(a sermon for November 17, 2019, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Colossians 1:11-20)
A couple of Sundays ago after church I made a quick pilgrimage to northern Maine for what has become for me a bittersweet autumn ritual: that of closing up “camp” for the winter.
Actually, as it turned out, my two sons had done most of the hard work and heavy lifting the week prior, so thankfully there really wasn’t all that much I needed to do! Nonetheless, I’m glad I made the trip: first off, it’s always a good thing to spend some time at the lake, even on these brisk days and frigid nights of November that just call out for a warming fire in the woodstove; and yes, what with another Maine winter swiftly approaching, for me there’s no small satisfaction in seeing that the cottage itself gets buttoned up before snow flies and the lake freezes over. Plus, even though I’ve spent some part of just about every year of my life in that particular spot, let me tell you that it’s a whole different experience to be up there about now.
I’d actually awakened at daybreak that next morning, and to be honest my plan was to stoke the fire and get a little more sleep; but one look out the window convinced me I needed to get dressed and go down to the shore and watch the sunrise. So that’s what I did, and it was… beautiful, and amazing as it always is; but it was also… stark. To begin with, thanks to that windstorm we’d had a couple of days before, there wasn’t a single leaf left on a tree anywhere, from what I could see there no boats left in the water, all the docks were pulled up to shore and the campground across the lake was completely emptied out. And it was quiet – I mean, it was deafeningly quiet – there wasn’t a breath of breeze in the air, no chattering of squirrels overhead nor the lapping of water against rocks on the shoreline; even a small group of loons who were floating out in front of me remained silent and still.
Even after all these years, I’ve really experienced such a morning “on the pond.” Understand, in the summertime our lake, even in the wee hours, is filled both with both the sounds of nature and the communal beginnings of a new and busy day; dogs barking (and not just ours!), motorboats headed out for fishing, children’s laughing voices as they jump into the water for an early swim. But on this particular morning in early November there was none of that; rather, what there was what could easily be compared to what scripture refers to as an “enveloping silence.”
And as I sat there for a very long while, just taking it all in, I have to tell you… I felt very, very… small. I mean, small in the sense of knowing that you’re all alone and surrounded by miles and miles of the stark and silent grandeur of creation slowly moving toward its winter hibernation; small in the sense of being humbled by this reminder of just how incredibly tiny you really are (!), just this little speck of dust in comparison to the vastness of the universe or in relationship to God; but also small in the sense of realizing that even as you’re sitting there on your little spot amidst the enveloping silence of this new morning, the world around you is still spinning like crazy, in a way that’s ever changing and ever disorienting, so often to the point of seeming like it’s spinning helplessly out of control.
And you have to wonder… small as you are, if that’s happening to your world – or for that matter, our world, yours and mine – what is at the center of it all and what’s supposed to hold it all together?
I know… that perhaps was a bit much to consider in the midst of a beautiful sunrise on a cold November morning in Maine (or just maybe I needed a cup of coffee!); yet, on the other hand, I suspect this may be a question that many of us are asking ourselves these days: what’s at the center of it all?
It was the Irish poet William Butler Yeats who, upon witnessing the devastation that remained at the end of the first World War, famously lamented that “things fall apart; the center cannot hold.” In other words, throughout history there have always been times and circumstances that in which it seemed surely that the world was falling apart right before our very eyes, and truthfully, in many ways and for many people, it was: times of war and holocaust, deadly plague, economic depression, terrorism, political upheaval, and on and on; truly, many have been the moments across the centuries when even the most faithful among us have begun to feel very small; and have wondered, however fleetingly, whatever was to become of them.
There are also times, if I might quote Craig Barnes here, writing in The Christian Century, “when [you and I are] forced daily to defend ourselves against the demise of our personal worlds… [when] we’re surrounded by marriages that crumble, companies that downsize, and diseases that rob us of loved ones.” And yet, ever and always, life has to go on, right? We do what has to be done, we get on with the business of life and we keep on trying to find the center of things, “all in the hopes of keeping [ourselves and] our little world together;” yet, writes Barnes, “despite our best efforts to be healthy, things still fall apart.”
Now, I don’t say any of this today to sound at all morose or to paint a bleak picture on such a beautiful Sunday morning as this; it’s just to say (quoting Craig Barnes again), that “if we’re paying attention, we have to realize that the world as we know it is always a thread away from unraveling.” (Okay, maybe that’s a tad negative!) But there’s point that needs to be made here, and it’s that because of this world’s unraveling, because of our incredible smallness in the scheme of things we are in need of a true center; something, someone who holds all things together. “What we need is someone who can intervene in the world, destroying the power of evil. We need a Savior.”
And the good news today, and always, is that we do have that Savior in the person of Jesus Christ, the one whom Paul proclaims in our text for this morning as “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation… [the one who] himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together… for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”
It’s worth noting that this portion of Paul’s letter to the Colossians was considered to be something of a hymn of praise and a confession of true faith and was in fact addressed to a group of beleaguered Christians who were living in the area that is now modern-day Turkey, and who had been so despised and persecuted for their Christian faith that now they had deep doubts as to the validity of that faith, and were uncertain of what truly was at the center of it all. It’s a testament to how much the world has always tended to spin out of control; and us along with it. In fact, we’re told that it was now to the point where these Colossians were gleaning on to anything and everything they could find that might possibly make sense of life and living, and as a result they found themselves being pulled between the values of their faith and the values of their culture.
It’s a conundrum we know all too well, isn’t it? Indeed, many are those in our own times who have sought to fill up the uncertainties of living with our own self-created notions of what will make it meaningful: money, power, pleasure; the need to find acceptance and, quite frankly, to get our way. But all this comes at a cost: the Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm, a Presbyterian pastor and blogger out of Texas writes that “perhaps one of the most destructive myths to define our lives is the notion that ‘it’s my life, and I’ll live [it] how I want.’” It’s not, Brehms says, that we shouldn’t have the right to make choices for ourselves, because certainly most of us do just that; it’s just that taken to the extreme, “it is a formula for life that pretty much undermines all chance of real happiness,” because in the end, this attitude of “I don’t care anymore this is my life,” (with apologies here to Billy Joel!) falls far short of our true purpose in life, which as Paul tells us in this passage is that we “may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that [we] may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him.” The true center of our lives, you see, is found as we learn more and more about God works; and as we do we“will learn how to do our work” in life, in the process gaining “strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy.” [The Message]
It is no accident, by the way, is that in this particular text, five times in six verses (!) makes a point of saying that “all things” are held together in Jesus Christ: “in him all things in heaven and earth are created… all things are created through him and for him… he is before all things and in him all things hold together… and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things.” Paul is relentless about this: that nothing – and no one – “is left out of the realm of redemption.” (Barnes) At the center of all things, beloved, is Jesus Christ, bring peace to a fractured world “through the blood of his cross;” and it is this center that will hold us together as his much beloved creation.
You know, the interesting part of spending that early morning down on the shore of the lake watching the sunrise is that I really did feel very small; but then again, I’ve felt very much the same way on hot August nights when I’ve floating on that same lake beneath a magnificent canopy of stars watching the Perseid Meteor Shower; I’ve had the same kind of experience in the middle of a thunderstorm when lighting flashes in every direction. It a big universe, with all of its wonder and its danger and it’s utter uncertainty; and I always end up thinking the same thing, that we really ought to count for nothing… and yet, even as the world keeps on spinning day by day, year by year, and age to age… here we are. You and me… each one of us created in God’s sight; each one of us uniquely created and loved and nurtured as God’s own, and redeemed by the one who “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” That awareness, even more than that of the sheer expanse of the universe itself, is what fills me with joy at its wonder… with hope for a world that at times does seem at times to be within a thread of its unraveling, but with peace that the world can neither give nor take away… and above all, with faith in the infinitely loving Christ who is at the center of all things and who holds all things together.
This, beloved, is our gift of true life, the “inheritance of the saints in the light.” For this, and everything that goes along with it, may our thanks be to God!
Amen and AMEN!
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry