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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Sandra L. Randleman

August 14, 2016

What Are You Seeking?

Jeremiah 17:5-8; Mark 9:14-29; Colossians 3:1-17

 

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

                               by Leonard Cohen

 

As I was growing up, my family enjoyed a friendship with a family that included three children, three sons. Sometimes a middle child has a particularly challenging time in terms of the family dynamics.  The middle child does not have the distinction of being the oldest child who receives so much attention in his earliest years from both his parents and is the first to arrive at such important markers of maturity as going to kindergarten or getting a license to drive a car.  The youngest child may be perceived by his siblings as getting off too easily and being pampered.  But the middle child sometimes feels he receives less attention from his parents.  Of course, the poor parents are simply outnumbered by their children and are trying to allocate their limited resources of time and attention among their children.

The middle son of our family friends was named Robert, and Robert sometimes felt a bit neglected by his parents. As Easter approached one year, the oldest son, Thomas, received a brand new coat to wear to church.  Robert was given Thomas’ out-grown jacket to try on and it fit perfectly.  His parents were relieved, envisioning one less expense and less time spent shopping for a coat for Robert. 

Robert, however, was not at all pleased with the prospect of inheriting Thomas’ old jacket. He looked at himself in the mirror sadly and said, “Now, I’m Thomas.”  Well, Robert’s parents took him shopping for a new jacket, a jacket that would allow Robert to see himself differently, as an individual of distinction and worth and value, a person who felt special and loved by his parents.

I’m not quite sure why I’ve remembered this story all these years, but the story seems to have significance for everyone on the life-long search for who they are and what they are to do with their lives. We may choose to wear clothes that remind us of a celebrity or someone we admire.  We may wear clothes that speak of our vocation or the uniform of the school we attend.  We often see our clothes as reflections of who we are or who we want to be or become.  

I think of this memory about Robert every time I read our passage from Colossians. Paul uses the imagery of clothing to describe the old self before baptism and the new self of baptized Christians.  Paul emphasizes the significance of the Colossians’ baptism with the imagery of death and resurrection.  In their baptism, they removed their old clothes and were lowered into the waters of baptism, signifying their death to their old sinful life through Christ’s crucifixion.  They were raised from the waters and clothed with white robes, signifying their resurrection with and through Jesus Christ to new life.  Paul affirms that the Christians, raised with Christ in His resurrection, are united with Christ who is in God.  The Colossians are now new creations. 

As new creations, they are invited to embrace a new mindset and new desires, to seek the things that are above. Paul uses the word “above” to refer to Jesus and where Jesus Christ is after His resurrection.  In our Apostles’ Creed that we affirm each Sunday, we say that the resurrected Jesus ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.  When Christians seek the things that are above, they are seeking union with the resurrected Christ.  They are seeking to live a life pleasing to God.  As Christians set their minds on things that are above, they reject the things that are of this earth.

Paul expresses a similar idea in his letter to the Romans when he says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).      

 As Christians seek things that are above, they are called to a new way of living.  This new way of seeing themselves and their life goals is illustrated by Paul in terms of their clothes, not physical clothes, but spiritual attire.  As recreated and transformed Christians, the Colossians are invited to wear the same spiritual clothes that Jesus wore.  The Colossians are to rid themselves of their old ragged clothes of sinful behavior and clothe themselves with lovely new clothes of beautiful virtues and qualities.  In other words, they need to clean out their spiritual clothes wardrobe.

I was inspired to clean out my clothes closet and even my entire home by the best-selling book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: the Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, by Marie Kondo.  But I must admit my process of tidying up my house is definitely an on-going process, most likely a life-time project.  Marie’s method is one that results in extreme decluttering that may even seem brutal if you happen to enjoy lots of belongings.  Marie Kondo’s method for keeping or discarding an item (any item) is this.  With respect to every item you possess, you ask yourself whether it brings you joy.  If yes, then you can keep the item.  But if not, out it goes. 

Paul employs a technique somewhat similar to Marie Kondo’s with a slight twist. Rather than asking if your qualities and behavior that compose your spiritual clothing are pleasing to you, Paul asks whether your spiritual clothing is pleasing to God.  The last chapter of Marie Kondo’s book is entitled, “Your real life begins after putting your house in order.”  Paul would agree.  He would say that once your spiritual house is in order, including your spiritual clothing, your real life, your new life in Christ, will begin.

Paul lists a few sins in case the Colossians do not know what qualities delight God and God would find admirable. It is certainly not a list of every sin humanly possible and displeasing to God.  But just in case they were wondering, Paul tells them that God does not like such earthly sins as fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire and greed.  Paul says they should strip off and throw out all these old sins, represented in terms of old clothing, as well as the old clothes of anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive language.   Paul means that we should remove this old clothing and burn each item of sinful behavior.  We do not need to take them to Goodwill to share with others.  This type of clothing is, unfortunately, too readily available in our world, and is not pleasing to God. 

God has new beautiful clothing to offer Christians, clothing that delights Him and will delight us as we welcome our new life in Christ. Such clothing is worthy of Christians and reflects our best self, for we are each created in the image of God.  God is offering Christians lovely clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.  God, who forgives repentant sinners, offers us spiritual clothing of a spirit of forgiving others.  The clothing is bound together in perfect harmony by love, the most essential quality for a Christian to wear. 

The clothing will be worn a little differently by each Christian, for we each have different gifts and abilities and personalities. But we are each stronger and more complete when we come together in community.  The newly clothed Christians are to join together in a Christian community without division based on economic, class or ethnic differences.  They are to be united despite differences in theological and religious beliefs.  When the Colossians are so clothed, they will have the precious gift of peaceful and grateful hearts.  So clothed, the word of God will dwell in them richly and they will worship God as they share and receive teachings and as they praise God with psalms and hymns.  Paul urges the Colossians to do everything, in word or deed, in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.         

Paul paints a lovely picture with words of Christians who are perfectly united with Christ and with each other, and perfectly clothed with the virtues of compassion, kindness, love and other admirable qualities. Their spiritual closet is perfectly in order, with the clothes of sinful behavior thrown out and only the clothes of Christian virtues worn.  We might wonder if such perfection is possible while we dwell on this earth.

I certainly have not yet obtained perfection in tidying my physical home. Even when I apply the Marie Kondo method in tidying up a drawer or closet, there is still something else I could discard.  I keep some things that do not give me joy just because I might need them someday.  I keep a coat I have not worn for years and really do not like because it might be useful on some future occasion.  I may keep a gift that brought joy in the giving and receiving, but I do not fully appreciate today.

Similarly, no matter how often or how diligently we try to clean up our lives and discard our anger or rid some other sin from our lives, we cannot do so perfectly. We may forgive someone today and tomorrow find ourselves again struggling with the same wrong we thought we had forgiven.  Some imperfection will remain despite our best intentions, our sincerest human efforts and our most earnest prayers to God to help us.

I find comfort in the story of Jesus healing the son of the father who begs Jesus to help his son if Jesus could. Jesus replies, “If I can!  All things are possible to him who believes.”  The father immediately cries out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”  Jesus heals the man’s son.  Jesus does not require that the father have perfect belief or perfect faith.  The father brings to Jesus the belief that he has and asks Jesus to help him with his unbelief and with meeting his deepest desire to see his son healed.  Jesus honors the father’s plea by healing his son and thereby strengthening his belief.  Jesus’ healing is not dependent on or a result of human perfection or perfect faith.

The focus of this healing story is not on the father’s lack of belief but on Jesus. Jesus honors the imperfect belief that the father surrenders to Jesus with his plea to Jesus for help.  It is unlikely that our lives or our beliefs will ever be perfect during our earthly lives.  But the focus of our hope is not on us and our human efforts, but on Jesus.  We can bring to Jesus our sinful selves and our desire to be people who seek the things that are above and trust God to be at work in our lives for good. 

In the movie “City Slickers,” Billy Crystal plays Mitch, a confused and discontent character in his 30’s who has a sense that his life is slipping away from him. His life is scattered, and he feels torn between his sense of responsibility to his family and his desire to advance in his career.  He wants excitement and adventure and also security.  As Mitch seeks the answers to the questions of the meaning and focus of his life, he goes on vacation with three friends to experience the adventure of participating in a cattle drive across the southwest.

Mitch meets gruff Curly, played by Jack Parlance. Curly asks Mitch if he would like to know the secret of life, and he holds up a single finger.

Mitch asks, “The secret of life is your finger?”

Curly replies, “The secret of life is pursing one thing.”   Mitch begins to seek to discover the one thing that holds the key to the meaning of his life.

Paul tells the Colossians the secret of how to live their lives. His closing words of our passage are these: “Whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him.”  Paul is urging us to pursue one thing: to do everything we do and say everything we say as Jesus would.  This means we must know Jesus well enough to understand how Jesus would act if He were in our life circumstances, living in our household and working in our workplace or studying in our school, with our resources, gifts and opportunities.  We are to do everything with gratitude to God and with thanksgiving for the gift of life and of Jesus Christ. 

Soren Kierkegaard wrote a book entitled, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, in which he states that double-mindedness is the essential disease of the human spirit.  The disease is the failure to achieve the simplicity of focusing on one thing and to make an ultimate commitment to what Kierkegaard calls “the Good,” or what Paul would refer to as the things that are above.   Too often we are distracted by the things of this world and focused on our perceived weaknesses and deficiencies.   

I often read the poem printed in today’s worship bulletin to remind myself of its message. I first came to focus on these words as I read the wonderful mystery novels of Canadian author, Louise Penny.  Her work features the fictional character, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, the head of the homicide department of the Sûreté du Québec.  The novels are set in the province of Quebec and depict Chief Inspector Gamache’s investigations of crimes of murder.  With skill and remarkable insight into human nature, Gamache sifts through the evidence and a large cast of suspects and discovers the one who committed the murder and his or her motivation and the human weakness that inspired the crime.  The stories also depict Chief Inspector Gamache’s own personal struggles, especially with respect to his recognition of his own weaknesses, failings and mistakes that have brought suffering to himself and to others, even those he has sought to help.  The stories show a person who is mourning his errors and seeking to be a better person, a better husband, father, friend and colleague and to help those who enter his life.

Chief Inspector Gamache loves poetry and he finds comfort in the words of poet Leonard Cohen.  

Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in.

These words remind us that there is a crack or weakness in every person. No person or community of Christians on this earth will ever achieve absolute perfection.  We will never have perfect faith and we will never be without sin except in and through Jesus Christ as we receive God’s forgiveness.  But God can use our human imperfections and the humility that comes with our recognition that we cannot save or perfect ourselves.  God can use our desire to live a life pleasing to Him, seeking the qualities that delight Him.  We are the light of the world only because the light of Jesus Christ shines through our broken places and sins surrendered to Him. 

We cannot wait until we are perfect to offer ourselves to Jesus Christ. Nor can we wait for our lives to dwell in perfect circumstances.  We can always find a good reason to wait and seek God and the life He would have us lead at a later time.  We cannot wait, for such perfection is not part of our earthly lives. 

We forget the perfect offering and ring the bells that still can ring. We do what we can, seeking God’s help, in the circumstances we are given.  We seek the good of God’s divine redemption even in the midst of the tragedies and brokenness of human life.  We claim God’s spirit of power and love and self-control (2 Timothy 1:7). 

In the congregational care ministry of our church, I often see church members who offer compassion and empathy to other hurting people in a way possible only because of the brokenness of their own lives. I see this most often among our Stephen Ministers trained to enter into caring and confidential relationships with people who are going through a difficult time.  They bring their brokenness, their heartbreaks to God and ask God to use them to help others.  A Stephen Minister who has been through a difficult divorce or who has lost a loved one is in a unique position to offer ministry to help another in a similar situation.  Compassion and understanding arise from the depths of sorrow held in the healing light of God’s love.  God’s light shines through their broken hearts into the broken lives of others.

God does not waste any experience of life surrendered to Him. God can use our human failings and tragedies to show His love and care, and His instrument of healing and comfort is often another broken human being.  This is the concept that Henri Nouwen referred to as the “wounded healer,” that is, one who is an instrument of God’s healing, not in spite of personal wounds, but because of them.  God showed us through the suffering, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus that what may first appear to be the worst of tragedies may become, through God’s redeeming grace, the greatest gift.  God can use our heartaches to draw us closer to Him, ease our pain and transform our lives, even our sinful ways, as we seek to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.

Seeking to live a life in the name of Jesus is like throwing darts at a target with the assistance of the master dart player. When I play darts, I aim the arrow for the centermost circle, and I almost always miss.  When we prayerfully aim to live as Jesus would, we can trust Jesus to guide the arrow.  We just bring the desire to please God and trust in God’s transforming grace.  This is the faith expressed in Thomas Merton’s well-known “Seeker’s Prayer.”

I invite you to reflect on the words of this prayer as I read it now. You may want to make this prayer your own.

 “My Lord God I have no idea of where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please You.  And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.  I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.  And I know that if I do this You will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for You are ever with me, and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.” Amen.

God wants us to seek Him with all our hearts, and to seek the life He has planned for each one of us. Perfect faith, perfect trust and a perfect life are not required.  We do what we can, with all the trust and belief in God we have in the present moment, prayerfully asking God to help us seek, with all our hearts, just one thing: the desire to please Him. 

Then we can watch and see what God will do, for God does His best work with cracked vessels. That’s how the Light, His Light, gets in.

 

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