Let us pray: May the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
When I get home at night, our dog, Ben, runs to the door and starts to jump and whine. We have a window in our front door, so I can see his impressive vertical leap before I even mount the steps to our front porch. He is as excited to see me at the end of the day as he ever is for anything.
In the last two years, Ben has lived in seven different places—the only thing in common in each of those homes has been me. I’ve become the one constant in his life, through all this bewildering change. It’s probably not too strong to say that I’m the thing that makes sense of life for Ben. I’m his source of food, protection, and comfort.
The same word that we use to talk about the relationship between me and Ben is used in our Epistle this morning: Lord. I am Ben’s lord, or, to put is more simply, I am his master—just like Jesus is our master. Jesus is where our nourishment comes from, where we find our security; he is our constant in life. If we are baptized—as a number of our congregation will be in a few minutes—we have received Christ Jesus as our Lord; Jesus has become the one thing in our lives that everything else revolves around, he makes sense of life for us. Having responded to God’s call and received Jesus as Lord, the passage from Colossians exhorts us to continue to live in Jesus, rooted and built up in him.
These are beautiful words—“living in Jesus,” being “rooted and built up” in God—but what do they mean? What do they look like lived out?
There was a young Christian woman, Corrie Ten Boom, who was sent to a concentration camp during World War 2 with her sister. They’d harbored Jews and helped them to escape capture and death. The God they received and knew through Jesus Christ convicted them to stand against their government and the corrupt powers of the world, to defend precious human lives. For this crime, they were arrested and sent to the Ravensbruck death camp. Their rootedness in Jesus caused them to continue to speak lovingly to others about God even while they were facing certain death.
One story of their time in this camp is that Corrie’s sister, Betsy, had an annoying and unrelenting habit of thanking God for everything. She’d look around the barracks and start listing things off, “Thank you, God, for our clothes”—which were dirty, falling apart, and very old. “Thank you, God,” she’d say, “for our eyes,”—which, Corrie would point out, only helped them see the hopelessness of their situation all the better. “Thank you, God, for the fleas.” Betsy would say. Corrie thought this was one bridge too far. Sure, Colossians says something about being abounding in thankfulness, but surely, surely we don’t need to be thankful for fleas! Betsy was resolute; she was sincerely thankful for it all.
Not long after, the two sisters discovered that the guards had stopped patrolling the barracks because of the flea infestation among the prisoners—the fleas had kept the abusive guards away, giving the prisoners freedom to pray and to talk about God with each other. Thank God for fleas, indeed. These women were rooted in Jesus.
We’ve seen in the last months here in Columbia what happens when roots are established in sandy soil. I’ve always known the verses and songs about building one’s house on shifting sand, and it’s always made me think of the beach. This summer I’ve understood in a new way how the sandy soil of the piedmont, when it’s waterlogged, can also fatally damage the stuff that takes root in its soil. It’s not that the plants themselves have anything wrong with their root structures, it’s the stuff that the roots are growing in that’s the problem. When the sandy land is so saturated, the roots can’t hold on the right way. Soil that seems okay most of the time just can’t cut it when storms come.
Our soil is our time—what do we spend most of our time, especially our free time, doing? Which are the thoughts and reactions that most readily bubble up to the surface for us when faced with a challenge? For my part, having been raised on Jane Austen novels, I either set my face to the challenge, resolute and calm, or by turns I fling myself on a fainting couch and complain about my nerves. Perhaps I should pay closer attention to which are the heroines and which are the comic relief.
What is the stuff we spend our time with—what we let into our minds through reading, and watching, and talking with one another? Is our soil infused with rich, firm, Jesus fertilizer?
We’re encouraged to dig our roots deep down in our Lord Jesus, and also to be built up in him, too. Our roots drink in Jesus in the soil, so that Jesus becomes part of our growth, he comes into the deepest part of us as we allow ourselves to be fed by him in his love and strength. This nourishment then can translate into growing, being built up in Jesus.
When I was little, even before I entered elementary school, I took ballet lessons. I loved going to the little school, turning my feet just so, holding my shaky arms above my body. I loved to grow in my practice, to build up my repertoire of dance knowledge. Then we moved to another state, and I didn’t take lessons anymore. That part of my knowledge lay dormant, the building that I’d done, teaching my muscles to move and practicing how to stand—it wasn’t gone, but it wasn’t in good working order, either. A few years later, we moved again, and there we found another place for me to take ballet lessons. I started up again, and like the saying goes, it was like riding a bike. My muscles and body remembered movements my brain had long forgot; my legs had grown and changed, so that I had to relearn some things, but the practice I’d built up long ago helped me to quickly adjust.
The same thing has happened to me at points in my life when I’ve been away from the piano, or away from the sewing machine—these skills I’d learned and built up as a young child spring back to life when the opportunity arises.
What about our relationship with Jesus? Just as we received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him. The good news is that if we’ve strayed and not quite continued to live in him, we can always go back to growing and being built up in Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Our practice, the things that help us grow—maybe we’d call them habits, Scripture reading, attending a Bible study or weekday service, or volunteering for a new ministry—these are things we can pick up right where we left off and keep going.
As Christians, we continually reaffirm the commitment we made—or the commitment made for us—at baptism. We’ll be saying the words of the Nicene Creed shortly as a way of demonstrating our resolve to live in Jesus Christ, God incarnate, to be both rooted and built up in him.
In the fifth century, in Ireland, there was a young man who’d been captured and enslaved, his name was Patrick and he was a Christian. After six years, he escaped and was able to return to his family, where he became a priest; after his ordination, he returned to his captors and worked as a missionary in Ireland for the rest of his life. This man not only forgave those who enslaved him, but loved them so much that he went back to those who had imprisoned him and offered them the greatest gift a person can offer another—the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ.
There is a poem attributed to this Saint Patrick in our hymnal. We’re pretty sure now that it wasn’t actually written by this faithful Christian from the fifth century, but the words ring true today, as we meditate receiving Jesus Christ as our Lord, resolving to continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith that we’ve been taught and overflowing with thankfulness.
Here it goes:
Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ to win me, Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ in quiet, Christ in danger, Christ in hearts of all that love me, Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.