One of the joys of my ministry is that I am in a church that has a parish school on the same campus. Which means that I get to participate in the school's outdoor education program. Basically, I get to go camping a few weeks a year with middle school students. My favorite trip of the year is one that takes us to the deserts of southwest Texas. It is beautiful country but it is a challenging trip, not just for me, but for the seventh-grade students who are going to carry a backpack into the desert for three days and two nights. They carry their own camping supplies, and they have to partner with the adults in carrying their share of food, and the water, and the shelter for the whole group. It is, quite literally, a heavy load for a young person to carry.
We spend a day and a night at base camp, and then, on the morning when we are about to walk into the desert, we have each student and each adult unpack everything in the backpack, just to see what all is there.
The surprising moments are not when a student decides not to bring something. Water bottles are heavy, and rain gear seems unnecessary even in the desert. What is always surprising is the things that students choose to bring and what they are willing to leave behind in order to bring it. Bundled cold weather gear and a soccer ball are the same size, but in the dessert at night in January, cold weather gear is far more important. And even though it is the same size as a flashlight, you can't bring a hair straightener on a camping trip.
I was thinking about those students with their confusing array of camping gear, some necessary things missing, some useless things packed, when I began studying again Paul's letter to the Colossians. That's really the theme. If you have a certain number of hours in the day and a certain amount of room in your spiritual backpack, why have you packed some things and not others. Are the parts of the religion you carry with you into daily life necessary, really helpful, or are some just extra baggage that you picked up along the way
The reading for today is the introduction to the letter. Paul follows the usual form and conventions of his day, so he begins telling us from whom and to whom this letter is addressed and he reminds the reader of their relationship, especially the things that Paul finds praiseworthy in them. So, let's start with the writers.
Paul, we know. We hear from him almost every week. He is the great theologian of the early church, the great organizer of the intellectual side of our faith. He is second only to Jesus in his importance for the Christian church. Paul is a child of privilege. His father is a Roman citizen. So, he is a Roman citizen. That means Paul has rights under the law and protections of the state that none of the other apostles share. He benefits from that particular combination of native talent and educational opportunity that make him a great scholar. He even studies under the famous rabbi, Gamaliel. Earlier in his life, Paul had been a Pharisee, zealous for the law, meticulous in his piety, and an authorized and commissioned persecutor of the early church. His encounter with the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus led him to rethink his whole outlook, and having been instructed in the faith of the apostles, he becomes the church's greatest missionary, travelling from city to city in the Roman empire, preaching in synagogues and finding a hearing mostly among gentiles, and planting churches as he goes.
During his second great missionary journey, Paul meets Timothy, a young man who had been a Christian since he was a child. Like Paul, he has a Jewish mother and a gentile father, making him an ideal companion in Paul's mission to reach both Jews and gentiles with the faith. Paul and Timothy travel together and minister together. Timothy is the first one to whom Paul gives authority over a church. So, we say Paul is the founder of the church in Ephesus, but Timothy is its first bishop.
By the time of this letter though, Paul's wandering ministry has come to an end. He was under house arrest in Rome. People would bring him news or questions from the churches, and he or his companions would respond to them. In this letter, he mentions some of the people who are with him in Rome. He mentions Timothy, of course. He mentions Mark and Luke, missionary companions whose names are linked with two of the four gospels. And he mentions Epaphras as one who is with him, the same Epaphras who is named in the passage today as the founder and first evangelist of the church at Colossae.
Epaphras tells Paul of a church that has heard the good news of Jesus and is bearing fruit in the world. They have followed the good pattern of growth that Paul sees in disciples throughout the infant church. They have heard the good news of Jesus, and they have begun to pattern their lives on his wisdom. But Epaphras goes on to tell Paul that the church is becoming distracted, perhaps even burdened or conflicted, over the proper place of some of the old ritual laws of Judaism in their new faith. Others have become sidetracked by some speculative theology from the Greek mystery cults that they knew before. This is a theological situation that Paul has encountered throughout his whole ministry: the difficulty of finding a place for Christ among the habits of thought and action that we call "ordinary life." Where does Christ fit in? In other words, they have Jesus, but they have other things too. Is that ok?
Paul's teaching was clear. These rituals and mystical practices - even something as far as meat sacrificed to pagan idols - are not innately bad or good. They have no power in themselves. Paul writes in I Corinthians that "we know that no idol is anything in the world, and that there is no God but one," but it is also clear that a divided mind and a divided heart are dangerous, especially for the one who is divided.
We know what that is like, don't we? We are not necessarily hedging our bets with obscure religious practices, but we do know what it is like to be surrounded by glittering images that call to us, demanding our attention, promising a better life which, in the end, they cannot deliver. We know that somehow Jesus needs a place in all this, that religion is part of healthy and balanced lifestyle and that faith should be among our highest priorities, but when we look back, when we let our calendar and our checkbook tell us the truth about where we put our trust, we find that we are more divided, more out of balance, that we thought.
And that can be deeply damaging to our mental health and our spiritual well-being. It is not always that we have made mistakes and suffered the consequences. It is more that we, like them, find ourselves choosing between many goods, trying to balance religion and our spiritual life with the other parts of our lives and the other demands on our time and attention.
When God and faith are among our highest priorities, then we will always feel out of balance, out of line, off-center and out of true.
A little more than seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Amos spoke to the people of God about being centered, about remaining true. This was during the time of the long and prosperous reign of Jeroboam II, when the people saw their security coming partly from their religious practices and partly from the economic prosperity and partly from their military strength. What they could not see was the way they had fallen from their call to be a moral and spiritual light to the nations around them. They had become just like their neighbors: socially unjust, immoral in their dealings, and shallow in their piety. The Lord reveals himself to Amos, standing beside a wall. The Lord says, "Amos, what do you see?" And Amos says, "a plumb line."
We recently expanded the worship space in our red-brick church, using the same architectural style that we did sixty years ago. During the long summer of construction, I would watch the workers as the laborers threw a brick straight up, exactly the right height, to the waiting hand of a mason, high above on a scaffold. The mason would trowel on a little bit of mortar and lay the brick in its course, and hold his hand out for the already-ascending brick. The peaks of the new walls are forty feet high, and the joints of mortar are perfectly straight. It took an experienced mason, someone with practical wisdom and developed skill to do that. But it wasn't done by aligning the bricks with each other or even watching the joints. The mason kept the bricks straight with a simple piece of string with a lead weight at the bottom that gravity always pulls directly straight and perfectly true. And because that line is straight, everything else can be put in order.
Amos says the straight line is the word of God, that that's the one thing that measures all other things. Paul seems to be saying to the Colossians and to us that Jesus, the word of God made flesh for us, is the plumb line, the only one against whom the order of our lives can be measured. God and faith aren't one of the many priorities in life. Faith is the plumb line, the essential thing that measures all things against itself. We can only be in line, only be in order, only be true, if the plumb line comes first.
You see, the problem for the Colossians was that they looked at Jesus, they saw many of the bricks that make up the wall. The problem for us too is that when we see Jesus or faith or church as one of the many elements that give our life meaning and purpose, when we see Jesus as a brick and not the plumb line, we will never be in balance.
The promise of the gospel is more than wisdom, more than spiritual help, more than a little rest and some healing words so you can get back out there and try again. The promise of the gospel is that there can be one thing that can reliably be put before all others. It may be old fashioned language and hard on modern ears, but the promise of the gospel is a kingdom and a king, a monarch, a single organizing power that is more than you and your ability to hold it all together and keep it all straight. The promise of the gospel is that the movement of your life and the motion of the world can be in perfect harmony, because the center of both is the unerring righteousness of God and the undying love of Jesus.