GROW IN GRACE: READY, SET, GROW!
The Rev. Helen Havlik
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
September 26, 2004
During September, we’ve been looking at the joy of lifelong learning. Three weeks ago, we were reminded of how important Scripture is to our understanding of who God is, who we are, and what it means to be God’s faithful people. Then we looked at what it takes to become a spiritually mature person—which begins with how God’s Word is received and nurtured in our lives. Jesus says the right “soil” for spiritual growth is “a good, honest and faithful heart,” which we develop through a lifetime of worship and prayer and study and service. Last week in our reading from Luke’s Gospel, Jesus “appointed 70 others and sent them out in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” We, too, are called to prepare the way for Jesus—and doing that takes some training. So we started with the details—Scripture, an open heart, the willingness to learn. Now it’s time to take a look at the bigger picture. I’m reading from Colossians, Ch. 1, beginning with vs. 1. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
My mother gave me my first camera when I was in 6th grade—an Argus 35 mm she bought in the 1940s. In its day, it was inexpensive, comparable to the cheap instamatic cameras of the 60s. The difference is in the lens quality. While instamatics have plastic lenses, my Argus has a 50 mm glass lens—so I’ve always gotten clear, sharp pictures with it. The problem is that because it was inexpensive, the lens is fixed—50 mm is great for scenery, but that’s about it. If I want close-ups or need a wider angle, I’m out of luck with that camera. What it does, it does well, but there’s no flexibility. It literally can’t see the smaller or bigger picture.
But I can—and so can you. Part of being human is having the potential, at least, to take in the broad sweep as well as the tiniest details. We all can see the forest for the trees and the trees for the forest—it just depends on where we choose to focus. And it’s also true that some of us prefer one over the other. The detail people among us, by training or innate personality, can narrow their field of vision, excluding whatever might distract them from the business at hand. Thank goodness! What would we do without the people who look through microscopes and track weather patterns and decide how many bolts will hold a car together? And we also need the wide-angle people who dream big and design big and ask “what if?” all the time. The fact that these two kinds of people often drive each other crazy doesn’t mean their viewpoints are mutually exclusive!
That said, for most human beings our default position is set at narrow. We tend to think and act locally—and you can’t get much more local than you yourself. Starting at infancy, when our survival depends on it, we focus solely on ourselves and our own needs. Part of maturing is growing past this inborn selfishness—learning to widen our view, to think and act beyond our own personal needs. In fact, the Bible is always trying to get us to see the big picture—to see the world through God’s eyes. You can’t get much wider than that but there’s much in life that keeps us in our default position: busyness, fatigue, trauma, poor health, lack of education or encouragement to “broaden our horizons.” The “Big Picture” can be overwhelming —“too much information” is a phrase we hear all the time in this age of information. And we’re only so competent, only so able. It can feel like we’ve been washed overboard without a life jacket. It’s definitely more comfortable to stay closer to home and use a close-up lens. Thinking globally while acting locally is hard to hold together—it’s much easier and feels much safer to isolate ourselves from this great big world.
We don’t know much about the church in the small town of Colossae, which was in what is now Turkey. The questions that Paul’s letter is referring to are lost to history, much as Colossae was destroyed by an earthquake in 63 AD and never rebuilt. What we do know is that Paul felt the need to remind the Colossians about the purposes of God and how these folks fit into that big picture. He wants to correct some false teaching that has crept into their hearts and minds and threatens to warp their faith. So Paul opens his letter with thankfulness for their faith, love and hope that are marks of God’s presence among them. He’s not congratulating them for this, but thanking God for giving them these signs of grace.
Paul points out that human wisdom and understanding are direct results of God’s presence in our lives—our knowledge doesn’t lead us to God, God leads us to knowledge. Knowledge itself doesn’t save us: we can never know enough to over-come death but when we know we’re saved, we live and act differently. Life becomes not just about “getting mine” or “I only want what’s coming to me.” Life becomes instead about what God wants. In the Old Testament, the prophet Micah sums that up by saying, “What does the Lord require but that you do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God?” Jesus says the same thing when he tells us the two most important commandments are to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Knowledge doesn’t save us, but incorrect information can get in the way of our faith and witness. Because they live in a diverse community, the Colossians are taking in information from many other religious sources, putting it together with what they understand about Jesus and appear to be coming up with a faith based on extreme self-denial, angel worship and astrology. In this letter, Paul brings them back to faith and trust in Jesus Christ, God’s “beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” Such proclamation, handed down to us through so many generations, sounds so simple, even too good to be true, yet it’s the basis of all we Christians profess.
Knowledge of this bigger picture is what Paul hopes we will actively pass on to those around us—to our own children, certainly, but especially beyond ourselves and our own families, to include whoever we meet along the way. We are in the process of creating a legacy of faith to be left with other generations to grow and prosper. The seeds planted so many centuries ago continue to reseed and sprout and grow and bear fruit to produce new seeds—to this day and far into the future. We plant seeds of faith and tend our garden not just for our own sakes but for the sake of those around us now and those who come after us. And the best way we do this is by actively and intentionally participating in weekly worship, in lifelong Christian education, and in service to others.
You may have heard a story about the trustees of Oxford University in England who built magnificent buildings of stone and timber more than 500 years ago. Over time those buildings served their educational purpose well. Trustees came and went over the centuries. Finally age began to take its toll on some of the grandest buildings of all, including the gorgeous chapel. The current trustees were nearly in despair because they had no idea where they would find the massive oak beams needed to replace those that had rotted away over the centuries. It was the head groundskeeper who provided the answer to their dilemma. It seems that the first trustees, using a wide angle lens to look at the grand sweep of history, having the wisdom to consider the bigger picture, foresaw the time when the great oak beams would need to be replaced. So they planted an oak grove, which had grown tall and straight over the centuries—so tall, in fact, that they were the right height to replace the worn-out beams. This information had been passed down from head groundskeeper to head groundskeeper, until the point where the trees would be needed. So the trustees rejoiced at those trees that had been planted and nurtured for all that time—and as the tallest trees were harvested, mindful of their own place in the bigger picture, they planted more acorns. And so do we, as we pass our faith from one person to the next, one generation after another. Sometimes we despair because it looks like this is it—people, especially the kids, aren’t interested, the faith is dying out. But we’re reminded again and again to use a wider lens: the planting has been done and the harvest will come in due season.