Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
November 24, 2019
“Transcending Doing Good and Living Right”
Colossians 1: 15-20a – Common English Bible
The Son is the image of the invisible God,
the one who is first over all creation,[a] (of)
16 Because all things were created by him:
both in the heavens and on the earth,
the things that are visible and the things that are invisible.
Whether they are thrones or powers,
or rulers or authorities,
all things were created through him and for him.
17 He existed before all things,
and all things are held together in him.
18 He is the head of the body, the church,
who is the beginning,
the one who is firstborn from among the dead[b] (over)
so that he might occupy the first place in everything.
19 Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
20 and he reconciled all things to himself through him--
whether things on earth or in the heavens.
When Christina goes to worship, she only sits in the balcony. Originally, it was part of a deal to get her teenagers to go to church with her. Now they’re off at college but she still sits there because it makes her feel closer to them. It also has the best leg room in the sanctuary. But from her perch, she can also see who else is there. Not to check up on them, but to observe. From up there she can see an assorted lot of stressed out workers and professionals; students with assignments due and teachers who have to grade them at night; business owners flush with cash and people living paycheck to paycheck. She also sees an assortment of people who retired from that stress who are now busier than they ever thought they would be at this point in their life.
She knows that a few of those folks in the pews received bad news this week – from a doctor or a boss or a spouse. She notices an older gentleman back in church, but now sitting alone after years of sitting next to his wife. She’s seen that more than a few times over the years.
Others down there had a wonderful week. One went to a wedding last night; another couple celebrated an anniversary. One witnessed the birth of a new child; another welcomed news of a first grandchild. A few of those folks in the pews received good news this week – from a doctor or a boss or a spouse.
But most people neither had a particularly bad week or an especially great week. They don’t feel particularly blessed or especially broken. If so, then why were they all there? What united such a crowd on that certain Sunday morning? If they came to hear a sermon, they could have read it online later. Heck, they could probably get something even better; a 20-minute TedTalk on a more interesting subject.
Why are you here this morning? Did you have a terrible week? Did you have a great week? Or did you just have another week? Perhaps you don’t know why. My parents never quite explained why we went to church. They also didn’t explain why we ate dinner. We just did. But ever since, I know I need it. I’m hungry when I’ve missed it. Worship, that is, not dinner.
Sure, you might say this is my job. But it’s also what gives me life. Or something like that. Frankly, I can’t tell you much more than that. But I know it helps get me through another week of the Trump administration, or any other good, bad, or indifferent week. I can’t tell you how. It just does. It’s a gift. Trying to explain beyond that might ruin it.
And that’s my challenge with today’s text. There are a few lines like, “oh, that makes sense, I guess.” Such as the first half of the first verse we heard: “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” That’s one way to describe Jesus. “In Jesus we see the God who cannot be seen.” Big word alert, that’s an incarnational theology. The theology of the incarnation is that Jesus is God made flesh. You will hear a lot of that at Christmastime.
But, back to our text in Colossians, the “that makes sense” vibe is immediately ruined by the second half of the same verse – maybe not ruined but incongruent. “The Son is the one who is first over all creation,” or in a different translation, “the firstborn of all creation; for in (or by) him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible…” And as it drones on, you can watch my mind drift down the hall to the smells of turkey.
I’m not a particularly deep thinker. I like to think. I love to dream and imagine. But I’m not very philosophical. Or maybe it’s that I’m not very metaphysical. See, I don’t even know the right word to say. I’m drawn to theology that is concrete. Saying that Jesus is the “firstborn from the dead so that he might occupy the first place in everything” isn’t the least bit inspirational to me. Nor do I think Jesus would have said anything even remotely like that about himself. Remember, he chastised his disciples and told them that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.
More importantly, this text tells me nothing about how to live. Give me parables about Good Samaritans and Prodigal Children and Vineyard Workers and I’m right there with you. You describe to me the Kingdom of God as the realm in which justice and peace and compassion and kindness reign supreme and I’ll follow you. Tell me that Jesus “existed before all things” or “for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” and I’ll say, “So what. Who cares?” But maybe it is of interest to you. It may even be significant.
I like how Jesus Seminar scholars like Marcus Borg focus on the historical Jesus. What did he really say and do? And yet, there are many more ways than that to see him, understand him, and know him. Human. Divine. And, Borg says, in this passage, cosmic. Present at the time of creation. Present in all things of creation. Bringing all things together.
You may have heard of Matthew Fox’s most famous book The Cosmic Christ and Our Experiences of the Divine. The Cosmic Christ is one way to understand a mystical dimension within Christianity. Or as an archetype for mystical experiences. Fox says, “I see the historical Jesus as the particle that light is. And I see the Cosmic Christ as the wave that light is.” He added, light is both particle and wave. Just as Jesus, too, is both historical and cosmic. Deep stuff. Above my head.
Texts like today’s may be confounding but they have an important place in a faith, like ours, that emphasizes the practical. “What do I do to do good?” Marcus Borg says the significance of texts like these is how Jesus transcends his historical life. And when you put it that way, I agree. I appreciate critiques that western culture often domesticates Jesus into someone or something we can understand, confining him to the limits of our experience, making him agree with our economic and political instincts.
It is important that mystery is given proper respect because that which cannot be explained is vital to a faith that is alive. Sometimes too many explanations can ruin a thing. Again, that’s how this text feels to me. It tries really hard, too hard, to say something important. But, at the same time, it also reminds me that our faith is more than doing good and living right. It is an encounter with a transcendent God. A God we can’t fully understand or completely comprehend, but who we can glimpse, in Jesus, one image of the invisible God. One, not the only.
Why are you here this morning? Perhaps you wouldn’t say it like this, but the Cosmic Christ may be one reason. Perhaps you chose to come or perhaps something within you, that you can’t quite explain, compelled you to be here today. And yet, did you just come for a TedTalk or for a gathering of community, singing and praying and everything else, that transcends doing good and living right into an experience of unity? Unity in a world desperately divided. Unity that is the hope of our divided world. The unity of we who are an assorted lot of stressed out workers and professionals; students with assignments due and teachers who have to grade them at night; business owners flush with cash and people living paycheck to paycheck… and retirees with very busy lives.
There is something cosmic in our being here. Today. Drawn together by God, or Jesus, or the Spirit, or something bigger than ourselves that unites us and helps us get through the next great, terrible, or completely ordinary week. How? Perhaps, unlike the Letter to the Colossians, we shouldn’t ruin it with too many explanations and simply say: For this experience, I am thankful today.
Though I will admit, I’m also grateful that later in chapter 3 the author does get practical. Do this: “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other. Just as the Lord has forgiven you, you must also forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
As you wait in line later for our feast, talk to the people standing around you about why you are here today. Tell someone you don’t know what drew you or compelled you or brought you back here again. If you fear you might ruin the experience by trying to explain it, perhaps you can simply say, “For whatever reason we are together, I’m grateful to be here with you today.”
 Adapted from a story about World Communion Sunday by Craig Barnes in The Christian Century, “A glimpse of how heaven sees worship”
 Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word, HarperOne, 2012, p. 204
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world