Will you pray with me? God move your spirit in this space, that your Spirit may open our ears to hear your word to us, may open our hearts to act on the call you place on each of us, and give us the courage to hear and to be changed and the strength to listen and act, give us the hope and healing we need in your words and in your presence this day and all days. And may the words of my mouth and the mediations of all our hearts be pleasing to you, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Our second scripture reading this morning comes from the epistle to the church at Colossae, known better as the New Testament book of Colossians chapter 3: 12-17. Paul’s words in this part of the epistle, or letter, are words of encouragement to the church at Colossae. These words speak to the building of the Christian community, the importance of bearing one another’s burdens, the importance and value of living together in community and provide a sort of visionary guidebook for how to do so.
These words speak particularly well to our 2020 vision statement which we are focusing our sermon series around right now. Our fourth guiding principle states: Nurture a culture of caring and vibrant spiritual growth both in and out of the church. So we read these words from the epistle as a sort of guideline for how to live, grow, and love together in community both in the church and outside of the church.
Listen now to God’s word to us this morning:
Paul’s letters often serve as windows into the challenges and concerns of the communities he writes to. In many instances we don’t have letters or written documents of the things they have brought to Paul for consideration but instead we have his responses. Paul’s letter to the Colossians helps to form a community, one of the early Christian communities that have sprung up across the world following Jesus. In some instances in his letters Paul gives very specific instructions for how to live together in community, detailed examples of how to settle disputes, and in other instances, like the one we read from today, he gives broad strokes. He gives broad stroke guidelines to invite us to live in the kind of community Christ has called us to, giving us a vision to live into, and calling us to put the meat on the bones he gives us, to figure out how to make sense of these guiding principles.
As I read Paul’s words they strike me as similar to what our 2020 vision does, our 2020 vision casts guiding principles and words that our community of faith is called to put to action, to put meat on the bones of. That is what our session began to do yesterday at our session retreat and what we are doing in this sermon series – putting flesh on to the bones of the vision that God has cast for us. And we leave it to you, the congregation, this community of faith to put these words into action, to put these guiding principles for our community of faith to work, to make them real and live and visible. To make the words of our vision statement and even more importantly, the words of Paul’s letter to the church real, clothed in humanity, tangible, living, experienced.
Compassion. Kindness. Humility. Meekness. Patience. Forgiveness. And Love. And love. Paul’s virtues for Christian living laid out in Colossians 3. Virtue words, words we’ve seen on framed pictures across churches and homes and “Etsy” shops quite frequently. But these words have some meat to them, when you think about putting them on, putting them on to who we are to who each of us is and on to who our community is.
Putting on compassion and kindness, so that they drive your every action with those around you this makes them real. Being so steeped with meekness and humility it wraps around you like a cloak, not just something you do once but who you are. Bearing patience so deep within you, it becomes the way people know you. That’s something much bigger, letting these words not just ring true in your ears thoughts but letting them call you forth into how you treat one another, how we live out Christ’s call for our broken world.
These words become holy and sacred when we allow these traits, these Godly, holy traits to become a part of us, humanity, to allow these Godly, holy traits to extend into the world as visible signs of God’s presence in the world.
Pastor Leslie Weatherhead wrote once about his visit to a young widow and his experience of seeing God:
In one corner an old white-haired woman sitting in a low chair, her face half hidden by her hand. . . . Her other hand is on the shoulder of a younger woman, little more than a girl, who is sitting at her feet. There is a fire in the grate. . . . The younger had only been married three months, and then death stalked her husband through pneumonia, and brought him down at last. It was the day after the funeral. Suddenly the younger woman turns almost ferociously on me. . . . ”Where is God?” she demands. “I’ve prayed to Him. . . . Where is He? . . . You preached once on the ‘Everlasting Arms.’ Where are they?” . . . I drew my fingertips lightly down the older woman’s arm. “They are here,” I said. “They are round you even now. These are the arms of God.”
This is what Paul writes about when he says, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, love.” Sit next to the one who is weeping, the one who is angry, the one who is confused, the one is struggling, not because it is easy or fun. We sit there to extend the loving arms of God made real, to wrap up those who are suffering, or confused, those who are hurting or scared in the always true promise that God is sitting with us, holding us in the midst of pain, walking with us in the midst of confusion, standing by us in the midst of fear.
This culture of caring we speak of in the vision statement, its real, its not words on paper, it’s the tangible signs of our community being our community of faith. It’s the very real arms of God draped around one another.
The prophet Hosea says it so beautifully perfect, listen again to these words from verse 4, “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
The truth is you, sitting there in the pews, you, each of us, are the ones who are able to show tangible signs of God’s grace, we are the ones who God allows to lead one another with cords of human kindness. God uses each one of us to express God’s grace to the other. And what an experience of grace it is. For both the cared for and caregiver.
This vision for a culture of caring and vibrant spiritual growth is both a gift, to experience God’s grace, and an invitation, an invitation to step more deeply into caring.
With that invitation, sometimes I fear we fall, or may fall into, the trap of believing we are ill-equipped to care for one another or that, our care won’t do anything: it won’t make any real change, it won’t fix the world’s burdens, it won’t eliminate suffering. I know I’ve fallen into this hole before, “will it make any difference?” “will my prayers change the way things are for this person?” “will my phone call make them better?” “will it do any good anyhow?” I think that may be the most dangerous trap we can fall into.
I’m coming to believe that even when the answer is no, no it won’t make them better, no it won’t do much in the way of change, no it won’t relieve the world of its sorrow, even, and perhaps even especially, then we ought to come to action – to clothe ourselves in compassion and kindness, in meekness and humility and patience. To do the acts of God’s holy love that we, God’s hands and feet, may actually help someone for a moment to know God’s grace is alive and well in this world.
Nurture a culture of caring and vibrant spiritual growth. This culture of caring is the culture of reaching out when you feel that tug of your heart to ask “how are you doing?” Or when you feel the pain of another, to take that moment to go and place your hand on the shoulders and tell them they are loved, by you, by God. When you see the pain of sorrow or the fear of shame, might God be calling you to be the cords of human kindness? Or when you see the anxiety of life’s challenges bearing heavily on your neighbor and you offer to lessen their burden, even for just a day. These are the arms of God.
Or perhaps on the flip side, when you feel confused or doubting, alone, shamed, in pain, might it just be that the phone call from a friend that is the voice of God crying out “I am here.” Or the basket of muffins you really don’t need could that be God’s abundant grace not just filling your kitchen but touching your heart? Or the stranger saying, “I care about you. You matter to me.” Those moments of the cords of human kindness, the arms of God.
God’s everlasting, loving, caring arms wrap around us. Clothed in the seats next to us.
Nurture a culture of caring and vibrant spiritual growth. The bones that we are asked to put flesh on, and to be honest, it is not that easy. In fact, it may be one of the hardest things we are called to do by this vision cast for us. Not because we don’t have compassion or love for one another but because to care for one another, and even harder, to be cared for takes quite a bit of vulnerability. It takes quite a bit of vulnerability to admit that you are in need, to admit that you are hurt, and to ask for care. And it takes vulnerability to sit with someone who is hurt or scared and admit that there is indeed pain in the world.
Steve and I were talking about this early this week, reflecting on how we offer pastoral care to the church. We both noted that 99 out of 100 times if we get to make a pastoral call it is become something has physically happened, someone is in the hospital, someone has died, someone is sick. And, don’t get me wrong, we want to be there for those calls, we want to pray with you when you or a loved one is in the hospital, we want to come to your house as you are recovering from an illness, we want to talk with you about the life of your loved ones. Absolutely.
But in our culture of caring and vibrant spiritual growth let me invite our church to together step into a bit of vulnerability. Into a place of vulnerability where we ask for prayers when we are scared, or feeling alone. Where we ask one another how we can pray for each other. A culture of caring that allows us to say to one another or to call on your pastors and say “I’m really struggling with my faith right now.” A culture that says, I will listen to you, I will pray for you, I will sit with you, I will tell you that I love you when you are stressed, when you are depressed, when you are doubting, when you are fearful. A culture of caring that embraces our vulnerability, that makes it ok to scratch below the surface of talk about work or football or new restaurants, but digs deeper into the pain we may be feeling. Because the joy and hope in vulnerability is that we have all felt or are feeling pain or doubt or confusion or hurt and when we share this together we may find some solace. Together in the midst of our vulnerability we may find that God is walking with us through chords of human kindness.
In a few moments, instead of ending this sermon as we typically do and moving to a hymn, Steve and I and several members of our church will come to the front of this worship space and invite you to something special, something that may ask you to be a bit vulnerable, to a service of anointing hands. Anointing one another’s hands for the work and care of one another. We do this not because without it you don’t do it or haven’t already done it, but because with it you are reminded that the work you do, the care you offer, the love you share is not just your love – not just your goodness but it is the extension of the love and grace of God.
We will bless each of you as caretakers because that is what each of you is, a caretaker of one another, a child of God called to reflect God’s grace. Caretakers come in the form of friends, sisters, mothers, daughters, brothers, fathers, sons, strangers, pastors, elders, neighbors, allies, fellow children of God. Caretakers come in all sorts of forms and you are one of them. You care for the broken of the world, you show that human cord of kindness God gifts the world with in the words you speak in that way you shout for love for others, in the tender hugs you give, in the calls you make, in the prayers you pray, in the burdens you bear for and with one another. You care for one another, and are cared for by one another through God’s infinite grace.
In the name of the one who loves and cares for each of us – our creator, our sustainer, and our redeemer. Amen.