Back in 2001, I had a conversation with a man named Tim, the bookkeeper at the place where I had rented a cabin, who told me about his past with the church. He grew up Irish Catholic, and as a child was very involved in the church. He was an altar boy, and he told me of his love for the church, his attraction to the things of faith, and his belief in the God that the rituals and symbols represented.
But then he came to adolescence, that time of life when you begin to see and notice things you hadn't before...the time you come to question what you had previously taken for granted. And what Tim noticed in his adolescence was that the faith that was so ardently professed on Sunday did not make the slightest bit of difference in the lives of those people the rest of the week. From the priest on down to the folks in the pews, it was all a sham. Do what you please through the week, go to church and confession and you're good to go.
And in the case of Tim's parish it wasn't even that he had some sort of high and mighty ideal…they weren't even good by secular standards. Many were absolute scoundrels...they cheated and lied and were generally people that were unpleasant to be around. As he noticed all of that, something inside of Tim broke. He felt used somehow, deluded by these people into thinking faith was something when they knew all along that it was a grand and glorious fake. He left the church and never looked back, now professing only the words that he used at the beginning of my stay, when he first discovered I was a minister... "I'm not a very religious person." Can't say that I blame him.
I am telling you this story because it is not unique. It is not unique to Tim or to Irish Catholics. I bet if I canvassed the congregation here this morning, many of you could tell me similar stories. The problem is everywhere and has been around for a very long time.
My response to Tim was that the state of the church that he described is largely the fault of the clergy. Somewhere along the line we got the notion that religion was about rules...do this, don't do that. The Catholic tradition tended to focus those rules around the church so that what you had to do was show up, especially on certain holy days. Go to confession, pray the rosary, and I'm sure many of you can name the list better than I can. If you did those things, you were in, and things that weren't mentioned on the list were up to you.
Now before we go looking down our noses at the Catholic Church, the Protestant churches have had their own version, only in our case the list tended to be largely negative. Don't drink, don't swear, don't dance, don't gamble, and of course we had all the "don'ts" of the Ten Commandments. For crying out loud, at least the Catholics got to DO something. For us, showing up on Sunday morning...or in some cases all day Sunday and Wednesday nights...was it. If we went home and sat like a bump on a log the rest of the week, we were all clear...we hadn't sinned.
I think we find something different than those two extremes when we look at the passage from Colossians. What we see in this passage is that, while rules have their place, the defining mark of a Christian is not rules, but character. Yes, there are some specifics here that we are told to avoid. In verses 5-9 we hear that our lives as Christians should seek to eliminate things like sexual immorality, greed, wrath, malice, slander, abusive language, lying. The New Testament never eliminates the need to work with everything within us to avoid sin. On that count, the New Testament just gives us the hope that as we are in the process of trying, there is grace and forgiveness when we mess up. But the promise of forgiveness is for those who are seriously trying to be better, not an easy absolution for those who don't care.
What I really want us to notice is the list of things Paul gives us after this...the list of things that we are to do. Lo and behold they are not a list of rules. They are not really a list of things we are to do. They are a list of things we are to be. They are about character, not rules: Compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. We are to be forgiving of one another, to love one another, to let peace rule in our hearts and to be thankful. While all of those things become evident in what we do, they do not represent the actions themselves....they represent the kind of heart from which good actions spring.
It is especially easy to see the difference in the last of Paul's list....to be thankful. Most of us have been conditioned to say "thank you" when we receive a gift. Sometimes we carry this to ridiculous extremes. I find myself saying "thank you" when a cashier takes away all my money in exchange for food. I drive through the toll booth, give the person in the booth a dollar, thank them, and leave. Sick. But, I'll bet almost everyone in this room has, at one time or another said "thank you" when you weren't thankful.
You opened that Christmas gift from Aunt Sally. In your heart you wanted to run to the bathroom and throw up, but instead you smiled sweetly and said, "Thank you, it's just what I wanted." You have been going full tilt with all sorts of people and issues pulling you in a thousand directions. The doorbell rings and it's your in-laws, "We know how stressed you've been, so we've come for a month to help out." "Uh....how thoughtful. Come on in."
In all of those instances, thanks are expressed, but there is no true thankfulness behind it. Saying the words, following the rule, does not ensure that there is anything to back it up. That is what Tim saw in his church, and that is what this passage could help us avoid. Don't worry so much about the rule. Focus on character. Focus on who you are. If your family and friends were given a sheet of paper with those traits on them...compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace, thankfulness...if they were asked to check off how many of those described you, how would it go?
If you're a compulsive gambler, I doubt it's going to do much good to focus on not gambling. But maybe if you worked on being patient, that might have an effect. It's tough to hold your tongue if you've fallen into the trap of gossip. But maybe if you worked on compassion the gossiping would drift away on its own. The point of the Christian faith has never been to force nasty characters to abide by a set of good rules. If we'd open our eyes, we'd see it doesn't even work in law enforcement. The point of faith is to mold our character to the character of Christ so that the good works follow as naturally as light from a lighted candle.
I got very frustrated at our Annual Conference a few years back...that gathering of New England United Methodists that sets the rules for how we in New England will live our life together. There was a resolution that came up about tithing, which is the Biblical practice of giving ten percent of your income to the work of the church. The intent of the resolution was to insist that every pastor in the Conference and every lay delegate to the Conference tithe. Well, in one sense I was all for it. I have always tithed, and the more people that do that, the more we can simply go about the mission of the church without having to beg and plead and scramble for funds. We’d have our mortgage debt retired tomorrow if every member of this church tithed.
But, I was completely opposed to the resolution because the focus was on rules, not character. I do not want people paying a tithe to the church the way we pay our taxes...with resentment and misgiving. That's like blood money, almost, only it's not someone else's blood, it's your own. I do not want any "rule" that says anybody has to give 10%. "Live free or die" as the NH license plates proclaim. Having that sort of rule in the church might fill some coffers, but I think it can be deadly to the Spirit when people are following a rule rather than responding in gratitude. When we give in response to a rule it feels less like we are giving and more like God is taking.
But I do with all my heart want to help all of us move to be people of thankfulness. If we allow the Holy Spirit to so reshape our character so that we live out of gratitude for all that we have been given, I think we in the church would quickly find ourselves in the position of Moses when they started building the Tabernacle in the wilderness. The people brought so much they finally had to say, "Quit! We have more than enough already." I'm not saying that we should not be concerned about the things that the rules represent. I'm just saying that I believe that if we focus on Christian character, Christian behavior will take care of itself. Not just in giving…in everything.
Who are you...really? What is your character? What would others say? What are the adjectives that are used when those who know you best describe you? Compassion? Kindness? Humility? Meekness? Patience? Forgiving? Loving? Peaceful? Thankful? Chances are we all have some work to do on our character...I know that I do. But I wanted to lift this up in order to remind us that our character is our witness.
Those of us who have taken the name "Christian" upon ourselves are proclaiming to the world that the God we worship is, in some ways, like us. We are, our faith proclaims, in the process of becoming like Christ. When we say we are "Christian"...like Jesus...and then show our character to be that of the devil, we have done much more harm than someone who swears. They swear with their lips; we have blasphemed with our lives.
Now I don't want anybody crawling under the pews here. The good news of the Gospel is that there is both help available for the transformation and forgiveness when we stumble. But I do want to insist that we ought to be trying. The news of God's grace and forgiveness has never meant that we can be whatever we please and God will automatically forgive us. We can see the difference if we think about parenting. In a home with loving parents, the behavior of the children always matters. But if a child, say, breaks a lamp, there is a vast difference in the response of the parents to a child who broke it while trying to wash the windows than to a child who broke it because the child delights in destruction.
It is the same with God. God is patient and compassionate and all those great things we are trying to be, so God understands when we stumble in our efforts. But God does want us to be making the effort. And so does the world around us. There is a whole world of Tims out there...folks who really want this faith thing to be true. They want to know there is help for the journey and forgiveness for sin. They want to believe that there is a God whose nature is love. But so often we block the way.
So how do we unblock it? First, I think, we have got to stop projecting the ridiculous notion that church is a place where perfect people go. That wasn't even true of Jesus' own disciples, let alone the church. On any given Sunday morning there are people here of all ages and stages of faith...even no faith at all. The thing that opens us up to the charge of hypocrisy is not being in church when we are sinners, by that definition we are all hypocrites. Rather, we are hypocrites of the sort Jesus condemned when we take the further step of proclaiming ourselves to be Christian when we are not putting forth the first effort to become Christ-like.
To be Christian is not about rules. It's not about showing up on Sundays, tithing, or cooking for church suppers. It's not about what we do...it's not even about what we refrain from doing. It's about who we are. It's about our sincere effort to mold our character to the character of Christ. If that is not your sincere desire, you are still more than welcome to be here. We're still glad to have you with us. But please, if you do not sincerely want to become a person of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, love, peace and thanksgiving, don't go calling yourself "Christian." Say you are exploring the Christian faith. Say you are studying religion. Say you attend a Christian church...but please, for the sake of those who are watching...for the sake of the children...for the sake of your own soul...do not take the name in vain.
Again, to say we are "Christian" does not mean that we have attained perfection in these areas. I surely haven't. We still stumble and fall...sometimes we stumble and fall a lot. That's why Paul says, "Bear with one another." But we should at least be trying, if we take the name. Arere you a Christian? Are you really trying to become like Christ? Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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