Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Sermon: August 4, 2013 - Not the Sweet By and By but in the Here and Now

Colossians 3.1-11
Rev. Andy Ferguson

            Over the years, one of the gospel hymns, popular in earlier times, has fallen out of favor. Even though we all know it and can sing the *Refrain* from memory, we have been taught to discount it and even tease those who are foolish enough to sing it. It reeks of “old time religion,” and certainly none of us would want to be guilty of being old-timey in the age of the constantly connected internet. The hymn suggests that the only good life available to us will come after death, with God, in heaven, faraway from this life and its cares – a claim that Americans with our can-do attitude and our national optimism can no longer comprehend. That old gospel hymn begins this way:

[In the Sweet By and By]
1. There’s a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar;
For the Father waits over the way
To prepare us a dwelling place there.

In the sweet by and by,
We shall meet on that beautiful shore;
In the sweet by and by… (1). 

If you sing this old gospel hymn long enough, the idea begins to form in your mind that heaven *in the sweet by and by* is more real and more desirable than the life we are living right now. In a past era when life was harder and offered little hope for improvement, this song and others like it provided a vision of something better, something worth working for, something worth waiting for. For many, living in difficult circumstances, it offered the only hope for a better life that many people would see.
            Well, these are not those times. America is again the land of opportunity. You and I have a good life without waiting for heaven. In the here and now, we work for a paycheck *at the end of the month*; the young work *for challenging careers*; the old work *for a secure retirement*. The effort is now; the payoff is in sight; faraway heaven has little to do with our everyday lives. The old gospel hymn speaks to needs we hardly acknowledge.
            In the same way, we read certain passages in the Bible as if they are relics of a bygone era. Passages that speak of *heaven* or *things above* are immediately discounted as *out of date* or quaint. We simply do not think in those categories any longer.
            We are going to turn to one of those passages this morning. It calls on us to “set your hearts on things above, not the things of earth.” We are all set to discount it as out of touch with our modern life, but that would not be wise. The Bible has not fallen out of touch; we have forgotten to read it – really read the Bible, allowing it to speak.

            Dr. Fred Craddock, the teacher of a generation of preachers, reported that he was baptized at the ripe old age of nearly 14. His pastor read this passage to him: “You have died, and now you have been raised with Christ. Set your mind on things that are above.” Dr. Craddock reported:

            I walked home with my wet clothes wrapped in a wet towel under my arm, and I tried to think what that meant. After you have been raised from the dead, you do not look the same, sound the same, talk the same, behave the same.
            But what do you do? How do you talk? What do you sound like?
            He said that he went to school on Monday morning wondering, “Is anybody going to know that I’ve been raised?” Should I dress up a little better than I’ve been dressing? It won’t hurt. Do I talk another way? Do I throw in a verse of scripture now and then? What do I do at ball practice? Are they going to say, “Well, it looks like he’s been raised from the dead”? How do you talk? How do you walk? How do you relate? Now, what? (2)

Frankly, as your pastor, I would love to see the newly washed Christians among us going about looking and feeling all tingly and different. We have made becoming Christians so ordinary and predicable; it worries me that we are missing a lot of the experience.
            For the early Christians, getting baptized meant
+      Being safe with Christ but at risk with the world,
+      Having integrity in business but likely to challenge the status quo, too.
+      Living at peace with your neighbors but likely to welcome some unlikely neighbors, too.
What difference are we looking for? What does it mean that we are Christians? And Church Street United Methodist Christians?

II. Paul begins by saying: “If you have been raised with Christ…”
            A. Christ was raised from the dead on Easter, of course. The conviction of the Christian faith is that we too are raised from the dead through faith in Christ. What Christ did in the Garden in 33 AD becomes effective for us through faith.
            Further, the way we receive this raising with Christ is through baptism. Going down under the water is a dying to all that is old; being brought up from the water is our raising to new life in Christ. Now, we United Methodists at Church Street have a mild aversion to water, so we only use a little water to accomplish all this. Other denominations seem to require more water to do the same thing.
[STANLEY] I heard a friend at CourtSouth, who identifies himself as a dunked Christian, complaining about a light rain one morning. He was dreading the prospect of going outside where he would get rained on. He has less hair than I do, so the rain could not possibly do any damage. I pointed out to him that as a Dunkard who experienced immersion baptism, a light rain should offer no threat at all.

Our early morning banter understood that both are baptized, both marked for Christ; both carry the hope of Christ in our lives.
            B. Paul went on to say:
** “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, 3 for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.”**

This is not the old focus on the future promise of heaven so we can ignore the difficult present. This, instead, is the conviction that God is real and offers us a different way of living even now. As Christians focus on the things that God considers most important, then our lives in this time will be enriched, hopeful and even holy.
            C. He went on to list whatever belongs to our earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed. Most of these sins are still problems for our age, as well. Both as individuals and as a society. “Put them to death,” he said.

III. Now, what are the spiritual problems of our time?
            [INA HUGHES] This week, Ina Hughes used her Wednesday article in the newspaper to reflect on international reaction to the Zimmerman trial. As you know, George Zimmerman was found innocent of the criminal charges against him. That is a legal fact. On the whole, the reaction of the African American community has been completely different from the reaction of the white community. Several people have observed that black and white live in the same country but in parallel universes. The gulf is so great that the President spoke to it out of his experience as a Black man growing up in this country. Despite Hughes optimism, I fear that division according to race with be with us for a long time.
            A similar division has grown up around immigration and immigration reform. In some states, Latinos are already the largest ethnic group, but the speeches in the white community are about building bigger walls to keep THEM out and denying THOSE PEOPLE a place in *our* America. We live and work every day – black, white and brown - side by side and generally get along, but our rhetoric suggests divisions that can never be reconciled. We have set aside Christ’s language of welcome and goodwill and, instead, embraced the language of division and separation.
            To borrow the term, we PROFILE and thus vilify all kinds of groups and this is all the explanation we need for violence, separation, and distrust against these designated strangers. This is all the reason we need to avoid respectful dialogue.
            In her article, Ina Hughes repeated some of the statements made about this nation in newspapers around the world. The statements she quoted were not complementary.
            Then, Ina Hughes concluded her article this way:
**If we don't learn to deal with diversity better than we are now dealing with it - be it race, class, religion, orientation or ethnicity - it will continue to impact our reputation as a world power, as a civilized society and as a nation worthy of global respect** (3).

We, the people of the United States of America, enjoy life in the greatest nation this world has seen. There is more power, more wealth, more opportunity per square mile in this nation than in any other nation on earth. We are rightly proud of this.
            We can trust the tools of our Christian faith to strengthen and nurture our nation and its life. Instead, we set aside all of God’s tools as inadequate, weak, and being too easy on people who are different.
            Look what God offers to us who would build this world and this nation that we love:
+      Set your minds on things that are above;
+      Put to death whatever in you is earthly;
+      In the presence of Christ, **there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all** (v. 11).
In contrast, we address our differences by passing harsher laws, building bigger fences and demanding more enforcement – causing bigger divisions and increasing distrust between peoples. I suppose each of us thinks from behind our fences that if everyone would just live as we do, then the world would be a better place. But, in Christ, we are called to make a place for the stranger.
+      Remember that THE HERO of Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was the wrong ethnic group and wrong religion.
+      Remember that Naaman the Leper, who was healed by the power of Israel’s God, had just attacked, destroyed and conquered Israel.
+      Remember that Mary and Joseph began their marriage with a scandal.
+      Remember that Simon Peter, on whom Christ built his Church, was a coward when his master needed him most.
I recall all of these – not to say that this is what God would have us become; I recall all of this as a reminder that God has room for all of these in God’s heart and God’s Kingdom.

            In the living, breathing person of Jesus, we see all things we call holy: such as forgiveness, sharing, joy, vision, courage, perseverance, and especially love. These are the tools of Christ. We must use these tools of the Spirit to solve the challenges of everyday living. We must use these tools of Spirit to solve the challenges of the nation and the community. Because in Christ…
This is a land that is fairer than day,
And by faith we can see it afar.

1. “In the Sweet By and By,” Sanford F. Bennett , 1868, Copyright: Public Domain
2. Craddock, Frederick. “People of the Resurrection,” Cherry Log Sermons, pp. 100-101
3. Hughes, Ina, “Zimmerman trial hurt our reputation,” Knoxville News Sentinel, July 31.,2013.

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