Sermon series, “What does faith mean today?”, no. 1, “The courage to stand alone” (Hebrews 11.1-3, 8-16)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Pentecost + 9C, August 11, 2019
“He marches to the beat of his own drum.” “She keeps her own counsel.” “He’s a bit of an odd duck.” We’ve all heard these kinds of statements about people who are independently minded or, in some cases, just kind of quirky. Sometimes they are meant as praise, and sometimes not. Sometimes, people who march to their own drum can be kind of annoying.
When I was serving another church years ago, there was a member of Session who seemed always to have an opinion or a perspective that went against the grain of the group. It was frustrating because just when I thought we had achieved a consensus about something, she would interrupt that good feeling. She would start by saying, “I guess I’m confused.” And then we’re off onto some tangent that would confuse the rest of us. I guess the frustration went both ways because there were a few occasions when she got so mad, possibly with me, that she shut down and quietly left the room. She marched to the beat of her own drum, and very often I could not pick up the beat.
I have come to believe, though, that there is something a little bit like her in every person of faith today. There has to be something of an independent streak, a willingness to refrain from conforming, maybe even a little quirkiness, if we are to remain faithful in a world where faithlessness has become the consensus.
But, actually, this is nothing new. Our New Testament text for this morning recalls the story of Abraham and his search for “a better country.” Abraham was well established in his town before he took his family and his livelihood out into an unknown countryside and into a life of wandering from place to place. He must have had family connections and friendships and a good reputation. Maybe he was patriotic. We can imagine that he would have loved his native homeland. Who wouldn’t? We can imagine that it afforded opportunities for him and his heirs. We know that it was a significant place for trade. But he sought a “better country.” His heart told him that all the familiar things, all the comforts of what he knew as home, were not enough. He longed for something better. And so he dared to buck his instincts and all the social pressures to conform to expectations. He dared to stand alone.
I’m not sure the pressure to conform is any less today than it was for Abraham. In a land where we think of ourselves as free, the pressure to conform is perhaps more subtle, but it is probably all the more powerful. The way you get free people to conform is through manipulation and deception. Give them the illusion of choice, when all the while the choices amount to pretty much the same thing. Thirty-five different kinds of toothpaste or an aisle filled with a hundred different varieties of yogurt. You need to buy this car, this house, this tablet; you need to take this vacation, wear these kinds of clothes, or you won’t be living the American dream, and the worst thing you could ever do, the most treasonous and unpatriotic thing, would be to refuse to live the American dream. But, look, here are five different ways to finance it!
But Abraham refused to buckle to the pressure. He refused to conform to the expectations of his home country. He sought a better country. Abraham had the courage to leave the old life behind because he longed for something better.
But the author of Hebrews does not celebrate Abraham for his courage. Abraham is lifted up in Scripture because of his faith. The key thing that we need to remember about Abraham, Hebrews tells us, is that he died without ever seeing the fulfillment of God’s promises for a better life. Sure, Abraham was rich. But he was rich back in his hometown. In the countryside, he wandered. He never stopped, settled, and found his land of promise. He never had the security of knowing that he and his family were rooted and secure. And then, he died. He died without reaching his destination. Like the people who left Egypt for the promised land, he never got to where he was going.
Throughout Abraham’s life as it is recounted in Scripture, he remained a stranger and a foreigner, with no land to call his own. This wasn’t all that uncommon in the ancient world. Most people’s survival was tied pretty closely to the fertility of the land, and, during periods of drought or other changes in weather patterns, a region’s fertility wasn’t reliable. So there were quite a few nomads. It wasn’t until agricultural technology advanced to the point that surplus crops could be harvested and laid up for the future that everyone could settle in a city or town. And, of course, being a stranger and foreigner is not that unusual today, either. In a world in which gang violence and failed states and climate change drive people away from their homelands, migration is very common. This week I was horrified to read about a Chaldean man in Detroit (the “Chaldeans” are Christians of Iraqi descent who migrated to the U.S. and other places many decades ago). This man, in his late forties, was a diabetic, and had lived in the area since he was six months old. Because he never gained U.S. citizenship, and because he had been arrested (though never charged) with disorderly behavior when his disease was causing him to become irritable and difficult, he was rounded up and deported to a country he had never lived in (he was born in Greece), where they spoke a language that he never spoke. In a matter of months, he was found dead in Iraq, having lost access to insulin. Now, I know there’s a lot of politics around questions like these at the moment, and perhaps people will say that I’m not telling the whole story: maybe he deserved to be deported. But my point is not about this man’s merits or his faults. My point is that here is a man who represents the fate of people whose entire lives are spent as strangers and foreigners, who have no secure home, tossed around by a world filled with brutal conflicts and mortal danger. Here is a modern child of Abraham.
But migrants are not the only people with no place to call their own in our world today. There are also the unhoused in our communities. There are people who are chronically unemployed or (more commonly today) underemployed, whose place it the world is precarious at best, who are isolated from their communities because of a loss of income. There are millions of people who are disenfranchised because of previous felony convictions. There are millions more who live in urban neighborhoods across this country that are forgotten, as money and resources have left for the suburbs. There are many strangers in our midst, many Abrahams, if you will, people who can’t live the American dream and who are therefore bound to a better country than their own.
In Scripture, we people of faith are called “the children of Abraham. If we are Abraham’s offspring, then we, too, are strangers and foreigners in the land. How so? For starters, it is because we believe in a better country. It sounds like heresy, and, in a way, it is, but Abraham knew his home country was not all there is—he believed there is so much more! If he didn’t believe that, as we are told in Hebrews, he would have turned back at the first sign of difficulty. But he didn’t turn back. He knew that all the ways in which his home society protected its most privileged members and neglected its most vulnerable was not the best humanity could do. He knew that things like child sacrifice and exploiting peasants and constant wars to expand territory and gain trade advantages were not the best life before God has to offer. And, so, he was an oddball, because these are the very things that his society relied upon and valued. To reject these things, to seek a better way, would have made him seem like a dreamer, like someone who had lost his connection with his country. And, in a way, so he had.
As Christians, we believed in the coming realm of God. We believe the stories Jesus taught us, stories of prisoners being released, of the sick being made well, of the poor receiving good news, of humanity and community among all people being treasured and restored. We believe that life is not a matter of owning things or controlling people. Life isn’t about achieving status or recognition. Life isn’t about lifting ourselves up by tearing someone else down. Life isn’t a mad rush to compete or succeed. To be a Christian is to reject those things, to believe that there is a better country, a better life. To be a Christian is to seek to live that life and to offer it to others, many of whom do not even understand that their own lives are miserable and anxious, who don’t even believe that there is a better way. To be a Christian is to live by grace, and to offer grace without reserve when the world seems only to understand achievement, and private accumulations of wealth and prestige, and fighting to keep what is one’s own.
The sermon series we have begun this morning is entitled, “What does faith mean today? And our first point follows from the story of Abraham. Faith, today, means the courage to stand alone so that we remain loyal to that vision of life that we learn from Jesus. Faith, today, means the courage to dream that dream with God, even if we never see it become a reality. There are all kinds of ways that the dream is being trampled on. There are plenty of people who say that it’s time to give up on it. It would be nice if we could point to definitive evidence that the dream is real. But that’s not what faith is. Faith is committing ourselves to the dream, even if it remains a dream. Because it is a dream that makes all the difference for how we live our waking days. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
Sermon series, “What does faith mean today?”, no. 2, “The joy of being together”
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Pentecost+10, August 18, 2019
Last week, we talked about faith today meaning the courage to stand alone. Being faithful means resisting the expectations of a culture that is in many ways lacking in faithfulness.
But Scripture never actually talks about “standing alone.” In the biblical view, there really is no such thing as being alone. Not really. We can be lonely in all kinds of situations. We can be lonely in a crowd of people. Some of the loneliest places are the most crowded places. And we can be alone in the literal sense of not being around other people—we can be at home alone, or we can work in an isolated environment, or we can go off by ourselves to get some “alone” time. But we are never actually and totally alone. We carry with us the faces of others in our minds. We are mindful of how so-and-so would feel or what they would think about much of what we do. We are social creatures by nature, even if we are the type for whom being in a large group is very uncomfortable. And the Bible adds to this the conviction that who we are as people of faith is never a series of isolated individuals but members of community, participants in a history, characters in a story. In other words, we are part of something much bigger than us, and that stretches way beyond our physical reach in space and well beyond our lifetimes in time.
You could say that our faith teaches us that our “selves” are much bigger than meets the eye. We are much more than we appear to be. There’s more in us than we might expect to find.
Our text from Hebrews this morning begins at the end of a long list of faithful people and their exploits in the Old Testament. Chapter eleven ends with an impressive summary of what they did (they shut the mouths of lions; they quenched raging fire; conquered kingdoms…!), and we might be tempted to think that we have just read an account of heroic deeds by heroic individuals—people we should admire and be grateful for, and maybe, in our best moments, try and emulate.
But that is not what we are invited to do. The faithful are not there for us to admire. In fact, we shouldn’t think of them as a series of impressive individuals who have accomplished great things. We shouldn’t think of them as individuals at all. Instead, for us, they are a cloud.
Have you ever been in a cloud? In a plane, or on a mountain, or in dense fog on the ground: there are some clouds that are so cloudy, so dense and soupy, that you can’t even see individuals in them. Clouds are a space in which all individuality gets blurred a little. The droplets that make up a cloud are invisible as individuals—they get lost in the blur. And not only that, the droplets in a cloud have virtually no effect as individuals. It isn’t as individuals that they are interesting. Instead, it is their cumulus—or cumulative—effect that makes a cloud what it is.
And, in the same way, it is the cumulative effect of the faithful that is important here. The faithful have a remarkable power to do remarkable things, but it isn’t because they are remarkable individuals, but because there is something very special that the faithful share. The remarkable thing is that these people listed in Hebrews 11 are actually quite ordinary people, like you and me.
The fact that ordinary people can become part of a great litany of saints shows the power of the church. We are much more than a gathering of individuals. We do more together than we can alone not because of simple addition: it’s not just that my strength and my gifts are added to yours. No, we can do more because my gifts themselves are not what they could be until they interact with yours. I’m a much worse preacher when I’m preaching to an empty room, or when I’m preaching to people with very little capacity to connect with God. I’m not a very good leader without other good leaders around me. And, I’m sure, we can all say similar things: anyone’s gifts become much more powerful when they are challenged and inspired by the gifts of others. The power that we find as we gather as people of faith is in our being together.
One of the things I’m convinced that we must do to be a vital congregation today is to be faithful in mission. And this isn’t just a matter of giving money. Faithfulness in mission means allowing those walls of discomfort we have about other people to be broken down. It means extending that sense of togetherness. A leading theologian today has said that the most important word in Christian tradition is the word “with.” “God with us” is the most powerful, game-changing thing that we can say. And, along with it, the “with” that we share among each other, a “with” that can be expanded to encompass the whole world.
And the miracle of the church is exactly that that amazing “with” can expand and grow when we engage in concerted action for the benefit of others. I like that word, “concerted.” Like a concert. We can’t be the church God intends unless we learn to do mission like a concert, where your sounds and my sounds become much more than they could ever be when they blend. When we act together, we become bolder and less afraid. We experience joys in serving together even if the results of what we try to do are not evident. Even if the community around us doesn’t rapidly change or if people don’t flock to our building or even if we can’t see visible signs of improvement in people’s lives, we experience joy just in joining our gifts and our actions and acting together. We get the blessing of being “with.”
This phrase at the beginning of Hebrews chapter twelve—the “cloud of witnesses—is similar to another great phrase we sometimes use to talk about the church: the “communion of saints.” When we recognize that the list of the faithful that we find in this chapter extends across broad sweeps of history, we realize that the cloud of witnesses, the community of the faithful that inspires and challenges us, extends far beyond the horizon of our own experience. We are in communion with many, many more people than we can see, many more than those who have lived during our lifespans. We share a church with Abraham and Sarah, with Elijah and with Daniel and with Jesus and with Mary Magdalene. And with our parents and our grandparents and with hosts of others.
While it may not be true in a literal sense that those we have loved are looking down on us and smiling, or cringing, or whatever—we could never know what people who have gone before are doing—we do rightly feel that their lives are joined to ours, that we are in real communion with them, because we could not be the people we are without them.
Pastor Thomas Lane Butts tells the story about a bad football player. Some years ago Columbia University had a great football coach by the name of Lou Little. One day Lou had a boy try out for the varsity team who really was not very good. But, the coach noticed there was something unique about him. He had an irrepressible spirit of enthusiasm. The coach knew he was not good enough to actually play, but he thought: “This boy will be a great inspiration on the bench. I will not be able to play him, but I will leave him on the team to encourage the others.”
As the season went on Lou Little developed a tremendous love and admiration for this young man. One of the things he noticed about him was that when his father came to visit him, they would walk arm in arm around the campus. He and his father were very devoted to each other. One day Coach Little got a phone call informing him that the boy’s father had died, and he was the one who had to tell him of his father’s death.
When he got back from the funeral, the coach said to him: “Is there anything I can do for you, anything at all?” To his astonishment, the boy said: “Let me start the game on Saturday.” It was the final and biggest game of the season, and the coach was really in a jam. But, he decided he would let him start, leave him in for a few plays and then take him out. The team was puzzled when the coach started someone who had not played all season. “He went on to play inspired football, play after play. The coach left him in the entire game. He was voted the outstanding player of the game.
When the game was over the coach said to him. “Son, what got into you today?” And the boy said, “You remember my father used to visit me here at school and we would walk arm in arm over the campus. Well, my father and I shared a secret that nobody here at school knew about. My father was blind, and today was the first time he ever saw me play.”
Our power as a church is the power of being “with.” We are with God, with each other, with our neighbors, and with all the saints who have gone before. The power and the joy of being with breaks through all the isolation and the loneliness of modern life. It is the greatest gift we have to offer the world. And it is the greatest gift we have to share with each other. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
Sermon series, “What does faith mean today?”, no. 4, “Being at peace” (Hebrews 13.1-8, 15-16)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Pentecost + 12 C, September 1, 2019
Today we conclude a four-part sermon series on what faith means today, in our contemporary world. In previous weeks, we talked about (1) the courage to stand alone, (2) the joy in being together, and (3) recognizing the gift of grace. Today, we are talking about “being at peace.” It’s hard to think of anything that is more misunderstood than peace. It’s strange because we’ve all experienced it. We know peace when we feel it. We certainly know what it feels like to have no peace. But we have a hard time talking about it. And we have an even harder time aiming at it because too often we just don’t what it is, or what it takes.
Sometimes we think of peace as an absence of noise and clamor, a stillness or a calmness. We think of peaceful moments, maybe early in the morning before everyone else is up, or perhaps late at night after everyone else has gone to sleep. We think of a warm cup of coffee or tea on a balcony overlooking a sunrise, or the quiet of a mountaintop after a long hike. Maybe, we think of church, singing old familiar hymns, sitting in the pew we’ve been sitting in for years, hearing words of comfort, assuring us that the world hasn’t gone insane, or, that if it has, there is still a safe refuge among God’s people, people that we have known much our lives.
What is it about these things that makes them seem peaceful? Well, there can be a lot of things packed into a moment. But one thing that all of them have in common is absence. They are moments of abstraction, being removed from the busyness of life, its concerns and its clamoring. Or, if I may put it more pointedly, they are moments in which we are not challenged or bothered by things that unsettle or disrupt. When we long for peace, or when we aim at it, sometimes what we are really aiming at is a break, a time-out, a respite from things that put demands on us or that pull us in too many directions.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Our world seems to be getting faster and faster. In our work lives, the boundaries around work are getting thinner and thinner, and we sometimes find it hard to actually get away. With recent communications technologies, we are bombarded with images and feelings and opinions almost non-stop. Our lives are getting more and more crowded, it seems, and so sometimes we need for all of it just to stop, or at least to pause. We need a warm cup of coffee or tea and a vision of beautiful sunrise; we need a few quiet moments on a deck or a patio; we need people that we are comfortable with, who relate to us in ways that are reliable and helpful for us. We need a respite from the turmoil and the busyness and the chaos of life.
But, as we all know, these moments cannot last. And that is why aiming at peace like we are aiming at a vacation cannot work. Moments of respite, as necessary as they are, cannot be sustained—nor are they meant to be. Moments of respite are not the stuff of life. Life in God’s world is a life that involves motion and change and even challenge. Life in God’s world is a life where differences confront us every day, where not everyone looks alike or speaks alike or thinks alike, and where we sometimes have to put forth effort to get along with people. Life in God’s world includes mistakes, and difficulties, and pain. And, so aiming at peace as if aiming for those moments of respite to be lengthened into days and years, would be to aim at something less than life, something that is more like death, in fact.
But we all know this. We know that we can’t be on the patio forever. The question is: can we be at peace in the midst of all these things that are not outwardly very peaceful—can we at peace in the middle of life in God’s world, with all of its motion, its changes, its challenges and its difficulties, its discomfort and its pain? Can we be at peace when things are happening, when we are engaged in living life rather than taking a break from it?
What I want to suggest is that being at peace is not something that is passive—it is not something that simply happens to us, or that happens when we do nothing or remove ourselves from everything or everyone else. This passive understanding of peace does great harm, I believe. It teaches us obedience in the worst possible sense–obedience to systems that destroy us and others. It teaches us to accept momentary pain-killers in the form of temporary good feelings. It teaches us to run from one pleasant experience to another searching for the quick fix of a happy moment, meanwhile allowing our lives and our communities and our society to continue to be worn down and out; it means allowing modern life to destroy people in its constant search for profit; it means being idle and docile while the fabric of creation itself is being unraveled; it means dutifully cultivating a record of what we think of as our peaceful, happy moments on our Facebook or Instagram while ignoring the pain of the world.
This is not peace. It is a fake peace, at best—it is an empty image of peace. It is an obedient acceptance of a life that has no real peace in it. Instead, what the author of Hebrews gives us is a set of practices of peace. Being at peace, we find in Scripture, isn’t a matter of stopping or pausing or of experiencing comfort or moments of happiness. Peace isn’t passive in this way. Instead, peace is something you do: peace is an activity, a way of living. In Hebrew, the word we translate “peace” is “shalom,” and it means something quite the opposite from passivity. It means active participation in the goodness of creation that promotes the well-being of all. Wishing someone “shalom” doesn’t mean wishing them a good vacation or a few good moments on the patio, as nice as those things are. It means that we wish that they flourish as human beings, connecting with God and neighbor and living lives that are meaningful and just.
To be at peace in a biblical sense means that we practice a life of peace. Our passage for this morning talks about three such practices, and I want to spend a little time talking about each of them. The first practice of peace is what we usually call “hospitality.” It’s hard to overestimate the importance of hospitality in the Bible. Scholars point out that hospitality was a value and an expectation that was central to social life in the part of the world that the Bible comes from. There was a lot of traveling around from place to place to find food and pasture. In a sometimes harsh and unforgiving environment, a mutual expectation of hospitality was perhaps the only way to survive. But, more than a way to survive, hospitality is the way to form and to preserve community. Hospitality suspends and even overcomes the natural suspicion we may feel about strangers. Hospitality undermines hostility and forges bonds between people who may speak different languages and have different cultural backgrounds but who find that they share a more fundamental solidarity in just being human. Although we don’t live in quite the same kind of world as the ancients, hospitality still has the power that it had for them. If we want to be at peace, we must practice hospitality, because that is how we make those scary and threatening borders and boundaries places where human beings come together, sharing their lives with each other in the way God intends rather than fighting and imprisoning one another. To put it bluntly, no hospitality, no peace.
A second practice Hebrews talks about is faithfulness. Our passage puts it somewhat negatively, reminding us of our accountability before God. But it is important to recognize that faithfulness is a crucial part of being at peace. We are not only to be welcoming to strangers but mindful of the bonds that unite us more intimately with those we love. We can’t have peace if we cut ourselves off from those who share our lives through our lack of faithfulness to those relationships. But, as we know, faithfulness, too, is something we have to practice. It isn’t just a matter of abstaining from certain things or trying not to slip up. It means cultivating and strengthening relationships. It means doing what it takes to make relationships work. It means investing in them—building our marriages but also our friendships for the long haul. Without faithfulness, we find ourselves isolated, and isolation is the opposite of the kind of peace that God intends for us. Isolated people don’t flourish. Isolated people don’t have shalom—when we isolate ourselves, we don’t have God’s peace.
Finally, Hebrews commends contentment with what we have. Being at peace means being contented. It means not being resentful or envious, not hoarding more than we need or seeking to acquire more than our neighbor. It might seem like contentment is an attitude instead of a practice: something we feel and not something we do. But sometimes attitudes and feelings have to be practiced, too. In a world that constantly bombards us with images of wealth and tries constantly to make us want what we don’t have, contentment doesn’t always come naturally. So how do we practice contentment? By learning to rejoice in small things; by constantly reminding ourselves not to take things for granted; by making ourselves familiar with the struggles of other people to have the basic necessities of life. Like hospitality, contentment is an insistence that we are all in this thing called human life together, that we each, as God’s children, have a right to what we need for a decent life, but none has the right to take so much that others will not have enough. That’s not how we think in a culture that actively promotes greed, but from the point of view of the Bible, it’s just that simple. Once again, the point is quite the opposite of passive acceptance. In a world of abundant provision, we shouldn’t accept that some people are hungry or unhoused. Contentment means that, once we have what we need, we strive to make sure that everyone has what they need, too. That is how we make a peace that can last.
These are the things that faith means today, I believe. It means the courage to stand alone, joy in being together, recognizing gifts of grace, and being at peace. None is a perfect model of this. We all struggle, and we all struggle together. We are part of what the author of Hebrews calls the great cloud of witnesses, and, like everyone else in that cloud, we see only in part—and, for the rest, we are learning to trust. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
Sermon Series, “How to Grow in Faith,” no. 1, Trust the process (Colossians 1.1-14)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, 5th Sunday after Pentecost, July 14, 2019
I will say that the sermon title for this morning is a little insensitive. A little coachy, you might say. In fact, it comes from a line that was repeated often by Miami Heat basketball coach Eric Spoelstra several years ago. The Heat had acquired LeBron James and Chris Bosh in 2010, and they already had Dwayne Wade. These were all great players, and there were a lot of high expectations in Miami. In the beginning, though, they didn’t do as well as some fans might have expected. Spoelstra told his players, and his city, to “trust the process.” There’s a plan here. No one said it was going to be easy, or instantaneous. It’s going to take time. But don’t get impatient. Trust the process. Have a little faith.
Well, it’s easy to have a little faith if you have what Spoelstra had to work with during those years. And the team did go on to win two NBA championships. But trusting the process isn’t always so easy, and it doesn’t always make as much sense, frankly. “Trust the process.” Tell that to someone who has a terminal illness, for example. Tell that to someone who has recently lost someone. Tell that to someone who struggles with addiction and who doesn’t see any way out. Tell that to someone who is fleeing gang violence, only to find themselves in a crowded detention camp. Whatever your politics, think about what this experience must be like in human terms. Trust the process? The process doesn’t seem to lead to anywhere good for a lot of people. And sometimes, it doesn’t seem to lead to anywhere good for us. What sense does it make to trust it?
There’s a larger question here. What sense does faith make in the modern world? The twentieth century was supposed to be a hundred-year march toward shared prosperity, with mind-blowing technological advances, longer life expectancies, the elimination of poverty, and the end of tribal mentalities and warfare. Instead, we got some of the worst wars in history. We got technologies that made killing easier and more efficient, technologies that were destroying the balance of nature and undermining our long-term ability to survive. We got concentration camps and lynchings, totalitarian governments and global monopolies. And, today, much of these things are still with us, while their effects are becoming clear. We’ve already seen a rise in average global temperatures. We’ve already seen mass deforestation, shrinking ice caps, increasingly turbulent weather, loss of insects that help pollinate essential plant life. We’ve already begun to see human life expectancy in this country decline. We already have twenty-one percent of our children in this country (15 million of them) living below the federal poverty line. We’ve already seen an alarming increase of what some psychologists call “deaths of despair,” when people give in to the lure of narcotics or suicidal thoughts because there doesn’t seem to be any hope. What sense does it make to “trust the process?” Maybe for the majority today, the process doesn’t seem to lead anywhere good.
Christians seek out God. So, where is God in all of this? Where has God been, while people have been crowded into camps and others have been languishing in their own private houses of despair?
In Paul’s letter to the churches in the ancient city of Colossae, he gives thanks for their growth in faith. Paul uses an organic metaphor to describe this growth. Here, growth in faith is depicted as if faith were a kind of plant that has a natural tendency to grow. It’s as if, once we have the seed of faith in us, all we have to do is to be patient, to wait, and the power of the seed will do its work and the shoots of faith will emerge from the ground, and faith will sprout leaves and will reach full flower. It’s as if the process is automatic, as if we are simply the passive beneficiaries of something that is happening within us that we don’t contribute to at all.
There’s something important about this metaphor. It points to the fact that faith has a way of capturing our imagination. It has a way of just happening to us. We can fall into faith much as we can fall into love. It can seem to come from nowhere and then take root in us and transform us over time. The Bible calls this “grace.” It is God’s grace that touches us and makes faith possible for us. Some experience we have, some comfort or perhaps challenge we receive, opens the possibility of faith for us, plants a seed within us that, over time, can make a huge difference in our lives. If we want to grow in faith, the first thing we must do is to learn to pay attention to this grace, this way that God has of reaching us and stirring something new in us. We have to learn to recognize grace all around us.
But we should probably get rid of the idea that anything about faith is automatic. In fact, we should probably take leave of the expectation that anything God does in the world is automatic, or that God is going to automatically make everything ok or that God will relieve us of responsibility for what we are doing to ourselves and to our world. We should probably grow out of the image of God that many of us sometimes cling to—the image of an all-knowing parent who will step in when things get too bad and make sure that we don’t hurt ourselves. It seems like we have enough evidence by now that that God doesn’t exist. And, if we are going to learn to take responsibility for ourselves and our world, we might do well to shed our illusions that there is going to be some kind of dramatic rescue at the eleventh hour. The view of God as rescuer, as an all-knowing parent, keeps us children, and it’s very much time that we as a species learn how to be adults if we want to survive.
But faith doesn’t have to be faith in the all-knowing parent. There’s another way to think about faith, another possibility for faith. In today’s world, a lot of people don’t seem to feel like they need God. They don’t have time for God. They don’t believe that God has anything to do with them. But that is often because they accept life as it is—they don’t hope for more; they don’t give themselves over to desires for a different way of living and being. They accept a world characterized by bitter fights over scarce resources. They accept global wars and concentration camps and environmental destruction and shorter lifespans. Maybe they hoped for more once, but know they have given up. The “deaths of despair” that happen every day in our modern world suggest that many feel this way, and there are many more whose despair doesn’t lead to physical death but only to a quiet misery.
And, so, for today, maybe faith means that we keep open a space for God. Faith means that we don’t shut God out, even if we don’t always feel God’s presence or see visible proof that God is real and is making a difference. Perhaps faith means that we recognize that, even though God’s dream of a just and healthy world, a world that is “very good,” as it says in Genesis, is being trampled on in many ways today, even if God appears to be losing, excluded from the world’s plans, we haven’t given up on God’s dream. As long as there are people who dare to have faith, God has a hearing; as long as there is faith, God’s voice isn’t completely drowned out by the roar of machines. As long as there are people who have faith, there is an opening for God.
So, trust the process. Not that everything is magically going to be ok, but that we are able to keep the door open for God by prayer, by faithfulness, by hope, by doing the Christian thing no matter what. To grow in faith doesn’t mean losing our doubts, but, instead, it means growing more determined to love God even when it seems that God is being forgotten.
Lutheran Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned in a detention camp in Germany during War II. He was there for being involved in a plot to assassinate Adolph Hitler and for aiding and abetting the resistance. And as he sat in prison he wrote a number of letters, papers, and poems. Bonhoeffer looked out at Europe during that dark time and didn’t see signs of God’s victory over evil but quite the opposite: he saw God losing; he saw God being trampled on; he saw God suffering; he saw God hanging in the gallows. And he wrote that to be Christian in today’s world, you have to go to God in his suffering. It’s not that God comforts us, assuring us that everything is going to be fine in the end—that’s a faith for children. For adults, faith means that we go to God. We stand with God, we identify with God as one who is forgotten, whose dream is being trampled, whose heart is being broken. Every time a child dies, God’s heart is broken. Every time there is a death of despair, God’s dream dies. Every time we lose a species, every time a war is started, every time someone is abused, or exploited, or oppressed, God loses. To be faithful means that those heartaches are our heartaches. Those losses are our losses. To be faithful means that we believe in God’s broken dream still, that we are willing to stand in the gap for God, to hold the door open for God, to suffer God’s disappointment so that, one day, we may feel God’s joy.
I promise you that this sermon series is going to brighten up! But, if we want to grow in faith, we need to strive for a faith that is grown up. We need to recognize that faith in God doesn’t mean blind trust but faithfulness to a dream. It requires something of us. It is, as Bonhoeffer put it, costly grace. The advice to “trust the process” means that faithfulness requires not passivity but patience, not quiet acceptance but steady determination to believe and hope for a God whom we do not see and whom the world has forgotten. It is to believe in a God who often seems dead in the present moment, whom we lose in times of grief and despair and forget about when things are going fine. It is to believe in a God who lives in the future. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
Sermon series: Growing in faith, no. 3, Practice abundance (Colossians 2.6-19)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Pentecost + 7, July 28, 2019
Over the last three weeks, we have been talking about growing in faith. So far, we have said that growing in faith involves, (1) trusting the process, but also recognizing that the process is not automatic but something that we must play a part in, and (2) remembering the plan, but recognizing that the plan is not a detailed roadmap of our lives but the union of God and ourselves in Jesus Christ. The practical upshot of both of these two points is that faithfulness means taking responsibility. Growing in faith means moving toward a faith that is grown up, that doesn’t look for magical solutions to life’s problems from God but commits itself to realize God’s dream, that recognizes that God’s plan can’t come to fulfillment without us.
We’ve been following Paul’s letter to the Colossians during this series, and, this week, we come across a passage that is packed with difficult ideas and points that have a lot to do with the context of the letter. People were being tempted to go astray in Colossae by all kinds of esoteric teachings that promised advantages in this life and the next to those who followed secret rituals. From what we have said so far, “seeking advantages” is the problem. A faith that “seeks advantages” is an immature faith. A faith that tries to get God to do you favors is a faith that puts yourself in the center of things, that refuses to recognize that faithfulness means learning, growing, and changing, and not simply having things handed to you.
But I want to focus this morning on something a bit more positive. Throughout our text for today, Paul uses some imagery like “fullness” and “overflowing.” These are images that suggest a way of looking at life that, I believe, is crucial for a growing faith. They suggest a theme that comes up again and again throughout Scripture: that we belong to a good creation in which we have everything we need, in which there is an abundance of good things that can be freely shared.
In this view, scarcity is something that we have to artificially create, and we create it by our tendency to hoard things for ourselves. Our society creates scarcity by fencing people out, by restricting access in order to drive up the prices of commodities to extract more profit from them. This is nothing new. In ancient Jewish law, people who had land rights are commanded not to go back a second time through their fields and harvest what has been inadvertently left behind. They were commanded, in other words, to honor the earth’s abundance, to allow the poor to come into their fields and take what they need from the what is left over, and not to create artificial scarcity by taking every last scrap for themselves, as they would have done otherwise. After all, they may have held rights to the land, but they didn’t produce the grain—only the powers of nature, of God, can do that. In fact, to take everything from the land for yourself is, according to the vision of life we find in Scripture, to steal what belongs to everyone because everyone is God’s beloved.
But this raises a difficult question. If is this is the biblical vision of abundance, how do we practice it in our world today, when fences enclose the land and when artificial scarcity prevails? How do we practice abundance in a world that is no longer community-oriented but based on private ownership? How do we practice abundance when everyone seems to be out for their own, when biblical values are reversed so that it now appears that the poor person entering the rich man’s field to gather what they need is the thief, rather than the rich man who hoards?
First, let’s start with a principle—call it a “principle of abundance.” It goes something like this: If God is to be trusted as a kind creator who wants good things for us, life can’t be about getting our share and protecting it from others. Life can’t be about closing our fists around what we have. If God is to be trusted, closed fists don’t make any sense. Life can’t be a matter, primarily, of security. In fact, I’d say that the desire for security above all else reflects a distinct lack of faith—or, at least, a lack of Christian faith. And yet our society is obsessed with security, isn’t it? We are obsessed with keeping other people away from our stuff—our property, our jobs, sometimes even our neighborhoods. So much of our behavior is driven by fear, and, in response, we tend to isolate ourselves into like-minded enclaves and artificially manufactured neighborhoods that function to separate us from people who are not like us and whom we take to be a threat to our stuff. We act as if there isn’t enough—that we have to jealously guard everything because, evidently, everyone is out to get what we believe is rightfully ours and ours alone. During vacation season, I’m reminded of the way nearly all the nearly endless beachfront in coastal areas is privatized and enclosed so that the public can no longer even see the ocean or the lake except in a few small areas. Small public beaches are super crowded while endless miles of beach are unoccupied, effectively fenced off in case a beachfront property owner might want to sit alone on the sand at some point. Evidently, nature is only for people who can afford it—or who can afford to hoard it for themselves.
But how do we live in a different way? How to we put into practice the principle of abundance? There is a deceptively simple answer do this question. We can do what we call “stewardship.” But we have to do it in a different way than we have been taught, because it turns out that stewardship, like a lot of other things, has been corrupted by the mentality of scarcity. We tend to think of stewardship as taking care of what is rare and in danger of being lost. And there are some ways that this is true. We should exercise care over rainforests and bee populations, for example, because we need healthy forests and lots of bees to survive, and because they both are currently under threat. We care for old buildings because it is hard to replace them. But stewardship should not only be thought of care for scarce resources because at a deeper level, stewardship is a call to reflect God’s generosity with our own. I’m not just talking about money here, and certainly not about giving money to the church. We have people working on that if you can believe it, and you’ll be hearing from them, have no doubt. I’m talking about being generous with who we are—of giving without expecting return, not because we are good people, but because we trust that there is enough, because we believe that there is a faithful God who provides what we need and more. I’m talking about living with open hands rather than closed fists because with open hands we can not only give, but we can receive, too. The good steward is one who generously gives and openly receives, who hasn’t closed themselves off in their private enclave or walled themselves into some zone of comfort that is purchased at the cost of isolation. Because the good things God gives, like manna, tend to spoil if they are hoarded. The empty beach becomes a prison of loneliness. The segregated neighborhood becomes a ghetto of superficiality. It turns out that the only way to preserve the good creation in the form in which it is still good and not a poison pill is to share it, to make sure that it is there for everyone. So that it is a free space filled with the rich diversity of human life and not an impoverished wasteland of sameness that makes life dull and meaningless and shallow.
I’ll be honest. I don’t know if there is a path beyond despair in our world today that doesn’t involve spiritual growth. We live in a world that can crush everything that is best in us. We live in a world that can starve us, spiritually if not also physically. Faith doesn’t fix everything—in fact, it doesn’t really fix anything. But it does offer us the possibility of rising above the loneliness and the brutality of modern life, not by helping us to escape but by teaching us to hold fast to the better qualities of human nature in hope that we can make the world a better place, where people are cared for instead of ground down, where people are welcomed and loved instead of excluded and despised. But, in order to do that, the very first thing we must do is to get beyond fear, and the only way to do that is to learn to trust. The only way to lose our fear is to see that there is enough, and that we are free by the grace of God to live in the abundance that God gives. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
Sermon series, Growing in Faith, no. 4, “Welcome the future” (Colossians 3.1-11)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, Pentecost + 8, August 4, 2019
Max Lucado tells the story of Bob, who was born in the town of Coats. His mother loved the color blue and made Bob’s first coat a lovely shade of blue. Every time she noticed her son in his lovely blue coat, she cheered, “Yes, Bob!” He felt good in his blue coat, but Bob had to grow up and go to work. So he put on his best blue coat and slipped out of the house, going to his new job. The people on the street saw him and began to yell, “Yuk, Yuk!” Their coats were yellow and they hated blue.
Into a store ducked Bob and bought a yellow coat, put it over his blue coat and continued on his way to work. The people cheered, “Yea! Bob!” Bob felt good in his yellow coat over his blue coat. He stepped into his boss’s office to get his assignment for that first day. He sat waiting for this boss, who came in, looked at him and yelled, “Yuk!” Bob jumped up, took off the yellow coat and stood waiting for approval in his blue coat. The boss yelled, “Double Yuk! Bob. Here at work, we wear green coats!” With that, Bob slipped back on the yellow coat, over the blue coat and put the green coat on top. “Yea! Bob!” said the boss. As he left for work, Bob felt good.
After work, Bob slipped off the green coat, put it under the yellow coat and walked proudly home. He opened the door, went inside, as his mother looked at him with a “Yuk” on her lips. Bob quickly changed coats, putting the lovely blue one on top. Mom whispered, “Yea! Bob!”
Bob got so good at changing coats until he became a popular man around town. He changed coats so swiftly until he had folks fooled into believing that whatever coat they had on, he had it on too. Bob loved hearing the crowd say, “Yea! Bob!” He couldn’t stand hearing “Yuk” Bob was elected mayor of the Town of Coats and had a faithful constituency. One day he heard a noise outside of his window and then heard a pounding on his door. The Yellow Coats brought in a man wearing no coat. “Kill him!” they cried, “he doesn’t fit in!” In his yellow coat, Bob said, “Leave him to me.”
“Man, where is your coat?” he asked. The man said, “I wear no coat.” Bob replied, “everybody wears a coat. What color do you choose?” The man responded the second time, “I wear no coat.” By then the Green Coats had gathered under Bob’s window. Running to the window, his green coat on top, Bob yelled down to them, “I have it under control.” The Green Coats shouted, “Kill him!” At this time his mother entered the room, and Bob slipped his blue coat on top. “Bob, where is his blue coat?” Mother asked, The Man replied, “I don’t wear a coat.” “Kill him,” said Mother as she left Bob and the man alone.
“Man, said Bob, you have to wear a coat or they are going to kill you.” “Bob,” said the man, “you need to decide to stop wearing your different coats. Take them off, take them all off and let the world see who you truly are.” “Take them off? Take them all off?” asked an incredulous Bob. The man said again, “Bob, you have to make a choice.” As the crowd kept crying, “Kill him!” Bob washed his hands, opened the door and marched the man toward sure death. The man looked at Bob, with one final word, “Choose.” Bob was left alone with his three coats and the questions ringing in his mind, “Take them off? Take them all off?”
The unnamed stranger in Lucado’s story, of course, is Jesus. He wears no coat because he is the human being who is stripped of those identities that we wear and that serve as a way of excluding and rejecting people who wear different “coats,” if you will, and that serve as props to shore up our pride. And the fact that he refuses to wear a coat is what makes him offensive, a danger to the elaborate system of coat-wearing that helps us make sense of our world—that provides a rank and order to people.
Of course, it’s not really about coats. The identities we cling to may not be as obvious or tangible. Some of them may. Paul says in our text for this morning that, in Christ, there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. These would have been obvious things. Being Jewish or Greek would have been both deep identities and sources of pride and very obvious differences in dress and language and practice that provoked contempt from others who were not Jewish or Greek. Much more recently, the great sociologist W.E.B. DuBois wrote about how white skin can be felt as an advantage, a privilege, among white workers—something they cling to and seek to protect. The problem, DuBois wrote, is that this distinctive marker of identity makes invisible what white workers and black workers share in common, and makes it impossible for them to work together to advance their shared interests to make their lives better. “White skin privilege,” as he called it, is a kind of fool’s gold, like a yellow coat that tends to hide who we really are and blind us to what is really important.
There are many today whose “coat” is their whiteness. They are preoccupied with preserving all things white—they march in the streets expressing their fear that they will be “replaced” by non-white people, or they spend their time opposing efforts to make our communities, our schools and our neighborhoods, more diverse. Or, and I’ll include myself in this, they simply say little or do little to challenge the racism that so infects our culture. We sometimes live under the illusion that all that stuff is behind us, and that things will always automatically get better. But they don’t. Nothing is automatic or assured. If we are going to get rid of the coats, someone is going to have to have the courage to take theirs off.
There are more subtle coats we wear, of course. There are attachments we have to a past, for example. Nothing wrong about that. We all come from somewhere, and there’s nothing wrong with loving our history—as long as we can love it critically. We are part of a story that is valuable, and it is valuable in part because God has been involved in that story, calling and enabling us by grace to become our best selves. But that past can become a coat, too. It can become something that we cling to to differentiate ourselves from others, to separate ourselves into closed groups who share prerogatives with each other and deny them to outsiders. The church itself can become that kind of closed group. We can wear our church identity as something that is so important to us that we reject others who don’t wear that coat. We can put expectations on people that they know our language and our customs and our habits and maybe even our stories, or else they are outsiders or guests but never members of our community because they simply don’t have the right coat.
But Jesus wears no coat. What are to do with that?
Perhaps the most difficult aspect of growing in faith is to learn to live with no coat. It is also the most liberating. To lean on nothing, to renounce the way that the past functions as a crutch—to live with no crutch—that is truly to live. To reject the sacred quality of the past and to live openly to the future. That is what faith is.
To bring it back around a bit. I’ve said this before: the future of the church is not white, and it is not rich. There are reasons why Christianity is booming in the global south and declining in our country. Growing up in faith is going to have to mean letting go of the fantasies of a bustling, well-healed church in a safely middle-class community, the fantasy of a white Christianity, because the truth is that a whole lot of white, middle-class people today are bored with faith or are just not interested. We all know that. And it’s not just that people are busy. In the ancient church, Sunday was a workday, and congregations met early in the morning before work. They were no less busy when the church was rapidly growing than people are today. Life for most people was grueling back then. There wasn’t much free time. The truth is that white, middle-class Christians live with the fantasy that their advantages give them everything they need. It’s a common biblical theme—their ease and comfort become for them a reason to reject God. The cross makes no sense to them. Fewer and fewer of them go to church at all, and the churches they go to often don’t proclaim the cross, they don’t speak of God’s future in which all those advantages are set aside, but instead cater to their wants and whims, suggesting that all they need is to make a few tweaks here and there, adding a dash of faith to a way of life that is good enough as it is. All the coats are fine, these churches say. This kind of Christianity may do well in terms of creating larger congregations, much in the same way Walmart devours mom and pop retail stores by offering cheaper stuff, but it has no future because it does not believe in the future. Amid all the buzz of the modern and the contemporary, this is a kind of Christianity that is stuck in the past, that is clinging to old advantages, that is proudly wearing coats that they don’t even realize are faded and threadbare.
I’m not out to criticize mega-churches, though. Our more traditional congregations have the exact same problem. We all tend to cling to a past we treasure, and we all tend to shield ourselves from the future that God wants to bring. Especially when that future is challenging to us. Especially when that future calls us to change—and it always does. So all of us need to hear Paul’s words anew. Our life is not in our identities, our advantages, our rich histories and stories. Our life, if it is to be a real life, a life with a future, is hidden with Christ in God. That is to say, it is sheltered not by our connection to a beloved past but by its openness to God’s future. Growing in faith is welcoming this future. It is learning to dare to live with no coat. It is learning to live as the people we really are, vulnerable and fragile, and yet together in our weakness and open to God. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
Series, “What is Freedom?” (1) Freedom is maturity (Galatians 3.23-29)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, 2nd Sunday after Pentecost C, June 23, 2019
What is freedom, and what does it have to do with Christian faith? That’s the topic over the next three weeks or so. Summer is a time when tend to think a lot about freedom. We have a holiday celebrating it in a few weeks. Hopefully, we have a little bit of extra free time during the summer, with vacations and warm weather for getting outside. But I feel like we often throw around the word “freedom” without thinking much about what it actually means. I think, deep down, we know that it doesn’t just mean doing what we want whenever we want. In other words, there’s something deeper about freedom than simply making choices.
But, again, what does Christian faith have to say about freedom? In our passage for this morning, Paul begins where it might be useful for us to begin: in the “before Christ” of our lives, before the meaning and value of Christ became apparent to us before we began to realize the difference that faith in Christ makes for us. A big part of that difference, we will see, is freedom. Now, I want to stress that this “before Christ” isn’t, for most of us, period of time that is left in the past. I’m living my “before Christ” right now, in a way, because there are all kinds of ways that, even now, I act as if faith in Christ hasn’t made much of a difference. I act faithlessly as if Christ hasn’t come. In fact, that’s what Paul’s letter to the Galatians is about: the people he was writing to were people who were tending to “backslide,” if you will: they were falling back into patterns of life and ways of believing that reflected a “before Christ” attitude. They were struggling with a tendency to lapse back into faithlessness. At one point in the letter, Paul calls them out: “O, foolish Galatians!” he says.
Christians from Galatia, we learn, were acting a bit like children, but not in a good way. Not in the sense of having wonder, of being marvelously open-eyed and open-hearted, not in the way of taking delight in the small things, like children are able to do. We need to think about what childhood was like in the ancient world. In a sense, there was no childhood, at least in the modern sense. Children were not segregated from the rest of society like they are today: they were not put into age-appropriate schools, there weren’t playgrounds and children’s programming and even much in the way of toys. Children weren’t really encouraged to play, at least not in a different way than adults. Children weren’t coddled and protected and prized the way they are today. In fact, children, from the time that they were able to move around, from the time they developed motor control, were considered apprentices, low-level workers, small adults, if you will, who were gradually assuming the burdens of labor and responsibility. Children usually did not have close relationships with their parents. Mostly, they were under the supervision of some kind of disciplinarian. In a wealthy household, perhaps it was a slave who was given the task of overseeing the children and directing their work. It is important to know, too, that in, in the society that Paul was writing in, children themselves were much like slaves in that they were considered part of the household possessions owned and totally controlled by the “paterfamilias,” the father of the house. In fact, the Latin word for “family” meant “possessions.” Families were what the patriarch owned.
Paul says, before faith came, we were under a disciplinarian. We were like children he says, in the sense that we were under the authority of someone appointed over us, a taskmaster. The “taskmaster” Paul has in mind here is the system of law. Ancient hebrew law would be the main example of this for his original readers. Teachers had been coming to Galatia and telling Christians there that the best way to be Christians was to be super-obedient to the Jewish law. After all, Jesus followed it, more or less. But Paul is comparing such obedience to the unfreedom, the slavery, of childhood.
Hardly anyone is telling us today that, in order to be faithful followers of Christ, we have to be obedient to the Jewish law. But there is a message out there that to be Christian, we have to adhere to a lot of other norms and standards that treat us somewhat like children. Michelle and I have been following a popular TV show on Hulu that is based on Margaret Atwood’s classic work of dystopian fiction, The Handmaid’s Tale. Atwood tells about the nation of Gilead which, in this fictional universe, has arisen to overthrow the United States. The founders of Gilead were Americans who came to believe that declining birth rates were threatening our strength and vitality and who blamed declining birth rates on the loosening of boundaries between classes and genders. Gilead arose to restore those boundaries, making it illegal for women to have careers or even to read, and assigning some women the role of childbearing while allowing them no role in rearing their children nor any prestige as women of the household. That was reserved for the wives of privileged men who are called “commanders.” These lucky women couldn’t have jobs outside the home nor read nor have any authority over men either. They were supposed to be the guardians of feminine virtue and humility, always encouraging the female slaves in the household to be grateful for the benevolent provision of the commander. Aside from the brutal oppression of women the show portrays, the other thing that strikes the viewer is how immature, how childish, how unable to deal with the complicated emotional life of human beings, Gilead is.
The Handmaid’s Tale is not supposed to be a prediction of where our country might go, but instead is trying to expose something of what is already going on among us. There is certainly plenty of misogyny in our culture, and many of the show’s fans have focused on that. But this issue of immaturity, of the way we put ourselves under the authority of simplistic moral codes that divide people into rigid categories. In our, real, world, it is not uncommon for someone to be praised as a “good Christian” for upholding what we used to call family value. “Family values” meant wholesome values of fidelity and generosity, but it also often meant rigidly defined roles. Family values came to mean men being good breadwinners, and women being good homemakers—and, just as importantly, never confusing those roles. Now, I want to say clearly that I’m grateful for my provider Dad and my homemaker Mom. There’s nothing wrong with traditional families like that. But Paul says something that we ought to hear as liberating news. In Christ, there is no male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free. In other words, all the categories that people may have used in the ancient world, or in our own world, to sort people and decide who can do what and who can’t—in Christ, all of that is set aside. We don’t have to be bound to gender expectations anymore. These were amazing thoughts for the time, and there is some evidence that some Christians, at least, took them to heart: there were women preachers and healers and in the early church. In the church, very much unlike the secular world at that time, women could hold positions of power and authority. And, if we really think about what it means that, in Christ, there is no male and female any longer, the implications are broader and more life-changing than that. In Christ, we are freed to accept ourselves and each other as persons, and so we don’t have to confine ourselves and each other to roles. That is freedom. We can recognize that what gives us our identity is our unity with Christ and with each other, and therefore we don’t need to cling to the expectations and the demands that are imposed on us by our culture. That is freedom.
But it takes some growing up, I’ve found. There’s a lot of confusion on this point. People often treat freedom as something that is comfortable and easy, when the truth is that freedom is something we often try to hide from. Sometimes I’d rather just go with the flow or accept the prevailing opinion or shrug my shoulders and remain passive. That’s the child in me, and not in a good way. That’s the person who would rather not take responsibility, who would rather do without the burdens of freedom.
We celebrate freedom in this country, but so often we think we’re being free simply by having lots of choices, fifteen kinds of mayonnaise or a hundred varieties of yogurt, or ten kinds of Oreos (when all you really need is the double stuffed!). Sometimes we think we’re free by remaining noncommittal and unencumbered. Sometimes we think we are free when we don’t have to think too much, or when we don’t have to do any work. The truth is, we easily fall into the trap of thinking about freedom like we think about a vacation: just let me sit here in my chair, and have someone bring me my drinks. But that’s more like wanting to revert to childhood, isn’t it? The truth is that we are most free when we are being challenged when we learn how much more we are capable of than we thought. We are more free when there are no easy answers available and we have to get creative. We are most free when things get tough. We are most free when we grow up a little, and we have to have the courage to be who we are.
The goods news is that the Christian life in today’s world is just like that. There are no easy answers. There’s no cookie-cutter available to cut out the perfect faith that will work in every circumstance or that will never make us question. But there is grace. This freedom thing is not simply a burden that we bear alone. The grace that we have is that we are in this thing together, and God’s spirit dwells among us, teaching us to be free, calling us to be our truest selves, and giving us joy in a freedom that is shared. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
“What is freedom?” series, no. 2: Freedom is community (Galatians 5.1, 13-25)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, 3rd Sunday after Pentecost C (June 30, 2019)
What is freedom? In the popular patriotic song “God Bless the USA,” by Lee Greenwood, there’s a line that says, “And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” The “at least” has always struck me: as if the one and only thing to be proud of about being an American citizen is that one is “free.” As if there’s nothing else in our history, nothing about our accomplishments, other than something called “freedom.” As if Greenwood is being a bit defensive, as if he is trying to brush aside criticisms of the country. But the song never goes on to say what Greenwood believes freedom to be. Freedom is never defined. It is assumed, I guess, that everyone knows what freedom is. But philosophers and political theorists and novelists and theologians have been arguing about what freedom is for centuries. Can it really be so obvious? Or, maybe, it’s that freedom has come to mean simply “what we’re proud of as Americans.” As if it has no content except as a word we use to mark our identity. I don’t know what freedom is—all I know is that we’re its shining example. It’s very odd.
My guess that there is an assumption about what freedom is, though. My guess is that it has something to do with freedom to be an individual. It is freedom not to be bothered. Historian Phillip Pettit has argued that there are two traditions for thinking about freedom in western society. According to one of those traditions, freedom is not being interfered with. It is being able to do what we want, to be unencumbered by rules and regulations. According to the other, freedom means not being dominated. The thing about not being dominated, though, is that it requires something of us. We have to build up the inner reserves to avoid putting ourselves in situations where we are dominated. The traditional word for this is “virtue.” Freedom means developing virtues, or we might say “moral skills,” that enable us to live lives in which we do not succumb to domination to things that control us, whether they be abusive partners, drugs, or something else. Also, we have to have some kind of community support to avoid being dominated: someone to teach us how to be free. It also requires some set of rules and regulations that protect minorities, for example, from being pushed around by the majority. In fact, freedom from domination often requires intervention, even interference. It requires learning how to live with limits. It requires a community.
The freedom that the Apostle Paul talks about in Galatians has nothing to do with being left alone. It has nothing to do with not being interfered with. Throughout the letter, Paul is concerned that Christians in Galatia are being convinced that, in order to receive grace, they have to follow the Jewish law. Christ had freed them from the domination that they had been subject to—the domination of guilt, the domination of the demonic forces they believed were in control of the world, the domination of an empire that claimed their ultimate allegiance and even their worship, but they were trading in that freedom for a new kind of bondage—bondage to the law. They were becoming slaves again. And, so he says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.” Don’t become slaves again. Don’t allow yourselves to be degraded. Don’t allow yourselves to be dominated. Reclaim your freedom in Christ.
It may seem to us that Paul switches gears when he gets to verse 13 of our passage—that, in fact, he totally reverses the point of his message. For, in those verses, Paul tells his readers to use their freedom in the right way, and he ends up talking about something very much like the requirements of the law. Paul lists a series of sins to avoid, and then he seems to suggest a series of virtues to try to emulate. But doesn’t this get us back to a lot of what Paul had been telling the Galatians to avoid? Doesn’t this get us back into a lot of effort to do the right thing, to show that we are good, to justify ourselves by our good deeds? Isn’t the same kind of thing that makes people slaves to rules and regulations? Am I really free if I subscribe to this list of dos and don’ts?
Once again, perhaps it’s a matter of what kind of freedom we’re talking about. If freedom means being left alone, if it means pretending that I’m not part of a community that I’m responsible to, or living as if I’m the only one who matters, if it means embracing the illusion that I’m an island unto myself and that I don’t need anyone and that I can use people for my pleasure or advance my interests, then, yes, what Paul is suggesting here is the very opposite of freedom? But the Bible never talks that way. It never endorses or even gives any credence our very modern view of freedom that is so invested in the independence of the individual and the brutal competition between individuals that our society says is natural and good. The Bible, in fact, doesn’t seem to regard that as freedom at all, but only a morally blind form of slavery—and bondage that is so blind to its oppression that it doesn’t even recognize itself as bondage.
The key point in Paul’s teaching, here, I believe, is when he says, “For if you live by the Spirit, you are not subject to the requirements of the law.” It is the Spirit of God who truly liberates us; it is the Spirit of God who is the true source of our freedom. It isn’t our preferences, which can be taken captive by the wiles of advertising and propaganda. It isn’t our armies, who can only protect us from external invaders and who can do nothing about the way that we willingly enslave ourselves. It isn’t our money, which can itself be a force that enslaves us. It is the Spirit, who aligns us with the very purpose for which we are created, who frees us to be our truest and best selves by enabling us to act in a way that fits our nature as God’s beloved.
Two quotes come to mind: one famous, the other not. Patrick Henry, speaking to the Virginia Convention in 1775, famously said, “I know not course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.” Henry wasn’t saying, “leave me alone to make my fortune.” He wasn’t saying, “Get off my lawn,” or “Go, away, Britain, you bother me.” He was saying that it would be better to die than to live as one who is dominated. To be dominated is to be caught in a living death. And the second quote is, as I said, much less well known. It comes from Presbyterian preacher Frederick Buechner. Buechner meant it as a kind of test, a way for us to probe our souls a little. He says that if you have not cried for anyone but yourself over the past year, then chances are you already dead. Give me liberty or give me death. But if my freedom is just for myself, I might as well already be dead.
The Spirit of God gives us freedom and the Spirit of God connects us with each other. The Spirit of God is the spirit of community, the force that binds us to each other, the power in life that weaves us together, as Martin Luther King, Jr., put it, in a single garment of destiny. And, if Paul is right, there is no freedom worthy of the name unless we are woven together. There is no freedom from the ways in which we are put in bondage by a society that tries to isolate us as individuals and to pit us against each other unless we can learn to form relationships that resist isolation and competition.
It may come as a surprise us, but perhaps the Bible’s clearest picture of freedom comes not in the exodus from Egypt but in Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against these kinds of things, Paul tells us, there is no law. In fact, there can be no law against them because the point of law is to preserve some semblance of community when would otherwise tend to tear each other apart, and love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control preserve community better than any law. When the Spirit guides us, law loses its point. This is freedom.
So, to recap: last week, we said that, from a Christian point of view, freedom is maturity. Freedom is possible when begin to grow up a little and learn to live into the possibilities that God gives to each of us. Freedom is possible when we realize that God’s special gifts to each of us cannot be confined to the roles that society often puts on us. And this week, we are going further. Not only is freedom maturity, but it is also community. Freedom is possible only when we are liberated from our isolation and our selfishness by the power of the Spirit of Christ, a power that binds us to each other and enables us to share our lives with each other. These two are connected because they both involve being freed from the fantasies that so often hold us back, what Paul sometimes calls the “vain imaginations” that can become a form of bondage. We imagine either that society’s roles perfectly and completely define us or that we don’t need community at all.
We fall into these extremes because we tend to resist the work of the Spirit within us. But, nevertheless, the Spirit is within us, and among us. And, as Paul also says, where the Spirit of God is, there is liberty. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.
Sermon series: What is freedom? No. 3, Freedom is life (Galatians 6.1-18)
Eastminster United Presbyterian Church, 4th Sunday after Pentecost C, July 7, 2019
In 1984, there was a movie about the evils of dancing in a small, Midwestern town. A young man named Ren McCormick, played by Kevin Bacon, moved to town from the big city of Chicago, and he liked to dance. Unfortunately for Ren, the town had an exaggerated sense of propriety and a little bit of fear about the dangers of young bodies in motion. As fortune would have it, one of Ren’s young supporters in his campaign to bring a little Chicago liveliness to the sleepy town was Reverend Shaw Moore’s daughter, Ariel. Of course, Rev. Moore would be Ren’s chief opponent, the guardian of virtue and the loudest voice of small-town fear.
I mention the plot of this old movie, called “Footloose,” because it so clearly depicts the way Christian churches appear to people on the outside. We are the ones who are trying to uphold strict rules. We are the guardians of virtue and the loudest voices of fear. Even people in the church often believe that to be the case. When Michelle and I lived in Virginia, she was the pastor of a small church and I attended the adult school class. This was just outside the city of Richmond in an economically stressed neighborhood, and some of the members of that Sunday school class had very non-traditional family lives, with multiple kids from multiple partners, and there was a history of drug abuse and lots of other life difficulties in their pasts and present, too. One thing I noticed a lot from this group was a strong sense of guilt: a sense that they didn’t measure up. It was as if they believed that their difficulties made them outsiders, even though they were very much a part of the church. It was if they thought they were in Rev. Moore’s church from Footloose, always under his grim eye of judgment.
I was talking to a couple of my kids the other day about why their friends aren’t interested in church. And, wouldn’t you know it, it’s still 1984: a lot of people think of the church today as filled with people like Rev. Shaw Moore—people who want to keep people from dancing, if you will, to keep people from finding their joy and living their lives, people who want above all else to impose conformity on everybody, people who are afraid of change, people who are afraid of people, afraid of life.
That’s how we are seen, at least by very many today. We often find ourselves protesting that image others have of us. No, we’re not like that! We accept everybody! We’re not afraid of dancing—we’re not like the church down the street who doesn’t accept gay people! And, yet, there’s truth in the caricature, most likely. Religious people are trying to hold on to something that is in danger of dying, and so we often seem to outsiders like we are suspicious of them and suspicious of the world. We often seem to be the kind of people who live in fear of changing times, and who constantly scrutinize other people and who judge them simply for loving whom they love or having the history that they have or struggling with the problems they struggle with. We often seem to be people who are intent on holding to an ideal that may never have existed in reality but has always served as a way to judge people deficient and to deny the complexities and ambiguities of actual human life.
Paul was writing his letter to the Galatians to deal with a first-century version of this problem. There was in the church in Galatia a faction, maybe even a majority, of people who were really concerned to hold on to an old ideal. They believed in following the Jewish law, and even in excluding people who didn’t or who wouldn’t. Because there were people in Galatia who wanted to dance—to free themselves from the old rules because it seemed to them that Jesus had died to make them free. They experienced the same gospel that Paul knew: a gospel that announced that God had accepted them just as they were and that there was no need to conform to outward signs of religion like circumcision and other elements of Old Testament ritual. But, for the Rev. Shaw Moore’s of Galatia, that would never be enough. There were rules to hold on to, and these rules were more important than the people who followed them.
But there were other points of controversy as well. There were some who were judged because they didn’t conform to Jewish law, but there were others who were judged because they fell into sin. We’re not told exactly what the sin they fell into was, but there is a list of likely suspects back in chapter five. They include sexual sins and other things we might think of as “vices” like gluttony and drunkenness, but the overall tenor of the list of sins Paul gives us is that they are anti-social: most of them are about breaking up or damaging community—things like dissension and factionalism and quarreling. In fact, even the things we traditionally think of as “vices,” like gluttony and drunkenness, are probably on the list because they break up and damage community—not because drinking and eating are wrong or because there is a certain amount of food and drink that we are supposed to have and no more. Excess is a problem, for Paul, not because he is concerned to preserve a standard of moderation but because he is concerned about preserving community. Excess means someone else’s insufficient amount. Excessive food means someone else goes without. Excessive wealth means someone else’s poverty. And to break up or endanger community is to diminish freedom, because I can’t be free to enjoy the goods of life unless you free to enjoy them, too. In Christian vision, freedom is linked to community: no one is free unless everyone is free.
And what Paul tells us in the verses we read today is that these people who have broken or damaged community should be restored to community as gently and as thoroughly as possible. They shouldn’t be cast out but invited back. They shouldn’t be shown the door but encouraged to work their differences out. A loss of anyone is a loss for all. The Christian vision of life allows no room for throwaway people, by the way. If it is true that no one is free unless all are free, then no one can be simply consigned to a life of punishment. No one can be tossed aside or given up on without unraveling the very meaning of community and thus the power of the gospel. In the Christian vision, despite the stereotypes about religious people that we find in our culture, judgment can never be final. People are never judged to be cast out or rejected. The final judgment about everyone is that they belong in God’s community.
The brokenness of human life—all those imperfections, the things that embarrass us or make us feel ashamed, the things that we would rather hide from our church friends—these are part of life as we actually live it. The foibles and mistakes, the bad decisions and the snap judgments, as well as the moments of joy, the dancing, the sharing in good food and drink—all these are part of what of it means to be human. The freedom that Paul has been talking about throughout his letter to the Galatians is not the freedom of angels or saints, but the freedom of human beings in whom the grace of acceptance has taken root, enabling them to be glad in who they are. And, so, freedom is not freedom from life, but freedom in life, in the middle of the joys and the mistakes, the good decisions and the bad ones. Indeed, the freedom we have in Christ is the freedom to live as human beings—freedom from guilt and from perfectionism and from a whole range of inhuman expectations. Freedom to be just the people that we are—warts and all, as they say.
When Paul was writing his letter, it was typical practice to have someone else write down the words. Writing on parchment was tedious, and there were people who specialized in the task. But at the end of the letter, most scholars believe that Paul himself took pen in hand to finish with his own handwriting to underscore how personal this letter was for him. And, in the closing lines, Paul reminds his readers that what matters for Christian faith is not rule-following or any kind of perfection, but rather a new creation in Christ. In Christ, we are new people, and that is our freedom. What is new is not so much a set of virtues as an ability to accept ourselves and each other with the same grace that we have been accepted in Christ. In this new creation, there is no longer a distinction between observers of religious rules and nonobservers, between Jews and Greeks. In this new creation, there is no longer a distinction between those hold power in the household and those who serve, between male and female, free and slave. In fact, those imbalances of power no longer have a place or a point in Christ’s community. In this new creation, we share our goods and our prerogatives and our lives as freely as Christ shared them with us, and we aren’t bothered by concerns about our position or our authority or our success in the marketplace. If we have each other, we have everything.
Of course, we are a long way from experiencing this new creation in Christ. For now, we only hold to it as a matter of faith. We recognize that our freedom today is still incomplete because there are some who are not yet free. We still have prisons and poverty; we still have oppression and tyranny; we still have divisions and hostilities; we still have self-doubts and worries and fears. For us, freedom is still a hope and a promise as much as it is a daily experience. We look forward to the day when we are truly free because everyone is free. We look forward to the day and we commit ourselves to the hope that, by God’s grace, it will arrive. And then there will be peace. In the name of God, our creator and redeemer. Amen.