Sunday, November 20, 2022

Broken Words, Broken Lives (It's a Good Thing)

 Sermon preached at St. John's Church, Catherine, and St. James' Church, Watkins Glen on the Last Sunday after Pentecost, often called "Christ the King Sunday," November 20, 2022.  Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43

          Christ the King.  This is the only Sunday of the church year celebrating a metaphor.  Christ the King.

           It’s a good Sunday to remember the limits of human language and how we use it when we talk about God.

           We use human language to describe God. We have to, it’s the only tool we have.  But it is good for us to remember the difference between description and definition.  When it comes to God, description we can do; definition we cannot.

           Remember the third of the ten commandments:  You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God, for the Lord will not acquit anyone who misuses his name.

           We take this to mean that we should not use “God” or “Jesus” as a curse word.  But the commandment is deeper than that.  It is about control—how we attempt to control God by definition.  The commandment is about protecting the freedom and mystery of God.

           The truth is that human attempts to define God always go awry.  We attempt to describe God in many ways:  Almighty, Eternal, Shepherd, Lord, King, even Father, just to name a few.  Each of these does help us understand God, but God also has a tendency to break them open.

           Take the title King.  It helps us speak about the God who is the ultimate ruler of all things.  But when we use the title for Jesus—Christ the King—we have to come to terms with how Jesus broke open the title.

           First of all, he did not use it for himself.  He speaks frequently of the kingdom of God, but never calls himself its king.  In John’s Gospel at one point he slips out of town because he feared the people were going to try to declare him king (John 6:15).  When Pilate accuses him of wanting to be king, he says his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:33-37). In other words, Jesus is saying that you may call me a king, but you have no idea what you are talking about.

           The soldiers then mock Jesus as a king, with a bloody cloak and a crown of thorns, and Pilate has affixed to the cross the accusation against Jesus, “This is the King of the Jews.”

           And yet we call him King.  But he breaks open our human language, our human description—King—from the cross.  He is not a King who sits on a royal throne in a royal palace and has the power of life and death over others. His throne is the cross and he uses his power to accept his own death on behalf of others. And while accepting death, he asks God to forgive those who made his death happen and offers mercy to his fellow sufferers.

           He takes the title “King,” breaks it, and offers it back to us infused with new meaning.  You can take any title we give him and find that he does the same thing:  breaks it, and gives it new meaning.

           This is how God works. And it is not only our human language that God breaks. It is also us, if we let him.

           Think about that time in the Eucharist where we break something.  The breaking of bread.  “The fraction,” we call it.  It is only one of two places in The Book of Common Prayer that insists on silence.  The rubric says, “Silence is kept.”

           It is one of the least followed Prayer Book rubric because we are uncomfortable with silence.  If there’s too much silence, we think something is wrong. Somebody’s forgetting something!

           But the silence is there because what we have just done—break the bread—is the whole point.  God wishes to break us open and make us new people to send out into the world.  We are asked to keep silence before the mystery of that great truth.

           St. Augustine said it well. He said that if it is true what St. Paul says, that we are the Body of Christ, then behold its mystery on the Altar.  He said,

 If, therefore, you are the Body and the members of Christ, your mystery is placed on the Lord’s table; you receive your own mystery.

           It is your body, your life, which is broken.  So, he says, when you come to receive the broken body,

 Respond, “Amen,” to what you are, and by responding give your assent. You hear, “The Body of Christ,” and you respond, “Amen.” Be a member of Christ’s Body so that your Amen may be true.

           God wants each one of us to describe ourselves in the same way we describe God, knowing that what we say about ourselves is always in need of being broke, so that even more truth about ourselves can be revealed. It is how, as St. Paul says, we are enabled “to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light,” and be “transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”

           “Broken” has become a bad word.  We don’t want to be “broken people.”  But we do not need to fear being broken by God, because it is the way God makes us a new creation, and leads us into ever new life.

Monday, October 17, 2022

What is Truth?

 What is Truth?

The Rev. Michael W. Hopkins

October 17, 2022

 Pontius Pilate’s famous question for Jesus is often taken as a parody of his actual ignorance.  At the very least, it was dripping with cynicism.

 But what if it was a good question?  And what if it is a good question for us to ask ourselves?

 Every age of history can be seen as a struggle for the truth. Ours is no different. The battle lines are being sharply drawn, and those of us who consider ourselves progressive Christians may have a much more important role to play than we have gotten used to over the past 50 years as our numbers and influence has dwindled.

 In my first congregation’s little chapel (seating about 30 people), the east wall was dominated by an over-sized round window, probably five feet across. In the middle was a sword superimposed over a Bible with the citation:  Ephesians 6:17. “The sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.”  This verse is part of the “put on the whole armor of God” passage (6:10-17), which includes “fasten the belt of truth around your waist.”  The author wants us to be ready for spiritual battle “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”

 It's a passage that sounds tailor-made for those who espouse conservative and nationalistic views.  But it begs several questions:  Who are the rulers, authorities, cosmic powers and spiritual forces of evil?  How does the word of God function like a sword?  And, yes, What is truth?

 A friend from church and I sat through a “Rally for Truth” recently in the village square just down the street (aptly named “Liberty Street”) from our church.  We went because we weren’t certain exactly what was going on. We feared that Christian Nationalism would be front and center.  It wasn’t, at least not explicitly, but the “talk” which was part of the program did have the topic of “Truth.”

 The speaker used a blizzard of analogies, peppered with biblical references (mostly from John’s Gospel), to prove that the world was run by Absolute Truth, and we had a decision to make, whether to follow and adhere to that Truth or not.  He said one thing that particularly struck me:  “We have a choice about where to get our Truth from.  Does it come from the mind of man or the word of God?”

 My friend and I looked at each other and said “What?”  The distinction did not track for us.  I’ll come to why that’s the case in a moment, but first it must be said that the speaker was expressing both an old Truth for a significant part of Protestantism, and a very contemporary way of interpreting our contemporary world and understanding the state of politics in (at least) the United States.

 At a recent meeting of the National Conservatism Conference, there was a great deal of talk about the nature of the current divisions in US politics, and a lot of that talk was explicitly religious.  Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri declared, “Without the Bible there is no America.”  It was a statement that could be reasonably debated.  But he went on to accuse the “left,” especially in its social agenda, of having as their “real target . . . the inheritance of the Bible.”  “What they particularly dislike about America is our dependence on biblical teaching and tradition.”

 Of course, this statement is a politician’s setting up of a “they” scarecrow, a caricature of their opponents, obviously wrong and easily knocked down.  The problem is in its description of themselves.  Just who is this “our?”  And what is this “biblical teaching and tradition” upon which they depend?  And what does it mean for those of us in Christian traditions that have a very different understanding of and belief in “biblical teaching and tradition?”

 Another speaker answered that question.  We who have a different Christian perspective have become captives of “woke” religion.  Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “argued the divide in the country was one between Christian theology and a ‘woke religion that is raising itself up as the official state ideology,’ adding that ‘insofar as conservatism as a movement has a future, it is a future that is going to be increasingly tied to explicit theological claims.’”

 Now it is clear from the context of this quote that “woke religion” does not directly refer to progressive Christianity, but to a general “left,” a “new age secularism” that is increasingly speaking in religious (i.e., absolutist) language.  Said one speaker, “Progressivism has taken on increasingly religious overtones.”  One shouldn’t entertain any doubt, however, that these folks consider progressive religious traditions in the same way.

 So, back to Pilate’s question and the notion that Truth is both absolute and comes either from the “mind of man” or “from God.”

 Of course, the reason my friend and I reacted to that distinction the way we did was that we are both traditional Episcopalians, schooled in an understanding that revelation (aka, “the Truth”) is given, yes, through the Bible, but also through the tradition of Christian experience through the ages, and the God-given ability for men and women to reason.  This means we can never use a word about the Bible that the speaker on the village square did that day: “inerrant.”

 And it may be even more simple and fundamental than that.  I don’t much like using the term “fundamentalism” as a negative, for we all have our fundamentals that shape the rest of our faith and action.  I agree with John Booty, that for Episcopalians/Anglicans our fundamental is wholeness. And as a way of understanding what he means, he quotes Richard Hooker, perhaps the greatest of early Anglican theologians:

 God hath created nothing simply for it selfe: but ech thing in all things of everie thing ech part in other hath such interest that in the whole world nothing is found whereunto anie thing created can saie, I need thee not. (Sermon on Pride)

 Hooker’s insight was that we participate in God and God in us, we participate in one another, we participate in the creation and the creation in us.  God’s most basic desire is for relationship, and not just for God’s own self, but for the community of humankind and the community of creation. In short, love.

 If wholeness is our fundamental than what is truth?  Whatever brings us into and keeps us in relationship with God is true.  Whatever brings us into relationship with one another and keeps us in it is true. Whatever brings us into and keeps us in relationship with the creation is true.

 My friend and I and the speaker at that rally in the square could agree that Jesus is the Truth, and being in relationship with him is the ultimate spiritual goal of the Christian.  But I fear we would soon part company.  For us, when Jesus says he is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), he does not mean three separate things.  The way, truth, and life are the same thing.  Which means the truth is something you do. You do the truth as you follow the way and live the life that Jesus asks of us.  The truth can only be rightly understood as a verb. That is the only thing that can keep it from being just another absolutist idol that we use in our human project to divide us from them.

 So we do the truth when we love our neighbors as ourselves.  We do the truth when we strive to honor and uphold the inherent dignity of every human person (full stop, no exceptions). We do the truth when we work tirelessly for justice and peace in our world.  Those are our values. Call them biblical, call them Christian, call them “moral,” if you want but we may never call them anything that ends up with a world divided instead of whole.

 Some will say this is the easy path.  To which I can only say as someone who strives to practice it, “Are you kidding me?”  It is the hardest thing in the world.  Division is always easier than wholeness. Always.

 The “sword of the Spirit” is not an altogether helpful metaphor because it is easily seen as a metaphor of division.  That is what swords do when they are swung. They divide things.  And this seems to be the intent of a similar use of the image in the Letter to the Hebrews (4:12):  “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword . . . it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”  But what is being divided/judged?  “The thoughts and intentions of the heart” sound to me like primarily relational matters.  The word of God helps me discern the rightness or wrongness, the helpfulness or unhelpfulness, of my own thoughts and intentions.  Yes, first mine before I take a crack at yours.  Take the log out of your own eye, you’ll remember Jesus saying, before you take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye (Matt. 7:3, Luke 8:21).

 I do not believe that we can know anything approaching absolute truth this side of death.  It may be our goal, but it is something we only glimpse, as that same Letter to the Hebrews says was true of all our ancestors in the faith.  “All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them” (11:13).  This lines up with Paul’s statement:  “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, only then will we see face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12).  We “know only in part,” he says.

 I like the adjective “ultimate” better than “absolute” for truth because it carries a future orientation.  And in that future orientation, I also like the word “true” better than “truth.”  “What is true?” seems to me a question for the journey.  “What is truth?” is a question for the destination.  “What is true?” is a question we can experience, disagree about, struggle to answer, with both the word of God and our God-given brains (including our God-given emotions) as partners in the conversation.  “What is truth?” is something we will finally rest in together in the future that belongs to God.

Monday, October 10, 2022

Francis & Jeremiah: Rebuild My Church, Rebuild My Earth

 Sermon preached on Sunday, October 9, 2022 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY, the 18th Sunday after Pentecost, also celebrated as St. Francis' Day:  Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7; Luke 17:11-19

          The man we know as St. Francis was like many young men of his social class at the turn of the 13th century. His father was a prosperous merchant and Francis had all the fun he could have off that wealth. When his city went to war with the neighboring city of Perugia, he signed up for the glory of it.

           Only he did not find glory there.  Instead, he was captured and imprisoned. Eventually his father paid his ransom, but something had begun to happen to Francis.  He developed compassion for the poor of Assisi and especially the lepers who lived outside the city gate, people who were perpetual outcasts, feared and detested.

           One day, still trying to figure himself out, Francis Was wandering around the countryside. He came across an abandoned church, St. Damiano.  Inside the church, he heard a voice say “Rebuild my church.”.  Francis took this quite literally and set about repairing that church building.

           It wasn’t long after that Francis heard another voice in another church, St. Mary of the Angels, it was called. This time it was the voice of Jesus speaking through the Gospel that was read that day:

 As you go proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”. . . . Take no gold or silver or copper in your wallet, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics or sandals or staff.

           Francis knew he was being called to this life.  He was called not only to serve the poor, but to live as one of them.  And not just to live as one of them but see God in them and help them see God in themselves.  He gave up everything of his father’s wealth, renounced all possessions and lived as a beggar the rest of his life.

           The command to “rebuild my church,” became for Francis something more than stone and mortar.  It became about bringing the life of faith outside the walls of churches and into the streets, indeed, into the whole creation, to learn to call all living things—all the things of creation—brothers and sisters.

           His message was simple, but also very demanding:  find Christ and serve Christ where you are.

           1800 years before Francis there was a prophet named Jeremiah.  Jeremiah warned the people of Judah of what was coming—the conquest of Judea by the Babylonians from the east.  He lived through that conquest; he watched Jerusalem be destroyed and a large number of the people taken into exile in Babylon.  He and his companion Baruch were among those left behind.

           The very pressing question to those in exile was, “What do we do now?”  There were choices, much like the choices we all have to make when trouble comes upon us.

           One option, the choice of denial:  they could pretend that this wasn’t so bad and would soon end.  Or another option, the choice of anger:  Spend your life in perpetual resentment and sabotage your oppressors whenever possible.  Or a third option, the choice of assimilation:  When in Babylon do as the Babylonians do.  Let the past go, including the God you thought was on your side.

          From afar Jeremiah knew that his people were wrestling with these questions, and he came to believe that there was another option, an alternative which was a gift from God.  So, he wrote a letter to the exiles, a portion of which we heard this morning.

           The letter urges the exiles to remain who they are in that foreign place, implying that they were going to be there a long time.  Build houses, plant gardens, marry, raise children.  “Multiply there,” he writes, “and do not decrease.”

           And then he says a most astounding thing.  He says,

 Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

           No denial. No resentment. No assimilation.  Be who you are, remain who you are.  But also be where you are and seek its good.

           Now you must remember how tied Israel was to the land, the land of the promise.  The land they believed God gave them in which to prosper and to be his people.  Now that land was gone.  They were in a foreign land, for all intensive purposes, permanently.

           Psalm 137 catches the anguish they felt: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.  How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”  It’s a sad but beautiful psalm, although it takes a sudden turn of anger, desiring Babylon itself to be destroyed as Jerusalem was.

           But Jeremiah says, “Wait.  No.”  Sing the Lord’s song where you are.  Seek the foreign land’s good as if it were your own land.

           So we have this morning Jeremiah and Francis.  Two people living in very different times and contexts, but with a remarkably similar message.  Find God where you are. Expect God where you are. And do the works of God where you are.  Seek the well-being of where you are. Don’t forget who you are!  Keep nurturing who you are!  But seek to do good where you are, however strange that place and its people may be.

           That may be enough of a sermon, but I’ve got to bring it into the situation we find ourselves in today.  Church, we are in a troubled time.  Troubles without and troubles within.  The troubles are too many to name, but I’ll name just one obvious one, the one we are sitting in right now.

           We are not in exile, not exactly. We’re still in our comfortable home.  But to be perfectly honest, there aren’t many of us left here.  Yet God keeps saying to us, “Rebuild my Church.”  And God keeps saying to us, “Be who you are, strengthen who you are.  And keep doing the mission, keep seeking the welfare of where you are, yes, even if there doesn’t seem to be much return for your faithfulness.”

           How do we do those things?  First, I submit, check your anxiety. Learn from Francis and from Jeremiah. Do not make the obvious choices.

 ·      Do not choose denial.  Do not pretend that everything’s going to be all right.  They’ll come back, after all we have a beautiful building and a beautiful liturgy. No.

 ·      Do not choose resentment.  Do not blame the pandemic. Do not blame the loss of Sunday as our time and no one else’s. Do not blame the church fights over gender and race and sexuality.  No.

 ·      Do not choose assimilation.  Do not give up.  Do not take the spiritual but not religious route. Do not close the doors and get on with life.  No.

           God says no to all those things.  God says, Don’t panic.  Don’t be in denial. But don’t panic.  Don’t dwell on the past. Honor it and learn from it, but let it go as a measure of the present.  And above all don’t give up.

           Be who you are.  Continue to be faithful.  Do what I have given you to do.  Follow Jesus.

           Francis gives us the message, “Rebuild my Church.”  Jeremiah gives us the message, “Multiply, do not decrease.”  If we take those directions literally it’s easy to despair.  But I think what Francis learned about rebuilding the church, and what Jeremiah was encouraging those exiles to do, was stay clear about who you are and keep doing what God would have you do to serve the world, even the world that no longer cares whether you exist or not.

           A good place to start is in our outward gratitude for life—for the whole of creation—because it is a gift. Care for the creation in which we find ourselves.

           What if our witness to the world as God’s gift that we must care for was so bold that people driving past our red doors would say, “Those people really care about the earth.”  It is not everything we must do to rebuild the church, but we must commit ourselves to the larger imperative of rebuilding the earth. Because in its welfare we will find our own welfare.

           Rebuild my Church and Rebuild my Earth must go hand in hand in our own time of troubles.

Monday, August 15, 2022

The Great Cloud of WItnesses (Jonathan Myrick Daniels)

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on August 14, 2022:  Hebrews 11:29--12:2; Luke 12:49-56.

          We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us.  This is that truth that we claim in the Apostles’ Creed:  I believe in the communion of saints.

           Today I am thinking of one of those witnesses in particular.  His name is Jonathan Myrick Daniels, whose day of remembrance on our church’s calendar happens to be today.  His story is one that all Episcopalians should know.

           Jonathan was born in 1939 in Keene, New Hampshire.  When he was in high school he was attracted to The Episcopal Church.  He surprised everyone when he chose to attend the Virginia Military Institute for college.  He said he thought he needed discipline in his life.  He found life hard there but eventually graduated as the class valedictorian.

          He went to Harvard to do graduate work in literature. By this time his faith had waned.  But on Easter Day 1962 he went to the Eucharist at Church of the Advent in Boston and found faith again.  In his high school years he had toyed with the idea of ordained ministry, and now it became a calling he could not ignore.

           He enrolled in what was then the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  There he began to awaken to what was happening in the South—the civil rights struggle was reaching its apex.

           He, with so many other Americans, was appalled by what happened in Selma, Alabama on March 7, 1965, the march that was so brutally turned back.  Later that month he heard Dr. Martin Luther King’s plea for northern whites to come to Alabama to help secure the right of blacks to vote.

           He was tempted to go. He had developed a passion for standing up for the poor and the oppressed.  Later that day at Evensong in the seminary chapel, while singing the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, he decided he must go.  He had sung,

 He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

 He wrote later in his journal, “I knew that I must go to Selma. The Virgin’s song was to grow more and more dear to me in the weeks ahead.”

           Jonathan went to Selma and joined in the work. The racism he experienced shook him to his core, including the complicity of the Episcopal Church.  He lived with a black family—the West family—and he took them to church on Palm Sunday.  They were made to sit in the back of the church and receive communion last of all.

           He briefly went back to Cambridge to complete his seminary exams, but was back in Selma by the beginning of June.  He joined an effort to register black voters in a nearby county, one of the most rigidly segregated counties in all of the South, where not a single black person had been allowed to register.  Among those he worked with there was Stokely Carmichael.

           They were all heartened when President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act on August 6, 1965.  But on August 14th they were arrested and spent several days in jail.  They were released on August 20th, and the group went to the one local store that would serve blacks as well as whites to get something cold to drink.

           A man by the name of Tom Coleman was waiting for them in the shop doorway. He pointed a shotgun at them and told them to leave.  Jonathan stepped in front of a sixteen-year-old named Ruby Sales.  Coleman fired and Jonathan was killed.

           In 1991, Jonathan was officially added to the Church’s calendar. At first he was characterized simply as a “seminarian.” Later editions of the calendar would use the term “martyr.”

           Jonathan’s death was in many ways not unique.  Countless more blacks died during the civil rights struggle, including Dr. King.  Several other white volunteers were killed also.  Jonathan was the only Episcopalian, at least of which I am aware.

           His death was part of gradual awakening in The Episcopal Church.  Fighting injustice gradually became a commitment asked of every Episcopalian.  In 1976, we would adopt a new Book of Common Prayer which included as part of the Baptismal Covenant the promise to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”

           We heard Jesus say this morning a very hard thing.  “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.”  This is not what we expect to hear from one we call “The Prince of Peace.”

           But Jesus knows that following his way of life will not always make people happy, even people of our own household.  And sometimes practicing our faith will take great sacrifice.

           I’ve been mulling over the paragraph we all say together in the Eucharistic Prayer we are currently using.

 Now gathered at your table, O God of all creation, and remembering Christ, crucified and risen, who was and is and is to come, we offer to you our gifts of bread and wine, and ourselves, a living sacrifice.

           “We offer ourselves, a living sacrifice.” Those words can slip off the tongue without much thought.  The story of Jonathan Daniels, however, might give us pause over them.  Not that we are called to martyrdom.  But short of death, what does it mean be “a living sacrifice.”

           It means always to be open to God’s call, and ready, even expecting, for that call to sometimes take us to an uncomfortable place, perhaps a place of conflict, even, as Jesus says, with members of our own family.

           But this openness does not mean the readiness to make enemies.  Jonathan Daniels learned this in Alabama.  After being there several weeks he wrote that he suddenly experienced a new sense of freedom, and that was the freedom to love the enemy.

           It is a life ruled by a love whose source is God that is to be a living sacrifice.  That is love that is not withheld from anyone, and that kind of love will get us into trouble, as we seek to love those the world around us sees as unlovable.

           To be a living sacrifice is the willingness to put others’ needs before our own. Not, let me be swift to say, instead of our own, and not in order to save them.  There is only one Messiah, and it isn’t us.

           Finally, to be a living sacrifice is to take this as one’s rule of life:  to have faith in God. Faith that is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1).

           This faith is not the assurance of belief or conviction based on the evidence.  No one gets that, as the Letter to the Hebrews so eloquently and movingly says,

 Yet all these [great followers of the way of God], though they were commended for their faith, did not received what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.

           This is the communion of saints at its very core, the reality that in the plan of God we are saved together. We are not individual actors in our own personal drama. We are made perfect before God together, and not just with those we know and love, but with all those who have gone before us and all those who will come after us, those who have offered themselves as a living sacrifice in faith, in hope, in love.

           That means, among other things, that those we call saints and whose deeds we remember, like Jonathan Myrick Daniels, were not perfect. Perfection does not make one a saint. We are only made perfect together, and only in the fullness of time.  Perhaps that is the great truth that people like Jonathan teach us.  Any one of us will not stand before the judgment seat of God alone.  Jonathan and that great cloud of witnesses will be with us.  God will see our perfection, our righteousness, the worthiness of our lives in union with theirs.

           That, my friends, is the best news I have to give you.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

I Trust in the Mercy of God Forever and Ever

 Sermon preached at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY on July 17, 2022, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost:  Amos 8:1-12, Psalm 52, Colossians 1:15-28.

You can listen to this sermon here.

          “Amos, what do you see?”

           Near the end of the book of the prophet Amos, the prophet receives four visions.  Two of them begin with this direct question:  “Amos, what do you see?”  What the prophet sees in both cases is something very simple, very ordinary.  Last week’s vision was of a “plumb line,” a tool used in building.  This week’s is “a basket of summer fruit.”

           Having seen these ordinary things, God asks Amos to see more deeply.  The plumb line shows an Israel that is so out of balance that it is headed for sure disaster.  The basket of summer fruit is fruit that is ripe but soon will begin to decay, and the decay in Israel is severe.  The decay is the trampling of the needy, the systematic ruining of the poor.

           This is the state of the affairs that God sees and that God calls Amos to see and then proclaim.  Amos must proclaim what God sees because the people cannot see it. They refuse to see it.  They see their own prosperity. They feel satisfied that they have gotten what they earned. But this satisfaction has made them blind.  They do not see the poor being trampled upon.

           What do you see? That is the question God has for the people.  And more to the point, What do you trust?  In what is your security? Is your trust in your prosperity? Is your trust in your relative comfort in living?

           The psalmist has an alternative in Psalm 52:

 I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever.

           Much of what passes for Christianity in this country—and around the world—has trouble with this simple belief:  I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever.

           We trust in many things.  We trust in ourselves We trust in our own self-sufficiency.  We trust in whatever gives us a sense of security. We trust in our own capacity to fight back when threatened.  If we trust in God, it is in God’s desire to give us the good life. We trust in the favor of God we feel when we are prospering.  Ultimately, we trust more in God’s judgment than God’s mercy.

           It is certainly how many Christians act:  I trust in the judgment of God forever and ever.

           But the psalmist says, “I trust in the mercy of God forever and ever.”

           What does it mean to trust in the mercy of God?  I think we associate the word “mercy” with forgiveness, and that is certainly an aspect of its meaning.  But it is more than that.  The Hebrew word in Psalm 52 is esed, which is often translated as lovingkindness or steadfastness or steadfast love.  It is a relational word; it always assumes a reciprocity.

           So to trust in the mercy of God is to trust in relationship with God, and we must not forget the end of the sentence, “forever and ever.”  The mercy of God can be trusted because it is not just a matter of present fact. It is a promise, a steadfast promise.  It is what we mean when we say at a Baptism that “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever.”

           Because it is a relational word, however, it is not just about God’s promise to us.  It is about our promise to God and to the world God has made.  The greatest sign that I do in fact trust in the mercy of God is when I show mercy to others.

           So through the prophet Amos God is announcing to Israel that in their treatment of the poor, their disregard for the well-being of all God’s children, they have violated God’s trust.  They are not showing mercy to those in greatest need.

           In biblical terms, greed is often what gets in the way of mercy.  Our sense of “my stuff that I earned” can block compassion and the generosity toward those among us who struggle.

 I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

           This trust is about our hope.  This is because, as I said, the mercy of God is not only a present reality but a promised future.  Hope is not the same thing as optimism.  It is easy to confuse the two, but optimism requires a fairly comfortable existence to begin with.  It tends to fade when life becomes a struggle.

           Hope, on the other hand, can be carried through the struggle of life.  I recently came across this quote from biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann.  He says the whole biblical story can be summarized as “the costly reality of human hurt and the promised alternative of evangelical hope.”

           The Bible requires of us our honesty about life and its struggles.  “Human hurt” is something that comes to all of us, and sometimes (like in Amos’ day) it comes at our own hands.  We get hurt and we hurt others. And the primary way we hurt others is not by some egregious deliberate act against another.  The primary we hurt others is by our indifference to their suffering.

           In the struggle of life, the Bible tells us, we can hold onto the promise of God, the good news of hope.  This capacity to hold on is crucial to the passage from Colossians this morning.

           Paul says to the Colossians, you have to hold on—be steadfast—in the faith you have been given.  And what does that look like?  He says it is “not shifting from the hope that is the promise of the Gospel.”  Now when he speaks of hope he’s not just talking about the promise of eternal life. He’s talking about being reconciled to God and one another in this life.

           Our hope is, Paul says, “Christ in you, the hope of glory.”  Christ in you now.  Christ in you now and Christ’s own for ever and ever.

 I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

           I find this to be a very helpful mantra.

 I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

           I find at times it is all that I can pray.  But it is a gift to hang onto when my hope is challenged. It is also a gift when my compassion is challenged.  It is a reminder of God’s promise and a reminder of my responsibility. It is a reminder of how I can participate in making God’s promise a reality in my own life and in that of others.

           I commend it to you as a touchstone for your faith, a reminder to love as you are loved, and to hope in spite of everything.

 I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

Tuesday, July 05, 2022

What is Freedom for the Christian?


Sermon preached on June 26, 2020, the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost, at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY:  Galatians 5:1,13-25

For freedom Christ has set us free.

           This cry from St. Paul is the heart of the Letter to the Galatians, and the heart of his proclamation of the Gospel, the Good News of God in Jesus Christ.

           My question today is this:  What do Christians mean when we use the word “freedom?”

           We can answer the question if we trace Paul’s development of the concept of freedom in this letter.

           Paul writes the Galatians in great anxiety.  He has heard that since he left them, other teachers have visited with a different message, and that message was that in order to be saved, Gentiles (non-Jews) had not only to believe in the work of Jesus, they also had to follow the biblical law—the Torah—to the letter. Among other things, that meant that males had to be circumcised, which was not the practice of the Gentile world.

           It wasn’t just about circumcision, of course.  It was also about what is now called “keeping kosher,” and adhering to all the purity code.  It was not long after the time of Paul when rabbis came up with the number 613:  613 commandments in the Torah, and every last one must be followed.

           Paul was more than anxious about this teaching—he was apoplectic.  At the beginning of the letter his pleasant greeting is the shortest of all the letters. By verse 6 he says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”  By the beginning of chapter 3, he has worked himself into a lather:  “You foolish Galatians!” he says. “Who has bewitched you?”

           He then spends a good bit of time laying out the difference between the gospel as he has taught them and the teaching which is tempting them.  It is about, he says, choosing to live in slavery or in freedom, living under the yoke of the law or living in the freedom of faith.

           So he gets to the passage we heard last week. It is among the best known passages from Paul. We heard:

 Before faith came we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.  The law was our disciplinarian . . . but now faith has been revealed and we no longer need a disciplinarian. For in Christ Jesus you are all children of God by faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

           And what does Paul say is the implication of this freedom from the law? He goes on:

 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for you are all one in Christ.

           What the law does best, Paul is saying, is to divide us, to separate us into neat categories.  It is, in fact, the nature of the law to do so.  The law, Paul says, creates the category of sinner. That category is useless now that faith has been revealed.

           Does this mean that sin isn’t real anymore?  Does it mean what we do and how we do it doesn’t matter?  No, of course not.  But it does mean that righteousness is not something we earn by following the law. It is a gift by the grace of God.  Our status as children of God is not something we have to earn. It is something we have only to have faith in.

           Then comes this morning’s great cry. “For freedom Christ has made us free! Stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.”

           We skip Paul’s final harangue this morning in verses two through 12 of chapter 5.  Paul’s anger at those who are tempting the Galatians boils over.  Those who demand that you be circumcised—I wish their knife would slip and they would harm themselves instead of you!  He uses much more colorful language.  Clearly this is extremely important to him.

           Having vented his spleen, it seems like he takes a deep breath and then we get to his final point.  Now that you are free, he says, use your freedom for good.  And he lays out the way of the Spirit verses the way of the flesh, the way of self-indulgence.  We get two lists, vices and virtues.  Rather than focus on them, I simply ask you to notice that they are all about relationship.

           Now we can go back to our question:  What is freedom for the Christian?  Freedom is the glorious good news that we are all on an equal playing field.  We are all one, the same, before the God of Jesus Christ.  Whatever boundaries come between us in this world are rubbish.

           This declaration is not a “one off” for Paul.  He returns to it again and again in his letters.  He will use the metaphor elsewhere that this good news makes us a new creation.  We are each made in the image of God, and whoever we are counted to be in this world, we are children of God.

           In short, freedom is throwing off the shackles of all the world’s limitations, be they created by law or culture or religion.

           That alone is good news but there is more.  Freedom is not, however, an end in itself.  Freedom is not the highest state of being.  Freedom is not the end. Freedom is the beginning.

           We are free to be and free to make choices.  And make choices we must, every day. It is as certain a part of life as breathing.  As we heard him say this morning,

 You are called to live in freedom, brothers and sisters, but do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.

           Freedom means making choices, and we can make them for good or for ill.  We can make decisions that hurt others and ourselves, or we can make them so that we can love God and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Freedom itself is not the end. Freedom is the beginning of building a new world.

           Now this can be caricatured as:  well there Paul goes, and there the church goes, spoiling all our fun.  In the end the church does not want to set us free, it wants to control us.

           It is true that the church in some of its expressions—including some of its current ones—is about control.  But that is not what Jesus wanted for his followers and it is not what Paul’s vision of the church was.

           For Jesus and for Paul, the church is the people of God knowing deep down in their bones the freedom that is God’s gift to each and every one, and choosing to use that freedom to build the common good in ways that no law can make happen.

           For freedom Christ has made us free.  We are to use our freedom for the freedom of others, so that all can live as the beloved children of God that they are.

           This should be an important part of our proclamation in the world, a fundamental piece of the good news we are called to tell and to live.  Freedom is a gift, a glorious gift.  But it is not the end. It is the beginning.

           There is a saying, “No one is free until everyone is free.”  I think Paul would agree.  As Americans we treasure our freedom and we will rightly celebrate it in the coming week.  But because freedom is not the end, but only the beginning, we must also treasure and celebrate that freedom is a journey.  The end is our absolute equality as children of God.  So let there not only be a celebration of freedom, but a re-commitment to its attainment by all God’s children, by all God’s creation.

           For freedom Christ has set us free.  Let us use our freedom for the freedom of all, for the making of a new creation, the kingdom of God, a new world ruled by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.