It’s Time to Be Fruitful Again – July 10

A sermon based on Colossians 1:1-14

given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on July 10, 2022

by Rev. Scott Elliott

There’s a cartoon drawing I really like. It’s of a stick-drawn church with Jesus on the outside trying to push the front door open, while  large crowd inside pushes against the door as their leader exclaims “Don’t let him in! It’ll change everything!”

Change is not just an issue for churches, I recently saw another cartoon in three frames with a speaker at a podium talking to a crowd below.  In the first frame the speaker asks “Who wants change?” Everyone in the crowd has their hands raised.  In the second frame the speaker asks “Who wants to change?  No one in the crowd has their hand raised. In the third frame the speaker asks “Who wants to lead the change?” The entire crowd is gone.

There’s a truth to both those cartoons.  People, even those of us who admire and follow a change agent like Jesus and actually desire change, still fight and push against change and Jesus. When it comes right down to it, many of us resist change–both in the church and outside it.

It’s quite ironic for those of us in churches since Christianity is based on Jesus who offers the hope of change and asks us to be a part of the change. We want change for the better through Jesus and his Way.  We praise and hope to emulate Jesus’ role as a change agent in First Century Palestine and throughout history.  Jesus and his Way are both about radical change. There’s no way of getting around that fact . . . or the fact that promises of radical change are what draw most of us to church to begin with.

Jesus offers change for the better. That offer seems very simple on its face: we are offered a better life for all if we accept as our primary purpose loving God, self and others. In a word, the offer is the verb,  Love.  If we love . . .  things will be better. That’s about as simple as can be; except that love as a verb requires change, radical change, change that makes us uncomfortable. The kind of love we are called to means we have to care and desire the well-being of others and actually go out and act for their well-being.  And not just others we select, but all others, even people we don’t like, even people we are taught to not like, and even people who are enemies. That definitely includes people we’ve been told the Bible tells us not to care for or provide well-being.

It’s no accident that in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus lifted up an unloving-not-for-others-well-being scriptural command and overturned it. He models how we are to approach unloving Bible verses and religious doctrines. He directly challenges and changes them. I like how The Message version of the Bible paraphrases the Sermon on the Mount.  So, I am going to read a bit of it. I certainly can’t preach better than Jesus!   Jesus said:

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, gift wrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life.  No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.

“You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the supple moves of prayer, for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves.  This is what God does. He gives his best—the sun to warm and the rain to nourish—to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty.” If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that.

“In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.”

WOW!  That’s from Jesus’ sermon. It’s powerful, radical, transformative,  love stuff. All of it requiring us to change and be a part of change; because as Jesus makes clear, following him is not about simply nodding in agreement with him or just caring in our hearts about others and desiring in our minds that they have well-being.

That’s hard enough to pull off for sure, but Jesus insists that we pair  agreeing with him and feelings and thoughts about love with love in action.  He’s telling us love is a verb.  It’s doing. And the doing part is not simple at all.  We have to change. Change the way we and the culture treat others. We cannot hate even our enemies.  There is no more eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth–even though it literally says that in the Bible. With Jesus such rules are tossed out and simply replaced with love. That is the whole of Jesus’ religion in a word, a verb. He wants the best in us– love– to be put into action for all the rest of us.

And there’s the rub. Putting love into action is hard work that requires change. It’s easier to hold the door shut and bar Jesus from coming in,  than to simply love and be our best.   It’s also easier to get into the habit of staying at home and just admiring Jesus and thinking about love, than it is to get up and out to do the hard work of church.

Which brings me to the Lectionary lesson. One of the points of the epistle Colossians is that God loves us and we are to get up and be  love in return. The approach is very similar to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. We are to Love not just God in the cosmic sense, but love God in others . . . All . . . Others.  The reading indicates that doing that, following Jesus that way through church, bears fruit.  The author (whom we are not quite sure is Paul) points out that he and others are praying that the church members in Colossae “be filled with the knowledge of God’s will and in all spiritual wisdom and understanding . . .” And the reason for the prayer is “so that [they] may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to [God], as [they] bear fruit in every good work and as [they] grow in the knowledge of God.”

That good work referred to is all the love stuff I’ve been going on about, not just this morning,  but, for the eight- and-half years we have been in ministry together. The reason we do ministry together as church is that all of this love work is best done as community. Together we not only work for love for one another, but we work for love of others. And when that work is done together, it is far more powerful and effective than working alone.  Even Jesus did not do ministry alone, he did it in and with a community– and he did so not just for that community’s sake, but for the sake of all people. It was a spiritual need for him and each of the disciples to actively be in community.  That need holds true for us and everyone in church today.

Covid prevented and changed being active in church for many of us. And, while change is always hard, we need to change it back so we are all actively involved in this church community.  I mentioned in a recent mailing and the July newsletter how our Talks About God classes have had lively gatherings full of deep and meaningful conversations about God and religion and church. Each week we seem to touch upon the central importance that community working together and meeting together holds for us as church and as humans – and how together we magnify love in action– more than we ever could alone.

In the course of just a few weeks in our TAG class we have discussed how as a community of faith we seek to focus on the presence of God in our lives,  and how we can add to and be part of that presence.  We’ve noted that this includes, of course, meeting together to worshipfully focus on God as church family on Sundays in our Divine sanctuary hearing Divine music and the Divine Word as we pray to the Divine and gather as One to worship the Divine.  In addition to regularly being present at worship, we have discussed how important it is that we also provide services to the church that support our missions and ministries, and not just with monetary gifts but with time and talents and our personal presence supporting church activities. It includes letting others know about the church too.  We do all of these things as members of a church family because they are part and parcel of our covenantal relationship with each other and with God.

Christians, somewhat uniquely, understand that God works through us personally.  We are each capable of incarnating God, but we have to get up and act in ways that do it. We need to act like Jesus not just talk about him.  We do that acting best together  as the whole church,  rather than as one. Which is why the church is called the Body of Christ, and we alone are not. We can act like Christ alone, but together we can be the very Body of Christ in action in the world.

In my letter I noted how Pastor Mearle was at our June Stewardship meeting and we discussed how church members mutually agree and depend on one another to provide five basic actions as often as then can in the life of the church– and how we need to do them ALL and we need to do them OFTEN.   The first action is to be in prayer, to have two-way communications with God by speaking and listening to the Divine.

The second action we covenant to do is to be present in the community, that is to attend worship and events and meetings, and not just at Christmas, or Easter or even every six weeks but regularly.  Covid understandably altered our ability to be present,  but we should be coming back now. That change needs to happen in order for us to fully be church.  Participating often in church matters to the life of the whole church for sure, but it also matters to our own spiritual life.

The third action is to respond to the blessings God offers to us with offerings of our own to God in the form of time, talent and treasure.

The fourth action is related to the third action, that we follow through with the offerings and generously give to the church with money if we are able, but just as importantly give acts of service to the church (this means volunteering to do things). We need to support this church’s many efforts at being God’s dynamic presence in the community and in our lives with our own hands and feet and voice, and, yes our, pocketbook. This church cannot do all of the amazing dynamic work it does – and we want it doing– without offerings of time, talent and treasure. It just can’t.  No one else is going to help us be the church except us, and God working through us.

The fifth and final action we need to do is tell others about the church and our form of Christianity and invite people to worship and events and activities.  The church cannot and will not grow if members do not make an effort to invite others to church.  Over eighty percent of visitors come because they are personally invited by people regularly in the pews of the church. Pastors do not grow churches, the members do.

The conversations at TAG and at Stewardship got the church clergy and lay leaders thinking that as we emerge out of Covid, it would be good for all of the church family to consider getting back into the habit of doing all of the five basic actions that we may have held back on during Covid times. It’s time to change and fully get back to being church- the Body of Christ.  May we all be more prayerful, present at church, provide offerings, serve the church and start inviting folks to our church (or back to our church). These acts will not only serve God and the church and better the world, but better our own spiritual lives and our whole selves. AMEN.

                        COPYRIGHT   Scott Elliott © 2022 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED