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For this reason ...

Amos 7:7-17
Luke 10:25-37
Colossians 1:1-14
Sun, July 15, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
Paul has heard good things about the little church in Colossae. It is not a troublesome brood like the dysfunctional congregation in Corinth. The church in Colossae has sprung up as a result of Paul’s missionary journeys ... though he has never been there. Paul has heard good things about this young congregation from his colleague Epaphras. To be honest with you, I have never paid much attention to the opening lines in the letter to the Colossians. Yet something about the opening verses of Colossians caught my eye ... and my heart ... this week. Reading them aloud I found myself recognizing Paul’s joy ... and sharing his concern. Because, you see, this letter has been waiting here in this pulpit Bible to be read today to you ... to y’all ... to this Congregation. It is six years now that we’ve been walking together. When I arrived here six years ago I did not know all that much about University Hill Congregation. Oh, the Pastoral Relations Committee did their best to fill me in on who you were and what you were about ... and they no doubt did their best to fill you in on who I was and what I was about. But, the truth is, we didn’t really have any idea what we were getting in to when we decided to make promises to be faithful to one another.

Well ... after six years I know a lot more about Uhill ... and you, for better or worse, know a lot more about me. For my part, I find it hard not to simply quote Paul directly: “In our prayers for you we always thank God ... 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.” Yes, I thank God that you are a congregation that is unashamed to place its trust firmly in Jesus Christ. This may sound self-evident. This may seem basic to any church. But, friends, there is many a Christian congregation in these parts which finds it hard to trust in the good news that is revealed in Jesus. The sad truth is, there are plenty of congregations where the gospel of the crucified and risen Jesus is thought of as a rather embarrassing, even troublesome, legacy ... something to be silenced, not proclaimed.

With Paul, I thank God that the faith in Christ Jesus proclaimed in this community bears fruit in love for the saints. Paul knows nothing of St. Francis or St. Nicholas or any other officially sanctioned saints. He only knows of the saints who gather around Jesus’ table ... the ones sitting in front of you, beside you, behind you ... and the saints sitting at table off of this University Hill ... at First United in the Downtown Eastside where the food from our Sunday table goes each Monday ... others at table in orphanages and poor neighbourhoods in the Dominican Republic where water runs clean now ... and still others soon, we pray, in Lesotho. Of course, there are also the saints gathering here at VST right now ... the First Nations’ saints who will be teaching and staffing and attending the Native Ministries Consortium for the next two weeks ... these saints who will share the Lord’s banqueting table with us again in ten days. The love extended to saints like these is but a small basket of the fruit that I see being harvested in your life together. So I thank God that your faith in Jesus Christ has taken root and is bearing fruit in love.

Paul says that this life of faith and love is grounded in hope. That’s right, isn’t it? There is an unmistakable atmosphere of hope in this congregation. You are not filled with dread. Oh, the future is highly uncertain. The journey ahead for any church around here these days can not be predicted. And our future is pretty fragile. Who knows, for one thing, how we will ever replace our beloved elders who have been the pillars of the community for fifty years? Yet there is no despair in the air. Instead you seem to be growing in hope ... you are increasingly expectant ... trusting that God is up to something in Christ ... and therefore, that God can be trusted with your future, with our future. You must know by now that I feel this way about you as a people. That is the reason that I have no desire to move on after my doctoral studies come to an end next May. I think that God in Christ is up to something here ... that the Holy Spirit is birthing a new congregation (with all the requisite labour pain that come with every new life). It looks to as though there are surprising twists and turns ... risky adventures even ... in store for you ... I mean us. And this is the reason that Paul’s words seem to hit home so powerfully this week.

Because Paul knows that a healthy congregation like the one at Colossae needs prayer. He knows that living “lives worthy of the Lord” is not an easy thing in the Asian provinces of the Roman Empire. “For this reason”, writes Paul, “we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will”. “For this reason”. Paul prays for them not because they are troubled but because they are living in faith, hope and love ... because they are bearing fruit. It is interesting to me that Paul does not simply tell them what God’s will is for the Colossian church. Instead, he prays that they will know God’s will “in all spiritual wisdom and understanding”. This intrigues me because I find you longing to know what God’s will is for you ... for us. As we grow and mature as a community you ask this question with increasing frequency. You ask it in Bible Study and at Board Meetings. You ask it in my office and by email. You ask me ... and I can’t help feeling that, somehow, you expect that I have the answer.

But, like you, I struggle to know what the will of God is for us. We are not without resources, of course. Every sabbath day we listen for the Word as we hear scripture read. Take this morning, for example. Amos arrives in our midst, pronouncing judgment on the people of God ... declaring that the structures that they have constructed are not level, not just, not worthy of the Lord. He announces that God is about to tear down the things that they have come to cherish and assume will always be there. And no one will hear anything of this seeming ‘madman’. They send him away and tell him not to return. This at the end of a week in which the Supreme Court of BC pronounced judgment against the United Church of Canada and the Government of Canada in the Alberni Residential School sexual abuse trial. One could almost hear the collective sigh of relief across the church as Justice Brenner first found the church only 25% liable for the damages ... and then found that the financial penalties would be considerably lower than had been widely expected. Breathing this sigh of relief we are sorely tempted to ignore the voice of Chief Robert Joseph - the co-ordinator of the First Nations’ Summit Residential School Project - when he decried the ways in which the legal system had made a mockery of the terrible damages done to little boys. Reading from Amos the preacher is left wondering which voice we ignore at our peril. Whose voice is the Word of the Lord in this matter? Justice Brenner? Bobbie Joseph? Or? Paul is right to pray for them ... and for us.

Of course, if Amos isn’t enough of a problem there is also Jesus to contend with. Here he comes, confounding us once more. You remember, don’t you, how troublesome the parable of the Good Samaritan is? It isn’t the nice, sweet, innocent story of being a good neighbour that it has become. Now ‘good samaritan’ is a synonym for ‘good person’. But Jesus’ audience cannot put the words ‘good’ and ‘Samaritan’ into the same sentence. Jesus announces that God’s will is love of neighbour that is poured out in excessive amounts upon hated enemies. Samaritans and Jews hate each other. This is what the story assumes. Samaritans are not good to Jews ... and Jews are not good to Samaritans. Except, Jesus says, in the kingdom of God. In God’s kingdom all bets are off when it comes to determining the boundaries of your neighbourhood. The world of old hatreds, broken relationships and of passing by on the other side is gone. A new world of surprising care and restored relationship is here. But how to know when to stop and for which victim and how much care to provide in a world where so many have been beaten up and left by the side of the road? Do you see why, with Paul, I do not cease “praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”?

Yet Paul is not worried about the Colossian church ... and I am not worried about you. He pronounces a blessing on them: “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.” This is not a wish on Paul’s part. This is, Paul is sure, God’s will for the church in Colossae ... and for the church here, now. Strength ... endurance ... patience ... joy ... thanksgiving. These are the gifts God provides. These gifts are our share in “the inheritance of the saints in light”. Inheritances are gifts. They come unearned. That is what makes the lawyer’s question to Jesus in today’s Gospel reading so strange. He asks “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”. Surely a lawyer knows that you cannot ‘do’ anything to receive an inheritance. Like the man found lying by the side of the road, we know that inheriting eternal life - life in the kingdom of God - is all about being rescued. Rescued. That’s what has happened to us. We have been rescued, reclaimed, redeemed. Ask around ... you’ll find out that this congregation is made up of lost, troubled, broken, hurting people who are being saved even as I speak. Not to mention that this congregation was, not so long ago, battered and lying in the ditch, pretty much given up for dead. Yet we have received the gift of an inheritance ... strength, endurance, patience, joy and thanksgiving ... gifts with which to live eternal life here and now. Paul speaks the truth: “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”. Jesus also speaks the truth: “Go and do likewise”.