Sunday, April 28, 2013

“Serve the Lord with--- Kindness!"


 A sermon based upon Colossians 3: 12-15; Luke 7: 1-10
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 28th, 2013

Serve the Lord with kindness; this shall be our theme, As we walk together In his Love supreme…..” 

That’s not exactly how the third verse of B.B. McKinney’s 1930 hymn goes, but it could and if we know what’s good for us, it will.   We must serve the Lord gladness and also with KINDNESS.  It is that kindness we give to one another that will bring us the gladness and joy of life.   

Actually, there is another hymn that directly expresses the high value the gospel of Jesus places upon the grace and virtue of kindness.  It goes: “In Loving Kindness Jesus came, my soul in mercy to reclaim, And from the depths of sin and shame, Thro’ grace he lifted me.  
             From Sinking Sand he lifted me.  With tender hand he lifted me,
             From shades of night to plains of light, O praise his name, he lifted me!
Just as Jesus’ came to save ‘in loving kindness, our loving Kindness toward each other keeps the mercy of grace going and keeps the light of love on.  But as Tom Long has written, Christian kindness is “a simple, but it’s also a not so simple.”

KINDNESS: SIMPLE, BUT NOT ALWAYS EASY
The story goes that two neighbors met after not having seen each other for a while.  One asked “And how are things with you?” 
       “Oh,” said the other, “I’m managing all right, although I lost my husband several months back.” 
      “What happened,” asked the friend? 
       “Well,” explained the widow, “I was making dinner and asked him to go to the garden and get some corn.  After he’d been gone a long time, I went out to check on him.  There he laid, dead – a heart attack.”
       “How awful!  What did you do?” 
     “Oh,” said the widow, “I had a can of corn in the pantry, so I just used that.”

Kindness is seldom an automatic, easy matter in a culture like ours.  We are in such a hurry to get to the next thing, to express what we feel, or complete our own agendas at almost any expense, that simple kindness can be overlooked. But in our text from Colossians, Paul says that our behavior as Christians is not to mirror the culture, but to counter it as we follow and become like Christ.  Paul writes, "As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience."

Notice that Paul suggests that Christian kindness simply flows out of who we are, as “God’s chosen ones, as God’s holy ones, and as those who are loved by him.   Kindness is not something we decide out of the blue or want to do for a change, but kindness should come naturally with the growing awareness and knowledge of our relationship and standing in Christ.   In kindness, God has chosen us, so we choose to be kind.  God calls us to be holy, so we choose saints who care in divine kindness.   We are loved, so it is natural for us to love and be kind to others.    But as our awareness of God has decreased, so has our ability to be kind.  Kindness has gone missing, because God is missing in many lives.  Some still know how to be polite, but do we still know what it means to be kind?  In a recent U.S. News & World Report poll, 89% of Americans think that rudeness, incivility, and a lack of kindness has become a serious problem in our culture; and that it has gotten much worse in the last 10 years.  As church attendance declines, so does the kindness quotient. 

This is a sermon about kindness, simple kindness, and it’s also about kindness that is harder and harder to find in people.  But in this sermon I want you to see the opportunities that we have, all of us, to put our faith into practice in the most practical way, as Paul says in Colossians, to treat other people, and to treat each other here at church with gentleness, meekness, tenderness, mercy, and kindness.  Sometimes we do; sometimes we don't.  Sometimes it’s simple, sometimes it’s hard.  Kindness is simple, but not so easy. 

When I say it’s not always easy, you know already what I’m talking about.  I'm talking about the woman who runs the cash register at the grocery store. She's had a hard day. Her face is lined with weariness. Her hair is soaked with perspiration. She's beginning to be irritated at the customers, and you're next in line. What are you going to say to her?  How are you going to treat her?  What will you do to make her day better and make her at least wonder whether or  God might be looking down on her?  Might you be that kind?  It’s simple, but sometimes it’s not so easy.  

Several years ago, there was a woman who made my life miserable.   There was a misunderstanding between us and she would not let it go.  She became so angry with me that and she had so much influence in the church, that she made it impossible for me to continue my ministry there.  We took a call to another church, though we were still living in the same community.  A couple of years after that painful chapter of our lives, Teresa met that woman in the grocery store.   When she saw Teresa she froze in fear.   I guess she had told so many lies on us, either or conscious was bother her, or she was afraid Teresa would come over and slug her one.   Teresa did walk up to her.  The woman stepped back.   Then Teresa put her arms around that ‘troubled’ woman and hugged her, telling her, as the woman broke down in tears, “It’s O.K.  It’s O.K.”   Kindness.  It’s simple, but it’s not always easy.

Maybe you heard about the widow, who lived in the country.  In spite of that, she was a very godly lady, but she had a neighbor who was an unbeliever.  He hated the idea of God. He hated the church and he particularly did not like this woman, because of her godliness. He was always being rude to her and very mean to her.   This woman tried repeatedly to reach this man and to build a friendship with this man and to witness to him, but he would have none of it. He despised her. He despised her God and he especially despised her chickens.  You see, this lady had chickens. In fact, it was part of the way that she earned a living, by taking the eggs and selling them.

One day her chickens got out of her yard, into this neighbor's yard and it just infuriated this man. He picked up one of those chickens, wrung its neck and threw it back over the fence. He wasn't even watching where he threw the chicken and she happened to be in the yard and that dead chicken landed at her feet.   When the man saw where the chicken landed, he just turned and stormed into the house.

That evening, the widow knocked on his door and there she was holding a fresh plate of fried chicken.  She gave it to him and said, "I hope you enjoy your dinner." It broke that man's heart and he wound up giving his life to Jesus Christ.   Heaven came down and filled his soul just like that fried chicken filled his stomach.   And it all happened because of a plate of fried chicken.  Now you know why preachers like chicken.   It’s simple, but when you pay for the chicken, or, better yet, if you are the chicken, it’s not easy.

KINDNESS:  SOMETIMES EASY, BUT NOT ALWAYS SO SIMPLE
But as hard as kindness can be, I want you to know that you are never more like God than when you are kind, especially when you are kind to people who don’t deserve it, but need it even more desperately than you do.  

There are people around us every day who need kindness.  Kindness is a needed commodity and a necessary preaching topic.   As a preaching professor says: “kindness is not a controversial preaching topic”  “Sometimes preachers have to preach courageous sermons on very controversial topics.  There are preachers who’ve gotten in big trouble preaching very prophetic sermons on political issues, money issues, or about a host of other controversial issues.   But who’s ever heard about a preacher getting in trouble for preaching on kindness.  As the popular Glenn Campbell song use to say, “Try a little Kindness”!   Everybody knows we need as much kindness as we can get in this world.  Even the Boy Scouts say we need to be brave, thrifty, clean, reverent, and kind.   Well, I'm not looking for trouble, mind you.   But I would like to also suggest that, if we really understood the nature of God’s kindness toward us, and the kind of kindness we should show toward one another, there are plenty of reasons that kindness can get complicated, very complicated.   Kindness can be easy, but not always just that simple.

A case in point is this story from Luke’s gospel.   It tells about a time when kindness was more than a little complicated for Jesus.  In Luke 7: 1-10, we read how a Roman centurion in Capernaum sent some Jewish elders to Jesus, requesting that Jesus come and heal his slave.  Now, you have to read between the lines to see all this, but remember first of all that the Romans were occupiers.  They had invaded Jewish land and taken control.  They were not always ‘nice’ overlords.   This situation could also be tricky.  This man who was sick was a Jewish slave and the centurion wants him healed so he can keep him as his slave.   But the Jewish elders do say that this centurion is kind to his slaves and to all the Jews.  They say, he’s even ‘built’ our synagogue for us.”  Having rulers over you isn’t a good thing, but it helps when they are kind.  So hearing how unique this centurion is, Jesus goes to pay a visit. 

But as they make their approach to the centurion’s house, he comes out to meet Jesus.  What happens next amazes Jesus:   The centurion says:  “Lord,”don’t trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof…but only speak the word and let my servant be healed.  I’m a man of authority, with soldiers under me; and give them all orders”.   It appears that the centurion wants Jesus to help heal his slave, but he doesn’t want Jesus to get to close.  It’s not that he’s embarrassed to be seen with Jesus, but “He’s just not worthy”.  So, he asks that he and Jesus not be seen together at his home, but makes a special request that Jesus just ‘speak the word’ and let the servant be healed.

Jesus did not have to go to this fellow.   This centurion needs something from Jesus, and he can’t give Jesus anything in return.   He can’t let himself and Jesus be seen together.  It’s a big, big risk, both for this centurion to call upon Jesus to come; and it’s an even bigger risk for Jesus to come near his home.  But Jesus did come, at least up to his door step.  Jesus went as far as he is allowed to go, and Jesus might have gone further, but he wasn’t allowed to come in.  Would you heal his servant?  Would call this great faith?  Or would you say this guy wants something for nothing?   How kind would you be?  

Jesus decides to honor the centurion’s request and heal the servant from a distance.  Not only that, but also from a very long distance, across cultures, religions, and all kinds of complicated differences,  Jesus admires the first steps of faith from this centurion who is, at least for now, still his enemy.  Jesus even dared to give the centurion a very big compliment, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith”.   Would you go that far in kindness?   Paying a compliment to your enemy who is an outright sinner, making personal trip to visit your enemy who needs your help, but does not dare to get close to you, nor will ever be able to pay you back?   Then, of all things, granting your enemies request that will help him maintain his dominating rule over you, now that’s kind---almost too kind.   It’s the kind of kindness that will make Jesus very popular with outsiders, sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors and publicans, but it will also make Jesus much hated by insiders.   Even today, for many well established people, Jesus is just too kind.  They can’t believe this form of kindess will work in the real world.  Being kind to the certain kinds of people can get you in trouble.  Have you ever been that kind?

In almost every religious tradition, in order to become a priest or a minister you have to be tested on your theology. You have to be examined to make sure, at least from that point of view of that tradition, that you're theologically sound. I know one tradition that puts candidates for the ministry in front of veteran ministers and lay leaders, and they can ask as many theological questions as they want, until they're satisfied that the candidate is theologically sound. There's one old minister in this group who has asked the same question for 35 years to every single ministerial candidate. He says to the candidate, "Will you look out the window?"
The candidate does.
"Tell me when you see a person out the window."
"I see one."
"Do you know that person?"
"No, sir, I don't."
"Good. Would you describe that person theologically?" He's been asking that question for 35 years and he says that he has found that the answers tend to fall in one of two categories. Either they say "That person is a sinner in need of the saving power of God in Jesus Christ," or they say, "Whether that person knows it or not, that person is a child of God, embraced by the love of God, surrounded by the grace of God."
The old minister commented, "I suppose both of those answers, technically speaking, are correct, but it has been my experience that the ministers who give the second answer make the better ministers because they see people not just as they are, but as they will be in the future of God."   

Kindness is can be easy, but it’s never just that simple.  It’s not simple because kindness believes, sees, hopes, imagines, and dreams things that can be, but are not yet there.  And kindness can dream very big, because ‘kindness is the refusal to see people only in the present tense, but to see them in light of what God is doing to recreate and to redeem their lives.” (From Tom Long, see note below).

Finally, let me tell you another story about a man went to catch an airplane at the airport and found that the flight was delayed, so he sat down in the waiting area of the airport. Right across from the waiting area there was one of the little airport restaurants. It was in the middle of the afternoon, and the restaurant was largely unoccupied. There was only one person there, a homeless man, shabbily dressed, his head down on the Formica table top, resting. It wasn't long before a man who appeared to be the manager of the restaurant made a beeline for the table and my friend thought to himself, "Uh-oh, he's going to throw him out." But instead, as the manager walked past the homeless man's table, he put down a hot dog, just a hot dog. On the way back, he put next to the hot dog, a cup of coffee. A hot dog and a cup of coffee. From one point of view it was kindness, simple kindness. But from the point of view of the faith, the manager was in effect saying, "In a few minutes I'm probably going to have to be the manager of this restaurant, and you're going to have to be a homeless person, and I'm going to have to ask you to leave. But for a moment, just a moment, let us be who we will be in God's future. I’m going to try a little kindness: Welcome to the feast, Brother. Welcome to the feast."  (From Tom Long’s sermon on Kindness found at:  http://www.csec.org/index.php/archives/23-member-archives/346-thomas-long-program-4018).

Kindness is simple, but it’s not always easy.   And Kindness can be easy, but it’s not always so simple.   Kindness can be hard, and it can get very complicated.   How complicated does kindness get?   It’s about as complicated as Henry James was, when he once said to his young nephew, "There are only three things important in human life: be kind, be kind, be kind."  There is nothing more simple, more difficult, more complicated, or more rewarding than to ‘try a little kindness’ you see out on the road of life.  And if you are really daring, try a lot.  We all need it.    Amen.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

“Grabbed by the Bowels”

A sermon based upon Colossians 3: 12; Luke 10: 25-37
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
The Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 21, 2013

As God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion,..  (Col 3:12 NRS)

What kind of clothes are appropriate for church?”  

When I was pastor in Greensboro in 2001, we hired a new college guy to work with youth.  He was a great young man, and talented too.   One Sunday I asked him to play his guitar and sing for worship.  He did a great job and the youth and adults loved his music.   But not long afterward one of our older members came up to me and said, “Preacher, he stands in the pulpit with his shirt-tale out.  Don’t you think this is inappropriate?”  

Dress codes and clothing styles are always changing, at church and everywhere—now even in China and Afghanistan.  Has anyone worn a “cloak” lately?   We all see constant changes in how people dress.   I can remember when the question at church was “do you have to wear a coat or suit?”  Later, it was the question of whether a woman should come to church in pants.  After that, people wondered if you needed to wear a tie or a at least a white shirt?  Can you wear shorts to church in the summer time?  The main concern was this: What kind of clothes make you look like a Christian?  

The concern for what makes for a Christian wardrobe can go too far.  Faith is supposed to be mostly concerned about what’s on the inside, not what’s on the outside.   As Jesus suggested “It’s the things ‘from the heart’ of a person that contaminates us, not the things on the outside” (My translation of Matt. 15 18-20).   Not only can the concern for dress codes go too far, other times they don’t go far enough.  In our text, Paul is worried that some Christian have not gone far enough in considering what it means to ‘dress’ like a Christian in their daily lives.   He sees that they still have on the old clothes of the old life and have not fully “put on’ their ‘Easter’ clothes of the new life.   These ‘Easter’ clothes are the kinds of clothing that make us look like Christ.   When we look like Christ, this is when we really look like a Christian.

In the coming weeks, we will consider some of the main outfits which make up the Christian wardrobe.  Today we begin with the first item in Paul’s Christian clothe closet, when he says at the beginning of verse 12,  “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion….”  

A WORD TOO BIG, ALMOST
The very first article of Christian clothing is a very big word; the word “compassion.”  But even as big a word as ‘compassion’ is, it’s still not big enough.  In fact, in the King James translation, we see a truer reflection of original Greek text of the New Testament which uses ‘two’ words to express  it.  The King James uses the phrase “bowels of mercies”.  Bowels are talked about a lot in the King James; a lot more than we’d like to talk about them at church, especially if we are constipated or about to have a colonoscopy. 

While I haven’t used the word ‘bowels’ much in sermons, in my first pastorate I did use the word ‘belly’ once to describe how full I was after a delightful meal at a member’s house.  A refined, gentile, elderly lady came up to me afterword and complained saying, “How dare you use the word ‘belly’ in the pulpit!”   My answer was, I’m sorry, but don’t blame me, blame the Bible.  How dare the Bible say that Jonah was 3 days in the belly of a big fish?  How dare the Bible talk about bowels and a lot of other things that should make it “R” rated?     

Such ‘uncomfortable’ and outdated language is why most of us prefer newer translations.  They translate these two Greek words in more appropriate ways like put on ‘tender mercy’ (NIRV), or put on “compassionate hearts” (NAB) or even better, ‘be sympathetic’ (GWN), or as the most Basic English translation has it, “Let  your behavior be marked with pity and mercy”.   These are all well and good, and accurate, but none of them quite grab you like being grabbed by the “bowels” do they?   Really, there is a lot of meaningful ancient logic here.   In the ancient world, that is, in the world before Science, it was believed that the seat of our deepest human emotions were not in our head, but were in the stomach or in the bowels where they are often felt.  The things that mattered most to people were those things that could ‘grab you’, yes, ‘grab you in the bowels’

Early scientists came to reason that emotions were concentrated in the spleen.  Today ‘brain research’ has given us all kinds of understandings about emotions, feelings and passions, but don’t think for one minute anyone has or can explain everything---especially when it comes to what creates feelings of compassion in people.  Even the smartest people, people who seem to have everything figured out, can still fail to understand or have compassion.  Hitler and the Nazis were smart people, maybe among the smartest people in the history of the world, but they were also among the least caring and compassionate in history.  And don’t forget this: When the Nazis killed 6 million innocent Jews they also thought they were being Christian.  Such a lack of compassion, from so called ‘Christians” should still grab us by the bowels too!  Much too often the brightest and best among us fail to put on the most basic Christian clothing we call “compassion”.

OUR SOURCE OF COMPASSION
Before we think about what having ‘compassion’ might mean for us today, let’s also think about where Paul got this idea anyway?  Where is Paul coming from when he begins his list of Christian traits as having “compassion?”   Why is ‘compassion’ the very first word on Paul’s list of proper Christian clothing?  

This concept of compassion is a word taken right out of the gospel description of Jesus.   Perhaps the most basic image of Jesus in the whole New Testament is that Jesus was a person who had great ‘compassion’.      As Matthew, says: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” (9:38, NRSV).  Central to everything Jesus was about, from his teaching and healing ministry in Galilee, even to his challenging and confronting the religious and political corruption of Jerusalem was about having compassion.  Right as Jesus entered Jerusalem, in Luke’s gospel, we find Jesus acting out of compassion, wishing that he could ‘gather (Israel) around him like a mother hen gathers her little ones” (Luke 13.34).   Here we see into his heart of compassion that Jesus not only wants to be ‘with’ those who are suffering and hurting, but Jesus wants to help, heal and guide them to find peace, even if it kills him.  And it did.   Having compassion for others can hurt you.  It’s like putting on Sunday clothes that are not comfortable, at least at first.   And for Jesus, having real compassion for real people means being grabbed in the bowels by the pain and hurt of people you love, and even by people you don’t like.

But what does it mean to have compassion like Jesus had?   Let the Bible take all the guess work out of it and bring us right up to date in the real world we live in.   Once, the great Swiss theologian Karl Barth said we all need to read the Bible in one hand with the Newspaper in the other.  Susan Sparks aptly illustrates how the biblical story of Blind Bartimaeus updated for today, can still teach us about what it means to have compassion.  Susan writes:   As Jesus and his disciples were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside.  When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!"
               Several of the disciples went over and said, "Be quiet and wait your turn.  Can't you see there's a crowd waiting to see the Messiah?"
            As Bartimaeus paused in silence, he felt a clipboard being thrust into his hands.
         "Now," said John, one of the bossier of the disciples, "fill out the following thirteen forms.  We need name, address, social security number, next of kin, and whether you have an HMO, PPO, or POS.  Please indicate whether you have additional vision and/or dental coverage.  Check the box on page five if this is a work related injury.  Fill out the duplicate form if you have any secondary insurance, and read and sign the privacy statement at the end and return it to me with your insurance card."
             Bartimaeus paused, "I can't read...I'm blind."
"Well then," said John in a huff, "just give me your insurance card and we'll try to get you in the cue anyway."
            Bartimaeus shook his head in shame, mumbling something under his breath.
"What did you say?" John demanded.
          "I'm uninsured," Bartimaeus said quietly, his eyes averted. 
         "I still can't understand you!" blurted John.
         "I-AM-UNINSURED!" yelled Bartimaeus.
A gasp came from the disciples.  "Uninsured!!??" they said looking at each other with disgust...and the crowd began to back away from Bartimaeus.
          "Do you have cash?"  John demanded?
"No," said Bartimaeus.
         "Do you have a credit card?"
 "No."
         "Do you have a job?"
"No."
         "Well," snapped John, "then you're just gonna have to find another messiah."
 Bartimaeus cried out even more loudly, "Son of David, have mercy on me!"
Jesus heard the man, stopped what he was doing and said, "Who is that? Call him here."
        And they called to the blind man, saying to him, "Take heart; get up, you've apparently been pre-qualified."
       So throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus.  Jesus said to him, "What do you want me to do for you?"  Bartimaeus said to him, "My teacher, let me see again."  Jesus said to him, "Go; your faith has made you well."  Immediately, Bartimaeus  regained his sight.
         And as he left, Jesus turned to the disciples and said, "Under no circumstances is this man to be charged a co-pay."  (http://day1.org/1871-the_true_universal_health_care).

Would Bartimaeus be able to get help today in 2010?   Even though national health care has been approved and may be mandated in a nation where 46 million go uninsured, it still can be reversed.   And even if it isn’t, this is still no guarantee that Health Care will be compassionate.   Think about that nurse in California who wouldn’t administer CPR to a dying resident in a care facility because it went against procedure?  Can a nation that has forgotten God and losing all common sense, really carry out the biblical mandate to care for the sick, to care for the downtrodden, and to care for the poor without doing it for money and profit?   Can people who have lost the ability to care in their closest relationships, know how to care for the stranger?   Can ‘compassion’ really be a part of our everyday vocabulary when we think meaning and life comes from following after our own passions?   Scripture says we should ‘cast all our care upon him because he cares for us” (1 Peter. 5:7).  Galatians 6:2 urges us to "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."  In Matthew 10:7, Jesus offers directs his disciples, and says, "As ye go, proclaim the good news, heal the sick, cleanse the lepers...freely give as you have received."  But can we be a people like this when we lose the whole concept of “going’ of ‘good news’  and of ‘giving’ because we live in a world of ‘bad news’ and taking, holding on, and we have become hooked, if not addicted, to having much more than we will ever need.  How can we dare to believe we can have compassion like Jesus had compassion in a world that is losing compassion fast?

THE WAY OF CHRISTIAN COMPASSION
When Jesus wanted to teach a compassionless world how to have compassion, he gave them an unforgettable story---a story to grab them by the bowels---the story of the Good Samaritan.    

In the story of Good Samaritan, Jesus wanted to teach a lawyer who his neighbor was.   Now, you would think an educated lawyer would already know who his neighbor was.   But there are something they don’t even teach you in law school---or any school, except maybe Sunday School and who goes to Sunday School anymore?  So, to help this lawyer know who his neighbor was, Jesus told about a man leaving Jerusalem who was robbed and beaten and no one, not the priest nor the Levite, would stop and help him.  Then a half-breed Samaritan comes along who not only stops, but takes care of the man, dresses his wounds and pays for his care.   It’s rather embarrassing, that it is the person that nobody liked who became God’s hero.

After Jesus tells this shocking story, he looks at the lawyer, who was so good at asking hard questions so Jesus asked him a simple question one, which was very easy, but also terribly hard for him to want to answer.  Jesus asked the lawyer, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”   So the lawyer gave the right answer, because he had too, he was a lawyer.  He said the one who was a neighbor was the ‘one who showed mercy to him’ ----that is, not the one who only ‘felt compassion’, but the one who actually stopped and got into the ditch and ‘showed’ his compassion with an actual deed of mercy.    

Then Jesus turns to his disciples and says, "Go and do likewise."   Don’t you just hate it when the preacher points you out?   But Jesus looks directly at us and says, Ok, here it is---here is compassion, loud and clear, “Now, you---yes I mean you who think you already done enough---you who think you don’t have time—you who already have too much to do----you who don’t want to get involved …YES JESUS MEANS YOU…. GO and DO likewise---be compassionate to each other like this Samaritan was.  You will do this, Right?  Right?  Ok, we’ll pay the preacher to do it.  That’s how we’ll do it.  Yeah, right! 

I’ll never forget it was one of our first Sunday’s as a pastor of a German Baptist Church.  We stayed after the service to have an extended prayer meeting.  During the prayer time, while prayer requests were being voiced, we heard someone crying in the street.  My wife and I both looked at each other.  Being new in town and unfamiliar with the surroundings, we didn’t know if it was normal or not.  We looked for signs in the faces of the others.  Everyone was preparing to pray and paying it no attention.   No one seemed concerned.  The cries got louder and louder.  Finally, my wife spoke up and asked the prayer leader,
       “Shouldn’t we go and see what’s the matter.  Someone sounds as if they are hurting.”  
       “Oh, it’s just the children next door.  It’s nothing.”
We were submissive to our new, more experienced church members.  We didn’t get up and go to the window.  We didn’t want to disturb what we were doing, or what they were teaching us.  We tried to block the screams from our ears and get on with the prayer meeting.  After a while, it finally stopped.   We kept on praying.

The very next morning, while trying to read the German newspaper, I read that a child had been struck by a car in the street that ran along beside the church.  The paper said that the child lay their awhile before anyone came to his aid.   Fortunately, the paper did not say that it happened right beside where we were having church---where we kept on having church and ignored the screams of an injured child.

I didn't see the finale of the hit TV show Seinfeld, but I know how it went.  In the conclusion of the Seinfeld Series, the show assumed that everyone knows, even people who have never been to Sunday School or Church----about the GOOD SAMARITAN.  In that final show, the four main characters, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer, ---find themselves stuck in a small town in Massachusetts.  At one point, they make their way along a sidewalk, and they end up standing by and watching as a very fat man gets robbed.   Rather than help the man or call for the police, they look on and laugh at the chubby fellow’s plight.  As a result, the four of them get arrested, charged with violating the town’s Good Samaritan Law, a law that requires people to do what the Good Samaritan did---the have compassion and to show with a deed of mercy  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Finale_(Seinfeld).

Do we need a law like that?  We already have a law like that----It’s called God’s law.  In the end, this is the only law that will stand up in court.  In the end, this is the only kind of clothes we are required to wear.  In the end, we will realize that the hurting person on our own street is Jesus.   Do you hear him crying?   Will you put on the right clothes and go out to help?   Does his hurt grab you in your bowels—that deep?   

Social Historian Rodney Stark says that the rapid growth of the early church could be attributed to one major factor.  When epidemics and diseases overcame pagan communities, most of the pagan people, even their doctors would scatter.  For the most part, in a world before hospitals and hospice, they would leave their very sick patients and family member behind so they could saved themselves.  But as they were going out the door, leaving town, or running for their lives along the road, who did they meet along the way, but Christians.  Christians who had the compassion and care of Jesus in their hearts so strong, that they didn’t care what happened to them---they were only worried about what happened to those who were left behind.  So these Christians, these ‘real’ Christians, went to care for the sick and the dying, even at the risk of their own lives, because they cared like Jesus.   

Since they had given their lives to Jesus completely already, the risk and the danger to themselves didn’t matter.   Their lives were not their own.   In this world they were going to be care for people because Jesus cared for people.   It was out of such compassion, that both hospitals and church houses were built.  To have compassion like Jesus meant to move toward the hurt and pain, and not to run from it or to ignore it. (“The Rise of Christianity” Chapters 4 and 5, Rodney Stark).  

This kind of compassion contributed to the rise of Christianity in the pagan world.   And this kind of compassion can raise up a dead church or a spiritually dead people today.   These are the clothes of life we must put on so that the cries and needs of others will grab us ‘by the bowels’. Amen.


Sunday, April 14, 2013

“Take It All Off”

A sermon based upon Colossians 3: 5-11 (THE MESSAGE)
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
The Third Sunday of Easter, April 14, 2013

In our younger years, my wife and I loved to camp.    Once, we tried camping in Germany, so I asked my chair of deacons to suggest a camping site not far away from us.   He suggested a beautiful place in the mountains, outside of Dresden and not far from the border with the Czech Republic.  They even had an antique German train you could ride and a lake for swimming.

The morning after we had camped our first night, our daughter wanted to go swimming.  Since it was still very chilly, around 60 or so degrees, we were not going swimming, but we took our daughter anyway.  We were the first ones at the lake shore, so we made ourselves comfortable in our own little spot as our daughter started to play in the edge of the cool water. 

Not long after we settled down, still in our jeans and long sleeves, a grandfather and his young grandson came and made their spot near us.  The next thing that happened shocked us.   The grandfather helped his grandson undress down to his ‘birthday suit’.   Then the grandfather did the same.   We could not believe it.  But it got worse.   In the next hour the entire campground was full of people in the very same attire.  I could not believe that my German deacons had recommended a nudist colony for our family vacation.  But really they didn’t.  I later found out that this was the norm for bathing and swimming in eastern Germany.   I had a missionary friend in Germany who later told me that his own chairman of deacons tried to get him to go on vacation with him many times.  Jim always refused, saying, “I’m not going on vacation with all my clothes off.” 

I’ve only been to one ‘nudist colony’, but I wouldn’t recommend it.   I don’t think the apostle Paul would recommend it either but he does want us to ‘take it all off’.   Paul knows that you can’t put on your Easter clothes until you take off your old wardrobe.   Before you put Easter on, you have to take off your normal, everyday clothes.  It is even sillier than going to a nudist colony to try to wear Easter without taking your old clothes off.    You can’t wear different sets of clothing at the same time.   But some people do try it.

YOU MUST STRIP IT ALL OFF
Max Lucado tells the story of Bob, who was born into the land of coats!  His mother loved the color blue and made Bob's first cost a lovely shade of blue. Every time she noticed her son in his lovely blue coat, she cheered, "Yes, Bob!" He felt good in his blue coat, but Bob had to grow up and go to work. So he put on his best blue coat and slipped out of the house, going to his new job. The people on the street saw him and began to yell, "Yuk, Yuk!" Their coats were yellow and they hated blue.

Into a store ducked Bob and bought a yellow coat, put it over his blue coat and continued on his way to work. The people cheered, "Yea! Bob!" Bob felt good in his yellow coat over his blue coat. He stepped into his bosses office to get his assignment for that first day. He sat waiting for this boss, who came in, looked at him and yelled, "Yuk!" Bob jumped up, took off the yellow coat and stood waiting for approval in his blue coat. The boss yelled, "Double Yuk! Bob. Here at work we wear green coats!" With that, Bob slipped back on the yellow coat, over the blue coat and put the green coat on top. "Yea! Bob!" said the boss. As he left for work, Bob felt good.

After work, Bob slipped off the green coat, put it under the yellow coat and walked proudly home. He opened the door, went inside, as his mother looked at him with a "Yuk" on her lips. Bob quickly changed coats, putting the lovely blue one on top. Mom whispered, "Yea! Bob!"

Bob got so good at changing coats until he became a popular man around town. He changed coats so swiftly until he had folks fooled into believing that whatever coat they had on, he had it on too. Bob loved hearing the crowd say, "Yea! Bob!" He couldn't stand hearing "Yuk" Bob was elected mayor of the Town of Coats and had a faithful constituency. One day he heard a noise outside of his window and then heard a pounding on his door. The Yellow Coats brought in a man wearing no coat. "Kill him!" they cried, "he doesn't fit in!" In his yellow coat, Bob said, "Leave him to me."

"Man, where is your coat?" he asked. The man said, "I wear no coat." Bob replied, "everybody wears a coat. What color do you choose?" The man responded the second time, "I wear no coat." By then the Green Coats had gathered under Bob's window. Running to the window, his green coat on top, Bob yelled down to them, "I have it under control." The Green Coats shouted, "Kill him!" At this time his mother entered into the room, and Bob slipped his blue coat on top. "Bob, where is his blue coat?" Mother asked, The Man replied, "I don't wear a coat." "Kill him," said Mother as she left Bob and the man alone.

"Man, said Bob, you have to wear a coat or they are going to kill you." "Bob," said the man, "you need to decide to stop wearing your different coats.  Take them off, take them all off and let the world see who you truly are." "Take them off? Take them all off?" asked an incredulous Bob. The man said again, "Bob, you have to make a choice."  As the crowd kept crying, "Kill him!" Bob washed his hands, opened the door and marched the man toward sure death. The man looked at Bob, with one final word, "Choose." Bob was left alone with his three coats and the questions ringing in his mind, "Take them off? Take them all off?"

When Paul wrote tor to the Colossians, the people of God were wrestling with all kinds of questions about Jesus.   They were confused about which kind of “Christian” , “Religious” or “Philosophical” coat to put on.  They had the same question that many still have: Who was Jesus?  Was he a wonderful human teacher, Divine Son of God or some combination of the two?   Even today, people still try to figure Jesus out, making him out to be a combination of great human intellect, strains of Judaism with Christian truth and Greek wisdom.   Then and now, there are so many ways to look at Jesus and still miss what Jesus was about.  Paul deals with all the question about the divinity, death and resurrection of Jesus and explains how this world's teachings are empty compared with God's plan for us in Jesus Christ.   In his way, Paul seems to say that the Christian life is not about figuring Jesus out, nor it is merely about believing in him.   The Christian life, that is the resurrected life, he speaks about is much more than figuring Jesus out, but it is living in a constant, continual, and daily relationship with a living Lord whom we can’t figure out, but we still follow. 

Listen to the Peterson translation, called The Message, as I read Chapter 3, verses 1-11:  Sisters and brothers, if you are serious about living this new resurrection life with Christ, act like it.  Pursue the things over which Christ presides. Don't shuffle along, eyes to the ground, absorbed with things right in front of you. Look up and be alert to what is going on around Christ--that's where the action is.  See things from his perspective.

Your old life is dead. Your new life, which is your real life--even though invisible to spectators--is with Christ in God. Christ is your real life. When Christ shows up again on this earth, you'll show up too--the real you, the glorious you.   Meanwhile, be content with obscurity, like Christ. That means killing off everything connected with the way of death, sexual promiscuity, impurity, lust, doing whatever you feel like whenever you feel like it and grabbing whatever attracts your fancy. That's a life shaped by things and feelings instead of by God. It's because of this kind of thing that God is about to explode in anger.

 It wasn't long ago that you were doing all that stuff and not knowing any better. But, you know better now. So make sure it's all gone for good, bad temper, irritability, meanness, profanity and dirty talk. Don't lie to one another. You are done with that old life. It's like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you've stripped off and put in the fire. Now you're dressed in a new wardrobe. Every item of your new way of life is custom made by the Creator. It has a Designer label on it. All the old fashions are now obsolete. Words like Jewish and non-Jewish, religious and irreligious, inside and outsider, civilized and uncouth, slave and free mean nothing. From now on everyone is defined by Christ. Everyone is included in Christ. So, dressed by God for this new life of love, put on the wardrobe God picked out for you."

So what does it mean: "Take it off? Take it all off?”  Paul responds, "Take off all the old, put on the new."  When you take it all off, like those people in the nudist camp, you stand naked before the Lord.   You take off the politically correct, the socially good, and the morally expedient coats and you stand naked before Christ in order to be fitted with the appropriate new Christian garb.   You put away all the world's popular options and opinions and you stand up for Jesus.  This passage says that deceiving ourselves and trying to fool others with all the ‘coats’ we put on is not sufficient for eternal life.   This text rightly declares that there are some things we can no longer ‘put on’ and call ourselves Christ-like.  We have to take off all kinds of things before we can put the new clothes on.  Have you ‘taken them off’—HAVE YOU TAKEN IT ALL OFF?

When I was in the first grade at Mulberry Street School, I loved my teacher Mrs. Stevenson and my class.  But in those first few weeks I was having a little trouble getting used to getting up early, dressing myself, and going to school.  We didn’t have Kindergarten in those days, so you had to learn everything fast.  Sometimes—too fast.   One morning, after I arrived at school I felt that my arms were not moving like they should.  I looked at my sleeve and under my long-sleeved shirt I was still wearing my pajamas.   I immediately started to panic.  What will people say?  They will laugh at me?  I’d better hide these things.  I didn’t even think about going to the bathroom and taking them off, but I wore them all day, worrying that people would see them and make fun of me.  Right then and there, I realized that before you put on your clothes, you’d better take you other clothes off.

There are still people who think that they can wear two kinds of clothes at once and not get caught.  But you will never be what God wants you to be until you take those old clothes off.   You need to take off that  quick anger and that filthy temper.  We have to take off that meanness which allows us to do three snaps and a flip of the third finger, when someone cuts us off on the highway.  We have to take off that dirty language and spirit that just slips out. We have to take off telling those nasty jokes which make fun of God's people who don't look like us. We have to take off lying, which we claim "everybody does." All of those things belong to the outdated, outmoded BC wardrobe of Before Christ!

YOU MUST CHOOSE TO BE DIFFERENT
When Christ comes there is a difference.  When Christ comes there is newness. When Christ comes, we change clothes. And before we put anything on, we take everything off.   We can stand naked before the one who knows us intimately and loves us just the same.   Tell me, what color coat are you wearing right now? Are you still wearing stripped pajamas under your new clothes or are those prison stripes?   Some of us don’t only keep old clothes on, we keep changing coats, which are dependent upon where we happen to be. Many of us went to worship this morning and had on our socially correct coat. All the neighbors in the pews, smiled and said, "Yea!" But if you wear that church coat to dinner, or to the show, or keep it on at home, what would the people around you say? We can't stand to hear the people say, "Yuk!"

Jesus stands with one word for all of us today--choose! Choose by making the decision for him today to put off the old clothes once and for all.  No more coat changing for me, nor is it good for you.  We should learn to  choose to stand naked before Christ and to allow him to dress me with his wardrobe of love. All that I have comes from God.  While I was yet lost in my sins, wearing all the nasty coats, trying to cover myself, God loved the world so much, until Jesus came to die for my sin and to rise that I might have eternal life.  How can I dare to continue slipping off one coat into another coat, while every coat I have belongs to God!

I love something I saw come through from Bennie and Kim’s Myers Facebook page.   I don’t use Facebook much, so don’t try to communicate that way, if it’s urgent.  But I liked this message.  Kim said that this was her motto.  It’s a good one.  It was a quote from Dave Ramsey.   It’s sounded a lot like a message about “Coats”.  She started out introducing it by saying when you stop trying to keep up with the Jones, you can be more contented in life and you’ll have a new perspective.   Then she gave this quote from Ramsey:  “Don’t buy things you can’t afford, with money you don’t have, for people you don’t even like.”   Another way to say that is that some folks would rather have houses and lands.  Other folks choose silver and gold. These things they treasure but they forget about their souls.   The only way to dress you soul is to make Jesus your choice.  You start to make Jesus your choice by getting naked before him.   You have to take it off.  Take it all off.  You can’t be dressed by the one who has a divine design for you until you take it all off. Today, dear ones, I invite you to choose Jesus, and to start by taking it off! 

This is how it goes.  We know it and we sing it, but we also need to do it:  "All to Jesus, I surrender. All to him, I freely give. I will ever love and trust him, in his presence daily live. I surrender all. I surrender all. All to thee, my blessed Savior, I surrender all."     Linda Hollis, a Methodist decided to get naked for Jesus.   She prayed this prayer:  “Glorious God, when they wrote this song in 1896, maybe life was not so complicated. Today I find it difficult to come straight with anybody, even you.  Help me to take off all my political, social, moral and even church coats and surrender my total self to your loving care.  I surrender all!  In the name of the One who knows me best and loves me just the same, I pray.  And God’s people said: Amen.

YOU MUST HAVE A SAFE PLACE TO CHANGE
Before we really say “Amen”, I’ve got one more point to make.   Before we can take off our clothes, we need to find a safe place, don’t we?   When I need new clothes, I hate to go try them on, but I must.  And if I’m going to do that I need a safe place.  I want the dressing room way over there in the corner.  It’s got to be real safe.  When all those Germans were getting naked in front of me, I just sat there with my blue jeans and long sleeve shirt and sunglasses.  It was even embarrassed about being there fully clothed.  Most of us are not willing to bare all---including our souls, unless we know that we are in a safe place.   Maybe that’s part of what Paul is talking about when he says our life is “hidden” with Christ.    We all need a ‘safe’ place to try on new clothes where people will not laugh at us, make fun of us, or ridicule us when we get naked or the clothes don’t just fit us right.   We will not ‘take it off’ until we know we are in a safe place.  Is this church a ‘safe’ place? 

In his book, Finding Virtue in the Vice, pastor Robin Meyers begs churches to become safe havens for all kinds of people who need to come to church, not be laughed at or ridiculed for who they are not, but who need safe places where they can come as they are and feel free to expose what is not yet made perfect.  But for them to come to church, the church needs to make a safe place for them.  Can we do that?  Only, if we take it all off first ourselves.  When everybody stands around naked, no body laughs.  I guarantee that.  I’ve seen it with my own eyes.  Amen.
    

Sunday, April 7, 2013

It’s Not Magic, It’s Practice

A sermon based upon Colossians 3: 1-10
By Rev. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
The Second Sunday of Easter, April 7, 2013

“So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God”  (Colossians 3:1).

I want to begin a new series of sermons from Paul’s letter to the Colossians about what Easter should mean in our daily lives as followers of Jesus Christ.   Today we begin with some very big, little words.  “So if….”  

IF” is a mighty big word for only two letters, isn’t it?   In English we use the word “if” to express all kinds of conditional ideas.   Interestingly, this word “if” appears all over the place in New Testament.  I know many of us might think of Christianity as a ‘done deal’.  In other words, you’ve walked the isle, you’ve been baptized, you’ve joined the church, you’ve given your tithe, or maybe you’ve even been on a mission trip, so then, you know that you are already a Christian---right?   Well, maybe, or maybe not!  Stanley Hawerwas teaches Christian Ethics at Duke, but he says there is no way that he is a Christian yet.  He says he’s working on it, but he’s not yet there.  What in the world does he mean by that? 

SO IF……   
Let’s start by thinking about this phrase:  “So if….”   In the New Testament, what is means to follow Jesus is as much “qualified” as it is assured.   Peter writes about the very conditional nature of Christian living saying, “FOR IF these things are yours (the Christian virtues like gentleness, compassion etc) and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.  For anyone who lacks these things is nearsighted and blind, and is forgetful of the cleansing of past sins (2Pe 1:8-9 NRS).   For if… So if…   This whole idea of a Christian life based upon certain conditions and it all started with Jesus, remember?   In Luke’s gospel we read how Jesus said to them all (not just his disciples), "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luk 9:23 NRS).   The conditional nature of faith gets even stronger in John’s gospel, where Jesus declares:  "If you love me, you will keep my commandments.  And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. (Joh 14:15-16 NRS).   In another place Jesus says,  “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you can ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (Joh 15:7 NRS) In other words, Jesus is saying:  You can have my abiding presence with you always, “IF”.   You can ask anything, and I will do it…. IF.   Now, that’s a very big IF.  

But don’t misunderstand what Jesus is saying.  The “conditional” nature of faith is not a trick to keep some of us out of God’s good favor nor is it a standard so high so God can keep all his goodness and grace to himself.   If I understand Jesus, Paul and Peter properly, I believe that each one of them are trying to invite us “into” God’s good grace and favor rather than trick us out of it.   I don’t think Jesus nor Paul were trying to draw lines about who’s in or who’s out, but I believe they are trying to help us locate the lines of God’s goodness so that we can know where it is, how to find it, and come to discover the fullness of what it means to have all Jesus has come to offer.  Isn’t this exactly what Jesus meant when he said:  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you (Joh 15:7 NRS).  Jesus is not trying to make in impossible to get what we need from God, but Jesus wants to make all things possible through prayer.



….YOU HAVE BEEN RAISED WITH CHRIST.
The very next part of Paul’s discussion could sound even more confusing.  How is Paul talking about being “raised’ with Christ and we’re not even dead yet?     

Did you hear the big news that some scientists today are already talking about ‘reversing death’?   I heard someone suggesting that when we die, our brains do not die immediately, but might take several hours after our hearts stop.    If we are young or strong enough, it is conceivable that even if we have had a life threatening injury, if we get to the right hospital, get to the right emergency room and get the right doctor, then maybe, just maybe they could bring you back.  

I think the much bigger question is not will or can ‘they’ bring you back, but should they?  If you get a life threatening injury, are you worth bringing back?   Or do they need to go ahead and make room for someone else, stronger, younger, smarter, better looking.   You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?  You see the questions these days, with all the high tech advancement is less and less what can we do, but it is becoming more and more, ‘what should we’ or what ‘ought’ we to do or not to do.   The great questions of life are less and less scientific and more ethical, less and less physical, and more of a spiritual nature.  If you are dead, should they bring you back?   As I’m writing this, a great controversy has arisen about a California woman who was in an Assisted Living facility and had cardiac arrest.  The nurse on duty refused to perform CPR because it was against policy.  This whole scenario proves what I’m talking about.   The qreat questions of the future are not what can we do, but what should we do, or what should we not do.  These are the great future questions of a society that is having to learn it can’t have or do just everything or anything.  There are limits to what we should, could and can do.

So, back to my question: Should they bring you back?   Is it really worth bringing you back to life if you never were really alive to begin with?   In a world where 90’s percent of health care costs are taking place in the last year of life, we are having to learn that we can’t finance immortality.    But as we realize our limits and start asking harder questions, still the greatest question is ARE YOU ALIVE RIGHT NOW?  I don’t mean, is your heart beating, but are you living the kind of life that will make you and others say, YOU ARE REALLY ALIVE. 

This is what Paul means when he speaks about ‘being raised with Christ’ now, before you die.   What does it mean to be the living, human person you were intended to be, to be all you can be, and to live the way you, as a human person, are supposed to live.      Again, these are not scientific questions which can be observed in a Biology lab or even in a Hospital room.   Cells are cells, but to answer ‘who you are’ and ‘who you ought’ to be takes us into a whole other realm far beyond science and more in the realm of faith.   WHO SHOULD YOU BE REALLY?   Are you ready to think about that?    

In recent years, there has been a Zombie craze in American life.   Last year, there was even some mass hysteria recorded about the Center of Disease Control releasing a new bulletin about a zombie apocalypse taking place, not unlike all those folks who thought Orson Well’s radio talk about the landing of aliens was real in the fiction story entitled, “War of the World.”   But the threat of Zombies is more real than we might think.  Often mass ‘fears’ like this reflect real ‘fear’ in our culture.  The talk of the War of the Worlds took place in 1938 just before there was a real ‘world war’.   All this talk of Zombies might also reflect something tragic in our own culture.  Could it be that with the rise of high tech devices that more and more of us acting like Zombies to one another, when we text and drive, or when we lose our ability to talk to each other in real-life conversations?  Are we not getting dangerously close to becoming a ‘zombie’ people, who for all we want have become a people who are neither hot or cold, dead or alive, still living, but acting very dead---dead but still alive?

Evidently this kind of thing happens a lot.  People can die before they are dead.  People can walk around the living dead. People can make choices in life that kill their chances to live a full and meaningful life.    Christians can fail to be like Christ.   Churches can fail to be Christian.  For Paul, at least in this passage from his letter to the Colossians, Paul is very concerned about his own culture, even the Christian and Church culture, that have been given ‘words’ of life, but are still living as if they are still ‘dead’ in their sins.  This is what happened to them, but surely it would never happen to us, right?  We know better than to do the things that take the very life out of us, or to kill ourselves with bad life choices, even before we die a natural death.  Don’t we know better than this?

Recently CBS 60 minutes had a news program about a young, energetic, and very decorated soldier, who at a very young age, took his own life.  He had survived terrible battles of war.  He had even survived coming back to the states.  He had been on a trip to help people in Haiti.   He had even been involved in a cycling program to build up his courage and desire for life.   But none of it worked.  He still committed suicide.  Even though he was young, handsome, brave and courageous, and had the world by the tail, the war in Afghanistan had sucked the very life out of him.  Twenty-two service men commit suicide every day and more have died at their own hand, that at the hand of the enemy they’ve been up against.   War kills ever its victors.    Just because you win and are alive, doesn’t necessarily mean you are REALLY ALIVE.   

Earlier in this letter the apostle Paul wrote, “For In Him, the whole fullness of deity dwells in a body.”  By being ‘full of God’, Jesus was also ‘full of life’.  Jesus even said his main goal was to bring people ‘life’ and to bring it ‘abundantly’ (John 10:10).   Whatever the gospel of Jesus means, part of it means that God does not want you dead, he want’s you alive!   He wants you alive in Christ, alive in the fullness of God, and alive as a human person who has been “raise” to ‘newness’ of life in Jesus Christ.   This main theme of the preaching of the early church was not mainly about life in heaven when you die, but it was about knowing about ‘heaven’ so that you could be ‘raised with Christ’ here and now---so that you can move out of a zombie-like emotionless existence into the fullness and energy for the life God wants you and I to have HERE AND NOW.

Before we get to Paul’s final point about how ‘new’ energy for life could and should happen, go back to Colossians 2.20.   Here we read about another big “IF”.  Paul wants to introduce us to what’s could be killing us, even before we die.   But before he shows us what can bring life, he wants us to see what can’t bring life.  And the culprit who keeps us dead and dying is a very surprising one too.   Do you see it?  Paul writes:  “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world? Why do you submit to regulations, "Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch"?  All these regulations refer to things that perish with use; they are simply human commands and teachings. These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility, and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence. (Col 2:20-23 NRS). 

The surprising point from Paul is that ‘legalistic religion’ does not bring life.  It kills us even more.   Rules and regulations are the human parts of God’s law that promote good things, but they can’t do anything to keep you alive.   If you only follow God only for ‘legal’ reasons, YOU END UP DEAD too, still dead in your sins and still dead in your spiritual life.  The point Paul is making is that new life does not come by just stopping bad things, or even by changing the things we do ‘on the outside’, but new life only comes by ‘changing from the inside out’ and adding a whole new dimension to living.   Take the alcoholic, for instance.  You don’t stop alcoholism by simply taking the alcohol away.   Alcohol, drugs or any kind of addiction is not the whole problem.   It can become a problem, but it’s not the heart of the problem.   Prohibition was, and still is a disaster.  No, if you want to be free, you have to find the bigger problem and the true solution.  And the solution starts by asking whether or not a person is willing to submit to another, higher power in their lives.  It’s the same with gun addictions as it is with alcohol.  The problem is not the guns.  The problem is the emptiness in the person.  It’s not what they are doing wrong, as much as what they are not doing right, and what is missing in their lives.   You won’t save the world by getting rid of alcohol, nor will you save America by getting rid of guns, but you can save us all by putting God back on the throne of our lives.   This is what Paul is saying.  You don’t get life just by getting rid of something, but you’ve got to put something, which is really someone, back into the power seat of your life.  YOU’VE GOT TO BE RAISED WITH CHRIST on this side of heaven, not just on the other.

SEEK THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE ABOVE….  
O.K.  I know you are ready for me to tell you ‘how’ all this happens.  How do we find and keep finding new life in Christ, the kind of life that makes us glad to be alive and makes others glad that we are alive?   Paul’s answer is: “Seek those things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of GodSET YOUR MIND ON THINGS THAT ARE ABOVE, not on the things that are on earth, for you have died, and YOUR LIFE IS HIDDEN WITH CHRIST IN GOD.  When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”  (Colossians 3: 1-4).  Got it?  I didn’t think so. 

When you think about it, this is really a strange way to find life for living a full and meaningful life on earth isn’t it?  How does setting your mind on things ‘above’, and ‘on Christ’ who is now hidden away and not fully revealed’ anywhere nor manifested in any real, important or powerful way in this world---how do we get life out of someone who means little or nothing to how most people live their lives right now?  It’s sounds a lot like trying to figure out how to get something nothing, doesn’t it?  

Not long ago, David Copperfield, the Magician was flying from Las Vegas to New York to the Today Show, but had plane trouble and hand to land in Illinois.  Even though he could not make it to the show, they set up cameras in the airport hangar so that he could ‘go on with the show’.   So that he would disappoint, he did an amazing trick, holding up a sheet and then having an person with emergency lights suddenly appear from behind the sheet ‘out of nowhere’.  He seemed to bring something, or someone out of nothing.   How did he do that?  It was magic, or was it?

When I was in college, Tom Query was a Christian musician studying at Gardner Webb.  We all loved to watch his show.  It made him a very popular man around campus.  One day I got him to stop by my dorm room to show us a few tricks.   “How do you do this, Tom?”  It asked.  It’s really amazing,  “How do you get things to appear out of nowhere?”  Do you know what Tom’s Christian answer was?   He said, “Joey, as a Christian entertainer, who can’t give away all the tricks of his trade, all I can tell you is this: “It’s not magic, but it’s practice, and practice and more practice.

I believe this is exactly where the Paul is taking us in this text.   When Paul tells us that we are to ‘seek things that are above’, he’s not telling us that the Christian life comes like magic, but he is telling us to put the life of Jesus to ‘practice’ in our lives right now.  On my guitar, I have a motto that says, “Praise is the language spoken in Heaven, start practicing now!”   What we practice now, what we do now, what we give our lives to now, is what brings life to us.  It not magic, but it’s practice!    But practice what?

Fred Anderson, a pastor from New York, tells about the habit of some people in his city to dress in such a way that they appear to be ‘powerful”, talented, people who have it all together, and to dress like people you would want to hire, make a deal with, or do business with.   They call this ‘power dressing’.   You put on the right clothes and you make a much better impression, and you will probably make a better deal, get a better job and have a better life.   That’s the idea of ‘power dressing’.   This is exactly where Paul goes next.  Next, he will move from ‘set your mind on things above’, to ‘put off your old clothes and ‘clothe yourself in with the new self”.   The new self, the living self, the glad to be alive self, and the ready to die self, is the kind of self that has become ‘new’ in Jesus Christ.    This is where Paul is headed in this conversation and its where we are headed too.  For now, Paul says that if you want a resurrected life and a new self, he says don’t settle for less, but set your sights high, real high, as high or even higher than you can imagine.   The whole point is that if you don’t aim for a target, you will miss it every time.  If you don’t practice hitting the target of the life you need,  you won’t ever have it.  But to hit the target of a full and meaningful life, you’ve got to practice.  It’s not magic, and it’s not as far away as you think, it’s just aiming and then practice, practice and more practice.   Amen.