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Endings and Beginnings

Background note:

Today’s text comes from the Book of Colossians. Though the

opening verse attributes this letter to Paul, many scholars believe that it

was written by one of his followers. For instance, the way the author

speaks of sin, forgiveness, and resurrection, suggests a perspective

related to, but different from Paul’s. The writing style also varies

significantly from the undisputed Pauline letters. But none of that

undermines the authority of this text for the church, because in the time

of the early church it was considered a sign of modesty, a sign of respect

for one’s elders to attribute one’s own work to one’s teacher. We are

reminded again that we have to hold lightly our own culture’s

assumptions and practices when we encounter ancient texts.

 

Colossians 1:1-14

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our

brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in

Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father. In our prayers for

you we always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for we have

heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the

saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. You have heard of

this hope before in the word of the truth, the gospel that has come to you.

Just as it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been

bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it and truly

comprehended the grace of God. This you learned from Epaphras, our

beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your

behalf, and he has made known to us your love in the Spirit.

For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased

praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of

God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead

lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every

good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made

strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may

you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving

thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of

the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and

transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have

redemption, the forgiveness of sins.

 

“Endings and Beginnings”

When I was a seminary student, I had the opportunity to work as

a chaplain at the local hospital in Princeton. On my first day at the

hospital, I fully expected to receive some training. I thought someone

would share best practices with me, coach me on how to be a good

chaplain, suggest what I might say. But after receiving the briefest of

orientations to the building and hearing a few basic rules, I and the

other newbie chaplains were told to go and make ourselves useful.

I was pointed toward a floor of patients recovering from surgical

procedures—and so I started walking through doors and introducing

myself. All these years later, two of those first-day visits are still vivid in

my mind.

In the first, I found a teen-aged girl recovering from a procedure

on her throat. Remembering my own childhood tonsillectomy, I thought

“the last thing this girl needs is to be talking.” I looked around for

something I might read to her and failing that, prepared to make a quick

exit. But her need to talk was so urgent, that for the next 30 minutes, I

leaned in close and let her whisper to me unhindered. Her parents were

getting divorced; her world was coming apart, and she desperately

needed someone to hear her.

The second conversation seemed even more improbable. The

bouquet of flowers by the patient’s bed was nearly as beautiful as those

that grace our sanctuary this morning. Clearly not from the hospital gift

shop, they took my breath away. But when I spoke admiringly of them,

the woman only smiled. It soon became apparent that we spoke not a

word of each other’s language. The flowers were an indication to me

that she was well loved, and I remember somehow having the

impression that she was an artist. I cannot tell you anything more than

that. I cannot tell you how long I stayed in that room or exactly what

happened, but before I left, she and I both had tears splashing down our

cheeks. That’s not a typical encounter for me.

By the end of the day, I knew the work was holy. And later, when I

thought back over the time in those two rooms, I realized that I’d said

almost nothing—words were not what had been required of me. I’d

simply needed to walk toward the suffering, and the beauty, knowing

that God would meet me there.

I wonder if there’s a sense in which the world is one big hospital

and each of us has been asked to go and make ourselves useful. We’d so

like a road map, but the author of Colossians wants us to know that

what we will get—and what we will need—will not be a roadmap, but a

relationship: a relationship with the God who lives, the God revealed to

us in Jesus—the God who is still creating us and redeeming us and

giving us back to the world. But it’s hard for us to trust what we cannot

see—what we cannot control. It was hard for the Colossians, too.

By the time we meet the Colossians, tension has grown in their

community. Some members are claiming special sources of knowledge

and insisting that particular practices make them better able to discern

God’s will. The letter’s author argues, instead, that the surest sign that

God is working in a community is the compassion that community

exhibits to the world. And he urges the community to trust that the God

made known in Jesus will keep empowering them for the work that they

are being called to do.

He describes Jesus’ followers as people of hope. He asks his

listeners to look beyond their own community to notice where hope is

bearing fruit in the world. Then he prods them to remember when their

own encounters with God’s grace have birthed hope. Finally, he urges

the community to live on that powerful, fragile edge.

It’s an interesting description of what it means to be church. This

ancient writer gives no indication that followers of Jesus will get to be

experts on anything. The knowledge he urges his listeners to seek is a

knowledge born of relationship—relationship with God, with each

other, with a world in need.

I’m intrigued by the notion that we are called to be out in the

world paying attention to communities alive with hope, even as we hold

fast to our own empowering experiences of grace. I’m intrigued by the

notion that we are to be led by hope. To that end, I had an email this

week from a pastor whose path I first crossed a couple of years ago. The

note made me remember that last year she took a new call in the

Washington area. I vaguely remembered that there was something

unusual about the community, so I looked it up online.

I learned that Ashley is serving a church that is living its hope in a

radical way. Here’s the backstory: Over many years the church had lost

much of its membership. They still had a big building, but it was no

longer well used. When they looked around their neighborhood, they

realized that many of the persons who worked there had been priced

out of housing: day-care teachers, construction workers, school

employees had nowhere to live. The church in Arlington responded by

doing what Jesus did. They took what they had—their building—then

they blessed and broke it and gave it to the neighborhood.

They tore their building down and built affordable housing in its

place—they’re going to worship in a large multi-purpose room in that

housing complex. As I understand the project, they also have offered

space to a social enterprise group that provides a bilingual training

program and job placement in food service and restaurant

management—and in the process helps to feed the neighborhood. That

congregation is trusting the God made known to them in Jesus Christ

and living at the edge of their hope. Lee and I already had a trip to

Washington planned. We’ve added a stop. We’re going to go see for

ourselves.

Of course theirs is not a model that provides a cookie-cutter

solution to any other community—that doesn’t seem to be the way God

works. Our calls are particular; they are contextual; they are

incarnational. They require listening. They require relationship. In the

gospels, what Jesus asks of one conversation partner is rarely what he

asks of the next.

I don’t know what God has in store for UPC, but I pray that you

will keep your hearts open to the one who loves you best, who will keep

planting courage in your hearts, and asking you to risk your lives out of

hope for the world. As you keep those hearts open to the pain and

beauty all around, may you know the power and the joy of service in

God’s name.

Before I close this morning, I wanted you to know that I have

grown closer to God as I have walked with you. Always I will carry you

in my heart and be glad to hear news of the fruit you are bearing.

Let me close with a quotation that was included in your mission

study:

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent

enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of

saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.

No prayer fully expresses our faith.

No confession brings perfection.

No pastoral visit brings wholeness.

No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.

No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing

that.

This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an

opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the

master builder and the worker.i

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.

We are prophets of a future not our own.

i Bishop Ken Untener

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.