The Christian's New Clothes

Passage: Colossians 3:12-17
Date: December 30, 2018
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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I’ve been thinking about the holidays and how they bring out the best and worst in us, don’t they? Some people bring a long list of expectations and judge the goodness of the holiday based on the percentage of expectations that were met. Others race around trying to meet those expectations and consider the holiday a success only if they have managed to keep everyone happy and full, even if it means their own exhaustion.

There is the joy or disappointment of the gift-giving and receiving, of toys that break their first time out of the box, of puzzles put together by a whole crew of folks, of clothes that were exactly what someone wanted or doomed to the regifting pile.

But the Christmas holiday is different from our Christmas holy day which centers on something other than expectations and presents, or at least it does in the ideal sense. For most of us gathered here today, like the Whos of Whoville, the Grinch could steal all the stuff of Christmas and we would still celebrate. We don’t need the trees, the lights, the presents, the feasts – we simply need to hear the story, and tell each other the story, and give thanks for the gift of God incarnate. We receive God’s gift of Christmas, and then we go out and live as though Christ being born makes a difference in the world.

If all our holiday celebrations do not lead us to living out Christmas, perhaps we have missed the point. As lovely as all our Christmas stories are, with the angels and shepherds and kings, those characters are not the meaning of Christmas; they point us to the meaning of Christmas, which is the incarnate Christ. And in following Jesus, the incarnate Christ, we are called to live a certain way. The reading from Colossians explains that way.

As I said, the author plays off the metaphor of new clothes, trusting that the hearers of his letter will remember their baptisms and the tunics they wore. But evidently for the baptized in Colossae, the white tunic wasn’t enough. Their outsides didn’t match their insides, so they were admonished to clothe themselves with five Christian virtues: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness or gentleness, and patience. Clothe yourselves with these five virtues, and throw out all those others things that no longer fit, that are no longer comfortable.

Then the text moves us along to a new idea. Donning these new clothes is not an end unto itself but for a purpose. It is only by wearing these virtues that we are able to live out our faith, that we are able to get on with the verbs in the text. We’re given three: forgive, love, and give thanks. What if those three verbs were our New Year’s resolutions? How quickly would we abandon them? Would we be intentional about them, tape them to the bathroom mirror, journal about our daily success or failure?

I wonder. I think about forgiveness often, because “to forgive” may be the most difficult verb. My friend Nanette Sawyer wrote a beautiful sermon about forgiveness and I wanted to share a good portion of it with you. Listen to her words. (from Lectio Jubilate paper, January 2016)

“I wanted to remind us that to forgive someone is not to say that what they did is not wrong. To forgive is not to say what you did is okay—that it’s all right. No. It’s not that. People need to be forgiven because what they did is wrong. But forgiveness begins to heal a broken place. And that’s what we want to be about, right? Healing what is broken. Mending. Transforming. Making things right.

“But then I started reading in the newspaper about things that I could not forgive this week. I’m not even going to name the things, because maybe for you it’s the same things, or maybe for you it’s different things. 

“But we find these things and say, I can’t forgive that! I know I’m not the only one who has this experience. It’s those things that make me say, That’s so wrong. That’s not just wrong, that’s so wrong. Forgiving people because “they know not what they do” felt like giving permission to them to carry on with doing it…. I didn’t believe that forgiveness heals. I was thinking that forgiveness allows….I realized that I still thought about forgiveness as a kind of “making nice,” saying everything is okay and let’s just move on….

“If forgiveness heals, if forgiveness really transforms anything… then forgiveness has to be a force that reaches deep into ugliness and grabs something there, and pulls it out and shakes it and changes it. 

“It hurts like crazy to be forgiven, because to be really forgiven we have to realize what we have done. We have to be willing to let go of our idea that we are already perfect, that we already know the answers, that we’re right and we’re righteous. We have to let go of that sense of righteousness, and realize that we need help. 

“…Forgiveness that is deep and not superficial, that kind of forgiveness redeems. I’m not saying that I can do it. But I want to try. 

“….I don’t have to be God, but I want to try to follow God in the way of Jesus. And I want God in Christ to forgive me for all the bumbling I do. And I want God in Christ to forgive others. And I want God in Christ to help me forgive others… so that the image of God that’s in each of us can be found and set free.”

I love what Nanette says about forgiveness and I’ve gone back often to read her words I think because forgiveness, more than anything else, is the biggest stumbling block for practicing the faith, at least for me. Loving can be easy; giving thanks can be almost automatic. But forgiveness requires all that we have and more – we must accept the graces God will give us.

In order to practice forgiveness, we must know something about compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. It’s hard to forgive someone when you’re angry or judging; it’s hard to accept forgiveness when you’re proud or in a hurry.

Gregg and I, like many couples, work on forgiveness; when you live and work in close proximity with another person, things happen and need to be set right. So intentional are we about this that we practice anticipatory forgiveness.

Whenever we set out on a trip or go on vacation, before we leave the house, we take each other’s hand, look each other in the eye, and say, “I apologize in advance for anything I might say or do on this trip that will tick you off.” It covers a world of hurt, let me tell you, and it makes us more patient and, yes, forgiving with each other.

Perhaps when we set out to put on kindness and compassion and the like, and perhaps when we resolve to practice forgiveness, we live differently. Nothing is a dead end; a fight is not the end of a relationship but a means to deepen it; a hurt might heal and leave a scar but the scar will be a reminder of our vulnerability and our ability to cause pain.

If you had a rough Christmas holiday, and let’s admit that some people do, when you look back at it, do you see where there might have been an opening for compassion or forgiveness? And will you approach Christmas differently next year?

And if you had the best Christmas ever, was it because someone was gentle or patient, and did you give thanks?

Well, Christmas Day with all its expectations and fulfillments is done for now. In the coming weeks most of us will pack up the lights and the ornaments and the crèches; we’ll bring our trees to church for the youth to recycle; we’ll give the cards a final glance, and we’ll live into 2019. Perhaps we will live with a different resolve or with a new intention.

A new year awaits us all, and we have no idea what will happen. We don’t know about the stock market. We don’t know about politics here or across the globe. We don’t know about the weather, or the outcome of a sports match, or who will die and who will be born.

We do not know the future. But I am confident that we can enlarge our future, and we can make the opportunities for grace in the new year possible by wearing kindness, and compassion, and patience and gentleness and humility, and by practicing forgiveness with each other. To do so will not change what has been, but it will create what might be.

To the glory of God.