Thanks Be To God

This is tomorrow’s sermon, from Colossians 1:1-14

I have a feeling that at the end of time, I’ll have to reckon with several of the writers of scripture for what I’m about to say: 

of all the genres of biblical literature from poetry like the Psalms to the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah; from Old Testament narratives to the gospel story, I think the New Testament epistles are my favorite.

An epistle is, simply, a letter. In the New Testament, epistles like the one Paul wrote to the church at Colossae served many purposes: encouraging churches through hard times, calling out sin within particular churches, instructions for living Christ-like lives.

 These letters were usually penned by the founder of the church or by someone who was close to the church founder, like a mentor or a friend.
These letters often included reports of what was happening within individual churches so that faith communities could be encouraged by each other’s stories.

The reason I resonate so deeply with the New Testament letters to the different churches is because I grew up in that same culture of encouragement and accountability.

As missionaries sponsored by different North American churches in Texas and Alabama, my parents were always writing newsletters and reports on the ministry; which I learned to do when I was spending my summers as a short-term missionary.

 Epistles are a direct link to times in my life when I felt exactly in the right place at the right time. Right where God wanted me and could use me.

In my limited experience, most missionary letters and reports are structured similarly.

 There is always thanksgiving for the support, prayers and love of the recipient; and thanksgiving for all that God is doing in the life of the missionary, or in the life of the church. 

Sometimes, an individual’s baptism or another powerful, personal testimony is mentioned.

There is usually an encouragement of some kind to the recipient to continue living a life worthy of bearing the name of Christ,

 as well as a challenge or reminder to make sure his or her life reflects to love of Christ to everyone around.

Many times, a missionary report will include descriptions of what, to the reader, may seem like insurmountable hardships. 

Perhaps the community has lost a beloved member of their community; maybe they have faced an epidemic of illness.

Maybe the faith community has had to make great sacrifices to be able to continue in ministry.

Perhaps, as in our own country and even our own state, the community faces an epidemic of violence rooted in fear, which has led to divisiveness and even death.

Whatever the hardship, the writer always points the reader to hope: the deep, abiding hope they have in Christ.

 The reader and the community, both, are encouraged to cling to that hope when times are hard.

The best part of an epistle, is the prayer: either at the beginning, the end, or both. 

The apostles would include these prayers in their letters, and they were meant to function as pastoral prayers for each individual or community. 

These prayers were thoughtfully crafted to be a meaningful and personal engagement between the writer and the recipient.

The apostles would imagine their ways into each recipient’s world; engaging their story and thinking through what it might be like to be them, to be going through a particular situation. 

And then, they would help the recipient reframe their current situation in light of God’s great love for them.

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a letter of encouragement to a church he has only heard of. 

Paul didn’t found the church at Colossae, but has a close friendship with Epaphras, a native Colossian, who was instrumental in bringing the gospel to the people of Colossae.

Epaphras has reported to Paul that the church is vibrant and growing; showing the love of Christ to the people around them, 

and doing all kinds of ministries that could only be possible through the spirit of God t work within them.

But despite all this amazing growth and bearing lots of spiritual fruit, the church at Colossae feels like their faith is not enough. 

Their community has been infiltrated by false teachers who have convinced them that the gospel they received is not enough; that they need to supplement with knowledge and ritual.

And Paul pens this beautiful letter in response, telling them that they are more than enough because of the gospel of truth within them.

“From Paul and Timothy, to the church at Colossae. Greetings of grace and peace to you. We have been praying for you. 

We are full of thanks to God for you, for your faith and for your love. Word has been spreading about what you have been doing and we are thankful.

 You have deep faith because of the Gospel of truth that was preached to you through Epaphras.

And you have deep love because this gospel of truth has given you hope.

 And this hope is not circumstantial; it is founded in the gospel of Christ and guarded in Heaven. 

Because you received Epaphras’ gospel preached to you in truth, the words that fell on your ears took root in your hearts and the hope, truth and the word of the Lord are growing and multiplying among you and throughout the world.

This wonderful growth began the day you heard the gospel, as if for the first time, and fully understood it;

 completely grasping the reality of the grace of God.
That’s why we are always praying for you: to be filled with the knowledge of God’s will through wisdom in the holy spirit. 

This will give you understanding of God’s word so you can structure your lives in a way that is fully pleasing to God, that is worthy of Christ’s name on your life, a life that continues to grow and multiply.

We pray that you will be filled with strength made strong in the strength of God’s glorious power. This strength will give you all you need to endure with patience and joyful thanks to God.

We pray for your rescue from darkness; that you will be able to love yourselves as you love others, and know that your faith and your gospel are more than enough. 

We are thankful for your participation in the kingdom of God, and for the redemption and forgiveness of sins which we all share.

Thanks be to God for the word of the Lord in you and through you.”

As we were discussing this passage on Wednesday, we talked about how it feels when someone tells you they are praying for you.

 We agreed that it feels pretty good; especially if you are going through a hard time. 

Someone shared that during the first Dawnings retreat, one of the most meaningful things that happened was when the other churches in attendance made a covenant with Scott Boulevard to pray for this church through the process of becoming a church without a building, a church devoted to caring for people.

As the Dawnings vision began to take shape, as things began to fall into place, as the move to First Baptist happened, and as ministry with isolated elders began to take off, the network of churches within the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship heard about this church’s story and they were inspired.

 The preacher at Avondale First Baptist heard about us and used our story in one of his sermons. 

The leadership at Rehoboth Baptist Church are working to pilot their own Church at Home ministry.

Your story is inviting others to pray, with thanksgiving to God who has made all of this possible; for the fruits of love that each of you are sharing with each other and with the community.

 Your story is inviting others to join with our mission in their own ways.

As the news has shown us this week, we have plenty of opportunities to continue to extend the love of Christ and the gospel of truth to the people around us. 

As the black community continues to struggle for their inherent rights to equity and equality, I asked some of my friends of color what they would most need to hear from white clergy on Sunday morning. 

Overwhelmingly, the theme that emerged from their answers was hope.

Hope that comes from their white sisters and brothers grieving with them and acknowledging that this struggle is worthy of public discussion.

Hope that is rooted in a tradition of faith grounded in justice and that recognizes that God’s heart bleeds for the oppressed.

Hope that comes from acknowledgment that black pain and black experiences are collective America’s pain and experiences;

 and that the feelings of worthlessness, helplessness, grief and anger that accompany the systemic oppression of an entire human race are valid and shared by the faith community bearing the name of Christ.

This is the kind of hope that Paul spoke of with the church at Colossae. This hope is ultimately founded in the grace of God, the gospel of truth and the love of Christ;

 but it is grounded on earth while we wait for its full revelation when Christ returns, in faith communities who covenant to pray for each other, 

to help each other grow in faith, who are committed to treating every person as a child of God, worthy of God’s love and ours.

This love comes from hearts that have been transformed through the gospel of Christ:

Whether through the preaching of Epaphras at Colossae, or the peaceful, justice-seeking faith and example of Martin Luther King, Jr., or an intimate communion experience through church at home; Christ’s message of love is being preached.

When communities of faith become outraged at every loss of life; when anger at the way that brave women and men in uniform have been villainized just because of the badge they wear, leads us to pray for their safety and the safety of their families, Christ’s message of love is being preached. 

Christ’s message, this gospel of truth, has the power to change hearts and transform lives; and in turn, transform the world from a place of hatred and violence and crippling fear of differences, into a world that Martin Luther King, Jr. called The Beloved Community.

A peaceful place where “poverty, hunger and homelessness are not tolerated because international standards of human decency won’t allow it; and where racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood (www.kingcenter.org).”

In similar fashion to Paul’s encouragement to continue living lives that show Christ’s love, our gospel reading this morning tells us an important story of love for our neighbors.

In his speech, I have Been To The Mountaintop, Dr. King mentioned this passage of scripture.

 He said that each person who passed by the man on the side of the road was concerned only for himself asking “if I help this man, what will happen to me?”

When the Samaritan walked by, his question was “if I don’t help this man, what will happen to him?”

It reminded me of the question Scott Boulevard asked themselves “if we don’t stay together, what will happen to our homebound?”

And the question resounds again, today. “ If we don’t speak out for these people, if we don’t commit to praying for them and their safety daily, what will happen to them?”

And again, “if we continue to suspect and villainize the people who have given their lives to the service of protecting us, what will happen to them?” 

There is room for heartbreak on both sides; the time for divisiveness and blame is over.

It is only when we accept this reality that the vision of Dr. King for our world; and the vision of Paul for the churches he loved so much will become a reality for us all. 

Only when we can shed hot, sorrowful tears both for black lives and for the lives of the police officers in Dallas and other places; at the same time, will we fully know the love of God and the gospel of truth in action. 

As this church continues to grow in ministry, we are also growing in love; for each other and for our neighbors. 

We’ve been blessed this summer to have Linsey Addington in our midst. 

During the next phase of her internship, she will be making contacts in the surrounding communities so that we can expand the base of people we are serving, and of people who might want to serve with us.

As Linsey prepares to take our story of who we are, and where we’ve come from and where we are going in the ways that we minister to the isolated elderly;

 I give thanks to God that she can say of us that we are an all-inclusive community of brothers and sisters committed to loving everyone as Christ has loved us;

a community who knows where our hope comes from and who longs for everyone to experience this hope through us.

Thanks be to God that Christ’s love abounds in us. 

By God’s mercy, may it one day be said of the whole earth; may we see the beloved community fulfilled, soon.

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