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.
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
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
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
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
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
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