(a sermon for April 10, 2016, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, based on Colossians 3:1-4, 12-17)
As a preacher, I have to say it’s always interesting where you end up finding your inspiration; and for me, this week it came from a collection of devotional essays entitled, “Jesus in Blue Jeans,” in which the author, Laurie Beth Jones, tells the story of a dead duck; specifically, her pet duck Harriet!
Now I know this doesn’t sound like the stuff of great spiritual awakening, but bear with me here; it seems that Jones, who was ten years old at the time, had come home from school one day to discover not only that Harriet had died, but that she had actually drowned in the backyard pool! She writes, “My parents were as saddened and baffled by her death as I, so they summoned our vet to the scene.” And, sure enough, upon closer examination the vet was able to determine the cause of death; and it was, believe it or not, “the lack of proper grooming.” Seriously; as the vet explained it, ducks have to coat themselves with a special waterproofing oil that is produced beneath their wings; this is, in fact, the only way that ducks stay buoyant in the water. For some reason, Harriet hadn’t done that essential grooming, “so when she started swimming, her feathers took on water, and she sank like a stone!”
And I’m reading this and thinking, well, that’s an unpleasant image; certainly not the kind of thing any of us want to hear on a Sunday morning! But then I started looking at our reading for this morning, that very warm and familiar call to “clothe [our]selves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience… [and] above all… love,” letting “the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts.” All of which is wonderful and what I think we’d all agree are important attributes to the Christian life; but what happens when we don’t clothe ourselves in those virtues? What happens when, like Harriet the Duck, you and I choose not to groom ourselves in that fashion?
Seems to me there’s a parable to be found in that dead duck!
You see, friends, in the interest of time and focus I picked out a couple of representative verses from Colossians for this morning; but we need to understand that this particular passage (words that get read at a lot of weddings!) is actually part of a larger exhortation by Paul about the necessity of putting aside old and “earthly” ways – things like, for instance, “fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed” 9 (3:5) – and instead seeking “the things that are above, where Christ is.” It’s a strong admonition to do whatever it takes to “[strip] off the old self” and its sinful ways in favor of “the new self which is renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator;” as though we were casting off raggedy, outmoded and ill-fitting clothes for the sake of brand new wardrobe where “Christ is all and in all!” (3:11)
So what we’re presented here in our reading for this morning is a new set of spiritual clothing – a “wardrobe of the resurrection,” if you will – that are to be the true garments of our Christian faith; that the virtues of compassion and kindness, forgiveness and love are to be in us the spiritual indicators of who we are and to whom we belong. It’s an outward and visible sign to the world of what we believe, most certainly; but even more than this, it’s the inner reminder of the new life that we are now called to live. Laurie Beth Jones alludes to this in her story of Harriet the Duck: she writes, “Just as ducks depend upon a unique oil that allows them to be ‘in’ yet not ‘of’ the water, we, too, need to cover ourselves with a grooming oil in order to be ‘in’ yet not ‘of’ the world. We need to daily cover ourselves with prayer, praise, and poised reminders of who we are” to God and in God.
So actually, our reading this morning is not all that complicated: if we, as people of faith, are to be identified “as God’s chosen ones,” “living the resurrection life,” then both for our own sake and as an example to others we need to be clothing ourselves with what The Message translates as “the wardrobe that God has picked out for [us]: compassion, kindness, humility, quiet strength, discipline… your basic, all-purpose garment.” Honestly, it’s the kind of spiritual fashion that if you were to find a label somewhere on that piece of clothing, it would simply read, “Jesus Christ.”
But here’s the thing; we’ve got to be wearing the clothes! If we’re not wrapped in the virtues that come to us by the grace of God in the risen Christ; if in fact, we’re not protected with all of what God gives us as his “chosen ones, holy and beloved,” then, spiritually speaking at least, the truth of it is like Harriet the Duck you and I are… sunk!
Of course, it goes without saying that there’s plenty of other “clothing” out there to wear: a huge wardrobe of worldly ways, means and culture that are ever and always enticing us to take them as our own; the kind of attributes that usually end up defining us in some way or another, but not always positively. As an example of this, let me just confess to you that one of the shows on television that I still enjoy watching even after the 15 years or so it’s been on is “Survivor.” But what’s interesting is what started out as a show about people surviving alone together on a deserted island and eating bugs for reward (!) has now become this massive “game” in which from the very start the contestants all actively lie, cheat, steal, scheme and manipulate one another, all for the sake of winning a million dollars! They aren’t all particularly likeable, and yet every season, there’s always one of them who says in one of those private “asides” they do with the survivors, generally with a tone of regret, “This isn’t who I really am… this is just who I am for the game of Survivor!”
This isn’t who I really am… this is who I am when I’m at work, or out with friends, or in places and situations where it’s somehow expected that I be a certain way. This is how I am if I ever want to be accepted or loved; these are the “clothes” I have to wear if I’m ever to “measure up” in the eyes of the world. Not to put too fine of a point on it, but you see, this is what happens when our whole focus becomes wearing the garments of the world, whatever that fashion happens to be at any given moment! And the thing is, it doesn’t work; for as much as we may try to “cover ourselves up” for the sake of approval or affection, eventually our true selves are revealed; and sooner or later, the tribe will have spoken and then we’ll find ourselves “naked and alone” (but that’s another show!).
My point is that each one of us is to wear the clothing that truly fits us as people whose lives have been revealed in Jesus Christ; wrapping ourselves in the true qualities of the resurrected life. This is not only what makes our lives perennially fresh and new, but which also as our true selves makes us a witness to something beyond ourselves. We become, so to speak, a trend setter for the fashion statement that God intends for all of his children, “holy and beloved;” and indeed, for the whole of creation that God loves. And in the process we become the embodiment of a different kind of culture – a deeper sense of morality and truer standard of ethical behavior – than what the world (and sad to say, so often these days its leaders) embraces as normal and mainstream. As we wear the clothing we’ve been given – that of compassion, kindness, forgiveness and love, not to mention justice and peace – we testify to the presence and the power of the living Christ in our hearts and in desperate need of true life!
Understand, of course, that to wear the wardrobe of resurrection requires not only commitment from us, but some depth of faith; it can never be said that we are called to a life of nominal Christianity. The Reverend Richard Halverson, former chaplain of the United States Senate, explained this very well when he said that the problem with Christianity in America today is that so much of it is “3,000 miles wide and one sixteenth of an inch deep.” If we are truly to live unto our true selves, our faith is going to be more than at a surface level. We’re going to have to let “the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts… [and] let the word of Christ dwell in [us] richly.” That’s another part of this reading that risks becoming for us little more than a greeting card verse – you know, our living day to day “with gratitude in your hearts, sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to God” – but in fact, what Paul’s setting forth here is a challenge far greater than anything “Survivor” can set forth! This is the hardcore task of our fully embodying our faith in Jesus Christ in whatever comes in life; in“whatever [we] do, in word or deed, [doing] everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Identifying ourselves as “Christ-ian,” being born in Christ and living in Christ: that is the deep and radical way of life to which we are called.
The Rev. Thomas Tewell has defined deep Christianity as “where you put your roots down deep in Jesus Christ, so what people see in you is not yourself but Jesus Christ with you and in you. [The question is] are we willing to put our roots down deep” for the sake of the risen Christ in the world? Are we willing to go deep enough to go beyond the surface obsessions of the world’s culture? Are we willing to go deeper than our own self-centeredness and the need for control? Are we willing to go so deep as let the word of Christ dwell in us richly and shine from us and our behavior boldly and brightly? Are we willing to go deeply enough that the peace of Christ will rule and love will bind everything together? Admittedly, that’s hard for even the most spiritually minded of us, simply because that’s a whole lot different than what we most often see – or experience, for that matter – in this ever-changing world in which we live! It’s a challenge, no matter where we stand in this life – but it seems to me that clothing ourselves from this wardrobe of the resurrection will not only be that which what saves us from sinking like a stone, it might just also change the world… for the better, and for the sake of Jesus Christ.
Each one of us here, beloved, are even now being empowered and sent forth to live in such a way that the new life of Jesus Christ within us becomes new life for all those around us. It is, at times, tempting for us to let ourselves be “dressed for success,” at least as the world defines success; or to allow ourselves to be covered up for the sake of “going along” to get along. But it’s only when we “clothe ourselves with love” – the love of Jesus Christ, the love that “binds everything in perfect harmony,” that our true selves are revealed with Jesus Christ in glory. And at home or at work; with our family and together with friends; in standing with those in need and standing for the causes that are important; these are the garments we truly need, and which gives us strength, and vision and purpose. And in the words of Maxie Dunham, it’s what makes us – you and me together – “a parable for the kingdom of God.”
May we find ourselves clothed in the clothes of Christ Jesus, as we do the work of his new realm in this time and place.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry