May 2, 2021
12 As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.
13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.
16 Let the word of Christ[g] dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.
17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
When Paul writes this letter to the Colossians, he doesn’t know them. He’s never met them, never even been to Colossae. He’s never broken bread at their tables, laughed with their families, or joined in their traditions. He is just a man, far away, who heard that they are struggling. To be clear, I’m not saying Paul is just your average concerned citizen—he is tasked with helping these churches grow and thrive, but he has no personal ties to the Colossian community. And yet, he cares enough to reach out to them personally when they were struggling. We don’t know exactly what the problem is that the Colossians are wrestling with, but there is something that has thrown them off course, and when the news gets to Paul, he cares enough to pen a letter to this community he does not know at all. Paul outlines what is, in his mind, the best way forward. He sets them on a path to living their lives more like Christ, and in this passage of the letter, he tells them how they are to be a community – inviting them to clothe themselves with all of these incredible qualities, like compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. He reminds them to bear with one another, to forgive each other, to teach each other, and to put on love above all. All this, Paul says, they should do in the name of Christ Jesus. This could easily read as an invitation to adopt personal qualities, surely, but Paul’s letter goes beyond that. Each of these qualities, each exhortation he puts upon the Colossians, is relational. He isn’t laying a roadmap for individual salvation—he’s setting a rule of life for their entire community, governing how they should live out their lives not just at home in their own individual homes, but in their meals together, in their worship together, in all the shared moments and time that make them a community. In all this, Paul pays attention, he notices that the Colossians need help, and he keeps watch over them, even from miles and miles away.
Paul’s instructions seem to somehow cover all that it means for the Colossians to be human, to exist in relationship and in the world. They have a laundry list of qualities to strive for, specific instructions for interacting with one another, and endless descriptors of what they should be embodying throughout it all. I imagine that receiving this letter may have felt like reading the first page of a test, only to realize that there is a part a, a part b, a part c, and a part d on every question. There is so much they are being asked—not only are they expected to put on all of these qualities, but to completely shift how they engage and relate to one another. The Colossians are not just being asked to add in a few daily practices or meet a new guideline or two—they are being asked to shift their center of gravity, from themselves to a new focus on their entire community’s wellbeing. I have to imagine that that was a lot. I wonder if they stared at this letter and said, “where in the world do we start?” or “This all sounds good, but how do we really do that?” But even in the act of writing this letter to them, Paul shows the Colossians where to start. In even writing this letter at all, Paul keeps watch over them, and knits himself into the wellbeing of their community. Just as Paul has kept watch over the Colossians, they must begin to keep watch over one another before they can become the community Paul believes they are meant to be.
Recently I had a day when nothing at all was going right. I’m sure you know the kind. It sounds dramatic now, but in that moment, I was convinced that I had landed myself in the pages of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. I had completely misunderstood an assignment for school and had to re-do it, I fumbled over my words all through a meeting, Harris Teeter pick-up gave me a tiny onion instead of garlic, and the dinner I was cooking (sans garlic) turned out too salty, too dry, and only edible if you closed your eyes and thought about something else. Against my better judgment, I gave the day one last shot and popped out to drop part of my subpar meal off for my mom, when suddenly my eight minute trip just down the road was thrown off course. One second I was just cruising along, and the next my car was clunking and banging and I was certain it was about to explode. I put on my flashers and landed myself on the side of 15-501, just to discover that My tire had popped. Sitting on the side of the road waiting for help, I missed a meeting, and By the time I got home that night, I had lost it. I came in, sunk down on my couch, and cried big, hot, frustrated tears. The kind you know won’t make anything better, but that you just can’t stop from falling. Only a minute or so later, my roommate’s dog, Harper, popped her head out of another room. She wandered over to me, jumped up on the couch, and curled up with her head in my lap. She saw me, exhausted, defeated, and having a complete breakdown, and trotted right over to offer me compassion, and companionship. After a long and frustrating day, Harper (the world’s best dog) noticed something, and came in to help.
Perhaps Many of us have a pet just like Harper, who will always notice and jump right up in your lap when you cry, or maybe you have a pet who has never been known to be affectionate, unless you’re in distress. While we are tasked with watching over our pets—feeding them, walking them, ensuring they live happy, healthy lives— they keep watch over us too, coming alongside us in our difficult moments, offering compassion, bearing with us during our meltdowns, and loving us unconditionally. Somehow, the creatures who love us most also, sometimes, see us the most clearly. When we are at our most vulnerable, they notice.
Keeping watch is woven into the fabric of creation, and not only through the dopey, loving companionship of our pets. Creation shows us what it means to keep watch. In his book “The Hidden Life of Trees,” Peter Wohlleben unpacks the ways that trees communicate, how they form an interconnected network, how they support each other through growth and through withering. Trees have a vast communication system, and they watch, listen, and adjust accordingly to those in their community. “Every tree…is valuable to the community,” Wohlleben writes, “ And that is why even sick individuals are supported and nourished until they recover. Next time, perhaps it will be the other way round, and the supporting tree might be the one in need of assistance.” They offer compassion and sustenance even to felled stumps, and they bear with one another through disease and breakage, they offer humility, giving of themselves for the greater good of the community, all because they are watching, and noticing. “If a tree falls in the forest,” Wohlleben says, “there are other trees listening.” All of God’s creation knows to do this holy business of keeping watch—even the trees. The whole created world we are embedded in is clothed in compassion, in gentleness, in patience, and in love. Keeping watch is in the fabric of the world all around us—it is an instinct, a part of living and breathing on earth and in community. It is as easy as breathing, and it is as hard as a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
When Paul wrote this letter to the Colossians, I imagine that he genuinely hoped all of these things for them: that they would learn to clothe themselves in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. That they would learn to bear with one another, forgive one another, and clothe themselves in love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. In all these ways, Paul wanted the Colossians to live in community more like Christ did—Christ who kept watch, over the disciples, over all of humanity. All that being said, I don’t imagine that Paul’s words turned the Colossians’ lives upside down. They were human too, and I don’t think for even a moment that this letter pushed them to become a perfect, faultless community, bereft of any selfishness, blame, grudges, or impatience. But I’d like to think that the Colossians learned something about the holy work of keeping watch over one another through Paul’s letter, and through even his act of writing it. I wonder if, perhaps, they looked at each other just a little bit differently. If they looked a little longer. If they listened just a little bit closer when someone’s voice trembled, or when someone didn’t speak at all.
In another community I am a part of, through Reality Ministries in Durham, I am reminded of a song we always sing when we come together. With words coming from Psalms 121, the song is simple. The chorus softly swells, repeating a reminder. “He who watches over you will never slumber nor sleep.” The song doesn’t carry quite the same feeling when it isn’t sung in a crowded gym full of people I love, all rooted together in community, but it is still meaningful. And it is still true. Long before Paul showed the Colossians what it means to watch over one another, before he laid out all that comes along with that practice, it was God who had been keeping watch. Who always keeps watch. God notices us, even in our most quiet discomforts. In the anxieties we keep inside, in the doubts we are afraid to share, in the anger we don’t feel we’re allowed to show. God watches, and notices. God keeps watch, and Paul, embodying the example of Christ, kept watch, and in turn we are all given this gift, this path forward as we embody the legacy of loving, gracious watch-keeping for one another. We can’t be God, of course, we can’t see and notice it all, but we can practice this holy watch-keeping together.
Our community comes with this big network of roots. We have relationships, history, memories of laughter and grief together. Like Wohlleben’s trees, we are bound together in love by something. Is it this building, that binds us together across miles and across six foot chasms? Is it our memories, and what we share and hold in common? Is it meals at a Second Sunday, or laughter and lessons shared in a Sunday School classroom? It can be all of those things, and it should. We are a community, tied together by unique, diverse experiences and shared life. But I hope, too, that what will bind us together through all of the trials to come will be how we keep watch. How we offer the kindness, patience, forgiveness, that Paul lifts up, how we bear with one another in our pain, and notice it rather than look away. When we keep watch, we pay attention, and we make it possible to be in community in all of the beautiful, intricate ways that Paul outlines.
I think we all have that in us—that intentional love—but we have to start by watching, by really seeing each other. When one of us falls, or can’t get a word in edgewise, when one of us is uncomfortable, but doesn’t know how to say it, when one of us is quietly grieving, I hope, and I know, that we will be paying attention—we will notice, and we will not look away. Because through every hardship, every difficult conversation, every tear shed or laugh shared, what we have is each other. And so we must keep watch, every day, however we can. Following the example of God, of Paul, of Christ, of creation, let us tend to one another, and keep holy watch, today, and all days.