I was taking a stroll through our garden the other night, a little bit before sunset, and I was noticing how fast the plants are growing. In spite of all the weird and sometimes scary weather we’ve had lately, the garden is going gangbusters!
And it encourages my heart to walk there, see how things are growing, picking the first veggies, noticing how the plants are becoming… the plants they were meant to be. And I think sometimes God feels pleasure like that when He walks among His people. We are, in a sense, His garden, his church “plant”. It gives Him pleasure to see us growing into what we’re meant to be, to see us bearing fruit.
Each one of today’s scripture passages [Amos 7:7-17, Colossians 1:1-14, Luke 10:25-37] deals with fruitfulness in one way or another. We don’t have time to look at all of them, but touching briefly on each one:
- The reading from Amos speaks about a time in the history of ancient Israel when God’s garden was producing bad fruit, if it was producing fruit at all… when God was providing the richest of soil and the people were using what He gave them to oppress each other.
- In the reading from Colossians on the other hand we hear St. Paul praising the Colossians for their faithfulness and encouraging them to keep on bearing good fruit.
- And the story of the Good Samaritan? I’ll come back to that one in a moment.
But I want to spend a little time with Paul’s letter to the Colossians first, because in many ways our parish has a great deal in common with the church at Colossae.
I know it’s usually not advisable to take a letter written nearly two thousand years ago, to people we don’t know, living in a culture that is foreign (if not downright exotic) by our standards… to take that letter and to read it as if it’s directly and exactly applicable to us today. You usually have to ‘translate’ it a little into 21st century thinking, otherwise it’s easy to misinterpret what is being said. But in this case it’s amazing how directly the letter to the Colossians fits us where we are.
First, the context is similar. The church at Colossae was not one of the larger churches in its day. It wasn’t a prominent church or a cathedral. It was essentially a church plant, started by a disciple named Epaphras. And while the city of Colossae was on an important trade route, the town itself had seen economic hard times and never quite fully recovered.
What’s more, from a theological viewpoint, the church at Colossae had some ‘interesting’ neighbors. The nearest Christian church was Laodicea, a church that in the book of Revelation is criticized for being lukewarm and for thinking too highly of itself. On the other hand, the Colossian church grew out of a synagogue where Judaism had been mixed with Greek Gnosticism, creating some rather ‘innovative’ theology. In fact one of the reasons Paul is writing this letter is to help protect and promote an accurate understanding of the faith in the Colossian church.
And yet in spite of all these hindrances both the church at Colossae… and our church, Incarnation, here above Bar Marco… have a lot going for them. In particular Colossae was a church, like Incarnation, that is known for its faith and its devotion to prayer. In fact Paul tells them in the letter, basically, ‘I’ve never met you but your reputation for loving Jesus and your faithfulness in prayer has reached my ears where I am’ – which was most likely in Rome.
So Colossians could almost have been written to us. And if it had been, the letter might have sounded something like this:
“Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and brother Timothy,
to the holy and faithful church at Bar Marco, brothers and sisters in Christ,
grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
We always give thanks to God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ when we pray for you…
…for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and the love you have for all the saints…
…because of the hope laid up for you in heaven, which you heard beforehand in the word of truth, the Gospel which has come to you.
Just as in all the world it is bearing fruit and increasing, so it has been bearing fruit in you from the day you heard and understood the grace of God in truth…
…as you have learned it from Fr. Paul and Fr. John and Fr. Laurie and Mother Ann – by the way, they and I serve the same master – faithful servants of Christ on your behalf…
…and they have made known to me your love in the Spirit.”
I need to stop there for a moment because these words describe Incarnation Church so well. Speaking as a relative newcomer to the church, I am still learning just how much grace has been poured out on this congregation. And the fellowship here is remarkable. The peace between the members and the care for each other is exceptional – and (sad to say) not easy to find these days. And I heard about your faith even before I came here. When I said to Fr Laurie last year that I was looking for a church where people have a heart for God’s word, he immediately said ‘come to Incarnation’.
And then last fall when I was in the hospital and I was visited by Fr. Laurie and then by Fr Paul and they told me all of you were praying for me, that wasn’t just words. I mean, people say it a lot – ‘oh, I’ll pray for you’ – but too often that’s as far as it goes. But that’s not how it is here. You all were actually praying. You know how I can tell? Because of the way people reacted when I finally showed up. People acted like I was somebody they already knew! Only prayer can do that. As St. Paul says — I give thanks to God the Father for you whenever I pray for you.
One other thing I should point out in the passage we just read – in verses 4 & 5: that wonderful Pauline triangle of great spiritual gifts: faith, hope, and love. Faith in Jesus Christ; hope laid up in heaven, love for all the saints. We give thanks as these gifts take root and grow among us.
Continuing on with Paul’s letter, Paul’s prayer for the church is:
“that we be filled with the knowledge of God’s will, with spiritual wisdom and understanding, living lives worthy of Jesus, pleasing to Him…
bearing fruit in good work as we grow in the knowledge of God…
that we be strong in His glorious power…
and prepared to endure with patience… with joy giving thanks to God the Father…
who Himself makes it possible for us to share in the inheritance of the saints…
and who has rescued us out of darkness into the kingdom of His Son, by whom we have redemption and forgiveness.”
That last bit is a real mouthful. Paul is known for running on with his sentences… so let me parse this a little. Keeping in mind the context – Paul is seeking to maintain and encourage the purity of the faith — he asks God to help the Colossians live in such a way as to ‘obtain the goal’, which is “the hope laid up for you in heaven” (v 5); “a portion of the share of the saints in light” (v 12), “the kingdom of his beloved Son” (v 13).
And most of the rest of the book of Colossians has to do with striving for that goal. It’s worth a read, it’s short, and it’s highly relevant to our culture and times.
But how do we live into the future that God has in store for us – that great hope, that great kingdom? Or to put it another way, “What do we need to do to inherit eternal life?”
Which leads us to our Gospel reading for today.
In Luke’s Gospel we see a lawyer coming to Jesus to test him, and he says, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
It’s an odd question… and Jesus bounces it right back to him. He says, “what is in the law? How do you read?”
And the lawyer answers, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your mind and all your soul and all your strength, and your neighbor as yourself.”
And Jesus says basically, “Right. Now go do it.”
“But wanting to justify himself” the scripture says, the lawyer asks “and who is my neighbor?”
I find it interesting that the lawyer doesn’t quibble over the first part of the commandment, the bit about loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength… does he think he’s got that part nailed down already? But I digress…
So Jesus proceeds to tell the story of the Good Samaritan – how a Jewish man, traveling the rough and often dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, falls among thieves and and is beaten within an inch of his life. Left by the roadside, he is passed by, first by a priest and then by a Levite. But a man from Samaria –a foreigner, considered an enemy of the Jewish people – has compassion on him, and rescues him, and cares for him, and pays for his care.
And the lawyer questioning Jesus is forced to admit that the Samaritan was the one who was the true neighbor. And Jesus tells him, “go and do likewise.”
Because this story is SO well-known and has been preached SO many times, I feel a need to back up for a minute and lay down a few disclaimers. There are a number of things the story of the Good Samaritan is not about.
- It is not primarily about who is right and who is wrong – it does touch on that, but that’s not the main point.
- It is not primarily about avoiding self-righteousness… although it does confront self-righteousness and defeat it
- It is not a blanket condemnation of lawyers. (This is not history’s first lawyer joke.)
- It is not a blanket condemnation of priests, Levites, or any other clergy… however it does point out that not everybody practices what they preach.
- It is not a blanket commendation of Samaritans. Jesus’ choice of characters does speak to the issue of prejudice but the allegory can sometimes be stretched too far.
Charles Simeon, an English theologian and preacher back in the 1700s said this: “The distinctions of religion or politics should be forgotten, whenever [someone] stands in need of our assistance; we should sympathize as truly with our bitterest enemy, as with our dearest friend.”
That is the point.
The Samaritan’s kindness and mercy, to an enemy, is Christlike… because Jesus also showed kindness and mercy to us by dying for us when we were enemies of God.
Here’s the key: when Jesus says “go and do likewise” he is inviting us – everyone who hears his words – to let God’s heart of compassion take root in us and grow in us.
It’s not just “be like the Samaritan”. That’s cool, but it’s not just that. To really grasp this concept I had to go back to the original Greek. In verse 33 – where it says, “and when he saw him, he had compassion” – the Greek word translated compassion is a word I’ve never seen before and I can’t even pronounce it. But I looked it up and it’s only used five other times in the Bible, and all five times it describes the heart of God:
- Three of the five times describe Jesus’ compassion for the crowds. [Matt 9:36, Matt 14:14, and Mark 6:34] Here’s one example, from Matthew 9:26: “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.”
- The fourth occurrence describes Jesus’ compassion for the widow who had lost her son, in Luke 7:13. “As he approached the gate of the town, a man who had died was being carried out. He was his mother’s only son, and she was a widow; and with her was a large crowd from the town. When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her…” So much so that he raised the young man from the dead.
- The fifth and final occurrence describes the compassion of the father for the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:20. “While he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.”
The story of the Good Samaritan invites us to do more than just sympathize. We are invited to have empathy with God: to know Him better; to know His heart; to let that heart grow in us. God is inviting us to feel what He feels, to be moved by what moves Him, and to be moved to action by the things that move Him to action.
This is Kingdom living.
It’s what the people back in the day of Amos were missing… and it’s what the Colossians were being praised for as they began their faith journey.
Which brings us back to Paul’s letter. Paul was praising the Colossians for their fledgling ability to empathize with God. And I think that applies to us here at Incarnation too. We’re not full grown yet. We’re still fledglings. But we’ve made a start. My prayer is that God will hear and answer Paul’s prayer in us, in this church, and continue to grow in us His heart of compassion. AMEN
“An Invitation from God” – preached at Church of the Incarnation, July 14 2013, 3:30PM service