07-08-07 PAUL’S PURPOSE-DRIVEN PASSAGES (Colossians 3: 12-17)


Colossians 3: 12-17


Princeton professor Dr. Shane Berg relates the story of his “Grandma Inez’s Back Stoop” in a sermon he preached last January.  He said that as a boy he dealt out innumerable insults and hateful remarks to his brother.  When he was with his parents, his babysitters, or even his teachers, they were at a loss to curb their cruelty toward each other.  Only one person knew how to handle them; only one person’s consequences they dreaded: she was a small woman in her early seventies: but she was smart and tough. “Even in the last years of her life,” Dr. Berg said, “[my grandmother] had no problem handling her two rambunctious grandsons when we came to blows at her house. When such a dust-up occurred, she would come marching out of the house and grab each of us hard by the back of the arm, depositing us on her back stoop. We knew what was coming next, and we hated it. She insisted that we sit side by side on that stoop until each of us said something nice to the other one, and we had to mean it (she could tell when we were faking it.) This was always an exercise of excruciating pain and agony—at precisely the moment I wanted to throttle my little brother, I was instead compelled to speak kindly to him. Sometimes we sat for over a half an hour before we could muster the will to spit out some expression of affection for each other. But here is the interesting thing: on those days when we were forced into such an encounter, my brother and I would not fight again. The words of kindness that we had exchanged seemed to sap the energy from our feelings of hostility.” [Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vo. XXVIII, Number 1, p. 7-8]  Today I have noticed an abundance of hateful and intolerant words and actions in our world; have you?  Cable news channels pit a Democratic pundit against a Republican pundit and sometimes civility goes out the window and they both need Dr. Berg’s grandmother to grab them by their arms.  This week the color drained from the faces of many in the Western world upon learning that it was doctors who were masterminding the Scotland collision that failed: DOCTORS; People who take an oath to “First, do no harm!”  What hate possessed them? What evil was so heinous that they turned to the dark side?  Or was it they themselves, in a warped or demented sense of honoring God, who took words, twisted from a Koran or distorted by an Imam, and became living breathing symbols of evil? Do they deserve the suicidal death they apparently wanted but failed to achieve? Or would it be better to substitute the chest-thumping actions of testosterone-filled officials with a grandmother who sat them down next to some Western human beings and waited until they said something nice to each other? Of course, that is a naïve thought, isn’t it? But my fellow Christians and seekers after Christ hear this: it was the Lord Jesus who welcomed Samaritans, who forgave women who sinned and men who betrayed. By contrast, it was Christians in the 4th century who, in the name of the Lord, attacked a temple in Alexandria, killed people, destroyed priceless art, and ages of history that can no longer be reclaimed. What? This is what Jesus would do?  In this century, the German ruler named Hitler, using a twisted cross as his party symbol, decided to try to rid the world of Jews. Would he have unwittingly marched his so-called Savior, Jesus (himself a Jew) to his death as well?  What is a redemptive answer to human bickering and maneuvering beyond the already tried responses of retaliation, pre-emptive strikes, and an eye for an eye?  Where are the brave men like Winston Churchill in the Second World War who are willing, with oratory that shows not an ounce of cowardice but also shows overflowing wisdom and encouragement, to take two enemies out to the back porch until each sees the other one also as a human being, sharing the same planet, wanting virtually the same things for his children and his world? But it is naïve to consider that each wants God to be revered, laws to be observed, and safety for his family, isn’t it?  We in the church today, taking a fresh look at the New Testament, will not relinquish control of religion to radicals so it can be hopelessly twisted or despicably distorted. The Christian faith, as demonstrated by Jesus and proclaimed by Paul, has a different way to change the world. As writer Kathleen Norris has put it, in a measured tone, “Religion’s abilities to restore sick people to health are downplayed these days—I know a chaplain at a historically Protestant college who has had to fight to keep a campus ministry going because the school now has a counseling service staffed by a psychologist. But it is my firm conviction that some people may more readily be reached, changed, and even healed through religious means than through psychiatry.” [AMAZING GRACE, Riverhead Books, 1998, pl. 179.] So we could turn to the preacher of Ecclesiastes, a person so burned out that he had virtually given up on humanity, and find the painful words that were read from the Old Testament. What hope is proclaimed from that pulpit? Such an ilk, like the “whisky priest” depicted in Graham Greene’s novel  THE POWER AND THE GLORY goes through the motions of faith but has stopped living it or believing in it.  It is terrible to think that there are preachers, and other human beings, who are as sarcastic, hopeless, bitter, and empty as that preacher and that priest, but indeed there are. Our world cannot be saved by such a bleak outlook; O Lord deliver us from giving up on people and their sometimes shallow, sometimes materialistic, sometimes self-serving, sometimes manipulative, sometimes horrific deeds! No! When people seem to wallow in their own mud, or when people try to get ahead with such franticness that they spin their wheels, burying themselves axle deep in sand, then a different way out needs to be found; not as if it has to be invented-not at all. It just has to be discovered, or, in some cases, rediscovered. It is the way of Christ without the layers of interpretation that institutions or bishops or priests or pastors have put on them.  Today, from the New Testament, were read words that the Apostle Paul chose to tell Colossian Christians who were not acting like Christians. In a sky full of stars that we call choices, these words point to true north. Paul could have written with the tone of the preacher in Ecclesiastes, but thankfully his heart was opened to these inspired words from God.

“Put on then” {as if putting on clothing, or even armor} as God’s chosen ones, holy {one who is set apart from others} and beloved {if no one has told you lately that you are loved by God, let me tell you that now!} put on compassion {that is, be ready to suffer with others in the bonds of humanity} kindness {show mercy and love beyond what might be expected} lowliness {do not think of yourself as higher than the next person}, meekness {quiet gentleness, not loud obnoxiousness} and patience {hold your tongue longer than you think you can, then wait a little longer}, and if one has a complaint against the other, forgiving each other {hard for angry boys or girls to do, or angry men or women, but necessary; Why? Because} As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love {wearing love as if it were a prayer shawl} which binds everything together in perfect harmony. {Those who show love and feel loved feel whole and blessed.} And let the peace of Christ {which is rooted in the love just described} rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. {All are one in the body of Christ which is the Church. Then Paul uses these three freeing words:} And be thankful. {Thankful people move toward wholeness; bitter people act like victims.} Let the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, {yes, your New Testament is the original purpose-driven guide for life} teach {others what you learn by word and example} and admonish one another in all wisdom {like in the old days when moms in neighborhoods each had the permission and authority to put anyone in a gang of boys or a group of girls in line. Permission to admonish lets brothers and sisters in Christ work to hold each other accountable to their Lord and their promises.} Then Paul’s words end with thanking God, praising God, and letting gratitude be the order of the day. 


Friends, film and file footage remind us that health care, education, common moral values, and ways of worshipping God that are not mostly a narcissistic activity, are each lacking in our day.  Those who have a steady diet of talking heads on television can easily become pessimistic and sarcastic like the preacher in Ecclesiastes. But Jesus came that we may have life and have it abundantly. Even here, this church works to make a difference through health ministries, Christian Education, youth groups, and services that focus on God. Let us work to make a difference rather than give up and despair.


When I came to this church in 1985, the air was filled with suspicion, distrust, bitterness, wariness, and spiritual paralysis. Going to Paul’s passage and asking for God’s Spirit to return, I invited any who would listen to help turn this ship around that was on a course of choppy waters.  It was slow hard work. One Sunday morning as I turned the lights on in my office, I found a note surreptitiously dropped on my chair. It wasn’t the first time I would get unsigned notes; it wouldn’t be the last. The note read: “All that it takes for evil to prosper is for good men to do nothing.” I wondered if the writer meant I was doing nothing, or if the person meant that good things were happening because I was doing something. It was another of many anxious Sundays, only to have Elder and charter member number one Ernest W. Hunt, pull me aside after worship. “Did you get my note?” he asked. “That was your note? I asked back. “Yes,” he replied. “You’re doing a fine job. Keep up the good work.”  I’ve never forgotten the sense of relief I got with his words and his smile.  I’ll never forget the words that Paul told the Colossians that I have used at many a wedding and with Confirmation Classes. And I’ll never forget the story of a small woman who was able to get two fighting grandsons to be kind the rest of the day. There is hope for our world. And the hope starts first with Jesus: Jesus in you, and Jesus in me.  Let’s grab the world by the arm, shall we?


Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                           July 8, 2007