Summary: Being prepared to face the elements! This sermon gets the congregation involved by (comically) demonstrating the need to "dress in layers", clothing ourselves in true virtue, bearing one another up in love, and worshiping together as a community.
My freshman year of college, I was blessed with the opportunity to take a quarter class in Denver learning about urban development and strategies for alleviating poverty. Now, I could claim that my motivations were noble, and they somewhat were. I mean, I really did want to help alleviate poverty and make the world a better place… but what I really wanted at the time was to get close to the mountains.
You see, I’ve always been drawn to them, ever since I was a little boy. They were a place of mystery, with peaks above the trees and in the heart of storms. They were the middle of the wilderness and the closest one could get to walking in the sky short of hopping in an airplane. In the bible, they were often the places where God met with people, and there is something immense and a little bit terrifying about them. It’s no wonder that, though I was born and raised in Iowa, my life has repeatedly brought me back to the mountains.
So naturally, when I came out to Colorado for this class, the very first weekend I was here, I decided to climb Colorado’s highest mountain, Mt. Elbert. Now it’s not a particularly difficult hike, compared to more technical or treacherous climbs, but in my hurry to get up above the clouds, I underestimated the weather and overestimated my ability. It was the beginning of Spring in the lowlands, but in the mountains it was still most definitely winter. Not only that, but I had scheduled a date with a girl in my class to see the play Les Miserables in Denver that very evening! I was sure I could make a quick hike up the mountain and back before the play started.
I started my hike at 2 o'clock that morning, so I could be up and below the treeline before the afternoon storms came in, but in my haste I wasn’t wearing the winter clothing I needed and I didn’t even have a very good map of the area. I think you can see where this is going, as I pretty quickly found myself utterly and hopelessly lost. At some point I had mistaken a deer path for the trail and wandered around for what must have been hours. I was cold, short on water, and out of food. I eventually found a stream and figured that since water flows downhill, and people tend to settle near water, eventually I would find a town, or a house, or somebody who could help me at least get back to my car!
Eventually, by the grace of God, I found a single dirt road in a plain that stretched as far as the eye could see in either direction and a lone car was traveling down that road. I waved the elderly couple down who were driving it, and they told me I was on the complete opposite side of the mountain from my car, and that though this was their land, they only drove down that road maybe once a week or so. They graciously drove me back to my car (despite me not having any money to pay for the trip) and I hurried on my way to make that date.
The problem was, as I was driving down the road, I noticed my heels began to itch. Then they felt like they were throbbing, and by the time I reached Denver they were absolutely burning. I had frostbite on my heels! Somehow, some snow got packed in between my heels and my boots and froze the skin. Despite being in excruciating pain, I barely made it to the theater in time for my date, and after a nice play and dinner, I asked my date to drive me to the urgent care clinic so I could have my heels looked at. As I always say, the best way to ensure you have a memorable time is by ending the night in the hospital!
Now, all that wandering around in the mountains and the pain which followed could have been avoided if I had just been prepared. Maybe the most embarrassing part of this story is that I’m even an Eagle Scout. I not only should have known better, I did know better! But I was in a hurry and I didn’t bring the proper clothing, or the proper provisions, or make the proper preparations. In the passage from Colossians we just read, Paul is trying to make sure the Church at Colossae doesn’t make the same mistake, and it’s my job to make sure you don’t either, if I can help it.
You see, the letter to the Colossians isn’t like some of the other letters from Paul, like the letters to the Corinthians or Galatians, who were already having serious problems that needed to be corrected. Instead, the Colossians are on the right path, but are treading dangerous waters.(1) They are in the midst of a Greco-Roman culture obsessed with mystery cults and secret knowledge, and a new group called the Gnostics have begun to mix Christian teachings with the belief that salvation could only be obtained through strict asceticism and through the secret knowledge of heavenly things, and the worship of and appeal to orders of angels.(2) They believed that this secret knowledge was not only the key to salvation, but was also reserved for an elite few, who felt they were intrinsically superior to their uninitiated neighbors.(3)