Sunday, November 22, 2020
Scripture: Psalm 95:1-7 & Colossians 3:12-17
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

Imagine with me two towns separated by only five miles. In one town anything goes. People are free to do anything they want to each other and with each other. Whatever their hearts desire, they can go after. It doesn’t matter if it hurts anyone else. It doesn’t matter if it hurts the person who indulges his desires. Unrestrained freedom can lead to whatever that person wants. No one tells them what to do. No one will stop them from doing what they want. Everything is available to them.

In the other town they do not have unrestrained freedom. Sure, there is no one telling them what they can and cannot do, but the residents of this second town have decided that they are responsible for each other. Together they’ve decided that life works best when they look out for each other, when they consider the interests beyond their own. They are practicing patience with each other. They have learned that sometimes they hurt each other, so extending forgiveness to each other is worth it for the sake of the community. 

Now, imagine with me that you get to choose which of these two towns you could live in. Where would you rather live? The one with 100% freedom to do whatever you want whenever you want? Or the one where there is freedom but the town’s residents have chosen to consider each other in how they exercise their freedom? I know I’d choose the second town. I suspect most of us would do the same. We love freedom, but deep down we all know that unfettered freedom ends up becoming a prison for us and for those around us because what I want will come into conflict with what you want. That’s life.

I chose Colossians 3 for us today because this is the week of Thanksgiving. It’s a favorite passage of mine because it really lays out those two realities. In the text prior to what we read, Paul lays out a vice list. It’s the kind of thing we often brush on by because it’s easy to think, “Hey, I’m a decent human. This isn’t me.” But we shouldn’t gloss over it. Paul writes, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed…get rid of…anger, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language….Do not lie to each other.” Paul is giving us a picture of what unrestrained freedom looks like. If I owe nothing to you, my neighbor, then what is to keep me from lying to get my way or to hurt you because I am mad at you? Nothing. This is life in the first town. It’s the place where I wouldn’t want to live.

In the text we read together, Paul moves into what life is like in that second town. These are the “qualities necessary for living in the new community.” What does life look like when freedom is lived with responsibility for others? Paul writes, “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another…forgive each other….Above all, clothe yourselves with love.” Just like we shouldn’t just breeze on by Paul’s vice lists, so too, we shouldn’t gloss over his descriptions of what Christian community is supposed to look like. What a high calling it is to be chosen by God and to be set apart for a beloved purpose! Life in this town is the way it is because its residents are secure in their identity as people beloved of God. 

What’s interesting is that the words Paul uses here are not necessarily describing traits that people in his world would have thought were good. Take humility as an example. In the Greco-Roman world this word was associated with contemptible servility. Paul flips it around and makes space for humility to help us gain a proper view of self – beloved of God and equal to others. So, too, gentleness, which is a willingness to restrain one’s rights in order to be in good relationship with others. Or patience – the ability to make space for others’ shortcomings. Bearing with others means accepting them for who they are – that is, all of who they are, faults included. 

What I love about this passage is that Paul isn’t even done with all of that! It’s like a snowball rolling down a hill, picking up more and more along its way. He urges us to have the peace of Christ reigning within us. On this Sunday, which in the Christian year is Christ the King Sunday, Jesus’ peace reigning in us is a great reminder. Jesus is reigning, even though the whole world feels in shambles, he is at work moving things towards his good and loving purpose. Then Paul moves to his resounding conclusion. It’s a three-fold thanksgiving. “And to be thankful,” Paul writes. Have gratitude in your hearts as you praise God. Whatever you do, do it for Jesus’ sake, giving God thanks. Love may be the thing that holds this all together, but I believe that gratitude is the sign of a heart being righted by the love of Christ. 

Let’s move that out of Paul’s day and into ours. Let’s get out of our two imaginary towns and into life right here today in the Tri-Cities. I believe, dear friends, that this is our calling right here and now. We really face the choice about which place we want to live in. Reality is reality, but how we approach that reality makes all the difference. To live as Christians, with all the traits Paul writes about, we have to make the decision to live in such a way that transforms things around us for good. We have to live in the burdens of today knowing that Christ is reigning and is calling us to live in a new way of freedom in Christ, a freedom that comes with responsibility for others and for the whole world. In other words, the more we live into the new reality brought to bear by Christ, the more human we become and the more humanity we bring into our angry and fearful world. 

I’ll be honest with you. I’m worn out. We all entered this strange new world in mid-March expecting it to be a brief annoyance, but now we’re bearing down on Thanksgiving and Christmas with still no idea when the end will come. I view it as part of my work as your pastor to be encouraging and hopeful, but the night has been dark and long. There are times when I am discouraged and not hopeful. But in those harder moments, I am struck by how I have a choice to make on a daily basis. I can choose to live into the reality that Christ is reigning and that I have work to do even in the hard places, or I can choose to give into the dark forces that call out, “Be angry! It will feel good to lash out at those with whom you disagree. How bad could it be to let even just a little selfishness creep into your heart?” And, it’s then that I realize that I – along with all of us – face that choice daily and that we should choose to clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, and the like. We have the calling and ability to bend reality towards the reign of Christ, to make our reality more like the second town in our metaphor. 

Paul tells us three times to be thankful in this short passage. So, today, I’m going to start doing that by sharing with you some of what I am thankful for right in the midst of the hardest year of my life. It’s part of my way of bending my own reality into the truth that Christ is reigning, even when the night feels long. It’s my way of giving space for the Spirit to be at work in me transforming me and those around me. God has given us the freedom to choose how we will respond to life, which means we have the chance to change things. To do that we have to make the decision to live as though it were our reality now. So, let me share with you some of what I’m thankful for right now. I do this as an example of what I think could be helpful to all of us as we head towards a Thanksgiving without the normal activities surrounding it. So, here is some of what I’m thankful for this year. 

I’m thankful for the Ottawa County Park system. My family and our dog have taken many hikes in these beautiful places, where people had the foresight to preserve public land and to make clear trail maps so I don’t get lost. We’ve learned to identify common trees. We’ve listened to the sounds around us more than we usually would. We’ve seen interesting things like a beaver dam. We’ve relished the freedom of time spent outdoors. Where possible, it’s fun to let the dog off the leash and watch him run around, explore the smells, and see just how athletic he is. My life has been enhanced because of these parks. 

Also, I’m thankful for my yoga app on my phone. I’ve used it off and on for the past four years, but with the weather cooling, I’ve found myself craving the minutes spent stretching my body and calming my spirit. I’ve always struggled with flexibility, but I’m discovering even in my 40s that my body can adapt to new things. I’m still not super flexible, but I’m more flexible than I’ve been since childhood. Thank God for yoga.

I’m also thankful for my back porch. After three years, I’ve gotten it into the shape where I take pleasure in being out there. I fixed the screens, so it looks nice. I’ve hung lights to make it cozy and usable in the dark. I’ve added a gas firepit to keep me outside longer into the season. It’s where I’ve done many Zoom calls and written many sermons. 

Shifting gears, I’m thankful to live in a community that is eager to support local small businesses. In difficult times, I see us rally to make sure our community looks out for each other. Let’s keep at it! I so enjoy that we have unique places to eat, shop, and meet. We are better for it. I’m grateful for the notes of encouragement you’ve sent to the church office. We hang them up to keep us going! I’m grateful for the staff I serve with. They are each uniquely gifted and help enhance the ministry we are doing as a church. I’m grateful for the ability to recognize people just by their eyes! Who knew that was something we could adapt to? I’m grateful for the delight of having conversations with people I haven’t seen in a while. Yes, I take delight even in the conversations in the Meijer parking lot. I could go on, but even as I say these things, I can feel my heart filling up. 

What are you thankful for? Why not take some time today and write some of things down? Why not call up a friend from church whom you haven’t seen in a while and share your thanksgivings with them? We face the choice – daily – to clothe ourselves with Christ. Doing so leads to good things like love, patience, truth-telling, and thanksgiving bringing light into the world. Doing so makes our town more like the town where the community lives in freedom with responsibility for each other. That’s where I’m striving to live, and I hope you are too.