In the Autumn of 2019 the folks at The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are talking about “church clothes”. What do we wear as we seek to be a congregation in this place and time? Paul wrote his friends in Colossae to “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” On September 15 we considered the need for compassion. Scriptures were Colossians 3:12-17 as well as Zechariah 7:8-14.
To hear this sermon as preached in worship, please use the media player below.
A few years back, I was invited to a luncheon at a place called The Pittsburgh Athletic Association. The invitation looked pretty fancy, and the speaker was one I’d been eager to hear. As I prepared, I was struck by a thought: what does one wear to lunch at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association? I know, I know – you’ve seen me around this neighborhood for decades and most days it doesn’t appear as though I give much thought to what I’m supposed to be wearing, but hey – it happens every now and then. I’d never been inside the place, and I didn’t know anyone who had. It came to this: do I dress according to the fanciness of the invitation, or in line with the fact that it’s an “athletic club”? I couldn’t bring myself to wear basketball shorts and a t-shirt, so I settled on khakis and a polo.
I had an inkling that I’d made a mistake when I arrived and the guy who held the door for me was wearing a suit and tie. My suspicions were confirmed when, after asking for directions to the room where the luncheon was to be held, the host said, “Certainly, sir. But before we go to the dining room, would sir like a jacket and tie?” Before I could think about it, I said, “No thanks, I’m good.” The host was persistent. “Sir”, he intoned, “The Association has a dress code. It would appear as though sir was not aware of that. In order to enter the dining room, one must be suitably attired. Therefore, would sir like to borrow a jacket and tie?”
Well, I did. And here’s the deal: I don’t remember who spoke that day. I don’t remember what was said. I don’t remember who I sat with or what I ate. But I remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed because I didn’t choose to wear the right thing.
Maybe that’s never happened to you. I hope it hasn’t. But I would imagine that each of us, at some point, have wondered, “Am I doing this right? Does this look OK on me?”
On December 7, 518 BCa delegation of visitors arrived in Jerusalem. Sharezer and Regem-melech, along with their entourage, represented a group of faithful Jews who were returning to Israel following decades of exile in Babylon. They had a specific religious question, and they wanted a prophetic answer. You see, ever since the fall of the Temple some seventy years or so previous, the people of faith had been observing four days of lamentation and fasting each year. There was a fast to remember the siege of Jerusalem, another to mark the day that the city’s walls were destroyed, an observance of the destruction of the temple, and a final fast commemorating the murder of the governor.
But now, since the temple is being rebuilt, the visitors want someone to tell them: are we still expected to mourn the loss of the old temple? What, exactly, are we supposed to do now? It is a fair question.
The prophet Zechariah happens to be around on that day, and when he hears this request for a word from the Lord, he provides one – only, as it often happens in church, the question he answers is not really the question that was asked. The query brought by Sharezer and the boys is pretty narrow and specific, and the answer provided by the prophet is broad and far-reaching. Instead of giving a simple “yes or no” answer (which is, by the way, insanely popular in religious circles), the prophet seizes upon the question of the returning exiles to launch into a class on ethics – and his answer lasts at least a chapter and a half.
Zechariah, in his response, encourages the people to give up on their robotic and nearly-meaningless ritual observances and instead live with an awareness of the fact that we live for and serve with a God who is always coming. We are not called to gather together for hallowed remembrances of something that God used to do, or some time when God showed up in our lives – we are called to live in hope that the God who came is the God who shows up and is always unveiling and revealing the Divine Self. Because we are creatures of time and space, our worship – and everything else – is rooted in the present. But we look forward in hope to the reality which continues to unfold.
And then Zechariah describes the kind of people who live in that kind of hope: in the present day, in the neighborhood and country where they live, they are to administer justice, to constantly display compassion and mercy, and to refuse to contribute toward the oppression of those who are marginalized, such as orphans, widows, foreigners, or the poor. The call of God is not to remember that once upon a time God acted, but that every day, God calls us to transform the world around us with the power that we have. Our faith drives us toward embracing a lifestyle, and not merely a specific list of dos and don’ts. It is a masterful sermon, and I’d encourage you to read all of Zechariah 7 and 8.
Hundreds of years later, the small Christian community in the town of Colossae is faced by an insidious threat. This group, formed by the teaching and power of those who had first followed Jesus, had been infiltrated by some teaching that could cause the congregation to abandon its calling and integrity. The threat was both philosophical or theological as well as practical.
The theoretical danger was that apparently someone had come into the church teaching that while Jesus was by all accounts an incredible guy, he was more a symbolof what God was trying to do and not really an expressionof the depth of God’s self. In fact, Christ was a sign that pointed to God, but, let’s be honest, just one of many signs. In fact, similar insight into the Divine reality could be gained from the worship of stars, or spirits, or angels, or some other aspect of creation. There was something amazing about Jesus, but it was not necessarily singular.
The Apostle Paul’s response to that line of thought is unequivocal. He reminds the Colossians that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation, and the One through whom creation itself was accomplished. In Christ, the old apostle wrote, we live and move and have our being. He is not an option on a religious menu – he is the one who holds all things together.
Now the practical danger to Christian community was felt in this way: if people came to accept that the power and presence of God was to be found through a personal revelation from the stars or angels, then each individual person should follow a process to prepare for her or his own true, authentic heavenly vision. That led to a plethora of religious coaches teaching people to somehow mortify their bodies, to fast, to practice abstinence or celibacy or some sort of asceticism and self-denial because only in ignoring your worldly surroundings could the true, authentic God be found.
Paul addresses this by echoing not only Zechariah, but Isaiah and Deuteronomy in affirming that true worship of God is not primarily an escape to some other-worldly bliss but rather a full and rich engagement with those with whom we are connected. If you were to read through the entire letter to the Colossians, you might sense that chapters 1 and 2 are a grand theological grounding of who Jesus is, and they are followed by chapters 3 and 4 that contain a “so what”, or an ethical guideline for daily life.
In particular, Colossians 3:12 (the key text in our reading for today) contains specific guidelines for those who would follow Jesus. Paul calls his friends “chosen by God, holy and dearly loved.” In this verse, he provides them with a “dress code” for the Christian community. What should we wear when we come together, and when we encounter the world in our day-to-day lives? Compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Just as a jacket and tie are the marks that defined the proper male diner at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, so these characteristics are the marks of the Christian in the world. And in the weeks to come, we’ll be looking at these qualities.
Today, I’d like to focus in on the practice of compassion. In the original Greek, Paul tells his friends to put on splagxna oiktirmou. Literally, this means, “bowels of mercies”. In Greek thought, the core of one’s being was centered in the bowels, or as we might say today, the “guts”. If an ancient heard you described as “good-hearted”, he might be mystified, or think that you were really excited about your last EKG. But if you were a person with strong bowels – well, she’d be impressed, she would…
Some of that language carries over into our use of the words having to do with “viscera”. If someone has a “visceral” understanding of a concept, then we say that she really “gets” it, and she knows it in her innermost self. If a person is “eviscerated”, then we understand that either figuratively or literally, the most important part of him – the guts – has been removed.
Paul, in writing to a congregation that appears to have been told that the best way to holiness is by focusing on your best self and looking for an other-worldly escape, says that the most important thing that we can wear as followers of Jesus is compassion.
I would suggest that a good definition of compassion is an ability and a willingness to fully enter into the experience of another, and in particular, the pain or suffering of another. Our English word “compassion” comes from a pair of Latin roots: com, which means “with”, and pati,which means “to suffer”. Compassion = “suffer with”.
A couple of the older translations of this verse use the word “pity” instead of “compassion”, but I think that is insufficient because when one “pities” someone one can maintain an emotional distance and stand over, or around, but not with someone else. “Compassion” says, “Wow, this must be incredibly difficult right now. I’m sorry that you’re in this place, and I want you to know that you’re not alone.” “Pity” says, often, “Oh, you poor thing!” or even worse, “sucks to be you.”
Earlier this year I was the recipient of some amazing compassion. I presented myself for my annual physical and must have looked a wreck because Dr. Hall sat and listened to me for forty minutes before he ever got around to touching me. There was a set of situations and symptoms that gave me some real anxiety and that blessed man just sat there and encouraged me before he made the slightest suggestion of what I needed to do to “fix” anything.
You’ve seen compassion like that in action, and I want to encourage us to model it more and more as we continue through 2019 here at Crafton Heights church. Specifically, I want to challenge us to continue to grow in our ability to become a congregation of people who are willing to listen to each other. Give each other the gift of your best time and your best attention – or be honest enough to admit that you can’t do that right now. Don’t ask questions that you don’t want to know the answers to. If you are going to say, “Hey! How are you doing?”, be ready to act like someone who cares what the answer to that question is. If you don’t have time or energy to fully enter into someone’s day, simply say “Hello” or “I hope you are well today”.
Taking that a step further, let me challenge us to be known as a congregation that will stand with and for each other. Can you seek to give yourself to someone else in such a way as to allow yourself to see the world from their perspective?
For instance, one of the best days of my 2019 Sabbatical (and there were a lot of them) was Monday, August 19. It was a banner day at “Camp Grampy”, and Lucia and I spent time together doing puzzles, swimming, reading, and fishing. As we prepared for our camp out on the boat, I took her photo. She asked why I was doing that, and I said, “Because I always want to remember how you look today.” A few moments later she asked for my phone and said, “Grampy, I’m going to take your picture. Please send it to mama’s phone because I always want to remember how you look today.”
Here’s the photo she took.
Do you see? That’s her perspective. Often, that’s how the world looks to a five-year old. A heart of compassion teaches us to seek to get an understanding of another’s perspective even if we do not share that perspective. Perhaps you’ve never been widowed, or hungry, or abused, or addicted, or abandoned – but can you listen to someone else’s story intently enough to be able to sense at least a part of what that must feel like?
So often we skip that part of compassion. We see someone in a tough situation and we want to proscribe, prescribe, or describe. We want to tell them what their problem is and how they should fix it. Maybe there is a place for that – but it is not the first thing we do. Remember that when Job had the worst of all days, his friends came and simply sat with him for seven days before they even opened their mouths. Once they started talking, everything went downhill in a hurry.
Putting on an outfit woven from the fibers of compassion means striving to see others the way that Christ sees them, and then seeking to treat them the way that Christ would treat them. That’s the first part of our “dress code” for being in the community here at Crafton Heights.
And I have to tell you something that you already know. The reason that I wore a polo shirt and khakis to the Pittsburgh Athletic Association is because that’s a heck of a lot easier for me to put on than a suit and tie. Come Saturday, I’ll be officiating at an elaborate wedding. I’m here to tell you that the folks standing up in front of that wedding will not be wearing the clothes that are the easiest to put on – but they will do so because that’s the expectation of the group on that particular day. It is the dress code.
In the same way, having a heart of compassion is not always the first or easiest thing for us to put on, especially in times of conflict or anxiety. But it is right, and it is what our heavenly Host expects of and hopes for us. And it is what we all need. Thanks be to God for those who have lived compassionately amongst us! Amen.
 Dating based on work of Elizabeth Achtemeier’s commentary on Zechariah in the Interpretation: Nahum-MalachiCommentary Series (John Knox, 1986), p. 134