A good sermon engages the listener so s/he continues to think about it long after the final hymn, the benediction and postlude, and the drive home. Such was the case for me today.
The text was 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 in the 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.”
The preacher rightly and wisely noted that in our baptism, we are clothed in Christ and Christ’s ways, and these virtues should be our attire at all times and in all places – compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, gratitude, and above all, love.
For me, the belt that holds all this together is love, and the concluding injunction summarizes it all: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
The name. Names define us; they shape us, tell us who we are, identify us both as unique and part of a larger community. We know ourselves by name; we are known to others by that name; we know we belong when we are known and called by name. We are no longer strangers, but friends; no longer alone but in community.
The name of the Lord Jesus. When we act in that name, live in that name, are known by that name, we are defined, formed, self-aware, identified with a particular people – the Body of Christ, the followers of the Jesus Way. And when we speak or act in the name of the Lord Jesus, we are confessing that Christ has first place in our lives; his is the voice we heed above all others; we act and speak on his behalf; and we re-present him and incarnate him afresh in the world where we live for him. When we act in that name, live in that name, are known by that name, we are defined, formed, self-aware, identified with a particular person who lived a particular way – Jesus – a first century Jew who put God first in his life; loved God above all else; loved his neighbor recklessly, extravagantly, prodigiously, widely, deeply, passionately, boundlessly, and graciously in the Name of God, i.e., the way God loves us, thereby living up to HaShem, the Name above all names.
In that Name, Jesus incarnates for us other ways of God – mercy, compassion, forgiveness, kindness, patience, gentleness, forbearance, humility (the Mighty One, blessed be the Name, gives us freedom to turn toward or away, to be in relationship or not, to choose evil as well as good, even when that breaks the Divine Heart), healing, truth, wisdom, and above all, love. To be clothed in such virtues is to be truly well-clothed in the classic fashion that never wears out, is always in season, and never goes out of style.
When I was a child, as was the case stated by the other pastor during today Children’s Time, I could always count on getting clothes for Christmas. Like the pastor, that was rarely my favorite gift as a child. But “now that I am an adult I have given up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11); I know there is wisdom in receiving such gifts; there is Another who loves me and who knows that what is best for me is not always what I want, but what I need. I may not always be thrilled to be asked – or expected- to put on forgiveness or patience or kindness or humility (especially in a culture preening itself on pride and self-determination) or all the rest, but in the end, this is the apparel that presents me at my best, and leads me to be at my best. Indeed, when I am preparing to get dressed in my best attire, I may dread it or moan about it or think it is too much work; but in the end, when the tie is tied and the coat is put on, I feel better, special, uplifted; I find the experience surprisingly but deeply satisfying; and in the company of my wife I feel like I am thoroughly – inside and out – honoring her by showing that I want to be the best I can be so she will be pleased to be in my presence and not embarrassed by it.
I think that applies when we are clothed with these Christlike virtues as well. They transform us and honor the One to whom our lives are wed as Christ’s Bride (the Church) so He is pleased to be in our presence and is not embarrassed by us or ashamed that we bear His Name.
Typically, as a child the clothes I received as gift each year did not fit; but that was OK in my parents’ opinion. “You’ll grow into them” was both expectation and promise. In the same way, discipleship is the expectation and promise that while our lives currently may be too small for the virtues given by the Giver, by grace and the power of the Holy Spirit we will grow into them as we grow up into Christ (Ephesians 4:14 ff.) until we are fit to wear them and they fit us well.
Even today, clothing is an issue for me. There are some things that simply do not go together, and I need my wife to tell me what is appropriate and matches; which combinations do not go together; and the ensembles that never, ever should be worn or seen in public. There simply are some things that clash with being clothed in Christ: hurtful violence in word or deed; keeping grudges; prejudice; complacency in the face of suffering or poverty; silence before injustice or oppression; seeking revenge; indifference to holiness; mindless spending of time or treasure; selfishness; prideful arrogance; hatred or indifference are never in the wardrobe; they just don’t go.
That’s why I need Church, the community of faith and fellow aficionados of holy attire to hold me accountable; remind me of what season it is and what attire is most appropriate to each setting; tell me the truth when I have a wardrobe malfunction; and inspire me to look my best as Christ’s man. “Clothing makes the man, makes the person,” said today’s preacher and he is right. Clothing makes the disciple, the follower of Christ, so that we are known as belonging to Him, and being clothed in the virtues presented in the scripture define us, make us who we say we are.
In athletics we know who is on our side, working to achieve the same aims and moving in the same direction. And we also can clearly see who is not, who is standing in our way or seeking to thwart our efforts to achieve the victory we hope to win. What distinguishes one from the other is the clothing they wear; the uniform apparel with which they are adorned.
“Who is on the Lord’s side?” (Exodus 32:26). Those whose uniform, whose one form, is being formed in Christ’s patience, mercy, kindness, gratitude, forbearance, and all the rest. That is the winning side, the one to which I want to belong: the arc of history will bend toward justice; faith, hope and love will prevail; mercy and truth will meet, righteousness and peace will embrace; suffering and sighing will pass away.
Following the murders in Charleston, SC, of nine Christians engaged in Bible study at Mother Emanuel AME Church, the bishops of that denomination called on people of faith across our land to focus the weekend of September 5-7 on Confession, Repentance, Prayer and Commitment to End Racism. As is often the case, the lectionary of readings for this Sunday provided a providentially apt set of readings relevant to this prayerful call by the bishops (which was echoed by Young Jin Cho, my own United Methodist bishop here in Virginia. Here is what the Spirit brought me to say as I sought to bear witness to God’s Word yesterday at Highland Springs UMC in Highland Springs, VA.
I have a confession to make – in 42 years of ministry I’ve never preached on this text. I avoided it because quite frankly, it doesn’t paint a pretty picture of Jesus. His table manners might’ve been socially acceptable in his day but they’re still rather crude and rude. If we like gentle Jesus meek and mild, always caring and kind, he’s not here. It’s troubling and unsettling and takes us where we’d rather not go.
In Mark’s story Jesus is traveling in the area of modern day Lebanon. He needs to recharge his batteries and doesn’t want anyone to know where he is. But here comes this woman looking for help. Poor Jesus can’t get a break or a day off.
Mark describes her as Syro-Phoenician, a Gentile. The Greek says she’s a Hellenist; inMatthew’s gospel she’s even worse – a Canaanite. In other words she’s the worst kind of outsider. In the Bible Canaanites are always the bad guys; in Jewish history the Hellenists caused some of the worst persecutions Jews ever faced. And Jews weren’t really sure Gentiles were human, so Jesus’ harsh attitude toward this woman fit right in with his time and culture.
Add to that, she’s a woman. In Jesus’ day women and men who aren’t family just don’t deal with each other; women know their place and stay in it. But here she is, uninvited into the house looking for Jesus out to ask a favor.
Now she is respectful and humble; Mark says she falls atJesus’ feet to beg him to heal her little girl. Who could turn away and not feel pity for her? Apparently Jesus can.
And he does it in a rather crass and cruel way. In our reading Jesus says, “It’s not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s as if Jesus says, “Don’t bother me or waste my time. I’ve got better things to dothan deal with people like you.” Ouch.
One more thing really stings and hurts here. We see dogs and puppies as cute and cuddly, warm and fuzzy. We love them. That’s not how they’re seen in Jesus’ day. They’re wild scavengers; curs to be kicked aside and chased away. Dogs are more trouble than they’re worth. Basically Jesus calls this woman and her daughter dogs, female dogs. At its worst Jesus may be guilty of using the B word on them. Truth be told, Jesus sounds like a sexist racist.
But there is good news here. I love that Jesus’ is so human. We Christians claim a great mystery: Jesus is both fully divine and fully human. Sometimes we want to smooth the raw edges in our picture of Jesus, but scripture says he was like us in every way, except without sin. He’s a creature of his own day and time; a first century Jew, part of a culture that sees women and non-Jews in a particular way. There’s no sin in that. The sin would be to stay that way when given a better, wiser way that’s more like God’s ways.
That’s what this woman does for Jesus. She opens his eyes wider to see more clearly. She’s the only person in the New Testament who gets the best of Jesus in an argument. I love that. Jesus rudely dismisses her; but she’s a Momma in need and won’t take “No” for an answer with her little girl’s life on the line. Jesus tells her, “It’ not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she comes right back, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Take that, Jesus. Even Gentiles, Syro-Phoenicians, Canaanites, women and dogs have a place at God’s table of grace and mercy and healing and hope.
Just before this story, Jesus has a huge slap fight with Jewish religious leaders who are too focused on doing everything just so. Jesus rants at them, “You are so busy holding on to human traditions that you let go of God’s commandments.” And here’s this woman holding Jesus’ feet to the fire challenging him for doing the very same thing. Whoa.
Jesus is like us in every way except sin. The sin would be for Jesus to hold onto the human tradition of treating some better than others, as if there are 1st and 2nd class citizens. Thanks to this woman, Jesus’ very human eyes are opened to see that God’s ways are even greater and broader and wider than Jesus first thought. And Jesus changes his ways and his mind and his heart to match up to God. He is converted and tells the woman, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”
Typically Jesus connects healing with faith; here it’s the woman’s reasoning that produces the miracle. Her logic brings the change not only to her daughter, but to Jesus, too.
I love the way Mark tells his tale. In chapter 6 Jesus feeds 5000 Jews with bread and fish. In this chapter Jesus says the children’s bread shouldn’t be given to dogs but his mind is changed. That’s what conversion is. And in chapter 8 Jesus again provides bread to a crowd., but this time it’s Gentiles he feeds because he has compassion on them. Even Jesus can grow to see God’s ways in new ways; he’s blessed because of this woman God uses to make it happen.
That’s good news for us, too, because we’re Gentiles. We’re the outsiders Jesus might have missed without her opening his eyes and heart.
And there’s more good news. If the Son of God can grow in his understanding of God’s ways, so can we. If Jesus can be blessed through the honest wise words of another, so can we. We need each other; we need church folks to be open and honest with us to challenge and stretch us to live more fully for God. That’s what it means to be church, the Body of Christ together.
Some of us grew up in a time and place and that was deeply racist and sexist. There’s no sin in that. The sin is to stay there. Jesus doesn’t stay with his limited attitudeafter his encounter with this woman in need, and we don’t have to stay tied to old, small ways, either.
Our world still doesn’t fully reflect God’s broad bright ways; Jesus still groans as he heals. Racism and prejudice are alive among us, maybe in our own hearts. Some say we have to say “Black Lives Matter” because in many ways our culture says they really don’t matter.
After the racially hate-filled murders of nine of our brothers and sisters in Christ in South Carolina, African Methodist Episcopal Church bishops asked Christians across US to join today in confession, repentance, prayer and commitment to end racism. Our own Bishop Cho made that call to us as well.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we can’t stay deaf and mute to this cancer still eating at our soul. Healing comes as we listen and learn from those who are different, with different life experiences. Blessing comes as we allow ourselves like the Lord Jesus to be challenged and changed by truth heard in unexpected places. In my own life I thank God for the honest hard words and the humble life of a guy named Ben Nelson, my pastor during my teen years. God used him to convert and change this narrow-minded racist boy toward the better way of Christ. It’s true – the gospel really is that powerful and wonderful.
This winter I talked with some Randolph-Macon College students of color about their life on that largely white campus. It wasn’t easy to hear what they said, but I’m glad they told me the truth. I told them not to stay silent, and one woman said that’s hard: white folks can feel guilty and she didn’t want to hurt our feelings. But I said I hoped she’d speak up anyway because that’s how healing and conversion and better days come.
Today we come to be fed today at this table where the Lord is again present. Let us confess and repent of whatever keeps us from walking God’s wide way of grace for all; ask for healing so we won’t be deaf to the stories of our brothers and sisters and silent no more in the face of racism or prejudice. Like the woman long ago let us fall on our knees and ask for mercy for us and our land and make a new commitment to the loving way of Jesus; then our table manners will be worthy of the One who calls and heals and welcomes us all, thanks be to God.
I promise I won’t be blogging every day – that would be crazy. And exhausting. But just to try this out for fun, here’s something I wrote last week and posted on Facebook. We’ll see what happens next.
For me, it’s all about the meat.
Today (Thursday, July 9), the South Carolina House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the State Capitol. Tomorrow at 10 a.m. EDT, with surviving family members of the slain at Mother Emanuel AME Church present, the flag will be lowered for the final time from the pole where it was lowered earlier by Bree Newsome as an act of civil disobedience. The colors will be fittingly retired to a museum where they will be laid to rest, even though the controversy around it may linger for awhile.
Today, I am particularly proud to be a Southerner, and I am particularly proud of my fellow Southerners in the South Carolina legislature who are doing the right thing. It is not all that needs to be done. This single act cannot ease the abiding grief, ache, and loss of the left behind beloved of the martyrs killed for their colorful faith who were gathered in that basement Bible study when the killer stole into their midst. But it is an act of compassion, rooted in a desire to be part of a new and better day for the South, and for all Americans. And as a person of faith from south of the Mason-Dixon line whose ancestor accompanied Marse Robert all the way to the end of the road of rebellion, I am grateful for each small step on a different road of reconciliation.
I suspect some friends and family might be appalled or saddened, or even wondering if I have betrayed the best of my history and heritage. But for me, it’s all about the meat.
Like many Southerners, in addition to my history and heritage as someone hailing from this particularly precious part of God’s creation, I also am a person of faith who pledges allegiance first and foremost to the Lord of all creation, whose face I have seen in Jesus of Nazareth. While I will always be a child of the South, I am also first and foremost a beloved child of God and citizen of the Realm of God, what some theologians these days call the Kindom of God. In my baptism into Christ, I accepted the freedom and power God gives us to resist evil, injustice and oppression, and promised first and foremost to serve Christ as my Lord in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations and races (The United Methodist Book of Worship, 1992). And there’s where the meat comes in.
In the New Testament communities formed by the apostle Paul, at least two wrote to him asking advice about whether it was kosher for Christians to eat meat sacrificed to idols. Even for a Southerner familiar with the beauty and wonder of hyperbole (especially when it comes to jokes, tall tales and fish stories) connecting Corinth and Rome to Charleston might seem a stretch; but stay with me.
The burning questions for those first Christians were 1) if I eat meat that has been sacrificed to a pagan idol, am I being disloyal to Christ, or at the very least serving and honoring two masters? and 2) if I believe these idols are false and non-existent, can I eat the meat conscience-free, despite another believer’s beliefs and misgivings about the practice? When in doubt, those early Christians thought it was wise to seek advice of a wiser soul and so they wrote to Paul, their elder brother in the faith. His counsel can be found in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.
Paul freely confesses that he has no problem eating such meat; like his “more mature” siblings in the faith he knows the idols supposedly honored by the sacrifice that brought the brisket to the table don’t exist at all; they are illusory, and so there’s no harm in benefiting from the food’s nutritional value. In fact, when it comes to eating meat, you’re free to do as you please.
But Paul also knows his perspective is not shared by all, and his view might be a hindering stumbling block to his “weaker” kinfolk in Christ. And so he advises his correspondents to let liberty be trumped by love. All things are permitted, Paul writes; but not all things are helpful. And so he makes a commitment never to do anything that will cause another to stumble. If that tasty morsel puts another’s faith and discipleship at risk, he won’t do it. It’s as pure and simple as that.
Whatever we Southern white folks think is the meaning behind the flag, there is no doubt that it is a stumbling block to our black neighbors and kinfolk. Of course technically we are still free to fly it wherever we want on our private property – in our front yard, on the back of our pick-up truck, on our flexing muscles beneath our tattoo. In Christ we are indeed offered freedom.
But that freedom is always bracketed by the higher law of faith: love for our neighbor. We Southerners can get antsy when someone tries to tell us what to do or we feel like our honor is at risk; but for those of us who have been marked first and foremost by the cross of Christ and not the St. Andrew’s cross on the Stars and Bars, humility and compassion for others are also noble virtues. They are not to be taken lightly but lived fully as an act of love for our kinfolk and a sign of loyalty to the One who showed us the measure of true and abiding freedom by kneeling and washing his followers’ feet. After all, the most free person is the one who doesn’t have to have his way but can make way for another to flourish and prosper.
So the meat of the issue for me is this: if that flag is is getting in the way of moving to a new and better day; if it’s a stumbling block to my Southern sisters and brothers for whom it is a symbol of terror, oppression and even 1960s resistance to the Civil Rights journey toward Dr. King’s beloved community; then it’s time to furl and lower it forever – not simply from a flagpole in South Carolina, but from our hearts and lives so we can move toward a new future for all where we can all meet as sisters and brothers under the banner of love.