Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Going Shopping

Here is my sermon from Sunday.  The text was Colossians 3:1-11:

This weekend is a big one for back to school shopping, as parents and students rush to stores in order to get ready for school to begin in just a few weeks.  Many of us parents are caught off guard because we didn’t realize that school started in August this year, and we didn’t plan on having to spend that money this month, and didn’t budget for it, and that is a topic we will come back to, and just as a reminder Christmas is scheduled for December 25 this year, so that one doesn’t take you by surprise either.  But the back to school shopping involves not just the buying of paper and pencils, but new clothes as well because there is no way our children would be caught dead wearing the clothes they wear every single day that first week of school, maybe the second week, but certainly not the first week.

There is something about clothes and what they say about us.  After all we say that the clothes make the man, or woman.  When I was in high school, which is getting to be much further away then I would like, you could often tell what social group people belonged to simply by the clothes they wore, and it’s really still true in society.  When I put on my collar people instantly know who and what I am, both for good and for ill.  Our clothes can say something about who we are, they can be our identity, and they can also mask who we are, we can put them on simply as a costume.  And the writer of Colossians says that for us as Christians, it’s about the clothes we wear.

While Colossians possibly claims to be written by Paul, a majority of scholars, somewhere around 60%, believe it was written by someone else, possibly by Timothy, who is also claimed as an author.  I fall in the category of those who don’t believe that Paul wrote the letter, that instead it’s pseudoepigraphical, or a document written in someone else’s name, which was not all that unusual in the ancient world, even when it comes to books in the Bible, as they did not have anywhere close to the same conception of authorship or of intellectual property that we have now.  I don’t have anywhere close to enough time to go through all the reasons why Paul probably didn’t write this letter, but I say this so that you will know why I keep saying the writer of Colossians, rather than simply saying Paul, and also to say that it doesn’t matter that Paul didn’t write it because the church fathers considered this letter to still be important and made it part of the Bible.

The writer of Colossians tells us that when we become Christians that we are to strip off our old clothes and then clothe ourselves with a new self.  We are going out and getting a new set of clothing that forever differentiates us from who we were and who we are now.  This passage is really about what it means to be baptized.  In the passage we heard from Colossians last week, we were told that “in (Christ) you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ; when you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the death.”  And in today’s passage we are told to “put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly.”  All that is to say that when we are baptized we die to our old selves and are reborn as new beings, reborn as forgiven people, reborn as sons and daughters of God.

This reality was acted out symbolically in the early church through their baptismal fonts, like the one shown here which is in the shape of a cross.  You would enter into the font, be baptized in the middle, and then exit on the other side, symbolically not only dying in the water, but also dying in the cross.  In addition, we have some indications from the late second and third centuries that before entering into the baptismal waters that people would strip off their old clothing, then entering into the water, and then would be given a special robe or other garment on the other side to symbolically represent this putting on of new clothes, showing that we die to our old selves, we put off our old clothes, and are clothed in a new garment of righteousness and love

So what is it that we put off?  First is the old standby, fornication, which is then followed by impurity, passion, evil desire and greed.  That is the first list, but then we are given a second list which includes anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language and lying.  What all of these have in common is using others for personal gratification and of the breaking of community and of mutual trust.

A young preacher who had just begun at his first church, decided to prove his zealousness and conviction, and so his first sermon he decided to address on some of the sins he thought were taking too lightly, and so he began with the sin of adultery, and some people shouted out “amen”, and then he moved onto the sin of drunkenness, and some people shouted out “preach it brother,” and then he addressed the sin of covetousness, and some people shouted out, “tell it like it is,” and finally he addressed the sin of gossiping, and one person was heard to say, “well now he’s stopped preaching, and gone to meddling.”

So I’m going to meddle here for a moment as well, because we do have a gossip or rumor problem here.  I know that there has been a lot of mistrust that has built up over the years, and this is about more than just one clergy person, and there has also been a lack of communication that has contributed greatly to this problem, and when there is a communication vacuum people will fill it in with what they want.  I have to confess that in my short time here I have contributed to this vacuum, and I apologize, and we are going to be making a very concerted effort to greatly increase the amount of communication and what we are communicating about, but I also ask you to give me the benefit of the doubt, and also remind you that scripture has a lot to say about rumors and gossiping, a large portion of which is simply untrue, and we have a word for telling people things that are untrue.  What the writer of Colossians reminds us is that these things poison relationships, they poison communication and the poison the community because at their heart they destroy trust, and without trust there cannot be true relationship.  And so instead we are to renew ourselves, to shed off the old clothing, and instead clothe ourselves in love, and when we do that we move from the list of sins to a list of virtues.

What we are being told is not just the things that we are to avoid, but that there are things we need to do, or to be, that our new clothing is to cover us with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  What we find is that while the list of sins focus on a sort of self-centeredness, this list of virtues move us to a position of selflessness.  It’s pretty hard to have compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience and be self-centered.  And while the sins lead to a breakdown of community and of trust, the virtues build up and support community and what is needed to live together, and all these things are held together by love, which is the new clothes that we put on.  As Methodists we say that we are moving on to perfection.  John Wesley the founder of Methodism took seriously Jesus’ statement to be perfect as your heavenly father is perfect, and believed that perfection is possible here on earth.

Now this perfection is not that you will never spell another word wrong, or that every stock you pick is going to make you rich, but instead that our heart will be so full of the love of God that we will no longer be able to willfully sin.  And so we say we are moving on to perfection.  But it really turns out, especially in looking at today’s passage, that perfection then is really not an individual state, but a corporate state, because it is something which is attained through clothing ourselves in love and that must involve relationship with others.

One of my favorite quotes comes from the French mathematician, philosopher, and theologian Blasé Pascal who said, “Never trust anyone who tells you they are a Christian.  Why?  Because if they were truly a Christian they wouldn’t have to tell you.”  When we have chosen to become a disciple of Christ, when we have decided to pick up our cross and to follow, then our lives should be fundamentally changed.  If we are not different people than we were before we were baptized, or if we are not different than we might have been, then we are missing something because we have not stripped ourselves of the things of the world, we have not put on the new clothes of love.

In becoming Christians we are to die to our old selves and be reborn as new people who act not out of self-interest, but instead are driven love, by humility, by compassion and by forgiveness.  And when we truly begin to understand that, then we begin to comprehend the claim that we are being renewed, which is a continual process, not something which is done one time, it’s a continual process of being renewed to the image of the creator, and in that renewal “there is no longer Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all in all.”

In Christ, when we are renewed to who and what God is, when we have stripped off the clothing of old and instead have put on the clothes of love then there are no longer distinctions by race, nationality, religion, physical appearance, religious observance, economic status, or any other distinction that we might choose to make about one another.  None of that matters, we are told, for we are all one in Christ.  We are called to see each other as God sees us, which is as sons and daughters, as brothers and sisters, as one body of Christ.

But just like in every family sometimes we are not going to get along, we are going to have struggles, but when we recognize that we are all part of one body, part of one family, and when we let Christ rule in our hearts, then we are fundamentally different people and none of those things will matter, for we will be thankful and forgiving, and then we will come together as one body to break the bread and to share the cup as the ultimate reminder of who we are and to whom we belong, because at the table of Christ we are reminded of God’s love and of God’s forgiveness given for us, for all of us, as people who have cast off the things of this world and instead live with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience, because as Christians we are called to be fundamentally different people, to die to our old selves in baptism and to be raised through faith in the power of God and to live as people who have clothed ourselves with love.  May it be so my brothers and sisters.  Amen.

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