heart of Jesus being Emmanuel: “God with us.” They help to adapt Jesus to a particular culture and set of people, making him and his message relevant for the masses. However, when we use all these different images of “God with us,” We cannot forget that Jesus’ identity begins with God.

Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the first born of all creation, fully God and fully human. In Jesus all things in heaven and on earth were created, things both visible and invisible. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. For in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things. He is the image of the invisible God, the word for image in Greek is εἰκών, meaning likeness or a representation. Jesus in not merely a picture of God but contains God’s likeness: literally divine.

The letter to the church in Colossae contains all sorts of information necessary for the people to align themselves with the Lord. Paul uses the language of natural theology for them, he adapts Jesus to their culture, but he is unwilling to separate the identity of Christ from almighty God. Jesus is the image of the invisible God. The letter to the Hebrews also tells us: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever. Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace” (Heb. 13.8-9). Jesus is God with us, made incarnate to all people, but we must remember that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in order to reconcile himself to all things; the same yesterday, today and for ever.

This past week I spent two days on a retreat at the Conference Center in Blackstone Virginia. I gathered with all of the other provisional candidates from our Annual Conference as we discussed our journeys of faith and the future of the church. There were clergy present from all over the state of Virginia, some young, some old, some newly Christian, and some Christian since birth. We gather twice every year to help maintain our connectional system while working together for the future of God’s kingdom. Our Bishop, Young Jin Cho, opened our time together with a service of worship and preached to us about following Jesus. He talked about the story when Mary and Joseph had accidentally left Jesus at the Temple in Jerusalem. Mary must have been moving along, assuming that Jesus was walking right with her, and then she discovered that he was missing. She had to completely turn around until she realized that she had left without him. Bishop Cho encouraged us to continually ask ourselves these questions: Are we walking and hoping that Jesus approves what we’re doing, or are we following him? Have we turned ourselves back to the Lord like Mary? Or are we wandering around the desert? He concluded by stating: “Without spiritual disciplines in the church there can be no discipleship, without spiritual disciplines we will not be able to follow Jesus.”

Bishop’s Cho thoughts are relevant for us this morning as we consider Jesus being the image of the invisible God. We need to ask ourselves. Are we almost Christians? Do we live our lives in such a way that we assume and hope that Jesus is on board with us? Do we imagine that Jesus looks just like us, talks like us, thinks like us? Do we believe that God would be proud of the way we live our lives?

Or are we truly Christian? Do we recognize that while Jesus is just like us, he is also totally unlike us? Do we follow behind Jesus letting him lead us? Do we love him with all of our heart soul mind and strength? Are we willing to allow ourselves to recognize that Jesus is in the people we encounter rather than us bringing him to them? Do we hope in God in Jesus Christ? Are we comfortable standing in the shade of the cross while looking for the glory of the resurrection?

When I sat in the van on my way home from Washington DC the light of the gospel was made real through that young man sitting next to me. For the rest of my life I will never forget his words: “Sometimes we feel like we’re being Jesus for people, bringing them food, sitting and eating with them. I guess it makes us feel good. But tonight, I felt like Charles was being Jesus for us.”

We’re not Jesus, and that’s a good thing. We gather together here to worship the remarkable God who became flesh in the man Jesus Christ, the man who walked and talked among us pointing back toward God. We no longer need to adapt Jesus to particular settings, but instead adapt ourselves to Jesus Christ. We are here, like Paul, to make the Word of God fully known. The scripture today helps to remind us that we are not Jesus Christ, but that we have the responsibility to be shaped by the Word of God to be the body of Christ for the world. God has chosen to show us the riches and glory of this mystery, we’re not Jesus, but Jesus is in us and is leading us toward the future hope of glory.

Amen.