I have this weird history with literally running out of churches; let me explain. I remember as a child going up to the front of the church for the children’s sermon. I loved children’s sermons! I was always excited to head on up, find my seat with my friends, listen to the pastor, and then head on out to Sunday School, which was where there would be punch and cookies waiting for us. Who WOULDN’T love this?!
Well, this one day, I was super excited. Maybe it was the Spring weather after a long winter, maybe it was the fact that it was just my birthday and Easter; I don’t quite recall. I remember going up to the front of the church for the children’s sermon, sitting with my friends, listening to the pastor, all of us praying to end the lesson, …and then ZOOM! I’m out of there! Before anyone could move I was out of the door and running to the Sunday School class; I wanted that punch and cookies!
It was an odd experience though. I remember getting up out of the starting blocks before anyone else. I remember in slow motion the pastor…telling us to go back to our seats with our parents. That day, there must have been some special event or something; I was supposed to go back to sit with my parents. But for some unexplainable reason I was unable to control my body! It was like an out of body experience! Before I knew it, I was outside of the church sanctuary…just me and God…?
I had a similar experience in college (Yes, you think I would have learned, but I didn’t). Not a children’s sermon this time, but a worship service at a retreat. On this particular night, I was captivated with the spiritual experience after a day of study, rest, and worship. The preacher asked us to accept Christ in our lives, and to come up to the front of the sanctuary and offer our sins to God. In fact, it was that night, at that moment where I committed myself to following Christ. Again, I’m not quite sure what I was thinking at the time. Maybe it was the fact that it was already going on 2 hours of worship and I was ready to go. Perhaps I was simply moved by the intimacy of God at that particular moment. But again, something came over me, and as we lined up to offer our sins to God, I felt that same excitement that I did as a child back during the children’s sermons. I felt the same joy and anticipation that I did thinking about that punch and cookies. And at that moment, in a moment of spiritual joy, I approached the cross, offered my sins to God, and immediately continued OUT THE DOOR of the church! Again, I remember noticing no one else following me. All of my friends seemed to be content to go back to their seats in the sanctuary. And there I was once again, I was outside of the church sanctuary…outside in the dark….just me and God.
I wonder if this is how a lot of people feel in the world today; outside, alone with God. Report after report these days share how the religious experience of children and youth these days is continually moving from a communal church experience, to that of individual spirituality; just them and God. As many people have heard this term today, many of us would describes ourselves as ‘spiritual, but not religious.’ The most recent of publications would call this the religion of the ‘nones’ or those that claim no religious identity or affiliation.
What’s it like? To be out there, outside the church, alone with God? Is this, perhaps, the next evolution of religious thought? Are these young people today simply the parakeet in the coalmine of the religious world in the West? Is this what God call us to do, to be, in the world today?
Well, as long as I don’t take off in the next few minutes out the door, I would like for us to think about these questions as we look at today’s Scripture texts.
We pick up with the somewhat famous words of the prophet Micah, addressing the Israelite people with a response their assumed question in verses 6-7. They asked the same questions we ask today: how should we respond to God’s love in the world and in our lives? His answer:
8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
For the prophet and for God the response to God’s love is quite clear: we are to respond not in sacrifices and pageantry, but in service, love, and humility.
But I want to focus less on the actions, and more on the identity theme within today’s texts. This morning in particular I would like to focus on the letter to the Colossians. We begin in a letter attributed to Paul discussing Christian behavior. Just previously, the author is writing about finding new life in the resurrected Christ, and the behaviors and qualities that we wish to shed; these ‘earthly’ behaviors. We are to find new life, and new identity, in the resurrected Christ. We are no longer bound by our ethnicity or social roles (interesting that they leave out gender roles at this point), but by Christ.
We then move on to verse 12. If we are new creations, then we must learn our new identities: holy and beloved. We are holy (of God) and beloved (by God). God chooses us first (v.12).
Just an aside, there is this episode from the Simpsons on Valentine’s day where a classmate of Lisa Simpson, Ralphie, receives a valentine with a picture of a train from Lisa, and he reads it back to her ‘…you choo, choo, choose me?’…but I digress!
The text begins with these words to describe those Christians, ‘holy and beloved,’ but what does this mean, exactly?
If someone were to ask you to describe yourself in 3 words, what would they be? Would ‘holy’ or ‘beloved’ be one of the words? We often don’t think about ourselves in this way. The new Christians in biblical times did not either. For many, the religion of the time, whether Jewish, Gentile, or anything else, understood humanity as unclean, unworthy, and certainly not ‘special’.
But here is one of the revolutionary parts of such a letter, tucked within a few simple words. These new believers in the resurrected Christ were NEW creations, and within this new identity came an understanding that God uniquely created and chose them, just as God chose Christ. They were not dirty, unrighteous beings as they were taught growing up. No, they were holy; they had God WITHIN them. In Christ’s Baptism story we remember the words, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.’ In the same way, here we understand that, first and foremost, God is well pleased with these new Christians, the Beloved, called the Colossians.
What does this mean to hear such words in our lives today? ‘You are chosen by God. You are holy. You are loved.’ I think these words are enough to change lives. I believe these words can change the world.
There are times in our lives where we end up outside alone, just us and God. In a world that seems to be only moving at a faster pace each day, with more and more people being too busy even to sit down and take a breath, we find ourselves often times isolated from others, our purpose in life, and even ourselves. More and more important questions like ‘Who I am I?’ go unanswered as we fail to take the time to ask such questions because we don’t even know where to begin.
And all of a sudden we find ourselves alone with God, and we are scared to death because we don’t even know who God is. We always felt there was a God, we were Spiritual, but we didn’t know who God was, even according to our traditions, because we are not religious.
But God knows who you are. That’s the Good News today: ‘You are chosen by God. You are holy. You are loved.’
When we live into this knowledge, then being outside alone with God is not something that is isolating, or scary, or awkward. In fact, when we understand that we are chosen as God’s children, then our eyes are opened, and the world is lightened to others who are around us as well. You see, others once thought they were alone as well, but in reality, we are all in the same place together. The spiritual experience is no longer individual, but communal.
Today we celebrate the fact that no matter where we find ourselves outside alone, God is there. God chooses you, God is within you. And God loves you.
And as we live into this knowledge, we celebrate a God who does not isolate us from others in the world, but calls us into community as the Church.
When we truly embrace our identities as children of God, we live our lives as the community of God, helping to realize God’s Beloved Community here on Earth today. This is our response, our hope, and our privilege. When we understand our relationship in the communal sense, then we can also begin our work to live into the lives that God calls us to here today.
WE are chosen.
WE are holy.
WE are loved.