Stranger, Neighbor, Beloved

Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian for the Tenth Sunday of Ordinary Time. 

Deuteronomy 30:9-14

…and the LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all your undertakings, in the fruit of your body, in the fruit of your livestock, and in the fruit of your soil. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, just as he delighted in prospering your ancestors, when you obey the LORD your God by observing his commandments and decrees that are written in this book of the law, because you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.

Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away. It is not in heaven, that you should say, “Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, “Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?” No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe.

 

Colossians 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

In our prayers for you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.

This you learned from Epaphras, our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

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.

 

***

I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes scripture is strange. Sometimes it is ancient and foreign and full of shekels and Peruzzites and centurions and that’s part of why I love it—that it opens up a world for me beyond my own—both the world of my ancestors in the faith and God’s kingdom, lurking behind all history. But it also means that there will be days that you and I will have to be archaeologists of the text—that there will be days you and I will have to pull out all the linguistic and historical and contextual and critical tools we have to figure out what this book is really trying to say to us. And there will be days when I work my hardest in this pulpit and you work your hardest in the pew and both of us will still walk away going “I’m not really sure what that’s about.” But, luckily for you and for me, today is not one of those days.

Sometimes scripture doesn’t feel ancient at all. Sometimes it feels like something you could have written yourself, like something that could show up in the paper or in your inbox. And this passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae is very much in this second category. I feel I could have written it myself.

In this letter Paul is writing to strangers—strangers whom he already loves. If you are looking for a clue to one of the greatest things about the Christian faith, one of the most beautiful and most crazy things, it is this: we commit to loving those we do not know. We commit to loving children in Peru and farmers in Asia and hipsters in Europe. We commit to loving people down the street and over the river and across the world. We commit to loving all God’s children, even though we will only ever meet the barest fraction of them.

And before I knew you, before I met you even once—and even now, when I still don’t know you well—I committed to loving you. In this I stand with Paul, who loved the people of Colossae not because they had clawed their way into Paul’s affections but simply because they were fellow sisters and brothers in Christ, children of the same God, part of Paul’s family. I have committed to loving you all for the same reasons; and I know you do the same for me.

Paul goes on to explain how he has been praying for the church at Colossae. This hits home too—I have been praying for you—and not just for a job!—but for you, and for your ministry here and at your workplaces and at your schools and in your homes. Sometimes I pray formally, sometimes informally, sometimes just by remembering your names (or trying to!), but I have prayed, and intend to keep praying. I will not pretend that I am the world’s most pious prayer warrior, but it is hard to keep prayer out of my thoughts for our ministry, and I hope such thoughts and prayers will serve.

Like mine, Paul’s are prayers of gratitude—gratitude for the steady faith of the people of Colossae. He knows that from the day they really understood God’s grace, the heart of the gospel, they began to hope in God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, and to love God’s children. He compares their growing faith to ripening fruit, a perfect image for a summer sermon and one you might have heard in our reading from Deuteronomy, which promises that God delights in tending to us as a gardener to her plants, in helping us to grow strong. Later in the letter, Paul adds another prayer: that the people of Colossae might know—and understand—God’s will, and therefore be able to live lives that God is pleased with, that, as Paul says again, “bear fruit in every good work.”

I have no doubt that God has been working here at Crescent Springs, nourishing and nurturing your faith. I have no doubt that God will continue to do so long after I am gone. But I am honored to work alongside you for however long God calls us together, so that we might all bear fruit that wouldn’t be out of place in God’s own garden, that our ministries might be strong and healthy and nourish to each other and our community.

Paul closes with a benediction, a word of blessing to the young church. He knows they live in a hard world, a scary world; a world of violence and fear; a world more like our own than we would like to admit. And so Paul blesses them with three things: first, he blesses them with strength, and not the strength of armies or weapons or wealth or prestige but the strength of God’s power, the strength of a power born of Love that won’t give up. Second, he blesses them with patient endurance—that they might get through whatever life throws at them, and at the same time remember to rejoice in the life God has prepared for them, a life lived in God’s light. And third, Paul blesses them with a reminder, a reminder that we so often need: that God has already rescued us from the powers of evil; that we are citizens of Christ’s kingdom, fully forgiven and fully free. It is hard to believe sometimes, and yet we trust God’s promise to be true: there is another way for us, all of us. The way things are are not the way they have to be. There is a world of love and forgiveness, if only we are strong enough to take part in it. Paul’s trifold blessing needs no amendment, and I gladly share it with you: may you be strong with God’s power, may you endure with patience and joyfully give thanks, and may you always remember that you are bathed in the light of Christ.

Now those of you who are following along in the scripture may have noticed that I skipped over a verse in the middle of Paul’s letter, but it’s actually the verse that jumped out at me first. It is the part where Paul explains how he came to know what he knows about the Colossians, how he came to love them and want to share his own faith with them: it is their leader Epaphras, he says, who has made known to him their love in the Spirit.

I was very fortunate to meet with your own Epaphrases, your own leaders in this congregation. It is the members of the Pastor Nominating Committee—Crystal, Erin, Jim, Tim, and Mark—who made known to me your love in the Spirit. They shared with me your enthusiasm for Christ, your dedication to this church, your love for each other, your love for your community, your strength in the face of hard times, your joy for walking through life together. They shared with me what a truly wonderful group of people makes up this church, and I feel so truly, thoroughly blessed to join you.

There are those outside these walls who need the same blessing. I am already so impressed and proud of the steps you have taken to reach beyond these sanctuary walls, things like the July 4th parade and the ice cream social. It is my fervent hope that we might all learn to be Epaphrases, letting the world know that this is a community of love, of grace, and of hope. I pray that we will be brave enough to speak up when we hear words of division or hatred, brave enough to welcome in those who might make us uncomfortable, brave enough to shine our light in a world that struggles to see God’s love.

You’ve got me convinced that Crescent Springs is wonderful. Now on to the rest of the world.

Let us make known to them our love—God’s love shining through us. The hymn we are about to sing speaks to how we might go about being Epaphras to our community, how we might make our love known to others. I pray that it will guide our ministry together, a ministry marked by grace, by hope, and by love.

Amen.

 

Benediction

I said earlier that I could have written Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae myself—and, since Paul seems like the forgiving type—I’ve been bold enough to do just that. So here is Carol’s letter to the Crescent Springs Presbyterians, as we begin our ministry together:

“Carol, a follower of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Crescent Springs: Grace to you and peace from God our Creator.

In my prayers for you I always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for I have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all God’s people, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you. Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly comprehended the grace of God.

This you learned from countless pastors, teachers, mentors, and friends, my beloved fellow servants who have been here before me. They have been faithful ministers of Christ on your behalf, as have the members of the PNC, leaders among you, who have made known to me your love in the Spirit.

For this reason, since the day I heard it, I have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to God, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God.

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to God, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. God has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

Friends, go now into the world, and as you go, may God make your road, Christ walk beside you, and the Spirit guide your steps, until we meet again. Amen.

 

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