“On Shaky Ground”
July 24, 2016
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
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
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
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
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
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
And heaven is a difficult
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
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
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
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.
Gjertrude Schnackenberg, “Colossians,” in Incarnation,