Sermon December 30, 2012


“The Things That Were Taught”


December 30, 2012

The Reverend Jonah K. Smith-Bartlett


Colossians 3:12-17

12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord[1] – has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ[2] 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.[3] 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.


Graham Greene, who is widely considered to be one of the foremost Christian writers of the 20th century, wrote a short story in his earlier years about a middle aged man who took a date back to the countryside where he had grown up.  As she rests from the trip, he quietly exits the hotel to go search for the places where his feet most often trod as a child – the schoolyard, the street outside his old home.

He finds himself drawn by some lingering memory to an old stone fence and runs his hands and fingers across its rough edges.  In a small crevice he finds a weathered drawing that he had made as a boy.  They were scribbles of innocence – about what a child understood to be love.

The protagonist, and Greene for that matter, very well understood that a child’s understanding of love gets a bit more complex as the child grows older.  Complexity certainly isn’t a bad thing, but it becomes complicated too.  That first sense of feeling loved – offered to us by parents, siblings, grandparents, friends, and God suddenly has an astoundingly long list of caveats, footnotes, and addendums.  Complexities.  Perhaps in many ways we are all the richer for it.  But perhaps every once in a while, every now and again, we simply yearn for the innocent and unspoken feeling of love abounding.

The thesis here is that Greene didn’t need to single out “love” as the word becoming increasingly complicated by time and perspective.  He could have chosen forgiveness or joy.  He could have chosen family or home.  And he could have chosen church.  He could have subtly pressed an early understanding of church inside the crevices of the old stone fence.  And when we rediscovered it – we mature churchgoers, would we now be surprised by what we saw?

Our epistle reading this morning is from Colossians.  Scholars don’t all agree whether it was written by Paul or an early follower of Paul, but it was written to the church at Colossae, near Ephesus in Asia Minor.  And it is one early understanding of church.

The writer, Paul or otherwise, is telling the Colossians how they are to live in their new life in Christ, abandoning old practices, and remaining very wary of false prophets.  Now this is absolutely written in individual terms, but they are words for the community as well.  For they are called “in one body” as the text says.  Members of the body of Christ.

And they, the church, are instructed to do this: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Bear with one another.  Forgive each other.  Above all, clothe yourselves with love.”

These are words for the Colossians but I think that we would be remiss to reach the conclusion that they are not words applicable to us as well.  This – “above all, clothe yourselves with love” – the most important words for the church at Colossae near Ephesus in Asia Minor, why shouldn’t these be the most important words for the American church as well?

This church, our church specifically, is a fascinating one.  I have grown from my experiences working and participating here.  I have learned so much.  This is a very different church from the small church in New Haven that nurtured my faith, baptized me, and ordained me; and both offer different testimonies to the importance of a Christ centered community.

Here, however, we are able to participate in programs, events, trips, opportunities… that most churches in the world can’t even realistically conceive.  We have had great theologians and intellectuals to write adult education materials and to lead forums for conversation about everything from original sin to unconditional grace.  We have been blessed with the energy and talent of an incredible music program, beautiful weekly solos, guest instrumentalists, and even Friday evenings dedicated to sacred music.  And we have the most robust youth program east of the Mississippi River (somewhat official geographic fact), the opportunity to partner with churches and do service work all around the country, the privilege to lead youth worship services, and the chance to just fellowship with one another away from the stresses of school and everyday life.  Opportunity for Christian formation abounds here.  Here where the peace of Christ rules in our hearts and to where we are called into one body.  Here our cups runneth over.

This is an appropriate text for a morning of celebrating a baptism.  It is an honor and a privilege to baptize Karlee into the church this morning.  It is an honor and privilege for all of us present here and those who are unable to be here this morning.  Besides being a time of great celebration, it also presents us with a moment to reflect.  Inevitably, Karlee will have lots of friends and family members who she will want to tell all about the Congregational Church of New Canaan.  And there is a very distinct possibility that she could say more than one of the following things.  “I had the chance to study the book of Genesis with a Professor of Old Testament at Yale.”  “I now know all about the music of Handel’s Messiah by heart.”  “I travelled to a Native American reservation in Arizona and meditated at the edge of a canyon.”  “I was a sheep in the nativity pageant.  An excellent sheep.”

And we hope that she’ll say all of them.  Perhaps especially the sheep.  But what if she were to only say one thing about this church?  What would we want that to be?  The Yale-driven Bible Study?  Handel’s Messiah?  The practice of meditation under the night sky of Arizona?  All are not just perfectly acceptable answers.  All are wonderful answers.  But if she were to say just one thing… if all the children of the church were to say just one thing – wouldn’t we pray that it would be this and none other?  “The Congregational Church of New Canaan clothed me in love.”

When the children of our church grow up and return to this place whether literally or in memory… when they search their old stomping grounds for the words and pictures that described this church of their youth – isn’t that what we want them to find?  The knowledge, above all else, that here they knew that God loved them, that Christ loved them, because the church loved them?

Many of the Epistles, Colossians among them, are letters to early churches with a very distinct purpose of helping the churches collectively transform so that they might seek Christ and worship God with more clarity and purpose.  In some cases they can be read as chiding or even abrasive – but all begin with the common invocation of grace and peace.  All begin with the gratitude for the people gathered together in an intentional community based in Christ.  That is to say – the church is often challenged because the church is so dearly loved.

This church is dearly loved…by our membership, our visitors who participate in the life of the church in any number of ways, our staff, and our ministers.  So perhaps we can challenge ourselves to an opportunity for transformation.

What would church look like if everything that we did was based in the primary purpose of clothing ourselves, each other, and Christendom in love?  What if that and that alone was the top priority?  What if that was the ultimate purpose of each and every one of our programs?  What if that was the standard to which we held all our personal relationships…member to member, visitors, staff, and ministers?  What if that is what we published first in the newspaper, shared with our friends, printed on the signs to be hung up on all the windows of the building –“Here, at the Congregational Church of New Canaan, we clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Here, at the Congregational Church of New Canaan, we bear with one another.  We forgive each other.  Above all, we clothe ourselves with love.”  What a great measure of church.  Wouldn’t the apostle Paul, or that early follower who wrote to the Colossians, wouldn’t they be quite proud of our collective endeavor?  Wouldn’t we, perhaps, find great comfort in our new priority and emphasized mission?  I think we would.  I believe that we would.

There is a fantastic irony within the world of seminaries and divinity schools.  It’s an irony that I am completely tied up in.  We earn master’s degrees and doctoral degrees.  We read one hundred theological books and maybe write one or two if we’re lucky.  We wrestle with Christian philosophy, Christian theology, Christian ethics…our history and our polity.  We learn to say and spell names like Schleiermacher, Bonhoeffer, and Rauschenbusch.  We relegate ourselves to little sleep and a diet of Folger’s crystals and frosted blueberry Pop Tarts until we can pass an examination where we must, in one way or another, describe at least ten percent of the idea of the Trinity as it is understood by John Calvin.  We exhaust ourselves, through years of scholarly academics, to become foremost experts in the lessons that Jesus worked very hard to make so simple that an uneducated fisherman or tax collector could understand them completely.

And of course we know the most important of these.  It’s on the tip of the seminarian’s tongue when we’re not tied up with words like eschatology or phenomenology, or calculating how many meals we have left on our plan before Christmas break rolls around.  It’s on the tip the church’s tongue when we can temporarily put aside church credentials, budget concerns, and the daunting upkeep of an old, beloved building.  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”  Love is the crux.  Love is the foundation.

Around two thousand years ago, Christ came as Emmanuel, God to live among us.  Around two thousand years ago, Christ ministered to the poor and outcast and challenged the comfortable in ways that we perhaps find even more challenging today.  The threat was real enough that he was crucified.  The grace was real enough that we were all forgiven.  The power of the church was real enough that from twelve disciples grew house churches around the ancient world and through times of oppression and through times of flourish, the church has now cemented itself in every corner of the globe.  And now, in a 21st century age of reason, when we worry about the proof of the unseen or the faith in everyday miracles, we harken back to the old, old story of the gospel.  We yearn to clothe ourselves with love instead of value ourselves by the benchmarks of worldly standards.  And in this Christmas season, we direct ourselves to the very beginning, to the appearance of the divine messenger who whispers to the virgin, “Do not be afraid”, and we listen with hope for that whisper ourselves amidst the cacophony of sounds that compose an orchestral anxiety.

The walls of the church should dampen the sounds that drive us to fear.  The unison voices that pray the same prayer should offer us comfort.  The tiny but multiple holes in our lives that long to be filled by assurances of faith inevitably will not find them in the great resume that astounds and inspires but instead in the mission that transforms.  The mission of Colossae and New Canaan.  If not written on the doors of the building then written on the hearts of all those who gather to worship here.  Above all, clothe yourselves in love.


[1] Other ancient authorities read just as Christ

[2] Other ancient authorities read of God, or of the Lord

[3] Other ancient authorities read to the Lord

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