Sunday, July 22, 2007

Sermon: 8 Pentecost 2007 (22 July 2007)

8 Pentecost: 22 July 2007
(Amos 8:1-12/Psalm 52/Colossians 1:15-28/Luke 10:38-42)
God as you understand him / God as he is

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Alcoholics Anonymous (A. A.) wants you to believe in a Power greater than yourself, to accept that only that Power can restore you to sanity. God, the name they give to this higher Power, is central to the program and to the alcoholic’s recovery. Not that A. A. is very picky about God; any one will do provided you make a decision to turn your will and life over to the care of God as you understand him. No matter that the Twelve Step program actually implies a certain understanding of God – a God who relates to people, who hears confession and removes shortcomings and defects of character, who has a will for each individual, who makes that will known through prayer and meditation, and who empowers the alcoholic to carry out His will – officially A. A. is non-discriminatory: God as you understand him/her/it will do (, accessed 7/16/07).

Now, don’t get me wrong. A. A. is a highly successful recovery program and the church could take some lessons from them about community and accountability. I applaud their efforts. But this God as you understand him business? Well, that’s just not the church. We have funny ideas about such things. We don’t really care about God as you understand him; in fact we’re a little suspicious that your understanding of God is at least partly responsible for your life spinning out of control. No. We’re going to tell you how to understand God. We’re going to tell you who God is and who God is not, so you can winnow out all the false understandings and false gods you create and society offers. You can’t kneel with us or eat with us and understand God to be Allah or Vishnu or some nameless, faceless, cosmic Principle. The church isn’t really interested in political correctness in that sense. Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists may all be wrong in their understandings of God – but only one can possibly be right. The church is that one; so we believe. We respect the adherents of other faiths, or even of no faith. We believe there is much good in what they teach and in how they live. But we believe they are wrong in some fundamental ways when it comes to their understanding of God. And that matters. How you understand God matters. The success and value of A. A. notwithstanding, God as you understand him just won’t do – not for the church. We’re much more concerned – solely concerned – with God as he is. Much of the sacred story we call the Bible is a revelation of this God as he is.

God is a bush, the story tells us – or a flame of fire, or a voice, or all three in a way that Moses didn’t quite understand. The sight of a bush blazing but not consumed caught his attention and he turned aside to see it. And the voice spoke from it: “I am God as you understand me to be, a Power greater than yourself. Go to Egypt.” Well, of course not; that’s not the story the church tells. The voice spoke all right, spoke a word of revelation telling Moses how to understand God. “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt” (Ex 3:6, 10, NRSV). And with these words, the Voice connected itself to a story, to a history, to a covenant – to a very particular understanding of God. But even that wasn’t enough for Moses. If he was going to risk his life returning to Egypt, if he was expected to take on single-handedly a major world power, he wanted to understand exactly who this God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was – who this God was for him. God as you understand him isn’t good enough for such challenges; only God as he is will do.

But Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I am has sent me to you.”’ God also said to Moses, “The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you”:
This is my name for ever,
and this is my title for all generations’(Ex 3:13-15, NRSV).

So, armed with this new understanding of God – God’s name – Moses went to Egypt. There, through plague and pestilence and death and deliverance, God continued to reveal his identity to Moses, to deepen Moses’ understanding of God as he is. Standing on the far side of the Red Sea, with Egypt behind and the land of promise before, Moses sang what he had learned of God, what God had revealed himself to be.

I will sing to the Lord, for he is lofty and uplifted;
the horse and its rider has he hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and my refuge;
the Lord has become my Savior.
This is my God and I will praise him,
the God of my people and I will exalt him.
The Lord is a might warrior;
Yahweh is is Name.
The chariots of Pharaoh and his army has he hurled into the sea;
the finest of those who bear armor have been
drowned in the Red Sea.
The fathomless deep has overwhelmed them;
they sank into the depths like a stone.
Your right hand, O Lord, is glorious in might;
your right hand, O Lord, has overthrown the enemy.
Who can be compared with you, O Lord, among the gods?
who is like you, glorious in holiness,
awesome in renown, and worker of wonders?
You stretched forth your right hand;
the earth swallowed them up.
With your constant love you led the people you redeemed;
with your might you brought them in safety to
your holy dwelling.
You will bring them in and plant them
on the mount of your possession,
The resting-place you have made for yourself, O Lord,
the sanctuary, O Lord, that your hand has established.
The Lord shall reign
for ever and for ever (The Song of Moses, BCP 85).

And there was more to come: a pillar of cloud by day and fire by night to lead the Israelites to Sinai and beyond; manna and quail from heaven and water from a rock to sustain them on the way; a mountain covered in thick cloud and smoke, rumbling from the fiery presence of God; the Law. This is God – the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob -- I am who I am, not God as Israel had always understood him, but God as he is, as he revealed himself to be.

Even so, Moses was not content. As he prepared to lead Israel away from Sinai,

Moses said [to the Lord], ‘Show me your glory, I pray.’ And he said, ‘I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, “the Lord”; and I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But’, he said, ‘you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen’ (Ex 33:18-23, NRSV).

First God’s name – YHWH, I am who I am – then the merest glimpse of the back of his glory: that was enough for a while. This self-revelation sustained the Israelites through the wilderness and brought them to the Promised Land. In the generations to follow God revealed much more of himself to his people through the prophets; God seems to want to be understood as he is. But never, never did he reveal himself fully. His full glory remained hidden behind the curtain of the Most Holy Place first in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. God was known only in part. God was invisible. Immortal, invisible God only wise / in light inaccessible hid from our eyes: the hymn sings the truth.

Yet, partly known is partly unknown. Partly known leaves ample room for us to worship God as we understand him instead of God as he is. And that won’t do. So God, who relentlessly reveals himself to creation, takes the initiative as always, takes the next step – an unprecedented step of full disclosure.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1:1, 14, 18, NRSV).

God became flesh and pitched his tent right here among us – moved into the neighborhood, as Eugene Peterson translates this passage – so that we might see him face to face, hear his voice, touch him, eat with him – so that we might know God as he is. And God as he is is Jesus. God as you understand him can be…well, anything you want, anything your imagination can conceive. But God as he is…well, God as he is is Jesus. And, of course, this specificity, this concreteness, is irritating to those who would prefer the ambiguity and freedom of God as you understand him. If Jesus is not God as you understand him, then you don’t understand him.

Paul drives this point home to the Colossian Christians. He sings to them – or rather, he quotes from an early hymn of the church extolling the supremacy of Christ. Before Jesus we could only sing, Immortal, invisible God only wise / in light inaccessible hid from our eyes. Now, Paul leads us in a new song.

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers –
all things have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church;
he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of the cross (Col 1:15-20, NRSV).

This song is overwhelming in its revelation of God. God has uncovered the cleft of the rock and we have beheld the fullness of his glory. God has torn the temple’s curtain in two from top to bottom and has unleashed his glory into the world. And that glory is Jesus.

He is the image of the invisible God: hos estin eikon tou Theou aopatou-- Jesus is the icon of God. Icons have a checkered history in the church. Always fearful of idolatry, always aware of the prohibition on graven images, some in the early church opposed the use of icons in worship. They rightly understood that an icon is more than art, more than just another picture. But they were wrong in fearing that. An icon is a window into the reality it represents. An icon is a revelation. An icon – one truly written – reveals its subject not as we understand it to be, but as it is. Jesus – the Word truly written – is the icon of God: the perfect image, the perfect window into reality, the perfect revelation of God. Jesus is God full-out, nothing lacking, nothing held back: For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Col 1:19, NRSV).

What does this mean for us? It means that Jesus – God as he is – is the corrective for all the false God as you understand him notions that we hold so dear, the true north of the God as you understand him compass. It means that we cannot understand God apart from Jesus. What God is Jesus is. What Jesus is God is. Every notion we have of God must be laid alongside Jesus.

It means that we need no longer speak in the abstract – in fact we can no longer speak in the abstract: truth, justice, sin, mercy, judgment – all these abstract concepts that theologians love to debate and we love to quibble about – become concrete in Jesus. It means that we can – we must – say, “Don’t talk to me of God’s will in the abstract. Show it to me in Jesus.” TDOT (Tennessee Department of Transportation) builds fences around interstate overpasses and places large rocks under viaducts in order to keep the homeless from camping there. Each day the Knoxville police dismantle these homeless camps and move their residents out. All the while our city administration admits that Knoxville does not have adequate facilities to house or care for our poor. What are Christians to make of this? We can argue this in the abstract – law, justice, mercy, and the like – or we can look to Jesus, to Jesus who said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24, NRSV). We can wax philosophical with platitudes like, “God helps those who help themselves,” or we can look to Jesus who fed the hungry, healed the sick, ate with sinners, helped those who could not help themselves – which, of course, includes all of us. Don’t you just hate this? We can’t speculate about God anymore. We can’t worship God as we understand him. We can’t create God in our own image. No. We have Jesus – God as he is. We have Jesus – the image of the invisible God.

Jesus, the image, the icon of God, is more than a bust, more than a face: the head has a body. The church is that body: “He is the head of the body, the church,” Paul writes. Just as Jesus shares the life and nature of God, we share the life and nature of Jesus – “provided [we] continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel” (Col 1:23a, NRSV). As Jesus is to the church the icon of God, the church must be to the world the icon of Jesus. And this is our great challenge – to refuse to be Jesus as the world understands him or Jesus as the world wants him, but to be Jesus as he is: Jesus for whom the world had no room, relegated to the barn, to the manger; Jesus, friend of prostitutes, tax collectors, Samaritans, and sinners and scandal to the self-righteous, the religious, the pure; Jesus rejected, betrayed, crucified; Jesus pouring out his love and his life for the estranged and the hostile and the evil so that they – we – might be reconciled in his fleshly body through death and presented holy and blameless and irreproachable before him. Yes, this is Jesus as he is and the Church as it must be.

The world worships gods that they little understand. They need God as he is as revealed in Jesus Christ and as made flesh and blood in a church created in his image.


Sermon: 7 Pentecost 2007 (15 July 2007)

7 Pentecost: 15 July 2007
(Amos 7:7-17/Psalm 82/Colossians 1:1-14/Luke 10:25-37)
The Church, This Church, Any Church

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

It’s a pleasant afternoon at the beach – not too hot, refreshing ocean breeze. We’re ambling down Beach Street in the older part of town, a restored area of curio shops and restaurants. There’s no agenda for the day; we’re just browsing, pausing for ice cream, relaxing, enjoying the time with old friends. As we come out of Mandala Books she approaches us, a slight woman of indeterminable age. It’s clear, as my Dad used to say, that she’s been “rode hard and put up wet,” meaning she’s lived a rough life that will make a young woman old long before her time. It hasn’t been long since her last beating – likely not the first. The black eyes, bruises, and stitches along the line of her cheekbone tell the story. She speaks to me in a low, mushy mumble that takes real effort to understand on a noisy street – I think she’s missing a few teeth – and tells me she’s hungry. Can I spare some change to help out?

We’ve all had similar experiences, different in detail but not in kind. What’s our usual, initial response? I’m not talking about what we actually end up doing, but rather about how we feel when we first realize we’re “caught” in a situation like this. What did I feel this pleasant afternoon at the beach? Honestly, I felt hijacked. I felt interrupted. I felt put upon. I’m on vacation, after all! And here was this stranger calling me out, making demands on me. And I knew this was going to cost me something: time, money, and inconvenience if I helped her or guilt if I didn’t. I would like to tell you that I felt a deep sense of gratitude that God had given me an opportunity to minister to Christ in the guise of this broken, hurting, hungry woman. But, I’m no Mother Teresa, and that’s not what I felt in the moment. It’s taken some distance, some reflection, some prayer for me to reach that point.

We walked to a nearby Burger King – her choice – where she could sit for a moment in a cool place and get something soft to eat. I’m really not very good at times like these; I never know quite what to say. But the woman behind the counter at Burger King did. “Lord, child, what’s happened to you? Has some man beat you up?” When my companion admitted that her drunken boyfriend had abused her in a dispute over a small bit of money – “But, he loves me,” she insisted – the server – and here you have to imagine an indignant, Spirit-filled, church-going African-American woman – started preaching: “Child, that’s not love. Love is patient. Love is kind…” She preached her way through 1 Corinthians 13 right there in Burger King and ended her sermon with the words, “Ain’t no man got the right to treat you like that. Ain’t no man got the right.”

I told the Reverend of the First Church of Burger King that I was a vacationer and about all I could do was buy the woman a meal. But she, I suggested – well she could do a lot more. She could help this woman find a church that might be able to provide some long-term assistance. I knew that she knew just such a church; you don’t learn to preach 1 Corinthians 13 like that anywhere else. She said she’d take over from here, and I’ll bet she did just that. I wish now that I had gotten the name of her church. Next time in Daytona I’d sure like to worship there.

Well, it’s now a pleasant Sunday morning as we wake from sleep. The bed is soft and welcoming. The whole day stretches before us – no agenda, just ambling through the moments, sipping coffee and reading the newspaper, relaxing, enjoying time with family. And then he approaches us, this man of indeterminable age. Like the woman at the beach, he too bears scars of a brutal beating – old scars on his hands and feet and side. He calls out to us – calls us, actually to come meet him in a place where others have heard his call and gathered. He calls us to meet him in praise and prayer, in confession and absolution, in word and symbol, in bread and wine. His call, his invitation, feels sometimes like a demand and we’re caught in that familiar situation once again. And we know this is going to cost us something: time, money, and inconvenience if we respond to him or guilt if we don’t. Yes, I’m talking about this intrusive business of church – of being called out of a warm, soft bed each Sunday to assemble with other saints and sinners.

So how do you feel lying in your warm, soft, bed on Sunday morning when Jesus comes calling? I’m not asking so much about what you do, but about how you feel when you realize you’re caught. Hijacked? Interrupted? Put upon?

It’s just another day in prison. He’s been here … well, he’s lost track of the time, actually. And God only knows when or if he’ll ever be released. Epaphras has come to visit again and, as usual, he can’t stop talking about Colossae, about the church he planted there. They’re good folk he insists again to Paul, who has never laid eyes on a single one of them. Good folk, but a bit confused: philosophy, mysticism, Jewish legality – all these have crept in and blended in a theological hodge-podge that has them confused on just who Christ Jesus is and what his cross means for them. Would you write and straighten them out, Paul? A word from you – you know, from an apostle – might go a long way. And there he is again, that Jesus, calling out to Paul in the voice of Epaphras, calling him to church – to a church he’s never seen. This call has already cost Paul so much: family, friends, reputation, innumerable beatings, shipwrecks, arrest, trials, and imprisonment. What does he feel, confined there in prison, when Jesus comes calling yet again? How does he really feel about the call to and from the church?

He begins to speak and someone – maybe Epaphras, maybe Timothy – takes up pen and parchment and writes.

Paul, apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and brother Timothy, to the saints and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our father.

We give thanks to God the father of our Lord Jesus Christ, always praying for you, having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints (Col 1:1-4).

How does Paul really feel about the call to and from the church – this church he’s never even seen? This apostle who has suffered so much and so long for the church is overwhelmed with a deep and abiding sense of thanksgiving for the church in Colossae, a thanksgiving that drives him to his old, calloused knees in prayer. The church, this church, any church, is for Paul an act of God, an in-breaking of the kingdom, a sacrament of new creation – all grace, all gift, all love. The great miracle here is simply the existence of the church – the new life of Christ manifest in a people “rescued … from the power of darkness, and transferred … into the kingdom of [God’s] beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14, NRSV). To be part of this, to be included in God’s family, to share in God’s great adventure of cosmic redemption and recreation – in short, to be and to do church – is an incomprehensible blessing beyond compare. To really begin to see that is to drop to our knees in a prayer of thanksgiving. Or perhaps it’s the other way around – to drop to our knees in thanksgiving for the church, this church, any church, is to begin to see the reality of this great blessing of God.

This reality is easily obscured though, isn’t it? There are many enemies of this truth. Sitting in yet another committee meeting it’s hard to believe that the church – at that moment – has anything at all to do with God’s plan to restore the cosmos. Singing yet another sappy praise chorus it’s hard to believe that the church – at that moment – is joining its voices with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven who forever sing God’s praise. Listening to one more uninspired, psycho-babble sermon it’s hard to believe – at that moment – that the church has been given the Gospel, the good news, the word of life for all the world. Sitting in a living room sanctuary, singing, praying, gathering around Word and Table it’s hard to believe – at that moment – that the church, as Thomas Merton insists, holds the universe together by our presence and our prayers. It’s hard to believe that it all matters. It’s hard to believe that it makes any difference. But it does. May God open our eyes to see that it does, to see that nothing is more important than the church – this church, any church – gathered in praise and prayer, gathered around Word and Table, and then temporarily scattered into the world to love and serve the Lord in the Spirit of the risen Christ. Christ died for the church. Christ rose for the church. Christ lives in the church. The church is God’s plan, from the foundations of the world, for the redemption of the world through Christ Jesus, and we are part of that. Let’s see … sleep in or rescue the world? That’s the choice on Sunday morning.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix opened this Wednesday (11 July 2007). I’m sure thousands stood in line for hours to be among the first to vicariously engage in this fictional battle of good versus evil, longing to be part of the DA, Dumbledore’s Army, fighting to save the wizarding world from the Dark Lord. Why all the interest? Why all the excitement? People want to project themselves into the grand story of Harry and Voldemort, to enter a world where the struggle between good and evil is clear and important, to engage in significance beyond themselves, to feel that it is possible – no matter that you are a minor character – to make a difference in the fate of the world. How hard do we have to be smacked on the head to get it? Harry Potter, Dumbledore’s Army, the Dark Lord, the story itself – all real. It’s the church, this church, any church. It’s our grand story – the story of creation, fallen and scarred by evil, struggling against the power of evil through the redemptive work of a savior, heading inexorably toward new creation – it our grand story retold compellingly as myth. And we are there, not as minor characters, but as heirs of God, strong in the power of his might and equipped for the battle.

[Finally] be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armour of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places (Eph 6:10-12, NRSV).

These are St. Paul’s words to the church, but, with a few minor changes, can’t you just hear Harry Potter saying them to the DA – to that small but committed band of friends – of spiritual brothers and sisters – who will change their world? So thousands wait anxiously, stand in long lines, and pay exorbitant ticket prices just to live in this myth for two hours – and then sleep in next Sunday morning when given the chance to live in the reality to which the myth only points. Not that I blame them, really. They’ve likely never rightly heard the story, likely never been recruited for God’s great adventure, likely never seen the church for what it is, likely never been driven to their knees in prayers of thanksgiving for that great gift of grace that is the church, this church, any church. Maybe we should rent a theater on Sunday morning, distribute free tickets to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and at the end of the movie break out the bread and wine and say, “Now, here’s the real adventure. And you can be part of it.” Maybe we should have J. K. Rowling translate the Bible into a novel – she needs a new project, after all. I don’t know. But this I do know: Paul was overwhelmingly thankful for the church, immeasurably grateful for the opportunity to pour himself out on behalf of the church – even the church at Colossae, even a church he had never seen. For he knew the church, this church, any church, to be God’s plan from the foundations of the world, for the redemption of the world through Christ Jesus our Lord.

And so, Paul, confined in prison, prays for this church he has never seen.

For this reason, since the day we heard [of your faith and love], we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work and as you grow in the knowledge of God. May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col 1:9-14, NRSV).

Paul’s letter to Colossae is largely about identity. These new Colossian Christians have not yet sufficiently grasped who they are in Christ and who Christ is for them and for the world. So, the basis of Paul’s prayer is their Christian identity: You – the church – are those whom the Father has rescued from the power of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of his beloved Son where we have redemption and forgiveness. That’s who you are and everything else flows from this new identity. Now you may, you must, grow in the knowledge of God’s will and lead worthy lives. Now you may, you must, grow in wisdom and understanding and bear fruit. Now you may, you must, be strengthened by His power to endure every challenge to your new identity. Now you may, you must, give thanks and share in the inheritance of the saints in light. Identity and mission are the two uplifted hands of Paul’s prayer for the church, this church, any church.

Well, there’s an old adage in preaching: never preach about people not coming to church to those people who are sitting in the pews. That makes perfect sense. But it is important – I think it’s essential – that we all be reminded from time to time, why we come to church and who we are as church. We come because the church, this church, any church, is an act of God, an in-breaking of the kingdom, a sacrament of new creation – all grace, all gift, all love. We come because the church, this church, any church, is God’s plan, from the foundations of the world, for the redemption of the world through Christ Jesus, and we are part of that. We come because the church, this church, any church is a place of redemption and forgiveness, a place of light amidst the darkness of this fallen world – a place where we hear and learn and live our true identity in God’s great adventure of cosmic redemption and recreation. We come because the opportunity to be and to do church – is an incomprehensible blessing beyond compare.

In 1935 the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer received a call from the Confessing Church – that church which refused to bow before Hitler and which spoke openly against him – a call to lead an illegal, underground seminary. Despite the danger he accepted and moved to Finkenwald, where he lived in Christian community for three years until the seminary was discovered and closed by the Gestapo. Bonhoeffer’s book Life Together came from that experience. It is a prayer of thanksgiving for the church. He writes:

It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let him thank God on his knees and declare: It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren.


Sunday, July 8, 2007

Sermon: 6 Pentecost (8 July 2007)

6 Pentecost: 8 July 2007
(2 Kings 5:1-14/Psalm 30/Galatians 6:1-16/Luke 10:1-11, 16-20)
A Long Obedience In the Same Direction

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

People’s concepts of God are always and everywhere on display in countless fascinating ways. It was so in 1st century Athens where Paul was “deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols” (Acts 17:16) and noted, in his speech before the Areopagus how very religious the Athenians were, “For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god’” (Acts 17:22-23). What they worshiped in ignorance Paul hoped to reveal to them in truth – “the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth” (Acts 17 23-24).

For me, pulling into the parking lot at a local Border’s bookstore is not so different in kind from Paul walking into Athens. People’s concepts of God are openly on display – people are still very religious and there are still many unknown gods in evidence. Start with the bumper stickers, with an assortment of ones I’ve seen recently.

Goddess on board.

Coexist (with the word comprised of symbols of Judaism,
Christianity and Islam).

Dirt worshipping tree hugger.

God is too large for any religion.

“Fish” emblems ranging from Jesus to Darwin.

My other car is a broom.

People are still very religious – though they often describe it now as spiritual – and they still proclaim the fact openly.

Entering the store I’m invited by the placement of a bookstand to browse the new releases. There are always religious books among them, though typically of the new age variety (The Secret) or the neo-gnostic ilk (The Lost Gospel of … or yet another book on Mary Magdalene – wife of Jesus, mother of the grandson of God, super-apostle, and true founder of the faith).

I usually make my way to the café then – there is coffee there, after all. It often resembles a United Nations meeting or an ecumenical conference if dress and choice of reading material are reliable indicators. Often there are Sikhs and Muslims there. The books on Zen hint at a smattering of Buddhists just as the books on tarot and witchcraft point to pagans and Wiccans. Of course there are Bibles on some tables; I’ve even heard that middle-aged ministers work on sermons in the café – there is coffee there, after all.

Eventually I make my way to the religion section. Many are represented: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, New Age, Wiccan, and atheism. I gravitate toward the Christian section. Even the way the books are arranged there speaks volumes about Border’s concept of God – our God. There are two major divisions in their Christian book section: Christian Living and Theology. Each is subdivided: Christian Living into Spiritual Growth and Prayer, Relationship and Family Life, Practical Life, and Devotional and Motivational, and Theology into Classics, Popular, Protestant, and Catholic and Orthodox. Recently when I perused this section I jotted down some book titles. I’ll bet you can place them in the proper division – Christian Living or Theology – with no more information than the title.

Fall In Love, Stay In Love (Christian Living)
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought (Theology)
Jesus, Life Coach (Christian Living)
Thin Within (Christian Living)
The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (Theology)
The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition (Theology)
The Secrets Men Keep (Christian Living)

Do you see the concept of our God – of our faith – behind these divisions? How we think about and worship God (Theology) is distinct from the practical matters of life (Christian Living). The two may be disintegrated and considered separately.

Now, here’s a question for you; it’s a trick question so be forewarned. I have another book I want you to place in either Christian Living or Theology: The Holy Bible. Where does it go? Border’s clearly couldn’t decide so they created yet another major division: Bibles. (That’s why it was a trick question, of course.) The Bible joins in marriage Theology and Christian Living and adamantly refuses to allow any man to separate what God has joined together. The same is true of any of the books or letters in the Bible – Galatians, for example. It simple does not recognize our arbitrary and false distinctions of Theology and Christian Living. For the people of God – of the God worshipped as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – theology is not merely what we think about God. Theology is not simply an academic exercise performed in studies and libraries and academies by highly educated professionals. As the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar insisted, “Theology is done on the knees.” Theology is prayer and worship and yes, even Christian living. We are theologians, Christian theologians, all – all of us who bend the knee in prayer, who lift hearts and voices in worship, who gather at the Table, who go in peace to love and serve the Lord in our Christian living. Cedar Springs Christian Stores gets it just right in their motto: What goes in a mind comes out a life. Border’s notwithstanding, Christian living is Christian theology with hands and feet. Our concept of God is always and everywhere on display in countless ways – not just in what we think and say, but in how we live.

So, in Galatians Paul moves seamlessly between the theological doctrine of the formation of God’s one new people in Christ and the theological practice of how that new people is to live out its identity.

My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbour’s work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads (Gal 6:1-5, NRSV).

Isn’t it interesting that Paul starts with the assumption of sin present in the Christian community? Yes, he insists, we are in Christ. Yes, we have been crucified with Christ, we have risen with Christ, we have been justified by the faithfulness of Christ, and now Christ lives in us. Yes,

when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God (Gal 4:4-7, NRSV).

Yes, all of this theological doctrine is beyond dispute. Also beyond dispute – We see it all the time, don’t we? – is the continued presence of sin in the Christian community. So what do we do about it? How do we work out Christian doctrine in the practice of Christian living in the presence of sin?

The resolution of sin in the Christian community is a pastoral matter for the pneumatikoi, the word Paul uses for those who are spiritual – not in the sense the word is typically used today, but in the very specific sense of acting under the direction and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is a polemic against the legalists of his day and that attitude must prevail here, as well. The resolution of sin is far too important to be relinquished to the legalists among us: to the finger-pointers and name-callers. It is the task of those who live by the Spirit, of those who are guided by the Spirit, of those who exhibit the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. None others can be entrusted with the reconciliation of Christian brothers and sisters to Christ and to the church. There is no role for those governed by the flesh, for those who exhibit enmity, strife, anger, quarrels, dissensions, and factions – though these are often the very ones most eager to address sin aggressively, publicly, and punitively. Paul insists, instead, on a spirit of gentleness. And not just a spirit of gentleness but also of self-knowledge, humility, and fear, lest the pneumatikoi likewise fall prey to temptation and fall into sin. Only those simultaneously aware of their own frailty and of the Spirit’s abundant grace and power can safely embrace the fallen and raise them up. “Take care that you yourselves are not tempted” (Gal 6:1), Paul cautions and implies that pride is one of those temptations.

Though sin is always present in the Christian community it is often subtle, often hidden, often ignored. Though I intensely dislike the language, we, too, are comprised of the dysfunctional and the enablers. It is not easy to see or admit our own sin. Though we must continually test our own work, examine our own lives, sin may well first be detected by others in the body. How hard it is for those who notice, for those who are gifted and charged and burdened with the care of souls. How much easier it is to look away, to hope that “all shall be well.” But Paul knows better and so do we. We dare not ignore the presence of sin in the Christian community; it has great power to destroy us individually and collectively. We must react to sin – better still we must be proactive to teach and empower and support our brothers and sisters in recognizing and resisting temptation – we must react to sin without being reactionary, without treating our brothers and sisters as enemies of the faith, as hell-bent reprobates. Sin is a burden under which we all struggle and sometimes fall. The spiritual ones among us – and we all aim to be such – are those who, without stumbling themselves, help bear the burden of others, and so fulfil the law of Christ, the law of love.

‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light’ (Mt 11:28-30, NRSV).

The Christian community must never be a place where the burdens of sin are hidden and ignored but rather where they are confessed and acknowledged – and not just in the corporate, liturgical confession but in an appropriately intimate Christian relationship with spiritual mentors, pastors, the pneumatikoi – with those who, in the Spirit of Christ can ease the burden, can share the load. And all in a spirit of gentleness and humility.

What if we begin to envision the Christian experience not in separate categories of theology and Christian living, but as an apprenticeship where we both learn and practice? We do not expect an apprentice to demonstrate the understanding and expertise of the master. In fact, we expect the apprentice to fail, sometimes spectacularly and repeatedly. What is needed in the face of such failures is not condemnation but correction, not diatribe but diagnosis. “What went wrong?” the master asks the apprentice. A lesson was not fully grasped or the apprentice tackled something beyond the apprentice’s fledgling ability or, most likely, the apprentice lapsed back into old habits – prior modes of thinking and acting – that are no longer appropriate to the new life-craft of the faith. And so the master – the pneumatikos – reteaches, retrains, retraces the steps that went wrong and makes the necessary corrections. What we really expect from the apprentice then – the one thing that is truly essential – is that the apprentice will continue to strive for mastery, to fall not quite so low the next time and to rise to a new height, to grow. Not perfection, but growth. Otherwise, the apprentice ceases to be an apprentice at all. And – God forbid! – then there is the real potential for great loss.

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith (Gal 6:7-10, NRSV).

Eugene Peterson rightly describes Christian discipleship as “a long obedience in the same direction.” That captures Paul’s thought perfectly. To the Galatians, to those who are being enticed by the Law, Paul says, “Binding yourselves to the flesh – to feasts and fasts, to kosher foods, to circumcision – brings you under the Law and the corruption that follows from it. Sow instead to the Spirit – bind yourselves to the faithfulness of Christ – and you will reap eternal life.” Few, if any of us, are tempted by the Law. But we are tempted by the flesh, by every self-serving impulse and thought and behavior that wars against the Spirit of God. Do not plant this seed in this field, for the harvest is death. Sow the long row of faith, of obedience, in the same direction. Do not grow weary. Let others bear the burden alongside you. Do not give up. The harvest will come in proper season.

Those who sow in tears
[will] reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves (Ps 126:5-6, NRSV).

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Sermon: 5 Pentecost (1 July 2007)

To Trinity Church:

The Lord be with you! Though we are briefly apart we are not separated, for we are one body in Christ. When my family breaks bread and lifts the cup this day, we will do so with you – in our hearts – no matter where we are.

While away, I do not want to weary you with words, but neither do I wish to leave you without a word. Indulge me, then, I ask, as I continue with Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Perhaps you will gather on Sunday and read this aloud. If so, I will be with you in Spirit.


In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Let’s begin with a summary of Paul’s letter to this point, written in a paraphrase of his own voice.

Paul, to the churches in Galatia province: Greetings.

I have always spoken the truth to you, a truth revealed to me not by word of man but by revelation of God through the vision I was granted of our resurrected Lord. It was he who appointed me an apostle to the Gentiles. It was he who established my right and authority to speak the gospel, so that I take no second place to the “pillars of the Church” in Jerusalem: Peter, James, and the rest.

Some have come to you preaching a gospel different from that which I delivered to you, a gospel which will bind you to vain observances of the Law: feasts and fasts and Sabbaths, kosher rules, and circumcision. Theirs is a false gospel and the punishment for their lies awaits them at the proper time. Think back: Did you receive the Holy Spirit – the seal of your acceptance by God – by observing the Law as they insist? Or did you receive the Holy Spirit through your faith in the gospel I preached to you? By faith, of course! Why then step backward into bondage to the law? It is “damned” foolishness. Those who preach it are anathema – accursed.

It is not the Law but the faithfulness of Christ that matters. He did what we could not: he fulfilled the righteous requirements of the Law in his life and bore the curse of it in his death. Then – thanks be to God! – he established his freedom from it –his and ours – through the power of his resurrection. It is his faithfulness to the will of God – his life, death, and resurrection – that sets us free from bondage to sin and death and the Law. We need nothing but the faithfulness of Christ and nothing else will do.

And all this is true for Jews and Gentiles alike: there is no difference – no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no man and woman. All are one in Christ. In fact – and this is a great mystery now revealed in Christ – God always intended to make for himself one holy people in Christ, one people from every tribe and tongue and nation, a people marked out not by Torah observance but by their faith in Jesus Christ. And you are among that people. You were “brought into the fold” by your baptism. Before that time you were strangers and aliens; now you are citizens of God’s kingdom, members of God’s household of faith.

Do not, then, let these messengers of the Law confuse or trap you. You have been set free from the Law by grace – the free gift of God through Christ Jesus. Do not submit to its bondage, but instead live in freedom as God’s holy people.

So, Paul has proclaimed freedom from the Law. But there is a great danger of being misunderstood here; after all, the Galatian Christians have shown themselves easily sidetracked and led astray. Freedom from the Law – and by the Law Paul really means those aspects of the Law that marked one out as a faithful Jew (Sabbath, diet, and circumcision) – freedom from the Law must not be confused with moral license, Paul insists. To be free from the Law does not mean that one may indulge sin. If, through Christ, you have become God’s holy people, then you must live as God’s holy people – not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. (When Paul speaks of the flesh he does not mean the physical body; instead he means that constellation of desires that are contrary to the will of God and war against us. Of course, many of these desires concern an indulgence of the physical body – inappropriate sexuality, drunkenness, etc. – so Paul reasonably summarizes and personifies them as the flesh.)

As surely as faith leads to freedom, faith must also lead to holiness. Our true freedom is freedom from the flesh – from everything that wars against God. Our true freedom is freedom to live by the Spirit – to live as the holy people of our holy God. As with many aspects of our faith there is paradox here: we are truly free only when we submit ourselves to obedient lives empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Let’s let Paul speak for himself now.

A reading from the letter of the apostle and our brother Paul to the churches in Galatia:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth? Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another (Gal 5, NRSV).

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Live in freedom to the flesh but in blessed bondage to the Spirit. Submit yourselves as slaves to righteousness. You have been sealed with the Holy Spirit and that same Spirit will empower you for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Set you minds on these things and through love fulfill the whole law of God.

This is Paul’s message to the Galatians and, of course, to us.

Sometime between the 2nd and 4th centuries Mathetes, a Christian, penned a letter to a non-Christian acquaintance, Diognetus, answering questions about Christian faith and practice. His description of a life lived in the Spirit shows a firm grasp of Paul’s words to the Galatians. I close with an excerpt from The Letter of Mathetes to Diognetus.

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.

They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law. Christians love all men, but all men persecute them. Condemned because they are not understood, they are put to death, but raised to life again. They live in poverty, but enrich many; they are totally destitute, but possess an abundance of everything. They suffer dishonor, but that is their glory. They are defamed, but vindicated. A blessing is their answer to abuse, deference their response to insult. For the good they do they receive the punishment of malefactors, but even then they, rejoice, as though receiving the gift of life. They are attacked by the Jews as aliens, they are persecuted by the Greeks, yet no one can explain the reason for this hatred.

To speak in general terms, we may say that the Christian is to the world what the soul is to the body. As the soul is present in every part of the body, while remaining distinct from it, so Christians are found in all the cities of the world, but cannot be identified with the world. As the visible body contains the invisible soul, so Christians are seen living in the world, but their religious life remains unseen. The body hates the soul and wars against it, not because of any injury the soul has done it, but because of the restriction the soul places on its pleasures. Similarly, the world hates the Christians, not because they have done it any wrong, but because they are opposed to its enjoyments.

Christians love those who hate them just as the soul loves the body and all its members despite the body's hatred. It is by the soul, enclosed within the body, that the body is held together, and similarly, it is by the Christians, detained in the world as in a prison, that the world is held together. The soul, though immortal, has a mortal dwelling place; and Christians also live for a time amidst perishable things, while awaiting the freedom from change and decay that will be theirs in heaven. As the soul benefits from the deprivation of food and drink, so Christians flourish under persecution. Such is the Christian’s lofty and divinely appointed function, from which he is not permitted to excuse himself.

Live in the freedom of the Spirit as the holy people of God.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you now and for ever. Amen.