“On Shaky Ground”

July 24, 2016


Isaiah 24:18-20

Colossians 1:1-14


Several months ago I decided to preach from two of Paul’s letters in the spring and, now, in these summer months. A last Sunday I finished those sermons from Galatians and turn this morning to preach from the Letter to the Colossians.

And as is often the case when I start getting into a specific book of the Bible, I worry that I’ve made a big mistake.

So I have to confess as I begin that I have a certain longing to return to Paul’s letter to the Galatians. What a great letter! Along with many others in the congregation, as I started to read and preach from it, I found it strange and disturbing in many ways. But the more I listened to Paul, the more I looked at our contemporary world, the more I found that ancient letter of great relevance to our time.

When I turned to Colossians, however, I felt only disappointment.

First, unlike the case with Galatians, there is a strong possibility that this letter was not written by Paul—not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s not like this is political convention plagiarism. It was accepted practice in the first century to write books and letters and attribute them to a revered teacher.

The style of the letter, its vocabulary, and its developed theology all suggest an author other than Paul writing sometime after his death. Because Timothy is mentioned with Paul at the beginning of the letter, some scholars think that he was the author writing just before or just after Paul’s death.

And yes, other very reputable scholars continue to make the case for Paul’s authorship—but it just doesn’t sound like Paul to me.

The other problem I had was discovering that, again unlike the case with Galatians, Paul had no direct contact with this congregation, which was founded by Epaphras. The letter is filled with phrases like “we have heard” and “Epaphras has made known to us.” It’s a second-hand letter that shows us little of the loving and irascible Paul that we discover in his undisputed works.

So why not just change my preaching plans. Why turn to this letter?

In a strange way, the answer is geography.

Writing about this letter, the poet Gjertrude Schnackenberg says, “Colossae is an unexcavated archeological site, in a country now called Turkey but once called the kingdom of Phrygia—a country so wealthy that Midas was its king….Colossae was famous in antiquity for the manufacture of a luxury good—dyed purple wool.[i] It was a congregation in a well-off land—not unlike our own in that sense.

And another thing: Colossae was located on a tectonic fault line that for millennia had produced devastating earthquakes—and continues to do so in our time.  Colossae itself was destroyed by an earthquake. The date is uncertain—maybe in the fourth century or perhaps even in the 60s, just shortly after the Christians there received this letter. [ii]

We in Iowa are a little prone to earthquakes, although our neighbors to the south and east face a greater danger from the New Madrid Fault.

But there is a growing sense among many that we are all on shaky ground, shifting sands right now. Many think the Republican Party is changing dramatically and rapidly and even wonder if it will survive its tectonic shifts. The Democratic Party faces its own challenges as well. Our current political upheaval seems more than mere election year rhetoric.

Our nation, shaken by the murders of citizens by police, has to be reminded that Black Live Matter.

Our nation, shaken by the murders of police by citizens, has to be reminded that such actions are never acceptable.

Our nation, shaken by the murders in Orlando, still needs to find a way to accept all people.

Our nation, shaken by gun violence, just continues to be shaken.

We are living through a time of extensive cultural shifts that, no matter how welcomed, force us to look at society and one another in new ways. And that is not always easy and people do not always respond well.

The tremors of terrorism continue to rumble across the nations.

Watching millennia old glaciers crash into the sea as the climate changes with greater rapidity, we remember the words of the prophet: “The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken.

At such a time as this, many would encourage us to give into our fears. Such voices were loud in the past week.

Faith, on the other hand, gives us the courage to face our fears head on.

Martin Luther King, Jr., who knew enough danger and enough fear to be somewhat of an expert has helped me again this week. He said that we can't and shouldn't try to eliminate fear. It is the elemental alarm system of the human organism. Fear warns of approaching dangers and without it we would not have survived in either the primitive or contemporary worlds.

In a sense, fear is normal, necessary, and creative.

So maybe what is important is being afraid at the right time and in the right place. After all, in the desert, in a swamp, a fear of snakes might be healthy. A fear of snakes under your carpet at home is probably misguided.

Healthy fear protects us; misguided fear paralyzes us. Healthy fear motivates us to improve our individual lives and the life of the community; misguided fear distorts our inner and outer lives.

Faith invites us to look closely at our fears. Knowing that God’s care is unfailing, we can differentiate between those fears that protect us and can be used to enhance life and those that are simply snakes under the carpet. Faith can give us the courage to do this.

If the early Christians in Colossae, living in a tumultuous location in their own tumultuous times, could hear of hope in the word of truth, perhaps we, too, can hear good news in this letter. Maybe we can find within ourselves the hope the gives birth to courage.

It will take some focused listening, however, for that hope, Colossians tells us is “laid up for us in heaven.”

And heaven is a difficult image.

The poet Kathleen Norris calls heaven “a foolish concept, to be sure, and apparently irresistible to the human spirit.” Our popular imagination so trivializes heaven that, really, most clergy are reluctant to talk about heaven at all. Clouds, harps, wings, pearly gates are the stuff of cartoons and jokes. Reflecting on our trivialization of heaven, the physicist and theologian John Polkinghorn says, “Even the man who said that when he went to heaven he would play golf every day, might sicken of the game after a few thousand years. . . . [Such] images are totally inadequate,” he concludes. Adding, “What awaits us is the unending exploration of the inexhaustible riches of God, a pilgrim journey into the deepest reality that will always be thrilling and life-enhancing.”[iii]

The hope laid up for us in heaven, then, is connected to our current life-journey. The hope is as much about the here and now as the “there and then.”

Writing of “the hope that is laid up for us in heaven” is a way of speaking not about “a vague wish for the future but about an assured reality in the present.”[iv] Such hope is not something that we generate in ourselves, by ourselves. We receive it as a gift of God.

Our hope is laid up for us in heaven, which means that what is important is what we know quite well: that our lives are lived on earth—yes, on this tumultuous earth, in these tumultuous times.

And to live our lives to the fullest, as the Letter to the Colossians suggests, requires that we have some knowledge about ourselves and our God.

The more we know of ourselves, the more we know of God. And as our knowledge of God develops, we come to know ourselves better as well. When we know our own finitude, we come to better recognize the depth and breadth of wisdom and goodness and love that are found in God. In the same way, as we grow even in our limited, human knowledge of God, we begin to better understand who we are as human beings—finite and fallible, yes, but also created with an ability to create, with the freedom to choose, with the need to love.

One of the things we know about ourselves as human beings is that we will die. Indeed, it’s said that human beings are the only creatures who know that they will die. And at times when the earth seems to shake that knowledge can become an obsessive fear. After all, such knowledge has an ambiguous nature to it. On the one hand, the awareness of our mortality can be a cause of great anxiety. At the same time, an existence that went on endlessly, in time would seem to be senseless and pointless. Our existence has meaning and our actions have urgency because one day we will die—and we know that. We are finite.

As we know ourselves as finite, we come to a deeper knowledge of God as the infinite, the Eternal One. This infinite God whom we come to know in Jesus is the loving and merciful creator of humankind who willingly gives God’s very self for our sake. To have hope in such a God is to affirm that while we cannot know the shape of our eternal destiny in any detailed manner, in life and in death, our future is in God’s loving care. We have no special knowledge, no secret wisdom about life beyond the grave. That is beyond all human knowledge, experience, and power.

Still, we can entrust ourselves at all times to the God who created us and gives us life.

The message that we are hearing in a lot of political rhetoric recently is something like: “We’re all going to die—so be very afraid.”

The good news that we hear in Christ—the hope that is laid up for us in heaven—tells us: “We’re all going to die—so live fully, live courageously, live in love.”

God creates in us a hope that can see beyond the shadows and the resistance that we sometimes encounter as we follow in the way of Christ. By hope we can see resurrection beyond death, so we can dare by hope to act for the good even when confronted by all that disheartens and discourages.

You see, hope is that vision of the future that allows us to act in the present.

A popular question these days is “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” It’s a question that gets at what great thing we want to attempt—and would if success was guaranteed. What career would you choose? What would you create? What good would you bring into the world? How would you raise your children? What would the work of this congregation be?

Hope invites us to look beyond failure, beyond despair, beyond fear and death to what might be—and to start moving toward what we see.

This hope is a confidence that the goodness of God pervades all of creation. Yes, the evidence for such goodness sometimes seems skimpy at best, but as a wise member once told me: “Absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence.”

We are fortunate. A congregation such as this one, so filled with ability, so rich in all good gifts, so flush with a wealth of talent, is to me an instance of the providence of God. With the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we see that we have no cause to beg or cajole or plead. All that we need—and all that we would want to share with the rest of the world—we have. Let us keep that awareness always before us.

We might be a little less scared, a little more open to the new world God is creating among us and through us, a little more open to our neighbors, a little more loving and courageous. That is, we might better be able to walk in the way of Jesus Christ, even on shaky ground.

[i] Gjertrude Schnackenberg, “Colossians,” in Incarnation, pg. 198.

[ii] ibid.

[iii] Polkinghorn, The God of Hope and the End of the World, pg. 135.

[iv] NIB